Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Wall Street palpitating

It is 140 years today since the death of George Templeton Strong, a New York lawyer remembered for his remarkable diary, which provides a near-daily description, a living history, of his city during the mid-19th century. He was as keen on writing about fire emergencies, financial panic (‘Wall Street has been palpitating uneasily all day’), and riots in the streets as he was about the nuisance of organ-grinders outside his house. Some say Strong’s is the greatest American diary in the nineteenth century.

Strong was born in his father’s house in Manhattan in 1820, and was educated at Columbia College. He trained as a lawyer, and joined his father’s firm, practicing as a real estate attorney. He married Ellen Ruggles in 1848, both of them keen amateur musicians, and moved into a house near Gramercy Park. They had one son (also George, but not born until 1856), who became a composer and painter and spent most of his adult life in Europe.

In the 1860s, and through the Civil War, Strong took on various public service roles, serving on the executive committee of the Sanitary Commission (a precursor of the American Red Cross), helping found the Union League Club of New York, and acting as a trustee of Columbia College. He was also a vestryman at Trinity Episcopal Church, and, from 1870 to 1874, president of the New York Philharmonic. He died relatively young, on 21 July 1875. A little further biographical information is available at Greenwich Village History, Mr Lincoln and New York, or Wikipedia.

Strong is mostly remembered for the daily diary he kept from the age of fifteen and for the next 40 years - amounting to some four million words. The manuscript diaries are held by the New-York Historical Society, and have been edited twice for publication. The first time was by Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas (four volumes, Macmillan, 1952). This version was abridged into one volume in 1988 for publication by University of Washington Press. According to Nevins: ‘Strong was an artist who was consciously trying to render his own city, his own time, his own personality in such form that later generations could comprehend them.’ The diaries were also edited by Vera Brodsky Lawrence for her three volumes: Strong on Music: The New York Music Scene in the Days of George Templeton Strong (University of Chicago Press, 1988-1999).

A few extracts
from Strong’s diary (taken from the originals at the New-York Historical Society) can be found online at The New York TimesOther extracts (taken from the Nevins/Thomas volumes) can be found at Googlebooks in The Civil War - The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It, edited by Brooks D Simpson; and in Writing New York - a literary anthology, edited by Phillip Lopate. Lopate says Strong’s diary is ‘the greatest American diary in the nineteenth century’, remarkable not only for its length but for ‘the flavoursome precision of the writing’.

Here are several extracts culled from Writing New York.

23 November 1851
‘Fearful calamity at a public school in Ninth Ward Thursday afternoon, a false alarm of fire, a panic, a stampede downstairs of 1,800 children, and near fifty killed on the spot and many more wounded - a massacre of the innocents. The stair banisters gave way, and the children fell into the square well round which the stairs wound, where the heap of killed and wounded lay for hours before help could reach them. The doors opened inwards. The bodies were piled up to the top of the doors; they did not dare burst them open and had to cut them slowly away with knives.’

5 July 1852
‘Have been at home all day writing. Tonight went on the roof awhile. It’s a beautiful sight the city presents. In every direction one incessant sparkle of fire balls, rockets, roman candles, and stars of all colors shooting thick into the air and disappearing for miles around, with now and then a glare of coloured light coming out in some neighbourhood where fireworks on a large scale are going off. A foreigner would put it in his book of travels as one of the marvels of New York, and compare it to a swarm of tropical fireflies gleaming in and out through a Brazilian forest.’

23 November 1855
‘I must ascertain whether the mighty bug-destroyer Lyons has no modification of his cockroach powder that will exterminate organ-grinders. We suffer peculiarly here, for the street is very quiet, and they play all round the square before they leave it and are more or less audible at each successive station. I have been undergoing the performances of one of the tribe for an hour and a half and have heard “Casta Diva,” “Ah, Non Giunge,” the first chorus of Ernani, and some platitude from the Trovatore languidly ground out six times each. It makes me feel homicidal. If Abel had gone about with hand organs, I shouldn’t censure Cain so very harshly. There goes “Casta Diva” for the seventh time!’

14 October 1857
‘We have burst. All the banks declined paying specie this morning, with the ridiculous exception of the Chemical, which is a little private shaving-shop of the Joneses with no depositors but its own stockholders.

Wall Street has been palpitating uneasily all day, but the first effect of the suspension is, of course, to make men breathe more freely. A special session is confidently expected, and the meeting of merchants at the Exchange at 3:30 P.M. appointed a committee that has gone to Albany to lay the case before Governor King. He ought to decline interference, but were I in his place I dare say my virtue would give way.

My great anxiety has been for the savings banks. Saw the officers of the two in which I feel a special interest (the Bleecker Street and Seaman’s). Both were suicidally paying specie and thus inviting depositors to come forward to get the gold they could get nowhere else and could sell at a premium. The latter changes from specie to bills tomorrow; the former did so this afternoon. All the savings banks are to do so tomorrow. The run has been very formidable; some say not so severe as it was yesterday, but bad enough. I think they will get through.’

14 July 1863
‘Eleven P.M. Fire bells clanking, as they have clanked at intervals through the evening. Plenty of rumours throughout the day and evening, but nothing very precise or authentic. There have been sundry collisions between the rabble and the authorities, civil and military. Mob fired upon. It generally runs, but on one occasion appears to have rallied, charged the police and militia, and forced them back in disorder. The people are waking up, and by tomorrow there will adequate organization to protect property and life. Many details come in of yesterday’s brutal, cowardly ruffianism and plunder. Shops were cleaned out and a black man hanged in Carmine Street, for no offence but that of Nigritude. Opdyke’s house again attacked this morning by a roaming handful of Irish blackguards. Two or three gentlemen who chanced to be passing saved it from sack by a vigorous charge and dispersed the popular uprising (as the Herald, World, and News call it), with their walking sticks and their fists.

Walked uptown perforce, for no cars and few omnibi were running. They are suppressed by threats of burning railroad and omnibus stables, the drivers being wanted to reinforce the mob. Tiffany’s shop, Ball & Black’s, and a few other Broadway establishments are closed. (Here I am interrupted by a report of a fire near at hand, and a great glare on the houses across the Park. Sally forth, and find the Eighteenth Ward station house, Twenty-second Street, near First Avenue, in full blaze. A splendid blaze it made, but I did not venture below Second Avenue, finding myself in a crowd of Celtic spectators disgorged by the circumjacent tenement houses. They were exulting over the damage to “them bloody police,” and so on. I thought discretion the better part of curiosity. Distance lent enchantment to that view.)

At 823 with Bellows four to six; then home. At eight to Union League Club. Rumor it’s to be attacked tonight. Some say there is to be a great mischief tonight and that the rabble is getting the upper hand. Home at ten and sent for by Dudley Field, Jr., to confer about an expected attack on his house and his father’s, which adjoin each other in this street just below Lexington Avenue. He has a party there with muskets and talks of fearful trouble before morning, but he is always a blower and a very poor devil. Fire bells again again at twelve-fifteen. No light of conflagration is visible. [. . .]

A good deal of yelling to the eastward just now. The Fields and their near neighbour, Colonel Frank Howe, are as likely to be attacked by this traitor-guilded mob as any people I know. If they are, we shall see trouble in this quarter, and Gramercy Park will acquire historical associations. O, how tired I am! But I feel reluctant to go to bed. I believe I dozed off a minute or two. There came something like two reports of artillery, perhaps only falling walls. There go two jolly Celts along the street, singing a genuine Celtic howl, something about “Tim O’Laggerty,” with a refrain of pure Erse. Long live the sovereigns of New York, Brian Boroo redivivus and multiplied. Paddy has left his Egypt - Connaught - and reigns in this promised land of milk and honey and perfect freedom. Hurrah, there goes a strong squad of police marching eastward down this street, followed by a company of infantry with gleaming bayonets. One A.M. Fire bells again, southeastward, “Swinging slow with sullen roar.” Now they are silent, and I shall go to bed, at least for a season.’

The Diary Junction

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