Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)
Chapter 19. A GOLDEN HILL
THE RAT HOLE! The rat pit! The darkness that is home to my Rat King. Near the end of a year spent thinking about rats, after three and nearly four seasons examining this squalid parcel of city land, after communing with this Philosopher's Hole, if you will, I am lured by a rat to consider this aspect of the alley of the Rat King. I see the rat, in my mind's eye, climbing down into this hole—this fire-escape-equipped darkness that is, on flashlight-led inspection, more than one story deep. I see the hole. I walk down and out of the alley and around the corner and see the front of the building and realize that the building itself is built into the side of a hill: its back to the hill's incline, its face facing the slope down, which, in turn, explains the steep slope of the alley, which explains—at last!—why the hole down to the basement is so unusually deep. So now, when I follow the rat down into the hole, I am thinking, paradoxically, of the hole's topographical opposite; I am thinking of this hill, this hill that I never really noticed before—I am thinking of Larry Adams, the city's exterminator, who talked about underground places that go back to the city's beginnings. And so again I wonder about the rat's sense of history: as a rat climbs down through the civic vestiges of man, through the layers of the city that reveal its abundant and varied history, as he makes his way out of the trash and into his nest, does he perceive in some history-powered synapse those ancestor rats, the very first Norway rats, who came on ships from other lands at the time of the American Revolution, who followed these back trails in the past, who fought with the rats that were already here, who colonized and expanded and roamed and, now, in their collective presence in rat history, are the unknowable rat spirit that is part of what makes New York the city that it is? Laugh all you like, but all I knew was that somewhere in this rat hole I would figure out what it was that a year with rats had been trying to tell me*
Now, late at night, I could feel the ache of history under my feet, the secret in the rat-urine-covered cobblestones whispering to me. Once more I dug into Edens Alley's past, cut down into the history of a hill the way the blade of a saw passes through time as it cuts through the growth rings of a thick, old tree. I headed back to when the hill was still an easily noticeable hill, into the geography that is mostly lost to contemporary humans: the terrain is smoothed yet the hill, still a factor in the rain, still warrants a few extra stairs in a nearby subway exit and is perhaps still noticeable at rat level. I read the old records in the city's archives and saw the hole itself being expanded in 1968 when the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association put in air-conditioning. I saw the underground vaults installed on the north side of the alley in 1948. I climbed with the rats, in a sense, as time rewound and the worn-down hill rose again, stood up in the ten-block area of office buildings that are filled with large companies but also with small companies too numerous to name. I saw the character of the neighborhood—and a neighborhood is a character, the more you investigate it—as it transformed in reverse from financial services and residences and a giant housing project to a neighborhood of craftsmen and artisans and laborers, in addition to those facilities attending to the more ignominious duties of those trades. I could see back to when Gold Street was the center of the gold industry in New York City, when, in the rat range of Edens and Ryders Alleys, there were men making gold jewelry and making gold leaf. These gold workers, I discovered, came to Gold Street just after the Revolution not because of the hill but because of the swamp. So just as I went to the alley and found myself on a hill, so I looked down from the hill and saw the old swamp out past the housing projects that stand there now, past the Burger King that harvests fast food garbage each night. The last old printers in New York City still call the neighborhood the Swamp even though the old neighborhood isn't much there, and they recall the stench of the tanneries, the leather-making plants that were on old streets—Ferry Street and Jacob Street—that were built over and are now only rat-remembered. The tanners were descendants of people such as Smith Ely, tanner extraordinaire, who came to the Swamp on Gold Street, in 1835, and with other tanners contributed to the malodorous man-made swamp smell, who came to the Swamp because it was an actual swamp—a swamp fed by a spring that popped up in September of 1879, when the men building the Manhattan support for the Brooklyn Bridge hit it at a depth of eighteen feet below ground: fifty gallons a minute had to be pumped when the spring was working alone at low tide, and two hundred gallons a minute at high tide. The tanners came, filled the swamp's dreck with more dreck, the rats reaping the discarded results.
But back to the Rat King, who has led me deeper down into the pit—even if I can't capture him in the tremulous beam of my flashlight, in the green light of the night-vision gear, for the Rat King has now taken me down to the time in history when his very first rat ancestors arrived in New York. Now, from my rat vantage, I can see way back in time, to the dawn of the lineage of New York's Rat Kings. I can see, for example, that the land of the rat alley is at the crest of a little valley that runs south to what is today Wall Street. The Leni-Lenape, the first humans known to have inhabited the then Rattus norvegicus-fveeNew York, perhaps described it with one definition of the word Mannahata: "hilly island." Then again, perhaps they did not: other explanations of the origins of Mannahata point out that it could have derived from the word manahatouh, which means "place where timber is procured for bows and arrows," or even from Manahachtanienk, which means "the island where all became intoxicated," a reference to a time when Henry Hudson landed on the island in 1609 and everyone got really drunk. Certainly, the Dutch saw the hill too, and as high as it was above the swamps and streams, they filled it with wheat, so that when people looked up into it, when the wheat was kissed by sun, the hill appeared golden—in Dutch, gouden bergh or Golden Hill. Gold Street was named for Golden Hill. In cities, we are surrounded by hints of the past, such is the richness of nomenclature!
But the existence of an ancient hill is not all that the Rat King showed me. I had followed rats through rent strikes and union movements. Now I was following a Rat King back to the forgotten history of the Golden Hill. I looked at the old maps and read the stories that are no longer read, and I discovered that it was on the Rat King's Golden Hill, on the top of Edens Alley's, that a long-forgotten battle of the American Revolution took place—the very first battle, in fact.
At least sometimes it is called a battle. Other times it is called a riot or just some trouble with a mob. What happened was, British soldiers attacked an unarmed crowd that was just as angry at the soldiers as the soldiers were angry with it. The first man to be attacked was the leader of the colonial masses, Isaac Sears. In the days before the Revolution, Isaac Sears ruled the streets of New York. He is almost completely forgotten, but at the time he was known by the British and the colonials alike as King Sears or just The King. I will tell you just a little bit about him now because Isaac Sears is the hero of Edens Alley, my rat Rosetta stone. See how he precedes all that is ratty in New York and inadvertently summons the very first city rats.
ISAAC SEARS WAS BORN IN Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the sixth of nine children, the son of an oysterman. Sears grew up in Connecticut and made his name as a sailor, during the Seven Years' War, a global war in which the colonies mostly fought the French and their Indian allies, and during which New York became rich as a supply port for the English and got used to a certain kind of independence. Sears was a privateer. A privateer was a legalized pirate, who worked freelance for the government, keeping the spoils of plundered enemy ships. He was known for his daring, even among privateers, a survivor of impossible battles, of shipwrecks. Sears was described by a contemporary as a man of "great personal intrepidity; forward in dangerous enterprises and ready at all times to carry out the boldest measures." In 1759 he was shipwrecked on Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, and saved his crew of nine men. After the war, he settled in New York, marrying Sarah Drake, the daughter of Francis Drake, owner of Drake's Tavern, an alehouse popular among sailors, boatmen, and seaport characters. They had eleven children. Sears invested in ships, which traded with the West Indies and the island of Madeira. When the Seven Years' War ended, a recession hit New York. The British taxed the colonies to make up for revenue lost during the war. As a result, colonial trade with the West Indies came to a halt. People said that the streets in Madeira, once filled with merchants, had grown green with grass.
Isaac Sears became King Sears during the time of the Stamp Act, the first direct tax on the colonies—it required colonists to purchase stamps for all legal papers and was intended to raise money to send troops to America. On the arrival of the stamps, people protested in the streets, so that the governor, Cadwallader Colden, was forced to imprison the protesters in Fort George, the British fort. A crowd then destroyed Colden's expensive carriage and burned him in effigy. On the day before the Stamp Act was to take effect, Judge Robert Livingston called a meeting at a tavern. Livingston was against the Stamp Act, but as a member of the city's aristocracy, he was also against the disorder represented by a rioting crowd. His plan for the meeting was to convince as many citizens as possible to pledge armed support for the fort. As the meeting opened, the men in attendance paid close attention to Livingston—until Isaac Sears pushed forward, charging that the meeting was an attempt to keep the stamps from the citizens. "We will have them within forty-eight hours!" Sears shouted. The crowd roared. Sears shouted again: "Huzzah, my lads!" Now, Sears turned to Livingston and said, "Your best way, as you may now see, will be to advise Lieutenant Governor Colden to send the stamps from the fort to the inhabitants." In a way, Sears ratted on Livingston. Later, Sears compromised and allowed the governor to turn the stamps over to City Hall; something that people who didn't like him didn't necessarily recognize is that Sears almost always compromised—he understood that issues weren't black-and-white but often gray. From that day on, Sears found that he could exploit his reputation as a mob leader to get what the Liberty Boys wanted without necessarily resorting to force; he would harass people and ridicule them, shout them down in the pubs—he was the people's jerk. Isaac Sears became, in the words of George Bancroft, the nineteenth-century historian, "self-constituted, and for ten years, the recognized head of the people of New York."
Sears reigned as a member of the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty. The Liberty Boys, as they were also known, were a group of workers—sailmakers, printers, shopkeepers, day laborers, a songwriter, fishermen, oystermen, and the tradesmen sometimes called mechanics—who worked in the trades in the city, especially on the docks. (A precursor to the Sons of Liberty in New York was the Sons of Neptune.) In Boston, Liberty Boys were men like Paul Revere and John Hancock and Samuel Adams. They were the revolutionaries just before the Revolutionary War's revolutionaries, the fathers of the Founding Fathers.
Initially, the Liberty Boys didn't want a revolution. They were united in their interest in getting rid of the revenue acts that hurt their businesses. They saw liberty as the freedom to work and make money; the watermark on the stationery of the Sons of Liberty in Albany, for instance, was "Work & Be Rich." They fought for opportunity and the opportunity to work—for many years after the Revolution, the Fourth of July was celebrated as Labor Day. They were protesting for their rights as British citizens, rights they saw not as revolutionary but as standard. To protect their rights, the Liberty Boys encouraged each other's organizations through meetings and correspondence; the Sons of Liberty recommended the establishment of the first colonial postage system, and they arranged the first intercolonial associations. In some cities the Sons of Liberty united with radical farmers in the countryside. (This was not the case in New York, however. "The Sons of Liberty are of opinion that no one is entitled to riot but themselves," wrote a Tory commentator at the time.) The aristocracy shared the Sons of Liberty's opposition to taxes, but to most of the aristocracy in New York the taxes imposed by the British were not as bad as what they called "the leveling principles" and the "democratic notions" of groups like the Liberty Boys. The nonradical rulers of the city called the Liberty Boys all kinds of names. They called them vermin, the mob, mobile vulgus,lobsterbacks, Negroes and boys, "flaming patriots without property," "the mixed rabble of Scotch, Irish, and foreign vagabonds," "descendants of convicts," "foulmouthed and sin-flaming sons of discord and faction," "the meanest people," "Children & Negroes," oystermen, and rats. Philip Foner, in Labor and the American Revolution, joked that an entire book could be written just using the derogatory names that the upper class called the Liberty Boys and their Hke as they swarmed through the cities.
The Liberty Boys gathered in taverns, communal places, where they rented pipes and shared cups. Pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, and handbills were read aloud for the benefit of the illiterate. There were more taverns in New York than in any other colonial city, and the talk in New York taverns was considered especially effusive. "There is no modesty, no attention to one another," John Adams wrote, after he visited New York on his way to Philadelphia. "They talk very loud, very fast, and altogether. If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer, they will break out upon you again, and talk away." After the British taxed tea, New Yorkers began drinking coffee and taverns were sometimes called coffeehouses but they were still taverns. The Liberty Boys met in Burns Tavern, in Fraunces Tavern, at Drake's, in Montayne's, and in a tavern that they chipped in and bought for themselves, called Hamden Hall. The Liberty Boys also met with women on occasion; they are thought to be the first association in America to have a women's auxiliary, the Daughters of Liberty. The Daughters of Liberty refused to drink tea after the tea tax and boycotted British clothing, saying, "It is better to wear a homespun coat than to lose out liberty." (Once during a Daughters of Liberty demonstration, a man spoke out against American independence, at which point a Daughter of Liberty stripped him of his shirt and, in lieu of tar and feathers, covered him with molasses and the tops of flowers.) A song that the Sons of Liberty sang went like this:
With the beasts of the wood, we will ramble for food,
And lodge in wild deserts and caves
And live poor as Job on the skirts of the globe,
Before we'll submit to be slaves; brave boys,
Before we'll submit to be slaves.
They posted handbills around the city that said LIBERTY, PROPERTY, AND NO STAMPS. They erected a Liberty Pole, a flagless flagpole in the Fields, which was also called The Commons and is now City Hall Park—it was the place where New Yorkers gathered and talked and shouted. They said they would "fight up to their knees in blood."
Isaac Sears's great power as the leader of the Sons of Liberty and leader of the revolutionaries of New York was that he. could convince so many people to see things his way. Before the Stamp Act and the Sons of Liberty, New Yorkers had no access to government, nothing akin to the public meetings that Bostonians held at Faneuil Hall. Sears used the mob to give people some legitimacy as citizens—for the first time in New Yorkers' history. What the aristocracy saw as riots, the rioters saw as a kind of power; a Loyalist official said, "The mob begins to think and reason. Poor reptiles!" Sears's great tactical success was in helping to foil the Royalist New Yorkers who had promised British officials that New York would desert the revolutionaries' cause; he was the unrelenting rebel presence, always gnawing away at Royalist gains. It has been argued that the British lost the Revolution because they devoted so much time and energy to holding New York. If so, then the leader most responsible for the colonies' ultimate triumph is Edens Alley's forgotten privateer.
As the old revolutionaries became more revolutionary, Sears's Liberty Boys moved accordingly; if Samuel Adams was the first to philosophize about breaking off from England, Isaac Sears was the first to act. With his boats intercepting ships filled with British goods, with his rallies and visits to Tory homes, with his constant verbal and physical harassment of Tories in taverns, Sears is said to have done more to boycott British goods than anyone else in the colonies. In 1765, he sent two Liberty Boys to Connecticut with letters intended to form a military pact between the colonies in the face of possible British aggression—the first move toward concerted physical resistance in the American Revolution. I have never seen a contemporary portrait of him, but I imagine he often had his fist clenched and his mouth open. He was the first in a long line of crowd rulers that subsequently bred Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall and machine-led governments all over America. In 1775, Sears was arrested but the crowds rescued him, carrying him on their shoulders through Wall Street and up Broadway to the Fields. Disgusted that the city did not intercede, a Tory wrote, "Our magistrates have not the spirit of a louse."
After the battles of Lexington and Concord, in 1775, the Sons of Liberty raided the arsenal at City Hall, arming citizens. Sears marched 360 men to the customs house and closed the port. He sent patrols out from his home. He was on a short list of people that the British military called "the most active Leaders and Abettors of the rebellion." His Majesty's ship Asia was ordered to attack Sears's home in Beekman Street, due to Sears's success in blocking supplies to that and other British ships. "[F]ire upon the house of that traitor, Sears … and beat it down," wrote Vice Admiral Graves. The British put a bounty on his head and tried their best to exterminate him, but at the last minute, just before the British took control of New York, King Sears slipped away.
BUT LET'S NOT FORGET THE rat and the rat alley, because it is there where I stand on a warm evening at the beginning of spring when my Rat King, fed and fought with and triumphant in an overindulged-by- garbage kind of way, waddles down into history—it is in this very spot, I realize at last, that Isaac Sears struck the first blow for liberty, in a skirmish called the Battle of Golden Hill. It was an unglorious blow, an animal-like action, and the first blow in a battle that led directly to the conception of America—as well as to the introduction into New York of the Rattus norvegicus. It's an example of the circles of men and the circles of rats closing in on each other, to a point.
The buildup to the Battle of Golden Hill began on January 13, 1770, with a fight at the Liberty Pole, a flagless flagpole that was the lightning rod for both sides' fermenting discontent. The British soldiers hated the Liberty Pole as if it were a living thing; they had already destroyed the pole on several occasions. They had blown up the second pole on March 18, 1767, the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act. The third pole—larger and protected with iron bars and hoops—was destroyed on the night it was erected. This fourth pole stood for three years, but by 1770 relations between the British troops and the Liberty Boys were at a new low. More British troops had arrived in the city, and New Yorkers were being taxed to garrison them. The British soldiers, meanwhile, were given jobs when they were off duty—in the eyes of the citizenry they were taking the colonists' jobs. New Yorkers resented the troops and the troops resented the New Yorkers' resentment of them. The taverns teemed with philosophical arguments and gossip, and people met and talked in the same place where people have always protested in New York City, union leader and ragtag community protester alike—in the Fields around the Liberty Pole, in The Commons. A British military commander in Manhattan wrote to a British commander in Boston, where the situation was similar: "It is now as common here to assemble on all occasions of public concern at the Liberty pole and Coffee House, as for the ancient Romans to repair to the Forum."
On the night of January 13, 1770, forty British soldiers crept out of their barracks, which was only a few yards away from the pole, and attempted to blow up the Liberty Pole: they drilled holes in it and filled the holes with gunpowder. A cordwainer noticed the soldiers drilling. He sprinted into Montayne's tavern, across the street, where a number of Liberty Boys were hanging out. Two Liberty Boys ran out of the tavern to investigate and then scurried back in. The troops lit a fuse but it fizzled. The Liberty Boys came outside again, yelled, "Fire!" to alert the town, then stood and hissed at the soldiers. The soldiers chased the Liberty Boys back into the tavern and then wrecked the place; the soldiers beat up a waiter and chased a customer out the window and threatened Montayne himself. The soldiers tried again two nights later to take down the pole but failed. On January 15, a Liberty Boys broadside, signed by "Brutus," called for a rally at the Liberty Pole the next day. Aside from lamenting the taxes required to house the troops, Brutus argued that New Yorkers were paying poor taxes to "maintain many of their whores and bastards in the work house." "Every man of sense among us knows that the army is not sent here to protect but to enslave us," Brutus wrote. These remarks upset the troops further, and before the Liberty Boys had their rally, the soldiers finally managed to cut the Liberty Pole down. They sawed it up into small pieces and quietly laid them at the door of Montayne's.
It was cold, and snow covered the ground, but when the bell rang on St. George's Chapel the next morning, three thousand people turned out at the spot where the pole had stood. The crowd was mad. Many of the men present had lost their jobs to the soldiers. The Liberty Boys read a resolution against employing the soldiers, against soldiers roaming the streets at night, against soldiers behaving in "an insulting manner." Violators, the resolutions said, "shall be treated as enemies of the peace of this City." The crowd cheered. "Huzzah!" the people said.
In this primordial moment, at this moment in American history and the history of the city of New York—at this moment that is, in my mind, akin to the moment wherein organic life might have originated in the thermal vents that dot the seafloor—the rivals were face-to-face. A carpenter pointed to a British guardhouse and shouted, "It must come down!" The soldiers standing nearby immediately drew their swords. Bristling with weapons, the soldiers dared the crowd to try to take the house down, and the crowd—growling, roaring—began moving in to do so, until the British officers and city magistrates calmed the two sides. That day, a party of sailors patrolled the streets and docks with clubs, turning out any soldiers they found. On Friday, January 19, the soldiers went out on the street with a broadside of their own. Their broadside argued that the Liberty Boys were the real enemy of the peace of the city; it described the Liberty Boys as murderers, robbers, and traitors "who thought their freedom depended in a piece of wood." The soldiers described themselves as the defenders of English liberties. They said they would not "tamely submit."
King Sears was not happy about the soldiers' broadside. When he ran into a small party of soldiers hanging the paper in the Fly Market—at the intersection of Maiden Lane and Liberty Street, three blocks from Edens Alley—he grabbed the leader of the party by the collar. Sears shouted at the soldier, and according to a report at the time in the New York Gazette, he demanded to know what they thought they were doing. He didn't wait for an answer but dragged the soldier to the mayor. Walter Quackenbos, a baker who was a friend of Sears's, grabbed another soldier and followed Sears. A third soldier tried to stop Sears. The soldier drew his bayonet, but Sears had a ram's horn on him and, seeing the sword-tipped rifle aimed at him, threw the ram's horn at the third soldier, hitting the soldier in the head. Amazingly, the soldiers all scattered off, except for the two that Sears and Quackenbos had in hand. Sears and Quackenbos brought the two detained soldiers to the mayor. A crowd quickly gathered outside the mayor's house, and in a few more minutes, twenty British soldiers arrived, their swords and bayonets drawn. A soldier—a colonial soldier who, it was reported, was unemployed because of the British soldiers' presence in the city—went to the door of the mayor's house with a small group of men to turn back the British soldiers. Seeing the soldiers' weapons, people began arming themselves with wooden rungs that they ripped from sleighs. There was shouting. The mayor appeared and ordered the British soldiers back to their barracks. The soldiers obeyed, but as they retreated, the crowd followed them. The soldiers proceeded directly back to their barracks, until they arrived at the foot of Golden Hill, at which point they sprinted up the hill. When the soldiers reached the top, one of them shouted, "Soldiers, draw your bayonets and cut your way through them!" The other soldiers charged, shouting, "Where are your Sons of Liberty now?"
It was a melee, an anarchic moment. Free of civil restraint or control, it was like when you are in an alley full of rats and you stomp, thinking you are in control of the rats, and then the rats freak out and come at you and you end up being freaked out too. As the soldiers and the crowd fought, a second group of soldiers arrived from the barracks. A soldier on the bottom of Golden Hill shouted to the soldiers at the top, saying they should, as one colonial newspaper reported, "cut their way down, and they would meet them halfway." The second group of soldiers attacked. The crowd fought the soldiers. A twenty-two-year-old chairmaker's apprentice charging up Golden Hill with a chair leg managed to grab a musket, a belt, a bayonet, and cartridge box, all of which he saved and subsequently used to fight in the Continental Army. In the end, three people were injured, a sailor was beat up, a fisherman had his finger cut off, a water seller was slashed, and Francis Field, a Quaker who had been standing in his doorway, had his face ripped up. The soldiers finally chased the people out into the streets; the crowd scattered, though when other people opened their doors to see what was going on, the soldiers ran after them too. That evening the soldiers attacked two lamplighters, cutting one in the head and pulling the ladder out from underneath the other. The next morning the soldiers came out and attacked a woman on her way to market, and the Liberty Boys broke up a fight between British soldiers and some sailors. Later that afternoon, the soldiers attempted to stop another gathering in the Fields but were beaten back into their barracks by the Liberty Boys. All told, it was two days of vicious scuffles and taunts and armed rioting, a dirty, ratty fight.
The Liberty Boys put up a new pole; it was a mast like thing, made by seamen, covered with steel sheeting on the bottom and guarded with a fence—British-troop-proof. The pole was carried to the site in a great parade, led by King Sears and his people. The fifth Liberty Pole survived until 1776, when it was cut down by the Loyalist sheriff, who had been whipped at its foot. And two months after the Battle of Golden Hill, after four colonists were killed in Boston in what became known as the Boston Massacre, it was said that an underlying cause of that melee was that the British soldiers had been upset by the treatment of their counterparts in New York.
THE ARRIVAL OF RATTUS NORVEGICUS in America went unnoted—the opposite of the appearance, for instance, of a rare species of bird. But it seems to me a matter of physics that Rattus norvegicus arrived when Sears left. Personally, I believe that it arrived not too long after the fifth Liberty Pole was cut down. In other words, the rats came after Sears had sold his house and moved his family and children, first to Connecticut and then to Boston. It was as if a Rat King vacuum had been filled.
The rats came after Sears evacuated the city he loved in the summer of 1775, along with four-fifths of the population, or about twenty thousand people. In 1776, a third of the city's houses were burned. Then, the city burned again in 1778. Many of the remaining colonists lived in a place nicknamed Canvas Town, a camp of tents and shacks with people living "like herrings in a barrel, most of them very dirty," according to an English correspondent, who added, "If any author had an inclination to write a treatise upon stinks he never could meet with more subject matter than in New York." The occupying troops cut down nearly all the trees on the island, the trees Manhattanites had been so proud to have lining their streets. Meanwhile, the British shipped in German mercenaries; observers noted that the British treated the mercenaries like cattle, prodding and herding them off ships. Rattus norvegicus had already invaded Germany by 1776. Consequently, Rattus norvegicus invaded America on the German ships of England's invasion force; it was a shadow invasion. The rats couldn't have had less hostile territory. When Britain surrendered New York, the city was all dug up with trenches and garbage was everywhere. It was the perfect habitat for the newly arrived burrow-loving rat—in addition to poverty and injustice, war is good for rats. The black rat or ship rat was already in the city, living in wooden attics and in the holds of American ships, but now the Norway rat arrived and thrived and amassed, eventually rising up from its lowly new immigrant status to rule the city, from a nonhuman-mammal perspective. The newest rat took the throne.
Now THAT I HAVE SEEN the original Rat King of Edens Alley, I see Isaac Sears all the time in New York. Since that winter, I see him on the streets, for instance. I see him in the crowds of people standing on subway platforms or in the lunchtime street traffic at busy intersections or even in the trading pits on Wall Street. I see him in the guy who is simultaneously shouting with and leading everyone in chants and laughing louder than anyone else as you leave a baseball stadium. I see him in the woman with a bullhorn on the steps of City Hall, in the people chanting at a protest in Union Square. I even see him in the past: in the bars and saloons and rat fights and riotous mobs in New York; in the riots in Harlem in the sixties, which weren't as bad as the riots in Detroit and in L.A., where I would probably see Sears too, if I looked. I see him with the student demonstrators of the sixties and standing alongside John DeLury, who, like Sears, watched crowds gather and grow and grumble in the very same spot that Sears saw his crowds—City Hall Park, which was once The Commons and before that the Fields and before that a grassy plain bordered by swamps and ponds and in sight of a golden hill. I see Sears in Wisconsin and in Chicago and everywhere there are people, which is everywhere there are rats—people who are sometimes moblike, sometimes the embodiment of justice, sometimes just looking for a good time or something to eat and a decent place to live.
When I look into the rat alley, when I watch the Rat King descend into his dank hole, I see the first New York rat. I see a noble king, a leader of the people, and I see a jerk. I see the beginnings of the great city of New York. I see the great city's forgotten moments and its forgotten people, its bowels. I see rats being killed and then multiplying and then being killed again. I see fear and courage. I see nature and I see human nature and I see great crowds of hungry or drunk or tired or righteousness-inspired men and woman as they rise up and shout, Huzzah, America! Huzzah!
THE QUIET CODA TO THE secret of my rat alley is Isaac Sears's fade into obscurity—the story of how his life story skittered off into a hole. I think he may have been forgotten because he once got perhaps a little too self-reliant.
In 1775, Sears rode back into New York with a band of Connecticut horsemen, seizing prisoners along the way, and broke into the print shop of a Tory printer, James Rivington.* Sears and his men sang "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as they carried off Rivington's type to melt down for colonial bullets—just as the British believed that the colonial rebellion would end if the ringleaders were rounded up, so Sears felt that if Loyalists like Rivington were quieted, then the Loyalist masses would turn to the colonists' cause. It was a huge misstep for Sears. At the time, he was about to be appointed secretary of the American navy. He had been assured of the position. But after breaking up Rivington's presses he was passed over for the job. The young Alexander Hamilton, the next generation of revolutionary, condemned the raid as a defamation of the press. Sears was branded uncontrollable, one of the things he probably was not; George Washington called privateers like Sears "squirrelly," each ship "a free lance." Sears felt betrayed, more so when he asked the Continental Congress for reimbursement for the men on the raid and was turned down. Today, we think of the revolutionaries as being selfless and uninterested in financial gain, but like many colonists fighting the British, the old privateer believed that unrewarded patriotic service was a luxury affordable only to the well-off. "[W]hen a man has done most, he gets least reward," Sears wrote in a letter. He was left to ponder his career-ending moment of unrestrained violence. He worked with the military through the course of the war, advising on marine matters, devising fortifications for the Hudson Valley, and he returned to New York as soon as the war was over. Like many of his generation, he was forgotten, the younger revolutionaries now leading the way.
After the Revolution, Sears was in debt, like New York. Now that its old British trading partners were gone, the city was looking for new trading partners. Sears arranged one of the first trips to China, believing it would be the key to the new nation's economic success. Sears set sail for China in 1786 on a ship called Hope. He came down with a fever and died on the way. He was buried on an island in Canton Harbor.
Somewhere around 1898, a plaque was erected to designate the site of the Battle of Golden Hill. It was on a building at a corner on what I calculate to be the base of the old hill, a block away from the rat alley. That building was demolished and the building that replaced it was called the Golden Hill Building, but the plaque disappeared. In 1918, a reporter investigated the whereabouts of the plaque and discovered that it had been moved a few blocks away—in 1918, in other words, the plaque marked the site of the battle on what was not the site of the battle at all. The man in the building where the plaque stood told the reporter that he had rescued it when the old building was torn down. "I don't know anything about the battle, but I do know it's a handsome bit of bronze and it would have gone to the junk heap if we hadn't looked after it," the man said. Sometime after that, the plaque disappeared entirely and the Golden Hill Building was knocked down and replaced with a building that doesn't mention the battle at all—history papered over, buried, its faint clues fading.
The Liberty Pole still stands, though it is inside a fence alongside City Hall, and if you didn't know it was there you might miss it. It is surrounded by thirteen stones, each said to have come from an original colony. It was replaced after the Revolution and replaced again in 1921, after a ticker-tape parade, then replaced two more times, most recently in 1952, when it was discovered to have rotted out inside. The Liberty Pole is still surrounded by the half-protective, half-paranoid fencing originally designed by the Liberty Boys. Today, it stands alongside an unidentified stone ruin, a foundation of some kind hidden in the grass. The last time I was there, someone had laid out rat poison right beside it. That makes sense to me. I've seen some rats in there.
* Just a quick note on finding history in holes, on looking down into the past, which is easier than it may sound: Once, in Rome, I went to a church, San Clemente, also known as Saint Clement's Basilica. When you enter the church, you enter a medieval church with eighteenth-century additions—a Baroque basilica. When you go down a level, you see that the upper basilica was built on an early Christian church, with frescoes dating to the ninth century. That church was, in turn, built on the site of a mithraeum, a third-century temple for the cult of the god Mithras, which revolved around the life-giving slaying of a bull. (A major feast day of the popular cult of Mithras was December 25, and the cult competed with Christianity for popularity.) You take an ancient set of steps down into the mithraeum, and when you get there—it's a dark, dank, stone-walled, basementlike place—you see in the floor a stream running beneath a metal grate. When you do, you realize that the mithraeum was built on a Republican estate, which was most likely built where it was built because it was alongside a stream, a stream that was probably beautiful at the time, not that I personally have anything against streams piped through basements. My point is this: religions build on religions, cultures on cultures, cities on cities, just the way one rat moves into the previous rat's old rat hole—or hole of any kind, really.
* Rivington is thought to have been a spy for the Americans—he ratted on his Tory supporters, probably for money. He is said to have delivered to Washington the Royal Navy's signal book in 1781. The spy who was thought to be most valuable to Washington in New York City during the time of the British occupation was Hercules Mulligan. Mulligan was a tailor on Queen Street, the city's most fashionable street, and he was the city's most fashionable clothier, in addition to being a Liberty Boy. When the British occupied the city, British officers came to Mulligan for uniforms, and as they did, he was able to learn about British troop movements, information that he passed on to George Washington. He was thought to be a traitor by his anti-British neighbors, but he was so important to Washington that when the British left New York and Washington returned to the city, the first thing the general did upon arrival was to have breakfast with Hercules Mulligan and present him with a bag of gold. Everyone in town apparently knew what Washington's gesture meant; it cleared Mulligan of charges of being too friendly with the enemy. According to a short history by the CIA of early American espionage, Mulligan coaxed information out of British generals and got himself out of scrapes with British intelligence by utilizing what the CIA termed "blarney." One reason I mention Mulligan's ratting out of the British is because when my father worked in New York City, his alias was Hercules P. Sullivan; he had business cards printed up with that name and referred to himself as Hercules. I never knew how he chose the name Hercules for himself, but when I ran across Hercules Mulligan in the revolutionary history books, I called up my father and asked if he'd ever heard of him. My father said that one day in the seventies he had come upon a plaque that described Hercules—he recalled seeing it at 160 Water Street, which is near where Queen Street, when it existed, would have been downtown. My father looked at the plaque, read it, and according to his best recollection said, "Holy smokes! That's some handle!" That phrase can be translated roughly as "Wow! What a great name!"