Some time ago, a small plaster statue of an unidentified man was found in Central Library’s storage and brought to the Brooklyn Collection. He is dressed in the frock coat, tight trousers, stand-up collar and waistcoat fashionable in the late nineteenth century and wears an expression of benign, relaxed determination. We had no idea who he was, but resolved to find out.
The mystery man was placed behind the desk where he gave a personal touch to our reference activities. I sent pictures of the statue to a number of colleagues, among them Joseph Ditta at the New-York Historical Society, someone very familiar with city history. No one recognized him, but Joseph recommended I consult a reference work we have on our shelves, written before the turn of the last century but still very much in use, a history of Kings County. The full title will give an idea of its scope:
The civil, political, professional and ecclesiastical history, and commercial and industrial record of the County of Kings and the City of Brooklyn, N.Y. from 1683 to 1884 by Henry Reed Stiles. 2 vols. [hereafter: … record of the County of Kings]
This prodigious work offers, among its many other features, biographies of notable men of Brooklyn in a wide range of industries and professions, often with a portrait. Alas, Brooklyn’s notable women seem to have slipped the notice of the book’s contributors. A scan of the book yielded only one strong candidate, the editor himself, prominently pictured on the title page.
I searched the literature for other portraits of Stiles, and found several similarly dressed. The most convincing match is on the frontispiece of his genealogy, The Stiles family in America. A sepia cabinet card served as source for this as well as the engraving on the title page of … record of the County of Kings.
Here we see a three-quarter length portrait of the author sporting the same style of long coat and glasses. The details of his face agree - the jowls, nose and most distinctive, his mutton chop sideburns.
In the youngest picture I was able to find, he wears delicate sideburns and a bowtie like the statue.
Although I did find one picture of Stiles clean-shaven, accompanying an Eagle article on the publication of his last book in 1904, the preponderance of photos show him with sideburns.
Our statue even parts his hair on the same side. We are confident Dr. Stiles is in the house.
Some background will explain why, more than 100 years after his death, Stiles is still so significant to Brooklyn.
Henry Reed Stiles was born in 1832, studied medicine in New York City and began medical practice in 1855. In 1859 he expanded his practice to Woodbridge NJ, and there, during the Civil War, wrote commentaries for the Rahway Register & Times under the pen name “Tip-Top.”
Stiles was appointed to a number of important positions in the medical establishment, notably serving three years (1870-73) as health inspector of the Board of Health of the City of New York. Alongside his medical activities, he was energetically engaged in writing local history and genealogies, and it is for these activities that he is now best known. Among his books still very much consulted are his three-volume, A history of the city of Brooklyn: including the old town and village of Brooklyn, the town of Bushwick, and the village and city of Williamsburgh, published between 1867 and 1870, which emphasizes the early history of the area and describes the original Dutch towns; and the above mentioned two-volume … record of the County of Kings, 1884, which Stiles edited and substantially wrote, covering some of the same ground but richer on the years of industrial expansion that established Brooklyn as an important city in its own right, fourth largest in the United States, just before consolidation with Greater New York. The book is generously illustrated with engravings of people and landmarks that are some of our best, and in some cases the only, documents of long gone aspects of Brooklyn.
Stiles has appeared in our blog before, most recently in Ben Gocker’s post, Bundle of fun which gives a succinct biographical sketch and pays special attention to his book, Bundling: its origins, progress and decline in America, 1871. Despite the waggish coverage the book received in the Eagle, it is quite a scholarly take on that courtship practice.
In my search for information about Stiles I discovered plentiful documentation of his work as a physician and historian, and his participation in divers organizations such as the Long Island Historical Society (now the Brooklyn Historical Society) and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, both of whom he helped to establish, but found very little about his personal life. Something about having his statue on hand made me curious about the man behind the prodigious accomplishments, and I went in search of lesser-known aspects of his life. Here are some of the interesting side notes I was able to find.
Unconventional medical practitioner and advocate for the mentally ill
At the time when Stiles was a practicing physician, allopathic traditional Western medicine was slugging it out for dominance with alternative medical practices like homeopathy, herbal remedies and physical therapies. Stiles’ biography in his family genealogy states that he was special lecturer on hygiene and sanitary laws in the New York Homeopathic Medical College from 1873-74 and, from 1882-85, professor of mental and nervous diseases in a separate but related institution, the New York Women’s Medical College and Hospital in New York City. It is from this school that Dr. Susan McKinney, the first African-American female physician in New York State, graduated in 1870. Stiles’ work at the Women’s Medical College placed him in enlightened contrast to a prevailing medical establishment that did not facilitate women’s joining the profession.
In 1873 Stiles was appointed Medical Superintendent of the State Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane at Middletown, Orange County, NY.
He must have had strong ideas about the running of the institution because in 1877 the New York Times reported him suspended “on the ground of irreconcilable difference of opinion as to the business management of the institution.”
Despite his differences with that institution, Stiles continued to treat and advocate for the mentally ill. In 1882 he helped found the Society for Promoting the Welfare of the Insane and in 1888 he moved to Hill View on the shore of Lake George, NY where he opened a private establishment for the cure of mental and nervous diseases.
I was intrigued to find an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about a physician, R. Cressen (sic) Stiles, reported incorrectly to be the brother of our subject, whose tireless medical research pushed him to mental collapse and institutionalization.
The Stiles family genealogy names Richard Cresson, differently spelled, as a cousin and not Henry Reed’s brother. (It is always good to be aware that the Eagle is not infallibly accurate.) Nevertheless, I still wonder if the experience of mental illness in his family galvanized Stiles to work in this specialty.
Collector of first hand accounts during the Civil War
Several Eagle articles mention that Stiles, while practicing in New Jersey during the Civil War, wrote articles in the Rahway Register & Times. I was not able to find out why he wrote these under the pseudonym “Tip Top”, but did find the Rahway articles in a scrapbook at the New York Public Library. A number of them concern the war and he relays information gleaned in his correspondence with soldiers in the battlefield about events on the ground.
Excerpt: "Noticing, from the various papers which find their way into camp, that all sorts of rumors are afloat, concerning the part the 28th N.J. volunteers took in the action at Fredericksburgh (sic), on the 13th of December, I deem it rather a duty than otherwise, to give you the facts as they occurred. As we lay in camp, near Falmouth, Va., about midnight of the 10th of December … "
Here is the letter Stiles, writing as Tip Top, quotes from Captain Inslee:
I include another of Inslee’s letters for its evocative letterhead and envelope:
Eyewitness to the history of his day
Surely one of the most momentous events Stiles witnessed was the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, paving the way to a new relationship between the towns that now make up New York City. The East River Bridge, as it was then called, gets a generous section in the first volume of … record of the County of Kings covering its planning to the opening ceremonies, with some fascinating diagrams.
I was delighted to find at the New York Public Library Stiles’ invitation and program for the bridge’s opening day.
I like to wonder about what he and his fellow chroniclers must have thought, given their long perspective on history, about the changes that would come to Brooklyn on the heels of that event.
Tributes and family: “I have finally ‘won through’ ”
It is in the tributes that appeared after his death that we see not only his drive and ambition, but glimpse the personality of Henry Reed Stiles. In a resolution published in the April, 1909 New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, one gets a sense of the man.
“In bearing he was dignified, but his great kindly nature glowed through the reserve like a burst of sunshine, lighting the way to the hearts of his associates and friends. His quick wit and quaint humor made him a most delightful companion.”
Stiles had bouts of serious illness throughout his life that hampered his work and he came to rely on help from his family to continue his writing. The above mentioned 1904 article in the Eagle makes reference to his daughter Elliott and her important assistance.
And in thanks, the Stiles family genealogy is dedicated to her:
On January 9, 1909 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle gave a laudatory send-off to a modest man who left us an invaluable record of our unique borough. The most personal note is struck by a long-time friend who writes, “He was noted for his extreme kindness and gentleness of manner and unobtrusiveness.”
It is worth noting that this article also has a significant inaccuracy: it first names Mrs. Frederick E. (Elliott) Truesdale as Stiles’ sister, and later correctly identifies her as his daughter.
In the prefatory note to his family genealogy Stiles makes it clear that he was motivated by his commitment to forging personal relationships, and I believe it was that focus, and his willingness to be an inconspicuous but tenacious observer that made him an exceptional historian.
We are pleased to have the good Dr. Stiles presiding over our Reserve Room encouraging our patrons to continue the work he started to gather and interpret Brooklyn’s history.