Mystery Ledgers

The New York City Municipal Archives is charged with preserving records deemed to have, “continuing and significant historical, research, cultural or other important value.” Sometimes it’s easy to see this value in our collections; in a mayor’s correspondence, an original drawing of Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge, NYPD crime scene photographs or a great-grandmother’s birth certificate. There are other cases where this value is not so plainly evident, where it must be determined in more exacting fashion and weighed against the various costs associated with maintaining the records in question. And invariably archivists must draw the line somewhere. Not every record gets kept. Doing so would quickly become absurd.

For instance, how long do you keep your receipts? 

At some point, you figure out you don’t really want to return that sweater. Or you finish your taxes and feel reasonably assured you won’t be getting audited this year.

You probably don’t save these assorted slips of paper, much less painstakingly transcribe them in a weighty, leather-bound book, in careful chronological order. Why would you do that? What would be the point in looking back on it a few years down the line? Would that be remotely interesting or useful? How about 180 years down the line?

About two years ago, the Archives undertook a large appraisal project of mostly financial records created by all stripes of City agencies and offices during the past two centuries, and we had to ask ourselves questions like these, amongst a few others.

Some of the ledgers saved after a review of pallets at the Municipal Archives warehouse. 

When you first pick up and open a ledger like this, it’s a mystery. If the spine or cover once gave some indication of the volume’s contents that information long ago turned to dust and fell away. Title-pages evidently weren’t a consistent practice among 19th century officials either. It’s like having to guess the title, author and genre of a novel by reading the first and last pages, and doing some skimming in between. It’s not as easy as you might think.

Although its age seems to lend it an inherent significance, the mystery and novelty give way to a firm sense of the mundane in relatively short order. This is a book of receipts.

It’s actually really amusing to pause and note what the City paid for street paving and repairs, filling cisterns or to have street lamps lit in 1838, but the amusement fades after seeing a couple dozen entries where the only details that change are the dates and dollar amounts. It was interesting to idly page through, but ultimately the ledger’s value is questionable. This path of assessment is familiar to archivists. We know from experience that records with this item-level transactional information are typically impractical to research, and frequently are aggregated and summarized in more useful documents. A dispassionate review would in all likelihood result in the ledger being excluded from the collection.

But then a dispassionate review is also a methodical one, requiring reading a few more entries, to answer a few more vital questions, and a couple words catch the eye. The first is ‘omnibus.’ The second is ‘murder.’

Received May 21: 1838 Warrant No. 2. for four dollars, for omnibus hire in the matter of the murder of Bierbrower and charged to contingent account.            -George Von Brunt

$4.00

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

$5000.00

Received August 10th: 1838 Warrant No. 150 of this date, payable to the Walleboght and Brooklyn Toll Bridge Company, for eight thousand four hundred and eighty seven dollars & forty three cents, for balance of purchase of the Company’s property & interest charged to Bridge & Road of the Wallabout & Brooklyn Toll Bridge Company account.                 

-Jeremiah Johnson, Treasurer

$8487.43

Received August 29th: 1838 Warrant No. 165, of this date, for forty seven dollars and ninety six cents for assessment overpaid for opening Wallabout Road, and charged to Wallabout Road opening account.     -Arthur Miller

$47.96

Plotting the newly chartered City, the acquisition of a major thoroughfare providing expedient travel between its ferry to Manhattan and the farther flung town of Flushing, and the opening of roads (such as the one named for the young Wallabout Village itself):  all these transactions steadily accrete and development continues to spur in a well-positioned neighborhood connected to the industry of the Navy Yard and close to the ferry to Manhattan.

According to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report on the Wallabout Historic District, “Wallabout takes its name from a group of Walloons who settled on a bay on Brooklyn’s East River waterfront in the mid-17th century. The district occupies a small portion of a Walloon patent that had descended in the Ryerson and Vanderbilt families and had passed to John and Jeremiah V. Spader in the 1820s.” Walloons, by the way, are a people from the southern region of Belgium known as Wallonia. According to Eugene L. Armbruster’s The Eastern District of Brooklyn, Wallabout Bay was, “originally Walboght, probably from wal, meaning rampart--protection from assault or danger; and boght--bay or gulf.”

More from the LPC report: “In 1833, John Spader sold his farm to Manhattan realtor George W. Pine who developed Clinton Avenue as a villa-lined boulevard. The nearby expansion of the Brooklyn Navy Yard along Wallabout Bay and the opening of Flushing Avenue in the late 1840s prompted the Estate of Jeremiah V. Spader to underwrite the costs of opening Vanderbilt Avenue and to begin selling lots on the west side of the street in the fall of 1849. Almost immediately, the owners of the villas on Clinton Avenue began dividing their lots and selling the land on the east side of Vanderbilt Avenue to developers.”

Brooklyn Farm Plan No. 49

A farm plan of the area shows the dense overlay of (mostly) present-day streets with the old turnpike and toll road, the property lines of the old farms and the clutter of names that bought, inherited and sold pieces of the Wallabout over the centuries. These names and dates constitute a sort of compendium of receipts themselves. The gravity of these transactions is maybe less obvious at face value than those referencing a murder investigation or the construction of Brooklyn’s City Hall, but here too the progression from scattered farms to village to a densely packed urban environment can be traced.

As for our book of ‘receipts,’ its value does not rest solely in the, perhaps unusual, reference to a sensational event not typically found in an account ledger. Yes, the Council’s hiring of an omnibus to investigate a murder was eye-catching. But in this case the simple determination of who created the ledger and when, justifies its long-term preservation in our collection. Records created by New York City’s pre-consolidation municipalities garner special consideration given the relative scarcity of these materials and what they can tell us about the developing City.

So for the Municipal Archives, how long to keep a ‘receipt’ depends on a few key details. As with all of our work, context is key and some research is required. Obviously there was a story behind the entry on a murder, but it can’t be the only one hinted at in this record.