Monday, March 19, 2012

The Short, Tragic Life of Robert Fulton, 2: Gone Too Soon


Robert Fulton was truly a renaissance man. Artist, inventor, entrepreneur and dreamer of ambitious dreams--he was all of these and more. Each aspect of his genius merits a full-scale biography.
Born on a farm near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 14, 1765,  he became an apprentice to a jeweler in Philadelphia at the age of 17, making miniature paintings for lockets.
By 1787, he had saved enough money to buy passage to England, where he intended to study painting. Four years later, Fulton’s skill attracted the attention of Viscount William Courtenay, who invited him to come to his Powderham Castle in Devonshire to paint his portrait.
Courtenay, 23, was more than just a wealthy young aristocrat anxious to have his portrait painted. He was one of Britain's most notorious homosexuals. Fulton remained in residence at Powderham for a year and a half, during which time he painted a portrait of Courtenay and a few historical subjects, all of which have disappeared. Whether Fulton partook in the way of life around him is unknown, but he could hardly have been unaware of it.
At about that time, Britain was undergoing a canal-building boom. Fulton decided to concentrate on engineering instead of art. Attracted by France’s offer of subsidies for technological development, he moved to Paris in 1797, but was unsuccessful in selling Napoleon the design of an underwater torpedo with which to blow up the English fleet.
Fulton became acquainted with Robert R. Livingston, who was in Paris to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. The two formed a partnership to create a steam vessel. Fulton would supply the know-how; Livingston, who had already obtained a monopoly for steamboat use on the Hudson, would furnish the financing.

An American in Paris
had lodged at the Left Bank pension of Madame Hillaire, a favorite stopping place of Americans. Among guests there was 41-year-old Ruth Baldwin Barlow. A sister of Abraham Baldwin, a U.S. senator from Georgia, she was waiting for her husband, Joel Barlow, to return from Algiers, where he had been negotiating for the release of American sailors captured by Barbary pirates.
Ruth was a woman of remarkable charm and wit. When her husband returned from Algiers, he was overjoyed to find that handsome bachelor Fulton, tall and broad-shouldered, had become her close companion. The relationship soon became even more intimate. The trio left Madame Hillaire’s for other quarters on the Left Bank.
Joel Barlow, 43, eleven years Fulton's senior, had a number of careers: ambassador, lawyer preacher and poet. His best-known poem, a long and tedious patriotic epic titled The Vision of Columbus, is virtually unreadable. The Barlows had been married since 1782. Joel’s work required frequent absences, and Ruth’s extramarital amours were always with her husband’s encouragement.
We know intimate details of the relationship that evolved because Barlow, an inveterate keeper of every piece of paper and correspondence, recorded them in an easily decipherable “baby talk.”
Fulton quickly recognized that Barlow was a man of the world who could help him. For his part, the childless Barlow was happy to instruct the younger man, introduce him to important people, lend him money and engage a tutor to teach him French.
Barlow’s fondness for Fulton included encouraging the tender sympathies of his “precious wife.” The practical French saw nothing unusual in this. In fact, they had coined an expression to describe it: ménage à trois.
Following the successful operation of the North River steamboat in 1807, recounted in last week’s article, Fulton decided to rebuild his vessel at Red Hook on the Hudson. He arrived at the nearby Livingston estate after New Year's.

A Surprise Marriage
To the surprise of friends and relatives, Harriet Livingston, the Chancellor's young cousin, and Robert Fulton were married on January 7, 1808. No evidence exists to show how he found time to court Harriet. Their honeymoon was shared with the rebuilding of his steamboat.
The Barlows were back in the U.S. by then and living near Washington, the new national capital. Letters written to them by Fulton indicate that he was anxious for the two families to meet and know one another.
After a weeklong journey by stagecoach, the Fultons reached Washington in July and stayed with the Barlows until the next February. It quickly became apparent to Harriet Fulton that she was an intruder on an already established pattern of living.
She was pregnant and in October gave birth to a son. Fulton named the baby Robert Barlow Fulton and called him Barlow. Pregnant or not, Harriet had no intention of taking part in the unconventional marital relationship her husband had in mind--in effect, a ménage à quatre.
Fulton had been unable to patent his design (because it consisted of elements not sufficiently original), so he spent much of his time back in New York defending the monopoly against usurpers operating steamboats in and near the Hudson. Nevertheless, he was able to design and operate a fleet of larger and heavier boats, including one to ply the rougher waters of Long Island Sound.
Harriet soon became discontented with the "pin money" her husband doled out. He had originally intended to give her a share of the profits from the new catamaran ferry running between Manhattan and Jersey City, but his partner, Livingston, vetoed that arrangement.
Harriet had every reason to be unhappy. Women’s rights were virtually nonexistent in the early 19th century. A married woman essentially was her husband's property.
Her body was legally regarded as owned by him. She could not have a bank account, invest money, sign a contract, carry life insurance, or own or inherit property independently of her husband.
Without property, she could not take vote or take part in politics as a candidate. In the event of the death of her husband, she could not become the legal guardian of her children.
Joel Barlow died in Poland of fatigue and fever in 1812 futilely trying to obtain payment from Napoleon for American ships illegally seized by the French. Following his defeat at Moscow, the Emperor had abandoned his army and was already back in Paris. Robert R. Livingston, who was important to the legal actions brought to protect the monopoly, suffered a fatal stroke in 1813.
The two deaths devastated Fulton. He died of pneumonia in New York City on Thursday, Feb. 23, 1815. He had been soaked to the skin a few days before trying to cross the ice-clogged Hudson after inspecting the giant steam-powered frigate being built for the Navy in Jersey City.

A Hero's Funeral
Newspapers announced his death the next day in obituaries bordered by thick black lines. He left a grieving young widow and their four children, the eldest only six years old.
His funeral on Saturday afternoon resembled the burial of a national hero. Pallbearers carried his simple mahogany coffin down the steps of his handsome mansion across from what is now Battery Park. To the west, the setting sun's rosy glow over the Jersey salt marshes provided a colorful backdrop for the solemn occasion.
At the Battery, a single cannon boomed at one-minute intervals. The cortège, led by officials of the federal, state and city governments, moved slowly up Broadway to Trinity Church. After a brief service, Fulton's body was interred in the Livingston family vault.
In November of the following year, Fulton’s widow married a smooth-talking, avaricious Briton named Charles Dale. If Harriet's rapid remarriage suggests unusual casualness toward her husband's death, Ruth Barlow's reaction reveals genuine affection.
Responding to news of Fulton's passing, she wrote to the executor of his estate, "Most feelingly my heart reciprocates every sentiment of sorrow and deep regret you express . . . . Except for the family no one can so sensibly feel this loss as myself. . . . I must dismiss this mournful subject, it affects me too much my tears blot my paper."
Later, in a letter to a friend, she wrote that she could “recall the image of Fulton I wish to be ever present to my still bleeding heart.” With neither Barlow nor Fulton to comfort her, Ruth Barlow died in 1818.
In 1820, the Dales mortgaged her country property. Saddling a widowed Livingston sister-in-law with Harriet's four children, the Dales headed for England. The Dales were back in America by 1825. Harriet died the following year and was buried in a lonely grave in the cemetery of the Claverack Dutch Reformed Church in upstate New York.

Fulton’s Legacy
In 1816, a year after his death, Fulton Street was created to honor him by widening two existing streets. Specializing in fish, the Fulton Market opened in 1822 and remained at its original location until 2005, when it moved to Hunts Point in the Bronx. Other honors were scant.
In 1901, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers erected a squat stone column and small bronze plaque at the south edge of Trinity churchyard.  Visitors seeking Fulton’s gravesite often make the mistake of thinking Fulton is buried beneath this rather unattractive memorial.
A Robert Fulton Monument Association was created in New York in 1906. With Cornelius Vanderbilt as president and Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) as vice-president, the association planned to erect a monument on Riverside Drive at 110th Street, overlooking the river of his history-making voyage. Overshadowed by preparations for the 1909 celebration that would honor both Fulton and Hudson, the Fulton monument was never built.
Nearly 200 years after his death, no headstone marks Robert Fulton’s grave. Fulton, of course, needs no monument. At the cutting edge of the Industrial Revolution, the steamboat and the steamship expanded international commerce to unimaginable heights. Steam-powered vessels, as part of vast naval fleets bristling with arms and armor, became participants in epic naval battles in two catastrophic wars. They remain awesome projections of national power to this very day.

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