Beside the Evening Sea: Staten Island as Haven for Writers and Reformers

By Marguerite María Rivas

Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes, oil on canvas, by John Singer Sargent, 1897 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes, oil on canvas, by John Singer Sargent, 1897 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Edith Minturn Stokes, cheeks flushed and hair gathered in a hurried upsweep, gazes bemusedly and unflinchingly at the viewer in John Singer Sargent’s arresting double portrait, Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes, painted in 1897. Mrs. Stokes (1867–1937), newly wed, stands jauntily in the foreground, luminous, with one hand on her hip in a distinctly modern pose as her husband, Isaac Newton (1867–1944), lingers behind her in shadow. In the years ahead I.N. Phelps Stokes would emerge as an architect of note, a housing reformer, and the author of the exhaustive history of New York, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909. Edith Minturn Stokes would become a staunch advocate for educational reform, working with the New York Kindergarten Association for more than two decades and acting as its President. [1] The couple met as children on Staten Island, where Edith was born and reared in the home where her mother, Susanna Shaw, grew up. It was a grand home previously owned by Susanna’s father, Francis George Shaw. Edith, heir to a legacy of social justice and service, was just one among many extraordinary reformers, writers, and social activists to hail from a small section of Staten Island known variously as Elliottville, Livingston, and West New Brighton.

Nineteenth-century West New Brighton was a bucolic small town on Staten Island’s northern shoreline just across the Kill van Kull from Bayonne, New Jersey. Twentieth-century overdevelopment has obliterated nearly every trace of the stately community where nineteenth-century abolitionists, reformers, and writers lived and worked together. An honorary street sign, “Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s Glory Way” is the sole indication that this neighborhood was of historical importance. The sign commemorates the life of the commander of the first company of African-American Civil War soldiers organized in the North. Colonel Shaw, killed as he led the 54th Massachusetts into battle, was the son of Francis George Shaw (1809-1882), noted abolitionist and philanthropist. The Shaws relocated to Staten Island from Massachusetts, first renting a home in 1846 and then building a permanent residence in 1855.[2] Shaw’s Glory Way weaves through the remnants of a once-vibrant community where a unique assemblage of intellectuals, reformers, and writers, some unheralded and others celebrated, resided.


Curiously, Francis George Shaw and many luminaries of his day came to West New Brighton to seek medical treatment from an eye doctor named Samuel Mackenzie Elliott. Some, like the Shaws, put down roots and made the North Shore of Staten Island their permanent home while others stayed for a period of time ranging from months to years as they underwent medical treatment. Sarah Shaw first sought treatment for near-blindness from Elliott in the mid-1840s.[3] Elliott, born in Scotland, had studied eye disease, advertising himself as an “oculist” at a time when such specialties were rare.[4] Elliott was much sought after for this reason. In order to accommodate his many patients, Elliott designed and had built at least twenty-two houses, which served as temporary homes for patients who traveled from afar to place themselves in Dr. Elliott’s care. [5] It is under these circumstances that Sarah lived. For a time, West New Brighton was called Elliottville in honor of the doctor’s contribution to its growth and perhaps due to the many houses he owned there. Many notable contemporaries of Sarah, including Francis Parkman, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, were treated in Elliottville as well.[6]

After having spent time on Staten Island while his wife sought treatment, Francis Shaw commissioned the designing and building of a great estate in West New Brighton, at a final cost of $800,000. [7] Though the property, with its magnificent lawns and stables, has been sold, subdivided, and developed as middle-class neighborhood, the Shaw house still stands on the block renamed to commemorate their son.

Although this neighborhood grew in area and in numbers due to Dr. Elliott’s practice, its inhabitants shared more than eye trouble.[8] The Shaws and their neighbors were staunch abolitionists, and they found in Elliott a like-minded individual.[9] In fact, Elliott’s houses were reputed to have been built to shelter fugitive self-emancipated African-Americans, a point cited in the landmarking of this house.[10] Although this claim may be apocryphal, the fact that Sydney Howard Gay and his wife Elizabeth Neall moved to the neighborhood and lived in one of Elliot’s houses lends it some credence. Gay, a well-known abolitionist worked with African-American Underground Railroad conductor Louis Napoleon to successfully shepherd fugitives to freedom. He was editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard and The New York Tribune, and left behind his substantial Record of Fugitives, which attests to his undertakings as an active agent for the Underground Railroad.[11] His wife, Elizabeth Neall, was an active abolitionist and a supporter of women’s rights. She was a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 along with Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Wendell Phillips when she was only seventeen years old.[12] Her activism would continue throughout the course of her life, inspiring her children to take up causes for social justice.

Another significant abolitionist and women’s rights advocate who lived in West New Brighton was writer, editor, and orator George William Curtis who married Anna Shaw, daughter of Francis and Sarah, on Staten Island in 1856. Curtis was born in Providence, Rhode Island, but like others in West New Brighton had ancestral ties to Massachusetts. [13] By the time Anna Shaw and George William Curtis had wed, Curtis was already politically active and working as an editor advocating for anti-slavery causes. Francis Shaw, though retired from commerce for many years, was still wealthy and used that wealth for the betterment of humankind as well as his family. As a wedding present, Shaw had a house built for the Curtises, which still stands in the neighborhood. [14]


Other notable residents of this neighborhood included Laura Winthrop Johnson and her brother, Theodore Winthrop, both writers. Laura’s poetry and non-fiction appeared in print in magazines, journals, and books. Theodore was one of the first Union officers killed in battle in the Civil War. After his death, Laura took steps to secure her novelist brother’s literary legacy, editing his letters and publishing them in a volume with his biography.

In addition to these long-time residents, temporary residents and visitors to this North Shore neighborhood included the poets Lowell and Longfellow, Wendell Phillips and Lydia Maria Child, abolitionists and writers, Charles Mackay, Scottish poet and writer, Christopher Pearse Cranch, poet and minor Hudson River School painter, Margaret Fuller, writer and Anna Leonowens, educator and writer, all of whom, are connected to this way to this locality and its political and literary residents.[15] Anna Leonowens, best known for her memoir The English Governess at the Siamese Court, established a school in the neighborhood and taught the Gay’s daughters Sarah and Mary and Laura Winthrop Johnson’s daughter, Bessie. [16]

Although residents of West New Brighton were involved in far-reaching literary and political collaborations, one thing that seems most significant about this group of neighbors is that they were bound to each other by grief and to the country by service and mourning. Theodore Winthrop’s death early in the Civil War at the Battle of Great Bethel, Virginia, in June 1861, stunned and devastated his neighbors.[17] He had enlisted along with Robert Gould Shaw and two of George William Curtis’s brothers with the New York 7th Volunteers. Both Shaw and Winthrop were seen off to war by Sydney Howard Gay, as Robert Gould Shaw’s parents were away when the call to arms came.[18] This act bears witness to the close-knit nature of this community and makes more poignant the communal grief they shared.

While encamped in Washington, DC, Robert Gould Shaw writes of running into Winthrop and one of the Curtis brothers and later ruminates upon the death of Theodore Winthrop, “I have though a great deal about poor Winthrop.[19] I think that, if he had expected it, he would not have been sorry, excepting for the sake of his family.”[20] Winthrop’s death early in the war was not only deeply felt by all of the West New Brighton neighbors but by the nation as well. In a letter to Charles Eliot Norton dated July 30, 1861, George William Curtis writes, “Winthrop’s death makes a great void in our little neighborhood. We all knew him so well and loved him so warmly, and he was so much and intimately with us, that he seems to have fallen out of our arms dead.” [21]

The death of Winthrop would be followed two years later by the death of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, gunned down in the Battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina, while commanding the 54th Massachusetts. Not taking a rear position, Colonel Shaw drew his sword and led the 54th Massachusetts African-American troops in a charge toward Fort Wagner.[22] Shaw had just reached the parapet of the fort when he was shot and killed. The Confederate commander of Fort Wagner ordered that he be buried with his men. It was a matter of pride to the family. Historian Russell Duncan notes: “The diggers made a trench, dropped Shaw’s body within it, threw the bodies of twenty of his men on top of him, and shoveled them over with sand.”[23]

Francis Shaw let it be known that he did not want his son’s body recovered, and although no grave marks the site, on Staten Island there is a cenotaph to Shaw's memory which occupies a prominent place on Staten Island in the Moravian Cemetery. The loss of these young men did not go unnoted. Shaw was memorialized in verse by James Russell Lowell, and he and his men were memorialized in bronze by Augustus St. Gaudens.[24] Those they left behind in West New Brighton also saw to it that their work and sacrifice would not be forgotten. Laura Winthrop Johnson and George William Curtis initiated and oversaw the publication of Winthrop’s novels, non-fiction, and biography.[25] Shaw's nephew Robert Shaw Minturn would carry his name and his niece Edith Minturn Stokes would carry on his legacy of service. Some 130 years after his death, Staten Island historians worked hard to lobby for the renaming the area of Davis Avenue where the Shaws lived “Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s Glory Way."[26]

The loss of these young men seems to have had a galvanizing effect on the neighborhood. Josephine Shaw Lowell, daughter of Francis and Sarah, became active in civil service reform and was appointed Commissioner of the New York State Board of Charities in 1876. [27] She had been married to a Union officer killed one year after her brother.[28] Those deaths, coupled with her parents's work, appears to have compelled Josephine Shaw Lowell to public service, starting with her work in early widowhood with the Freedman’s Association and continuing with many other causes she spearheaded in her life, including the Consumer’s League and the political reform she undertook alongside Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. and Jr.[29] After her death, Carlotta Russell, her daughter, carried on aspects of this work, particularly education reform. In this endeavor she enlisted other female family members as well, including her cousin Edith Minturn Stokes.

Although I had been aware that Staten Island had been home to a variety of notable people, I had not considered these nineteenth-century individuals as collaborating members of one community of note whose contributions to American life, letters, and social welfare spans generations. A thorough literature search reveals that there is little mention of it as a working community of intellectuals, writers, and reformers. There is still much unplumbed history of Staten Island. Digging through it may yield new information about, or insight into, national events and movements that have gone unnoticed by scholars.

Marguerite Maria Rivas is an Associate Professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College, where she teaches literature and writing in historical context. Her creative and scholarly work has appeared in The America’s Review and The Encyclopedia of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, among other journals and magazines.

[1] H. Barbara Weinberg, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry, American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994), 214.

[2] William Stewart Rhinelander, The Philanthropic Work of Josephine Shaw Lowell; Containing a Biographical Sketch of Her Life, Together with a Selection of Her Public Papers and Private Letters (New York: Macmillan Company, 1911), 1-6.

[3] Russell Duncan, Where Death and Glory Meet: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999), 8.

[4] For a discussion about medical specialization see George Weisz, "The History of Medicine: Early Specialization in America," Oxford University Press.

[5] City of New York. Landmarks Preservation Committee, S.M. Elliott House, April 12, 1967.

[6] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Francis Parkman, historian, James Russell Lowell, and Christopher Pearse Cranch, poet and landscape painter, among others.

[7] Russell Duncan, ed., Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (University of Georgia Press: 2000), 11.

[8] Charles Leng and William T. Davis, Staten Island and Its People: Volume VI (New York: Lewis Historical Pub. Co, 1930), 254.

[9] Census records place Elliott on Staten Island in 1840, a time of great growth on Staten Island. Leng and Davis place him here in 1836. Ibid., 254.

[10] Landmarks Preservation Committee Report, 1967.

[11] Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015), 93.

[12] Don Papson and Tom Calarco. Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City: Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishers, 2015), 32

[13] Richard M. Bayles, History of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from Its Discovery to the Present Time (New York: L.E, Preston), 1887.

[14] In a letter to Christopher Pearse Cranch dated 6 July 1859, Curtis remarks, “The carpenters are hard at work building me a house (Papa, pay-master!) close by, and I am hard at work coining money to keep it withal.” Leonora Cranch Scott, ed., The Life and Letters of Christopher Pearse Cranch (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917).

[15] Around the time that the Shaws sought treatment on Staten Island, Margaret Fuller left Massachusetts to work both as editor of The Dial and then for Horace Greeley’s The Tribune. She lived at Greeley’s house on the East Side of Manhattan. but visited Staten Island. In June of 1845, she writes to a friend, “Last Sunday I passed at Staten Island. Oh it was most lovely, the long drives in the wooded lanes and breezy spots in the hills.”

[16] Elizabeth Johnson, Letter to Sarah Gay December 8, 1870 from Columbia University Sydney Howard Gay Papers. Anna Leonowens’s memoir was fictionalized in the book Anna and the King of Siam, which was produced as the musical The King and I.

[17] Theodore Winthrop, The Life and Poems of Theodore Winthrop, ed., Laura Winthrop Johnson (1884), 292-96.

[18] Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child, 14.

[19] Robert Gould Shaw letter, April 27, 1861 in Blue-Eyed Child, 82.

[20] Ibid.,109.

[21] George William Curtis American Men of Letters, Cary 145.

[22] Duncan, Blue-Eyed Child, 53.

[23] Ibid.

[24] National Park Service. The Shaw Memorial. Augustus St. Gaudens. 1897.

[25] Laura Winthrop Johnson together with George William Curtis would edit and have published Winthrop’s unpublished novels and a book of his life and letters.

[26] The City of New York Bill, 297,

[27] Joan Waugh, Unsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 122.

[28] Lowell was a nephew of family friend and poet, James Russell Lowell.

[29] Waugh, Unsentimental Reformer, 197.