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New York's Roadside Attractions

Fraunces Tavern Museum

Fraunces Tavern Museum
Credit: Erik Bryan

South of Wall Street stands what is billed as the oldest standing structure in all Manhattan. The building that became Fraunces Tavern was built in 1719 by Stephen DeLancey, who’d been given the site in 1700 by his father-in-law, New York mayor Stephanus van Cortlandt. The Georgian-style mansion DeLancey built for his family was large for the era, although considering how small some of the apartments I’ve lived in have been, we may as well just call it large by contemporary New York standards, too. DeLancey’s descendants left the site in 1762 and sold the building to Samuel Fraunces, who turned it into a tavern called Queen’s Head.

Today the site is still very much a functioning tavern, as I discovered upon arriving last Thursday and being hustled through one dining hall and a whiskey bar by a staff member to reach a central elevator that would take me up to the museum. That night it was hosting a lecture, “Witches, Wife-Beaters, and Whores,” and how could I pass that up? 

The event description on the museum’s website said:

The early American legal system permeated the lives of colonists, reflecting their sense of right & wrong, moral & immoral. As trials throughout the country reveal, alleged evildoers, from witches & wife beaters to debtors & fornicators, were as much a part of the social landscape as farmers, merchants, and ministers. Ordinary people made law by establishing & enforcing informal rules of conduct. Codified by a handshake or over a mug of ale, such agreements became custom & custom became “law,” thus legitimizing a government that depended on popular consent to rule with authority.

I’d invited several friends to join me for the lecture, as I tend to run with a crowd that shares my interest in the historical-legal condition of witches, wife-beaters, and whores, but as happens on any given weeknight in this city, several had to work late, and many had conflicting plans. Everyone bailed. My father and his wife happened to be in town for a couple nights, and I’d invited them, too. Dad texted that they were trying to get standby tickets to Book of Mormon, but they’d show up if they couldn’t. There was no sign of them as the attendants shuffled to their seats and a young woman approached the podium.

She introduced herself as Jennifer, the education director of the Fraunces Tavern Museum. She notified everyone about upcoming events at the tavern, such as a walking tour commemorating New York’s tea party of 1774. Jennifer was then happy to introduce the guest speaker, professor of history at Fordham University and author of the recently published Witches, Wife-Beaters, and Whores, Dr. Elaine Forman Crane. A light round of applause greeted Elaine as she came up and performed the customary microphone adjustments.

Credit: Erik Bryan

Elaine began her lecture by asking all of us to consider the differences between fiction and nonfiction, and the extent of speculation in which historians are necessarily involved. She asked that we keep these thoughts in mind during the lecture. Then she asked that we close our eyes and imagine a single, 40-year-old woman on a ferry to Portsmouth, R.I., in 1742. I didn’t close my eyes. Glancing side to side, however, I noticed a lot of the rest of the group did. Weirdos.

I was taking notes, though, and furiously. What can I say; I miss being in school sometimes. Elaine forgot to tell anyone to open their eyes, but continued with her story. It centered on a widow, one Comfort Taylor, mother of six, who had boarded a ferry in Bristol, still part of Massachusetts then, with the intent to cross a small inlet of Narragansett Bay to Portsmouth where she was known to have family. She had taken the ferry many times, and would have had at least a passing acquaintance with the ferry captain, an enslaved African man known simply as Cuff. Comfort was the only passenger on the ferry on the evening of Dec. 23, 1742. The two left the Bristol port with an hour of daylight to spare, according to witnesses on shore. Forty-five minutes later, the same witnesses saw the sailing ship run aground on nearby Hog Island. They rowed out to the vessel and heard Comfort’s cries for help over the water. She accused Cuff of attempted rape.

Elaine quoted from Comfort’s testimony (trigger warning) that Cuff had “put his hand or arm round my Neck and kissed me upon which I said I would Cry murder upon which he sd do not make such a damned noise for I swear I will Choak you And swore that he would fucke me upon which I Cryed out murder murder several times,” and so on. I was both delighted Elaine would so casually drop the f-bomb—professors who swear being my favorite kind—as well as surprised it was used so cavalierly by Comfort, who came from a family of Quakers. While every accusation of rape is a serious issue, Elaine went on to list all the factors of this particular case that failed to add up.

For one, Cuff was obviously trusted enough to pilot the ferry, owned by his master Thomas Borden, without any supervision. He’d never tried to escape, and had no other complaints lodged against him. Secondly, he would have been focused on the whole piloting-the-ferry business, particularly because it would’ve been his ass, too, if the boat sank. He knew the strait well, but claimed under questioning that strong currents had prevented him from landing at Portsmouth as intended. The same unexpected eddies, he said, caused the ship to drift into Hog Island. Thirdly, when the men who rowed out to answer Comfort’s supposed cries for help arrived at the scene, both Comfort and Cuff were just kind of waiting for them. He made no attempt to escape, even though he still had a sailboat at his disposal.

Cuff’s status as a slave, however, meant that little of this mattered. Everyone unquestioningly believed Comfort’s version of events, even as Cuff denied so much as laying a hand on her. Cuff’s owner was sent for immediately, and Borden arrived promising to make any reasonable financial restitution to Comfort, and to whip Cuff as many times as she liked. Interestingly, she denied both offers that night, swore not to prosecute in any court of law (Quakers were well known to privately negotiate most conflicts), and only asked Cuff be sent away. Borden took it upon himself to bring Cuff to the authorities, and Cuff was made to spend the night in jail without any formal criminal accusation. Attempted crimes weren’t even technically on the books yet.

The next day, after talking it over with her friends, Comfort pressed charges against Cuff. Around three months later, maintaining his innocence, Cuff was found guilty of attacking her, and fined 20 pounds, what with all the parties still being subjects of the British crown. The jury was made up of 12 white men, since Cuff’s true peers, slaves, were not considered fit to decide legal matters and not allowed on juries. Comfort seemed unhappy with the verdict and sued Cuff in civil court for 1,000 pounds, an impossible sum for a slave to pay considering he was valued at a tenth of that. Even though he was provided lawyers by the court, it’s difficult to say what they could have done for him. He was found guilty, and left in prison by his former master who refused to pay Cuff’s debts. He spent another several months in appeals court, but to no avail. Cuff was eventually sold by the colony to recover some of his debt, and the historical record makes no mention of him from then on.

As Elaine recounted the story, she seemed to want to steer us, the audience, to believe justice had been miscarried. It was impossible for me not to compare the treatment of Cuff and his situation to the current fiasco surrounding the murder of Trayvon Martin, even though really the only consistent parallel is that both Cuff and Martin were minorities in deeply racist societies. Still, it’s striking how many rights and legal protections Cuff was afforded throughout his series of trials in 1743, despite his presumed guilt and his status as human chattel, considering how long it took for George Zimmerman to be formally charged for the killing of an unarmed Florida teen just a few months ago. Even in a legal system largely based on corporal punishment, Cuff didn’t receive a single lash for what he was convicted of.

Furthermore, as Elaine pointed out, the record for Cuff’s later sale to a new owner included a notice that the man had only one testicle. “This is my new expertise,” Elaine joked as she explained that based on modern studies, men with an undescended testicle are generally less inclined to acts of aggression, though it’s impossible to know if that was really Cuff’s medical case or if he’d lost one by other means. (It bears mentioning that Elaine’s version was a lot more involved and informative than my recap.) She wrapped up the lecture by reminding us to consider the difference between fiction and nonfiction, and went on to speculate about all the things that may have happened on the ferry on the night of the incident. Ultimately, she said with resignation, no one will ever be certain. Sadly, the same legacy appears likely for Trayvon Martin.

The floor then opened to questions, and the first woman called upon asked a less direct, more polite version of the question I’d been asking in my head all lecture, which was essentially, So, what was up with witches? We were promised witches. Elaine responded by saying there was definitely content relating to witches in her book, which could be purchased on our way out. She did tell us the Salem witch trials were the only witch trials on record in American history, however, which I hadn’t realized. They were regularly carried out for centuries across the Atlantic, of course. I’ve read one estimate that as much as a third of Europe’s women and girls were accused of bedevilment and put to death during that continental mania. That a formal trial against accused witches had only happened once on these shores makes the incident seem all the more strange.

I then asked a brilliant question, namely to what extent did English common law determine legal matters in the colonies. Almost entirely, it turns out, though the colonial courts functioned with a fair amount of autonomy. After a few more questions, Jennifer returned and wished us a good evening. I’d received a text from my dad halfway through the lecture, saying he and Holly were downstairs in the tavern’s restaurant waiting on me. I took a quick look through the museum’s artifacts, most of which were paintings of General Washington and his troops shortly following the British surrender. Fraunces Tavern’s biggest claim to fame is that after the Patriots had won independence from the crown, Washington assembled his officers here to bid them farewell as he released them from his service in the continental army. Later, since New York City was the United States’ first capital, the tavern housed offices for Washington’s cabinet departments of Foreign Affairs, Treasury, and War.

One wing of the museum is dedicated entirely to the Sons of the Revolution of the State of New York, which I suppose is to be expected considering they own the place. It’s just a mite incongruous to see the affects and color photographs of SRNY members who lived their whole lives in the relative comfort of the 20th century encased alongside the muskets actual Patriots used to revolt against the tyranny of King George III.

Credit: Erik Bryan

After she was finished attending to Dr. Crane, I flagged Jennifer down to get her story. She’s been a volunteer at the museum since 2005, and has served as educational director for most of that time. As such, she books all the events and lectures held at the museum, and guides class trips through the collection every single day of the school year. She majored in educational theater at NYU, with a minor in history. I thanked her for the lecture, and for her time. I was going to chat up Elaine for a minute, but she was still swamped by older, more tenacious audience members, and anyway I had to get downstairs to meet my father. On my way out I bought a copy of Elaine’s book from the pretty blonde woman working the door. April, I learned, was a personal friend of Jennifer’s. She was not affiliated with the museum, but had volunteered to help Jennifer out with the event. Unfortunately that was all the personal information I gathered from April.

I rode the elevator back down, and after a short wander through a maze of crowded rooms of what I assumed were mostly bankers, given the neighborhood, I found my dad and Holly in a nearly empty hall. The ambiance is cozy and fitting for a historic tavern, and our table was predominantly lit by several small candles. To my right I saw a sign at the entrance to the Dingle Whiskey Bar. I have not a clue as to why it has that name, but I do feel it bears repeating. Dad and Holly were unsuccessful in their attempt to get tickets for Book of Mormon, but had also shown up there at Fraunces too late to attend the lecture.

Between my iceberg salad and a mediocre hangar steak, I saw Dr. Crane seated in the far corner with a small group. I pointed her out to Dad and Holly as if she were a celebrity in her own right. As something of a connoisseur of college professors, I would recommend her to any current or prospective Fordham students in need of a history credit. I refrained from disturbing her meal, though.

Dad offered to drive me back to Brooklyn on our way out, an offer I gladly took him up on. I got us a little sidetracked, however, because that oldest, lowest part of Manhattan is still pretty confusing to me, especially from the rare vantage of a car. Luckily, I eventually got my bearings, and navigated us onto the Brooklyn Bridge and back over to my apartment.

biopic

TMN Editor Erik Bryan, though originally from Florida, left New Orleans in 2005 for higher ground. He occasionally enjoys a game of croquet, a glass of gin, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan