Tag Archives: New-York Historical Society

This Day in History 11/28: The Birth of Lord—or Lady—Cornbury

Lord Cornbury

Painting of a woman alleged to be Lord Cornbury. New-York Historical Society. Image via Wikipedia

History is primarily the business of debunking popular myths.

Yet some myths are so scandalous, so outrageous and so off-the-wall that you sincerely wish they were true—even if you know they’re probably not.

Such is the case with Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, Viscount Cornbury. Historians know Lord Cornbury as among the worst colonial governors in American history. According to 19th century historian George Bancroft, Cornbury illustrated the worst form of the English aristocracy’s “arrogance, joined to intellectual imbecility”.

Yet his popular reputation rests in a painting.

In the New-York Historical Society hangs a painting of a woman. She is a rather ugly woman wearing a nice blue period dress…and a distinct five-o’clock shadow. For many years, this painting, which is unsigned and unattributed, was believed to be Lord Cornbury himself, sparking the popular myth that he was America’s first transvestite political leader.

Yet looking back, the claim of cross-dressing just doesn’t add up.

To be fair, the transvestitism isn’t what made Cornbury such a dickhead. Apparently his whole life was an exercise in profligate douchebaggery. During an unremarkable spell as a Tory member of Parliament, Cornbury served as a Page of Honour during James II’s coronation. Yet when William and Mary came ashore in 1688, Cornbury was one of the first officers to dump James off—and take a massive load of soldiers with him.

His later career only gets worse. As governor of New York and New Jersey from 1701 to 1708, he earned a foul reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. He favored Anglican churches with vast amounts of real estate, in open defiance of New York’s longstanding religious toleration. £1500 meant for the defense of New York harbor suddenly went missing. Bribes and corrupt payoffs became commonplace. His critics described him as a “fop”, a “wastrel” a “degenerate” and a “pervert.”

Even the little lady at home got in the act. According to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace in their work Gotham, Cornbury ‘s wife was known as a petty thief, swiping clothes and jewels from New York society ladies: “the sound of her carriage at the door, people said, was a warning to hide anything of value.”

The British didn’t much care for him, either. After his removal in 1708, Cornbury landed in debtor’s prison, where he received the not so welcome news that his father died and he would be the new Lord Clarendon. The title came with some serious money. It allowed him to get out of jail and pay his debts only to piss his fortune away again with the creditors knocking a second time. He finally dies alone and in debt in 1723, to be buried in Westminster Abbey (in what kinds of clothes I’m not sure.)

Yet the story of the cross-dressing governor persists. It has taken on a life of its own: Ric Burns’ documentary on New York states Cornbury’s sartorial transgressions almost as fact. I’ve even heard teachers showing the aforementioned painting as an actual portrait of Cornbury.

Yet as fun as the story is, the historian in me thinks the evidence to support it is not only thin, but woefully one-sided. Patricia Bonomi, Professor emeriti of history at New York University, agrees.

In 1998, Bonomi wrote The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America, among the few scholarly works addressing Cornbury’s tenure as New York’s governor. In this work, she debunks the transvestite myth as a rumor started by his colonial opponents in New York.

First, transvestitism was, according to Bonomi, considered a heinous act in the 18th century. The painting purported to be Cornbury would probably not have been him, since such a public display was usually meted out by political cartoons and the like. It would be almost as if a pedophile sat with his/her victim for a portrait at Sears: ballsy, obscene, irrational…but probably unlikely.

Second, the evidence of the cross-dressing comes from four letters dated 1707-1709, all from three colonists bent on removing Cornbury from office. According to the letters, Cornbury opened the 1702 New York Assembly in an elaborate gown reminiscent of Queen Anne, claiming that as the Queen’s power in the colony he needed to represent her in every way possible. During Lady Cornbury’s funeral in 1707 (when the shoplifting was done), Cornbury also supposedly attended in female dress.

However, according to Bonomi, none of his officers, ministers or colonial agents ever mentioned these tendencies. None of the authors of the letters even claim to have seen this, either. It appears it was an attempt to get him out of office by any means necessary—and it worked.

Bonomi also claims (and I’m not totally convinced of this) that Cornbury was not as corrupt and profligate as is claimed. She claims that he was welcomed warmly in England on his return in 1709, and served high offices. I’m not as convinced at this—especially since fiscal malfeasance tends to leave a more verifiable paper trail than sexual transgressions.

What is important in looking at this episode—and what Bonomi gets right—is how sex was used as a political tool even in the early 18th century. The cross-dressing scandal, more than anything else, is what drove Queen Anne to replace Cornbury in 1708. Sexual misconduct, even as a rumor, is still a powerful tool, now as it was in Cornbury’s time.

However, even as one can probably put the transvestite myth of Lord Cornbury in doubt, there is some sense of loss. Without the hoop skirts and corsets, Cornbury becomes just another greedy colonial governor.

Sometimes the myths really do add to the history—even if it isn’t really true.


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Student Historian Internship at the New-York Historical Society


DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828) visionary NY politician, founder of the New-York Historical Society, avatar and guardian angel of Mr. D’s Neighborhood

Yes, Virginia, there are teenage students out there who would prefer to dive into musty museum exhibits and artifacts instead of making money for a car or a prom dress.

These teenagers are history nuts, just like those who are regular readers here at the Neighborhood.  Thankfully, the New-York Historical Society offers summer internships to satisfy the Ivy League professor in all of them.

I’ve always been a huge fan of the Society, New York’s oldest museum going back to 1804.  Their rotating exhibits, and the upstairs attic collection, offer a feast of the eyes and the intellect.  Unfortunately, the Society is undegoing a massive renovation that will be completed November 10.  So for many high schoolers in the tri-state area, the Summer Historian internship at N-YHS offers the only way they can interact with the museum’s collection before graduation and college.

The Internship is open to all 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in the tri-state area, thanks to a grant from the Pinkerton Foundation.   If you’re a city kid, it gets better: NYC high schoolers are eligible for PAID internships, with compensation provided (not sure whether its a one-shot stipend or a weekly check thing).  If you don’t get one of those, city students will still be eligible for the unpaid internships available to out-of-city students.

There are two internships, one for the summer and one for the school year.  The summer internship is what’s open now: according to the N-YHS website, participants will be interning Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 am to 4:45 pm, July 5-August 11.  Furthermore, interns will be involved in the following:

  • Researching art, artifacts, and documents from the N-YHS collection to create guides, tours, and videos for museum visitors and the N-YHS website
  • Meeting with experts from the museum and library departments to discuss both the museum’s collections and career options
  • Visiting museums throughout New York City
  • Creating supplementary materials for N-YHS School Programs
  • Assisting with public programs, family programs, and other special events

(Thanks again to the N-YHS website for providing a thorough description)

The deadline for applying is April 29, 2011.  Applicants should have their parent/guardian’s permission, as well as valid working papers from the New York State Department of Labor (Information on working papers can be found on a NYSDOL link located at N-YHS’ site).  There is an application to fill out and two letters of recommendation.

(A word of advice: don’t ask your parents to recommend you.  Stick with teachers, coaches and administrators that know your academic skills and your work ethic.)

If you love history, love museums, heck even love New York City, you should be running, not walking, to take advantage of this opportunity.  For you juniors applying to college, this is the sort of thing that makes admissions officers drool (I should  know…I conduct admissions interviews for my alma mater.)  Please send this to all high school teachers and students eligible.

Here’s the link again. Best of luck to all applicants, and remember to tell them the Neighborhood sent you.

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History Field Trips in New York City – Or how to lose a student in an interesting way

1461115532_730c78e1d6As a teacher, the best way to drive me crazy is to plan a field trip.

Field trips are frightening things, even for veterans.  If your class manages to behave somewhat in the building, imagine how your darlings will react exposed to the outside world.  Also note the myriad logistics involved: the planning with the site, the permission from the administration, the buses (or lack of buses), the permission slips, the money collection, the cajoling of parents to come along, the forcing of parents of problem children to come, etc.  All of this, and things still go wrong.  The buses come late, the museum/zoo/farm loses our confirmation, no lunches, children hurt themselves, and teachers and parents lose their minds.

In the realm of history, there are many opportunities for field trips.  The problem is that in most places, the teachers enjoy it more than the students.  Kids just can’t get into huge paintings of massed troops and funny uniforms–not when they can make huge bubbles and work a robot at the science museum.  Let’s face it, there is a real dearth of “hands-on” sites about history.  What fun it would be to sample real smallpox blankets, or to bury a tomahawk in your classmate’s skull.  Even in places that have more interaction, like Colonial Williamsburg, for example, the connection is more passive: you’re watching people in funny clothes churning butter rather than really churning it yourself. 

This becomes even more of a problem in New York City, where I work.  In a capitalist paradise, nothing “old” is ever around for long.  With constant building and demolition, most of our city’s past is the stuff of museums–museums housed in buildings that barely survived the wrecking ball themselves.  In such an environment, it can be difficult finding places to visit that both teach and entertain students.  Not everything can be “ol’ reliable”, my pet names for both the Bronx Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History, both gigantic places that offer lots of opportunities for kids to learn and enjoy.  Yet for once, maybe your class can try a place where you learn a little something different–and a place where Johnny won’t get lost so easily.

To that end, I’ve compiled a list of places in New York City worth a visit.  They are small enough to do as a class, have knowledgeable staff to assist, and are incredibly accomodating to students–big requirements for Mr. D.  As usual, the list isn’t exhaustive, so any suggestions from the Neighborhood are more than welcome. 

NOTE: Unfortunately, because of administrative restrictions, I can only provide sites in the New York City area.  It would be unfair of me to comment on places I have not visited or cannot visit with my class.  Those in the Neighborhood from other areas are free to comment with good sites from your locales.  It’d be much appreciated.


Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029
(212) 534-1672

If there was a history museum in New York that was the most kid-friendly, this would be my pick.  Their programs are created in conjunction with teachers to provide the most relevant and stimulating experiences possible.  Unlike its more noted neighbor across the Park, the NY Historical Society, MCNY is solely focused on New York City’s history, culture and people.  For a kick, definitely take the kids to see the toy collection…they’ll love it, but they may drive you nuts trying to get on the bus home.


New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

Yes, it has a hyphen–New York used to be spelled like that!  This is, hands down, my favorite museum in New York.  That does NOT mean it’s always the best place for students.  N-YHS has an extensive offering of programs for students of all grade levels, and each new exhibition also comes with a teaching program.  I strongly advise teachers to NOT go to N-YHS without registering for one of their programs.  It is not a place conducive to wandering.  One really fun place–the Luce Center of American Culture, an attic for the Society’s permanent collections.  Real fun place for random stuff, like chairs, toys, buttons and weapons…even death masks.  Plus, you can register for a program right from their website using Ed-Net.


Lower East Side Tenement Museum
108 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 982-8420

If you teach English language learners, or simply have lots of immigrant children (or kids of immigrants) this place is great.  Although tours start at 108 Orchard, the real gem is 97 Orchard, a tenement built in 1863 and now restored to show life among immigrant New Yorkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Programs at the Museum also make connections to today’s immigrants, especially since most kids couldn’t conceive of a coal stove or waiting in line to use the one toilet on the floor.  You can also reserve spots here online, a nice touch.


Van Cortlandt House Museum
Broadway & West 246th Street
Bronx, NY 10471
(718) 543-3344

This is NOT Van Cortlandt Manor in Westchester, but the house of Frederick Van Cortlandt, built in the Georgian style in 1748.  It is the oldest building in the Bronx, and like its newer cousin, Bartow-Pell, underwent renovations of both the house and its programming.  Bronx classrooms would get a kick out of Revolutionary War reenactments here, especially since Washington, Lafayette and Rochambeau all used the house during the war.  Website is moving, so be patient.


Bartow-Pell Mansion
895 Shore Road
Pelham Bay Park
The Bronx, NY 10464
(718) 885-1461

The Pells were among the original landowners of colonial New York–as well as among its largest slaveholders.  This mansion underwent a huge renovation, and is now open for school programs about life in New York in the 19th Century.  Try to go on a nice day, the grounds are absolutely beautiful.  Just make sure to bring lunches as there isn’t much around the area, unless you want to schlep the kids to City Island (please don’t do that).


Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 222-4111

How could I forget the borough of my birth?  Most people forget that before 1898, Brooklyn was its own city, at one point the fourth largest in all the United States.  Thanks to a revival of the borough starting in the late 1990s, the Historical Society has also beefed up its collections, while not only adding programs for students, but also materials on its website that help teacher align their standards to Brooklyn themes.  Go Dodgers! (Not the LA kind, either).


South Street Seaport Museum
12 Fulton Street
New York, NY 10038
(212) 748-8786

Exhibitions and artifacts are one thing–and this museum has a lot of them, for sure.  In fact, the museum is dedicated to the preservation of the historic harbor district.  But what really sets this place apart are its ships:  the 1911 barQue Peking and the 1885 schooner Pioneer.  The museum offers programs that integrate marine themes and science into history.  I highly suggest a cruise aboard the Pioneer: you’ll see New York harbor the same way Henry Hudson saw it in 1609.  Simply breathtaking.

Not much time on the calendar to plan, but definitely take the time to go on at least on trip.  At the very least, it’ll get the kids banned from yet another public building.

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