Williamsburg’s Great Philanthropist

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The Death of the Philanthropist May 21, 1860


News of his death spread like wildfire around Williamsburg. If one man had embodied all that was noble, self-sacrificing and virtuous in the community, then it was Grahams Polley and the community was deeply shocked to learn of his passing. He was only 44 years old and left behind a widow and ten children who would certainly grieve, but they would not grieve alone. The entire old town of Williamsburg would mourn Polley’s death. It was a calamity for all Williamsburg.

In the spring of 1860 Williamsburg was a deeply divided community in a deeply divided country. There were rancorous local splits between Republican and Democrat, Protestant and Catholic, Abolitionist and supporter of slavery, but for a brief moment those differences were set aside and Williamsburg was united in grief. No one had done more for the old town than Polley. No one was more civic minded, more open hearted or more truly generous than Polley. People recalled his genial manner and his kindly smile.

Polley was one of the four or five richest men in the Eastern District, but that did not seem to matter now. It was his charity that people recalled and loved.   Born in Manhattan in 1816 into a poor family, Pollley came to Williamsburg as a young man, starting his career working as a teenager in a rope works. A man of great energy Polley was destined to rise.  He soon opened his own profitable local rope works. Then, he started an even more profitable business, a distillery that allowed him to purchase several pieces of prime real estate.  He even became president of the richest local bank, but it was the money he gave away, not the money he kept, that earned him universal respect. In the economic panic of 1857 he established a grocery store, providing so much credit to his neighbors that he lost $6,000, but Polley felt it was his duty to his neighbors to feed them during those bad economic times and never once considered closing the unprofitable market.                                           His death made people pause and reminded them of their mortality. He had been a vigorous, healthy man in the prime of life only a few years ago.  However, he was thrown from his horse in a riding accident and suffered serious internal injuries. Confined to bed, he had suffered for a long period before God, in his mercy, had ended the good man’s suffering.                                                                            His charity was a quiet unpretentious generosity. All his life evidences of suffering and distress easily moved him, especially with children. He had once been poor himself and he never forgot the pain of poverty.  He acquired wealth, but it never changed him. He was never pompous and always remained a man of a quiet demeanor and simple tastes. All his life his sympathies were with the poor and he remained open to alleviation of local poverty without regard to race, creed or color.  Someone said of him that his heart was never cold, nor his hand closed to the appeal of want or suffering.

He was amazingly generous to his employees. He paid them when they were sick. He kept trusted employees who had died on the payroll so that their widows could keep collecting a salary.

The day of his wake was the saddest day Williamsburg had ever seen. No one, not even the oldest people in the area could remember anything quite like the outpouring of grief his death stirred. There was shock and a pervasive sadness that bound all the residents, regardless or race, religion or social status. Everyone in Williamsburg had loved Grahams Polley and no one could fathom that he was now gone.

He hated show or ostentation and he never wanted his numerous acts of charity publically revealed. Many had wanted to commission a portrait of him for he embodied the civic spirit of Williamsburg, but he refused all but one. He agreed to let his friend John Searles paint his portrait. Ironically the canvas was finished on the day Polley died so Searles was unable to show the likeness to Polley.

During the days of his wake and funeral Williamsburg was eerily still.  Everyone spoke in hushed tones and the normal sound of the laughter of children was totally absent. All the area’s shops closed as a mark of respect and black bunting covered many of the houses.  The schools flew the flag at half-mast and the schools he founded were covered black bunting. Ministers in all the different houses of worship held him up as an example of a good man, praising his selflessness and compassion.

His corpse was sent to the coroner’s office and then taken home by wagon to be laid in state in a pine coffin on the lawn in front of his home at Kent Avenue and North First Street, so that the whole town could pat their respects. Word spread about Williamsburg like wildfire.  No one could remember a sadder day or anything like the outpouring of grief his passing had brought about. All day long, blacks and whites, Catholics and Protestants and even Jews, arrived, patiently standing in line for over an hour in silence for the chance to say good-bye to the kind-hearted man. Rich and poor alike stood dressed in their best attire, waiting on the long line that strung far down Kent Avenue. No one, however, uttered a word of complaint.  Ten thousand mourners passed by his coffin. His funeral cortege contained more than a hundred and fifty carriages as his coffin was carried off to Green-Wood cemetery.

Although everyone was sad, it was the school children who took his death the hardest and many of the children brought to his bier wept uncontrollably for they knew how much he loved them.  Many adults realized that it was thanks to Polley that they had received an education and were keenly aware of the difference he had made in the lives of Williamsburg’s children.

His greatest legacy was the local schools he founded. Williamsburg was no longer an independent city, having merged with the City of Brooklyn in 1855. Now it was known as the Eastern District, but today there were memories of the old city and of the man who was regarded as the most selfless citizen of the old town.  He embodied the spirit of the old city, the personification of its generosity and concern for others.  He donated land for a school. He donated the lot for the local fire house on Kent and North Fifth Street, becoming the treasurer of the fire house and its secret patron.

Williamsburg could make one claim to greatness Brooklyn could not and it was Polley’s greatest legacy. Williamsburg set up free primary schools eight years before Brooklyn thanks to Polley. Polley did not have the chance to get much schooling, but he determined that the children of Williamsburg would not suffer for want of education, so his great civic act was becoming the patron of the local primary schools.

Polleys was the most important trustee on the Williamsburg schools when it was still an independent city. Williamsburg had four primary schools, each founded and endowed by Polley. He spent lavishly on the schools, giving the principals of all the schools free reign to spend what they needed to educate the children. He even believed that black children should have the chance to get an education and generously funded their school.

Teachers loved him fervently. When the teachers were sick and could not work he still paid their wages. He hosted a dinner for the district’s teachers thanking them for their work. He was most generous however to children. He secretly bought poor children shoes, gloves and winter coats. He spent large sums of money for books and every year in May he funded a festival at his personal expense that the children adored.  He funded sleigh, ferry and stage coach excursions for each school. He even purchased paintings, pianos and organs for the schools, but never wanted credit and refused any public acknowledgment of his largess.

Two of the grief stricken children who passed his coffin that may day would go on to leave a legacy thanks to the education they received in one of the schools Polley endowed: Public School number seventeen. Eugene Armbruster would write the definitive history of the Eastern District, recalling until the end of his life how the education he received changed his life. Patrick McCarren, unlike many other Irish working class Brooklyn children learned to read and write in P.S #17.  He would enter politics, becoming a lawyer and one of the most influential law makers in the state.  One day he would use the intelligence he first honed in P.S. # 17 to acquire Williamsburg its bridge.


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