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An Era That Has Gone II

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The Henshaws, like the Middlebrooks, were among the early English settlers in the New World. Unlike the Middlebrooks, however, the Henshaws were descendants of the kings of England, dating back to Richard III. As a result, the scion of the American branch, Joshua Henshaw, shared with his brother Daniel the inheritance of a significant British fortune. But the deaths of the boys' father and grandfather in religious and political conflicts that plagued England in the first half of the 1600s left them under only maternal care. That too was stolen from them when their grandmother and mother died within months of each other, leaving the two boys with a steward who was less than scrupulous about their welfare and who sensed that the young fellows were obstacles to his becoming the beneficiary of a large fortune in landed wealth, including an estate known as Wavetree Hall.

Wavetree Hall, rendered by the illustrator Maitland de Gorgoza
Wavetree Hall, rendered by the illustrator Maitland de Gorgoza
(Image by Peter Duveen)
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In the early 1650s, the two boys were shipped off to America by their caretaker, while he reported that they had died during an epidemic that had then just recently raged in England. In the meantime, the boys grew up in the colonies under the care of Richard Mather, the famous New England patriarch of a family of preachers and civic leaders. A descendant, John C. Henshaw, has explained in his journals that it was by no means easy going for the boys. They became servants upon their arrival in America, and had to work off their term of indenture like so many others in a similarly impoverished state.

Years later, the mature Joshua, on learning the true story of his patrimony, and after siring three children, set off to England to recover his inheritance. After 30 long years of battling in the British courts, and a multitude of delays and mishaps, it looked like events in the case were turning in his favor. It was then that he accepted a dinner invitation from his nemesis in the hope that fences could be mended. But within a few hours of ingesting the banquet meal at age 77, he was dead. John C. Henshaw's memoir tells us that Joshua had indeed been murdered, a fact he says was revealed in a death-bed confession by the perpetrator.

Joshua's demise meant that the great Henshaw fortune would remain forever in the hands of his unscrupulous relatives in England, but Joshua's descendants inherited his tenacity and became some of the movers and shakers of New England society. One of the better known of this line was the family of Samuel Henshaw, a wealthy judge in Northampton, Massachusetts, who married Martha Bates, also of an important New England family. Their daughter, Teresa, married the governor of what was then the province of Massachusetts Bay before the Revolutionary War set the colonies on end. The portraits of Samuel and Martha now hang in the Forbes Public Library in Northampton, Massachusetts. A well-known bishop of the Episcopal Church, John Prentiss Kewley Henshaw, descended from the same line, as did David Henshaw, a U.S. Navy secretary during the Tyler presidency and a staunch defender of President Andrew Jackson's plan to dissolve the Bank of the United States.

But it was Benjamin Henshaw, some three generations after Joshua, who young Nancy could trace her ancestry to. In the mid-1700s, Benjamin was a successful merchant in Middletown, Connecticut, and he, like his counterpart, Samuel Middlebrook, conducted a brisk trade with the West Indies. In fact three of his children, all seamen, were lost in a storm. But among his surviving offspring, Benjamin chose Joshua to attend law school at Yale, and after completing his studies in 1785, the young Joshua moved to New Hartford, Connecticut, and established a legal practice there. Around 1800 he joined his brother, Daniel, in Middlebury, Vermont, and there engaged in trade in a large building of his own construction, renting half of it out to the newly established State Bank of Vermont. Established around 1806, the bank, which operated for less than a decade, soon encountered rough waters and was eventually closed by the state. The directors, scrambling to cover between $20,000 and $30,000 in losses for which they were being held liable, accused Joshua, who had already moved to Montreal, Canada, with his family, of absconding with the missing funds. After many attempts to dodge their indebtedness, one of the former directors won election to public office, and through his influence was able to craft legislation that reduced the directors' liabilities to zero. One director, however, a Dr. John Willard, had borrowed against the bank, and still had to repay a hefty sum. In order to help the family finances, his wife, Emma, took to educating women as a sideline. Her work prospered, and she relocated her school in Troy, New York, where it continues to this day as a viable educational institution - the Emma Willard School.

Joshua and his wife Esther Burnham Henshaw had many children, most of whom were born well before Joshua left Middlebury for Montreal. One of these, John Leverett Henshaw, himself fathered six sons and daughters before he was taken in a cholera epidemic in 1833. After John's death, his youngest son, George Holt Henshaw, remained with his mother, Anne Maria Corey, in Canada. Anne remarried to George Johnson Holt, whose deceased wife was a member of the Henshaw clan, and the boy was raised in the couple's home.

It was in the late 1840s that the young George travelled to Brooklyn to pay a visit to his uncle on his father's side, Charles J. Henshaw, and it was at Charles's home, which was always open to traveling relatives and friends, that he met for the first time his wife-to-be, Cornelia Birdsall Middagh Gracie. Earlier in life, Uncle Charles had met with a rather unsatisfactory turn of events in Montreal. Something unusual about the marriage of one of his sisters attracted a crowd of Montrealans, who in those days practiced what was called a chivalry. If there was some irregularity in a marriage or a prospective marriage, such as the couple's being cousins or having a great age difference between them, those involved in the odd practice would form a noisy gathering in front of the couple's home, and make a rucus such as banging on pots and pans, until they extracted a payment of some kind from the parties involved. The whole affair was meant in jest, but apparently Charles did not take it as such. Unnerved by the gathering, he fired his sidearm into the unruly crowd, a bullet ironically hitting his own servant and killing him. The crowd was so incensed by the shooting that, the very next day, they looted Charles's home, the entire furnishings within being completely broken apart or carried away so that nothing was left inside of any use to the original occupants.

Fearing what might happen to him after this unfortunate turn of events, Charles had already made his escape. He eventually found his way to Brooklyn, New York, where a brother, Joseph Burnham Henshaw, had some years earlier entered high society there through marriage into the prosperous and well-connected Sands family of Long Island. Through his older brother, Charles obtained an introduction to the woman who would become his wife. Only a few years later, he married Cornelia Middagh, one of the three Middagh sisters whose father had left them a fortune in real estate, comprising at least half the acreage of Brooklyn Heights, a posh but quiet neighborhood that would soon be undergoing rapid residential development.

Because of his judicious choice for a wife, Charles would not have to worry about where the next dollar would be coming from for much of the remainder of his life. In the late 1840s, after having lived in Brooklyn for many years, he moved with his wife and servants to an estate in what is now Flushing, Queens, at approximately the point where today the Long Island and Van Wyck Expressways intersect. In the 1850 census, Charles's estate was valued at $125,000, a tidy sum that would translate into about $2 million today. While he is listed in the census as a farmer, gentleman farmer is more the case, since it is unlikely that he produced much net income from his agricultural activities.

On the other hand, Sarah Middagh, Cornelia Middagh's sister, had married in 1827 into the family of Archibald and Nancy Gracie. This Archibald Gracie should not be confused with the man of the same name who owned Gracie Mansion in Manhattan, although the Henshaws seemed to make just that mistake in retracing their own lineage. The family had originally hailed from East Hampton, but migrated to Queens County around 1808. Three children were born to the Gracies, one of these being a rather eccentric entrepreneur, William Rysam Gracie, who firmly believed he was heir to the British throne. It is this William that Sarah Middagh married, and the two, after several years wthout producing offspring, decided to adopt a little girl of about three or four years, Cornelia Birdsall. Cornelia was whisked away one day from play with her little brother to join her adopted parents at their estate in Jamaica, Queens.

The marriage between William and Sarah showed signs of strain early on, however, and after about 14 years, Sarah, weary of William's eccentricities, attempted to have her husband declared insane so she could properly manage the family finances. This attempt failed, and around 1842, Sarah had to settle for a legal separation. It is said that when William passed away in 1873, without, mind you, reclaiming the British throne, Sarah was seen at her husband's funeral weeping profusely.

Sarah and her adopted daughter, both of whom remained under the protective eye of Sarah's mother, Martha Van Nostrand Middagh, set up housekeeping on Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights. But because of the close family connection, much of little Cornelia's time was spent in the country home of her aunt Cornelia and Uncle Charles, and it was there that she first met her husband-to-be, the aforementioned George Holt Henshaw, who, now a young man of about 19, was visiting from Montreal, just before embarking on a successful career as a civil engineer in the United States. Some years later, when George returned to Brooklyn, he proposed to Cornelia, and the two were married in Grace Church on the Heights in 1858.

By age 30, some three years later, after completing work on the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada, George was overseeing the construction of several rail lines in far-away Denmark. The work kept him and his wife out of the country for a full seven years, during which time his eldest children, George Herbert and Sarah Middagh, were born. When work ran out in Denmark seven years later, George returned to Canada, and was engaged in efforts on the Intercolonial Railway in Northeastern Canada before settling into a position in the mid-1870s as resident engineer for the construction and maintenance of a major lock at St. Anne de Bellvue, a western suburb of Montreal. Much of his work on the canal endures to this day.

By then, Uncle Charles and Aunt Cornelia had relocated to a seaside estate in Orienta, Mamaroneck, New York. The close bond between George's wife Cornelia and the relatives she had known since childhood was never broken, and the family were frequent visitors to the Mamaroneck estate, where the Henshaws, under increasingly stressful economic circumstances, still managed to carry on a semblance of the lavish lifestyle of earlier years.

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Born in New York, March 14, 1949. Staff writer for the New York City Tribune, Economic Growth Report, Register-Star. Presently publish on OpEd News. Mr. Duveen heads up a project known as "The Museum of Brooklyn Art and Culture,' which explores (more...)

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