enter name and hit return
THE LONG ISLAND FARMS
"Much of the story consists of long, unaltered copy from
The Williamsburgh Post, which I have signified by indents right
and left. Alas, we have no photos to illustrate the item. It
took three weeks even to nail down the location and exact date
of this incident, first mention of which we found in an 1848
publication called The American Whig Review."
"Long Island Farms," as it was known --
formally the Juvenile Department of the NYC Almshouse and later
The Nursery schools and hospital on Randall's Island --
was situated in the village of Ravenswood, a short distance from
Astoria and about three miles east of Williamsburgh.
FORMER NURSERY TORCHED IN SHIP FEVER SCARE
The children were long gone when angry townsmen tore down and burned the
original buildings of the New York City Almshouse Nursery in a midnight
raid seemingly ripped from the pages of Frankenstein.
Even the setting - the village of Ravenswood in Queens County - sounds
like it belonged in Mary Shelley’s gothic morality tale.
In another literary twist, The Daily Brooklyn Eagle headlined its account,
"The Infamous Affair at the Long Island Farms."
The torch-bearing neighbors had nothing against the little paupers, or the
school itself. What set them off were plans to turn the recently vacated
buildings into quarantine hospitals for immigrants who’d arrived in America
with a malignant form of typhus known as "ship fever."
The disease, rapidly approaching epidemic levels, had crept into town with
the huge wave of Irish who’d fled the potato famine in their homeland.
Many were sick when they shuffled aboard the overcrowded and
filthy "coffin ships."
To meet the emergency, the state Commission on Immigration contracted
with the Rev. W. W. Niles, who’d just bought three of the abandoned
Nursery buildings at public auction, to lease them for use as temporary
hospitals. The papers were signed on Wednesday, 26 May 1847, and the
first patients were expected to arrive the very next day.
Word of the plan spread quicker than the plague, causing, as the weekly
Williiamsburgh Post put it, "great excitement in the surrounding country."
Townsfolk hastily called a meeting for Wednesday evening at a waterfront
tavern near the Hell Gate ferry dock in the nearby village of Astoria.
Despite the short notice, between 50 and 80 people showed up.
"They assembled at 8 o’clock and remained in session till between 10 and 11,
at which time they left the place of meeting in a body and proceeded to the
obnoxious premises," the Post reported.
"The impression became prevalent that the immigrants would be moved into
the houses on Thursday, so that the Queens County men thought that if they
were to act at all there was no time to be lost."
The ill-fated cluster of large wood-frame buildings, known as the
Long Island Farm Schools, was situated in the southwestern tip of
Queens County about halfway between Astoria and Williamsburgh
(now part of Brooklyn). The facility had been established in 1832 in a
move, radical at the time, to separate destitute children from the horrid
examples of their elders at the main almshouse.
The almshouse board of governors closed the facility earlier in the spring of
‘47, in anticipation of completion of a new complex on Randall’s Island, and
put the property up for sale. The children, meanwhile, were lodged temporarily
at the almshouse proper on Blackwell’s Island.
The Post’s anonymous reporter was on the scene within hours of the inferno.
He said he gleaned most of the facts from W. B. Mott, former steward of
The Nursery school and hospital; Thomas English, whom Niles had hired as a
night watchman; and Henry Burdon, a young man who lived across the street.
Here’s the gist of the Post’s account:
When the body of rioters reached the ground they found the two sons of
Mr. Niles on watch. The oldest son, about 16, had a loaded gun. They
immediately gave the alarm to English - whose watch on deck didn’t
commence till 12 o’clock.
When Mr. English came out he found a number of the men on the road and a
still larger number on the premises. He asked them what their business was,
and they replied that they came to burn and pull down the houses...
English endeavored to dissuade them from their purpose, and even suggested
that if they were determined on the deed it would be better to do it in daylight.
They replied that they would have delayed till to-morrow, only by that time
the contagion would be among them - hence they were resolved to take time
by the forelock. And so to work they went.
He noticed but one axe among them, though every man, almost, had a
bludgeon of wood.
There are, or rather there were, four buildings standing apart from each
other some four hundred feet. Three of these belonged to Mr. Niles, but
the fourth lying next this village belongs to a Mr. Robinson of the 17th Ward,
New York. This one had not been leased to the Commissioners, and thus
escaped the fury of the rioters - who went to work on the other three.
First, they entered the middle house and from within broke all the windows.
This accomplished, they cut up the doors for kindling wood and made two fires,
one in the school department, the other in the dormitory wing. They were
all-frame houses, and burned with great rapidity.
This middle house was consumed first. Indeed the crowd were about to depart,
satisfied with the destruction, but on a second thought they returned and
carried flaming brands from the burning pile with which they soon set the
other two buildings in a blaze. ...
The rival Brooklyn Eagle said firemen on three horse-drawn engines raced
to the scene from Williamsburgh, some three miles away, but when they
arrived there was nothing left but piles of ashes and embers.
Niles, the owner, petitioned the State Assembly repeatedly over the next
few years to be paid for his loss, which he placed at $20,000, but a
search of The Brooklyn Eagle and The New York Times on microfilm failed
to produce evidence that he collected.
By LAWRENCE SULLIVAN
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