Tag Archives: New York History

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

1816: The Year Without a Summer

Mt. Tambora and its surroundings as seen from ...

Mount Tambora, site of the 1815 eruption, seen via satellite. Image via Wikipedia

Those of us sucker-punched with snow this weekend can take heart that the temperature has returned to a semblance of normal.

New Yorkers two centuries ago were nowhere near as lucky.

The year 1816 would be forever remembered by many names: The Poverty Year, Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death, and most famously The Year without a Summer. It would be most known as the time when a perfect storm of low temperatures, a lull in solar activity and a supercolossal volcanic eruption caused one of the most tragic epidemics of famine and destruction in Western history.

Those events of two centuries past still haunt us today—especially when human beings are altering the atmosphere more so than ever before.

In April of 1815, Mount Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia, erupted for approximately ten days. The explosion measured a 7, “or “supercolossal” on the Volcanic Explosivity Index—an intensity only seen about once in a millennium. Massive volumes of volcanic ash and dust spewed into the upper atmosphere.

It could not have happened at a worse time.

The Tambora eruption aligned perfectly with a lull in solar activity known as the Dalton Minimum. During this lull, temperatures around the world (already low due to Little Ice Age) further dropped from about 1790 and 1830. Furthermore, other large eruptions between 1812 and 1814 added even more volcanic material to the air, creating a further temperature drop known as a “volcanic winter.”

The atmospheric disturbance produced brown and red snows in Central and Southern Europe. The erratic, freezing summer temperatures led to crop failures, famine, epidemics and food riots from Shanghai to London.

Yet the widest social and cultural effects were in the northeastern United States.

In May of 1816, frost killed off the newly planted crops in New England, and the cold snap would grip the region by June. Snow—often of a foot or more—was reported from Quebec City to Pennsylvania between June and August. Ice floes could be seen as far south as the lower Susquehenna River. Temperatures would rise to normal summer temperatures and drop to below freezing within hours. In the winter of 1817, temperatures dropped to -26°F in New York, freezing the upper New York Bay solid.

With the destruction of the New England harvest, grain prices rose dramatically. Oats, for example, went from $0.12 a bushel to $0.92 a bushel in one season. Corn, wheat and other grains also spiked in price, creating national food shortages, hoarding and price speculation.

The most dramatic effect, however, was the actions of the survivors of 1816.

Although the western expansion of the United States was in full swing even twenty years before, the 1816 disturbances began a mass exodus from New England. Thousands of now-destitute farm families picked up sticks and moved west, to upstate New York and the Northwest Territory, today the Upper Midwest of the country. Vermont alone dropped almost half its population after 1816.

Two survivors of the Year without a Summer still affect us today. One of the families that left Vermont in 1816 were the Smiths. They moved from Sharon, Vermont to Palmyra, New York, where their son, Joseph, would engage in a series of events that would eventually lead to his founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The other is definitely more apropos to today’s holiday. A group of friends had to spend their summer vacation in Switzerland indoors due to the bad weather. To pass the time, they started a contest to see who could write the scariest story. The host, the great poet Lord Byron, wrote a poem aptly titled Darkness. Another, John William Polidori wrote The Vampyre.

Yet the clear winner of this contest, at least in the modern age, was a woman named Mary Shelley, who decided to pen a ditty with the second title of The Modern Prometheus. You know it better as Frankenstein.

It is altogether fitting that we end with this story of freakish science gone horribly wrong. If 1816 came about due to natural phenomena, then can we expect something similar with our filthy mitts in the atmosphere?

Will our meddling with the environment cause the next Year without a Summer?

Time will tell.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street Movement

As a born and bred 99%-er, I have spent an inordinate amount of time among the 1%.

Going to college with many of the sons and daughters of the top tier, I absorbed many of the traits, both good and bad, that go with a life of privilege. Exposure to both plenty and want gave me a window into two worlds—and allowed me to view two sides to every social issue.

On the other hand, their carefree and blasé attitude about the world also wormed into my psyche—along with a stiflingly boring Brooks Brothers wardrobe.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement ends the month as a worldwide phenomenon, my two sides are more at conflict than ever.

Usually, throngs of people camping out, chanting, beating bongos and whatnot brings out the 1%-er in me (or at least the 99%er that became a cop). I have an inherent distaste for public disorder, and enough exposure to the powers-that-be to realize that (a) many of their suggestions probably will cause more harm than good; and (b) real power, at least in the 21st Century, rarely lies in the will of the people anymore.

Those who feel that way, mostly on the right (even the Tea Party, which I personally despise) have a point.

Then again, our country was borne out of civil unrest. Disorder was the soil that bore the fruit of the American Revolution. Protest movements have affected American policy from abolition to prohibition to civil rights. Many of the protesters today see an economic situation out of control, spiraling unemployment, and an illogical degree of political power at the hands of a precious few; negating the will of the people.

Those who feel that way, mostly on the left (even the loony Left, which I also personally despise) also have a point.

Yet the headline-grabbing slogans—the ones doing the most damage to the movement—largely do not have a point. Their pointlessness is making a legitimate movement look like a proscribed series of malcontents that habitually pop up upon every bear cycle.

Sorry to burst your bubbles, both Moonbeam O’Ganja and Reverend Cletus Killjoy, but the following will not (and should not) happen:

1. The End of Capitalism – Those who advocate the end of the market system haven’t been looking around lately. Everyone is getting into the capitalist game, for obvious reasons: it is basically how goods and services were exchanged since the beginning of time.

It even goes back to the Bible. As Moses delivers his people to their Promised Land, this new piece of real estate comes with a catch: obey the wishes of a deity that sometimes gets a little too heated for his own good. You can figure out how many times the Israelites broke the contract.

Even the Bolshie stalwarts—old reds like Cuba and new ones like Venezuela—are getting in on the act. Yes, a Cuban can be as capitalist as Daddy Warbucks: simply refusing to do business with American companies does not a Communist make. The capitalist system, in its basest form, is here to say.

2. The Return of Unfettered Capitalism – Let’s get one thing straight: in our country, there never was, nor will there ever be, an absolutely free market. Even Adam Smith himself, the supposed father of modern capitalism, argued that a completely free market was not only dangerous, but theoretically impossible.

The goal is not a free market, but a fair one: a market where everyone plays by the same rules and is governed under similar regulations. If we played by the same rules—and were governed by fair and efficient referees—there would have been no speculative bubbles, no bailouts, no “too big to fail.”

What happened was that the free market forgot how free it was, and decided that it needed to be “freer.” This is a fundamental flaw of the concept: the more freedom you have, the less freedom for those around you. If I had the complete freedom to beat the shit out of someone, that invades the other guy’s right to live peaceably—even if the other son of a bitch deserved it.

Starting in the 1980s, the largest financial and commercial interests in America decided they wanted to beat the shit out of everyone in sight. Certain companies, brokerage houses and banks were allowed to skirt the rules—often by the very governing bodies that made them.

In 2008, we all paid the price. I’m still feeling sore.

3. The Redistribution of Wealth – If the 20th century has taught us anything, it’s that the redistribution of wealth is an inherently bad idea for all involved.

For the wealthy, it means picking up sticks (and Swiss bank accounts) and heading to places where butlers, monocles and teacup poodles are more appreciated (like Greenwich, Connecticut, Bermuda, or certain parts of Switzerland).

For the poor who took the wealth, it means attempting to use the wealth for “the good of all” without succumbing to the inevitable need to line ones pockets. Sure, when you leave a bag of money in a room and you tell everyone “take what you need and leave enough so we can pay the rent”, there’s bound to be problems.

Furthermore, the theft of wealth negates any need to actually create wealth from (gasp!) work. Why do we have to make a profitable business when Mendoza’s old mansion (and his liquor cabinet) sits empty for the taking.

4. The End of Corporations – Here I speak from an all-too-personal experience. My father is the head of a corporation: a corporation of one. If he didn’t incorporate his little upholstery business, my parents would fear for their lives in every down cycle. If he didn’t incorporate his business, that slow year of 2008 could have cost my parents their house and their possessions.

Not every corporation is a multinational Leviathan bent on devouring everything in its wake. In fact, most are struggling to get by along with the rest of us.

If Moonbeam thinks stopping corporate protections will finally kill off Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and the Koch Brothers, she’ll also be killing off any vestige of innovation and entrepreneurship in America. The idea of a corporation, a separate entity apart from one’s personal assets, is what makes risk-taking and progressive thinking possible.

Again, this doesn’t mean every corporation acts in our best interest. Nor do corporations always innovate for the better. Henry Ford would probably have preferred paving the streets of Dearborn with the bodies of unionized auto workers (along with some Jews, too, apparently). Always smell for brimstone when making a deal with Donald Trump, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. This leads to the next point:

5. Complete Privatization of our Government and Society – I have many friends who are Libertarians. I also have many friends who lean towards the Tea Party. They all say the same thing: government is an inherent hindrance to the productivity of business and the entrepreneurial spirit of America. Overheated government spending has produced a debt that seems impossible to pay off. Other countries with fewer scruples than us are surpassing us in all categories. Thus, we must strip our government bare so that the borders are secure, the mail runs (only five days) and the roads are kept up (as long as construction is done on off-peak hours).

I agree that government can be a hindrance to business. The debt is, to be sure, spiraling out of control. However, the complete gutting of our government is not the answer.

Like I said before, the goal is a fair market. That fairness relies on a government that makes and maintains rules that promote growth while buttressing the general needs of society. Someone has to keep the greedier aspects of business in check, while at the same time making sure they don’t go out of business.

This requires a careful balancing act, and to be fair, neither the Tea Party nor the Occupy Wall Streeters are interested in balance. The Tea Party wants a gutted government that supposedly will allow everyone to be rich and buy a McMansion and go to a megachurch to piss away the money we make so the pastor can buy a bigger McMansion far away from us. Of course, this is done while a top-notch military (that accounts for every bullet) patrols every inch of our border while the world blows itself up.

The Occupy Wall Streeters—at least the loudest, most extreme ones—want to gut the top 1% of society to take care of a whole laundry lists of rights and wrongs, from unemployment, national health care, solving urban blight, rural blight, illiteracy, crime, immigration, migration, pollution, carbon footprints, fingerprints, handprints, and a diverse workplace. This while balancing the budget, paying down the debt and maintaining the smallest of military forces that will prop up any democratically “elected” dingdong in any putrid corner of the Third World.

A true solution to our problems—and we do have them—is (I hate to say it) a middle ground between Moonbeam O’Ganja and Reverend Cletus Killjoy. And it’ll be so middle that it pisses off the both of them.

That involves a tax code that makes sense, that makes sure everyone (including the big corporations) pay their fair share.

That involves a painstaking review of our national expenses to see exactly how we spend our money—and take it like a man when the truth isn’t pretty.

That involves regulatory agencies and rules that are fair, balanced, do not stifle the market.

That involves a government that has the balls to do all these things, plus secure our borders and maintain our missions abroad—the ones that actually matter.

If that can’t happen, we’re in for a royal clusterfuck of a future…and no amount of signs, slogans or pack of dirty hippies can stop it.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized