JULY 2020


 

This month, Ancient Hixtory profiles John F. Heitz, who bought land in Hicksville in 1850.  He was not the first German immigrant to settle in the village, but he may have been the one whose generosity had the most beneficial and enduring impact.


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Two Beginnings

Hicksville had its first start in the latter 1830s.  Anyone who stood at the depot in those days and looked around would have seen a couple of railroad sheds, some appurtenant storage buildings, a cluster of structures erected by people from Jericho , and a hotel.  This was the nucleus around which a thriving village might have grown – except that one day a fire burned everything but the hotel to the ground.  It was a significant setback.

In 1849, settlement got its first real thrust.  A man named Frederick Heyne purchased 1,000 acres of land, hoping that he could persuade a number of his fellow German immigrants to come to Hicksville, and start developing it into a prosperous village – and that’s just what he did.  Within a year, the first of them were planting their roots.  One of those who arrived in 1850 was Johann Heitz, an unassuming watchmaker.


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The Watchmaker

In about 1818, Johann Friedrich Heitz was born in the Kingdom of Hanover (today, his birthplace lies in the German state of Lower Saxony ).  Obeying the wishes of his father, as a youth he diligently studied to become a Lutheran minister.  He acquired an excellent education, and – as he neared his seventeenth birthday – he also acquired something else: the realization that he had no calling for the ministry.  Once he acknowledged that, he changed course, and decided to become a watchmaker.

Young Johann was not one to make rash decisions.  After completing a four-year apprenticeship, he traveled across Europe , working at his new craft as he went, learning different techniques.  It was a well-planned entry into his chosen career, which is not surprising.  The demands of making timepieces would appeal only to a man who was patient and methodical – after all, one does not spend hours making each little gear or ratchet without knowing in advance how they are to fit and function together.  When he returned home from his journeyman travels and set up shop, Heitz was no novice.  He possessed a well-rounded knowledge of his craft; he was skilled at it, and he was self-confident.


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Manhattan

In the mid 1840s, like a great many others in the German states of Europe, several members of his family decided to emigrate across the Atlantic, and Johann was one of them.  He faced the change of country and culture as he had faced his earlier change of career, not permitting himself to recklessly rush ahead.  Once in New York , he realized the importance of learning about the new milieu, and of learning the English language, before making any crucial decisions.  Rather than immediately becoming a watchmaker, Heitz chose to first be a common day laborer, so that he could learn English more quickly by being among the people, and also so that he could learn about New York and the opportunities it offered.

Only when he learned enough did he set himself up as a watchmaker.  He is first listed in New York ’s city directory in 1848, both doing business at and residing on Manhattan ’s Rector Street .




Listing for Johann – now John – F. Heitz in 1848-1849 NYC Directory

New York Public Library Digital Images



Heitz lived first at 22 Rector Street , and later at 20 Rector.  The
buildings shown above, now consolidated, survive as 14 Rector.
20 Rector was either where the left-most upper windows can be
seen, or just to the left of them, where a new building rises.  Like
Pomodoro’s, John Heitz’s shop would have been at street level.

Google Street View

Years later, Heitz, wrote that from the beginning of his stay in Manhattan , he chose to create only good quality timepieces, even if that meant he would make fewer sales.  Sales would not have been a problem at this location, however, for Wall Street is only two blocks away.  His early explorations of the city had paid off – he chose a location that was frequently seen by many of those who traded at the Stock Exchange.

The 1850 U.S. Census gives us further insight about Heitz’s choice of location.  On the whole, the neighborhood’s inhabitants were neither poor nor affluent.  They worked at a variety of occupations: sailor, waiter, merchant, sail-maker, tasselmaker (?), boatman, junk shop owner, barber, watchmaker, “segar” maker, shoemaker, etc.




John and his sister Louisa on the 1850 U.S. Census

Ancestry.com

Living quarters in the area were probably less lavish than those of the watchmaker’s clientele, but they would have been both convenient and affordable.  That suited John Heitz, for he was industrious, thrifty, and patient.  He kept his eye on the future, and he lived inexpensively, in order to retain more profits to invest in real estate.  Almost from the start, he began acquiring properties in Manhattan and Brooklyn .

The census also reveals another thing.  A second German watchmaker, younger than Heitz, lived in the same residence.  He may have worked independently and simply shared the shop space with Heitz, but I think it more likely that he was doing what John had done in Europe – gaining knowledge, and deepening his skill set, by working for someone who was more experienced.  If so, Heitz benefited from having an assistant, but the arrangement also provided him with a way to “pay it forward” by helping a young craftsman get a good start in life.


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Gradual Transition to Hicksville

Around 1850, only two years after he was first listed in the city directory, John Heitz bought his first property in Hicksville , and by the following year a home had been built on it.  Although he now was nominally a resident of the village, his business was still in Manhattan .  At the time, travel was still too arduous for daily commuting to be feasible, and he maintained a Manhattan residence as well.  Eventually, he had only a room in a boarding house there, in which a state-wide census found him in 1855, and recorded him as a “jeweler.”

Alas, the “good old days” were not necessarily perfect.  One night in 1859, a burglar broke into Heitz’s shop and made off with merchandise totaling (in 2020 dollars) almost $4,000.  As the thief was arrested promptly the next day, one can assume that the stolen items were recovered.




The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 27, 1859

In 1861, at the age of 43, John Heitz married Jane Sutton Norris, an Irish-born woman almost twenty years his junior.  Within two years, he had retired from his business and was living full-time in Hicksville with his new family.  Thanks to his investments, he continued to prosper, and to buy more local real estate.

Although Heitz was quite active in the community, he missed running a hands-on business.  Thus, in 1869 he opened a dry goods and clothing store.  The next year’s census showed the Heitz family living in Hicksville , but it was not alone – sharing the house with them was the family of John’s brother-in-law, William Sutton.




Location of John F. Heitz’s dry goods store
(across Heitz Place from the Herzog store)

Beers, Comstock & Cline, Atlas of  Long Island  , etc., 1873

digitalcollections.nypl.org


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“The Highest Type of Manhood”

While Hicksville still was young, John Heitz had begun planning for its future, much as he planned for his own.  The village would need a real school – thus he donated land on Nicholai Street , and in 1853 the village’s first true schoolhouse was built on it.  Around the same time, he donated a site on Broadway for the construction of Hicksville ’s small Union Chapel.  After so many Germans had settled in the area that a Lutheran church was warranted, he donated land for one – the village’s first denominational church building.

Early in his retirement from watchmaking, Heitz was disappointed to find that he did not care for raising and tending crops, even as a gentleman farmer.  Nonetheless, he loved the countryside and its flora.  Like E. H. de Languillette, he was both a founder of Oyster Bay ’s agricultural society, and frequently one of its ongoing elected officers.  So that Hicksville would grow into a lovely village, he laid out a number of its secondary streets (sadly, from early on, many buildings on Broadway had been built too close to the narrow, centuries-old route).  Streets like Cherry or Mary – today’s Marie Street – were built wider than had been the norm, and they were lined by trees and sidewalks.  Many decades later, when towns all over western Long Island vied to attract commuters, the mature shade trees that lined Hicksville ’s downtown streets were praised by real estate brokers.



Marie Street , c.1911

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 3, 1911
 
  

John Heitz was the first person in Hicksville to respond to the need for a community burial ground.  He donated land for what people liked to call the Heitz Resting Place .  It later was incorporated, and eventually was renamed Plain Lawn Cemetery.


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As long as he lived, Heitz continued to turn his wealth into real estate.  When he died in 1881, it was said that no one owned more of the village’s land than he had.

Although he had been wealthy, he had not had an extravagant or elegant lifestyle.  The townspeople remembered him as a friendly storekeeper, and they appreciated him as a good man, who had done all he could to better Hicksville .  Someone wrote that his “life and precepts” had brightened the lives of all who knew him.  His peers at the Town of Oyster Bay Agricultural Society wrote that he had been a man “quiet and modest in his bearing, [who] fully exemplified the highest type of manhood in his truthfulness, his integrity, his practical charity to all.”


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Appendix

Sources

Captions throughout the article indicate a number of specific sources.  Given the years of Mr. Heitz’s life, online images of old newspapers provided less information than I had desired; only the Brooklyn Daily Eagle proved useful.  I had expected the Huntington Long-Islander to be a rich source, but I have yet to discover any online issues earlier than the late 1880s.

As always, the impressive digital images available through the New York Public Library were helpful, as were the collections at Ancestry.com.

 

My most useful source was the 1882 Munsell History of Queens County, N.Y.  Online, I found a digitized version of a print copy in one of the University of Toronto ’s libraries – ironic; were it not for the pandemic, I could have hopped on the subway and in twenty minutes been in the library, holding the old tome in my hands.  The book’s section about Hicksville , which includes brief biographies of Frederick Herzog and John F. Heitz, was written by… John F. Heitz!  He died some months before the book was published; what he had written was then edited to reflect his passing.  Incidentally, the portrait used at the start of this article comes from that source.

 

I feel obligated to note a shortcoming of the Munsell History: it had many contributors, who worked on different topics, each using different sources as they saw fit.  The result is some inconsistency and inaccuracy, things which are especially relevant if one reads about the founding of Hicksville .

My belief is that the combination of the disastrous early fire, and the subsequent (but not immediate) resettlement by people from outside Long Island , created a vacuum of accurate local historical knowledge.  By the late 19th century, there was a consensus, handed on from one person to the next, about what had happened in the village before the Germans arrived – and in detail, it was at odds with certain facts.  Thus, the History talks about Jericho-based preacher Elias Hicks as the leader of the original Hicksville settlement, and it somewhat rearranges dates and events so that they fit that premise.

Elsewhere in the same History is a fact-based profile of Elias Hicks.  The famous Quaker could not have participated in the settlement of Hicksville , which occurred (per the book) c.1836 – he had died some years earlier, in February 1830.


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That’s that!  And now for something different….


*****




When I wrote June’s article, my research into its “main characters” was less complete than I wanted.  There still were many unanswered questions about Madame Rosa, including the location of the summer home from which her wannabe duelist made his escape.  The following relates how I connected a few dots and found some of those answers.  If you just want to see where in Hicksville she spent her summers, skip ahead to the map below.


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Who was Named What?

If I was going to identify the location of Rosa’s house in Hicksville , I probably would need to know the name under which she owned it.  I was confident that her first name was Amy, and that her middle initial was L.  Her birth surname was said to be Allison, but the property might have been acquired using one of her husbands’ last names – if she was legally married to him.

 

With her having had so many husbands, whose names might or might not have been stated accurately, I was not feeling very optimistic.  I decided to start with her most recent married name, and to work backwards through her earlier spouses’ names only if necessary.  In an old New York State Marriage Index, I found (despite someone’s having indexed her as Anny, rather than as Amy) an entry for her marriage to Edward Stevens.  If she had kept her personal information on the county property register up to date, it would show the owner as Amy L. Stevens.

Of course, circumstances did not allow me to go to Long Island and check the county records; I was limited to using whatever online references I could.  Depending on the sources that I accessed online, I would search for one or more of the following people at any given time:

Amy L. Stevens, aka Madame Rosa

George Harper, her reputed past husband / lover

Amy F. Harper, their daughter


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A Property Transfer

Using the name Amy L. Stevens, both with and without the middle initial, I searched old New York newspapers.  One ‘hit’ occurred in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of April 6, 1903: the report of the transfer of a property in Hicksville .  The land in question was described as adjoining property that was owned by Amy Stevens.  Of additional interest was the name of the person who had sold the land: George W. Harper.  Was this the same George Harper I was interested in learning about?  That was a possibility, but I needed to find a way to confirm if that were true.

Daughter Amy F. Harper had been born in the 1860s.  Unless her father had died soon afterward, he would have been alive at the time of the 1870 U.S. Census.  I checked that census, and I found that it listed approximately 500 men named George Harper.  How could I figure out if any of them was the man who fathered Amy F, and/or the man who would later sell the property in Hicksville ?  I was stymied. 


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A Look Toward Dixie

As I puzzled over things, I went back and carefully re-read everything I had ever seen about Mme. R, including items which I had dismissed earlier because they seemed farfetched.  Eventually, I found an odd recurrence which I previously had missed: Louisiana .  I now pondered the following items:

In Rosa’s testimony at the first Merrigan murder trial, she talked about having discovered her clairvoyant abilities while living in New Orleans , and about having since used those abilities for twelve years.

According to a census, her daughter Amy F. Harper had been born in Louisiana in October of 1862 – the year to which Rosa alluded in 1874 when talking about events twelve years in the past.

Reviewing data for all the George Harpers in New York , I found that only one of them reported having been born in Louisiana (I had missed that earlier, because he had reported this fact on only one of the censuses for which he was enumerated).  This man resided in Brooklyn .  His birth year was around 1859; his birth month was August.  His name was George W. Harper.

 

So… there was a George W. Harper of interest, too young to have been Rosa’s lover, but with the same name as her Hicksville neighbor.  Could a document from Louisiana , where he had been born, clarify whether this man was a new-found relative of Rosa, or merely a stranger whose name was a coincidence?  I now worked my way through old records from Louisiana , where I eventually found something significant.

The Index of Births for New Orleans, Louisiana told me that on August 15, 1860, Amy Allison, who had been born in New York State , gave birth to a boy named George Washington Harper.  The baby’s father was George M. Harper, born in England .  Unpacking this information led to these conclusions:

 

Amy Allison (aka Madame Rosa) was in New Orleans in 1860, giving birth.

George M. Harper, her baby’s father, was the man to whom Edward Stevens feared Rosa would return.

George M. Harper was British, which fit with the information about Amy F. Harper’s father provided for the 1880 U.S. Census.

George W. Harper, who sold the property in Hicksville , could be assumed to be the brother of Amy F.

 

I found no entry in the Index of Births for Amy F. Harper, but that made sense.  Unlike her apparent brother George W. Harper, she was born during the Civil War.  During the pregnancy, New Orleans – the largest city in the Confederacy – was being attacked by, and ultimately fell to, Union forces.  Its residents panicked.  Once Northern troops were able to establish order, every English resident, including George M. Harper, would be suspected of subverting the Union cause.  It is probable that, like a great many others, he and his family fled the city during the bombardment.  If they did, Rosa’s being pregnant would have limited how far they could flee; they may have found a haven further inland in Louisiana, and remained there until baby Amy F. was born.


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The Property in Hicksville

I now believe that Madame Rosa, whether before her death, or through her will (if a will ever existed), split her summer estate in Hicksville equally between her two children, which explains how her son George W. Harper possessed a Hicksville property to sell in 1903.


In 1884, his sister Amy F. married Edgar Latourette, an “oyster man” from Staten Island .  By the early 1900s, their family was living in Hicksville .  As newspapers did in those days, the Hicksville page of the Long-Islander would report on even the tiniest item of social interest.  Thus, now and then readers would learn that Mrs. Amy Latourette’s Harper nieces had come from Brooklyn for a visit.  The reports never mentioned Mme. Rosa.

The 1914 map below shows that the Latourette family resided on what then was called Duffy’s Lane, at the intersection of Morgan Avenue .  Amy Latourette’s property is highlighted.



Back when the Duffy family lived on the “lane” to which the village gave
their name, they could see Madame Rosa’s summer estate across the road.

To us, the idea of living up against the railroad’s right-of-way may
not be appealing.  Bear in mind that when the land was purchased
in the 1870s, trains were infrequent, and they did not run at night.

1914 Belcher-Hyde Atlas of Nassau County , pages 99 and 100 (excerpt)
https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-3ac2-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

   

If young Amy F. owned only half of what her mother originally owned, then Madame Rosa’s property had indeed been large – rather remarkable a summer property for someone who made her living on Canal Street as a clairvoyant.

Amy F. Harper Latourette and her family continued to reside in Hicksville for several years, but by 1920 they had moved to the Town of Hempstead , breaking the last thread that connected Madame Rosa and Hicksville .  One wonders if anyone – some old codger from Duffy’s Lane, or perhaps Amy F herself – ever told her children about their clairvoyant grandmother, and about the scandalous duel that never took place.


*****

That’s all for this month.
Be Well!