The Confessions of Jonathan Pratt is a work of fiction. Though several of the characters appearing in the story were famously (or notoriously) alive in 1848, all of their scenes are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
That said, most of the places and situations are consistent with the history of New York State in 1848. Jonathan’s story, though highly improbable, is not impossible.
The accuracy of any personal memoir, such as Jonathan Pratt’s confession, is only as good as the memory and honesty of the teller. Recollections, even recent ones, can become distorted; names, dates, places and events confused or lost altogether. And someone with as much at stake as Jonathan Pratt, on the eve of his execution, cannot be trusted to write with absolute honesty. The purpose of these chapter notes will be to compare Pratt’s statements with what is known to be true and attempt to determine to what extent we can trust Jonathan Pratt’s memory.
In 1848, Easter Sunday fell on April 23. This will be important going forward, as we follow Pratt’s travels and attempt to place events on a timeline.
Pratt’s first destination was Mr. Pembroke’s cooperage on Water Street in Salem, MA. In 1848 Salem had at least eight cooperage shops, employing more than fifty people. Their owners and locations cannot be easily verified at this point.
Itinerant preachers, traveling evangelists, were common throughout America beginning during the colonial period. Their work led directly to the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s and 1840s. Many were circuit riders who helped found the Methodist Episcopal Church in America; others were scoundrels and mountebanks attracted by easy money from a gullible audience. Wise is the man who can tell the difference.
The instrument that Mirabile played was a lap organ or harmonium; a portable pump organ played on the lap. They were manufactured in America beginning around 1830.
Before the Civil War the United States government issued no paper currency. All bills in circulation were notes issued by private banks and counterfeiting was rampant. Any transaction involving paper money required the merchant to assess the soundness of the bill itself, the institution it was drawn upon, and the individual attempting to pass it
Berkshire County is the easternmost county of Massachusetts; Jonathan will soon be in New York.
In 1845 there were 4,000 cargo and passenger boats on the Erie Canal employing 25,000 men women and children between Albany and Buffalo. Erie Canal packet boats were the preferred means of transportation for those seeking opportunity in the west.
Deacon M. Eaton traveled the Erie Canal for the Bethel Society in the 1840s. His 1845 book Five Years on the Erie Canal recounts numerous cases of reforming hoggees, convincing reluctant clergymen to hold services aboard packets, and bringing passengers— and even the meanest captains –to tears with God’s word. It is not unlikely that Deacon Eaton was still on the canal in 1848, but this has not been verified.
The village of Canajoharie—whose name is derived from the Iroquois word meaning “kettle washing”—is much older than the Erie Canal. It became a favorite stop for Canalers and their passengers because of the well-stocked general store operating there.
In the days when rigidly defined sexual roles extended to extremely gender specific clothing, it was not difficult for an assertive woman to pass as a man by simply dressing and acting the part. It was also the only way for a woman to actively participate in a man’s world. On an Erie Canal boat, the only job open to a woman was cook.
There are numerous documented cases of women impersonating men in eighteenth and Deborah Sampson fought in the American Revolution disguised as a man named Robert Shurtleff. The deception was not discovered until she was wounded in battle and examined by a physician. The Civil War also saw many cases on both sides of women fighting dressed as men.
Though faith healing is rooted in the Bible, modern evangelical faith healing began during the Second Great Awakening with people like Ellen White and Phineas Quimby whose work lives on in the Adventist and Christian Science movements. Of course, from pre-Biblical times to the present faith healing has also been a lucrative field for charlatans.
Contrary to Jack’s belief, their escape from the boat—if it actually happened—was not long remembered. The literature and folklore of the Erie Canal include many stories of men jumping from bridges onto canal boats, but none about leaving a canal boat by climbing upon a bridge.
The Erie Canal brought prosperity to towns throughout New York, but it also brought undesirable elements. The largest concentrations of taverns and brothels grew at the canals extremes: Buffalo in the west, and Watervliet in the East. The town of Watervliet, west of Troy, had a well-earned reputation for drinking, brawling, and debauchery.
Tales of the death-defying, acrobatic, self-destructive Watervliet entertainer, Davie, have persisted to the present day. His last name is unknown, as is his reason for limiting his hammer-and –staircase act to exactly five iterations per session. Perhaps he had more sense than his choice of occupations would indicate—it is a wise man who knows his limits.
From Halfmoon, Jonathan and Jack probably traveled northeast and stopped on McDonald’s Creek.
The man from the cave was making reference to Exodus 3:12, where, in the King James Version, God says to Moses, “I am that I am.”
In 1844, several thousand followers of the Reverend William Miller prepared for the final judgment day which they earnestly believed would occur on March 21, 1843. Miller had calculated the date by a careful study of the dates and prophesies in the Bible. He then traveled throughout New York and New England with an elaborate tent show. He was remarkably successful at selling his idea.
When the world did not end on March 21, 1843, he recalibrated his calculations and predicted the end would be on April 18, 1844. The calculations were revised again after April 18 proved uneventful, and Miller’s followers, known as the Millerites, did not lose faith until the world failed to end on October 21, 1844.
Many tales concerning the Millerites have been exaggerated. Not all of them sold their property before the big day. Nor did they all stand on hilltops wearing white ascension robes. But in each case, some did.
Also, contrary to the myth, the lunatic asylums did not fill up after the world failed to end. While some of Miller’s followers did go insane, many continued on to form the Seventh Day Adventists who refer to the events of 1844 as “The Great Disappointment.” Many others joined the Shakers, another sect that believed the end was at hand but did not put a date on judgment day. Most, though, went back to conventional religion.
In 1848, Benment’s American Hotel on State Street was the finest hotel in Albany, New York; The Temple of Fancy on Broadway was the largest department store.
Just as in Jack’s childhood home, many pioneer families traveling west carried only two books: The Bible and The Plays of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare had always been popular in America, among people of every class, and they especially loved to see their native son, Edwin Forest performing in Shakespeare’s plays.
In 1848 Edwin Forest was following behind his English rival William Charles Macready who was on tour in America. There is a good chance that they both played Albany that season. When Macready left a city, Forest would open there, performing the same play, inviting comparison. The tours culminated in New York City in May of 1849 when both men were performing Macbeth at the same time. The event sparked a rare alliance of the Irish and nativist gangs of New York, who rioted against the English actor. The Astor Place Riot, as the disturbance was called, left 25 people dead and 120 wounded and had to be quelled by the state militia.
The game that Jack and Jonathan played on the steamboat was three-card monte, a variation of the much older shell game. Three-card monte was gaining popularity in the 1840s and was played in hotels, mining camps and steamboats—wherever people with money gathered.
Three-card monte is not really a game since the dealer always wins. For one practiced at manipulating cards, it is an effective way to con an unsuspecting player out of his money. It is often played with teams of two, with the second man serving as a shill to bring players to the dealer. The additional scam of making the player believe that the queen is marked is as old as the game itself.
Rhinebeck is a little town on the east bank of the Hudson River, about sixty miles south of Albany.
The Hudson River is actually a tidal estuary for most of its length and the influence of tides can be felt as far north as Troy. When the tide is coming in, the Hudson actually flows north. The boatman is waiting for the tide to go out and facilitate his journey south.
Jonathan and Jack have landed in the most dangerous section of New York; an area controlled by violent criminal gangs, like the Daybreak Boys, mentioned by the boatman. The Hole-in-the-Wall was a famous dive located in the Fourth Ward, between Five Points—the city’s most notorious neighborhood—and the East River. Gallus Maggie did indeed keep order at the Hole-in-the-Wall and was known for biting off the ears of those who would not behave.
It was common practice in the waterfront dives of New York, to drug and shanghai unsuspecting men into service aboard sailing ships. It was not wise to drink alone in these establishments.
“Moses’ Law,” as applies to flogging, means forty lashes less one. It was presumed to be an Old Testament law prescribing forty lashes as a death penalty; thus thirty-nine was less severe than a death penalty. In fact, the law was not from the Bible, but part of a more complicated Roman law regarding punishment. Forty lashes were considered sufficient to kill a man, so in order to maintain consistency in punishment, if the man being flogged was still alive after forty lashes, the flogger was killed. The Romans often sentenced a man to thirty-nine lashes for the benefit of the flogger rather than the criminal. Centuries later this tradition was maintained aboard ship as “Moses’ Law” for server punishment that did not call for a death penalty.
The Dead Rabbits were the most powerful of several gangs of Irish immigrants controlling lower Manhattan in the 1840s. Their chief rivals were The Bowery Boys, a gang composed of native-born Americans with a hatred for immigrants. Their battles were of epic proportions.
In the 1840s Five Points was the most notorious slum in America, if not the world. Here is how Charles Dickens described it American Notes, after visiting Five Points in 1842.
“Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lien of going on all-fours? And why they talk instead of grunting?”
The Tombs was New York City’s House of Detention. It housed accused criminals awaiting trial and convicted murderers awaiting execution. Those arrested for the petty crime of stealing apples would probably not be sent to the Tombs, but if the goal was to make an example of the thief, the Tombs was a good place to do it.
The church robbed by Jack was, no doubt, The Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church on Mott Street.
Picking pockets was a good entry level crime and a skill useful to any thief.
The “badger game” and the “panel game” were two very lucrative con games perpetrated on unwary customers of prostitutes. They were common in New York and other cities throughout the 19th century.
All sites mentioned were notorious Five Points nightspots, popular with the locals as well as adventurous up-town folks.
1848 was early in the immigration of Chinese to New York; they brought along their fondness for opium. The drug was not illegal at the time and while opium “joints” catered primarily to Chinese, they were open to everyone.
The peak from which Jonathan views “all creation” was probably Pine Orchard in the Catskill Mountains which is three thousand feet above the Hudson River. From this summit, the mountains of Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut can be seen, as well as the valley of the Catskills.
Kaaterskill was the original Dutch spelling of Catskill. The Dutch language was spoken there well into the 19th Century, though communities as exclusively Dutch speaking as the one where Jonathan found himself were probably rare.
Pinkster was a Dutch holiday celebrating the feast of the Pentecost, also known as Whitsunday, falling on the seventh Sunday after Easter. African Americans in the northeast continued the celebration of Pinkster after Dutch influence faded.
In 1848 Pinkster fell on June 11.
Henry Backus, also known as the Saugerties Bard was a songwriter who traveled through the Hudson Valley from the late 1840s through the 1850s eventually moving to New York City. He wrote topical songs set to familiar melodies of the time—a tradition that would later be practiced by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. The songs, which were self-published, tended to be about sensational events such as murders and disasters. One of his earliest was “The Powder Mill Explosion” published in 1847.
Andrew Jackson Davis, aka “The Poughkeepsie Seer” was a clairvoyant, a spiritual healer and a prolific writer on spiritual matters, who lived and worked in Poughkeepsie, New York beginning in the 1840s. He has been called “the John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism” because his early writings seemed to predict some events in the rise of Spiritualism in the United States.
While the Hudson River Railroad Line did not officially open until 1849, it is probably safe to assume that sections of track were already operating in the summer of 1848. However, Jonathan would probably not have been able to buy a ticket from Poughkeepsie to Syracuse traveling only by train.
The healing power of the waters at Saratoga Springs were known to the Iroquois Indians long before the arrival of white men. The first permanent white settlements were in the 1780s and by the early 1800s hotels were built there— among the oldest was the Grand Union Hotel. As Jonathan describes, the waters have always attracted the rich and famous to Saratoga Springs, and the rich and famous have always attracted grifters. This condition would be amplified in 1863 when America’s oldest horseracing track opened there.
Jonathan is probably mistaken that Charles Grandison Finney was preaching in New York in 1848. Though he preached throughout New York State in the 1820s and 1830s, and coined the term “Burned-over District” to describe Western New York, in 1848 Finney was a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, soon to be its president. It is not impossible that Finney’s name was used to promote the camp meeting as that is the type of evangelism that he pioneered.
All of the political organizations mentioned by Jack were to a greater or lesser extent operating in the State of New York in 1848, though not all would be called “secret societies.” Also, they were not exactly waging constant warfare, though disputes between Tammany Hall and the Native American Party, or “Know Nothings” would turn violent—Bill “the Butcher” Poole was murdered by gangsters associated with Tammany Hall. Also, the Freemasons did kidnap, and probably kill, William Morgan for attempting to reveal their secrets, leading to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party.
Ned Buntline was the pen name of Edward Judson, a writer, and newspaperman who, in 1848, was also an agitator for the Know Nothings. He would later travel west and write dime novels that would help create the mythology of the Wild West. Thurlow Weed was a newspaper publisher and political boss in western New York who was active in the Anti-Masonic movement.
Fear of secret societies in the 1840s was not a small thing in New York State or in the nation at large. Especially vexing were the Freemasons and their connection to the Democratic Party. Thurlow Weed a founder of the Anti-Masonic party and a powerful political boss in New York. His protégé, Hamilton Fish, was elected governor of New York in 1848 as a Whig. Another Weed protégé, Milliard Fillmore from Buffalo, also a Whig, was elected Vice President in 1848. He became president on the death of Zachery Taylor. By 1852 the Whig party was no more and Fillmore ran for reelection as candidate for the American (“Know-Nothing”) Party.
The leading Democratic contenders in 1848 were Freemasons. Lewis Cass was the Masonic Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Michigan, and James Buchanan was District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
In July 1848 the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. In attendance were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Amelia Bloomer, and three hundred other women. The Declaration of Sentiments drafted there served as the foundation of the women’s rights movement.
Jack was probably not telling the truth about voting three times. Not that it would have been difficult for someone to vote three times in a New York City election, but the Mayoral election was held on April 11, that year, before Jack arrived in the city.