Monday, November 13, 2023

The Lost Merchants' Club - 108 Leonard Street


108 Leonard Street (left) was joined with the house next door around 1868.  King's Photographic Views of New York City, 1893 (copyright expired)

In the 18th century, the 48-acre Collect Pond was a popular spot for picnicking and ice skating.  But industries like a brewery and slaughterhouse rose along its shores and polluted the waters.  As the century drew to a close, the pond was decried as "a very sink and common sewer."  Collect Pond was gradually filled in, until by 1813 it was undetectable.  (Today's Collect Pond Park occupies a tiny portion of the site.)

With the disagreeable lake gone, refined residences began rising along the newly-laid streets.  One of them, Leonard Street, was named for Leonard Lispenard, the son of Anthony Lispenard who owned the Lispenard Meadows, through which the roadway was cut.  

By June 1829, a handsome Federal style house stood at 108 Leonard Street.  Three-and-a-half stories tall, the brick-faced house featured a double-doored entrance within an arched stone frame.  Two prominent dormers perched above the cornice.

Rev. Thomas Dewitt (sometimes spelled De Witt) and his wife lived here in the early 1830s.  Born in 1791, Dewitt came from an old New York family.  His first American ancestor arrived in 1655.  Mindful of his family's roots, in 1844 he began working with Dutch immigrants as they arrived at the piers.

Dewitt became the president of the New-York Historical Society.  He was no doubt highly influential in the institution's erecting its magnificent new home at 346 Broadway, almost next door to the Dewitt house, in 1838. 

Sadly, the couple lost their 16-month-old son, Thomas, that year.  The boy's funeral was held in the house on February 16.

Rev. Dewitt would go on to become pastor of the Collegiate Reformed Church.  In 1840, he and his wife left Leonard Street, and their former home became a boarding house run by Zoe Treveyo.  It was the center of one of the century's greatest murder mysteries beginning in 1843.

Boarder Charles G. Corliss ran the Bowling Saloon in the lower portion of the Carlton House hotel around the corner at 350 Broadway.  On the night of March 20, 1843, the Leonard Street house was thrown into chaos when Corliss's body was carried in.

Earlier that evening, while Corliss was at the Bowling Saloon, a woman called at the boarding house asking for him.  The New York Herald reported, "She walked some distance into the hall of the house," before leaving.  Her doing so gave the maid a good look at the straw bonnet and green veil that hid her face.  A few minutes later, a woman of the same description showed up at the Bowling Saloon.  The man with whom Corliss had been talking later said, "as soon as Corliss saw her, he raised both his hands in an attitude signifying his wish for her to go away."

Corliss's Bowling Saloon was in the basement of the Carlton House (original source unknown)

Instead, the woman "came in closely veiled, and took a seat on the sofa."  Corliss and the female spoke for a while, then he took his hat and coat and left.  Afterward, one of the porters of the Carlton House noticed Corliss talking with a women on Leonard Street.  A few minutes later shots rang out.  The New-York Daily Tribune noted, "It is surmised by many that the murderer was a man dressed in woman's clothes."

The newspaper added, "All our readers doubtless remember that attempt...of Mr. Henry Colton, of No. 26 Vesey-street, to shoot Mr. Charles Corliss in Leonard-street.  The pistol then merely snapped, and Colton was arrested.  He was bailed, and has since been at liberty."  The newspaper explained that Colton's motive was "in consequence of the alleged seduction of his wife by Corliss."  Suspicion, of course, fell on Colton.

Corliss had, indeed, "been concerned in an intrigue with a married lady, Mrs. Colton," as worded by the New York Dispatch.  Later, on March 27, the New York Herald, stressed that she bore some of the responsibility for the affair, saying, "it is certain no virtuous female in married life, was ever led astray unless she made the first advances.  A single frown from a virtuous female can repel the greatest libertine that ever walked a pave."

Having discovered the affair, Colton had confronted Corliss, who pledged "to refrain from any further intercourse with his wife," according to the New York Dispatch.  "This obligation, however, Corlis [sic] failed to keep."  The attempted murder on March 10 was sparked when Colton found Corliss "prowling about the premises, evidently on the outlook for an interview with Mrs. Colton."

Now, police rushed to the Colton house and arrested Henry.  As they were doing so, Mrs. Colton entered, "dressed in a straw bonnet and veil, and passed upstairs in great haste," reported the New York Herald.  The newspaper was surprised that Mrs. Colton was not detained, considering "the fact of her entering the house at that particular time, almost out of breath, from 'running like as race horse.'"

While her husband sat in the Tombs, Justice Matsell went to the Colton house to interrogate Mrs. Colton the following day.  She informed her maid "that she wished neither to see or speak with any person during the evening."  Undeterred, Matsell approached the locked parlor doors and knocked four times.  "He then told her that he would give her three minutes to open the door, and if she did not it should be broken open."  Sure enough, he broke a door panel and entered.  She refused to reply to any of his questions.  In the meantime, a search of her bedroom uncovered a straw bonnet and green veil.  Mrs. Colton was arrested.

A long trial followed with a seemingly endless stream of witnesses, including servants and boarders from 108 Leonard Street.  None of them could agree on pertinent facts.  Nearly three decades later, on September 29, 1872, the New York Dispatch concluded, "In fact throughout this remarkable case, each witness may be said to have differed from all the others.  Certain it is that to this day the Corlis [sic] mystery remains unsolved."

Rupert G. Hill boarded at 108 Leonard Street in 1853.  He was a clerk in the A. T., Stewart & Co. department store.  Like Charles Corliss, his attraction to a married woman would end badly.  He and a friend, Rupert G. Hill, had come from Halifax, Nova Scotia.  The men lived for "many years past" according to the New York Herald, in a Boston boarding house where both were attracted to another boarder, Mrs. Loring.  The newspaper said on January 9, 1853, "A mystery, however, still exists as to why a jealousy should take place between them about the favors of a married lady."  While still living there, the two men got into a physical confrontation over Mrs. Loring, during which Hill "seized Bulger by the neck, choked him, and otherwise assaulted him violently."

Eventually, Hill, Bulger, and the Lorings all relocated to New York City.  Hill took rooms at 108 Leonard Street, while the Lorings and Bulger "took board at No. 38 Beach street."  Bulger heard a rumor that Hill had paid a visit to Mrs. Loring, and then on January 8, 1853, he walked into the parlor of the Beach Street house to find Mrs. Loring chatting with Hill.  The New York Herald reported, "Bulger did not say anything, but seated himself on the other side of the room; in a few minutes after, Mrs. Loring and Hill walked out of the parlor."  Bulger assumed Hill was leaving, but then saw the two climbing the staircase towards Mrs. Loring's rooms.

Bulger bounded up the stairs, and just outside of the Lorings' rooms, "seized hold of [Hill] by the coat, and with a dirk knife inflicted several stabs and cut on his neck and head...A cry of murder was given, and Mr. Samuel L. Vought, proprietor of the house, hurried to the scene of disturbance just in time to arrest the arm of the assailant who was about to inflict another blow, which might have proved fatally."  Bulger was arrested and "the injured man was conveyed to his residence No. 108 Leonard street."  Hill survived the attack.

The house became a private residence again in 1854 when Henry H. Howard purchased it.  Howard, known familiarly as Harry, was Chairman of the Fire Department Committee of the Board of Alderman.  Around 1858 he was promoted to Chief Engineer of the New York City Fire Department.  His devotion to the department was reflected in his offering his home for several fire fighters' funerals.

On December 10, 1858, a blaze broke out in the New-Haven and Harlem Railroad Depot on Centre Street between Franklin and White Streets.  At one point, sections of walls collapsed.  The New York Times reported, "It was supposed that several persons were buried beneath the ruins of the fire."  Indeed, the following day investigators "discovered a human body lying beneath a large printing press in the southeastern portion of the first floor."  It was 30-year-old firefighter Hugh M. Luke.  The article said, "By direction of Henry H. Howard, Chief Engineer, the body was removed to his own residence, No. 108 Leonard-street."

Luke's funeral was held on December 14 with "imposing ceremonies, from the residence of Chief Engineer Howard." according to The Family Herald.  Leonard Street was packed with mourners, including "some thousands of his late comrades in the department."

On July 5, 1859, firefighter James Garnes "was run over and killed by Engine Company No. 38," as reported by the New York Herald.  At a meeting at Fireman's Hall two days later, it was announced "that the funeral ceremonies would take place at No. 108 Leonard street, the residence of the Chief Engineer."  On July 12, the Albany Morning Express reported, "The members of nineteen companies turned out in procession and paid the last tribute of respect to their late associate."

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Henry H. Howard left Leonard Street to fight with the 21st Massachusetts Volunteers.  On February 21, 1862, The New York Times  reported that he had been wounded in battle, shot in the hips.

Robert Withers, a city inspector, had boarded with the Howard family since 1858.  With Henry gone, 108 Leonard Street again became a boarding house, and Withers stayed on.  He fell ill and, "after a long illness, which he bore with Christian fortitude," according to the New York Herald, he died on May 22, 1865.  The funeral of the 59-year-old was held in the parlor on May 24.

In 1868, the house was converted to offices, home to P. C. Vanwyck Assessors, headed by Pierre C. Vanwyck.  Because Vanwyck had 12 assessors on his staff, it is almost assuredly at this time that 108 Leonard Street was joined internally with the nearly identical house next door.

The Merchants' Club moved into the combined houses in 1872.  Incorporated the previous year, the club was organized "to promote social intercourse among the members thereof, and to provide for them a pleasant place of common resort for entertainment and improvement."  King's Handbook of New York noted, "Its locality makes it an ideal place of dining for business men of the dry-goods district."

The Merchants' Club was the scene of business discussions, such as when Erastus Wiman spoke here on December 14, 1891 regarding Chicago's upcoming Columbian Exposition.  The Sun said he "addressed a small meeting of businessmen in the Merchants' Club at 108 Leonard street yesterday on the World's Fair.  In opening he remarked that he thought a society for the encouragement of public spirit was badly needed here."

The members received disturbing and frightening news the following summer.  On August 10, 1892, The Evening World reported, "Batiste Pailatti, thirty-nine...the cook of the Merchants' Club, at 108 Leonard street, was to-day found to be suffering from small-pox and taken to North Brother Island."  (The island on the East River in the Bronx was the site of the  Riverside Hospital where patients with communicable diseases were quarantined.)

Two years later 108 Leonard Street was demolished to make way for the New York Life Insurance building, which would engulf the entire block.  The club seems to have negotiated the sale, for when the new marble structure was completed, the Merchants' Club had sumptuous new quarters on the building's first floor.

no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to

No comments:

Post a Comment