Most New Yorkers have never heard of Andrew Haswell Green and the chances are even slimmer among non-New Yorkers.
In a civic career that spanned over 6 decades Andrew Haswell Green earned recognition as The Father of Greater New York for heading the construction of Central Park, The New York Public Library, The Bronx Zoo, The American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, consolidating the five borough’s of New York City, initiating the subway project, and taking down Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall . Too bad his murderer’s motive scandalized his name too much for ceremonious remembrance. The name Andrew Haswell Green will hardly show up in your news feed today even though it took center stage in the story that birthed sensational press 112 years ago.
The popular story is that a deranged lovesick Black Man named Cornelius Williams shot and killed Green in a case of mistaken identity for keeping his former flame, Bessie Davis a.k.a. Hannah Elias away from him. Usually the story is told to highlight Hannah’s uncommon wealth for a Black Woman in the early 1900’s. Most of the available narratives including a play entitled Hannah Elias, by Nathan Ross Freeman choose to romanticize the story at the expense of Cornelius Williams as an unstable victim of unrequited love. A murderer he may be, still in my opinion he at least deserves the dignity being represented accurately.
In 1903 Williams was a migrant laborer working as a chimney sweep in New York City. He carried himself so dignified that acquaintances said his name might have well been Cornelius Vanderbilt. Eight years earlier, Williams rented a room from his friend Matthew Davis and his wife Bessie in NY’s Tenderloin district, the city’s pre-Harlem Black Bohemia. Apparently Matthew and Cornelius entertained other woman in the home much to Bessie’s objection. She threw Williams out first and soon divorced her husband. Cornelius held a grudge for the eviction and according to him for Mrs Davis’ slandering him. She caused his fiance Myra Harris to break off their engagement and got him kicked out of Mt Olive Baptist Church. He tried to bring a lawsuit against her for slander but Bessie had prominent protectors. He resolved to cut her lying tongue out of her head. He prayed to God for vengeance and when God would not help he sought the devil’s assistance in killing Bessie Davis and her three protectors. So much for lovesick.
Cornelius stalked Andrew Haswell Green for a week before ambushing him and downing the elderly statesman with five close range shots. He waited for the police and handed over his emptied revolver, calmly stating “I’m the man who shot him. I’m not sorry for it either. I came over here to shoot him if I couldn’t get satisfaction.”. Later he revealed the story of how Bessie slandered him and how Green and other’s protected her. His motive immediately placed Green’s reputation into question. Was the Father of Greater New York involved a love triangle. with a “negro” and a “negress”? Contemporary New Yorkers could hardly wait for the morning and evening papers to hit the stands.
Meanwhile, District Attorney William Travers Jerome could hardly wait to keep Green’s name sanitized of any scandal especially one that would paint him as a paramour of a well kept Negress. Jerome found Bessie Davis now known as Hannah Elias and reported that she did not know Green and had not seen Williams since 1895. Jerome intimated Green’s murder was a case of mistaken identity. He also ordered Williams undergo psychiatric evaluation. According to the alienists Wiliiams stated Bessie had three protectors whom he intended to murder, Andrew Haswell Green, a former volunteer fireman John R. Platt (Often mistakenly confused with the former NY Senator John L. Platt) , and a still un-revealed lawyer. The idea that Green was mistaken for someone else just about cleared Green’s name and legacy from scandal. Still, Cornelius’s short list bearing both Green and Platt’s names complicated that explanation for those in the know. Even through his mania Williams understood these were two distinct individuals regardless of Jerome’s insistence that Williams killed Green because he mistook him for John Platt and that Andrew Haswell Green had no connection to Bessie Davis.
Bessie Davis aka Hannah Elias
As I stated above the story is usually told to glorify the wealth she accumulated and romanticize her as a “Negro Enchantress”. She’s also portrayed as a “passer” or a Black Woman who desired to be white. Proper research throws those claims into question. While there is no denying that Hannah carried on a socially forbidden affair with a prominent white man, John Platt, there is very little credible evidence that she ever sought to pass or be considered of than Black. Those charges came by the way of the press that was eager to fetishize her in spite of also reporting on her lavish Black Bohemia parties with the members of the Untied Colored Democracy and her close associations with J. Frank Wheaton future attorney for Jack Johnson, Philip A. Payton, Jr. Harlem’s real estate entrepreneur , Bill Marshall, proprietor of Marshalls Hotel & Cafe, Barron owner of Barron’s aka The Little Savoy, and Auto Scott the owner of The Tracadero. She even reportedly stated to a police officer,
“Look at me, I am a Negress and have never represented myself as otherwise. Would you or any one else take me for a white woman or a Spaniard? Reports that I fix myself up to look like a white woman are untrue.”
The First Published Images of Bessie Davis a.k.a. Hannah Elias
After having Williams declared insane and committed, D.A. Jerome stormed Hannah’s home, busted her door and arrested Hannah for extorting her wealth from John Platt. Personally I doubt that D.A. Jerome expected the charges to stick but rather hoped they’d serve his purpose of switching the question of character from Green onto Hannah. In some respects he was successful. For days mobs crowded her Central Park West home shouting racial slurs and hurling projectiles at the carriage that transported her to jail.
Image of Hannah in the NYC Tombs; Notice the Darkened Treatment
Hannah’s defense was successful at proving that Platt gave her money of his own free will. Still, the press that once presented her as some kind of departure from typical Blacks could not resist giving her the “mammy’ treatment after her victory against D.A. Jerome.
Her resisting and eventual arrest even spurred a “Coon Song” called “Hannah Won’t you Open the Door”. The song was so popular a silent film short, now believed to be lost was produced from it.
Did Andrew Haswell Green know Hannah Elias? Maybe we’ll never know but at least we can better understand why there’s no major thoroughfare in New York named in his honor.