J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Robert R. Livingston and the Brothels of New York

Last month, as part of a series of articles on members of Congress and slavery, the Washington Post published Gillian Brockell’s survey of artwork in the U.S. Capitol.

One passage that caught my eye was about the two sculptures New York has chosen to display:
One is Declaration of Independence co-writer Robert R. Livingston, who came from a prominent slave-trading family and personally enslaved 15 people in 1790. He also owned brothels that housed Black women who may have been enslaved.
Livingston (1746–1813, shown here) was on the committee of five Continental Congress delegates appointed to write the Declaration in May 1776. He participated in committee discussions but didn’t contribute memorably to the text, abstained from voting for independence along with the other New York delegates, and left the Congress before the formal signing.

But of course that wasn’t the detail that caught my eye—the reference to brothels did. That included a link to this article at the Gotham Center’s webpage about the Robert Livingston Papers, which says:
Along with members of his family, Livingston was also a slaveowner. According to the first federal census of 1790, he owned at least fifteen enslaved people. . . . By 1810 he owned at least five slaves. In addition, the Chancellor owned several brothels in lower Manhattan, which made have been homes for Black servants, or prostitutes.
That looks like an authoritative source. The Gotham Center says it “was founded in 2000 by Mike Wallace, after his landmark work Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, co-authored with Edwin Burrows, won the Pulitzer.”

But here’s where the trail gets twisted. Page 484 of Gotham said:
One of the most enterprising de facto whoremasters was John R. Livingston, brother of the Chancellor (and steamboat financier) Robert Livingston. By 1828 he controlled at least five brothels near Paradise Square and a score more elsewhere in the city, with a tenant roster that included some of the best-known madams in New York. His involvement was well known, and when irate neighbors complained, he simply reshuffled the offending women to another of his buildings.
Going back further in that book’s sources, Timothy J. Gilfoyle’s City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (1992) laid out many details about John R. Livingston’s brothels. But Robert R. Livingston appears in that study only as John’s brother. Neither book states that Robert owned any brothels, even as part of a family concern.

Students at Columbia University used city records and newspaper reports to study the university’s connections to slavery. One section of that digital presentation is titled “Livingston Brothels: Columbia and Profits from Black Bodies.” That includes a “Timeline of Livingston Brothel Ownership” which states:
From 1820 - 1829 the Livingston family owned an astonishing number of properties on Anthony St; 26, 28, 30, 143, 147, 149, 154 Anthony St, and briefly 24, 30, 45, 140, 141, 142, 153, 155, and 157 Anthony St. John R Livingston owned the majority of these brothels, however, Robert R Livingston, one of Columbia’s most important founders, owned 154 Anthony St through this decade.
I’m not sure what “one of Columbia’s most important founders” means here. Columbia was founded as King’s College in 1754, and Robert R. Livingston attended as an adolescent, graduating in 1765. He’s thus a Founder associated with Columbia, but he didn’t found Columbia. (His older cousin and successor in the Congress, Philip Livingston, was involved in setting up the college.) 

As for owning 154 Anthony Street in the 1820s, or 152 Anthony Street in the 1830s as a later panel says, Chancellor Livingston died in 1813. Perhaps this property was part of an unsettled estate, or there was another member of the family with a similar name (John had a son named Robert M. Livingston). But the Robert R. Livingston of the Continental Congress wasn’t around in the 1820s and 1830s when those properties were documented brothels.

Once again, Gilfoyle’s City of Eros and Wallace and Burrows’s Gotham don’t link Robert R. Livingston to buildings where prostitutes worked—they just say he was the older brother of John R. Livingston. There’s clear evidence that John owned and managed those properties, but that evidence dates from after Robert’s death. Furthermore, according to Gilfoyle, Robert tried to dissuade John from trading with Britain during the Revolutionary War, and John did it anyway, so we can hardly conclude the brothers always acted in concert. I welcome news of more recent findings that would change this picture, but I didn’t come across any.

Robert R. Livingston was undeniably a slaveholder. But as for him owning brothels, that idea appears to be a mistake. Robert’s historical celebrity seems to have drawn a couple of authoritative sources into blaming him for his younger brother’s activities. 

1 comment:

adkmilkmaid said...

Thanks for this careful research. It is certainly discouraging when mistakes are repeated over and over until they are believed to be true.