A Con-Man Grows in Brooklyn and a Kid Grows in West VA


After my last post about the Williamsurg Bridge going to PA, I rifled around in my old dresser and found another old postcard. This one is of the Frederick A. Cook mansion in Bushwick. I used to see it from the M train every day and just fell in love with it. I had no idea what it was at the time, just another beautiful old building, once full of life and energy now boarded up and all alone. She was probably a victim of the looting and fires during the black out of ’77, but thankfully she survived, albeit she’s bruised up a bit. I have heard that someone is working on it, but with this stupid economy who knows how that will turn out? Sigh.

I took this picture of it from the train in August of 2002 – at least that’s what the pic says, I can assure you that my memory isn’t that good. It was a Friday it seems and I guess I got out of work early. The train was empty so I was able to get a good shot with my spanking new-fangled digital camera as I hurtled by. The address is 670 Bushwick Ave. and all you have to do is use your preferred internet search engine to find out all kinds of stuff about it. If you don’t want to, I can tell you a little myself.

Back in the early 1900’s , a guy named Fred Cook lived here. He was born in upstate NY in 1865 and his dad died while he was very young. His family moved to Brooklyn and Fred always worked, eventually graduating from NYU with a medical degree. He hooked up with a guy named Robert Peary and got into the exploring business. You can check the links yourself, but in a nutshell, Fred claimed that he was the first man to reach the summit of Mt. McKinley in Alaska in 1906. Rumor has it that he never actually did this. Seems he went to Alaska, climbed up the aforementioned mountain a little, took a picture which he then adjusted, if you will, and then made up the rest of the story of his trek. He banked the money he made off of this to race Peary to the North Pole a couple of years later.  Both Cook and Peary claimed to have gotten there first. The post card below shows Fred’s house in all her glory on the day he came home in September of 1909, surrounded by his adoring fans.

The big float on the bottom says “We Believe in You”. I am guessing it was a result of the whole 1906 debate. Those being the elevated tracks for M on the bottom, I guess the pic was taken from a taller building behind them. The mansion on the right has been torn down in recent years – she was still there in 2002 as you can see from the picture I took from the train. The ghosts of the kids in the yard on the bottom right haunt what is now the parking lot of a KFC.

In any case, you can search the web and you’ll find that the general consensus is that he never went to the North Pole at all – some think that Peary never got there either. He eventually got into some unsavory situation having to do with oil promotions, was convicted of fraud and did five years in the pokey. He got out in 1930 and died in New Rochelle in 1940.

Now, what the hell does any of this have to do with some kid in West Virginia? My postcard not only has a note on it, but it’s got a name, a state AND a postmark. Woo-hoo! You need to understand that genealogy is pretty much my crack. That and coffee. I will research for hours a day for weeks at a time and then burn out. A couple months later and I’m fiending for more. If the earth does indeed explode in 2012, I’ll be pissed cause that’s when they release the 1940 census.

Our postcard was sent to Master Lionel Wiseman in West Virginia in October, 1916, just about the same time Americans were losing interest in the Cook/Peary/North Pole situation. War was raging in Europe and we were about to jump in. I guess folks had more important things to think about.

 Our post card  says”Dear Lionel how many days have you counted. Write and tell me I will bring you an apple. good bye.” and it’s signed L.W.

Master Lionel – well la-di-da. That’s what them there rich folks calls their sons until they hit about thirteen, and then they get to be called Mister. According to the 1920 census  there are two Lionel Wisemans and both are the right age to have been addressed as “master”. One is in MD and the other is in West VA. I’m  99% positive that our boy is the second one, so I’m gonna go with him – I think our clue is in the initials at the bottom of our letter.

So who is our young master? Well, he isn’t really fancy or rich at all. Lionel Wade Wiseman was born in 1913 and was the son of a simple coal miner living in a coal mining town among lots of other coal mining folk. He’s the son of Norval Lee and Laura May Wagner Wiseman – L.W for short.

So, if L.W. is Lionel’s mom, why didn’t she just say “love mom”? I like to think they were playing a little game. Maybe she had to go away for a little while and she was pretending he was all very fancy and grown up. Maybe this was his very first piece of mail. How adult! If you have kids you know what a big deal that is for them. I’m sure you have plenty of little nick-names for them and my daughter loves to pretend she’s older than me and takes great pleasure in calling me by my first name in her “woman” voice.

Oh, and what a fancy card to send him! Such a glorious house in great, big New York City. Maybe they could visit is someday? I wonder if they ever did?

I don’t know much else about our Lionel. I didn’t find any news articles, good or bad, about him or any if his family. I actually could probably spend lots of time and go back years and years and find it all, but it’s late and I’m tired. Maybe a descendant of the West Virginia Wisemans will come across this and it will give them a clue or spark their interest in finding their ancestors. Maybe Lionel is still alive and will find this. That would be kinda neat. You think he’ll want his postcard back?

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4 Responses to A Con-Man Grows in Brooklyn and a Kid Grows in West VA

  1. Shauna D'laine Harrison says:

    You’re right, ladies. He treated me, my 2 sisters, my older brother and then my 2 oldest kids while they were still very young. I was just reminiscing of the time my oldest put a small gold chain in her right nostril while my mother babysat for the day. When I came home, my mom wasn’t too alarmed..having had 5 children of her own already. We rushed my daughter to Dr. Davis and with precision and care, he got the gold chain out. Somehow, he coerced her into getting it out. He was an amazing man. Loved him.

  2. Pingback: The True Story of Mr. and Mrs. Claus, the North Pole and Brooklyn Beer

  3. Lisa says:

    I just saw your picture and history of 670 Bushwick ave… just wanted to add that yhis was also the home of Dr. Clement Davis who was a pillar in the neighborhood. He bought the house in the early seventies and lived there till 87, when he passed. He lived on the top floor and had his office on the bottom floor. He did not rent the other floors.

    • Linda Grooms says:

      It gladdens my heart to know that many considered Dr. Davis a pillar in the neighborhood. He treated many people and if they couldn’t pay him, he did not turn them away. I only wish I had a picture of him to treasure. He always kept his pictures of his babies delivered on top of his desk and he always treated the babies first. (Smile). God bless him, no one will fill his shoes.

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