A Case of Mistaken Identity

Irving Underhill (American, 1872-1960). Garfield Building, Court and Remsen Streets, Brooklyn, ca. 1896-1950. Gelatin silver glass dry plate negative Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection, 1996.164.8-B16611 (105)

Irving Underhill (American, 1872-1960). Garfield Building, Court and Remsen Streets, Brooklyn, ca. 1896-1950. Gelatin silver glass dry plate negative Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection, 1996.164.8-B16611 (105)

This is the latest in a series of posts on the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel, which are currently being processed with funding provided by a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) “Hidden Collections” grant.

Please join us this Thursday at 6 p.m. for the inaugural Beer Garden of the summer, and the first installment of Tales from the Vault, where I”ll be presenting a few of the interesting stories from Brooklyn’s past that I have found in the collection.

On February 24, 1898, a woman named Agnes Paureiss entered the First Precinct Station House (now the site of the New York State Supreme Courthouse on Adams St.) and stated that a man who had swindled her out of $2000 had just entered the nearby Garfield Building (pictured above). The man was named George O. Ferguson, and a judge in Flushing had recently issued a warrant for his arrest. The chief of police telephoned the judge and confirmed that the warrant had been issued, and the chief sent a patrolman along with Mrs. Paureiss to the Garfield Building. Once identified, the police would hold Ferguson at the station house until the warrant arrived from Flushing.

Mrs. Paureiss indicated that Ferguson had an office on the third floor, so she and patrolman took the elevator up to his office. The door was locked, and a sign hanging in the window stated he would return within the hour. The patrolman suggested they wait outside to catch him entering the building. As soon as they reached the street level Mrs. Paureiss spotted the suspect and exclaimed, “here comes the man who swindled me out of my $2000 and he is getting on the elevator!”

The patrolman raced up the stairs to the first floor, and when the elevator doors opened to let off some passengers he stepped in and held the door for Mrs. Paureiss. The patrolman asked if she could identify Ferguson, and she pointed her finger at the man standing in front of the patrolman. The patrolman asked the gentleman who was identified by Mrs. Paureiss to step off the elevator, which he did. He then asked the man if he was George O. Ferguson, to which the man replied, “No I am not.” The patrolman again asked Mrs. Paureiss whether this was the right man, to which she replied, “whatever your name is now, you said your name was Mr. Ferguson when you had dealings with me and you are the man who swindled me out of my money and drove my husband insane!”

The man insisted that he was not Mr. Ferguson, and if the patrolman would just take him to the office of the district attorney, located in the same building, that he would clear up everything. The patrolman took the so-called Mr. Ferguson by the arm, and insisted be brought to the stationhouse. The man agreed to go, but asked that the officer let go of his arm. The patrolman declined, and all three left to meet with the chief of police.

As it turns out, Mrs. Paureiss had been mistaken. The man she had identified as George O. Ferguson was actually John S. Griffith, a local attorney who also had an office in the Garfield Building. Surprisingly, Mr. Griffith was understanding, and even indicated that he did not blame the patrolman for bringing him in. Unsurprisingly, he would go on to sue the city for false arrest and damaging his reputation by hauling him through the streets of Downtown Brooklyn to the police station.

Later that day, the station house received word that the actual George O. Ferguson had been arrested in Manhattan at the very same time that John S. Griffith was being held in Brooklyn.

There are a few other cases of false arrest that I’ve found in the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel, and like the other types of legal records I’ve discussed in the past I believe they provide a unique insight into 19th century Brooklyn. In particular, they allow us to review the sometimes dubious methods of Brooklyn’s police force (I’m not sure the NYPD typically brings along elderly women on stake-outs today).

Finally, I’d like to once again plug the first installment of Tales from the Vault, this Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Brooklyn Historical Society, which will feature yours truly discussing the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel. And if the prospect of learning about Brooklyn’s history via 19th century legal records doesn’t exactly reel you in, there’s also beer, custard, and pretzels to be enjoyed at our first beer garden of the season. Hope to see you there!

About John Zarrillo

I am an archivist at Brooklyn Historical Society. My job is to make the historical records of Brooklyn openly available to students, scholars, and anyone else interested in the borough's past!
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