Monday, November 8, 2021

The Lost John Edwards House - 101 Greene Street

The former farmhouse was depicted in a romantic etching in 1864.  D. T. Valentine's Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (copyright expired)

In the first decades of the 19th century, John Edwards was well-known for his precision scales.  In 1806 he was granted patents for his scale beam balances, and for his "steelyards" balance.  His inventions were not limited to scales, however.  In 1816 he developed a process for "printing and forming colored figures on hard substances," and in 1825 he received the patent for his "elevator, for pots and kettles."

A John Edwards balance beam scale.  from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Welsh immigrant, Edwards worked on his devices in his  Greene Street residence.  It was a former farmhouse, erected in the 18th century just south of Greenwich Village.  Two-and-a-half stories tall, the frame house was fronted by a full-width porch.  Rather than rise on either side to form a peak, the roof sloped upwards on the front only.  It resulted in a near New England saltbox house appearance.

The road was named for Nathanial Greene, a Quaker who was expelled from the Society of Friends for his military service during the Revolution.  Like Greene, Edwards would fall from favor within the Society of Friends.

John (also known as Johnny) Edwards had arrived in New York in 1801.  He was deeply religious, to the point that according to a contemporary, David Bruce, he would balance his scales in the cellar because "there is no virtue on the surface of the earth."  His obsession with sin and sinners created problems in finding a sect that would tolerate him for long.  Starting out in the Episcopal Church, he moved to a Methodist church, then a Baptist, and finally a Quaker congregation.  

Edwards was vocal and disruptive in church.  He complained that the Society of Friends was "not willing to hear the trust as it is in Jesus, nor receive it in the love of it."  Even the peace-loving Quakers could take only so much.  Edwards later recalled, "they hauled me out of their fine new meeting-house, and bruised me very much by throwing me down the high steps."

Edwards finally took matters in his own hand, opening his own Church of Christ in his house in 1809.  That venture did not go well, either.  Twice that year mobs appeared during services.  On a March evening a group threw stones and burning projectiles at the house.

A pencil sketch is dated "Spring 1802."  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Three years later Edwards changed course again.  He offered free board to two pastors willing to found a Black c0ngregation in the house, and on March 27, 1812 the African Free Meeting Methodist Society was established here.

The city had its problems with Edwards as well.  In July 1821 he filed a complaint with the Common Council "against the Conduct of Joseph P. Simpson, Sealer of Weights and Measures under the Corporation."  Simpson's duty was to inspect scales and weights to ensure accuracy.  He and Edwards got into a heated argument, resulting in Simpson's "threatening to impose a fine of $25 on all persons using [Edwards's scales]."  Edwards petitioned the Common Council to "be relieved from the oppression of the City Sealer."  The committee decided not to interfere, preferring that "both be left to exercise their rights and to perform their duties."

A more serious problem was John Edwards's public demonstrations.  He saw himself as an evangelist and would shout to the brokers on Wall Street through a three-foot-long tin trumpet, warning them to repent their money lending ways.  When he climbed the stoop of a house on Division Street on Sunday, June 16, 1822 and began loudly preaching, he crossed the line by breaking the law against disturbing the peace and public gatherings on the sabbath.  

A constable appeared, "with a stick in his hand, swinging it about, and saying, what does this mob here?" according to Edwards later.  Then, he recalled, "after driving the good people into heaps, with his cane in his hand, as though they had been so many brute beasts, or at least so many bond slaves or servants, he turns to me, and with a stern tyrannical voice says, 'you must come down, Mr. Edwards.'"

Edwards replied that he would do so when he was finished.  And he did.  The would-be preacher went back to his Greene Street house "in great peace."  But three days later, a young man knocked on the door with a note from the Attorney of the Corporation (a district attorney today) that read in part:

Sir--A complaint has been made to me, against you, for collecting or promoting an assembly of persons, under the pretence of public worship, in a public street, on Sunday last, contrary to the ordinance of the corporation of this city.  The fine imposed by the ordinance is fifty dollars.

It was a sizable fine--equal to more than $1,100 today.  Edwards refused to pay, saying he had not worshiped in the streets, but "only spoke with all my might against the sin of drunkenness, and against all manner of wickedness, and how could he call this worship."  And so Edwards was arrested and held for trial.

The jury trial was held on June 25 and testimony on both sides was impassioned.  Edwards represented himself, focusing of the evils of alcohol and sin.  The prosecution called witnesses who described a crowd of 300 persons that day.  A jury member asked what may have been the pivotal question--had he prayed or used a text during the incident.  And he had not.  John Edwards was found not guilty.

In sublime irony, by the time of the trial a distillery had been established next to Edwards's little wooden house.  On April 30, 1822 an advertisement in the New-York Evening Post read:

To Let:  For the ensuing year, the Distillery in Greene-street, adjoining the dwelling of John Edwards, at present occupied by Scribner & Hitchcock, and N. Blanch.  Rent $300.

Perhaps Edwards protested against the use of that building, for a year later, on April 1, 1823, an advertisement said the "large two story building in Greene st., adjoining the premises of Mr. John Edwards, [is] well calculated for the distilling or chandlery business, or any other in which much room is necessary."

It is unclear how long the colorful John Edwards remained at 101 Greene Street.  He disappeared from city directories by 1847 when merchant Charles C. Hatch lived in the house.  His wife, Abigail, died here "after a lingering and painful illness," as reported by The Evening Post, on July 14 that year.

By 1853 Nathan Brown, who owned a paperhanging business on Canal Street, and his family occupied the house.  And in 1867 it was being operated as a boarding house by John Koburgher.  The quirky wooden farmhouse survived until 1879 when it was replaced by a cast iron loft building. has 
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1 comment:

  1. Thanks you, Tom for sharing the colorful story of John Edwards. To me, he represents what is wrong with so many engineers (yes, I said it) -- they get an idea in their head and no one can convince them otherwise. I wish someone had documented how things went with the African Free Meeting Methodist Society. I suspect a congregation degraded on a daily basis were told they just weren't being devout enough.