Monday, April 13, 2020

The Lost Daniel E. Sickles House - 23 Fifth Avenue

Photographed months before its demolition, a man sits on the top step of the basement entry stairs of the former Sickle residence.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The four-story mansion at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and East 9th Street was originally home to the family of Drake Mills.  Surrounded on three sides by gardens and a tall iron fence, its architect drew from the Greek Revival and newer Italianate styles.  While the brownstone framed entrance above a short stone stoop was pure Greek Revival, the full-height top floor, cornice and handsome angled two story bay at the side were Italianate.

Mills had founded the grocery importing firm of Smith & Mills around 1830 with Ruel Smith.  The company dealt in wines, sugar, and did a large rice trade.  Its name was later changed to Smith, Mills & Co.  William Barrett, in his 1862 The Old Merchants of New York City, commented that the firm "laid the foundation of [Mills's] present fortune of $300,000."  (A figure more in the neighborhood of $7.8 million today.)  He was, as well, a director in the Phoenix Bank.

Mills's first wife, Sarah Lawrence Kilbourn, had died at the age of 36 in January 1832.  They had two children, Jonathan Kilbourn and Charles Drake Mills.  He and his second wife, Abigail Burral Sutton, had four more children: Cora Burral, Henry Edward Pelham, Francis, and Alice Fenner Mills.

Like her siblings Alice was highly educated.  Barrett said she "speaks, reads, and writes five different languages...She spent twelve years of her young life at the best schools in Europe, where she was accompanied by her excellent mother."

In 1860 16-year old Alice caught the eye of Mayor Fernando Wood, whose wife Ann had died a few months earlier.  Her parents vocally opposed the match--for one thing, he was thirty-two years older than Alice, and for another he had a reputation as being corrupt and unscrupulous.  Mills relented only after Wood promised to place "$100,000 in good Croton Water stock" in Alice's name.

On Christmas Eve, 1860 The New York Times announced in a one-line notice that the mayor had married Alice the day before.  William Barrett was pragmatic:  "Wood is immensely rich--some say three millions...Wood will wear out.  He will never rust out, and will live ten years more certainly, and then the daughter of our old mercantile friend, Drake Mills, may find herself a one-thirder in vast wealth, and a charming widow of twenty-six."

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on Mach 4, 1861.  Drake and Abigail were invited to Washington to attend the Inauguration Ball.  The following day The New York Times wrote, "Mrs. Drake Mills [was] gorgeously attired in two thousand dollars' worth of laces and twenty thousand dollar's worth of diamonds."  According to that reporter, she was wearing nearly $660,000 in jewelry by today's standards.

The Mills house was slightly taller and wider than its neighbors, and sat within a double lot.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
On the morning of February 15, 1863 Drake Mills died at the age of 71.  Abigail remained in the house for a while, working tirelessly as she had been since the start of the war for the welfare of the orphans of soldiers.  Just three months after her husband's death she was elected president of the Union Home School Society, which ran an orphanage and school.

By 1869 Abigail had left No. 23 and it was now home to Dr. William R. Whitehead.  Three years later she was the victim of what The New York Times referred to as a "melancholy accident."  At around 2:00 on the morning of July 4, 1872 Abigale left her bed at the Metropolitan Hotel in Washington D.C. "for the purposes of cooling herself at the window," according to the newspaper.  The tall windows went nearly to the floor and "she lost her balance and fell on the roof of an adjoining house.  She rolled from this roof to the eaves, and thence fell into the area below, among boxes, barrels, and other such refuse."  The Times noted "Her body was frightfully mangled."  She died in the hospital.

At the time of Abigail's accident Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles was the United States Minister to Spain.  He had led a colorful and controversial life up to now.  As Fernando Wood had done, he married Teresa Bagioli against the wishes of her parents--she was 15 or 16 years old and he was 32.  And like Alice she was sophisticated and spoke five languages.  

Sickles was a notorious womanizer and, while a New York Senator, was censured for escorting a prostitute, Fanny White, into the chambers.  But when he discovered that Teresa was also having an affair, he very publicly murdered her lover, Philip Barton Key II (the son of Francis Scott Key), on the streets of Washington in 1859.  He escaped conviction on the plea of temporary insanity.

During the Civil War Sickles's controversial behavior continued, most notably at the Battle of Gettysburg where he disobeyed orders and positioned his men at a different location; a move that infuriated Major General George G. Meade.  During that conflict Sickles was wounded by a cannonball that mangled his right leg, forcing amputation later.

Famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady photographed Sickles in 1861.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
Teresa Sickles died of tuberculosis in 1867.  Sickles married Carmina Creagh, the daughter of a Spanish Councilior of State in Barcelona and the niece of the Marquis of Novaliches, in 1871.  Despite producing two children, Stanton and George, theirs was a rocky marriage at best.  When Sickles's term as Minister to Spain was over in 1874, he returned to New York while Carmina and the children remained in Spain.

By the early 1890's Sickles was living at No. 23.  Son George S. Sickles was listed here as well in 1892, but only that year.  Daniel Sickles was active in politics, and his name also appeared regularly in newspapers as the chairman of the New York Monument Commission, organized around 1892.  Its purpose was to erect memorials at the Gettysburg and Chattanooga battlefields.  Newspaper articles routinely asked subscribers to send their donations to Sickle at the Fifth Avenue address.

The image of a toughened war veteran was shattered when Sickle's faithful companion, Bo-Bo, a Blenheim spaniel, died in August 1905.   Grief stricken, the general treated the dog like a deceased family member.  On August 23 The Evening World reported "in the midst of the picturesque disorder of war trophies and bric-a-brac his master, Gen. Daniel E. Sicles, mourns beside a handsome casket containing his pet."  The bier upon which Bo-Bo "lies in state," said the article, was "surrounded by white roses and smilax."

After a two-day wake, Bo-Bo was interred in a cemetery in New Rochelle.  The Evening World reported "A specially constructed casket lined with satin and with an inscription upon a brass plate was provided and to-day the little Blenheim had his curly coat of Titian auburn carefully combed and with a large blue bow around his neck was laid to rest."

Society was possibly shocked when they picked up their New-York Tribune on September 7, 1908.  An article began "Separated for more than a quarter of a century, General Daniel E. Sickles and Mrs. Sickles are reunited, and probably will continue together for the rest of the veteran's lifetime."  

But there was one sticking point that could not be overcome--Eleanor Earle Wilmerding.  In 1899 Sickles had hired Eleanor as his housekeeper.  While her address was formally with her two sisters, at No. 77 West 12th Street, she effectively lived at No. 23 Fifth Avenue.  Whispered gossip was that she was more companion than housekeeper.  Carmina insisted Eleanor go, Sickles refused.  And the reconciliation did not happen.

The long-suffering Carmina Sickles.  The Evening World, September 26, 1912 (copyright expired)
More weighty problems came for Sickles in December 1912.  The Monument Commission held its annual meeting in the Sickle mansion as it always had on December 9.  This year there was a disturbing question before the members--what had happened to $27,000 missing from the fund.  And there was an unexpected person in the room--one not on the commission.  The Sun reported "Mrs. Sickles was in the house while the meeting was going on and was in the room with the commission part of the time."

Carmina had good reason to be interested in the proceedings.  Earlier, in September, the 93-year old Sickles was in financial trouble for being $5,000 in arrears on his mortgage.  As it turned out, the $40,000 mortgage was held by Carmina, who had been unaware he had not been making payments.  She was irate and threatened to evict her husband.

His constant companion, Eleanor Wilmerding accompanied the general to Gettysburg.  photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

On September 26, 1912 The Evening World had reported "Mrs. Sickles, who is a Spaniard and has considerable capacity for wrath, issued a formal declaration of war, to-day, from her apartments in the Hotel Marlton on West Eighth street, just a block from the general's home."  In her statement to the press she took the opportunity to bring up her nemesis, Eleanor Wilmerding.

It is enough.  He is old, he is poor.  He is my husband--by the law.  He has been a brave soldier for his country.  So much is true.  But now, badly advised by a malicious old woman, he has forfeited any consideration which he may have had from me, however, little he deserved consideration.  This is the end.

Carmina's anger passed and the general remained in his home.  His financial problems and the issue of the missing money--three quarters of a million in today's dollars--were not so easily taken care of.  

from the collection of the New York Public Library
On January 27, 1913 The Evening Telegram reported "General Daniel E. Sickles, the ninety-three-year-old hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, was formally arrested in his handsome house at No. 23 Fifth avenue by Sheriff Harburger this afternoon."   Due to his age and eminence, Sickles was not taken in, but put on what today would be termed house arrest.

Later that day Helen D. Longstreet, wife of Confederate General James Longstreet, sent a draft for $30,000 to cover Sickles's shortage.  The Evening World reported that as the sheriff and Lawrence B. Wolf, his bonding clerk, presented Sickles with official papers, "Miss Wilmerding, the General's housekeeper, entered the room with the money and handed it to Mr. Wolf."  Once again Sickles had managed to wriggle out of a shameful situation.

On the morning of February 9, 1914 The Sun reported, "A coffin was carried into the house early in the morning, and this gave rise to a rumor that the General had died."  But the casket was not for Sickles, but for Eleanor Earle Wilmerding.  The newspaper noted "It was said at the house that Gen. Sickles had stood the shock of the death of his constant companion well."

Carmina Sickles took the news well, herself.  The New-York Tribune wrote "Miss Wilmerding was said by the wife of General Sickles to have been the cause of a break  in the general's matrimonial happiness.  Stanton Sickles, who lives at the Hotel Albert, was particularly bitter against her."

Most likely because of his several financial problems, Sickles was renting rooms to the colorful and wealthy art patron, Mable Dodge.  In his 2008 book Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain's Closest Friend, Steve Courtney wrote that he "rented the lower part of his house at 23 Fifth Avenue to Mable Dodge, who established a salon there where John Reed, Max Eastman, and Lincoln Steffens argued about the Armory Show and socialism."

On March 30, 1914 The Sun reported "Gen. Daniel E. Sickles is seriously ill at his home, 23 Fifth avenue.  He had a severe attack of grip early in the winter and failed to rally."  His condition continued to decline and on May 3 the newspaper updated readers saying that Carmina and Stanton had been with him for ten days.  "It is understood that Gen. Sickles is suffering from the effects of a cerebral hemorrhage.  His right side is affected and he is very weak."  He died later that day.

Despite his checkered past, Sickles was given full military honors, his funeral was held in St. Patrick's Cathedral, and he was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

Within five months the Sickles mansion was formally converted to three expansive apartments.  Mable Dodge signed an official lease on October 9, 1914, as did former Governor William Sulzer and Richard S. Childe.

In October 1916 the Oak Point Corporation purchased the former Sickles mansion, along with No. 1 East 9th Street, and Nos. 25 and 27 Fifth Avenue.  It was an ominous sign.  Nevertheless the venerable houses survived until 1921 when they were demolished for the thirteen-story apartment house which survives.

photo via

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