Friday, July 29, 2011

Henry M Onderdonk - Editor of the Hempstead Inquirer

The postcard above entitled "Looking out Fulton Ave., Hempstead, NY" is a remarkably vivid view c. 1904 looking west at the former Onderdonk estate located at the western corner of Fulton Avenue and Front Street, a property that was featured in an earlier post. (I have reposted the now shot to give a perspective of the present day location of this magnificent estate). Though almost completely obscured by an impressive collection of trees, one can make out the stately home that once occupied the premises. As previously mentioned, Henry M. Onderdonk moved in to the property in 1870 and lived there until his death in 1885. His second wife Catherine continued to own the property (though it appears that thereafter her primary residence was on Washington St in Hempstead Village) until her death in 1898. For the next two years at the close of the 19th Century the house was leased as the annex to the newly established Nassau Hospital, so the view above shows the property shortly after that period. At the time the estate was at the very outskirts of the village and in fact, most of the property lied outside the village limits.

As editor and publisher of the Hempstead Inquirer, Long Island's leading newspaper in the 19th century, Onderdonk was one of the most prominent citizens in Hempstead. He had quite an eventful and interesting life that put him at the center of some key moments in US history. Here is a brief synopsis:

Henry Moscrop Onderdonk was born on March 26, 1818 in New York, the son of Rev. Benjamin Treadwell Onderdonk who, from 1830 till his death in 1861, was Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. In 1835, at the young age of 17, he was tried and convicted of forging bank notes while he sat in his father's study in Trinity Church. He was sentenced to prison but then was promptly issued clemency by Governor William L. Marcy, which led to public accusations that his favored status as the son of an influential father unfairly led to his pardon. He then went on to become a civil engineer and in 1841 he married Justine Bibby. The 1840s saw him set up shop on John St. as a publisher and bookseller of religious books. (In 1848 he published the first fully-illustrated, book-length edition of Clement C. Moore's poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, a book whose effect in popularizing the modern-day, portly image of a jolly Santa Claus cannot be overstated).

In the mid 1840s, we also find Henry listed as a member of Alexander Cartwright's famed Knickerbocker Base Ball club who would ferry over to Hoboken, NJ to play in the world's very first recorded baseball games at Elysian Fields. I'll bet he and his teammate and brother-in-law, Edward A. Bibby, must have made a fierce double play combination.

In the summer of 1849, ten days after giving birth to their fifth and sixth children, Justine tragically died probably a result of complications from the birth, as did the two infants four days later.

The following year he was remarried to Catherine Donnely and moved his family to Virginia's Kenawha River Valley (before it became part of West Virginia) and put his engineering training to use as a representative of the Virginia Coal & Coke Company. While there he served as postmaster in Len's Creek, VA, in the heart of (West) Virginia's coal mining region. In 1855 he represented the Great Western Mining & Mfg. Co at a mining convention. When the Civil War broke out, he fled across the Ohio River to Gallipolis, OH and opened a bookshop there.

In 1868 he ran for state senate in Ohio's 8th district and narrowly lost to incumbent Homer C. Jones. Onderdonk contested the election by claiming that 100 negro votes were unlawfully counted for his opponent. On the opening day of Ohio's 58th congress in January 1869, the senators voted to unseat Jones in favor of Onderdonk, and in the ensuing debate, state laws were reinforced denying black suffrage. (This would be one of the last times in US history that the lawful denial of a negro's right to vote would factor into an election result. That's because the following month, the federal congress passed the proposed 15th Amendment prohibiting government from denying blacks and former slaves their voting rights, and the proposal was sent to the states for ratification. Two months later, in April, Ohio was one of only three northern states in the Union that outright rejected the 15th Amendment. It wasn't until the following year on January 27, 1870, that Ohio voted to ratify it, and the following week, on February 3rd, the law was amended to the constitution.)

Shortly after completing his term in the Ohio Senate, Onderdonk started yet another chapter in his life by moving back with his six children from his second wife to New York and settling in Hempstead, in the home pictured above. In July of that year, he purchased the Hempstead Inquirer, changed the paper's format and turned it into a world-class publication. (He had some prior editing experience during his old John St. bookshop days when he edited numerous volumes of the NY Ecclesiologist).

His attainment by that time as a man of means is evident by the fact that he became one of three principles in the new New York & Hempstead Railroad (along with William L Wood - see this post and Edward Cooper), the first railroad to lay tracks through Malverne and West Hempstead. (In 1873 he was listed as "treasurer", but his engineering background undoubtedly was also put to good use). He was one of the lay incorporators of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City and was instrumental in the creation of St. Paul's and St. Mary's schools.

The Onderdonk Homestead in those days, with the six children running around, must have been quite a lively scene. Henry even brought his mother Eliza, the bishop's widow, to live with them. Eliza, a beautiful woman (her portrait shown below, taken in the early 1830s), was born in 1794 and was reported to be in remarkably good health well into her 80s. She survived her son, Henry, by two years, and passed away in 1887 at the age of 93.

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