Friday, November 16, 2007

A Really Good Find: More Magnolia Blossoms

From: "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, November 15, 2007:

[This story expands considerably upon the one posted to the blog earlier, in which the find was revealed.]

My lady friend has taken to calling me, with bemused affection and the merest hint of derision, “the great indoorsman.” True enough. I embark on no safari, pointlessly climb no piles of rock, and find myself paralyzed by the algebra of any hand tool more complex than a hammer. And yet, seated at my computer or on a distant prowl of dusty archives, I do experience the thrill of the hunt, the rapture of the capture, and the enduring satisfaction that comes with a really good find. This is the story of one such — or rather, the beginnings of the story, because this figurative grain of sand has opened onto an entire beach, and I have not yet fully grasped its enormity. More will come to light in the coming months and I will revisit this story then; but for now I must write, because the excitement is high.

One month ago, in the classified advertisement section of the New York Herald of November 2, 1843, I spotted a notice for a heretofore unknown New York ball club that played at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, a celebrated playground for New Yorkers of all social classes, jostling with each other contentiously and joyously for nearly a half century beginning in the 1830s. The ad provided clues to a much larger story — with some truly fascinating characters, including Walt Whitman, Mike Walsh, and George Wilkes, whom we will encounter in passing, but of whom there is a great deal more to be said in the context of baseball and the working class.

The ad, which also ran in the Sun, read in full:

NEW YORK MAGNOLIA BALL CLUB – Vive la Knickerbocker. – A meeting of the members of the above club will take place this (Thursday) afternoon, 2nd instant, at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken. It is earnestly requested that every member will be present, willing and eager to do his duty. Play will commence precisely at one o’clock. Chowder at 4 o’clock.
JOHN McKIBBIN, Jr., President.
ANDREW LESTER, Sec.n2 1t*m

The coding at the bottom signaled that the ad was to appear one time only (1t) and on November 2 (n2). Of the named officers, modest research revealed that the president was a waiter, the vice president an eating-house proprietor (the Magnolia Lunch and Saloon, offering “the best of Wines, Liquors, Segars, and every other requisite”), and the secretary a billiard-room proprietor. All had working-class and political associations of the sort that historians presume to have emerged only with the unruly Brooklyn clubs of the following decade, notably the Atlantics.

Indeed, the Magnolia is precisely the sort of club that the formation of the gentlemanly Knickerbocker was designed to checkmate. As key Knick founder William R. Wheaton told an interviewer in 1887 of the game of 50 years ago, “The new game quickly became very popular ... beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw [from the original Gotham club] and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker.” The Knickerbocker innovations of 1845-46 — handed down to us as 90 feet between bases, nine men to the side, and nine innings — are by custom linked with Alexander Cartwright though there is no evidence for his feats of legerdemain. There is, however, considerable backing for the idea that all these essential features of the game as we know it did not take hold until a decade later, long after Cartwright had gone west with the Gold Rush of 1849.

In fact, the Knickebockers became known as the “pioneer club” as early as 1860, despite everyone acknowledging the existence of at least one prior club, the New York Base Ball Club (NYBBC), which defeated the Knicks 23-1 in their “historic” first match of June 19, 1846. That the Knickerbockers were preceded not only by the NYBBC but also others was widely acknowledged, if with a wink, as late as 1910, when Arthur B. Reeve wrote in Outing Magazine: “The honors for the place of birth of baseball are divided. Philadelphia claims that her ‘town ball’ was practically baseball and that it was played by her Olympic Club from 1833 to 1859. It is also claimed the Washington Club of New York in 1843 was the first to play the game.”

The Washingtons were intermingled with the New Yorks, and both derived from the aforementioned Gotham, which dated from 1837 or possibly as early as 1832. When the Gotham “Cottage” (i.e., saloon) at 298 Bowery, where the club members regularly met, was torn down in 1878, Leslie’s commented in matter-of-fact fashion: “The Gotham Baseball Club, the first in the country, held its meetings there, and the balls it won from many of the ‘crack’ clubs were in a glass-case behind the bar.”

Moreover, the NYBBC played two matches with the Brooklyn Club, an offshoot of the Brooklyn Star Cricket Club, in October 1845 that pre-date the beatified Knickerbocker game with the New Yorks of June 19, 1846. What did these baseball matches look like? The Brooklyn Evening Star of October 23, 1845 reported: “A match of base ball was played on Tuesday at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, between eight members of the New York Ball Club and the same number of players from Brooklyn.”

So why, in the more than 160 years since the Magnolias sprung into blossom on the Elysian Fields, has there been not a single mention of them in print, except for the classified pages? They appear to have been deliberately written out of the game’s history, very early on.

Why would the Magnolia ad contain the phrase “Vive la Knickerbocker”? These were Irishmen, after all, not Dutch patroons, and they had little claim to the 18th-century gentility of Diedrich Knickerbocker’s New York. Let me say that this Magnolia motto was certainly not a reference to the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, whose formation was two years in the offing. It may have been a bow to the unionist Whig political affiliations of some of the Magnolia’s officers, or it may even have may have been a reference to labor leader and radical hero Mike Walsh, editor of the radical Subterranean ... but prior to that known as the founder of the scurrilous Knickerbocker, one of many “flash” weeklies launched in the 1840s, with titles like The Rake, The Sporting Whip, and Venus’s Miscellany. These were designed to titillate, but as weeklies they stood little chance of making money from subscriptions or newsboy sales; their principal business, acknowledged in court proceedings, was blackmail of high-toned citizens caught out on the town with women of questionable virtue: pay the editors or find yourself the talk of the town. (These early scandal sheets, which culminated in 1845 in blackmailer George Wilkes’ founding of the long-lived National Police Gazette, is but one of many fascinating sidelights that spun off from my originally narrow range of research.)

Or the Magnolia club members may have beeen members of Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 12, which had disbanded in the latter months of 1843, though it was to reorganize on February 22d, 1844 under the name of “Tradesman's,” before finally disbanding in 1847. Or saying, “Long live the Knickerbocker” may simply have been the Magnolia way of declaring the old-fashioned virtues of the men who gathered to play baseball on the green fields of Hoboken. That baseball was not a spontaneous brainstorm of Abner Doubleday or Alex Cartwright is a commonplace now, some three years after I broke the story that baseball was being played under that name in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in1791. Everyone in the 1850s knew that baseball had been around as long as they could remember. The Herald of December 19, 1854 remarked: “Cricket is not the only game of ball that has its admirers. There are now in this city three regularly organized clubs, who meet twice in each week for about eight months of the year, for exercise in the good old fashioned American game of base ball.”

But let’s get back to the Magnolia Ball Club. As soon as I saw the ad in the Herald I recalled that some months ago historian David Block had kindly pointed me to a curious image that he thought might be suitable to illustrate a forthcoming article on town ball by Richard Hershberger, which has now been published in the fall issue of the journal Base Ball. David pointed me to a web link to an undated, unidentified card offered as Lot 1600 in a Lelands auction of December 2002.

The auctioneer described the item as a “signed copper plate engraving of the quality of paper money. The card itself is a heavy stock with a silver mirror finish. This invitation to the ‘1st Annual Ball of the Magnolia Ball Club’ measures 5x3.25 [inches]. The image is magnificent. It shows the plantation like Magnolia Club with its main building and a yacht flying the ‘M’ flag. Half the image is a richly detailed state-of-the-art baseball game in progress. The players are wearing long pants, there are wickets instead of bases, the catcher stands steps behind the batter with no equipment (pre-mask and shin guards) and catches the ball on one bounce. The engraving is signed ‘Eng. By W. Fairthorne.’ Fairthorne worked in New York City starting in 1839 until the time of his death in 1853, thereby, dating the piece from that 1839-53 time period. Finally, Magnolia is an area in southern New Jersey and the site of many stately plantations not unlike the one graphically illustrated we see pictured here.”

In a Eureka moment, I realized that I knew for certain what that plantation-like building was. It was the Colonnade, later known as the Colonnade Hotel or McCarty’s Hotel, whose proprietor provided the Knickerbockers and other clubs with many a lavish dinner after exertions on the ball field. Built in the early 1830s, it survived into the 1890s. As to Magnolia being in southern New Jersey, it is indeed a borough in New Jersey’s Camden County, but it was founded in 1915 and is not the site for this image.

Moving on to William Fairthorne, the auction description is correct as far as it goes, but does not touch upon the fellow’s brushes with the law for counterfeiting or his eventual management of the Lafayette Gentleman’s and Ladies’ Oyster Saloon at 38 Division Street. (“Oysters served up in every style, at the shortest notice, and families supplied by the thousand, hundred, or quart, at the lowest prices.”) Fairthorne, born in England in 1811, tried a Southern tour before settling in New York, just as Mike Walsh had done in the mid-1830s and Walt Whitman would do in the 1840s. “A chap calling himself W. Fairthorne,” reported the Mobile Advertiser in mid-February of 1836, “has within a few days decamped from this city leaving several persons of our acquaintance in the vocative as to their running accounts with him. He passed himself off here as an Engraver, and it would not be strange if he should set up for something of that sort in N. Orleans, before many days. He is an Englishman by birth, and a huge eater by education, has light hair rather disposed to curl, large grey or blue eyes, and a tolerable wide mouth. Although he is a squat figure, not likely to improve by age, he looks full as well in the distance as near at hand.”

By 1838 William Fairthorne — whose very name may have been a work of art or artifice, seized in honor of the notable English engraver of that name (1616-1691) — had settled in with wife Hannah at his New York City home at 68 Nassau Street, with a workplace of 350 Houston. On February 17, 1839 the New York Spectator offered this police report: “A Mr. Fairthorne, an engraver, was arrested some days ago, and yesterday examined, as a suspected accomplice of Conner, the counterfeiter, forger, and alterer of bank notes. The examination resulted so strongly in his favor, that he was held to bail only in the sum of $500....” Recalling that in those days a dollar a day was “very good pay,” the Spectator was ladling out the irony generously.

The auction-house description erred in calling the Magnolia card an invitation. It is a ticket, costing a dollar (see below) and, given its enamel-coated card stock and its original, commissioned imagery, intended to be saved as a memento of the fancy ball. The baseball scene on the card reveals three bases with stakes (not “wickets”), eight men in the field, and a top-hatted waiter bearing a tray of refreshments from the Colonnade. The “in” side are arrayed behind as well as seated upon on a long table. The pitcher tosses underhand. A base runner heads from first to second base. This is the original Knickerbocker game, and that of the New York Base Ball Club; both were inherited from the Gothams of the 1830s, for whom Wheaton codified the rules. (Shortstop as a ninth man did not kick in till 1847-48 and when, on occasion, a ninth man was thrown into the mix, he became a fourth outfielder.)

Extending from the names mentioned in the Magnolia ad, we find that restaurateur and club vice president Joe Carlisle was the power behind the ball club. He doubled as a jailer at the city’s notorious Tombs. The Herald of April 15, 1843 described him on his rounds: “The second corridor is under the charge of that jolly-hearted soul, Joseph Carlisle; one whose joyous laugh reverberating through the lofty edifice, excites a hearty response from the most lonely, desolate and dejected who hear it; to look at him is to laugh — his love of innocent fun and frolic is so earnest and hearty, that it is contagious, and he makes the poor devils around him for the time being almost happy—and as he turns the fatal key upon them, he gives them a pleasant jest and a jocund laugh, that sensibly relieves their otherwise melancholy musings. Such a man is sure to please every one, even the most grave, if they are not over fastidious with regard to an audible smile.”

So jolly was Joe that his company was sought by the firebrand Mike Walsh, leader of the Spartan Association that broke up Whig and Democratic political rallies with equal gusto. In his weekly Subterranean of January 31, 1846, Walsh wrote, in SLEIGHING LAST WEEK—GREAT SPORT: “I started to go out in Colonel Bratine’s fine sleigh and drawn by the celebrated ‘Lotion’ and a horse that beat ‘Lady Suffolk.’ The Colonel, than whom a better driver never snapped a whip, drove in person, the company was composed of Andrew Lester [secretary of the Magnolia], Joseph Carlyle [an understandable misspelling], Frank Stuart [a.k.a Stewart] and myself. It would be pretty difficult to pick up a choicer little party, or a finer team than this....”

Michael Walsh, known universally as “Mike,” was born in Youghal, near Cork, Ireland, May 4, 1810. He immigrated to the United States and moved to New York City, where he apprenticed to a lithographer in 1826. After some wandering years that took him to New Orleans, then purportedly Texas, and then Albany (New York) he returned to New York City in 1839. He aligned himself with the Red Rover (“Howard”) Engine Company No. 34 at a time when the volunteer fire laddies ruled the roost. One of his fellows in the fire company was Bill “The Butcher” Poole (think of Gangs of New York) who was shot in Stanwix Hall on Broadway by Lewis Baker on February 25, 1855; another was David C. Broderick, bartender at the saloon named after Walsh’s Subterranean and later a United States Senator from California who while in office was fatally shot in a duel. Walsh himself died under mysterious circumstances that may have been murder.

In 1842 Walsh became the Washington, D.C. reporter for the New York Aurora, a paper edited by the 23-year-old Walt Whitman. On July 15, 1843, after the failure of his weekly sheet the Sunday Knickerbocker, of which no example survives, he launched the Subterranean, featuring a Whitman poem, “Lesson of the Two Symbols.” In this year Whitman also served as sub-editor for The Plebeian, a literary newspaper whose editor, Levi D. Slamm, successfully prosecuted Walsh for libel and had thrown into the prison at Blackwell's Island.

Illustrating the confused and confusing political and ethnic cross-currents of the day, Whitman had been editor of the Van Burenite paper the Aurora and was at this time rabidly anti-Irish; Walsh was a workingman’s advocate who nonetheless backed the pro-slavery candidate for the presidency in 1844, John C. Calhoun ... and of course he was Irish born. This did not stop him from winning election as a Democrat to the Thirty-third Congress (March 4, 1853 to March 3, 1855) or running unsuccessfully for reelection, despite his not having been naturalized. A man of surpassing and intriguing inconsistencies, Walsh was against both the Hunkers (the establishment Democrats who looked to obtain spoils from the system) and the Barnburners, the “principled” Democrats led by Van Buren. Walsh opposed the extension of slavery but was for the annexation of Texas and the notion of manifest destiny generally, and thus allied himself with the pro-slavery but expansionist Calhoun.

A gifted extemporaneous speechmaker as well as an inciter of premeditated riots, Walsh was an inimitable leader. “In his restless search for a political voice and public persona,” wrote Sean Wilentz in Chants Democratic, “Walsh came to embody a new and curious figure in New York politics, the radical Bowery Boy politician. His use of force was perfectly in keeping with the roughhouse standards of the 1840s.”

But it is his words, not his disturbances, that captivate today. In the lamentably out of print Sketches of the Speeches and Writings of Michael Walsh (1853) we see a master of persuasion. After the Astor Place riot of May 10, 1849, an exercise in ethnic and class warfare in which New York State forces intervened and 22 were killed and 38 injured, Walsh spoke out with passion:

“Where,” he asked, “where were these national guards during the late war with Mexico? Where were those gingerbread soldiers? They were drinking punch at their firesides while it was the poor man who fought the battles of the country.... No doubt there are thousands like the Mayor who are drinking the blood of the operatives, who long for the power of an army with which they may oppress and trample the poor man under foot....

“We toil to feed their lusts, we bleed to back their quarrels, coin our sweat and blood to feed their wassail and maintain their pomp! And they, kind, gentle, gentle lords — in payment plunder our dwellings, spurn us as their dogs, stain those we love, and mock at our affliction....”

Walsh believed that the source of crime and misery in the world was rooted in the inequality of society. He regularly referred to Irish laborers as wage slaves to “idle and dishonest capitalists.” He was for the workingman, the pub, recreation on the Sabbath, ball playing, and chowder—all the elements that are encapsulated in that little classified ad in the Herald on November 2, 1843.

In the Subterranean of October 25, 1845, the day after the Brooklyn and New York clubs played their second match game, Walsh wrote: “Three different parties of whole-souled fellows are going to express their gratitude to Heaven for its manifold blessings, to-morrow, by playing ball and eating chowder. They could not have selected a more appropriate and sensible method of doing it, as a man is never on so good terms with his God and fellow men, as when he is enjoying himself in healthy and rational manner.” On July 11 of the previous year he had been quoted in similar vein in the Berkshire County Whig: “There has been more Democracy diffused in Porter houses on Sunday than in any other place!”

Another Magnolia advertisement in the Herald that eluded me on my first pass came to light weeks after my original find. It describes the actual event for which the Magnolia card provided admission. The ad ran in the Herald, and perhaps in other papers unavailable to me, on February 6-8 of 1844. It read:

THE FIRST ANNUAL BALL of the New York Magnolia Ball Club will take place at National Hall, Canal st. on Friday evening, Feb. 9th, inst. The Club pledge themselves that no expense or exertions shall be spared to render this (their first) Ball worthy the patronage of their friends. The Ball Room will be splendidly decorated with the insignia of the Club. Brown’s celebrated Band is engaged for the occasion. Tickets $1, to be had of the undersigned, and at the bar of National Hall.
PETER H. GRAHAM, Secretary
f6 4t*cc

Although the ad was intended to run four times, presumably February 6-9, I was unable to find it in issues of Friday the 9th, the day of that evening’s ball.

I did not own this card when I made my initial find last month, but I immediately knew I had a tiger by the tail. I realized that my find would impart a great deal of value to the card and its owner, whose identity I did not and do not know. However, through channels I was able to conduct a transaction via an intermediary and I now own the card (after gulping hard about its new price). Accordingly, I will have to guard against making extravagant claims for its importance, as it will be easy for others to chalk up my views to self-interest. But the facts are the facts after all.

Allow me to sum up what I see dispassionately as the significance of the Magnolia card. It is:

* the first depiction of men playing baseball, discounting the 1744 image of boys playing “base-ball” (without a bat) in Little Pretty Pocket-Book, or that of boys playing on Boston Common, shown in Robin Carver’s Book of Sports from 1834;
* the earliest artifact to have survived related to the New York Game [only the 1837 Philadelphia Olympic Constitution (town ball) is earlier];
* the only artifact, apart from the newspaper ads, related to this newly unveiled pre-Knickerbocker club that played in Hoboken but whose membership was based in New York; and
* arguably, depending upon one’s taxonomic views, the first baseball card.

But the greater significance of the find is not the properties of the card but the new understanding that its underlying story affords of how baseball really began in New York, and what impetus the workingman’s culture of that day may have given to baseball’s growth.

--John Thorn


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