THE BLOG

19th Century Brooklyn -- America's Lost City

04/13/2015 01:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

Quick now -- what was America's third-largest city in 1880? Philadelphia? No, that was second. And Chicago was fourth. The third-largest was Brooklyn, and had been since the 1850s. But you would not know that if you looked at the website publicpurpose.com or peakbagger.com, where Brooklyn is not listed on the 19th-century population lists of American cities. And that is why I have labelled it "Lost City" in my just-published book The Three Graces of Raymond Street. The facts of its history are a bit like events scoured by the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984.

My book depicts Brooklyn in the early 1870s, when three young women were detained on charges of murder in its jailhouse on Raymond Street. In that decade, Brooklyn was not lost, but frequently found in newspaper pages across the country, as the world's greatest bridge rose to connect it to the larger city across the East River. Most citizens were also quite familiar with the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn Heights, even before, during these same years, this most famous clergyman in the land was charged with having been intimate with the wife of his closest associate. The affair was revealed by the madcap free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull, who had heard about it from the history-making suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who, with her ally Susan B. Anthony, was a regular visitor to the Heights.

In that and other sections of the city lived and worked -- and fought -- a remarkable array of distinguished Americans. Their most colorful battles were in the courtrooms, in political arenas, in the politicized police department and in the deliciously bellicose pages of the city's several afternoon newspapers. One of the female murder defendants, who had apparently strangled her former convent-mate under very peculiar circumstances, was defended by Benjamin Franklin Tracy, a former U.S. attorney and heroic Civil War General who would also serve as an innovative U.S. Navy Secretary.

Another defendant, who had shot her lover in a just-completed brownstone house on the edge of what is now Park Slope, was represented by Enoch Lowe, the former governor of Maryland. The trial of the third, a teenager who had perforated the head of her boss on the stairwell of a Williamsburg factory, was personally conducted by the Kings County district attorney against the archenemy he had just replaced -- who was concurrently campaigning to get him thrown out of office. And the city was rife (or rotten) with religious contention, which closely tracked political confrontation. Henry C. Bowen, a wealthy merchant and Republican operative who had brought Beecher to Plymouth Congregational Church and, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln to New York's Cooper Union to deliver a critical campaign speech, was an anti-immigrant bigot who dedicated much energy as publisher of the Brooklyn Union to smearing the character of Irish-born Thomas Kinsella, editor of the Brooklyn Eagle and onetime Democratic Congressman. The Union found special glee in recording details of Kinsella's own adulterous adventure.

The "amative" Beecher (Woodhull's approving adjective) was hardly Brooklyn's only ecclesiastical star. After breaking with him, Bowen said his prayers for Oliver Cromwell and against the pope at the nearby building run by another celebrated Congregationalist, Richard S. Storrs, "The Chrysostom of Brooklyn." One reason for the split was thought to be a deathbed confession by Mrs. Lucy Bowen that she too had fallen into the arms of the Great Divine.

It was "The City of Homes and Churches," and though its people realized that it was economically grafted to New York, they felt it to be socially superior and enjoyed its being on its own. When the bridge had been built and voices rose in favor of combining the two cities, the Brooklyn opposition, which included the forceful Rev. Storrs and Kinsella's eloquent successor at the Eagle, St. Clair McKelway, insisted that their city should be immunized from what Storrs called "the political sewage of Europe" that was being "dumped" into New York, or what McKelway repeatedly editorialized as "Tammany Hall and crime government."

It was ironic, though, that, long before consolidation in 1898, Brooklyn housed a vast immigrant population, had been soaked with political corruption and rattled by increasing murders and other felonious acts. It was not so different from New York as such men imagined it to be, for it too was a very large city, growing faster than it could comfortably manage. But even if it was reasonably argued that its growth could be better accommodated if it was incorporated in a greater city, the city of Brooklyn was not lost in the long shadows of New York as the borough of Brooklyn would be. It was a proud, independent, hyperactive, industrious, belligerent place with which accomplished and prominent persons were pleased to be identified. And Americans everywhere knew it well.