Just like that, this book of receipts became much more interesting. Who was Bierbrower? Who killed him and why? And who chartered an omnibus in the matter of his murder?
The Long-Island Star reported on the death of John Bierbrower on April 20, 1837, relating that he, “was found horribly mangled, and stripped of his cloak--his pockets were turned inside out,” and makes mention of the Mayor and Alderman having gone to investigate the affair. An ensuing article from April 24 gives more of the story. It describes Bierbrower, a hatter, as a, “very respectab’e and steady man,” who had, “settled himself at the Wallabout in a house of his own, and was supporting a family consisting of a wife and four children.” It seems that Bierbrower was on his way home one evening, accompanied by a neighbor. When his companion briefly stopped off at a road house, Bierbrower continued on and was viciously attacked by someone wielding a, “heavy and sharp instrument”, crushing his skull. He was carried to his home, but died the following morning. The Star’s report concludes that, “there is some evidence to lend to the belief, that there is or has been around the Wallabout a gang of marauders.” In fact, the initial report on April 20 begins by citing the Bierbrower incident as yet another in a series of such violent disturbances in the area. An 1890 article on the Bierbrower murder in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle looking back on unsolved ‘highway’ murders in the City’s history tells of, “large gangs of Navy Yard laborers” in the area who were then out of employment, and the “intense excitement” that so seized the community that its farmers organized a “Vigilance Committee” to guard the roads at night.
Further review of our mystery ledger reveals it was created by the Common Council of the City of Brooklyn, formally incorporated just four years before the first warrants referenced. The ledger entries were signed by various Aldermen and Officers of the Corporation, including three of the first ten mayors of the City of Brooklyn (Jeremiah Johnson, Henry C. Murphy and Samuel Smith), some of whom no doubt made the omnibus ride to the Wallabout in the matter of the Bierbrower murder. The costs incurred for the marble in Brooklyn’s City Hall, the draining of ‘City Park’, the acquisition of an engine house for the fire department, insuring of markets and almshouses, and interest paid on loans from Atlantic Bank were included as well. Some of the streets for which the costs of grading, paving and repairs were recorded include Carroll Street, Bond Street, and Hamilton Avenue, as well as Myrtle Avenue and Wallabout Road over in Bierbrower’s neck of the woods.
A reader might not immediately connect bills for lamplighting and paving streets with the prevention of violent crime, but suddenly their references being adjacent in this warrant ledger seems a bit less coincidental. More and better paved roads lead to more opportunities for commerce, which translates to greater demand for parcels of land to be divided into lots, with houses built upon them and people living inside. Ultimately there are fewer dark, lonely places for a momentarily solitary traveler to be attacked and killed for a cloak and the thirty dollars they were carrying. That 1890 article in the Eagle began by noting how highway robberies were by then, “of rare occurrence owing to the systematic vigilance of the police and the absence of the vacant, lonely spots, that are now compactly built upon.”
Once there is some context, progression can be seen in the warrant book, step by scattered step.
Received June 27: 1838 Warrant No. 78 of this date for five thousand dollars for services, plotting the City, and charged to Laying out and Plotting City account. -A.G. Hammond