All accounts of the pre-Civil War New York neighborhood dubbed the Five Points include a description of the horrific living conditions of its largest structure, the Old Brewery. In the 1830s, the building had been converted to habitation, and quickly earned a reputation as the city’s worst tenement rookery, a place where even authorities feared to enter, sheltering hundreds of destitute residents, most of whom were recent immigrants.
Herbert Asbury, when describing the Old Brewery (Chapter I, Section 4), added a moral caution about the vicissitudes of life with a quick reference to one person:
Many of the inhabitants of the Old Brewery and of the Cow Bay dens had once been men and women of some consequence, but after a few years in the dives they sank to the level of the original inhabitants. The last of the Blennerhassetts, second son of the Harman Blennerhassett who was associated with Aaron Burr in the great conspiracy to found a Western Empire, is said to have died in the Old Brewery, as did others whose families had been of equal prominence.
The mention of Harman Blennerhassett Jr. in this context is in error. Blennerhassett died in August 1854; the Old Brewery had been purchased by the Ladies of the [Five Points] Mission in 1852, evacuated, and demolished in December, 1853. The site was rebuilt as the Five Points Mission house in 1854, but it doesn’t appear that Blennerhassett died there, either; a primary source indicated he was residing in a tenement room located outside the normal range of the visitations of the Ladies Mission.
In a nod to the current public interest in Aaron Burr thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, the Blennerhassetts are worth a quick look. Harman Blennerhassett Sr. was a wealthy English lawyer who migrated to America and established an estate on an island in the Ohio River, in what is today West Virginia. There he built an estate viewed as the most extravagant private residence in America. In 1805-1806, former Vice-President Burr met with Blennerhassett and obtained his full support of an effort to obtain lands further West by force. Burr later claimed he had a lease from the Spanish, but most suspected that he intended to establish a new independent state. Burr was arrested for treason, tried, and acquitted for lack of evidence of his true intentions. Blennerhassett, as a central accomplice, was also placed under arrest; but was later freed after the charges against Burr were dismissed. However, the damage to his reputation reversed his business fortune, and Blennerhassett was forced to retreat to Canada and then England with his young family.
In 1854, the Ladies of the Mission published a book, The Old Brewery, and the New Mission House at the Five Points, which contains a chapter on their encounter with the son, Harman Blennerhassett, Jr.:
One morning, Mr. E., one of the visitors of the Mission, invited a lady to accompany him on a visit to a most interesting old gentleman, whom he had found in the vicinity of the Mission. She immediately complied, and on the way, was informed that his name was Blennerhassett.
They entered a forlorn and comfortless room, and found an interesting looking man, delicate and refined in appearance, even amid the utter poverty which surrounded him; and whose manner and language gave unequivocal evidence that he belonged to a different position in society from that which he then occupied. Ho was attended by a colored woman, whose every look and act betokened the most entire and devoted attachment to her master. Yet, no familiarity of word or manner intimated that she had ever forgotten the relative position which, from his birth, she had maintained towards him.
He received his visitors cordially, but with considerable emotion. He referred to his past history and his present circumstances; and he and the old colored woman wept together, as past scenes of happiness and of misery were described. He referred with much bitterness to those who had crowded around his father in the days of his wealth and prosperity, and who could forget his son amid adversity and sorrow.
“Do you see that black woman?” he exclaimed, as she was about leaving the room, “she has more heart than all the people I have known. She has clung to me amid all my poverty and sorrow, without the slightest prospect of remuneration or reward. My father was the friend of hundreds. He set up merchants and mechanics, he patronized literature and the arts, he was courted and flattered in his days of prosperity, and when splendid fetes were given to Aaron Burr and Blennerhassett, there were enough found to do him homage. But when the storm burst upon his devoted Head, how few were found to rally around him, or to befriend his innocent and suffering family! I am poor. I cannot work. I am too infirm; and this old woman (turning again to his devoted servant) has done for me what all the rest of the world have failed to do—given me a quiet home, and a grateful heart.” Yet, as he spoke, the look of interest was succeeded by one of sad and mournful import.
The visitors relieved his pressing wants, spoke kindly to his attached servant, and left to meet the other claims which were pressing them on every side.
Months rolled away, and the old man removed his residence far beyond the lady’s walks. But he was not forgotten; and again and again he was referred to with interest, and commented on as one of the saddest instances of the reverses of human fortune. A record of this visit was preserved, when again in the most incidental manner, his residence was discovered. Two of the ladies immediately called. It was a decent-looking house, but the hall and stairs, proved that it was only a tenement house, and with sad forebodings, we ascended to the upper story. We knocked at the door, and a faint voice said, “Come in.” We entered. One glance at the desolate-looking room, uncarpeted and unwarmed, at the miserable bed, without a pillow or proper covering. One glance at the pallid face, and shaking form of its invalid occupant, and we sat down, (accustomed as we were to scenes of misery) almost powerless to act or speak. Such a tale of want and woe, of physical and mental suffering, was revealed; such loneliness and seeming neglect; such a contrast with what we knew of the early years and prospects of the unfortunate man, that the heart would swell, and the tears would flow, though the trembling invalid had raised himself upon his arm nervously, yet politely, enquiring who we were, and what we wanted.
“We are friends,” said Mrs. D , advancing towards the cot, “and we have called to see if we could not aid you; if we could not do something to make you more comfortable.” He gazed at her earnestly, and said, “I know your countenance. Who are you?” She mentioned her name, recalled the past to his mind, and then gradually led him to the recital of his own woes and wants.
Many questions were asked and answered, and much information elicited; but in a broken and sometimes incoherent manner on his part, and we could not describe the interview and give it the interest it possessed, for those who saw and listened to the mournful tale in that cold and dreary room. We promised him permanent relief, and assured him that so far as our means and our influence could prevail, he should never again know the destitution from which he had so deeply suffered. We told him God had sent us, and we hoped to benefit his soul and body. We left, and immediately sent him sufficient”bedding and clothing to make him perfectly comfortable. In a subsequent interview, many facts were related. For though weak in body, and occasionally confused in expression, his memory seemed unimpaired, and he gave a continuous account of his past life. To our utter surprise, we found he was but fifty years of age, though we had judged him much older from his appearance.
We sketch his history as narrated by himself. “I was the second son of Harman Blennerhassett, bearing my father’s name; and was born on the Island in the days of my father’s greatest prosperity. My infancy and childhood were guarded by the love of a most devoted mother, and my education during my youth was mostly superintended by my father at home. I afterwards went to school in Canada, and finished my education. Then having a predilection for the law, I entered the office of David Codwise, in New York, and studied three years for that profession. Not being particularly successful, I found my early taste for painting, reviving in all its strength, and resolved to yield to the visions which were forever floating through my brain, banishing all legal details, and unfitting me for the prosecution of that arduous profession. I placed myself under the instruction of Henry Inman, and soon became a proficient in the art, and supported myself comfortably by my labors. During this time, my parents were in Canada and Europe. But in 1831, my father died, and my mother returned to this country. We took a house in Greenwich street, (that colored woman accompanied her) and although straightened in our means, did not suffer from actual poverty. My mother’s health and heart were broken, and she rapidly declined. Watched by that faithful servant and myself, she sank peacefully away, and was interred in Robert Emmet’s vault, by a few faithful and sympathizing friends. It is false,” he exclaimed, with the utmost indignation, “it is false, that her last days were spent with an Irish nurse. It is false, that sisters of charity followed her to the grave. She was a member of the Episcopal Church, and was buried according to their form, in Mr. Emmet’s vault; and the man who wrote that life, knows nothing of my father’s history. For all the authentic documents are in that trunk,” pointing with his finger, “and I only can supply them. I aided Wallace to write his sketch. I lent the papers to Matthew L. Davis, when he wrote the life of Aaron Burr, and I alone can give the proper information for my father’s biography. Why did they not apply to me?
“After my mother’s death, I moved to street, where you first found me; and since then, I have lived here. An old friend paying rent, and a kind Irish woman assists me in my room, &c.; but I am feeble and suffering. I am dreading paralysis, and, ladies, I need attention, and such as you only can give.” And as he spoke, his frame shook with a strong nervous agitation, and he turned imploringly from one to the other, and was only soothed by the promise that they would do what they could to make his declining years comfortable and happy. May there be “light in the evening time I”
The trunk of papers that Harman Jr. had in his room supposedly contained a full account of the intents of the Burr Conspiracy, and had not previously been in the possession of Harman Blennerhassett Sr.’s biographer, William H. Safford. Safford wrote that biography in 1850. After Harman Jr.’s death, the trunk of papers went to his brother Lewis (Harman Jr. was not really the Last of the Blennerhassetts!). Lewis then placed them with a cousin, Richard Blennerhasset of St. Louis. In 1859, Richard’s wife Theresa (according to her letter in the Feb/ 8. 1879 Cincinnati Enquirer) sent them to the biographer, William H. Safford, for subsequent publication in 1861. However, she mentions that Safford never returned the papers, which she gave to him with that understanding.
To what degree Harman Jr.’s downfall was due to his own faults is not known. In the recounting of his life to the Ladies of the Mission, he failed to mention an 1831 marriage to Sarah W. McKinnen, who apparently was still living in 1854.