(from News and Events)
Proteus Gowanus is pleased to announce a Migration collaboration with The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives. The Museum has loaned us a facsimile excerpt of an archive manuscript by Wallace Gold Levison, written in the early 20th C. for a book (never completed) on the early history of the Brooklyn Institute, the Museum’s predecessor. The notes recount a fascinating account of the Institute’s role in importing the English sparrow to Brooklyn in the 1850’s, a tale whose outcome is visible to us every time we go outdoors. —TP
Below is my exploration of the document in three parts: the facimile on display at Proteus, the sites where the sparrows were first released in Brooklyn, and the books on view in the Brooklyn Museum Library Reading Room, collected and put aside as an off-site collaborative project.
For more on the collaboration between The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives and Proteus Gowanus, click here
Part I: The Arrival
The sign on the cocoon read: Ennomos Subsignaria Only. Once inside, the congregation of inchworms wriggled close to hear what the Speaker had to say.
“It has started, they are coming by sea.” A shiver went up and down (and up and down again) through the crowd.
“How many?” One of the smaller worms called out.
“Two, twenty, two-hundred maybe,” said the Speaker, “no one knows for sure.”
The story of the introduction of the English Sparrow into the Brooklyn ecosystem in the Excerpt of the Source of the English Sparrow, Manuscript and Notes for a History of the Brooklyn Institute, reads like a mystery novel. It is a murder mystery, as the “little exiles” were brought to Brooklyn to destroy the inchworm, an “obnoxious and offensive worm or caterpillar ‘ennomos subsignaria’ . . . on account of their hanging by webs from the branches and falling in great numbers upon the pavements some streets having rows of beautiful shade trees [that were] made almost impassible for pedestrians.”
In the document, there are several unofficial accounts of the beginnings of the sparrow in Brooklyn, each naming different potential suspects to be the perpetrator of the inchwormicide. Among the possible actors in this power play of Pest verses Passeridae are several esteemed members of the Brooklyn Institute, the nineteenth century precursor to the Brooklyn Museum.
The accounts detail the names and positions (along with anecdotal details about the gentlemen’s running abilities and dentistry practices) of the individual members who might have been involved in the introduction of the sparrows, including how many sparrows they had brought from England to Brooklyn, where the birds were kept for the winter, and where they were first released.
The Possible Perps:
Col. Nicolas Pike, Director of the Brooklyn Institute 1850-1854
Mr. John McGeorge, Librarian of the Institute, who was said to have had the sparrows brought from England in 1856
Dr. Salmon Skinner, an early member of the British Institute and a leading dentist in Brooklyn, having an office before 1845 at 57 Hicks St. and after 1845 at the corner of Montague Street and Henry Street.
Mr. Thomas S. Woodcock, “a gentleman of much experience in such matters,” purported to have had the sparrows brought to Brooklyn in 1856.
Of all the accounts in the document, it seems that the majority of accounts name Mr. Woodcock as the one to have spearheaded the project of introducing the sparrows to the New World, presumably because of his “expertise” and avianistically empathic name (though the coincidence —that sparrows might have been released into the Brooklyn skies by a “Mr. Woodcock”— does seem a bit too perfect, leaving one to wonder if the gentleman described here was, in fact, a flock of sparrows and woodcock accomplices dressed in a man’s trench coat).
The numbers and types of birds that may have traveled with the sparrows also differ in the various letters, along with speculations on the grizzly journey the birds underwent traveling over the rough seas, followed by their first Brooklyn winter.
Many of the accounts mention that some of the song birds accompanying the sparrows were intended for the Greenwood Cemetery, where ghostly songs of skylarks, woodlarks, goldfinches, robins, blackbirds, and thrushes can still be heard echoing between the headstones (songs which, according to the expertise of Mr. Woodcock, translate roughly into: If ye can make it here, ye can make it anywhere).
Homesickness and exposure notwithstanding, some of the imported sparrows did indeed survive the passage and the winter, as is evident today.
Meanwhile, back in 1854 (or 1856), the inchworms of Brooklyn braced themselves for the mass liberation of the sparrows soon to come.
(To Be Continued…)