Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Knickerbocker Mystery

The landlord of the Columbian Hotel in New York, a Mr. Seth Handaside, made a startling announcement one day in 1809. One of his tenants had disappeared and left behind a large debt of unpaid rent. But that was not all he left behind. In the abandoned room, Handaside found a manuscript entitled:

A history of New York, from the beginning of the world to the end of the Dutch dynasty, Containing among many surprising and curious matters, the unutterable ponderings of Walter the Doubter, the diasastrous projects of William the Testy, and the chivalric achievments (sic) of Peter the Headstrong, the three Dutch governors of New Amsterdam; being the only authentic history of the times that ever hath been, or ever will be published.

The manuscript was signed by a Diedrich Knickerbocker, the tenant who ran off to parts unknown. The landlord, in an attempt to recoup his losses, handed the manuscript over to a printer, who published it that same year. The book and its mysterious author were the talk of the town for months. A History of New York was a rollicking tale of the colorful personalities and foibles of the old Dutch families that still dominated New York society. Knickerbocker had produced a big literary hit.

Only, as you probably know, there was no Diedrich Knickerbocker. When word got out that the tenant story was a ruse, and the real author was a little known and unsuccessful lawyer, people were shocked. As the author was not of Dutch descent, his book took the older families aback for poking fun at their ancestors. But the young writer went on to achieve lasting fame, and his creation, Diedrich "Father" Knickerbocker, went on to become a character that represented New York much the way uncle Sam represents the United States.

I'm speaking, of course, about Washington Irving. His creation, Father Knickerbocker, was seen everywhere in the 19th century, in cartoons and editorials, magazines and advertisements. Even a weathervane that has a long history right here in James Fenimore Cooper country. 

We have a large weathervane of him, and it is one of the best in The Farmers' Museum collection. Everything about it -- the detail of the scowling face, the plump body overwhelming the poor, small chair, the tall hat, the pint he is drinking, and especially the surface patina (and bullet holes!) -- speaks to its quality as an artwork and artifact. But there is something even better.

I've said on previous occasions here how rare it is for a 19th-century weathervane to have any history, let alone a photograph of it in its original location. Our angel weathervane from Nantucket is one example. The great thing about Father Knickerbocker is that we have photos of him sitting atop the barn of Edward Severin Clark's Fenimore Farm, the property that became The Farmers' Museum (the sister institution to the Fenimore Art Museum) in the 1940s. The pictures are probably from the later 19th century, prior to the construction of the massive stone barn that is the main entrance to the Museum today. 

It's great to have such a magnificent part of our history in our collection, especially one that is tied to such a long tradition of history and literature in New York State. But even though it is common for weathervanes to have bullet holes in them, I can't for the life of me imagine what kind of person would shoot at our Father Knickerbocker. A Cooper fan perhaps?


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