The Tale of January 1871

The Brooklyn Historical Society has a largely complete run of the Proceedings of the Board of Aldermen of the City of Brooklyn—bound volumes for much of the late nineteenth-century that detail the week-by-week proceedings of the Brooklyn city government.

The Tale of January 1871


So what can the Proceedings provide for the researcher?—I thought it would be fun to find out. I decided to look at just one month, January 1871, in the volume that covers proceedings From January 2 to June 26, 1871. I found a bunch of entertaining incidents that illustrate Brooklyn in 1871 — the Street Commissioner complaining that the Aldermen hadn’t bothered to tell him the orders they’d enacted about how to pave the streets, the Police Commissioner complaining about having to do his police work in a cramped office with a host of policemen squeezed in, the City Counsel bemoaning his ratty and ancient office furniture, the resolution to welcome the latest Noble Fenian Exiles from Ireland (amended to make the cost of said welcome not too excessive). I’ll just focus on two things. First, it’s fascinating to find the Aldermen specifying on January 9 exactly how the Proceedings are to be printed:

SPECIFICATIONS for Printing the Minutes, Documents, &c., of the Common Council

The contractor to print the minutes, pamphlets, &c., of the Common Council for the year 1871 in the following manner, 250 copies. To be printed on 40lb 24×38 double medium paper, small pica type, 1,508 ems to the page, solid matter. Index to be in brevier type, solid, double columns, same sized page as the body of the work. All proposals will state the price per page for plain matter, also the price per page for rule and figure work and the price per page separately for an index. The contractor to furnish to the City Clerk 60 copies of the minutes on or before the Saturday succeeding each meeting at 10 o’clock, A. M. stitched and trimmed.

One hundred and ninety copies to be retained by the printer, subject to the order of the City Clerk in regard to binding. [p.55]

I found it wonderful to read the description of the book from which I was transcribing this notes–to see the plans and touch the paper and ink at the same time. It was also interesting to get an upper bound for exactly how many copies of the Proceedings could still exist — 190. The Brooklyn Historical Society’s copy is one of a very limited edition.

But this isn’t precisely Brooklyn itself. The best bit in January was the Annual Message by Mayor Martin Kalbfleisch to the Alderman.–

Martin Kalbfleisch


Martin Kalbfleisch:, downloaded 10 December 2010

Martin Kalbfleisch, you ask; who is he? Kalbfleisch is gone from memory, alas, and there isn’t even a statue of him in the borough. You can take a gander at his tombstone, request the Brooklyn Historical Society for a look at his portrait in their Portrait Collection, or read any of the books by or about him at the Brooklyn Historical Society Library. But for a brief summary of his life:

Martin Kalbfleisch was born in Flushing, Holland, on February 8, 1804, one of twenty-four children. …. He came to the United States in 1826, his exact motivation unknown. …. He came to the western part of Long Island which, in 1826, was composed of a number of small villages and towns. …. By 1832 he was Health Warden [of Bushwick] and in 1836 he became a school trustee. He was operating his Brooklyn Chemical Works by 1840 … and became Supervisor of Bushwick in 1852. …. Upon incorporation [of Brooklyn as a city in 1855, including the former town of Bushwick], Martin Kalbfleisch was elected Alderman and served in that post until 1861. …. he was popular enough to secure the Democratic nomination for Mayor and then to win an easy victory over Frederick Scholes on April 5, 1861. …. [He served in the United States Congress from 1863 to 1865.] …. he secured the nomination [for Mayor] again–in 1867–…[and served a] second term as Maor of Brooklyn, from 1868 to 1871. …. Martin Kalbfleisch died on February 12, 1873 [William F. Karnbach, “The Old Dutchman: Martin Kalbfleisch of Brooklyn,” The Journal of Long Island History 9, 1 (Winter-Spring 1969), pp. 44-49].

Kalbfleisch resided at 85 Bushwick Ave., between Grand St. and Powers St.:

The Kalbfleisch House

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Kalbfleisch House, 1922. Eugene L. Armbruster Photograph and Scrapbook Collection, v1974.1.1404, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Kalfbfleisch started out the Civil War as a War Democrat, but he drifted toward being an anti-war Copperhead Democrat by 1863–one reason he failed to be re-elected Mayor of Brooklyn in 1863 or 1865 [Karnbach, pp. 46-48]. Despite being increasingly disaffected from the Civil War, Kalbfleisch played a heroic role during the Draft Riots:

On one occasion he stood up before an angry, armed mob of draft rioters who had overridden the police, and in plain words called them traitorous cowards, ordering them to disperse. One of the mob’s leaders rushed at him. Leaning over, Mayor Kalbfleisch dragged him up on the steps behind him. Silencing the crowd with a gesture, he invited the rioter to tell his story. ‘Then afterward,’ he thundered at the mob, ‘I will tell you your duty as citizens of the Republic!’ Ashamed, the draft evader slunk away and his followers quietly scattered [William Haynes, “Martin Kalbfleisch,” in Chemical Pioneers (D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.: New York, 1939), p. 50].

As Mayor of Brooklyn between 1861 and 1863, Kalbfleisch also “had a mania for economy and vetoed many a bill presented by the Aldermen …. He would not sign bills to outlandishly equip local regiments, to supplement salaries, or to alleviate family hardships.” [Karnbach, pp. 45-46]. Kalbfleisch in general had an “un-compromising nature” and “a propensity to offend” [Karnbach, p. 45]; it is perhaps a coincidence that a sulfurous man specialized, in his capacity as a chemical manufacturer, in refining “the purest, strongest sulfuric acid that might be produced, and he resolved to start only with pure brimstone as a raw material [Haynes, p. 48]. The Kalbfleisch chemicals factory was located in Bushwick:

The Kalbfleisch Factory

image v1974.22.3.67 non-photographic

Bushwick Chemical Works, ca. 1870. Eugene L. Armbruster Photograph and Scrapbook Collection, v1974.22.3.67, Brooklyn Historical Society.

An irascible man, tight-fisted with the public purse, is precisely what you would expect from Kalbfleisch’s wonderful Annual Message, a doozy of ponderous sarcasm, and wonderfully illustrative of what Brooklyn was like in 1871.

In the first place, Hizzoner was not overwhelmed by his neighbors across the East River: the Annual Message began by side-swiping at New York for trifling matters of criminality and cleanliness:

The year which has expired has not been an eventless period in our City’s history. On the whole, we can look back upon its annals with satisfaction. They include no great local calamity. The public peace and safety have been but rarely disturbed. The two most flagrant cases—in one of which an industrious working man lost his life while guarding his employer’s property, and in the other, a valued and public spirited citizen was shot down without having offered the slightest provocation—each of the men by whom the deadly weapon was so fatally employed was a resident of the adjoining city. …. Our citizens were, however, for a considerable period exposed to great peril by the outrageous conduct of the contractors employed by the health authorities of the neighboring city, who persisted, in disregard of public decency and of the health of the entire surrounding population, in throwing the offal and dead animals of New York into the waters which wash our shores. I would most strongly urge your honorable body to demand, through our County delegation in the Legislature, the immediate passage of a law explicitly forbidding the repetition of such an outrage. [p. 6]

Here Be Offal and Dead Animals

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East River, ca. 1866-1873. Prospect Park Lantern Slide Collection, v1980.2.20, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The pleasantries concluded, Kalbfleisch moved on to a rip-roaring denunciation (in polite terms) of the corruption in Brooklyn. First, the government spent too much money. After displaying a table showing that the growth of Brooklyn’s debts exceeded the growth of its population, he croaked, alarmedly:

I challenge any of those, who are so ready to denounce me as a croaker and alarmist …. Here it is shown that for ten years past we have been borrowing money in vast sums, mortgaging our future with incredible recklessness, and at the same time swelling our expenses at a rate to which the growth of the city, rapid as it is, cannot begin to afford a parallel. …. We are burning the candle fast at both ends, and still hope to keep our light, and to have it permanently increasing in brilliancy. [pp. 7-8]

The substance of the expenditures was also questionable:

Your honorable body have contracted with Peter Riley for grading and paving Seventh avenue for nearly its whole length, from Flatbush avenue to Greenwood Cemetery, at $5.50 per running foot. There are but a few occupied dwellings on the avenue, although it is over a mile and a half long. The work of putting down the paving stones is far from being completed, and when finished is to be paid for in bonds issued for that purpose. Singular, however, as it may appear, before this pavement is actually laid, a contract is made by the Water Commissioners with the Scrimshaw Pavement Company to plaster it over at a cost of $3.50 per square yard, or about $13.15 per running foot. This will require the issuing of a large amount of bonds to pay for the expense, which is more than double the original cost. I am told that this repaving is asked for by the owners of property along the line of the avenue. This may be so, but, let me ask, did the law conferring upon the Commissioners the power to repave streets, intend to authorize them to enter into contracts to repave a street before it had actually been paved at all. [p. 11]

Laying Down the Roads–For a Price

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Road Construction, ca. 1866-1873. Prospect Park Lantern Slide Collection, v1980.2.2 a,b, Brooklyn Historical Society.

And he didn’t much care for how Prospect Park was being built:

The Park Commission is anti-republican, and I believe unconstitutional in its formation. Originally the child of the Albany lobby, it has maintained itself from year to year in defiance of popular sentiment, by annual and prolonged appeal to the corrupt source of its being. It has involved our city in a debt greater than the whole cost of our magnificent system of water works, and instead of a completed park at a moderate cost, for which the site chosen afforded peculiar advantages, it has treated us as yet only to what one of our public journals, with truthful satire, described as little more than a new branch of the Coney Island road. [p. 14]

Beautiful Prospect Park …

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Prospect Park, ca. 1866-1873. Prospect Park Lantern Slide Collection, v1980.2.9, Brooklyn Historical Society.

… Coming Soon?

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Prospect Park, ca. 1866-1873. Prospect Park Lantern Slide Collection, v1980.2.14, Brooklyn Historical Society.

And so on and so forth, to the gnashing end. Brooklyn in 1871! – beset from New York by infiltrating murderers and dead animals floating in the East River, in debt up to its eyeballs, corrupt through and through in its municipal contracting, with a hole in the middle of it where Prospect Park should be, and Mayored by the most eloquent curmudgeon of the nineteenth century. All this in just the first few pages of the purportedly staid Proceedings of the Aldermen–and a fair bit more in this vein if you continue reading. It’s just a taste, but it does whet the appetite for everything else we’ll find.

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2 Responses to The Tale of January 1871

  1. Heather Wathen says:

    Mr. Randall, Are you the same David Randall who has previously searched for descendants of Moses Lebbed?

  2. K. Papacosma says:

    I enjoyed the Kalbfleisch post, but emphasize that, by 1871, a tremendous amount of progress had been made in Prospect Park and on Eastern and Ocean Parkways. In the park, this included the installation of a technologically advanced drainage system; creating a sophisticated circulation system of drives, bridle paths, and pedestrian walks to seamlessly carry visitors few the park; completing great earthworks to create a sense of infiniteness within the park; planting and moving hundreds of shrubs and trees; and building key architectural structures.

    Part of me wishes Kalbfleisch were around to read this, but, after having read about his bilious nature, perhaps it’s best that he isn’t. . . .

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