Thursday, March 17, 2011

Father calls me William, sister calls me Will, Mother calls me Willie, but the fellers call me Bill.

The Willett side of my family, my paternal grandmother's people, are still a bit of a mystery to me. Gram was exceedingly proud to be a Willett and I have felt that pride myself all my life. That's why it's been kind of difficult for me to write this story today. Ordinarily, I would just be light about finding something less than stellar in our tree. I think it's because I haven't found out too much about the Willetts yet that it was a little harder to write this one. The furthest I can go back is to my 3rd great grandfather, Ebenezer. He was born in 1798 in Babylon, NY.

They all seem to be New Yorkers, something else Gram was proud to be. Her father, George, was a New York City Policeman, his father a well respected plumber and gas-fitter. Ebenezer was a "Bayman" or a fisherman and lived on Long Island for all of his life where he raised my great, great grandfather, Marinus the plumber and six other children. Another of Ebenezer's sons, William Forte Willett, who was my great great grand uncle, also had a son whom he named William Forte Willett, Jr. Today's story is about William Willett, Jr.

William Forte Willett, Jr. was born in The Flatlands in 1869. This is a small neighborhood, now part of Brooklyn, but back then it was a farming town separate from the city, close to Jamaica Bay. In fact it was one of the oldest communities in New York, having been settled in the 1630s by the Dutch. The area was heavily Dutch which leads me to think that The Netherlands may be the place to look for our Willetts oldest roots. To give you some idea of the community of the Flatlands at the time, when William Jr was 3 years old, the directory for the town listed 87 people, 49 of them were farmers. Six worked on the water as fisherman or sailors, including William's grandfather Ebenezer. William's father was a plumber and possibly in business with my great great grandfather, Marinus.

William Jr. was the eldest of three children. He was eleven years older than his sister Elizabeth and eight years older than his brother, Marinus, with whom he was very close all of their lives. William Jr. attended Brooklyn public schools and went on to the University of New York where he earned a Law Degree and began practicing law in 1896.  He married Marie Rebecca Van Tassel, probably of Dutch origin, although her family was from New Jersey at the time they married. They had two children, Marie and William Foster Willett.
William Jr.'s practice became quite successful and it wasn't long before he had offices in Jamaica, Far Rockaway and Manhattan. In 1904 he ran for Congress, as a Democrat,  but was defeated. He ran again in 1906 and he won that election.

He served for four years in Washington, living the high life and was found residing in an expensive Hotel in DC. The Congress Hall Hotel built in 1907 provided Exclusive accommodations for members of Congress who needed long-term housing as well as rooms for visiting dignitaries. It opened late in 1907 or early 1908. The newly elected Representative apparently wanted to be where the action was. He was listed in one article as one of a handful of folks who had already made reservations for an apartment at the new luxury spot just across the street from the capitol building, even before it was completed.

Although he only served four years, he made two memorable speeches from the floor, both revealing his distaste for one Teddy Roosevelt. In one, which he delivered in March of 1907, he denounced the President blaming him for the financial panic of 1907.  (I didn't really know there was a financial panic then, did you?)"There seems to be," he said,"a conspiracy of silence on the part of Republican members of the House on the subject of cause and effect of the panic." "Those members, he declared, were "afraid to attack the president for fear of his big stick."

But, exponentially nasty and cutting was a speech he gave from the floor on January 18, 1909 when he attacked President Roosevelt once more, never actually using his name, but instead calling him: Gargoyle Tyrant, Horse-tender, Hay Tedder, Fountain of Billingsgate, Imitation of a King, Bogus Hero and, my favorite, Pygmy Descendant of Dutch Tradespeople. I am not sure what most of those meant, but I really liked the Pygmy Descendant of Dutch Tradespeople, especially since I believe that the Willetts and the Van Tassells, his father and mother's people, probably were Dutch Tradespeople.

So condemning and according to many, inappropriate, was this speech that the House voted to stop him from concluding it and then, voted to have it expunged from the record altogether. It is something  you might want to take the time to read as it is quite eloquent, albeit pretty nasty. 

If you click on this link, Link to HOUSE STOPS WILLETT Jan 18, 1909 I am hoping you can get to a copy of the story in print you can read. The article is continued on page 2 so just click the right arrow near the top of the newspaper to go to page 2.

So, William didn't get reelected and settled back at home to continue his legal practice back in New York. But, it wasn't long before he was once again in the news. In 1911 he was accused of buying a nomination for a supreme court judgeship in New York. The Democratic Political "Boss" at the time, one Joseph Cassidy was supposed to have received a bribe from William Jr. in order to secure this nomination. Although the nomination was made, he never received that judgeship. Instead, he was indicted for bribery and after a long court trial which was closely followed in the newspapers, poor William Jr. and Boss Curley Joe Cassidy and the poor fellow who delivered the money, were found guilty.

William Jr.'s brother, Marinus, had followed in his older brother's shoes and had also become an attorney. He was mentioned in several articles because there was some suspicion that he was involved in the crime. At one point he was sought after as a witness, a "person of interest" in modern day terms, but the prosecutor's office couldn't find him anywhere. The District Attorney was wondering what had become of him and according to others who the reporter questioned, Marinus hadn't been seen in several days. The DA said that process servers had been looking for him for three days when one article was written in January of 1911. William's defense about the $27,000 he had withdrawn from various bank accounts around town was for investing in a business deal with Marinus. But apparently Marinus was never charged and I didn't find his testimony mentioned, so I am not sure if the prosecutor's office ever found him.

Joe Cassidy
Despite the ex-Congressman's innocent plea, William and Joe were sentenced to serve eighteen months in Sing Sing. An account of his first days in Sing Sing appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on January 15, 1914. The article is very interesting and full of details about their arrival and their lives at Sing Sing. It describes William Jr. as follows: "Willett was a sort of Beau Brummel always scrupulously careful about his personal appearance. When he entered the prison and submitted himself to be bathed and then re-clothed, he discarded a rich brown overcoat of brown Melton and a hat of the same shade...If Willett is a model prisoner, he may be permitted to act as judge or "counsel" for the Golden Rule Brotherhood, which is the prisoner's organization. The Brotherhood tries complaints in court and a prisoner acts as judge while others plead the case as attorneys before the court."

In fact, William does finally get his judgeship, although it would be while he was in Sing Sing. There are many, many newspaper articles about William Jr. and this whole case. So much material was available it was hard for me to choose what to include here. But, I have to include one article entitled "Sing Sing "Judge" Punched by Convict" which was the story of how after sentencing an inmate to 10 days in confinement, the ex-Congressman, (the title always attached to William in these articles), was punched by the inmate, losing several teeth and landing in the hospital. On another occasion, "Judge' Willett was struck in the head by a stool while presiding over the prisoner's court.

Another article in 1916, the headline reads "Prisoner Strolls Around City, Tells of Willett Junket". Apparently they were bringing William between the jail at White Plains and Great Meadow Prison. He was escorted by a "keeper" Charles Stewart. It says he "enjoyed five pleasant hours" in the City one Sunday, dining and strolling about in Manhattan. He and his keeper, Mr. Stewart, dined at a hotel on 42nd Street, then wandered around for a few hours. They left for Albany on a train, taking two berths in a sleeper. They got to Albany about 5 the next morning, had breakfast at the Hotel Stanwix. Stewart explained they stopped in the capital so William could have a talk with the superintendent of prisons about his parole. They were to take the 4:45 train from Albany, but were late and had to sprint to catch it. William caught the 4:45 train to Whitehall, "but Stewart missed it because he could not sprint as fast as his prisoner." Stewart telegraphedd ahead and William "accommodatingly" returned to Albany and they left at 11:15 Monday night for Great Meadow, arriving there Tuesday morning. I guess he wasn't exactly a maximum security prisoner.

Then, another article accuses William Jr. of conducting business and actively trading on the stock market while in prison. Chances are that's true since once he was released, he seems to have gone on to do quite well. He became the out-of-town manager for a prominent realty auctioneer and seemed to have come out of it all fairly well. I haven't looked into what happened to Curley Joe Cassidy, but he probably landed on his feet as well.

From everything I have learned about William and about Boss Cassidy, William was a smart guy, but maybe not too clever. He probably got caught up in Joe Cassidy's schemes being inexperienced in politics. I suspect he got bedazzled by the power but also probably believed that it was common practice at the time, so what choice did he have if he wanted to be a judge? He was no match for the temptation that Curly Joe put in front of him. The atmosphere was ripe for making an example of these two, but particularly of Boss Cassidy.

In January 1914 the following appeared in the American Review of Reviews in an article about New York Graft:

"The practice of paying large sums of money to political organizations in return for nominations to judgeships had obtained so long in and about New York that it had even come to be taken by members of the bar and others as a matter of course. It is true that the money did not usually pass in such a way as to constitute an actual purchase that could be legally proven yet the large contributions to campaign funds made by judiciary candidates before and after nominating conventions placed the candidate in the position of a buyer and the political committee in the position of a trafficker in the desired nomination, District Attorney Cropsey succeeded in this particular instance in proving to the satisfaction of a jury that former Congressman William Willett paid to Joseph Cassidy the Democratic boss of Queens County in 1911 a large sum of money for the explicit and single purpose of securing a nomination to the State Supreme Court."
"Since the fall of John Y McKane, more than twenty years ago no boss of so high a rank as Cassidy has ever been made to serve a prison sentence. The incident carries its warning to all bosses but especially to the present leadership of Tammany Hall to whose door in the past has come many an aspiring lawyer with ambitions to grace the bench. Even more impressive is the lesson it teaches to the New York electorate. It can no longer be said that judgeships can be bought and sold with impunity or that those who are powerful in politics are beyond the law's reach."

All but lost in this flurry of newspaper articles was one small article that tells the story of Governor Whitman granting William Junior a full pardon in 1918. 

In February of 1938, William Forte Willett, Jr. was found by a maid, dead in his hotel room at the age of 68. His wife was visiting their daughter and her family at the time. Their home in Woodmere, Long Island, just on the other side of Jamaica Bay from the Flatlands where he was born, was closed-up for the winter. William and Marie were living in the Hotel McAlpine in Manhatten, as was their custom during that time of year. William had just returned from a trip to Washington, although I don't know why he was there.

William Forte Willett, Jr. died of natural causes but his daughter, when asked to comment, said that her father's death "may have been partly due to grief over the death of his brother Marinus Willett, a well-known lawyer, on Christmas Day."


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Anonymous said...

I found your Blog while doing research on Mr Willetts address in far rockaway. I belong to Friendsof Far Rockaway Facebook page where there was a discussion about your relatives home in Far rock I have a photo I took in 2002 but couldn't remember where on Mott ave it was taken.
Can you advise?