Andrew Haswell Green, on the last day of his long and virtuous life, Friday the 13th of November 1903, went as usual to his lower Broadway office. At the stroke of 1 p.m., he put on his hat and topcoat, bade his associates a good afternoon and boarded a Fourth Ave. car for his final ride home. At 1:30, the old man doddered up the steps of the Park Ave. tunnel, emerged on 40th St. and made his last stroll across the avenue to the gate of his brownstone at No. 91. There he stepped for the last time into his vestibule and came face to face with a neatly dressed black man who had quietly stalked him for a week.
Witnesses to the confrontation included an arriving housekeeper, a nearby cab driver and a passing deliveryman, and all three reported to police identical accounts of Andrew Haswell Green’s last instants on Earth:
“Why do you back that woman to slander me?” Green’s visitor demanded.
“Go away,” said Green. “I don’t know you.”
“Yes, you do,” replied Cornelius Williams. “I met you in 1895 in 53rd St.”
“You did not,” retorted Green. “I don’t know you, I tell you, and you must go away from here.”
“Yes, you do know me,” Williams insisted. “You backed this woman to slander me. Now you’ve got to take the consequences.”
And with that, Williams pulled a heavy revolver and fired five shots, and the Father of Greater New York, age 83, crumpled dead to his flagstones.
Williams made no attempt to flee; gun pocketed, he stood calmly over Green’s body until two policemen led him to the 35th St. stationhouse. There, expressionless, he answered every question thrown at him by police and press. “He deserved it,” the killer declared. “Thank God he’s dead.”
Why? Why in God’s name had a furnace tender wanted to kill good Andrew Green? The city reeled at the story Williams spun.
Nineteenth-century New York had known few men more towering than Andrew Green, and many were the testaments to his life and works: Central Park, Riverside Park, the new Public Library, the Zoological Society, the American Museum of Natural History indeed, the consolidated city itself, born of his vision and tireless 30-year crusade. “He loved New York as Dante loved Florence,” remarked The World upon his death. “For many years to come, New York will be a more beautiful, a more healthful and a more commodious city than if he had not lived in it.”
Massachusetts-born Green had come to the city as a young clerk in the 1830s, then, upon becoming Samuel Tilden’s protege and law partner, embarked upon a life-long career of public service: president of the Board of Education at first, then president of the Central Park Commission; it was Green who commissioned Calvert Vaux as park landscaper. With Tilden, he was instrumental in ridding the city of the corrupt Tammany boss William Tweed; subsequently, as city controller, he personally restored the municipal credit that Tweed had demolished.
After Tilden’s death, Green was the primary force in merging the Tilden, Astor and Lenox libraries into what would become the New York Public Library. And in 1890, two decades after he first proposed consolidating New York and Brooklyn into a single “imperial city,” he was named chairman of the commission that oversaw the creation of the new city and drafted its Charter.
A distinguished elder statesman in his twilight years, the Father of Greater New York lived to become critical of some of what he had wrought. Writing to the New York Herald two months before he died, Green commented: “A grave mistake was made in dividing the city into boroughs. This unfortunate step was succeeded by one infinitely worse namely, that of erecting a separate district government in each borough, thus rendering simplicity and unity of administration impossible.”
Active to the last, he was, on the day he met his murderer, working to eliminate horsecars and street railways in favor of “electrical conveyances moving over smooth, noiseless pavements.”
Prosecutors instantly branded Cornelius Williams “obviously deranged.” A boardinghouse keeper named Bessie Davis, Williams said, had ruined his good name with vicious lies, and for eight years he had been searching for her in order to cut her tongue out of her head. But Davis, he explained, was under Andrew Green’s protection, and therefore it was necessary to kill Green. “I did it to save my character,” he maintained. Officials agreed that the yarn was absurd: Surely such a man as Andrew Green could never have known this Davis woman.
To the degree that the average citizen, on the other hand, might have found Williams’ story not necessarily all that implausible, the titillation increased when the newspapers discovered that humble Bessie Davis, formerly of 132 W. 53rd St., was now a bejewelled woman called Hannah Elias, who lived in a mansion on Central Park West and kept a Chinese cook, a Japanese butler, an English coachman and an exquisite art collection. Her neighbors surmised her to be some sort of exiled African princess. Some were sure there had been a child that had died several years earlier.
Obliged to call the exotic Mrs. Elias in for questioning, the district attorney did so, then quickly announced that there was not a shred of evidence linking her to Andrew Green.
And then, as the great man was buried and the most eminent citizens of New York City gave him their eulogies, the story abruptly disappeared from the public prints.
Little more was heard until April, when Cornelius Williams was quietly adjudged paranoiac and dispatched to the state hospital for the criminally insane.
And thereafter all Andrew Haswell Green’s secrets, if he had any, would lay cold with him in his grave.
Source: NY Daily News