BRYANT, LUTHER C.

Copyright 2011-2018 John N. Lupia III

Luther C. Bryant (1801-1888), was a New York coin and stamp dealer and is also known as the wayward cousin of the famous American poet William Cullen Bryant. His consanguinity to William Cullen Bryant, however, is not certain and doubtful. It is strange and a rather odd coincidence that many details given by Luther Bryant about his life seem to fit that of William Cullen Bryant, [1] but for himself none of them are corroborated except for his life in New York working as a coin and stamp dealer and the valuable furnishings and possessions he amassed. The remaining details are claims made by Luther Bryant about himself and his life prior to New York made to various journalists who were eager to write about him following the sensational report of his being robbed of $120,000.

                According to his own account he was born in Cummington, Hampden County, Massachusetts, son of a physician. He studied at Williams College and became a physician with a practice in Burlington, Vermont.  He left as an act of protest during the Mexican War in 1848 to go south. He settled at Charleston, South Carolina and worked as a physician there but fled north at the outbreak of the Civil War arriving in New York in 1861. However, according to the New York City Directory, 1886, a Luther C. Bryant, physician is listed and reported living at 742 Greenwich Street. One wonders if anything about this man is true except for his coin and stamp dealership which was well known and attested to, as well as his ring of artful dodgers he formed in a postage stamp pilfering scheme.

                He lived in a two room rear apartment on the third floor of a tenement house in the poor district at 1 Forsyth Street and traded as a Coin Dealer at Fulton Street, New York, and Nassau Street, New York. His stand on Nassau Street was very well-known to New Yorkers where he sold old stamps, coins and medals, a dealer contemporary with John K, Curtis. Bryant traded in old coins and medals from 1861 until 1874. If it was not for his ill fate this obscure dealer would have been lost to posterity.

            When he arrived at New York in 1861 he behaved somewhat like a carpetbagger. He purportedly brought with him more than $60,000 of which $45,000 was in gold coins. Since the Civil War brought on a scarcity of gold its valued rose dramatically and we find Bryant began to sell his gold coins at a profit. He began buying and selling gold coins, old coins, medals, postage and revenue stamps, broken bank bills, and so on in City Hall Park. But when construction for the Post Office Building began in August 1869 he was forced to move in front of the Old Dutch Church, corner of Fulton and William Streets.

            What made Bryant famous was his robbery. He was robbed of $120,000 in gold, cash, coins, and other valuables during the night on October 11, 1874 by a well contrived scheme. He had $20 gold pieces saved since 1862 in thirty-five rolls of 100 pieces each rolled up in silk paper, $70,000 in face value. His aunt left him a 200-acre farm and $7,000. He also collected valuable china, hand woven carpets imported from Brussels, chromo paintings, bronze sculptures, antique carved furniture, jewelry, and bank notes. Yet despite his great wealth he chose to live as a Fagin-like miser in the slums of New York.

            Following Parson's noteworthy essay "William Cullen Bryant's Wayward Cousin" (1950), Luther Bryant appears as a true to life antagonist character out of Dickens' Oliver Twist. Apparently, Bryant enticed young errand boys to steal postage stamps from business offices by trading disreputable racy dime novels for them. His scheme was discovered by a New York Detective, George Roscoe of Davies Detective Agency, who was hired by Eberhard Faber, the lead pencil manufacturer, to discover who was stealing his postage stamps. Once his errand boy Charley Krepps was discovered giving Bryant sheets of stamps Bryant was arrested on Wednesday, October 7, 1874, and sent to "The Tombs" the nickname given to the prison attached to the Police Court.

            While in prison he sent a note to his neighbor, Mary Reynold to keep watch on his apartment's locked door. The Sunday following Bryant's arrest another neighbor coming home late at night observed a carriage rush away from the building and found Bryant's apartment had been broken into, ransacked and robbed. The burglars seized $20,000 in postage stamps that were locked in a trunk, $70,000 in gold coins rolled up in paper, pearl handled revolvers, pearl handled umbrellas, jewelry, antiques and art works, and other valuables totaling $120,000.

            Weeks of investigation by New York Police discovered  Robert Murray, alias "Bobby the Welshman" and George "the Rat" Reilly were responsible for the break-in and robbery. They were tried and sentenced but the money and other valuables were lost except for the umbrellas and a revolver that were recovered.

            Since Bryant was left destitute and the various New York firms robbed of their postage stamps saw no means of recovery Bryant was set free and the charges dropped.

            While in prison he was visited by Lizzie Neubauer, a young woman of 18 years whom he proposed marriage to at the age of 73. She refused to marry him but took his furniture and other valuables. The Neubauer loot was recovered and she and her mother Sophia were sentenced to prison as well.

            The New York Times headline read :  “Only A Few Days To Live.; Sad Case Of Luther C. Bryant, Formerly A Nassau-Street Coin Dealer,” The article says, “An old man, bent, decrepit, and almost blind wandered into the Charles-street police station house Monday afternoon and begged that he might be taken care of.” The Athens Messenger, (Athens, Ohio) reported that he died on Thursday, May 28, 1886 in a hospital. However he resided at the Almshouse, Blackwell Island where he was admitted October 25, 1886. He claimed at the time to have 5 brothers of which only one might be living at Florida, and had two sisters now deceased. None of this information agrees to a genealogical description of a Luther Brant, son of Calvin Bryant born in Massachusetts in 1799, the only likely candidate whom Parsons found likely to make a match, though doubtful.

        So who was Luther Bryant? We only know for certain that he was a New York coin and stamp dealer who amassed a fortune, some it acquired through corruption, and all lost in a night. He died a pauper and blind. And so it seems he was always blind. Luther C. Bryant died January 16, 1888, age 86, Manhattan, at Incurables Hospital, and was buried St. Michael’s Cemetery, Elmhurst, Queens, NY.

NOTES

[1] Gilman erroneously says that William Cullen Bryant's father is Luther Bryant, the town physician at Cummington, Massachusetts. See Arthur Gilman, Poets' Homes: Pen and Pencil Sketches of American Poets and Their Homes (Boston : Lothrop & Co., 1879) : 112

Bibliography :

New York Times, May 27, 1886, Wednesday, Page 8, 292 words.

New York Times, December 17, 1874, Wednesday

Page 8, 684 words

New York Times, December 25, 1874, Wednesday

Page 5, 164 words

New York Times, December 29, 1874, Wednesday

Page 8, 88 words

New York Times, January 3, 1875, Wednesday, Page 5, 202 words

“Robbed Of A Life’s Savings : An Eccentric Coin Seller Plundered of $100,000,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Tuesday Evening, October 20, 1874, page one, column 3 top.

“The Old Coin Dealer Again,” The Utica Daily Observer : Utica, N. Y., Tuesday Evening, Vol. XXVII, November 3, 1874, column 4, top. Taken from The New York Sun, October 30, 1874

The Daily Times : Oswego, N. Y. Wednesday Evening, November 4, 1875, column 2, above center.

“Personal,” The Daily Observer : Utica, N. Y., Thursday Evening, August 12, 1875, column 3, near bottom.

Steubenville Daily Herald and News, August 18, 1875, page 3

The Athens Messenger, (Athens Ohio), June 3, 1886, page 1, column 3, near bottom.

Coleman O. Parsons, "William Cullen Bryant's Wayward Cousin" New York History (Quarterly), Volume 33, (1952) : 138-153


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