WHO'S WHO OR SCANDAL SHEET!
LOIS A. KRIEGER
REFERENCE LIBRARIANS know that biographical dictionaries and compilations of economic information are staple items in any library collection. Recently a colleague found in the stacks of Baker Library a brittle and frayed pamphlet that on a very small scale seems to combine the useful functions of each, and as a bonus provides a glimpse of local history a bit more personal than one can usually find in a scholarly reference source.
The pamphlet, which will be transferred to Special Collections, is entitled Wealth and Biography of the Wealthy Citizens of New York City, Comprising an Alphabetical Arrangement of Persons Estimated to be Worth $100,000, and Upwards. The cover of our copy, the sixth edition, indicates that it was issued by a newspaper, the New York Sun; it was 'compiled with much care and published at the Sun office' in 1845. No compiler's name appears in this edition; the National Union Catalog Pre-1956 imprints (41:122,651:560) lists numerous other editions published between 1842 and 1855, with one Moses Yale Beach cited as editor or compiler of several.
The biographical information is usually brief but pithy. While the entry for John Jacob Astor runs about two pages and that for Cornelius Vanderbilt comprises several paragraphs, most descriptions are much shorter. William Lowther, worth $100,000, was 'an Englishman, commenced poor'; Amos R. Eno ($150,000) 'by industry and perseverance during the last 15 years, has amassed his fortune.' The preface states that the list, designed to provide something like a credit rating, should recognize those 'who by honest and laborious industry have raised themselves from the obscure and humble walks of life, to great wealth and consideration.'
While indeed many of the citizens listed here are described as 'respectable,' a number of others acquired their wealth by means other than 'laborious industry' and seem to be a bit more raffish and adventuresome than completely honorable. Henry J. Sanford ($100,000), a wood dealer, 'made his own money' but was also 'an adventurer in matrimony.' Samuel J. Hunt ($150,000), a retired merchant, 'became rich by the decease of his father-in-law.' Henry A. Coit ($2,000,000), a son of a 'distinguished merchant,' apparently 'failed in business, and afterwards married a rich heiress of Philadelphia.' Alphonse Loubat ($200, 000), a retired importer, 'operated in matrimony very advantageously.' The entry for Mrs. Douglas Cruger ($400,000) says virtually nothing about her, but describes her father, George Douglas, as a 'Scotch merchant, who hoarded closely' and whose 'wine cellar was more extensive than his library.'
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to compile such a list today. Libel laws and regard for privacy rights would make a publisher think twice, which is probably a good idea. Nevertheless, this little publication stirs the imagination and encourages the student to find out more about these people (is all this information true?) and about the character and appearance of the city itself(where, for instance, was the area known as 'the Swamp, `listed as the commercial location of several men in the leather business?).
And finally, who was the publisher, Moses Beach? The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography indicates that he was himself a self-made man, 'ambitious and full of energy'; as proprietor of the Sun, he 'employed carrier pigeons to bring early European news from incoming steamers.' 1 Under his ownership, the Sun published, as news items, stories of life on the moon, glimpsed through a huge telescope. 2 Oddly enough, the Cyclopaedia does not mention the 'Wealthy Citizen' pamphlets, which, even if their contents must be viewed with a great deal of skepticism, nevertheless are valuable as cultural artifacts. 3
2. The 'Moon Hoax' is described in Harold S. Sharp, Footnotes to American History (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1977), 96-97. The Dartmouth College Library owns a run of the Sun from 1870 to 1910, but not, alas, any issues from 1835 when the moon stories appeared.
3. For a detailed study, see Edward Pessen. 'Moses Reach Revisited: a Critical Evaluation of His "Wealthy Citizens" Pamphlets,' Journal of American History 58 (1971), 415-426.
Last Updated: 4/19/17