Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pierre Toussaint: Slave, Saint and Gentilhomme of Old New York, Part IV

The following is the conclusion of the guest post by James Sullivan, whom I asked to share with us some of his research on Pierre Toussaint, about whom he is writing a book. Part I, Part II, Part III.

Catherine (“Kitty”)  Church Cruger, two years older than Toussaint, would become one of those key clients and friends.  She was the daughter of John Barker Church (who would give the pistols to Hamilton for the duel in Weehawken) and Angelica Schuyler, the muse and confidante of Hamilton and Jefferson. Kitty lived abroad in the 1780’s and 90’s and attended school in Paris at the Abbey de Panthemont where she was a classmate of Jefferson’s daughter’s Patsy and Polly.  She dined at the Hotel de Langeac with the Jefferson family and undoubtedly knew Sally Hemmings and Mr. Jefferson’s adored friend, Maria Cosway.  In 1797, at age 18, Kitty Cruger returned to New York with her parents, the very same year as the arrival of the unknown and unheralded slave from Saint-Domingue.  Kitty took up residence with her parents on fashionable Broadway while Pierre occupied the third floor of the wooden and brick home on 105 Reade St., a decidedly mixed neighborhood in Ward 5, Manhattan, with a blend of skin colors and trades – coachmen, tavern owners and assorted mechanics.  Abraham Bloodgood, a city assessor and member of the Common Council owned the house. Bloodgood was a Democratic Republican and his name appears in correspondence with Jefferson regarding New York political initiatives. 

Catherine’s education in France fulfilled a concern of her mother, Angelica and the Schuyler family. Catherine’s grandfather, General Schuyler was conscious of the need of his girls to learn French.  Educated in New Rochelle by a French Huguenot schoolmaster, Schuyler urged the girls to be fluent in French.  Angelica wrote to sister Elizabeth, Hamilton’s wife to recommend French, although Eliza never mastered it.  Hamilton himself was fluent in French. General Schuyler had served in locis parentis for Madame de la Tour du Pin, when she and her husband and family had escaped the guillotine and arrived in Troy, New York, 1793. Catherine’s exposure to Parisian schooling confirmed in her a lifelong admiration for France and sympathy for Catholicism. Josephine DuPont, wife of Victor somewhat sardonically describes the teenage Kitty upon return to New York City as “giving her arm to the first Frenchman she meets, although she shows considerably more restraint toward the local man-in-the-street.”   Kitty married Betram Peter Cruger, thus allying two of New York’s most distinguished Dutch families. Bertram Cruger was son of Nicholas Cruger who had flourished with Cornelius Beekman in the West Indian trade. Nicholas would hire a young clerk, Alexander Hamilton and show him the mercantile opportunities and high Federal connections in New York City which would contribute to Hamilton’s future.  One might say that two young men would benefit from attachment to the Cruger name:  Pierre Toussaint and Alexander Hamilton.

Kitty would console Toussaint in 1829 when he lost his adopted niece, Euphemia at the age of fourteen.  The little girl had been Rosalie’s daughter, Pierre’s sister who had come on the Pulaski with the Berard entourage in 1797.  Pierre adopted Euphemia and raised her as a daughter.  In 1829, upon the little girl’s death from tuberculosis, Kitty would write: 

“My tears have flowed with yours, but I could not weep for her, I wept for you. When we resign to the Eternal Father a child as pure as the heavens to which she returns we ought not to weep. Her short life has been full of happiness, raised in the wealthiest and most elevated classes, the gentlest virtues and affections have surrounded her from her cradle.  If death had struck you instead of her, to what dangers might she have been exposed?  May the consciousness of the duty you have so faithfully discharged mitigate this most bitter sorrow?”

This letter allows us to see that Toussaint’s “humble calling” was hardly a barrier in forming a bond with Catherine Cruger and many other people of means in New York City.  It also enabled Euphemia and Pierre’s wife, Juliette to live in the company of New York’s gentry while contributing to Pierre’s growing clientele of notable New York ladies. Euphemia left her own record, although living only to the age of 14.  Pierre had asked her to compose two letters to him each Friday, one in English and the other in French, so as to monitor her progress in composition.  It was also a way of staying in closer touch with his adored niece, since the hairdresser’s rounds kept him gone from home for long hours each day.  These letters survive in the Toussaint Collection and provide a unique teenage perspective on events occurring in New York from 1822 to 1829.  Euphemia’s piety reflects the manner in which she was raised by Pierre and Juliette, while not altogether suppressing a young girl’s enthusiasm for events around town, and her own progress on piano.  Referring to the Garcia family and their celebrated arrival in New York,  she demonstrates a braggadocio in claiming that one of her girlfriend’s is vocally superior to Madame Malibran, the diva in the group. She gently pesters him about her plans, “Uncle, take me to the theater, you said that you would.”  Noting the presence of anti-Catholicism in her own day, she asks rhetorically, “Uncle, why do they hate us so?” And sensitive to the precariousness of life and the ravages of yellow fever and cholera, she writes to Toussaint that she will be glad to live yet another year.  Given her short life span, her prayer that she be permitted another year strikes us with poignancy but also deep realism. Her passing floored the saintly Toussaint, and letters flowed in to encourage him through her loss.

Other friends in the Toussaint circle, include Cesarine Meetz and her father Raymond Meetz.  They played a special role in Toussaint’s life.  Cesarine was Euphemia’s first tutor on the piano.  A prodigy of sorts, Cesarine gave recitals at City Hotel and her father owned Raymond Meetz’s Musical Depository on Maiden Lane while also being a minor composer and teacher of music. Toussaint purchased two pianos from Raymond and the Meetz family would remain principal correspondents with Pierre long after their return to France in 1827.  Cesarine married well. In 1827, Bishop Henry Hobart officiated at her wedding to Charles Moulton at Trinity Church. Moulton had evidently scored in New York’s real estate boom. We have a precious glimpse of the nuptials from little Euphemia, who had attended with her aunt, Juliette.  In a note scribbled to Pierre, she writes: “Oh I wished you could have been at the wedding.  Miss Meetz kissed me and my aunt.  Only Miss Meetz could have done such a thing!” The moment is not lost on Euphemia or us.  The racial divide is obliterated, as Cesarine embraces her loved piano student and the little girl’s  aunt. We may assume, wrongly, that race hatred would be the norm in old New York.  Not quite, as this account at Trinity demonstrates.  The year 1827 is notable also for the abolition of slavery from New York. 

The racial divide could cut more harshly however.  In 1842, on his way to church at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the 58 year old Toussaint was barred entry by a young usher who told the hairdresser that blacks were not admitted to the service. We have no idea if John Hughes the Archbishop was informed or had a thought about the confrontation. Louis B. Binsse, Trustee of the Cathedral and close friend of Toussaint immediately wrote to him. “It would be difficult for me to express to you the grief which has been caused me by the insult you have received.”  The rebuke by the usher was even more insulting given the fact that in 1808, Toussaint had made a lead gift for the construction of the Cathedral.  Only a saint could suffer such an indignity friends thought. The incident shows only too well, however, the racial antagonism building in New York as the antebellum years wore on. Moreover, given the fact that racial discord only intensified as the decades drew closer to the Civil War, how was it that this black hairdresser, a devout Roman Catholic seemed only to grow in the esteem and affection of New Yorkers no matter their religious background? In a eulogy to Toussaint appearing in the Home Journal, essayist Henry T. Tuckerman would write, “often strangers paused to look with curiosity and surprise upon the singular tableaux presented in Broadway of the venerable negro with both his hands clasped in greeting by a lady high in the circles of fashion or birth, and to watch the vivid interest of both, as they exchanged inquiries for each other’s welfare.” 

Over the divide of race and religion, Toussaint found a way to bridge differences and unite, even as he suffered his own rebuffs. As the leading hairdresser in New York City, he evidently always refused to take public transportation.  Public omnibuses, in service throughout the city, were not available to blacks.  The forensic examination of his bones in 1990 by the Manhattan Forensic Anthropology Team  revealed severe osteoarthritis in both knees testimony to the miles he had walked from the Battery to Bond St. Nor was he willing to suspend the discriminatory code in his own case.  When Juliette died, Pierre asked that only blacks be allowed to walk behind her coffin to its resting place in Old St. Patrick’s, with white mourners arriving at the cemetery in carriages.  While we perhaps cringe at such respect to practices now long shunned, yet who remembers the white mourners in carriages?  It is the interred Toussaint’s that live in the historical consciousness of New York today.

John Cardinal O’Connor adopted Toussaint when he came to New York as Archbishop and pressed for canonization.  An exhumation of his remains was requested of the court, no living descendants of Toussaint remaining.  In November, 1990, one year before the celebrated remains of old New York’s Negro Burial Ground would be unearthed, Toussaint, Juliette and Euphemia’s remains were uncovered in Old St. Patrick’s Cemetery.  O’Connor desired to transfer Pierre’s remains to St. Patrick’s Cathedral crypt, on 5th Avenue so that the veneration of Pierre by the faithful could be done more easily. (Today, Toussaint is entombed beneath the high altar at St. Patrick’s, the only layman, the only African-American to lie with New York’s Archbishops and Cardinals.)  When skeleton #6 was determined to be a black male at about 5’ 11” probability rose that the remains were those of Toussaint.  Yet a final ingredient was needed.  Spencer Terkel, Assistant Director of the Manhattan Forensic Anthropological Team was aware of a photograph, an original wet plate in the Columbiana Collection taken by Nathaniel Fish Moore, President of Columbia from 1842 to 1849.  The photo had appeared in John A. Kouwenhoven’s 1953 work, The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York with the caption “Unidentified Black Servant.”  Over the years, sympathizers of Toussaint including The Pierre Toussaint Guild had believed that the photograph of the elderly black man sitting in an ornate chair was Toussaint. It was known that Toussaint was close to the Moore family and that Nathaniel’s sister, Sarah was a client and friend of the barber. Terkel decided to input the photo, an exact-sized copy obtained from Holly Haswell, Curator of the Collection into a computer.  After a 7-hour process of comparing a video image of the skull against the stored photograph, a perfect match was obtained. “I have no doubt at all, said Professor Terkel that the remains were Toussaint’s and the photo is of him.”

In 1991, a copy of the photo as well as documentation to include all of the letters written to Toussaint and corroborating material was sent to Rome, a part of what is called the Positio, a catalog raisonne so to speak of the candidate for sainthood by the New York Archdiocese.  In 1995, Pope John Paul II declared Pierre Toussaint, Venerable, an indication that he was a person of heroic virtue and thus on the road to possible canonization.  Two miracles must be obtained, however, which would be required to bring Pierre into the official catalog of declared saints of the Catholic Church.  Strong possibility exists that the first miracle may actually have been obtained.  The case concerns Joey Peacock, a 15 year-old from Silver Spring, Maryland.  At the age of 5, Joey was suffering from acute scoliosis or curvature of the spine.  His parents had heard about Pierre through an article appearing in The Washington Post.  They began to pray to Pierre to ask his intercession in the case of their son.  Some 5 months into the boy’s disease, doctors at Johns Hopkins reported a spontaneous, near instantaneous remission. Now ten years later, Joey appears completely cured of scoliosis, yet Rome hesitates, wanting him to reach adulthood with no recurrence.  Eventually this could be the miracle that vaults Pierre to the stage of “Blessed” what is termed in the process, beatification. Having been beatified, one more miracle would be needed before the Pope could declare Toussaint a saint.

Shortly before becoming Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was asked by Raymond Arroyo of EWTN network what Catholics should do who were buffeted by the bad news of clerical abuse.  Ratzinger said that recourse should be made to the Saints, but not to the saints alone, but also to “holy men and women who live within the ranks of the faithful. “ These could also have a salutary effect and show that despite degeneracy of various forms infiltrating the Church, there remained providential signs of hope.  Unquestionably Pierre Toussaint appeared to so many who knew him in antebellum New York as precisely that type of providential sign.  Mary Ann Schuyler called him “My St. Pierre.”  Her niece, Amelia Briggs, daughter of Kitty Cruger would write to Toussaint a few months before his passing: “If it would please God to give me holiness, it will happen.  If not, I remain content as I am. Yet, my dear Toussaint, I wish to be a Christian as you are a Christian.  Pray for me, for I believe in the prayers of the just, and I desire to love God above all else and to serve him faithfully.” Catherine Cruger tells Toussaint in a letter that she would call him the finest man in New York, except that she would not dare risk his falling away from modesty on her account.  And while we wait for Rome, we allow the voice of the faithful in New York City to speak about one of its own. 

Copyright © James Sullivan, 2011. All rights reserved worldwide.