By far the most interesting fire to threaten St. Paul’s Chapel was the burning of Barnum’s American Museum in1865. The museum stood directly across Broadway from St. Paul’s Chapel.
P.T. Barnum, a successful variety-show impresario, bought the museum in 1841 and turned it into the hottest and strangest attraction in New York City. The Museum, promoted as family-friendly and moral, was equal parts natural history exhibit, freak show, and Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not. In addition to country’s first public aquarium, the museum boasted a lecture hall and theatre, and exhibits including Tom Thumb, Siamese twins Cheng and Eng, presidential mementos, wax sculptures, Egyptian mummies, the “Nova Scotia Giantess”, weapons from notorious crimes, fancy shoes, old clothes-patterns, live boa constrictors, animated landscapes of foreign countries, and stuffed monkeys.
The fire in Barnum’s American Museum broke out around 12:30pm on July 13, 1865. At the time, the Rev. Dr. Morgan Dix, Trinity’s rector, was at work in his office in the rectory, then located on Church Street, across from the World Trade Center site. Dr. Dix, who served as rector from 1862 to 1908, recorded his daily activities in a series of diaries over a fifty year period beginning in 1856. He wrote about the fire:
“This was a memorable day….it was about half-past 12 or a quarter to 1, I went out into the churchyard…when I saw people looking up towards Broadway…I went to the churchyard railings at Broadway and I saw a little smoke in Ann Street. In about five minutes Barnum’s Museum was all in a blaze to the second story and then we had one of the most memorable conflagrations that I ever saw. The flames became intolerable hot and drove us out of the porch of St. Paul’s, and then as it became evident that the old church was in danger I went up on the roof, and stayed until almost half-past 4. The falling of the Museum was a sublime sight. Saint Paul’s was saved only by the direction of the wind…
We had half a dozen firemen on the roof, with a couple of sections of hose…and many other persons came and rendered assistance. The man who did most was a person who gave his name was Captain de Rohan, and said that he was an old officer of Garibaldi’s and had come out here on some business connect with that revolutionary character. This person volunteered his services, and worked very hard; he also stayed all night and kept watch and would receive no compensation and hardly any thanks: he was a very intelligent and gentlemanly person…
The fire was terrible, but also exceptionally comical…as the crowd carried off most of the curiosities and were seen rushing about with stuffed snakes and birds, and shouting as the wax-work figures were thrown out of a window.”
Though he refused compensation at the time, Captain de Rohan wrote to Trinity’s vestry almost a decade later seeking compensation for his fire-fighting efforts. De Rohan had fallen on hard times by the mid-1870s; the strange tale of his life is worth a look.
Captain William de Rohan was born William Theodore Dahlgren in 1820 in Philadelphia. His father, Bernard Ulric Dahlgren, was a Swedish consul; his mother, Martha Rowan, was American. William had at least two brothers, both older, John and Charles.
Following in his brother John’s footsteps, William became a seaman at 15, fighting in the Seminole wars and in the Texas Navy. He changed his name to de Rohan in the 1840s, reportedly after a quarrel with John. De Rohan may derive from his mother’s maiden name, Rowan. Many newspaper reports connect his mother’s family with the French de Rohans, a noble family. Martha Rowan was actually Irish—though the de Rohan name didn’t hurt William’s naval career.
According to the National cyclopaedia of American biography of 1897, De Rohan left the United States and became a soldier of fortune, serving first in the Turkish navy and then in Argentina, where he met Guiseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi was an Italian patriot—but at the time, Italy was divided into smaller kingdoms.
Garibaldi and de Rohan became friends, and de Rohan joined the struggle to unify Italy. It’s unclear if he participated in all of Garibaldi’s campaigns, but he spent his fortune in purchasing three steamers for the Italian navy in the late 1850s.
De Rohan commanded a U.S-made steamer named the Washington during the “Expedition of the Thousand” in 1860. The Expedition defeated the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (encompassing most of southern Italy) and brought the Kingdom’s territory into the newly unified Kingdom of Italy.
De Rohan eventually returned to the U.S. His brother John Dahlgren was then a Captain and head of the Union Navy’s Bureau of Ordance. John Dahlgren was in charge of all naval weapons throughout the Civil War, and even invented a gun that bears his name. (Dahlgren Naval Base and Dahlgren, VA are also named for John.) De Rohan supported the Union cause, but, according to the National Cyclopaedia, was unwilling to join the Union Navy for fear he might wind up under John Dahlgren’s command. The third brother, Charles, was a Confederate Brigadier General during the Civil War who feuded with Jefferson Davis. A modern biography of Charles states that de Rohan did serve the Union—as a spy in England.
In June, 1865, one month before the fire at Barnum’s Museum, the New York Times published a short article about de Rohan meeting with General Ulysses S. Grant:
Capt. DE ROHAN, Naval A.D.C. to Gen. GARIBALDI, and Commodore of the second Garibaldi Expedition to Sicily in 1860, under the American flag, had the honor of presenting to Gen. GRANT yesterday the congratulations of Gen. GARIBALDI, who throughout the rebellion has never for a single instant wavered in the most outspoken and heartfelt expressions of sympathy for our cause…
How de Rohan came to be at St. Paul’s Chapel on July 13, 1865, remains unknown. He continued to work for Italian unification but was never repaid the money he spent on outfitting the Italian Navy. He sought a Diplomatic Claim against Italy from President Grant, but was denied. He later sought out a consulship in Samoa and was also denied.
In November 1874, a destitute de Rohan wrote to Trinity’s vestry seeking compensation for his efforts in saving St. Paul’s Chapel. Dr. Dix advanced him $150, and a vestry committee later voted to reimburse Dr. Dix.
De Rohan suffered a stroke and died a pauper in 1891.
Author: Trinity Wall Street Communications
Created: March 18, 2009
Trinity Wall Street has played a pivotal role in the religious and civic life of the city and nation since its founding in 1697. This blog will answer readers’ questions and provide a glimpse into the fascinating and provocative history of the parish.