September 2012 Archives

Historical Happenings

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HETTY GREEN - AuthorsLive - Tuesday - October 2 - 7PM

Author Janet Wallach discusses her book on Hetty Green, who's been called the richest (and frugalist) woman in America.  When she died in 1916, she was worth $100 million (2 billion dollars in today's economy).  Free program.


CELEBRATING LOUIS ARMSTRONG - October 12th, 13th and 18th

To celebrate Louis Armstrong Month, the Peterson Performance Series will present 3 events:
 October 12th - 8PM - Friends Friday Film - Louis Armstrong archival footage

 October 13th - 4PM - Backcountry Jazz performs music of Louis Armstrong

 October 18th - 7PM - Panel discussion on the music and life of Louis Armstrong

All of these programs will be held in the Cole Auditorium and are free of charge.


TALES OF CONFLICT AND ACCOMODATION: America's Progressive Era in Greenwich 1890 to 1915

Bush-Holley Historic Site - October 9th - 5:30PM

Art Historian Kathleen Johnson discusses the transition of Greenwich from an agrarian society to a business community during the late 1800s.  Contact the Greenwich Historical Society for more information.

If you're like me, you learned about John Wilkes Booth in your high school American History class.  He was the man who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.  What I didn't know was that Booth had a direct connection to Greenwich!

Booth's parents were Junius and Brutus Booth, who immigrated from England.  John was born in 1835 in Bel Air, Maryland, and was the ninth of ten children.  His brother, Edwin, and he were accomplished Shakespearian actors.  Years later, Edwin lived at Cedarcliff in Cos Cob overlooking the Mianus River, near the land where the Cos Cob Power Plant was eventually built. Playwright Charles Barras had built Cedarcliff, but met an untimely death.  Edwin Booth moved there in the 1870s with his wife, Edwina, and his children.  He was a close friend of Commodore E.C. Benedict, and spent many an afternoon on the Oneida, Benedict's yacht.  It's been written that Booth, Benedict, Mark Twain and others came up with the idea for the Player's Club, an old fashioned "gentlemen's club"  in New York City, aboard the Oneida in 1888.  Edwin was well-liked, and when he died in 1893,  hundreds showed up for his funeral.

Now, according to Judge Frederick Hubbard in "The Judge's Corner", Edwin's brother, John Wilkes Booth, travelled around the country with a theatrical troupe.  When he was in Providence, RI, he met actress Martha Mills.  They fell in love.  She was a Puritan, and her family didn't approve of John because actors had a bad reputation.  So the two eloped, and married in Greenwich on January 18, 1859, at what is now called the "Little Church in Dingletown".  Surprisingly, there is no record of the marriage!  Booth and his wife subsequently moved to Baltimore, MD.

 JWB.jpg                                               SOURCE: Flickr


John Wilkes Booth was a Southern sympathizer.  He thought slavery was good for America.  John came up with a scheme to kidnap Abe Lincoln to ransom him for peace, or an exchange of Confederate soldiers.  He enlisted the help of 6 other people to help kidnap Lincoln on the outskirts of Washington and deliver him to the Confederate capital in Richmond.  Lincoln never arrived.  However, Booth heard that Lincoln was to attend a performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater in Washington.   Booth created an elaborate plan to assassinate Lincoln, while others were to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.

On April 14, 1865, Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in the balconey of Ford's Theater.  He then jumped to the stage below the balconey, breaking his leg.  He yelled "Sic semper tyrannis! (Death to tyrants!) The South is avenged!"  He dragged himself out of the theater, and rode off on his horse.  He and another conspirator sought out Doctor Samuel A. Mudd, who set the leg, gave them food and refuge for several days.  Booth and his friend eventually crossed the Potomac,  and held up at the farm of Richard H. Garrett.  They were discovered in a tobacco barn on April 26th.  Booth refused to surrender, and the barn was set afire.  One of his pursuers, Austin Corbett, claims to have shot Booth.   Witnesses claimed Booth stated as he was dying, "Tell mother. . .I died for my country!"   A doctor reportedly pronounced him dead at the scene.  There seems to be a bit of a controversy over whether Booth was shot by someone else, or if he committed suicide, fearing he would be tortured if caught.

Authorities gathered up the rest of Booth's accomplices.  One was executed, and others were imprisoned.  Doctor Mudd received a life sentence, but President Johnson pardoned him in 1869.

Interestingly, Judge Frederick Hubbard in "The Judge's Corner" on June 16, 1932, reported that he received a letter from a woman in Norwalk who claimed to be John Wilkes Booth's granddaughter.  She said she was in possession of her grandmother Martha's diary, which indicates Booth lived in San Francisco under an assumed name for 20 years after the close of the Civil War!   In 1870, he wrote to his wife, Martha, and she moved to the west coast , where she lived until she died in 1886.  This would contradict other accounts of a doctor pronouncing Booth dead in the barn.  The body was examined, and dental records verified that the dead man was, indeed, John Wilkes Booth.   It's an interesting urban legend, anyway!

 SOURCE:   Greenwich History: The Judge's Corner;  Hubbard, F., 2001.  (Print)

                    "John Wilkes Booth".  Gale History in Context.  Gale Centage Learning.  n.d.  Web. 20 Sep.  2012  (Electronic)





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Historical Happenings

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Jeffrey Lyons Program 

Tuesday - September 18th - 7 PM - Greenwich Library
Popular television film critic Jeffrey Lyons will speak at Greenwich Library on his new book "Stories My Father Told Me".  His father, Leonard Lyons, was a columnist for the New York Post.  Leonard hung out with Salvador Dali, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway.


Historic Downtown Byram Presentation

Saturday - October 6th - 10:30 am - Byram Shubert Library
Patricia-Baiardi Kantorski discusses the history and architecture of the Byram business district.


Military Records Research

Saturday - November 3 - 10:30 am - Cos Cob Library
Anthony Lauriano discusses how to use military records to research your ancestors.


*Note different locations!



Plane Spotting in Greenwich

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When you enter Greenwich Point, you've probably noticed the observation tower, which now houses a Greenwich Police sub-station.  I read in Greenwich Before 2000 (Historical Society, 1999) that it was used by the Greenwich Civil Defense Ground Observer Corps.  Apparently, it replaced an earlier tower in 1956, which had been moved from from North Street at the beginning of the Korean War around 1950.


                      PHOTO:    Observation Tower at Greenwich Point

                                        Taken by Carl White     2004


 There were 3 towers used in town during World War II.  A Stanwich Road silo, a Riversville Road Tower and the old Town Hall were used by volunteers to watch for enemy aircraft.   A Defense Committee - composed of sixty people - had been appointed in town, and worked closely with the Connecticut Council of National Defense.  You probably think this was overkill; but according to the Greenwich Time, a team from a German submarine had actually landed at Montauk, Long Island, on a reconnaisance mission!  One of the volunteers who manned the Town Hall observation post (Alexandra Spann) said she reported a Japanese plane, which turned out to be taking pictures of the coastline. (It was intercepted by a Coast Guard plane.)  

Greenwich took the war very seriously.  In December 1941, the town added several Air Raid Wardens and auxiliary firemen.  A First Incident Officer's School was established at Greenwich High School to train wardens in bomb handling and gas warfare.  Foreign residents were instructed to turn in their shortwave radioes, firearms and cameras. The FBI and Greenwich Police even raided 50 homes and confiscated contraband. Greenwich High School participated in air raid practice.  Students were required to evacuate the building in 3 minutes.  They headed to nearby homes in groups of 10. New sirens had to be installed in back country because the church bells previously used were inaudible. Like the rest of the nation, Greenwich residents went on "wartime" by turning their clocks ahead 1 hour.

In February of 1942, Greenwich participated in the first major East Coast air raid exercise.  Food and gas rationing was instituted in May.  A voluntary registration was started for women, who could work in war industry.  In December,  the town converted furnaces in town buildings to coal burners to save oil.  Oil sales were stopped for 60-hours that same month to save oil for military use.  School children raised $122,000 to buy 80 jeeps for the army by selling war bonds and stamps.

When all was said and done, it's estimated that 5,545 men from Greenwich served in World War II.  The total KIA (Killed in Action) was 127 and 22 men were MIA (Missing in Action).  Greenwich residents purchased $91,387,974 in war bonds to support the war effort.  The town's contributions were enormous!

Based on Alexandra Spann's testimony, the Aircraft Warning Service was active from 1942 to 1943.  Women "manned" the observation posts during the day, and men worked at night.    The AWS was replaced by the Continental Air Command from 1945 to 1950.  In 1949, some participated in an "Operation Lookout".  Plane spotters were to watch for military planes along with 10 other states.  The purpose was to test out a new invention called "radar"!  The observation towers at North Street and Riversville Road participated for about a week.  Later, one observer would be a witness to one of the first jet aircraft flying over town! 

The Ground Observer Corps was re-activated in 1950 because of the Korean War.   After several years of debate, the town finally bought Tod's Point in 1945.  Shortly thereafter, the Observation Tower was moved from North Street.  A new tower replaced the original tower on August 22, 1956.  It cost $4,700 and was a big improvement from the previous structure.  It had new, modern plumbing, and the second floor was enclosed.  It's code name was "Cocoa", and it was part of a coast-wide Civil Defense network with direct lines to a central office in New Haven.  Greenwich was part of a "loop" which included New Rochelle, Armonk and Mt. Kisco in New York, and Greenwich, Darien and Westport in Connecticut.  From 1952 to 1959, the group became known as  the Aircraft Warning System. 

 After the war, the need for observers began to wane.  The military had more sophisticated planes and equipment that were more effective.  The observer corps was finally disbanded in 1959. 

Around 1995, town officials decided to place a police sub-station in the vacant observation tower at Greenwich Point.  At one time it had been used by lifeguards.  Now, officials felt that it might be necessary to have a police officer close to the entrance since people were now challenging the beach access policy.   It was also a good idea from a public safety point of view since attendance had been steadily increasing.  Police can also see boats on Long Island Sound.  Help can be summoned from the Coast Guard if anyone is in distress.

The "tower" has served the town well over the years - first as an aircraft observation tower, then as a Life Guard station and now as a police sub-staion.  It's location and view make it a valuable structure at Greenwich Point. Chances are it will be there for a long, long time.

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