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When the reclusive Dr. Dietrich Irving Kniebocker invited me to edit and illustrate his life’s work (The Forgotten History of Staten Island) I didn’t know what to expect. And I must say, that after a year of working on the project, I still don’t. Dr. Kniebocker is nothing if not unique, and the same can be said for many of his accounts of Staten Island life in the past two centuries. In the course of working on the footnotes, and searching for the illustrations of what will be a multi-volume encyclopediacal work, I have been astounded to find sources for many of the seemingly impossible anecdotes described in Dr. Kniebocker’s text. In other instances, the doctor’s information would have been lost in the sands of time except for his recollections and his unusual research methods (such as interviews with members of the spirit community).
For example, there’s a rich load of archival material on the generally forgotten Staten Island NFL Team, the Stapleton Stapes. But the role of its owner, Grandpops Staples, in creating an early version of Monday Night Football has been recorded by no one else and is still not generally accepted, despite Dr. Kniebocker’s efforts.
Thus Dr. Kniebocker, who is generally considered Staten Island’s most controversial historian (and by many its best) is not without his critics, to whom he has one standard reply: “If you don’t like my history, write your own!” In a somewhat different spirit then the clenched teeth with which my esteemed colleague utters this epithet, I would like to offer the same advice, even if you do like Dr. Kniebocker’s epic work.
The great American author, Thorton Wilder, once wrote, “I tell the future… Nothing easier… But who can tell your past”? That is a remark I never truly understood until I met Dr. Kniebocker. Through my collaboration with him, I have come to realize that (to some degree) we all must assemble our own vision of the past. Each of us must connect the dots, of the available facts, to draw our own picture.
This project has been a wonderful journey through the history of Staten Island that has opened my eyes to its amazing legacy, and through that to new ideas of what it might become.
Thus it is my hope that Dr. Kniebocker’s epic work will encourage other people to dig into the past and assemble their own history of Staten Island, or anywhere else, whether they choose to write it down, or not. As Doctor Kniebocker has shown me, it is only by taking control of the past that one has the possibility to influence the future. And by the same token, when you constrict the past, you (inevitably) constrict the future. Now that I have seen history through Dr. Kniebocker’s eyes, it seems that both the past and future are filled with endless possibilities.
As I left Dr. Kniebocker’s retreat that first time, he clasped my hand firmly and said “I’m entrusting you with a great responsibility, young man, as you have accepted this task it will be incumbent on you to make sure people remember The Forgotten History of Staten Island.”
In turn, Dear Reader, I’m passing this responsibility on to you. Please remember all forgotten histories, whether they be Doctor Kniebocker’s, or your own.
Of all the billions of people who have never been to Staten Island, none has had the overwhelming cultural effect of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known by his pen name ‘Lewis Carroll’). Not only did Carroll directly affect the course of Staten Island’s development as a cultural center, his influence there would have ramifications that would forever change the course of American visual art.
Carroll’s astounding impact began with the benign occasion of the 10th birthday of Rosebank native, Alice Austen. The precocious young Rosebanker was already an avid reader. And she was astounded, and delighted, when she received and devoured, in one sitting, an early edition of Alice in Wonderland. “Who is this delightful, Mr. Carroll,” Alice asked her mother after plowing through the book in record time. “Does he live nearby?, or is he in another neighborhood?”
“He is an Englishman,” Alice’s mother replied, “and beyond that I’m not really sure of his whereabouts.”
“But then how does he know all about me and Staten Island?,” Alice wondered. Strange as it may seem to us in the 21st century, when Carroll’s classic children’s book is considered to be a work of fantasy, young Alice Austen was convinced that the book was in fact a work of nonfiction, written about her and her adventures in Staten Island. This is a reflection of the relative innocence of that era’s Staten Island youth. While many youngsters today have noted the resemblance of Borough President Molinaro to Humpty Dumpty, none thinks that he is actually the same individual described in Carroll’s classic sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Whereas, young, Alice Austen was absolutely convinced that the characters Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum were actually depictions of the beloved local bakers, the Marruzzo brothers, and she had similar beliefs about most of the other characters in the two Alice books.
“Well,” said Alice’s mother, “why don’t you write to Mr. Carroll, in care of his publishers, and ask him where he gets his information?” Another concept that may strike the modern readers as bizarre is that – letter writing was in fact the main form of international communication in those days, prior to the advent of the telephone and the Internet. Thus parents, of that era, freely encouraged their children to write letters and develop what was seen as essential skill for later in life. Alice took her mother’s suggestion and before long she received a letter from Carroll in response.
“My dear, Miss Austen,” he replied, “I had no idea I was writing about you on Staten Island, but now that you have brought the matter to my attention, I think it’s quite possible that you may be correct. Would you mind sending me a photograph of yourself so that I could see if you are in fact the Alice that I was writing about? And by the way, what’s your dress size?”
“Dear, Mr. Carroll,” Alice Austen wrote back, “I’m a size 4 (girls). What’s a photograph?”
Once again, the technological ignorance of the 19th century may be confusing to the modern reader. But in 1877, when Alice was writing, photography was a new art form which had only been practiced by a handful of technically advanced artisans for a few decades. And the term “photography,” first employed in English by British mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer, Sir John Herschel (in 1839) was not in general usage. Instead, photographic images were commonly referred to by terms derived from the developing process used, such as: “ambrotypes,” (positive images on glass); or “tintypes,” also known more accurately as “ferrotypes” (positive images on iron); and “albumen prints” which used egg whites to bind photographic chemicals to paper (printing from a photographic negative).
Of course, Alice Austen had no idea how perfectly directed her question was. For Lewis Carroll, (under his real name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was one of England’s most preeminent early photographers. Before long, Alice received a package which contained a dress and apron identical in every detail to the famous blue and white costume depicted by illustrator Sir John Tenniel, in the original edition of Alice in Wonderland. There was also a seven page letter from Carroll detailing every aspect of the photographic process, including a long list of materials to be purchased from suppliers in New York.
Carroll’s epistle began “Dear Miss Austen, please read this whole letter despite its length. Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop and go out and buy your equipment.” And Carroll concluded, “P.S. don’t forget to wear your new dress when you take the picture.”
Alice Austen immediately grasped the essentials of the photographic process, and before long a magnificent print of herself in Carroll’s dress was on its way to England. When Carroll received his parcel, he gasped in delight. For Alice Austen was, in fact, a dead ringer for Alice Liddell, the dark-haired beauty who had inspired his original book, Alice in Wonderland. Carroll had since become estranged from the Liddell family and keenly felt the loss of his little friend. But now, to his delight, he had found a new Alice living in the wonderland of Staten Island. And one who unmistakably shared his talent for photography. Carroll immediately grasped the child’s precocious ability and encouraged her to continue on with her great gift. His effusive praise deeply affected the young Austen (who had been abandoned early in life by her own father and lacked a strong paternal figure in her life).
She was so thrilled by the praise and support of her photographic talent that she wrote back, “Mr. Carroll, you are an absolute, dear! Will you marry me?! “And she added, “PS. If it’s not too much trouble, will you also marry my best friend, Gertrude.”
” Gertrude” was a reference to Gertrude Amelia Tate, the young girl who would become Alice’s lifelong emotional partner. Carroll was charmed, “I will be delighted to marry you, and your best friend Gertrude as well, if you send me a photograph of her. All that I require for our union is that you and Gertrude send me a picture on our un-anniversaries. That is all I need for us to consider ourselves married.”
Alice’s response was quick. “Dear Lewis (I feel we should be on a first name basis since we’re engaged),” she wrote, “I think it would be preferable to send a picture on our anniversary, since there would be only one per year, whereas there are 364 un-anniversaries per year and I fear you might become a bit tired of pictures of me, and Gertrude, before long under that arrangement.”
“I highly doubt that, Alice,” Carroll responded, “(I love pictures of young ladies), but I believe a great talent like you should take pictures of what she likes, when she likes, and not be constrained by a boorish husband’s overbearing demands. So consider it done. Further consider the date of your first photo to be our anniversary; and send me a picture of yourself, and one of Gertrude, on that date each year. I will never marry another. PS, please keep me apprised of your and Gertrude’s dress size, as I wish to send you both a new dress each year for the photograph.”
Carroll was as good as his word. From that point on, till the rest of his life, he sent an identical blue dress with a white apron, every year to both Alice and Gertrude. And every year he received two anniversary photos (one of each girl) in return. Each time, the two dressed in Carroll’s presents, holding a single rose to symbolize their bond to him. As the young ladies grew older, however, the child-like outfit seemed more and more peculiar, but the photos never stopped – a testimony to their mutual commitment. The three remained faithful to each other throughout their lives, despite the fact that the ladies never actually met Lewis Carroll in person. But, had he moved in to Alice’s home “Clear Comfort” (as it was known), Carroll could not have had a greater effect on Alice’s life. Because thanks to Carroll’s early influence, Alice Austen went on to become the greatest photographer in Staten Island’s history and arguably the greatest photographer in the history of the United States.
There was also a sociological effect of the 3-sided union; it gave birth to the term –“Boston-Cambridge marriage.” As most readers are familiar with, marriage-type relationships between 2 women in those days were referred to as ‘Boston marriages.’ When Austen’s friend Violet Ward attempted to describe the somewhat unusual arrangement of Gertrude, Alice and Lewis Carroll to another friend (Daisy Elliott) she explained, “I wouldn’t call it a Boston marriage, so much as a ‘Boston-Cambridge’ marriage.” At the time, Violet mistakenly thought that Lewis Carroll taught at Cambridge (he was an Oxford Don). Since then the term has become a synonym for a variety of Boston Marriage that involves a 3rd member (usually a male fiancé) who is not in physical contact with the 2 women involved. The oft-repeated canard that the term “Boston–Cambridge marriage” is a metaphor based on the separation of those two cities by the Charles River, should be disregarded by all serious historians, despite the fact that this explanation is the one usually offered in women’s studies courses at such esteemed institutions as Radcliffe and Wellesley.
Known as the Edward R. Murrow of the cartooning world thanks to his intrepid reporting about the Danny Hellman/Ted Rall dust-up, Terrence Ross turns his eye to a different form of art as he graciously interrogates artist Ed Weiss about his creation The Forgotten History of Staten Island.
The story of the founding of Stapleton by Roebuck [Pops] Staples (later of the Staple Singers) and his father Rev. Sears [Grandpops] Staples could be considered a tragedy of biblical proportions, which is only fitting as their intentions were to create a religious community. As with many tragedies, the seeds of the Staples downfall were sewn by their greatest triumph. This occurred when the elder Staples successfully installed the island’s first fully functioning electrical grid to fulfill the family’s dream of making Stapleton a “shining city on a hill.” This led Pops Staples to discover the electric guitar (or “devils instrument,” as it was referred to in gospel circles at the time). Thus a rift was created between Pops and Grandpops that resulted in the dissolution of Stapleton as a religious community, and its reinvention as the brewing capitol of Staten Island. Though not before Grandpops initiated an experiment that would forever change the course of American sports.
In an effort to attract more people to the Stapleton community, Grandpops acquired an NFL team, which he named somewhat prosaically “the Stapleton team.” Due to his religious background, and his belief that man was created in god’s image, Grandpops frowned on animal nicknames such as ‘Chicago Bears,’ or ‘Carolina Panthers.’ And a team general manager who proposed christening the team, ‘The Stapleton Rats,’ was summarily fired. In lieu of a more colorful name the Stapleton team was affectionately nicknamed “the Stapes” by the local community. This episode was just one example of Grandpops discomfort with professional sports marketing Although he played a fearsome left tackle at Elmira Bible College, Grandpops was generally unfamiliar with the newly emerging sport of professional football. And he was shocked to discover that professional games were played on Sunday, a complete anathema to this devout, but creative man. At the time a Saturday game would have been impossible, because it would have meant competing with the (then) much more popular sport of college football. So Grandpops devised a scheme to employ his newly developed electric grid, to shine lights on the football field, thereby creating an institution we all know today as Monday Night Football.
Although one hurdle was cleared, another source of conflict developed relating to the team. Brewers, that made Stapleton their home, were outraged that Grandpops (who was a diehard prohibitionist) refused to sell beer at the Stapes football games. This led to heated conflicts with the Bechtel and Rubsam & Hormann breweries, including a scene where Pops Staples had to face down an angry mob of beer drinkers carrying counterfeit “free all the beer you can drink” coupons at a Stapes home game. As a last resort, this talented musician launched into a dazzling display of electric guitar work that soothed the savage beer drinkers. Soon after the coupon incident, Grandpops’ tabernacle caught fire and burned to the ground. Although it was never proven, both the fire and the counterfeit free beer coupons were believed to have been initiated by brewing interests diametrically opposed to Grandpops’ prohibitionist policies. But even more devastating to Grandpops Staples, than the loss of the Tabernacle, was Pops quelling of the potential beer riot with his electric guitar dexterity. Grandpops forbade his son from ever using an electric guitar (“devil’s instrument”) again. But Pops adamantly refused to put down his ax.
Thus their partnership ended, as did the future of Stapleton as a religious community. Soon Pops left town with his mellifluously-voiced off spring (Pervis, Cleotha, Yvonne and Mavis) in tow. However the Island’s loss was gospel’s gain, as Pop’s exile from Stapleton set the stage for not only the Staple Singers international success, but for the now widespread use of electric instruments in gospel music.
A child prodigy who graduated from Columbia University at age 15 and later designed and built Staten Island’s first sidewalks, Charles Gustav Francis Maria Ignacio Heironymus Parnelli Hornblatt, (better known as ‘Parnelli Hornblatt’) was also a prodigious author. His turn of the century, bestselling, pedestrian-oriented, books include his autobiography: Walk A Mile in My Shoes, or Better Yet, Walk A Mile in Your Own, and the self-help tract, It’s Never Too Late To Ambulate.
Hornblatt’s lifelong love of walking developed as a youngster growing up in what is now known as the East Village, but was then called “Kleindeutschland.” The product of a German Lutheran Father and a Catholic Italian mother who converted to her husband’s faith, the young man’s world was shattered when his mother and sisters perished during a tragic church outing aboard the excursion boat The General Slocum.
At that point, Parnelli Hornblatt was plunged, from a comfortable middle class existence, to abject poverty when his grief stricken father took to drink and never again held a steady job. Lacking funds to commute, Hornblatt (who was already attending Columbia University on full scholarship at the tender age of 13) was forced to walk from his home on East 10th street to Morningside Heights and back each day. He never thought that the experience was a hardship however. “Those walks cleared my mind and strengthened my heart and kidneys, and gave me the will to exceed,” he would later recall in Walk A Mile in My Shoes, or Better Yet, Walk A Mile In Your Own.
Immediately following graduation, Parnelli Hornblatt was enlisted in the most ambitious civil engineering project in Staten island’s history – the construction of a cross-island canal that would effectively link the island to the transportation hub of central New Jersey. Despite being all of 16 years old, Parnelli was made the project’s chief engineer. But after initial dredging of mid-island swamps revealed what a local chemist ostensibly named Van Nostrand called “the richest shale oil deposits this side of Texas,”– the project was abandoned in favor of drilling oil wells. At this point, Parnelli Hornblatt lost interest. “I didn’t become a civil engineer to dig for black gold “he told a friend, “I want to build things.”
Hornblatt had chosen to receive payment in shares of company stock which he then sold as he sought other employment. Due to the speculative fever around the oil discovery his stock fetched a fortune. He had become fabulously wealthy overnight, but the gain came at a price to his reputation. Because, before long, it emerged that the Staten Island Canal Company was nothing but a massive real estate swindle. There was in fact barely enough oil in the swamp lands of Staten Island to grease a horse carriage.
In the course of a series of trials, Hornblatt’s partners all went to prison for fraud — with the largest sentenced handed out to the so-called chemist Van Nostrand, who turned out to be a deranged circus acrobat named Muggsy Parker and thus was convicted of the additional crime of impersonating a man of science. However, Parnelli Hornblatt was found to be completely innocent of wrongdoing. Apparently, despite his brilliance, the innocence of his young age had been a factor in his hiring by the perpetrators of the fraud. Since Parnelli Hornblatt had divested himself of his investment without any knowledge of the swindle, or any criminal intent, he was spared further legal repercussions.
With his problems behind him, and fortune intact, Hornblatt set out to restore his reputation. While others in his position might have considered this the moment to leave past troubles behind, Hornblatt had a passionate affection for the borough of Richmond that kept him Island bound. This affection was expressed in numerous passages in his diaries, such as the following: “It is breathtakingly beautiful here. There are all manner of glorious flora and fauna. The ladies are refined and elegant; the houses lovely; it lacks only one thing—sidewalks.” He would spend the rest of his life trying to fill this one gap in an otherwise perfect utopia.
Through a series of initiatives, Parnelli Hornblatt designed and (by local subscription) financed a series of sidewalks all around what is now referred to as “Downtown Staten Island” (the areas of St. George, Tompkinsville, and Stapleton). As important as that work was, he had an even grander idea. He conceived a plan to unite Tompkinsville, Stapleton and St. George into a metropolis known as “Hyperpedia” via a three-tiered sidewalk (one tier for northern traffic, one for southern traffic and a third for strollers in either direction). Unfortunately, Parnelli did not live long enough to see his vision of a pedestrian-friendly urban utopia on Staten Island fulfilled. While surveying for this his most ambitious project –Parnelli Hornblatt was struck and fatally injured, by the Island’s first Model T Ford.
Today, Parnelli Hornblatt’s vision of a pedestrian utopia on Staten island is forgotten. His books are little read, and his belief in the value of walking is thought of as nothing more than quaint by Staten Islanders. But that doesn’t mean that his great contribution to Island life is neglected. Whether they’re parking their cars on them, dumping garbage, using them as a receptacle for pet waste, or settling a contentious dispute with the aid of a baseball bat, a day does not go by where one of Parnelli Hornblatt’s sidewalks is not made good use of by Staten Islanders.