BROADWAY. SUNDAY, AUGUST 25, 1793. EVENING.
Lanah didn’t understand their language, but when the foreign men started tossing out catcalls, their meaning struck home. Eleven days before she ended up in Mother Carey’s back room, Lanah had stepped out into the wet city streets after a long day of rain. It was chilly for late summer; the air felt raw. The seventeen-year-old seamstress was walking alone, but she wasn’t the only one who had ventured out.
Sunday evening was a popular time for leisurely strolls, social calls, spiritual lectures, and errands. Lanah may have been visiting an aged aunt who lived on the Bowling Green, picking up sewing jobs, or making a delivery as she headed into Broadway. Newly regraded to improve drainage, the roadbed had been paved with cobblestones, lined with gutters to channel storm water and clear away filth, and edged with wide, raised sidewalks. Under her feet, the wet stone slabs glittered in the gathering darkness and the glow of new whale-oil streetlamps.
As she made her way along Broadway, Lanah caught the attention of a group of Frenchmen. They began to offer up what she later described as “insults.” Standard fare included abrupt propositions, outlandish compliments, and demands that she endure the abuse with a smile: Mademoiselle, voulez vouz donnez moi votre coeur?… Voulez vous donnez moi un baiser?… Voulez vous couchez avec moi ce soir?… Vous êtes une belle ange!… Je crois que je mourrai si vouz ne mariez avec moi!… Vouz etes chagrinée?
Young miss, would you give me your heart?… Or a kiss?… Or sleep with me tonight?… You are a beautiful angel!… I believe I will die if you won’t marry me!… Why so sad?
These “Frenchmen” were most likely gentlemen recently arrived from Saint-Domingue, where a bloody revolution had plunged the richest and most brutal colony in the world into turmoil. Over the summer, refugees—mostly planters, colonial officials, their families, and some enslaved domestic workers—had crowded into American seaports, driving up the prices of food and shelter and exciting calls for charitable contributions and government support. Several hundred of them were reportedly crammed into a single house on Vesey Street, just to the west of Broadway, near St. Paul’s Chapel.
Meanwhile, the French Revolution had brought other Frenchmen into the city—including boisterous sailors on merchant vessels and men-of-war, aristocrats fleeing the Terror, and the French minister Citizen Genêt, who had just arrived in the city, determined to drag America into his country’s war against Britain. The turmoil stirred up by Genêt threatened to undermine the authority of President Washington, inflamed conflicts between conservative Federalists and radical republicans, and provoked a series of violent street fights. Adding to the tension was the epidemic of yellow fever that was spreading up the Atlantic coast. Already, it had reached Philadelphia, where it would soon kill one person in ten. Now, New York was under threat. As the storm that day raged, some prayed that it would wash away whatever was causing the dreadful disease.
Lanah had no doubt dealt with harassment on the street before. Indeed, the problem was one of the reasons given in support of the recent street improvements. A letter published in the New-York Journal several years earlier had pointed out that Broadway was some eighty feet wide, but that without sidewalks there was no protection for foot passengers. “Waggons, carts, carriages, horse and foot are promiscuously and dangerously intermixed,” complained the anonymous author. “Let a woman be dressed as neat as a Quaker, she is exposed to the mercy of drivers of every sort, and the disposition to insults of this kind is too prevailing.” Improving the city’s streets had not solved the problem of insolent rogues. And, as a snobbish letter published in the summer of 1793 pointed out, these “scoundrels” were not just poor boys and workingmen; some of them had surprisingly respectable connections.
Some men liked to imagine that women relished such attention. Royall Tyler opened his play The Contrast with a flirtatious young woman describing how, while walking on the Battery, she had contrived to flip up her skirts for the benefit of a group of male onlookers, who enthusiastically voiced their appreciation. “Ha!” said one, commenting on her well-turned ankle. “Demme,” cried another, “what a delicate foot!”
The problem of street harassment was particularly acute for young women of Lanah’s station, genteel enough to value a reputation as modest, respectable, and sexually innocent yet obliged by necessity to work to help support her family financially. A working-class girl could hardly afford the luxury of a chaperone every time she had business to transact—or simply wanted to escape from the confines of a small, crowded home. Navigating her way through the streets of the growing city often required navigating the threat of sexual aggression.
On this blustery evening, however, something unexpected happened. Lanah caught the attention not only of the lewd Frenchmen but also of another man: a bystander who chose to intervene. This time, Lanah would not have to defend herself alone.
The stranger “came up,” as she later put it, and “rescued her.”
It was easy for her to see that this good Samaritan was a gentleman. His skin was pale; his white-powdered hair was fashionably coiffed. He favored elegant clothes, tailored from expensive fabric and designed to make it clear that he didn’t do any kind of physical labor. He carried a walking stick, a badge of status that men of a certain rank carried not because they were afraid of losing their balance but because they could. The city’s poor and working men, or its many enslaved and free Blacks, would cause alarm if they were seen in the streets brandishing staves or clubs. But gentlemen carried walking sticks and were not always reluctant to use them on insolent street urchins, pigs that strayed into the street, or even vulgar foreigners.
The gallant gentleman also had bright blue eyes, rosy red lips, and a sly smile.
To the object of his concern, his attractions were only increased by his polite attentions. He even offered to escort her home, which was a short walk away. She agreed, and he “attended her home to her father’s house in Gold-Street.”
Before taking his leave and disappearing into the night, he introduced himself with flattering courtliness. He did not presume to the familiarity of mentioning his first name; he offered only an occupation and a last name.
I am, he told her, “lawyer Smith.”
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 1793.
The following Sunday, Lanah once again ventured out into the city. And once again, she was alone. But the weather could not have been more different: it was a classic late-summer day, the skies clear, the air cleansed by overnight rain, and the temperature at midday a balmy 82 degrees. Somehow, though, the young seamstress ended up back where she had been on that chilly, stormy evening a week earlier: standing in the street, face to face with the charming young lawyer Mr. Smith.
Perhaps it was just a happy coincidence. Or perhaps she had found her feet retracing their steps along Broadway that evening, enjoying the summer air against her cheeks, idly hoping that she might run into lawyer Smith again. She wouldn’t have been the only young person to return to the scene of a chance encounter, hoping to catch another sight of an alluring figure.
Since the previous week, Lanah had had plenty of opportunities to reflect on the events of that evening and the feelings they evoked—to relive the insults of the Frenchmen, her fear, her relief when the mysterious gentleman stepped in to rescue her. Perhaps she had indulged herself by turning idle fantasies over in her mind: Had she been imagining things in the confusion of the moment, or had she really felt a spark of romance pass between them? If lawyer Smith claimed a place in her imagination that week, it was no doubt largely because he seemed so different from the kind of man she typically encountered, because the way of life he represented was so different from the one she seemed destined to live.
At seventeen, Lanah was old enough to be thinking seriously about the prospect of marriage. In her social circle, women often married in their late teens. The men they married were typically somewhat older, in their twenties: old enough to get established in their occupations and start their own households. In the years to come, Lanah’s two sisters would marry at ages seventeen and eighteen. Her brother married a seventeen-year-old when he was twenty-one, fresh out of his apprenticeship. Lanah’s cousin Lucretia Harper, who lived down the street, had married for the first time when she was all of fifteen.
The older women in her life—her mother, her cousin, the elderly aunt who lived by the Bowling Green, and their friends—were, no doubt, curious about potential suitors. They may even have been tempted to suggest suitable candidates. A young man in her stepfather’s company of branch pilots, perhaps, or the well-behaved son of a barrel maker down the street.
Matronly meddling aside, the pressure to marry was strong. Above all, marriage in working families was an economic necessity. Women simply could not earn high enough wages in any respectable occupation to support themselves independently—though widows who inherited a profitable shop or had enough capital to open a boardinghouse almost never remarried. Marriage was also an economic necessity for working men. Craftsmen, artisans, and “mechanics” earned much higher wages than their sisters—but not high enough that they could afford to pay for all of the domestic labor required to keep a household running: buying, preparing, and cooking food; sewing, repairing, and washing clothes; tending fires, fetching water, and cleaning.
Lanah’s own parents were a case in point. Her mother, Jane Outen Bogert, came from a respectable family of modest means. None of Lanah’s grandparents had been rich, but her grandparents on both sides had owned property near the spot on Gold Street where Lanah’s family now lived. Before the war, when her grandfather Bogert died, his widow inherited two houses and didn’t feel the need to remarry. When Jane was seventeen, she married Francis Sawyer, a skilled twenty-eight-year-old artisan who made carriages and wheels. Their first surviving child, Lanah, was born in 1776. But Francis died around the time she was seven, just as the war was ending. Lanah herself was old enough to remember the strain her mother felt, faced with the impossible task of supporting herself and four small children. Luckily, the widow Jane Sawyer found a new husband quickly. Within a year, she married another man a few years older than herself, John Callanan, who as one of the busy seaport’s official branch pilots earned a decent living.
The model of marriage Lanah witnessed as she came of age was not particularly glamorous. Her stepfather was a good example of the kind of man who it would have seemed appropriate for her to marry: a man who did skilled but nonetheless physical work, who earned enough to support a large household but not in much comfort. He rented a modest house in a modest neighborhood. Theirs was a crowded household. That summer, there were at least nine family members living there: Lanah’s mother and stepfather, her two sisters, and four half siblings, including a seven-month-old baby. Missing from the house was Lanah’s brother, Peter, who had been apprenticed to one of her stepfather’s fellow branch pilots who lived around the corner. At the time, boys were generally considered economic liabilities. But, in working families, girls were assets.
As the eldest daughter, Lanah was likely responsible for a large share of the domestic labor, including caring for her young half siblings. She also worked as a seamstress to supplement the household’s income, taking in small jobs from other households or piecework from tailors and completing them at home in moments when she wasn’t needed for anything else.
So it would hardly be surprising if Lanah were intrigued by the gentleman who had rescued her the previous week. By seventeen, she was all too familiar with the endless work that was the lot of a wife in a working-class household—and the even worse lot that befell a working-class woman without a husband. A lawyer like Mr. Smith represented another kind of man, another kind of life.
When Lanah Sawyer and lawyer Smith encountered each other on the street a second time, it was entirely possible that they had both been out looking for each other.
Sawyer made a point of not being forward. Whether because she was too modest, too anxious, or simply too punctilious to speak to him, she waited to see if he would notice her. Gratifyingly, he did. Describing the encounter later, she specified that he was the one who “accosted” her.
Then, “they entered into a conversation”—a conversation that took an unmistakably flirtatious turn.
At one point, he asked if she would join him the next evening for a walk on the Battery.
It was a romantic gesture. On evenings that summer, dozens of genteel couples could be seen promenading along the Battery, enjoying the cool breezes, the sound of the water, and each other’s company. On a clear day, the views extended in all directions: across the Hudson River to New Jersey, across the East River to Brooklyn, and down along the city’s vast natural harbor to the islands of the inner bay and, beyond them, the opening of the Narrows. That July, one proud New Yorker exclaimed, “Our Battery has now become one of the most delightful walks, perhaps, in the world.”
Over the previous several years, the city had transformed the Battery into its first public park. Lanah was old enough to remember it at the end of the war: the rubble of the ruined fort, the barracks, and other military structures. Now, all of that had been swept away, the landscape regraded and expanded into the water, charming walkways constructed, and a large flagpole raised on the flat roof of an octagonal tower. The tower was intended as a kind of romantic folly, evoking the image of a bygone castle, but to most New Yorkers it was more reminiscent of an oversized butter churn. Still, it had its uses: couples often climbed up its narrow staircase and crowded onto its roof to enjoy the views and exhibit themselves to those below. Two rows of young elm trees, intended to shade the walkways from the summer sun, had just been planted, their slender trunks still encased in boxes to protect them from marauding pigs and goats, which not infrequently escaped from backyard pens.
Just off the Battery, the dashing English horseman John Bill Ricketts had recently opened his equestrian circus, in which he displayed feats like riding two horses at one time, standing with one foot on each and, balanced precariously on his shoulder, a “flying” boy with both arms and one of his legs outstretched.
As exciting as lawyer Smith’s invitation may have seemed, Lanah demurred.
I am engaged on Monday evening, she told him.
She had good reason to hesitate. Why would a man like him be interested in a girl like her? Lawyers and other gentlemen did not marry the daughters of branch pilots. And without a prospect of marriage, a walk on the Battery could lead to nothing but trouble. The rules of female decorum were not as rigid among working people as they were among the city’s genteel elite, but any young woman who allowed her respectability to come into question could easily find herself ruined.
The publications of the day were full of accounts of young women seduced by gentlemen, enticed into giving up their innocence, and then abandoned to the harsh fate of fallen women. The most popular novel of the era, Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth (1791), was set during Lanah’s childhood in Revolutionary New York and was supposedly based on real events. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte was enticed into eloping with a dashing officer, only to find herself abandoned, scorned by respectable folk, and pregnant. She died giving birth in a miserable hovel, the home of a lowly servant who, alone among New Yorkers, recognized her inner virtue. In the city, the fictional heroine took on a surreal afterlife. At some point, in the hallowed cemetery surrounding Trinity Church on Broadway appeared a gravestone bearing her name, which, ever since, romantics have visited with flowers and tears. Meanwhile, a series of old houses vied for the distinction of being the scene of the tragic heroine’s death. According to an 1826 newspaper report, when a shopkeeper at 22 Bowery Lane “discovered” that he occupied the “very house in which Charlotte Temple died,” swarms of visitors came to inspect the “venerable edifice.”
Yet those weren’t the only stories that would have reached Lanah’s ears. There were also romantic stories about the overwhelming force of true love—stories like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), about a young gentleman who could not go on living without the woman he loved. His romantic death inspired a rash of copycat suicides, a phenomenon still known as the Werther effect. There were also happier tales in which love conquered all obstacles—including such impediments to marriage with a rich, respectable man as a young woman’s lack of social rank or fortune. Indeed, during Lanah’s lifetime it had become increasingly common for young couples to insist on marrying for love, even when that caused conflicts with their families.
Such stories offered Lanah, and young women like her, a vision of an alternate world. They described a kind of man very different from those she knew. They lionized a model of marriage very different from the one she had observed growing up.
Such stories may also have encouraged Lanah to imagine that a young lawyer really might be interested in her.
Lawyer Smith was not put off when Lanah told him she was busy Monday evening.
How about Tuesday evening? he replied.
I am “also engaged” then.
“Surely, you are not engaged on every evening,” he protested. With self-confident charm, he pressed on: “you can certainly go Wednesday.”
“I am not engaged then,” she allowed, a bit coyly.
He “conveyed her home” and departed—as a family friend looked on from across the street.
61 GOLD STREET. MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 1793. MORNING.
The next morning, Samuel Hone, a young baker who lived across the street, was anxious to speak with Lanah. He had seen her arrive home the evening before, had recognized the gentleman accompanying her, and was concerned. Soon, he got his chance.
Hone and his wife were close friends with Lanah’s parents and fairly typical of the working families who predominated in the neighborhood. At twenty-seven, Hone had been married for seven years and had a growing family. Neither particularly affluent nor desperately poor, Hone rented one half of a long, skinny parcel (owned by Lanah’s aunt) that stretched along Gold Street. Facing Beekman Street was a house occupied by a grocer; toward Ann Street was a modest bake house where Hone and his family lived and worked. That summer it was described as well suited for “extensive” business producing “ship bread” and other aspects of the baking business. Ship bread was one of the staples that supported the bustling seaport: hard, dry loaves designed to be stored in the hold of a ship for long periods. Living with the Hones were several white youths (probably apprentices) and one enslaved person.
Hone was about ten years younger than Lanah’s mother and stepfather, who were in their late thirties, but he was old enough to see the seventeen-year-old through the eyes of an older brother. And, like Lanah’s mother, both of the Hones had deep roots in the neighborhood. Hone’s parents lived around the corner on Ann Street. Before the war, the families of both Lanah’s mother and Hone’s wife, Hannah Quereau, had owned houses on the same stretch of Gold Street, just a block away.
Copyright © 2022 by John Wood Sweet