Sunday, April 19, 2009

Amiable Child

This year, once winter ended, I began going out for walks at lunchtime. When I walk north along Riverside Drive, I go as far as the playground just past Grant's Tomb. Those who have walked that far will be familiar with the other resting place across the road from the Grants, the grave of the "amiable child" St Claire Pollock.

There must be fifty web pages already about little St Claire. People continue to come upon his grave unexpectedly, and wonder about the circumstances. And they're touched by the death of a small child. Often there are a few wildflowers left, or even small toys. A small dead potted Christmas tree was still there in March.

Grant's Tomb was dedicated on April 27, 1897, and the increased number of visitors there brought new attention to the grave in the form of newspaper articles that tried to provide background information for the curious. Some modern sources including the web page of the Riverside Park Fund
say that the original monument was replaced in that year, but this seems to be denied by several descriptions not long afterwards that call the words worn and hard to read. For example the New York City Standard Guide, 1918, says "the inscriptions have been blurred by the passing of a hundred years". The Fund is more likely correct in recording that the monument was replaced in 1967 by the cleanly incised replica we see today. A slightly different version of the story was offered in 2000 by a New York Times story, that it was just the urn that was replaced in 1897 by a marble copy which was now itself in storage.

The site of the grave was miles out of town at the time of St Claire's short life. The property in this area was sold in August 1796 by Nicholas de Peyster to George Pollock, a merchant in New York. He held it only until 1802, and after passing through a few hands, it was sold in 1807 to Michael Hogan, who divided it in two and called the northern part of the land Claremont. While it is tempting to say that the child's name was involved, more likely the name comes from Hogan's birthplace, County Clare, Ireland.

The large residence Hogan built became a public house sometime after it was acquired by the Post family in 1821. A newspaper account from 1895 says that the Claremont Inn "was once known as the Monument House, because of its proximity to the marble monument over the grave of 'an amiable child'". It must have stood close to the cliff edge, and therefore near the grave. When the City purchased some of the property for Riverside Park in 1872, the inn had to be moved. From that time until 1950, when it burned down, it stood where the playground is now, just north of Grant's Tomb. (New York Times, "Reasons for Living on the Heights", 4/7/1895 ; and "Old Claremont's Owners", 12/26/1909)

Above, here's a postcard image from about 1910. The point of view is mysterious, somewhere high above Riverside Drive ; I wonder how they got it. I think that's St Claire's grave at the center of the red circle I added (click to enlarge), at the north end of that side walkway. That's the way it is today, at the end of a side walkway below the level of the roadway you see there. That stretch is full of trees now, but there were only a few specimen trees a hundred years ago. There was a fine view of the river and the Palisades on the New Jersey shore. The Claremont Inn peeks out from the right side of Grant's Tomb. Its original location was farther left, probably where the roadway is.

Above, another postcard image from about 1910, and my photograph of the same scene in March 2009. Down the sidewalk in the distance, the construction fence in the modern photograph obscures the restoration of the pergola you can see in the postcard. There was once a view up the Hudson from this place on the roadside. The phenomenal growth of trees is not due to neglect, since most of those seen here were clearly planted as shade trees. The city is actually greener now than it was a hundred years ago. Even though I grabbed the photograph before the trees were in leaf, the trunks and branches alone now hide that view.

St Claire's grave is beyond the construction area, so comparing these two views, it would be at about the left side of that nifty Fifth Avenue Coach bus, a type introduced in 1907.

It's time to take a look at the grave.

There it is, the smallest cemetery in Manhattan, and tying for the smallest anywhere. Someone left flowers.

So who was St Claire?

The owner of the property is recorded in deeds as George Pollock, and his son St Claire is recorded by Trinity Church as being baptized on November 11, 1792. Assuming he was born not long before, St Claire was a bit over 4 years 9 months at his death— in the fifth year of his age. George Pollock was a merchant who lived and worked in lower Manhattan. There were three brothers, Carlisle, Hugh, and George. Carlisle was the namesake of Carlisle Street (just north of Rector Street). A directory of 1795 places George at 91 Water Street, and another of 1801 places his house at 26 Whitehall Street and his office at 95 Front Street. The Pollock brothers' uncle Oliver Pollock was active in financing the American Revolution.

St Claire's mother was Catherine nee Yates, named as George's wife in deeds. Her sister Sophia was married to Carlisle Pollock, and her father or brother Richard Yates was in business with George. The Yates family were important in New York and a later descendant was a governor of the state.

The house far outside town, in an area called Strawberry Hill, was a summer home. New York was ravaged every summer by yellow fever and other diseases, of causes and transmission not understood at the time, but it was correctly observed that getting out of town avoided the worst of it. Businessmen who could afford to do so acquired summer homes and sent the wife and children there for their safety. St Claire was living at Strawberry Hill at the time he died on July 15.

The death of St Claire is now most commonly attributed to his falling down the cliff adjacent to the grave. This is so stated on a modern park sign nearby. There is no evidence for it, and it is not even mentioned in the older accounts of a hundred years ago.

A descendant of a family who lived in the Claremont house said in 1900 that as a child he heard from his grandparents the tragic story of the amiable child, "who was drowned while on a fishing excursion with his father to the famous Fishing Rock that still is known to exist opposite the lonely grave".

While this preserves an old story, it seems to be just as suspicious as the cliff story in trying to tie the location of the grave to the death. There is probably no connection at all. The location of the grave is much more likely to relate to the beautiful view of the Hudson and surrounding country. It is very simply a fine spot from which to contemplate the wonders of this world and the meaning of life and death. George Pollock supports this view in the letter that I will quote just below.

St Claire in my opinion died of disease or infection, the common causes of childhood mortality in those days. No unusual story is required to explain his death. He was the first member of the family to die since the family had acquired the property just one year earlier, and so became the first burial in what his father had planned as a family cemetery.

George Pollock's business failed not long after St Claire's death. We can only guess what effect the loss of the child may have played. George sold the Strawberry Hill property to a neighbor, Gulian Verplanck, or rather to his widow by the time the sale was completed in 1799. The burial plot was however excepted from the deed at that time. George wrote to Mrs Verplanck from England in a letter of January 18, 1800:

There is a small inclosure near your boundary fence within which lie the remains of a favorable child, covered by a marble monument. I had intended that space as the future cemetery of my family. ... The surrounding ground will fall into the hands of I know not whom, whose prejudice or better taste may remove the monument and lay the inclosure open. You will confer a peculiar and interesting favor upon me by allowing me to convey the inclosure to you, so that you will consider it as a part of your own estate, keeping it, however, always inclosed and sacred. There is a white marble funeral urn, prepared to place on the monument, which Mr Darley will put up, and which will not lessen its beauty. ... I have long considered these grounds as of my own creation, having selected them when wild, and brought the place to its present form. Having so long and delightfully resided there, I feel an interest in it that I cannot get rid of but with time.

The city deed records show however that the plot was instead conveyed in 1803 to John Prevost, who then held the office of Recorder of the City of New York. By some means the plot was maintained as a tiny cemetery for seventy years, at which time it became city property as part of Riverside Park.

(The whole section above is sourced from four well researched articles. "Little Child Buried near the Great Hero" by James Richards, newspaper clipping dated 4/3/1897 available at New York Times, letters to the editor from Elizabeth Akers, 7/21/1900 and 8/11/1900 ; and another from the anonymous "A L L", 8/11/1900.)

Above, the grave site in two views about a hundred years apart. By midsummer the view of the Hudson (seen here in March 2009) is almost lost in the greenery, which is marked by the amazing sign "forever wild", as if it had not all grown up in the past few decades.

The spiky iron fence around the grave plot appears to have survived intact, but looks can be deceiving. The monument itself is not the same one. A comparison shows how well the 1967 replica duplicated the original base and the 1897 urn. It is telling that the well-worn inscription is not even visible in the older photograph.

The back of the monument has a quote from Job, in the King James version, words that would have been used then in the funeral service. He cometh like a flower and is cut down.

There has been scholarly debate about what effects a high infant and child mortality rate would have had on parental affection. Philip Aries wrote in his influential work Centuries of Childhood (1962) that in older days parents avoided investing time and affection on small children, to avoid to some degree the grief that would so likely follow. His views, at first accepted, have since been widely criticized. The bond of parent to child is too strong for most mothers or fathers to deny.

The Pollocks certainly loved St Claire. They provided an elaborate monument that does not even mention their own names, and they took special care to see that it was preserved even after they left New York. There is something about the little grave that continues to inspire passers-by to contemplate their own "few days". He fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not.


Postscript: There is a second memorial to the child. Under an alternate spelling he has been commemorated by St Clair Place, a short section of 129th St near the Hudson River, so named in 1920. It's only a few blocks from the grave, but about a hundred feet lower.

And: A shout-out to Kathryn for helping me shoot the photographs.

Next time: Pink House.


  1. Joe--
    What a great job you have done on this touching and very often told story. I believe I am St. Claire Pollack's first cousin, four times removed. I've heard about "the Amiable Child" since I was a little kid (I'm now 69--and grew up in South Orange, by the way). I'm coming to the Pollacks in my family history work, and your article here will be a primary source for my work. And thanks for citing your sources.
    Love your approach and your topics. I'll be visiting again.

  2. You really should have a contact email on your blog. I find your topics very interesting.

  3. I just added the email contact to profile. I forgot about it.

  4. I am doing some research and I came across this site for information on the Carlisle Pollock family. I live in Louisiana and I see in you comments that a person named Terry who is also doing some background on family history contacted you. I am living in Louisiana and am a direct decendent of this family through the Sarpy and Burthe and Story families that settled in New Orleans many years ago. I have a picture of someone that was in the Pollock family and believed to be Louise Francois Sarpy. The picture is believed to be of a woman in the period of time from 1810-1820. Please let this person contact me by e-mail and we may cross-reference information. Thank you.

  5. Actually, St. Claire Pollocks parents were James Pollock and Jane SInclaire Pollock. The Originally lived in Philadelphia. He died while visiting Lord Claire and after the little boy's death they returned to Ireland. I have been in talks recently with St. Claire's Irish decendents and there is interest in removing him back to the graves of his parentsj in Ireland.

  6. See the article "An Amiable Child", NY Times, July 7, 1900, for a lengthy letter to the editor about "Lord Claire, who at that time owned vast estates on the banks of the Hudson", and the child's lineage going back to both Norman and Saxon kings! Elizabeth Akers's letter published August 11 discredits this story in detail as "positively impossible". To begin with, who was this Lord Claire and why is he not mentioned in any history of the region? And what do we make of the deeds and baptismal records that show George Pollack owning the land and fathering the child? I hope some evidence is required before the child's remains are moved from the place his parents laid him.