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Gay Marriage, Brooklyn Style, 1820

Interview by Mitchell Santine Gould
Curator: http://www.LeavesofGrass.org

In January, the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared "Whether and whom to marry, how to express sexual intimacy, and whether and how to establish a family -- these are among the most basic of every individual's liberty and due process rights." Immediately fundamentalists trumpeted that marriage as defined as "between a man and a woman" has existed unchanged for five thousand years. This simplistic, immutable portrayal of marriage is, of course, all too typical.

A century ago, divorce was so scandalous as to be practically unthinkable. Now half of all marriages end in divorce. Until the 1960s, inter-racial marriages were forbidden by law; but these laws have been ruled unconstitutional. Leaving all this aside, it's natural to wonder just how long loving gay families--"marriages" in every sense but the legal sense--have been making major contributions to American life. In their heart of hearts, many gay Americans suspect we have made momentous, but suppressed, contributions since the birth of our nation.

As the marriage question heats up, an obscure book on local religious history suddenly gains a potent new currency. In 1987, biographer Olive Hoogenboom published a sketch of one gay family that long ago employed hundreds of Brooklyn's unemployed; addressed the city's chronic alcoholism; helped establish a spiritual alternative to fundamentalism; cared for the city's sick, indigent, and widowed; and gave Brooklynites unprecedented access to books--thereby laying the foundation for an institution that soon evolved into the Brooklyn Museum. Higgenboom is one of the few scholars to have ever closely studied the legend of Brooklyn's Brothers Graham.

Hoogenboom recently answered questions about her work on the Brothers Graham in a telephone interview.

Mitchell Santine Gould: Before we get down to the "pretended brothers," can you first tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from?

Olive Hoogenboom: Well, my parents were Seventh-day Adventist missionaries, and I was born in Calcutta, India, in 1927. I graduated from Atlantic Union College, where I met and married my husband, Ari. The two of us began writing together on historical subjects. After earning my master's degree in English in 1955 from Columbia University, I worked and raised my children in Texas, Pennsylvania, and in Brooklyn. After publishing The First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn: One Hundred Fifty Years in 1987, I was considered to be the local Unitarian historian. I have been both a writing fellow and an associate editor of American National Biography.

Mitchell Santine Gould: Are you continuing to study the Brothers Graham?

Olive Hoogenboom: No. That research happened years ago for my book, The First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn. I am currently writing a biography of the four Woodbury sisters, who were politically connected in Washington from the 1840s to the early 1900s.

Mitchell Santine Gould: Tell us about the period of history in question. When did this take place?

Olive Hoogenboom: Augustus Graham was born in 1776 and he died in 1851. His so-called "brother," John Bell Graham, died two years later.

Mitchell Santine Gould: Let me just point out that this means the Graham Brothers were important civic and cultural leaders during Walt Whitman's boyhood and the composition of Leaves of Grass. Can you tell us why Augustus Graham is historically important?

Olive Hoogenboom: He was a key manufacturer, social activist, and philanthropist. Because it remains a mystery why he originally changed his name, he has always had a romantic appeal. But now with the strong gay rights movement, there is more interest in him--he left his wife and children (though he continued to support them) to live for decades with a man whom he called his "brother."

Mitchell Santine Gould: What was his name originally?

Olive Hoogenboom: Augustus Graham was born Richard King in Devonshire, England. He was the son of John King, a hatter and clothier, and Mary Barrons. When he immigrated to the United States he called himself Augustus Graham, and in October, 1806, he married Martha Cock in Frederick County, Maryland. They had two children, only one of whom grew to adulthood.

Mitchell Santine Gould: What about his partner, John?

Olive Hoogenboom: Around the time of his marriage, Augustus Graham and John Bell, a young Scotsman from Northern Ireland, started a successful stagecoach line from Frederick to Baltimore. The standard book on Brooklyn history by Henry Stiles says that the two decided to "unite their capital, adopt a kindred name and relation, and proceed further north in quest of better fortunes." I believe the circumstances strongly suggest a homosexual relationship. Augustus left his wife and children on her parents' Maryland farm. Then he and his new "brother" moved to upstate New York.

Mitchell Santine Gould: We don't know as much about John as about Augustus. His obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle says "He had a kind heart and an open hand. He was a very plain man... and without what is generally regarded as great intellect, but he has done more for this race than thousands who are far more liberally endowed." [BDE March 11 1853] But that's the end of the story, and we were talking about how it all got started. Can we assume that upstate New York was quite rural then?

Olive Hoogenboom: It certainly was. They ran a lumber business in the wilderness and started a country store, a brewery, and a distillery. During the War of 1812 they probably provided supplies for the troops. In 1815 they moved their brewery business to Brooklyn. There they were later joined by their "widowed sister," Maria Graham Taylor, who lived with them until her death in 1829.

Mitchell Santine Gould: They made their first fortune on booze, then?

Olive Hoogenboom: Yes, but in 1822 they retired from their brewery business and divided their large fortune. Determined to use his money to create jobs for the unemployed, that same year, Augustus Graham established a factory that helped lay the foundation for the white lead business in the United States.

Mitchell Santine Gould: This transition from alcohol to lead pigment was evidently a phenomenal business move.

Olive Hoogenboom: They eventually became more successful than anyone would have imagined. Two years later, Graham decided to attract his young workers away from grogshops and gambling resorts. So he founded the Apprentices' Library, which offered lectures and entertainment, as well as books. In spite of--or perhaps because of--his long involvement in the brewery business, Graham became part of the first radical temperance movement in Brooklyn. To set a good example, he and others planning the library agreed among themselves not to offer liquor to visitors, though the "ladies stigmatized the rules of the new society as ungentlemanly."

Mitchell Santine Gould: As a gay historian, I would take some care in trying to decode this vague complaint. It doesn't make sense for ladies to oppose any wholesome endeavor that gives young New Yorkers an alternative to whiskey and gaming. Maybe the conservatives objected to young people associating with a gay adult. After all, Stiles says (in typically ambiguous Victorian doublespeak) "Augustus Graham was the first of the two (pretended) brothers who came to Brooklyn and rapidly made friends among those who fraternize upon substantial elements of character" [2:838] The growing village already had its share of bachelors and misfits.

One early historian, Gabriel Furman, recalled a gentleman named Jack Moore. Together with his "two maiden sisters," he lived in a "very neat and handsome" house with a "a very fine garden." Even though he was "a bachelor and a bon vivant," Furman pointed out that he was "never guilty of any of the excesses of which that class are too often justly chargeable." [2:111] Perhaps he was thinking of the case of The Reverend John Ireland, rector of St. Ann's from 1798 to 1807. The unfortunate Anglican priest possessed "fine qualities both of intellect and heart, but with little control of his passions which were strong." Stiles thinks "it was probably owing to this serious defect in his character that he transferred his clerical relations to the navy yard." [2:83]

The simplest explanation is that Ireland was addicted to alcohol. But I've extensively investigated sailor sexuality in the age of sail, and I think that if Reverend Ireland had disgraced himself sexually, he would have found the Navy more forgiving than the village. Stiles takes great pains, in his history, to point out: "Mr. Graham directed that neither the lecture room nor any other part of the building should be used for any political purpose, or any exhibition, or any lecture on any subject having an immoral tendency." [2:894] But forgive me; you were trying to tell me about the evolution of Graham's library.

Olive Hoogenboom: Through the years, Augustus Graham nurtured, expanded, and rechartered the Apprentices' Library. It grew into the Brooklyn Institute and later became the Brooklyn Museum.

Mitchell Santine Gould: Now Graham was not only socially liberal, but spiritually liberal, as well.

Olive Hoogenboom: In 1833 Graham helped found the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, which he attended regularly. Stiles explains that he was deeply motivated by a concern "for the poor, the suffering, the young, and those" neglected "portions of the community" and his determination to secure for them a larger "share of the great moral and intellectual privileges." The Unitarian church in those days was often being strongly rebuked by fundamentalists.

Mitchell Santine Gould: They were always referred to--at least in print--as brothers. Back in the dawn of Brooklyn, when Dutch was still spoken as often as English [December 18, 1898, Brooklyn Daily Eagle], and pigs were running through the streets, they used to attend the Christmas festivities at Alden Spooner's home every year as a couple. Augustus was enchanted by the musical virtuosity of Spooner's daughter, Caroline. [December 18, 1898, Brooklyn Daily Eagle] I think this is significant, because Spooner, a newspaperman, was more than just Walt Whitman's boss--he seems to have been what Whitman would call a "great cockalorum of the place." Did society accept the actual relationship between John and Augustus? Walt Whitman, 1877

Olive Hoogenboom: Before Augustus Graham's death in 1851, it was rumored that he had abandoned his original family name and that he and John Bell Graham--an important Brooklyn philanthropist in his own right--were not related. He seemed to proclaim that the great good he had accomplished was more important than who he was. Graham planned a nameless monument for his grave--a bust of himself looking down on the Brooklyn Institute and the Brooklyn Hospital, two buildings he gave to the city that he had adopted, nurtured, and loved.

Mitchell Santine Gould: There was clearly a dark side to all this. In the first place, they were forced to pretend to be brothers. But after their live-in companion Isabella died, they installed a beautiful bust of her at the gravesite. It disappeared, for reasons not explained in the history. You have pointed out that Augustus decreed that his own gravesite bust would not display any name. The sculptor? John Quincy Adams Wards, whom Walt Whitman once compared to the famous gay activist John Addington Symonds.

It turns out that while he was writing Leaves of Grass, Whitman was increasingly involved with a tight-knit group of painters, daguerreotypists, and sculptors at the Brooklyn Institute. In fact, as Vivian R. Pollack has shown, he gave an important address on the role of artists as keepers of the American soul, replete with manly references to classical Greece. Whitman was nominated to be the president of the Brooklyn Art Union, but the group was disbanded because its art shows operated too much like a lottery. And during this time, as the Brothers Graham were nearing the end of their lives, Whitman's journalism took a sudden turn towards arts criticism and arts advocacy, as shown by Ruth L. Bohan.

Olive Hoogenboom: One mystery, possibly related to your points about Augustus' death, is the legend that he confessed, from his deathbed, to having committed a terrible sin.

Mitchell Santine Gould: What was their relationship actually like?

Olive Hoogenboom: Henry Stiles wrote, "This simple and romantic scheme [ultimately led to] the happiest result. Their union was always of the most affectionate and confidential character." In 1841, Augustus Graham's nephew, Robert Sherwell, came to Brooklyn to help run his uncle's lead business. John and Augustus drifted apart, maintaining separate households, while still remaining close friends. For instance, they continued to share a horse, but each man hitched his own carriage to it.

Mitchell Santine Gould: Augustus may have lived with a family named Emory in his final years. A visitor called him a " very interesting old gentlemen... he still retains the mental freshness of youth." She said, "his apartments are caskets of choice books, paintings, engravings, &c." [ www.disabilitymuseum.org ] After Augustus died, his elderly camerado, John, relied upon a housekeeper, who slept in a nearby bedroom. She found him the night he died, two years after the death of his life partner. I get the sense that people's reactions to gay marriage then were no different from the whole spectrum of modern views. Stiles wryly characterizes the complicated and draining charade of Augustus, John, and their "widowed sister" as "the peculiar comedy of their Brooklyn life." But he immediately insists that Augusts was motivated "by a noble spirit of enlightened generosity, and his moral character was always most pure and simple."[2:838]

Olive Hoogenboom: Graham left an estate of $300,000. Much of it went to his daughter who with her husband and two children came to Brooklyn to live with him during his final illness. Among his many charitable bequests Graham left nearly $20,000 to bolster Unitarianism. Stiles says, "He evidently felt that he was but the steward of God." and stresses that his public acts of charity were far exceeded by private acts." Stiles claimed that the results of those acts of kindness "will probably never be revealed on this side of eternity." [2:894] In another place, he sums up: "Brooklyn will ever have reason to cherish the memory of the twain, recognized among us, for nearly half a century, as the Brothers Graham." [2:838]
Mitchell Santine Gould works as an artist and multimedia expert in Portland, Oregon. He has been researching the nineteenth-century intersection between gay history and liberal American religions for more than twelve years, and wrote the entry on "Love" for Walt Whitman: an Encyclopedia. As curator of LeavesofGrass.org, he is currently advocating that Brooklyn's cultural institutions collaborate on a major celebration of the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass, which will occur on July 4th, 2005.
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