An Untimely Death from 1855

Coroner GAMBLE yesterday held an inquest on the body of BENSON McGOWAN, aged 22 years, of One Hundred and Twenty-seventh street, near Third-avenue, who came by his death from accidental causes as follows: While deceased, who was express wagon driver, was driving through Eighty-third-street, his horses took fright and ran away at a terrible pace, turning into the Third-avenue. As they turned the corner of Eighty-second street and Third-avenue, McGOWAN let drop the reins, and in endeavoring to regain them he passed from the wagon on to the pole, when the horses ran against a pile of bricks, throwing him between the horses and wagon, where he became entangled in the whiffletrees and was dragged nearly to the corner of Eighty-first-street, where he became disengaged from the wagon. He was then taken up insensible by some citizens and conveyed to the drug store of Dr. SCHERFER, where he died in about half a hour. Verdict, “Accidental death.”
(New York Times, August 6, 1855)

Given his home address on East 127th Street, this unfortunate young man seems to be the son of Andrew McGowan, Jr. (1785-1870); and a younger brother to the future city judge Henry Post McGown. The deceased also had an uncle named S. Benson McGowan (or McGown), an assistant alderman and founder of the Third Avenue Railway (now the M101 bus, more or less); as well as a cousin, S. Benson McGown, Jr., who won an appointment to West Point around this time.

If the news brief treats young Benson’s grotesque death as a joke, it’s because it comes from the NYTimes’s city news page, which in those days was a collection of people-are-funny newsbriefs taken from the police blotter. You can interpret this various ways. It could be that 1850s New York City was a jolly, lighthearted place, where the people laughed at death. Or perhaps—given the enormous influx from Liverpool and Queenstown in recent decades—the journalistic idiom had become heavily larded with a kind of Irish and English gallows humor. Finally, it might just be that black comedy was just the current fad (Exhibit A: Herman Melville).

Anyway, young McGowan’s untimely death was swallowed up among similar snippets:

An Irish laborer, of the age of 18 years, named THOMAS DAVIS, yesterday morning at three o’clock, while drunk, fell over the pier at the foot of Roosevelt-street into the water, whence, after considerable of a ducking, he was rescued by Officer McGuire. In view of the water having mixed with the rum which he had imbibed, he was let off of the charge of drunkenness.

A boy of 14 years of age, named Jeremiah Sanicone, was arrested on suspicion of stealing a gold watch of the value of $60. The boy asserts that he found the watch hanging up in the water-closet of a store in Cortlandt-street, and that he sold it to a Jew. Committed for examination.

A nymph of the pave, named MARY DUGAN, while engaged in the demolition of the window glass at her boarding-house, in Water-street, cut the arm seriously. She was taken to the New-York Hospital, where her wounds were dressed.

We have to imagine that 32-year-old Henry Post McGowan, the future judge, would have been appalled by this frivolous treatment of his brother’s death, and the suggestion that he was no more than a common laborer. Perhaps this is why he and his family soon began to insist on the spelling, “McGown.”

In Trow’s City Directory for 1860, Henry still turns up as “McGowan, Henry P., lawyer,” with office at 80 Nassau Street. He is right above Hugh McGowan, laborer. Move on to the 1865 directory and we find him a couple doors down the street as “Henry P. McGown, lawyer,” now at 76 Nassau. The Directory, alas, now lists him right after Frank McGown, laborer.

Ned McGowan

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