The register of Coney Island's first hotel, Coney Island House, is a hefty volume. Its morocco leather trim, raised bands, gold-leaf detailing and marbled endpapers proclaim it as the record of an establishment that is unpretentious yet of solid worth. Coney Island House was built by the Gravesend and Coney Island Road and Bridge Company on land procured from Court Van Sicklen in the 1820s. Those who know the area today may find it hard to imagine the shore as it must have been then--a wild beach with a single road leading up to it, frequented only by clammers and beachcombers from nearby Gravesend. With the establishment of this hotel and others, a few tourists would come out to enjoy the sea air and the long vistas.
Page after and page of elaborate signatures could easily lull one into a reverie on the brevity of human life, or a reflection on the extraordinary changes that would take place in Coney Island over the course of the next century and a half. But then, every now and again, one turns a page, and the eye lands on a name that looks familiar. Can it be...? Yes, that is Jenny Lind, with P.T. Barnum's name right below it!
And yet, one has to wonder...the signature preceding these at close of day, Thursday 12th September 1850, is that of "Bill Blunderbuss, Shirttail Bend." There are other spoofs. Some wag --perhaps a hotel employee--signs in as Solomon Frizzlepipes, traveling in the company of Judith Snuffs. On another day a Longsnoot family comes to stay. Friday 13th September 1850 opens with the arrival of these two illustrious personages--or are they perhaps fictitious additions, intended to raise the status of the hotel?
But it is a page in early September of 1849 that really arouses wonderment. Mrs Bostwick and her friend Mrs Clement, now long gone, left their signatures as proof of a long-ago day spent by the sea. And so too, if we are to believe our eyes, did Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and friends. According to Melville's biographer, Hershel Parker, "There happens to survive no known record of Melville's ever having seen Poe, although he describes Poe to the life in The Confidence Man (ch. 36)." Well then, if we believe in the authenticity of these signatures, here is proof that Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and a handful of other literary figures met at Coney Island on Wednesday September 5th, 1849. Also among the company was their mutual friend Evert Duyckinck, writer Cornelius Mathews, and William Gilmore Simms who, with Duyckinck and Mathews had formed a literary group called Young America in the 1830s. Poet and satirist Fitz Greene Halleck completed the party.
Handwriting experts! Speak up and let us know what you think!
Doubt has been cast on the authenticity of these signatures. The Poe Log, a meticulously researched day-by day account of Poe's life, locates him around Richmond VA on this date. Researchers at the Poe Museum tell us that "Poe’s whereabouts at the time [are] well documented by his letters as well as by newspaper notices of his lectures and his initiation in Richmond into the Sons of Temperance."
A similar volume on Melville makes no mention of trips to Coney Island, but then, its author had not seen the Coney Island House Register! In 1849 Melville had not yet published Moby Dick, and even that masterwork failed to lift him from obscurity, so it is hard to imagine any motivation for a contemporary forgery. I am no scholar of handwriting, but something about the natural flow of these signatures, their position on the page, their characteristic and unforced energy, suggests to me that they are genuine.
And so we are left to wonder what these men of letters got up to on their putative day by the sea. Poe had just recently joined the Sons of Temperance. Did he abstain as his friends quaffed ale and port, or did he succumb to temptation, plunging into the downward spiral that would leave him dead in a Baltimore gutter only a month later? Did they don bathing attire (or not!) and frolic in the September surf? Did they pair off, perhaps, for more intimate conversation on long shoreline strolls, stooping now and then to pick up a colored pebble or a shell? Or did they simply sit on the hotel verandah in their summer hats, gazing out to sea, watching for ships and charting the passage of clouds?