Archive for the ‘Jay, John’ Category

“those dreary cells wherein I was confined”

ELIZABETH MUNRO FISHER was sent to the prison in Greenwich Village in March 1801 for the crime of forgery—attempting to forge a deed giving her property near Albany which, she said, had been promised by her father, Reverend Harry Munro. Fisher described her experience in the prison:

I went in on Friday. On Monday the inspectors thought proper to place some confidence in me—they put the women prisoners under my command, which command I received with reluctance, but was pleased, nevertheless, with this mark of distinction. I should be wanting in my duty, if I passed by, without making known to the public the attention with which I was treated—they seemed to try to make me happy. After I had received my orders from Thomas Eddy and John Murray (1), I was desired by them to make a choice of a room for myself, and a person to attend me. My provisions were sent me from the head keeper’s table. I lived well, and was used well in every respect; but still, in the solemn midnight hours, when all my family [the other prisoners] were asleep, instead of taking rest, I would walk the lonely hall, and view those dreary cells wherein I was confined from the world—and for what, I knew not.

. . . . I had the privilege of walking in the yard and garden, which made my time pass with universal approbation. I heard no complaints, and parted with them [the prisoners] in friendship. After delivering up every thing I had in charge, I took my leave, and went before the inspector, who gave me ten dollars. I am not mistress of language to express my feelings on going out of the gate. I came out alone. . . .

It is striking that in the space of a weekend, Elizabeth’s treatment, even though she “behaved bad for a few days,” suddenly improved dramatically. Surely even tenuous connections in high places had something to do with that. On 3 June 1806, she was pardoned “being represented unto us as a fit object of our mercy”(2) by Governor Morgan Lewis (1754-1844), who was not only an old friend of John Jay but a relation by marriage.

In 1810, Elizabeth Munro Fisher (1759-c.1812) self-published her memoirs, in which she related, often in harrowing detail, her unhappy childhood; her abandonment by her father after she refused the marriage he had arranged for her; her subsequent unhappy marriage to a tailor, Donald Fisher; her trials during the Revolutionary War, her apparently fairly successful life in Canada; and her futile attempt to return to the property near Albany, New York she had been promised by her father. Elizabeth, writing for an audience who, she hoped, would be sympathetic to her plight, did not shrink from describing mean-spirited or nasty things she had done, but she was desperately scrambling to be independent, and for that she needed property. As a feme covert, a married woman, she had no financial independence; any property she had was under the husband’s control.

Estranged from her children in Canada, Elizabeth Munro Fisher resided in various places in New York; she is listed in the City Directory in 1806 as “Fisher, widow 9 Magazine”; 1808-1810 as “Fisher, widow Elizabeth 2 West”; and in 1812, “Fisher, Elizabeth widow 92 Mott.” Also listed that year is her daughter: “Fisher, Eliza M. school 118 Chapel.” In 1813 and 1814 only Eliza M. Fisher is listed, after which date, her mother having died, she probably moved back to Canada.

From the sparse documents(3) that remain, it is clear that Rev. Harry Munro, having fled America in 1777 for Scotland, was a manipulative and vengeful man. His promise to his daughter to give her the 2,000 acres at Hebron, New York, as Elizabeth related, was spurious, as he knew the property would then be under the husband’s control.

It is also true that members of the Jay family were involved to some degree in Elizabeth Fisher’s affairs during these years. In 1794, Peter Jay Munro delegated his cousin, Peter Augustus Jay, who was in Great Britain at the time, to travel to Scotland to get a quit claim on the 2,000 acres in Hebron, N.Y. belonging to Harry Munro. In a letter of 24 July, 1797, Harry wrote his son, “my wish and intention is, that neither your Sister, nor any of her Children, shall have any Claim on” that property. Peter Jay Munro was thus able to sell the property c. 1800 just when Elizabeth was arrested. When Harry Munro died in 1801, all of his property real & personal was left to his son; his daughter received an annuity of ₤18 sterling and the interest of ₤600 stock.(3)

On November 23, 1809, Elizabeth Munro Fisher received a visit from her second son, Alexander Fisher. He was accompanied by Peter A. Jay. The matter under discussion was Alexander’s attempt to get his father Donald Fisher’s lands by “right of inheritance.” Some months earlier, he had appointed his uncle Peter Jay Munro as his attorney. It would not be until about 1813 before some resolution between Alexander Fisher and New York State may have occured.(4)

1. Thomas Eddy (1758-1827) and John Murray (1737-1808), Quakers, were members of the commission appointed to build the state prison with a single cell system in Greenwich Village (1797). They both were involved in philanthropic and social reform projects in NYC.
2. New York State Archives Executive Pardons 1799-1931, B0042-78.
3. See the Munro Papers at the Archives of the Museum of the City of New York and the New York State Archives in Albany.
4. Albany, N.Y. State Archives, John Chambers Papers, Box 2, CP 9885 #93-198 9885-93-99; 9885-141-143; also HY 12382 John Williams Papers, Box 2, Folder 8, Legal Papers SC12382.
The illustration is the cover of Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fisher, of the city of New-York, daughter of the Rev. Harry Munro, who was a Chaplain in the British Army, during the American Revolution.—Giving a particular account of a variety of domestic misfortunes, and also of her trial, and cruel condemnation to the state’s prison for six years, at the instance of her brother, Peter Jay Munro. The original is at the Library of Congress.

posted July 10th, 2018 by Louise, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Fisher, Elizabeth Munro,Jay, John,Jay, Peter Augustus,Law,Munro, Peter Jay,Munro, Reverend Harry,New York

“[I] could not believe that I was a prisoner”

On 6th March 1801, at a session of Oyer and Terminer and Goal delivery, John Lansing Junr. Esq., Chief Justice of Court of Judicature presiding, the following complaint was read:

. . . Elizabeth Fisher late of the town of Hebron in County of Washington, widow, Aug. 29, 1800 with force and arms at the City of Albany . . . feloniously did falsefy, make forge and counterfeit, and cause and procure to be falsely made, and did willingly cut and assist in the false making forging and counterfeiting a certain paper writing sealed, purporting to be a deed of conveyance for certain lands therein mentioned, and to be signed sealed and delivered by one Harry Munro to the said Elizabeth Fisher.1

ELIZABETH FISHER stated “she is not guilty thereof.” The brown-haired widow, 41 years old and standing 5 feet 2¾ inches tall, had been arrested by Albany County Sheriff on a complaint by her half-brother Peter Jay Munro on 27 October 1800. She had been in jail since then.

At her trial by jury on 10 March 1801, the district attorney produced a 28-year old farmer, as Elizabeth wrote in her Memoirs, “a man by the name of John Nira Smith to my utter astonishment, swore that he saw that deed executed in Ruport [Rupert, north of Bennington], in the State of Vermont, by Adonijah Crane. This evidence, being so pointed,” Fisher, according to court records, “nothing further saith.” According to 18th century rules of evidence, the accused in a criminal case could not take the stand, even on her own behalf, thus Elizabeth Fisher was sentenced to life at hard labor in the State Prison in New York City. So was Smith.

I left Albany and came to the New-York state’s prison, and arrived on [Thursday] the 19th of March, but could not believe that I was a prisoner till I found the keys turned on me. I thought my brother could not be so cruel as to imprison a poor widow woman, who had suffered every thing but death, by having a cruel step-mother, a disagreeable partner in life, and left to an unfeeling and unpitying world, with three children, to do the best I could for a living. Such thoughts made me think my brother would be merciful. But no, his heart was untouched with mercy—I was to be immured in a prison for life. Caring not for a life thus devoted, I behaved very bad for a few days, for my wish was that they would punish me with death. . . .2

How had Elizabeth Munro Fisher’s life come to such a pass? After all, she was the daughter of an Episcopalian minister and Loyalist Rev. Harry Munro (1730-1801), and the half-sister of the New York lawyer Peter Jay Munro (1766-1833), who, in turn, was the nephew of the New York governor, John Jay.

But forgery and passing counterfeit money were crimes considered as heinous as murder and carried an automatic life sentence. John Jay, as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, had stated in his Charge to the Grand Jury (in Bennington, Vermont, 25 June 1792):

Among the Crimes specified in what is generally called the penal Statute, there are two so dangerous to Society, as always to merit particular Attention—I mean the crime of Perjury, and the crime of Forgery. . . . With a Heart contaminated with Guilt, and a mind poluted [sic] with iniquitous Desires and Designs, he [the forger] calmly and deliberately prepares and begins his work, and with patience and with Caution pursues it. . . . The Folly of all bad men is to be regretted, but the Punishment of Persons so deliberately wicked, can merit very little compassion. . . .3

In the next post: What became of Elizabeth Munro Fisher?

1. People of the State of New York vs. Elizabeth Fisher, Criminal Case Document 1797-1801
[J2911-82;A52/6], NYS Archives, Albany, NY.
2. Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fisher, of the City of New York, Daughter of the Rev. Harry Munro, who was a Chaplain in the British Army, during the American Revolution-Giving a particular account of a variety of domestic Misfortunes, and also of her trial, and cruel condemnation to the state’s prison for six years, at the instance of her brother, Peter Jay Munro. Written by herself. New York: Printed for the Author(c.1810).
3. The Selected Papers of John Jay, Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, Ed., vol. 5: 1788-1794 (Charlottesville: U. of Virginia Press, 2017), pp. 425-26.
The illustration is of the New York State Prison in Greenwich Village.

posted July 5th, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Fisher, Elizabeth Munro,Jay, John,Law,Munro, Peter Jay,Munro, Reverend Harry

“I . . . hope that what I’ve done will receive yr. approbation”

After the Revolutionary War, John Jay was often away from his home while performing his duties as secretary for foreign affairs or as chief justice of the United States. But these absences from the family circle lasted only some months at a time, and John was still within reaching distance in case of an emergency. So the shock of SARAH LIVINGSTON JAY, upon hearing the news—not from her husband but from the newspaper—that President Washington was sending John Jay to England in 1794 to try to avert a possible war, is even now heart-wrenching.

New York 18th April 1794 My dr. Mr. Jay,
. . . . how my dr. Mr. Jay is it possible! The Utmost exertion I can make is to be silent. Excuse me if I have not philosophy or patriotism to do more. I heard of the nomination yesterday, so did the Children. The paper of to-day mentions it as a report that deserves credit. . . . Had any one predicted that dread wd. be mingled with my desire to see you could I have believed it? Never! Yet so it is. Should you leave us I must intreat you to permit your son [Peter Augustus] to accompany you. . . .
Adieu my best beloved! Absent or present I am wholly yours Sa. Jay

John Jay, asserting that he could not “desert my Duty for the sake of my Ease and Domestic concerns & comforts,” persuaded Sarah to change her mind, although only after he agreed to take their 18-year-old son with him. This time, the separation would last just over one year.

Sarah, as she had done before, oversaw the household and her children’s education, represented her husband entertaining public officials, monitored the building of the mills at the farm in Bedford, New York, and managed the family’s finances. She asked for advice when necessary, but carefully explained to John how she had handled investment matters herself.

New York 25th Octbr 1794My dr. Mr. Jay,
. . . . By this time I hope you have recd. my letters informing you that your Jamaica business is satisfactorily settled. The Money which I have received for you on that Debt, not being able to loan, I have embarked in the National Bank: the first sum of near 1000₤ procured 5 shares of 400 dollar each at 24 pr. Cent advance as I wrote you formerly, & I then intended awaiting your orders respecting the disposition of the rest; but finding it improbable that it could be placed to any advantage at all (a friend of yours having for a long time had 2000₤ to put out without having any applications for it) & the funds continuing to rise, I resolved last week to purchase 5 shares more at 29 pr. Cent advance; I shall however take care not to be so sanguine as to risque it after having by its rise cleared the interest the sum ought to make. Had I not been diffident of acting without yr. advice I shd. already have cleared 12 per. Cent. but I shd. not now have done what you when here, disapproved, had I not been of opinion that were you here at present, you would have altered your sentiments with the times. I shall however respect yr. sentiments more than my own, & will therefore probably sell out again in a month’s time, perhaps less. At the rate I’ve purchased for you it yields 6 pr. Cent, & even at fifty advance (which ‘tis thought it will soon be) better than 5 pr. Cent. . . . I sincerely hope that what I’ve done will receive yr. approbation, as my Conduct has not been the effect of a Gambling disposition, but the result of mature reflection aided by the Advice of those in whose judgement I had reason to confide. . . .
Once more, my dearest Mr. Jay receive the Adieus of your ever affecte. Wife

From Landa M. Freeman, Louise V. North, Janet M. Wedge, Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2005), pp.221-2, 235-7. Image from
Papers of John Jay, at Columbia University.

posted March 22nd, 2018 by Louise, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Business,Jay, John,Jay, Peter Augustus,Jay, Sarah Livingston,Money

A mystery and a surprise wedding in two Sarah Jay letters

John Jay was absent from home for extended periods during the early 1790s when, as Chief Justice of the United States, he was riding circuit in the Northeast. He and his wife SARAH LIVINGSTON JAY exchanged letters, many of which have survived. She remained at home, managing the household, entertaining visiting dignitaries and relatives, and overseeing the education of their children Peter (14), Maria (8), Ann known as Nancy (7), and the infant William. She wrote her husband frequently to keep him up-to-date on matters at home or on the political front, or for advice, or just because she missed her “dearest best of friends.”

New York: May 17th, 1792My dear Mr. Jay,
Mr. Dalton has just left me; he sets out to morrow for Massachusetts, & is to take charge of this letter- We still are all well—Yesterday in Company I was told your brother Fredk had been married three weeks; I replied I had not been inform’d of it—today P[eter] Munro [Jay’s nephew] came here to let me know that it was a fact tho he had not had it from your brother. Peggy Munro & myself wish Your opinion respecting the line of conduct proper for us to observe as yet we remain in ignorance respecting it—but perhaps she may deign to inform me of it. . . .

Last Tuesday the Captn of an Halifax vessel called upon me w[ith] an order from Mr. Craighton for one hundred & twenty dollars for the passage of Mr. Craighton & family—I told the Captn that you was in Boston & that I had recd no information from you that such an order was expected consequently could not accept it—the weather has been disagreeable ever since, so that I have not seen either Mr or Mrs Craighton—. . . .
Farewell my dearest! best beloved! Sa. Jay

Indeed, John seems not to have told Sarah that he had offered James Creighton, a Loyalist and a New York lawyer, assistance to return to the U.S. from Halifax, where he, his wife Anna Maria Ogden (1753-?) and their children had settled after the war. They had fared badly there. The matter was clarified by attorney Robert Troup (Jay’s former law clerk), who wrote Jay (May 27, 1792) that the Creighton family was in distress. “Few of our soldiers in the field during the late war reaped more laurels than Mrs. Creighton did within the British lines in her conflicts with the Tory ladies. As an old veteran therefore in affliction she is deserving of every attention we can shew her.”

What patriotic services had Mrs. Creighton performed? Had she been a spy for Jay? It’s an intriguing mystery. Mr. Creighton was able to resume practicing law in New York. Jay had also been sympathetic to another Loyalist, his longtime friend Peter van Schaack, who had settled in London during the War but was able to return in 1785.

John’s youngest brother, Frederick Jay (1747-99), known as Fady, had lost his wife Margaret Barclay Jay very unexpectedly on October 28, 1791. It is no wonder that Sarah was at a loss upon hearing of his wedding so soon after.

New York, May 23d. 1792My dear Mr. Jay,
. . . . I wrote you in my last by Mr. Dalton that your brother Fredk. was married, but believe I did not mention that it was to Miss [Euphemia] Dunscomb. It seems he was already married when you left town, his wedding being on the 10th of April. Mr. Jay’s relations resent the want of [respect] to her memory so much that none of them visit either him or his wife. Last Saturday just as P[eter] Munro & myself were deliberating what was to be done on our part, Fady came in. I suppose said he advancing towards me you have heard that I am married again. I have Mr. Jay, but not being authorised from you to believe it, did not credit it. It’s true said he, I am. Will you take a chair Mr. Jay? No, I must be going, good bye. Good by Mr. Jay, that is all that has passed between us. . . .
Adieu my ever dear Mr. Jay, believe me with the sincerest affection
Unalterably yours S.J.

Don’t you love the way Sarah writes dialogue in her letter, as in the recounting of her conversation with Fady? It conveys a sense of immediacy, and is altogether charming.

The Selected Papers of John Jay, 1788-1794, Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, editor (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017], vol. 5, p. 333-4, 403-4, 411. Also Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay Landa M. Freeman, Louise V. North, Janet M. Wedge, editors (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, Inc., 2005], 208. The portrait of Sarah Livingston Jay and her children is by James Sharples (1751 or 1752-1811); it is at the John Jay Homestead State Historic Site.

posted March 16th, 2018 by Louise, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Family life,Halifax,Jay, Frederick (Fady),Jay, John,Jay, Sarah Livingston,Loyalists

“A lock of the General’s hair”

On February 22, just in time for George Washington’s birthday, an article in the newspaper announced that an archivist at Union College (Schenectady, NY) library had found an uncatalogued volume, its brown pages frayed, on the shelves. A ho-hum moment you may think, but, upon closer examination, it seems that the book, an almanac from 1793, had belonged to Philip J. Schuyler, son of General Philip John Schuyler, a Revolutionary War hero and a founder of the College. Hidden inside the pages was an envelope with the words “Washington’s Hair”—indeed there was a lock of hair! Although we may view this type of souvenir as a bit odd today, in the 18th century, hair clippings were commonly taken as souvenirs to be placed in rings or lockets. They were tokens of friendship as well as remembrance.

When John Jay was named minister plenipotentiary to Spain in late September 1779, his wife Sarah Livingston Jay was determined to accompany him even though she would be leaving her family, her young son Peter Augustus, and her home, perhaps never to return. (Ocean travel, especially in time of war, was not for the faint of heart.) The Jays and George Washington were friends but Sarah may also have been showing her patriotic support when she wrote General Washington a letter requesting a lock of his hair. Washington had a good head of hair as can be seen in Gilbert Stuart’s portrait. He replied:

West-point Octobr 7th 1779General Washington presents his most respectful compliments to Mrs. Jay. Honoured in her request . . . he takes pleasure in presenting the inclosed,* with thanks for so polite a testimony of her approbation & esteem. He wishes most fervently, that prosperous gales an unruffled Sea & every Thing pleasing & desirable, may smooth the path she is about to walk in.

*Sarah noted on the letter, “A lock of the General’s hair.”

Sarah probably took the lock with her to Europe but we don’t know in what. In a frame, or even an almanac? John Jay had the lock of hair incorporated into a pin while in London in 1784.

The General was generous with gifts of his hair during his lifetime. When he retired from the presidency in 1797, Elizabeth Stoughton Wolcott, wife of U.S. Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott, requested a lock of his hair as a memento. The story is that Martha Washington took out a pair of scissors then and there and cut off not only a lock of her husband’s hair but also of her own to give Mrs. Wolcott.

From Landa M. Freeman, Louise V. North, Janet M. Wedge, Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005), p. 61. Pin with hair, John Jay Homestead, Katonah, N.Y. Lock of hair in a locket, at Mt. Vernon Collections, W-1150. Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), unfinished, 1796, Boston MFA.

posted March 12th, 2018 by Louise, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Fashion,Friendship,Jay, John,Jay, Peter Augustus,Washington, George,Washington, Martha,Wolcott, Elizabeth Stoughton

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