Tag Archives: Stillwell

The Buggy-Headed Bat Baby of Dead Horse Bay

Here’s one just in time for Halloween. Turning the musty pages of The Knickerbocker, or, New York Monthly Magazine for September 1849, we come upon this most curious tale. (When reading what follows, keep in mind that political correctness was a concept far in the future.)

IMG_20151021_144954A negro woman, FRANCES COUENHOVEN by name, residing at a place called ‘Dead Horse Bay,’ near Gravesend, Long-Island, was married about eighteen months ago. The day after the ceremony she started with her husband in an ordinary ‘top-buggy’ wagon to visit some friends who lived a few miles off; and it so happened that the horse took fright, and in spite of the address of the driver, managed to run under a sign that was elevated upon two posts, at the junction of the bay and Gravesend roads, by which the top of the buggy was torn off instantly, and the sable pair narrowly escaped with their lives. In due course of time FRANCES became a mother. The child was born entirely bald; but the attention of the physician, Dr. STILLWELL, was directed to an unusual development on the back of the infant’s head. Upon examination, it proved to be a mass of thin membranous substance, in texture like a bat’s-wing, intersected with slender, elastic radii, resembling whale-bone, and turning upon osseous pivots at the ears. Judge of the surprise of the physician, when upon farther [sic] examination it proved to be moveable; and gently drawing it forward over the infant’s head, it unfolded itself into a miniature representation of a gig-top! The child is now living, and may be seen at any time by the curious at Dead Horse Bay, Long Island, about nine miles from this city.

Sadly, for those of us of ghoulish bent, none of this was true. There was – and is – an inlet east of Sheepshead Bay called Dead Horse Bay. It is named, prosaically, for the glue factory detritus that littered its shores in the nineteenth century. (It remains a place of eerie pilgrimage, where urban explorers mine the castoff bits of Brooklyn life that time and tide have rendered somehow beautiful. ABC News “discovered” Dead Horse Bay in a recent piece.) And the surnames Stillwell and Couenhoven (more usually spelled “Kouwenhoven”) were common in Gravesend, the town that once comprised the southernmost reaches of Brooklyn.

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An 1884 nautical chart of Sheepshead Bay, at the eastern end of Gravesend. Note “Dead Horse Inlet,” circled, at right (click image to enlarge).

But the Knickerbocker liked to poke fun at other periodicals, especially the stodgy, pseudo-scientific ones. Thus, satire was the impetus behind this tale of a baby born with a buggy-top covering his head. The Scalpel: A Journal of Health, Adapted to Popular and Professional Reading, and the Exposure of Quackery, had run in August a “serious” piece on “Remarkable Instances of the Effect of the Imagination of the Mother on her Unborn Child,” fleshed out with eyebrow-raising of examples of pregnancies delivered of infants with cat-shaped eyes or half a horse’s head.

In a follow-up, the Knickerbocker – or, rather, its sister publication with the tongue-in-cheek title, Bunkum Flag-Staff and Independent Echo – sent a reporter and a sketch artist to see firsthand the baby at Dead Horse Bay. They found the “little critter . . . playin’ out in front of the house, with its top up, ’cause ’t was drizzly. We let it up and down twice . . . and it works [first] rate.”

And if you believe that, there’s a big old bridge here in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you!


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Gravesend Characters Past: Abraham Emmens Stillwell (1832-1905)

Happy New Year! In response to a challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, I will attempt to profile some of Gravesend’s many historical “characters” by posting images and biographical excerpts here. While they might seem old hat to me, they just might be new to Gravesend’s voracious reading public. Whether or not I manage to put up something new each week remains to be seen, but consider this a start.

The Eagle and Brooklyn: The Record of the Progress of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Issued in Commemoration of its Semi-Centennial and Occupancy of its New Building; Together With the History of the City of Brooklyn From its Settlement to the Present Time, edited by Henry W. B. Howard (Brooklyn, N.Y.: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1893), vol. 2,1147-1148:

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Abraham Emmens Stillwell (1832-1905)

The Stillwell family is an honored one in Gravesend, where some of its members have resided ever since the first settlement of the town; and all of them in some manner or other, have been identified with the progress and well-being of the place. ABRAHAM EMMENS STILLWELL is a lineal descendant, on his father’s side, of Nicholas Stillwell, an Englishman who came from Hull, by way of Leyden, somewhere about the year 1638, and settled on Manhattan Island. He remained there for some years; but finally removed to Staten Island, where he died in 1671. Mr. Stillwell’s mother was an Emmens, her grandfather being a Dutch preacher named Schoonmaker. Abraham E. Stillwell was born in Gravesend, on August 22, 1832, and attended the public school in his native village until he reached the age of fourteen years. Subsequently he was a pupil for three years at Flatbush Hall Academy. Leaving school, he made an attempt to make a living by teaching in Boston, Mass., but soon returned to Gravesend and worked for a few years on his father’s farm. With the exception of a brief interval, he attended strictly to the pursuit of agriculture until 1864. In that year he started in the second-hand and commission business on Grand street, Brooklyn, and subsequently engaged in the second-hand lumber business, on Thirty-eighth street, New York. This venture did not prove successful and once more he returned to Gravesend. he was appointed sexton of the town graveyard, and incidentally with his duties united the business of an undertaker. In 1860 he built the house where he now resides. Mr. Stillwell has been twice married, first in 1859 and again in 1887. The present Mrs. Stillwell occupies a prominent position in Gravesend society. For twenty-five years or more Mr. Stillwell has been a member of Franklin Lodge of Odd Fellows, an he also belongs to the Sheepshead Bay fire department and the John Y. McKane Association; he is now a Democrat, though formerly prominent in Republican circles.

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Billhead for A.E. Stillwell, General Furnishing Undertaker, Gravesend, L.I., 1887. {Collection of Joseph Ditta.}


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Filed under Abraham Emmens Stillwell, Gravesend characters, Stillwell family