This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
By the time she died in 1984, Helen Worden Erskine had racked up an eclectic but impressive set of interviews. The longtime New York World society writer spoke with Prince Charles of England and presidents Eisenhower and Truman, among other political and cultural luminaries. But she was perhaps most famous for her fascination with the opposite end of society: recluses.
In the late 1930s, Erskine wrote a series of sensationalistic articles about the Collyer brothers, two wealthy hoarders who had all of Harlem talking. Erskine and other reporters launched their careers writing about the sordid details of the brothers’ lives and death, including the nearly month-long search for one of their bodies in 1947, which was eventually discovered in their home beneath piles of junk.
But more than a decade before the Collyer episode, it was another recluse story, slightly less sensational but no less mysterious, that captured Erskine’s attention. That would be Gertrude Tredwell, a spinster and the last inhabitant of 29 East 4th Street, now the Merchant’s House Museum. Erskine wandered toward the address on a winter afternoon in 1933, just a few months after Tredwell’s death.
“Turning into Fourth Street from the Bowery I came upon this hauntingly beautiful old house, all the more striking by contrast with its drab surroundings,” she recalled in her 1953 book, Out of this World: A Collection of Hermits and Recluses. “Its walls were pink brick. Green shutters framed its diamond-paned windows. Handsome black hand-wrought-iron basket ornaments flanked the steps leading to a white entrance door crowned by a graceful fanlight. The doorbell was one of those old-fashioned china-knobbled ‘pulls.’”
She yanked it, just to see what would happen.
“A distant bell tinkled. I heard the sound of feet on wood steps. Presently the door opened…”
It wasn’t Gertrude’s ghost, but rather an old caretaker, who explained that Gertrude had been born in the house in 1840 and had died in the same room—the same bed, even. She had lived alone after her parents, aunts and uncles died and her siblings and cousins moved away. By all accounts, she inhabited the house as if she really was a ghost, to the extent that when volunteers were preparing exhibits for the Merchant’s House Museum in the 1980s, they discovered the playbill from an 1860s performance still in the overcoat of whoever had worn it to the theater that night.
These intriguing morsels had the intrepid Erskine reaching for her notebook. She sought out a series of interviews with Gertrude’s living relatives—useful practice for her later reporting on the Collyer brothers, a story that would captivate the city and even the nation. For now, Erskine began to piece together why a woman might spend the greater part of her 93 years within the walls of a four-story row house just off the Bowery. Spoiler alert: religious conflict, Pilgrims and secret passageways all play a role. Here’s how it happened.
In 1620, the lot that is 29 East 4th Street was little more than a speck of the great forest that covered eastern North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle. That year, an English sailor named John Alden was hired to repair the Mayflower in Southampton, England, and decided to sign on to its voyage to the New World. Had love not gotten the better of him, he might have returned to the Old World and escaped the misery of that first harsh winter. But as it happened, he was smitten with a young passenger named Priscilla Mullens, and decided to stay in Plymouth.
Priscilla, whose entire family would perish that winter, was the only single woman of marriageable age among the group of Pilgrims. And according to popular legend, John wasn’t the only bachelor vying for her attention. So was his roommate Miles Standish, an English military officer whom the Pilgrims hired as an adviser for the Plymouth Colony. Whether or not this love triangle was real, it is immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1858 narrative poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish. In the poem, Miles asks his friend and roommate John to propose to Priscilla on his behalf, only to have Priscilla ask, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”
It was a fortuitous question. If he did love Priscilla, Miles lost the battle for her affection to John, who married her in 1621. Like any good early New England marriage, it was a difficult one, according to the poem. John was often away. He first fought the Native Americans, and then sided with the Native Americans to fight newly arriving settlers, eventually spending time in jail for his role in a deadly dispute between the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies.
But as all good early New England marriages should, it produced many offspring—10, to be exact. And that’s where Gertrude comes in. Through her father, Seabury Tredwell, she is descended from John and Priscilla’s first daughter, Elizabeth. Notably, Longfellow was too.
So how did all this contribute to making Gertrude a recluse at 29 East 4th Street? Well, the story is beginning to take shape. Before the next chapter is unveiled, remember this theme from the Mayflower connection: Romantic love among Gertrude’s Pilgrim ancestors was difficult—tragic, even—and idealized in a poem written by one of Gertrude’s most famous blood relatives when she was just 19 years old, the perfect age for a Victorian girl to be thinking about marriage. If it is true that nature is more important than nurture, good luck to Gertrude’s suitors…
* * *
Romantic love might have been a powerful and painful influence in Gertrude’s family heritage, but so were religion and politics. Just below her Mayflower ancestors on the family tree are two more important characters. A father and son, both named Samuel Seabury, and both Episcopal bishops. The son, born in 1729, is especially prominent as the first bishop in America. He was a plain, hard-headed but forceful Loyalist during the American Revolution. While seeking consecration in England, he acknowledged that he was the author of three anonymous “Letters of a Westchester Farmer,” which accused the First Continental Congress of treason. Those were the same letters that received a vigorous rebuttal from a 17-year-old college student named Alexander Hamilton, cementing his revolutionary beliefs and launching his career as a statesman and patriot.
This tussle with Hamilton (little-known compared to that other deadly tussle involving Hamilton) put Samuel Seabury on the wrong side of history. He declared loyalty to the republic after the Revolution ended, but continued to promote his conservative ideology within the church. He is responsible for reintroducing weekly Holy Communion to the Episcopal Church, bringing it closer to the Roman Catholic traditions from which it originally broke away.
Samuel’s father, born in 1706, was no progressive either. As rector of St. George’s Church in Hempstead, Long Island, the elder Samuel wrote a letter to George Clinton, the provincial governor of New York, asking him to stop the “unchecked evil” that allowed justices of the peace to perform marriages.
At some point, Gertrude must have learned about her Episcopal ancestors’ attitudes toward religion and politics. A line still can’t be drawn to her reclusiveness yet, but the next chapter is now complete: in addition to the turmoil of love, her ancestors also had experience with religious and political strife—except they were the ones promoting the antiquated status quo. So Gertrude’s suitors had better be not only rock solid lovers, but staunch Episcopalians, too…
* * *
And that brings the story back to intrepid reporter Helen Erskine and the winter of 1933. Soon after her encounter with the housekeeper, she arranged to have lunch with Gertrude’s second cousin, George Chapman, a real estate developer whose business was seemingly unaffected by the Great Depression.
What did Gertrude look like? Erskine wanted to know. It was a simple question, but it would reveal more than she might have expected.
“Actually, I only saw her once in my life,” George replied, according to Erskine’s book. “Read Dickens’ description of Miss Faversham in Great Expectations and you’ll have a pretty good idea of Cousin Gertrude among her cobwebs and shrouds of dust.”
(George, possibly in his excitement that someone was interested in his obscure family history, called Mrs. Havisham “Miss Faversham,” but it was the jilted bride from Dickens’ Great Expectations that he surely meant.)
“Mrs. Tredwell was my mother’s aunt,” he continued, “but we’d never dream of going to see her unless we were asked. I just happened to catch a glimpse of Cousin Gertrude one day when I was walking through the block. Saw her vaguely through a dust-coated front window. She was a little bit of thing, quite different from the rebellious blue-eyed girl Mother often described to me—the girl who loved Louis Walton. That reminds me of the secret passageway.”
A secret passageway! A lover! Erskine had hit pay dirt, and it is here that the lessons of Gertrude’s ancestors start to coalesce. Family tradition had it that Louis, a young medical student, was the first and only man to seek Gertrude’s affection. Not only was he a poor student, he was a Roman Catholic to boot. That did not sit well with Gertrude’s father, Seabury Tredwell, who staunchly upheld not only his family’s ancient reputation as ardent Episcopalians, but also its more recent reputation as prominent New York bankers, merchants, lawyers, including the New York Court of Appeals judge who oversaw much of the dismantling of Tammany Hall.
* * *
Seabury himself was a successful hardware merchant. Like many others, his firm, Tredwell, Kissam & Co., sold fittings to the ocean-going clipper ships that transformed New York City into a center of worldwide commerce. The business was listed in the 1823 commercial directory as having a headquarters of 245 Pearl Street, not far from the Fulton Street Market and the busy wharfs that once surrounded it.
In 1834, he and his wife purchased the newly constructed row house at 29 East 4th Street to start their family. As striking as it was to Erskine in 1933, it was one of several cookie-cutter mansions that sprung up in a new neighborhood centered around Bond Street, which was plotted by the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. Today, it is the only single-family house of its kind left in the entire city, its exterior and interior (and yes, its secret passageway) protected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Back to Chapman’s story. Gertrude was the last of seven children born to Seabury and his wife in the house, and damned if he would let her marry a poor Catholic. Gertrude was guarded by three old-maid sisters who watched her like dragons, George recalled, but Louis managed to carry on their romance. No one is sure how he called on Gertrude undetected, but one possibility is that he used the underground passageway, which may have once connected the house to Astor Place just north of East 4th Street along the Bowery.
When Gertrude died penniless and alone in the midst of the Depression, George swooped in to buy the house, intending to preserve it as a museum. Erskine reports that he discovered the passageway at the bottom of a closet between the second-floor front and back bedrooms. The front bedroom had belonged to Gertrude.
“Nobody could have been more surprised than I,” George recalled. “Underneath that bottom was a trap door. When I raised it, I found a ladder extending down to a small secret chamber on the first floor, between the drawing room and what is now the dining room.”
Closer investigation revealed that it had probably originally continued down to the cellar and out to some hidden exit near Astor Place. George also found a man’s jacket there, in a style that was popular in the 1860s—about the time Louis would have been courting Gertrude.
Erskine asked what became of Louis. George said he went to Seabury and asked his permission to marry. It was denied—no surprise. After that, according to the family legend, Louis was never seen again, and Gertrude became a recluse.
“That was the way the story ran in our family,” George said. “You must remember that the Tredwells were aristocrats, strictly Church of England, kind of snooty. They had one burial plot in the center of the churchyard at Manhasset, the Tredwell plot. There was a nice neat iron fence around it. When that plot got pretty well filled up, they bought another plot and put a fence around it. That was the Tredwells, they were always putting fences around things.”
* * *
The story of Gertrude the recluse now comes full circle, though it is riddled with speculation. Did Longfellow’s poem have any effect on her love life? Surely she must have read it, for Longfellow, a distant relative, was one of the most popular poets in America during her lifetime. It is obvious that her ancestors’ zeal for religious tradition weighed heavily on her father. But could these things have combined to make her ashamed of her Catholic suitor and become a recluse?
All that is certain is the house itself, a celebration of Seabury’s lifestyle, a window into the life of one of the titans of industry who made New York City what it is today. Unlike the Collyer Brothers, whose house was razed and collection scattered, the 29 East 4th Street house remains much as it was when Gertrude and her family lived there. Perhaps this was what intrigued Erskine about it.
Oh yes, about Gertrude’s ghost, the one that Erskine thought she might find when she rang the bell, if only for a second. Some people—well, many people, including the New York Times—say that Gertrude may have died, but she never left the house. The museum even offers pricey candlelight “ghost tours” for several weeks leading up to Halloween every year. But the real ghosts are Miles Standish, John and Priscilla, and the two Samuel Seaburys, all of whom seem to have haunted Gertrude throughout her long, reclusive life.
And if ghost stories don’t quite do it this holiday season, it’s still possible to experience the Dickensian nature of Gertrude’s solitude and reclusiveness another way. George may have compared her to Miss Havisham, but it’s a reading of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” that the Merchant’s House Museum offers through Christmas Eve.