Thomas Edison Vitascope plaque on 34th Street
At Untapped Cities, we’ve always been a little obsessed with plaques. Writer Benjamin Waldman photographed every plaque in Union Square, which show the history of the park and the history of the labor movement. We also previously looked at the literature plaques on the lesser known Library Walk on 41st Street. Hyperallergic and Curbed also recently discovered Anna Robinson-Sweet, a Yale graduate, who has been mounting hand-crafted silkscreen plaques around Brooklyn to give under-appreciated locations the historical recognition she believes they deserve.
But what about plaques that are in the wrong place, have the wrong information or have disappeared? We decided to compile the highlights of some lost historical markers in Manhattan:
1. The First “Battle” of the American Revolution (The Battle of Golden Hill) – Lost Plaque
Gold Street is named after Golden Hill, named golden bergh by the Dutch, when Manhattan was still hilly downtown. According to Robert Sullivan in his book Rats, British soldiers attacked the unofficial leader of the colonial masses, Isaac Sears, over a marker called the Liberty Pole, which the British resented for its message of freedom-mongering. A skirmish then ensued between the British and the Liberty Boys. (For historians, this first “battle” of the American Revolution is sometimes also classified as a riot, depending on whom you ask).
Around 1898, a plaque was put up on a building to commemorate the site of the Battle of Golden Hill on what is now Eden’s Alley. The building was demolished and the plaque was discovered a few blocks away in 1918, where it was no longer on the site of the battle at all. At some point after, the plaque disappeared, the building demolished, and traces of Golden Hill gradually lost both in collective memory and in the geography of Manhattan.
2. Where was Nathan Hale executed? – Conflicting Plaques
Young Nathan Hale, a Revolutionary War spy, was captured after going behind British lines in 1776. Though the exact place of his execution is unknown, two plaques in Manhattan both claim to be near the site where he was hung, one on Vanderbilt Avenue on 44th Street at the Yale Club and one on 3rd Avenue and 65th Street (now a Pier 1 Imports). There is also a statue of Nathan Hale outside of City Hall.
Plaque to Nathan Hale at the Yale Club of New York near Grand Central Terminal
Plaque to Nathan Hale on 65th Street and 3rd Avenue
3. Edison Theater Plaque at Macy’s – Incorrect Claim
A plaque at Macy’s on 34th Street between Broadway and 7th Avenue says that on April 23rd, 1896, Thomas Edison first projected a moving picture with the Vitascope at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall, which was located where Macy’s is now, along with the bold claim: “Here the motion picture began.”
This is not exactly true however. It may have been Edison’s first, but not where the motion picture began. The showing in 1896 was just the first showing of Edison Kinetoscope films on screen to a paying audience, not the first screening of a projection film which happened in Paris 1895, by the Lumiere Brothers. In fact, Edison only allowed this 1896 screening to happen after there were “wide-spread projections of the Kinestoscope films by unauthorized showmen,” reports Raymond Fielding in A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television. For more, this article has a chronological history of film’s firsts
4. House Where Winston’s Churchill’s Mother was born – Plaque in Wrong Location
With much fanfare in 1953, Brooklyn Deputy Clerk James Kelly led a 78-year old Churchill to what he believed was Churchill’s mother’s home at 426 Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights, where a plaque was affixed commemorating her. Jennie Jerome’s actual house is believed to be at 8 Amity Street (now #197), as records have indicated that the Jerome family resided when Jennie was born. The confusion is due to patchy records during Jerome’s era and her own efforts to mislead people, according to writer Phoebe Neidl, “once it became obvious she had given birth to greatness.”
5. Where Alexander Hamilton Died – Plaque in Wrong Location
According to this article on Jane Street History by Warren Allen Smith, #82 Jane Street has a plaque honoring the place where Hamilton died after his duel with Aaron Burr, but he was actually brought to the William Bayard House, which which was located below what is now Gansevoort Street, “close to the present Horatio Street—possibly even in its path, as Horatio wasn’t mapped until 1817 or opened until 1835.”
Alexander Hamilton Plaque at 82 Jane Street
5. Where did Edgar Allan Poe write the Raven? – Conflicting Plaques
It’s known that Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Raven” while living at the Brennen Farmhouse on what is now the Upper West Side, however there are two competing plaques across the street from each other on 84th Street and Broadway which both claim to be the site of the Brennen Farmhouse. Check out our article on finding Poe in NYC for more.
6. Where Washington Irving Lived – Incorrect Claim
Legend has it that Washington Irving lived at 122 E. 17th Street (same address as 49 Irving Place), but despite a plaque with this information, there is no evidence that he lived there. His nephew lived at 120 E. 17th Street, however, and had a son named Washington Irving, which may have led to some of the confusion. The Epoch Times writes that the rumor may have been the ploy of an enterprising woman who ran a salon there between 1892 and 1911. To this day, businesses on Irving Place continue to use the legend for marketing purposes, reports The Villager.
This is just a sampling of historical markers that are lost or incorrect, focusing on famous people and events. Check out ForgottenNY for his quest of the handful of State Historical Markers that still exist in New York City.
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.