I am the great-grandson of Mano Swartz, founder of Mano Swartz Furs (Established: 1889), America’s oldest furrier. The story of this company begins with a transatlantic voyage, a two-week tutorial in American history narrated by an old Union soldier to a young boy from Mitteleuropa.
The veteran, who befriends the child (because of the latter’s ability to speak German, and convert the guttural pronouncements about departure and arrival times – of their departure time, via steamship, into intelligible English), teaches the young Mano Swartz about a country torn asunder by every drop of blood drawn with the lash and repaid by another drawn with the sword; and then, in an attempt to bind up the nation’s wounds, in this reconciliation between those devoted altogether to saving the Union without war and those insurgent agents seeking to destroy it by making war, the President of the United States, a man with the devotion of Abraham and the vision of Moses, is felled by an assassin’s bullet before he can cherish a just and lasting peace among his fellow citizens and with all nations.
I picture my great-grandfather on that boat, a $5 silver certificate bearing the portrait of Ulysses S. Grant in his pocket, a gratuity for ensuring that the veteran made it aboard the ship, and I try to imagine their entry into the Port of New York: The Statue of Liberty would have been under construction, covered in scaffolding and catwalks, a copper-colored goddess free of the ravages of oxidation, smoke, pollution and neglect, a little over a mile from Manhattan and the island’s soot-covered tenements and Neo-Gothic spires; the red and black brick facades of the Western Union Building, the headquarters of the New York Times, the dome-topped roof of The New York World and the soaring steeple of Trinity Church.
His New York, with its blend of fellow Eastern European Jews and Yiddish speakers, a stratified island of Knickerbocker wealth and Dutch ancestry, separated not by fences, though there are images aplenty of Fifth Avenue mansions with iron bars and ornate finials, but enclosed by invisible walls of class and power; from the temples of finance and the House of Morgan to internecine warfare among the poor for patronage jobs and knifings among Irish gangs and hoodlums, Mano Swartz enters a city of tribes, toil, tears, vengeance and graft.