Monday, July 23, 2018

The Lost Samuel Leggett House - 7 Cherry Street

etching from Booth's History of New York, from the collection of the New York Public Library
Cherry Street got its name from Cherry Hill, an area near the East River which reportedly once blushed with cherry blossoms every spring.  By the late 18th century it was, according to Gas Logic later, "the home center of New York aristocracy."  George Washington lived at No. 1, and John Hancock's house was No. 5.  (Washington's residence was purchased by Dewitt Clinton after the Capitol was moved to Philadelphia.)

At No. 8 Cherry Street was the house of Thomas Leggett.  The dignified 25-foot wide Georgian-style home was three and a half stories tall above a basement level.  It featured handsome arched windows in the attic dormers.  The American Gas Light Journal recalled in 1907, "It was a handsome house for those days, and might challenge admiration even now, with its solid timbers and mellow red brick and substantial air of prosperity."

A Quaker, Leggett traced his American roots to Gabriel Leggett who arrived in 1661.  Thomas had been a large landholder in Westchester County; but according to historian Martha Joanna Lamb in her 1877 History of the City of New York, he was "driven from his estate by the 'Cow Boys' in the Revolution."  Following the war he moved his family to the city, purchased the Cherry Street house and established a lucrative business, Leggett, Pearsall & Co.

Following Thomas Leggett's death, his sons took over the business and were, according to Lamb, "among the notable New York merchants of the early portion of the present century."  Samuel Leggett and his family  remained in the Cherry Street house.  According to the 1847 book Hereditary Descent, he inherited a staggering $500,000 from his father's estate--about $10.8 million today.

The Leggetts had 13 children--six sons and seven daughters.  While Leggett headed the household financially, his wife seems to have ruled it in every other way.  Robert E. Livingston wrote in 1919 "Always genial, Samuel Leggett was the antithesis of his severely stern wife.  Mrs. Leggett needed no suffrage privilege to make her master of the household and she was as fastidious about personal appearance as her husband at times was indifferent.

"Often the neighbors would see the little woman follow her husband to the door, scan him carefully and then hear her say in an unmistakably critical voice, 'Samuel, is thy cravat straight?' and the guilty Samuel would hasten to shift the back of his cravat to where the front had no business to be."

Martha Lamb summed up Samuel Leggett as "a man of enlarged ideas and great practical benevolence."  Much of that benevolence was centered around the village of Whitestone where the family's country estate was located.  Engulfed today by the borough of Queens, it was a bucolic setting at the time.  He erected the White Stone Chapel and a free school there.  (In 1840 he hired an itinerant teacher for the school--Walt Whitman.)  Although Leggett was a staunch Quaker, the chapel was built with the understanding that it was open to all faiths.

Leggett's "enlarged ideas" included recognizing the potential of lighting gas.  In 1822 he and a small group of men discussed the possibility of replacing oil lamps and wax candles with gas lighting.  They formed a company, the New York Gas Light Company, and presented the concept to the city council.  It would be a year before the city conceded, and the company was chartered in March 1823.  It was given the exclusive rights to lay gas pipes in the district south of Grand Street.

A gas works was constructed at Centre and Hester Streets and the company, with 41-year old Samuel Leggett as its president, prepared for the rush of clients from among Manhattan's 125,000 citizens.  But no one came.  The dangers of what was called "burning air" had been widely publicized.   Popular belief was that the gas would result in explosions, deaths and destruction.

So to prove that illuminating gas (made at the time from whale oil, resin, and imported coal) was both practical, clean and safe, Leggett had his Cherry Street house plumbed for gas.  In September 1823 he held a reception in the house, now brilliantly lit by gaslight.  A newspaper said the event caused "a commotion" and "representatives of wealth and fashion from Battery Park, State and Greenwich streets sauntered up to Cherry street after nightfall to see the Leggett house 'lighted up.'"

The crowd watched "from a respectfully safe distance at an illuminated mansion from which came no flames," according to Robert E. Livingston.  They waited for the house to burn down, finally going home astonished.

The demonstration was the topic of conversation the following day.  "By lighting his own home with gas, Samuel Leggett had set New York's tongues wagging," said Livingston, and the New York Gas Lighting Company was already making plans "for the business which he knew would not be long in coming."

Five years later it was not merely houses which were being lit by gas.  The wooden lamp posts began being replaced with cast iron street lamps, the first of them being lit in June 1827.  (They were not required to be lit on moon-lit nights until 1858--a problem when a cloud would obscure the moon and throw the streets into darkness.)

Around 1830 Cherry Street was renumbered, the odd and even addresses flipped to the other side of the street.  The Leggett house became No. 7.

Leggett had added to his resume in 1826 when he accepted the position of president of the faltering Franklin Bank.  It was unfortunate decision.  He was widely denounced when the bank failed in May 1828.  So severe was the outcry against him that he was forced to publish The Explanation and Vindication of Samuel Leggett in 1831.  In it he told of his "great reluctance" to accept the position, of his "alarm" at seeing the books, and of the "hard and laborious task I undertook."

The booklet no doubt had much to do with the restoration of Leggett's reputation.  He expanded his business interests and improved the economy of Whitestone by opening a pin factory there.  Sadly it was destroyed by fire on February 9, 1846.

The following week further misfortune came in the form of a burglar.  The "Police Intelligence" column of The New York Herald noted that on February 21, "A double backed silver lever watch, hard dial, with second hands capped and jewelled" was stolen from No. 7 Cherry Street.  It was valued at nearly $1,500 by today's standards.

Samuel Leggett died on January 5, 1847 at the age of 65.  He had lived to see hundreds of New York homes and businesses illuminated by gas.

In 1854 the Cherry Street house was occupied by Samuel Leggett, Jr. and his family.  He was chairman of the board of the Empire City Bank and a member of the Empire Works.  In April that year the family was seeking "A middle-aged American woman to do plain sewing and take care of children; also a small girl, for waiter."  But the family's comfortable life style was about to come crashing down.

Later that year the Empire City Bank failed.  The New York Times said on January 3, that Leggett was "reported to  possess wealth."  But upon the bank's failure, it was discovered that he owed the institution $100,000--nearly $3 million today.

That same day The New York Herald reported "We are requested to state that Samuel Leggett...left his office at 4 o'clock P.M. on the 28th [of December] since which time his friends have not seen him.  Any information relative to him since that time will be gratefully received and liberally rewarded by his brother, Wm. F. Leggett."   More than a month later, on February 13, The Times reported that he was still on the City's list of missing citizens.

On February 28 the house was advertised for sale.  It was described as "The large and commodious three story, attic and basement brick house No. 7 Cherry Street, now occupied as a residence by the owner."  The sale advertisement listed "marble mantels throughout, Croton water, with baths for hot or cold water, and large sized cooking range in kitchen; a tea room and wash house attached in the rear."

The Leggett family moved to the summer home where tragedy followed.  Samuel eventually reappeared, but never recovered from the trauma of his financial failure.   His wife, Ann Eliza, found him in the barn with a self-inflicted bullet wound in his head in 1873.  Ironically, in August 1877 Ann inherited about $1 million from the estate of her father.   Then on March 14, 1878 Ann was murdered by a relative in the house in front of two daughters.

In the meantime the family home on Cherry Street was operated as a boarding house, now called the Beekman House.  It too, was the scene of misfortune on the night of June 28, 1855.  Maxwell Munce sought relief from the stifling night heat by climbing onto the roof.  The New York Herald reported it appeared that he "went asleep in close proximity to the edge of the roof.  Some time afterwards, as it is supposed, he rolled over the side of the gutter, and without a moment's warning was precipitated to the sidewalk, a distance of forty feet."

By the time other boarders found the 22-year old, "life was fast ebbing, and he expired in a few moments after being raised from the spot."  He died from a fractured skull.

In December 1862 an advertisement in The New York Herald offered "For Sale--The furniture and a lease given, of the old established boarding house known as the Beekman House, No. 7 Cherry street."  The ad noted "now over thirty boarders."

Rather surprisingly, the new owners, Henry Stanbrough and his wife, occupied it as a private home.  The couple left town on "an excursion" on July 3, 1867 and returned three days later.  In their absence a burglar had gained entrance through a rear window.  The fruits of his crime surprised even the press.

On July 8 The New York Herald explained "Not fearing a surprise, the thief deliberately opened the wardrobe of Mr. Stanbrough, and, finding there a complete suit of new clothes, took them in place of his own seedy garments, which he left in the bedroom and made his escape with his new outfit."

When they came home and discovered the burglary, the Stanbroughs notified Police Officer Finn, who, armed with a description of the missing clothes, went in search of the thief.  That night Finn arrested 19-year old Daniel Lane, "who at the time had on the coat, pants, vest and shoes which had been stolen from Mr. Stanbrough."  The teen, who was a caulker by trade, was held on $1,000 bail.

By now the Cherry Hill neighborhood was vastly changed since the likes of Washington and Hancock lived here.  Engulfed by commerce, the Stanbrough residence was advertised for sale on October 6, 1868.  "For Sale Cheap--The large four story brick house on full lot, No. 7 Cherry street, Franklin square; price $16,000."  The sale price would equal about $285,000 today.

It was purchased by William Stevens, who took out an $8,000 mortgage on the property.  The march of progress finally caught up with No. 7 when plans for the Brooklyn Bridge placed one of the massive stone piers directly on its site.  The City paid Stevens $16,000 for the targeted property on January 27, 1875.


  1. You provide some interesting details about how life here was affected by new developments almost two centuries ago: gas street lamps becoming available but not being lit on moonlit nights, and one of the selling points of a house being its connection to the water main and, thus, clean water from the Croton reservoir.

  2. Did you intend to refer to the late 18th, rather than the 19th, century in the first paragraph?

    “By the late 19th century it was, according to Gas Logic later, "the home center of New York aristocracy." George Washington lived at No. 1, and John Hancock's house was No. 5. (Washington's residence was purchased by Dewitt Clinton after the Capitol was moved to Philadelphia.)”

    1. Oops. That was a significant typo! Thanks for catching.