“Mrs. Elizabeth T. Porter-Beach, a native of Skaneateles, attained considerable distinction in literature. She wrote ‘Pelayo; an epic of the olden Moorish time,’ in recognition of which the Queen of Spain and Empress Eugenie conferred upon her royal honors.” — Onondaga’s Centennial (1896)
Elizabeth Townsend Porter was born in Skaneateles, New York, in 1813, a birth year she coyly obscured for the rest of her life.
Elizabeth was the granddaughter of William Vredenburgh and his first wife, Elizabeth Townsend Vredenburgh. Her grandfather was the first man of significant wealth in Skaneateles and its first postmaster, requesting and receiving the appointment because he didn’t like to wait for his mail to come from Marcellus.
Elizabeth’s parents were Eliza Vredenburgh and James Porter, wed on Christmas Eve in 1812. Porter was a Skaneateles businessman and attorney. However, James Porter soon went to Albany to serve in the New York State Assembly, from 1814-1815, and from 1817 to 1819 he served in the U.S. House of Representatives. He then returned to the practice of law, serving as surrogate of Onondaga County from 1822 to 1824. Finally, he returned to Albany and was register of the New York State Court of Chancery.
Throughout her life, Elizabeth was close to her siblings: William Vredenburg Porter (b.1815), James Edward Porter (b. 1823), and Frances “Fanny” Lopton Porter (b. 1825).
Elizabeth was also close to her uncle by marriage, Enos Throop, the husband of her aunt Evelina. Enos Throop (pronounced “troop”) of Auburn, N.Y., was close friend of Martin Van Buren, and followed him as Governor of New York when Van Buren ran for the U.S. presidency. Throop served as Governor (1829-1832), as naval officer for the Port of New York (1833-1838) and then as Charge d’Affaires in Naples for the Kingdom of Two Sicilies (1838-1842).
When not in Albany, New York City, or abroad, Enos Throop made his home at a simple farm that eventually grew to become an estate, called Willowbrook, at the south end of Owasco Lake just outside of Auburn. Here he hosted Van Buren and two other presidents, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as Washington Irving, a close friend of Van Buren’s, and on one occasion, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose travels would result in the classic Democracy in America.
[Alexis de Tocqueville visited Enos Throop on July 12, 1831. He wrote, "We found him living in a very small wooden farmhouse of one story, and occupied in personally supervising the cultivation of his fields." His traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, added: "He is a man of very simple manners. He has little money... Therefore he spends only five or six months of the year at Albany, the time during which the legislature is in session... Owasco Lake touches its garden, and on the other side it is surrounded by great high trees. He took us for a walk in his woods. While admiring the beauty of the trees we caught sight of a squirrel. At that the governor began to run as fast as his legs would carry him to get his gun at the house. He soon came back, all out of breath, with his murderous weapon. The small animal had the patience to wait for him, but the big man had the clumsiness to miss him four times in succession."]
Governor and Evelina Throop had three children that died in infancy, and Evelina herself died in 1834 in New York City, leaving the Governor alone. The Porters, however, continued to think of him as a member of the family. In the years to come, the Skaneateles and New York City Porters corresponded with Throop and visited him at Willowbrook. Elizabeth, especially, kept up an active correspondence with her uncle.
A letter of June 28, 1861, illustrates the warmth and humor of their relationship. Responding to a comment about her handwriting, Elizabeth writes, “My very dear Uncle, Your kind letter was received by us all with great delight, as are ever your highly valued epistles. If I had not been somewhat overcome by the excessive use of my risibles, called forth by your facetious remarks, relative to my poor little self, I might have risen to curtsy my thanks, which, however, presuming upon your absence, I only did in spirit. I am only too thankful that you can decipher my rapidly penned thoughts.”
One more set of friends requires an introduction: After Louis-Joseph Papineau, the leader of Quebec’s reformist Patriot movement, fled Canada during the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837, he was found “friendless and unknown” in the city of Albany by James Porter and taken to the Porter home. Porter then saw him safely to Pine Grove, the Saratoga estate of his superior, the Chancellor of the Court of Chancery, Reuben Walworth. There Papineau was reunited in exile with his wife and children. The Papineau family always remembered the kindness of James Porter, and visited and corresponded with the family for the rest of their lives.
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Into this warm circle of family and friends entered a serpent. Some time prior to 1837, Elizabeth Porter gave her hand in marriage to John P. La Forge, a lawyer who worked with her father. In the next few years, La Forge proved himself to be a cad of Dickensian proportions.
In April of 1838, the New York State Assembly issued a report which noted, “Mr. La Forge, who is a son-in-law of the register in chancery, has in several instances charged and received an exorbitant fee or reward for the examination of title and for drawing the papers, in putting out certain moneys of the court of chancery, and was so employed by the borrowers of said moneys; but it does not appear to your committee that the register was either informed of, or assenting to, such charges.”
One witness noted, “Mr. La Forge drew the money from the bank, and I think I saw him take out $100 from the wrapper which enclosed the money, before he paid over the balance… He told me he kept the balance for his trouble.”
In February of 1839, John Porter died, leaving Elizabeth without his protection and still married to John La Forge.
In April of 1840, Eliza Porter, Elizabeth’s mother, wrote to Mrs. Papineau from Skaneateles, “I am sorry to say he (La Forge) shows no disposition to attend to business, and spends all his time in hunting. You know what has transpired, and therefore I speak freely… I feel assured there is no confidence to be placed in him.”
By January of 1842, Elizabeth had left La Forge and wrote, “You knew, my dear Mrs. Papineau, of my first domestic affliction, and Amédée [the Papineau's son] has doubtless informed you that I am again similarly afflicted.”
In August of 1842, Elizabeth wrote to Mr. & Mrs. Papineau, “Mr. La Forge has been to see me and said he should soon wish me to return; but expressed no contrition, gave no explanation and made no promises of amendment. My friends, with one voice, urge me not to return; and I fear should I do so, it would be but to endure a repetition of past trials. It is my ardent desire to cease to think of him… At present, my situation is desolate.”
A letter from La Forge himself in October of 1842 is instructive. He writes to Edward O’Callaghan, who fled from Canada with Papineau, and reminds him that five years before he, La Forge, paid for O’Callaghan’s room at a boarding house in Albany, calling it “a little matter,” but adding, “If you can pay $5.00 to Mr. A. [Amédée] Papineau, I shall consider all canceled,” adding, “I owe Mr. Papineau some little money & therefore I ask you to hand this to him.”
In August of 1843, La Forge gave up on asking Elizabeth to return, and moved on to threatening to ruin her should she attempt to divorce him. Elizabeth wrote of her fear of pressing the case, “It is a delicate and fearful thing, for a fatherless female to place her character in the power of one so wily and revengeful. He threatened this because should I succeed here, it would prevent his wish to marry some wealthy person and also injure him at the New York Bar… They say he would not hesitate to bring up false witnesses from his criminal clients to say everything vile against me, as his only means of saving himself would be to attack my character.”
Elizabeth then cited evidence she could produce from a worker at her husband’s office. “Richard has written me that he carried notes continually to Miss Packer, daughter of a dancing master, that she came daily to the office, when Mr. L. sent him out, closed the blinds, and she remained four or five hours.”
In November of 1843, William V. Porter wrote to L.J.A. [Amédée] Papineau, “Mrs. La Forge’s affairs remain in about the same situation as when you left us. The Devil, alias La Forge, is still prowling about the city, but he is so expert in villainy that it is difficult to detect him.”
In February of 1844, Mrs. La Forge wrote Mr. & Mrs. Papineau that her lawyer felt he had a strong case for divorce, but, “Mr. L., you are aware, has threatened me with his ‘direst vengeance and opposition’ and so clever, cunning and base as he is, I fear according to his declaration, he will not leave a stone unturned to injure me. However this may be but threats, and I can only pray my Heavenly Father to support my case, and release me from one who has caused my beloved Father, our little family & myself such misery!”
Late in 1844, Elizabeth La Forge did obtain a divorce, a legal step which required an act of the New York legislature in that day and age, and again began signing her letters Elizabeth T. Porter.
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When Elizabeth remarried in 1851, she found happiness. Her husband was John Campbell Beach, born in 1813, the son of a successful Auburn businessman. After graduating from Yale College in 1833, John C. Beach studied law in Skaneateles with Daniel Kellogg; Beach took over the practice after Kellogg died in 1836. When his own father died in 1839, Beach found himself with his family’s business interests to manage as well. In 1843, he served as the Skaneateles Village President, but the next year he moved to Auburn to form a law partnership with New York Governor William Seward (who had also worked with Kellogg).
In 1845, prompted by business, Beach reluctantly left the practice of law and moved to New York City. We can assume that over the next years he prospered and his interests widened.
Elizabeth T. Porter and John C. Beach were married in New York City on July 13, 1851, but their years of wedded bliss were to be cut short.
On Saturday evening, July 26, 1856, John Beach was returning to New York City from Boston, steaming down the Atlantic coast on the Empire State (shown above), one of four steamships operated by the Bay State Line. The steamers were the luxury shuttles of their day, taking travelers from New York City to Fall River, Massachusetts, and thence by train to Boston, and back, stopping at Newport, Rhode Island, along the way. A shipboard supper, the music of an orchestra and a private cabin for a good night’s rest were among the amenities. Soon after leaving Newport, as the Empire State rounded Point Judith and passengers at the rail took in the view of the famous lighthouse, John Beach stood by himself on the lower deck as a boiler exploded. Just 15 feet away, hurled to the deck, he lay stunned and scalded in the steam’s path for 10 long minutes before rousing himself to crawl down a stairway. He lived for several more hours. An account published a month later noted:
“In full health and vigor he had left his happy home and its dear inmates for two days’ absence, and on his return was fondly anticipating that the morning would find him again in their midst. How differently dawned the morrow! Suffering agony unspeakable, ‘beyond (as he calmly expressed it) all conception,’ among strangers, he yielded up his precious life! In all his indescribable torture, he so composed his mind as to deliver his last wishes and fond messages to his beloved wife, with perfect distinctness. When asked if he ‘feared to meet death?’ he replied, ‘No, that his trust was in his God.’ That suavity which attended him through life and made his friends legion in number, did not leave him but with his last breath.”
Tragedy had struck the good and prosperous lives of John and Elizabeth T. Porter Beach. The grieving widow turned to writing for solace. She began penning, in her words, “Sad woven rhymes, in days of gloom/Strung but to stay the tear!/In dream-life to illume my tomb/Of buried joys – so drear!”
Years later, editor and poet William Cullen Bryant would observe, “A severe and sudden calamity held her for a long time in a state of melancholy bordering upon despair, until, by some accident, her mind became turned to poetic composition, and she was so fortunate as to obtain a respite from her grief in the task of putting in order romantic incidents of love and war.”
Her choice of subject matter — a verse romance about Pelayo (690-737 AD), a Christian hero of Spain — was influenced by her acquaintance with Washington Irving, who she met, most probably, through her Uncle Enos. People today remember Irving, if at all, as the author of Rip Van Winkle. But he was also in the U.S. foreign service in Spain, at the Embassy from 1826 to 1829, and serving as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the court of Queen Isabella II from 1842 to 1845. He knew the Queen as a young girl, and then as a monarch, and other members of her court as well, including Eugenie Montijo, who sat on his knee as a child in Granada, and who grew up to be the Empress of France.
Irving returned to the United States in 1846, one year after John and Elizabeth Beach moved to New York City. From 1848 until his death in 1859, he was President of New York’s Astor Library, later known as the New York Public Library. He was widely known as a gracious and willing mentor to other writers.
Mrs. Beach received encouragement from other quarters as well. She was acquainted with William Cullen Bryant, one of America’s best known poets and the editor of The New York Evening Post. One cannot understate Bryant’s influence at the time. He was a much-loved man of letters and a very influential figure on the political scene, a vocal supporter of abolitionists, of President Lincoln, and of the Union cause, all sympathies in which he was in perfect accord with Mrs. Beach.
Newspapers at the time carried much poetry and when the Civil War began, Beach occasionally set aside the writing of her epic of the Spanish struggle to write patriotic verse about the present conflict. In a letter to her uncle, in June of 1861, she speaks of one such poem:
“I sent a ms. (manuscript) copy to Mr. Bryant as a slight testimonial of gratitude, stating this and saying I knew, he being a patriot & poet, would appreciate the theme, that I did not send them for public attention, for a friend had already requested them; neither as a specimen of my poetry, for I had better pieces, and my pen, compared with his, would be as the tiny plume of the twittering spring bird, to that of the soaring Lark, or a mighty Eagle, but only as an offering To my surprise, I confess flattered pleasure, it was published in the next Evening Post.”
In 1862, when a Union blockade ship was sunk by the Confederate C.S.S. Virginia (also remembered as the Merrimac), Beach was inspired to write a poem entitled, “The Last Broadside of the Frigate Cumberland.” It recounted the story of the U.S.S. Cumberland at the battle of Hampton Roads, and the heroism of the ship’s captain and crew, who, in full knowledge that they were sinking, chose to stay aboard and fire one more broadside as they went down. Mrs. Beach’s poem read:
Shall we give them a broadside, my boys, as she goes?
Shall we send yet another to tell,
In iron-tongued words, to Columbia’s foes
How bravely her sons say ‘Farewell’?
“Aye! what though we sink ‘neath the turbulent wave,
‘Tis with DUTY and RIGHT at the helm!
And over the form should the fierce waters rave
No tide can the spirit o’erwhelm!
No tide can the spirit o’erwhelm!
For swift o’er the billows of Charon’s dark stream
We’ll pass to the immortal shore,
Where the ‘waters of life’ in brilliancy beam,
And the pure float in peace evermore!
“Shall we give them a broadside once more my brave men?”
“Aye, aye!” rose the full, earnest cry.
“A broadside! A broadside we’ll give them again!
Then, for God and the Right nobly die!”
“Haste, haste!” For amid all that battering din
Comes a gurgling sound fraught with fear
As swift flowing waters pour rushingly in
Up! up! ’till her portholes they near.
Up! up! ’till her portholes they near.
No blenching. No faltering! Still fearless all seem.
Each man firm to duty doth bide.
A flash! and a “Broadside!” A shout! A careen!
And the Cumberland sinks ‘neath the tide!
The “Star Spangled Banner” still floating above
As a beacon upon the dark wave!
Our Ensign of Glory, proud streaming in love,
O’er the tomb of the Loyal and Brave!
O’er the tomb of the Loyal and Brave!
Bold hearts! Mighty spirits! “Tried gold” of our land!
A halo of glory your meed!
All honored, the noble-souled Cumberland band!
So true in Columbia’s need!
The Last Broadside” struck a chord and created a national sensation, at least north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Such was its popularity, that it was set to music by Frederick Buckley, a well-known figure in the American musical theater of the day. Beach followed the poem with another, titled “Our Monitor,” no doubt prompted by the U.S. Navy’s answer to the Merrimac.
“The Last Broadside” brought fame to Beach, and that, together with the influence of William Cullen Bryant, may well have influenced New York’s Appleton publishing house to take her Spanish epic, which was coming to completion.
When Pelayo: An Epic of the Olden Moorish Time, was published in 1863, Beach noted in the introduction, “The author is indebted to the kindness of the lamented Washington Irving, who most courteously proffered her the free use of any of his writings that might subserve her purpose.” (She refers, most probably, to Irving’s Legends of the Conquest of Spain and the then unpublished “The Legend of Pelayo” which appeared posthumously in a later edition of Irving’s works.)
But Irving was not the only available source on the Pelayo legend. Thirty years earlier, Anna Cora Mowatt had written a verse romance entitled Pelayo, or The Cavern of Covadonga (New York, Harper & Brothers,1836). Mowatt in turn noted her debt to Robert Southey’s Roderick, the Last of the Goths: A Tragic Poem (1814). Southey’s work followed that of his friend Walter Savage Landor, Count Julian (1812), and Sir Walter Scott’s The Vision of Don Roderick (1811). Two years after Anna Mowatt’s romance in verse appeared, in 1838, author William Gilmore Simms of South Carolina published a novel entitled Pelayo: A Story of the Goth.
I do not know how many of these treatments of the Pelayo legend Beach read before embarking on her own Pelayo, but her style and her work are clearly her own, a point made by Bryant at the time of the epic’s publication. Written over a six-year period, Pelayo: An Epic of the Olden Moorish Time fills 424 pages in 20 cantos, a marathon of rhyming narrative in an a/b/a/b rhyme scheme, or a/a/b/b when the spirit moves the author. Pelayo was published in at least two editions, one in leather with gilt edges, marbled end sheets and an embossed cross on the cover, and a more humble edition with blue cloth boards.
Beach made it clear who she favored in the Christian vs. Moslem struggle:
God is with his children now!
God the impious neck doth bow!
God doth raise the Holy Cross!
Christians shields from woe and loss!
Glory to the God on High
Who to suff’ring Spain draws nigh!
Glory to his name e’er be!
Glory bright, Eternally!
In addition to many capital letters and exclamation marks, there is much in Pelayo about the gentle breezes and sheltering bowers of Spain, warbling birds, the tenderness of love in pure hearts. But, being a guy, I liked the battle scenes the best. My particular favorite has a band of Moors attacking the Christian heroes in their mountain stronghold, chasing them up rocky paths to a drawbridge that spans a rocky, raging river far, far below…
On, and still onward yet they rush,
O’er rocky crag and mountain brush;
Up, up that steep and wild ravine,
The Draw-Bridge reached! brief time I ween!
Her quiv’ring beams quick open flung,
Her oaken sinews trembling rung!
Firm all, till Christian-men have passed,
Ere yet the chain asunder cast,
And safe the Band!
– A moment more,
T’is covered by that dark mass o’er!
A swaying of those pond’rous beams,
A sev’ring of the sinewy seams,
A shiv’ring, wrenching, ringing crash,
And downward, downward, headlong dash
Deep in the seething gulf below,
With shrieks and oaths — the impious Foe!
Shades of Lucifer’s descent in Paradise Lost. The dark foe takes a plunge and the reader shouts, “Wahoo!” At least one critic, in The Eclectic Magazine of May, 1864, went for this in a big way, writing, “In the conception and plan of this beautiful historic poem, the gifted author has shown a poetic skill and genius in the language and style of her verse rarely equaled.”
The tale most often repeated about Beach’s Pelayo is that it inspired “royal honors.” In fact, Isabella II, the Queen of Spain, did send Elizabeth Beach a bracelet with a topaz on which the royal monogram was set in diamonds. And Empress Eugenie of France did send a gold medal with the inscription, “To Mistress Elizabeth T. Porter Beach.”
However, because of what we know of her later correspondence, we can be sure these gifts were not entirely spontaneous, perhaps prompted by Beach herself. We know that Beach knew Washington Irving, and that Irving knew both the Queen and the Empress, and that Beach was a world-class name-dropper.
As for the royal response, we know that the monarchs had grown up together, were devout Roman Catholics, remembered Washington Irving fondly, and were thus a receptive audience for a poem coming from a friend of Irving, extolling the virtues of a Spanish, Christian hero. Isabella, especially, was known to shower gifts upon the Church and her favorites. Also, her mother was a Princess of the Two Sicilies and her daughter, Isabel, married a prince of the Two Sicilies, a small principality that Enos Throop had served as Charge d’Affairs. Also, Empress Eugenie of France had an American mother, one Mary Kilpatrick, hence another tie to the United States.
Elizabeth T. Porter Beach did not lack for strings to pull. And if we wonder how she directed copies of Pelayo to these heads of state, we need only remind ourselves that, in 1863, the U.S.Secretary of State was William Seward of Auburn, N.Y., her late husband’s law partner.
With Pelayo in print, Beach continued to write patriotic poetry, including “To the Loyal League,” a poem addressing, and no doubt encouraging, the Loyal League of Union Citizens in New York City. Trading on the fame of “The Last Broadside,” Beach was at her networking, name-dropping best in this letter to President Abraham Lincoln, written on November 6, 1864:
President Lincoln, Dear Sir
The enclosed articles were cut from a Canadian paper, entitled the “Montreal Daily Witness,” sent me with the request that I would forward them to you. I showed them to Mr (William Cullen) Bryant, Editor of the N. Y. “Evening Post,” who thought it well I should send them as desired.
I take this opportunity to thank you for your genial acknowledgment of my poem sent you, — “The Last Broadside” — also to express my grateful appreciation of your appointment of of my brother, Major Wm V. Porter as “Paymaster”. He is well worthy of confidence, having almost passed into a proverb for his beauty of character, to which Gen’ (John) Dix can testify. With my earnest thanks for all the good you have done for our Country & Humanity, — & prayer that you may still be retained to us as an instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father for continued good, I am, most respectfully, your friend,
(signed) Mrs Elizabeth T. Porter Beach
There is no record of either President Lincoln’s earlier “genial acknowledgment” or of a reply to this letter.
In 1864, Beach published another song with Frederick Buckley, “Leaf by Leaf the Roses Fall,” but it did not enjoy the fame of “The Last Broadside.”
In May of 1867, Beach went for a three-monarch parlay, enlisting Rear Admiral Hiram Paulding, Commandant of the New York Navy Yard, to forward a copy of Pelayo to the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Cassius M. Clay, who could then give the book to the Emperor of All the Russias. Paulding wrote to Clay, enclosing Pelayo with his letter. Two weeks later, Beach wrote directly to Clay, mentioning her family and friends, and noting that Pelayo had already been favored with “Royal Honors.” In November, she wrote to Clay again, this time a thank-you letter, presumably after he had delivered Pelayo to the Emperor, whose response, if any, is lost to history.
After this, life seems to have quieted down for Mrs. Beach. Every year the census was taken, she subtracted another two or three or four years from her age, and her official date of birth gradually moved from 1813 to 1827. In 1878, she published her last work, “A Tribute to Cervantes.” One copy survives today, in the Brown University library. Her uncle, Enos Throop, died at Willowbrook on November 1, 1874. He is buried in St. Peter’s Churchyard in Auburn, N.Y.
On May 1, 1883, Elizabeth T. Porter Beach died in New York City. She was buried in the Porter family plot in Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York; there is no birth date on her gravestone. A writer in The New York Times said of her final resting place, “It is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the [Central] Park, and to sleep with his fathers in GreenWood.”
And so she does.
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My heartfelt thanks to: Georges Aubin, a French Quebecer historian and Papineau authority who opened a new door with his sharing of the Elizabeth T. Porter Beach letters in archived in Quebec; Pat Blackler, Village Historian of Skaneateles; Dr. Melissa Conway of the University of California at Riverside, for tracking down Beach rarities in U.S. academic libraries; Gretchen Pearson of LeMoyne College for providing copies of Anna Cora Mowatt’s Pelayo and William Gilmore Simms’ Pelayo; Stephen Goodwin Porter, the great-great-great grandson of James and Eliza Porter, for clarification of Porter genealogy and Elizabeth’s final resting place; Rosemary Switzer, Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester, for Elizabeth Beach’s letters to Enos Throop.
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Sources: Pelayo: An Epic of the Olden Moorish Time by Elizabeth T. Porter Beach; New York and London, D. Appleton and Company, 1864 (1863); Elizabeth T. Porter Beach’s letter to Abraham Lincoln, November 6, 1864; Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress; Past and Present of Onondaga County by William Beauchamp, p. 289; “An Epic of the Olden Moorish Time” (review) by W.H. Bidwell, The Eclectic Magazine, May to August 1864, pp. 371-376; “The Town of Skaneateles,” in Onondaga’s Centennial; Dwight H. Bruce, ed.; Boston History Co.,1896; Vol. II; “Washington Irving: Squire of Sunnyside” by Joseph T. Butler; The Cassius Marcellus Clay Papers, Lincoln Memorial University; Digital Scriptorium, Duke University, Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library for “The Last Broadside” and “Leaf by Leaf the Roses Fall”; Lives of the Governors of the State of New York by John S. Jenkins; Auburn, N.Y., Derby & Miller, 1851, pp. 478-545; History of Skaneateles, by Edmund Norman Leslie; New York, Andrew Kellogg, 1902; p. 336-338; The Empire State: A Compendious History of the Commonwealth of New York by Benson John Lossing, for the image of Enos Throop, an etching from a painting by Charles Loring Elliott; The Phillips History of Fall River, Chapter XIX, for the illustration of the steamer “Empire State”; “John C. Beach” in the Skaneateles Press, October 1, 1856.