Friday, January 15, 2016

Ewen Park: 231st Street, Bronx

I had coffee the other day with a friend in Ewen Park in the Bronx, and we noticed these stones in the grass:

I figured the stones held a story of the park, and they sure didn't disappoint in telling it. I discovered a story that goes beyond the park borders and one that goes beyond belief. What I'm sharing today is just a bit of the tale. And it's a juicy bit.

To set the scene, Ewen Park in the Bronx is on a steep hillside between the Kingsbridge and Riverdale sections, and it was part of a large estate owned by Brigadier General John Ewen.

Looking at an old map, the stones must have been part of the driveway to the house, marked by a faint line on the map. If you click on the map to enlarge it, you'll see the driveway more clearly. The yellow box on the map is where the Ewen house was situated. A fenced dog run now sits on that spot. (Note: the top of the map is West.)

Map from The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1921
John Ewen's daughter Eliza, the last of his four children to survive, donated the land to the City of New York to use as a park.

The donation seems like a generous thing to do on Eliza's part, and it certainly was. I suspect, however, she was motivated to give the land to the public in order keep it away from her nephew and also to keep it out of the hands of a certain clergyman. The person who prompted that motivation of keep-away was a con-artist who called himself a German Baron, and in a way, it's the Baron who we need to thank for Eliza's donation.

But before we get to the con-man and clergyman, let's back up and talk about the Brigadier General first.
Image from History of Westchester County, published 1886.

Brigadier General John Ewens

During the Civil War, when Confederate forces reached as far north as Pennsylvania, John Ewen led men from the New York State Militia to aid the Union forces. Within ten days of leaving home, the militia were close to Gettysburg and fought in a skirmish at Sportman's Hill. The gunfire from the southern troops was so heavy at one point that his men refused to advance. Brigadier General Ewens threatened them with bayonets if they didn't move. His harsh command made him a hero, as his men, forced to advance under his order, were later able to say they "confirmed the enemy's withdrawal."

Success with armed forces wasn't John Ewen's only achievement. Before the war, he was a highly-regarded Street Commissioner for New York City, and later the Comptroller. He also was successful in business and became the President of the Pennsylvania Coal Company with an office downtown on Broadway near Wall Street.

In the 1840s, Ewens obtained the property where he built a home as a country retreat for himself and his young family. The area wasn't the Bronx yet, but part of Westchester County.

General John Ewens, his son, and his wife all passed away during the 1800s. His three daughters - Caroline, Eliza, and Louise - lived their lives as spinsters until 1909, when Louise's love life changed everything.

Enter the Clergymen and Cons, the Actors and Lecturers
(not mutually exclusive)

Youngest sister Louise was active in the New York society scene. Among her companions were Reverend Walter E. Bentley and Reverend Aubrey Percy Nelson. The Rev. Bentley was a former actor who didn't exactly leave the stage after stepping behind the pulpit, and he enjoyed working with the theater crowd in the city.
Rev. Walter E. Bentley, photo from New York Times, June 27, 1897. 
One of Rev. Bentley's endeavors was hosting travel lectures with his friend and fellow Englishman "Professor" Oliver Bainbridge. 

"Professor" Oliver Bainbridge, photo from Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 21, 1909.

Professor Bainbridge wasn't really a professor, and maybe that's why he found it easy to partner with Baron Boto von Koenitz from Germany because the Baron really wasn't a Baron either.

Baron Boto von Koenitz. He was blond, blue-eyed, and stocky.
Photo from Syracuse New York Herald 1921.

Baron Boto became the President of Bainbridge's Travel Club, which met in the homes of wealthy women and entertained their wealthy friends. At some point in early 1908, spinster Louise Ewen became acquainted with the group, and on Saturday, March 27, 1909, the Travel Club met at her West 86th Street home. The topic of the evening's lecture was "Darkest Papua" and featured images of cannibals and stories of supposed savages of the Pacific islands.

I should mention here an arrangement - a scheme you could call it - between Bainbridge and von Koenitz. The fake Baron offered the fake professor a 10% take on any money he obtained by marrying a rich American heiress. Louise was a rich American heiress.

She also was 62 years old.

The Baron was in his mid 20s, but no matter that! Louise and Boto fell in love. 

Louise's pal, the Rev. Aubrey Nelson, was miffed by the romance. He had been Louise's young male companion, and now the Baron was taking Louise on walks through Central Park instead of him.

Baron Boto didn't keep Louise all to himself. He introduced her to his lovely friend Mary Mackid. Mary was the daughter of a rich banker from Canada, and she was a chorus girl in the show The Dollar Princess that would open at the Knickerbocker Theatre on Broadway later that fall. In a strange case of art imitating life imitating art, the characters of the American version of the musical include a daughter of the president of a coal company (like Louise), someone posing as a countess (like Boto posing as a Baron) and a bride who insists on remaining chaste after the wedding (foreshadowing what Louise would soon do). Crazy coincidences.

Courtship, Marriage, and Deception

Louise's family wasn't pleased with the relationship between Louise and Boto, no surprise, and that was before they knew that Louise gave Boto $15,000. He needed the cash, he said, to restore his family castle in Germany, which now belonged to his uncle. After he got the money, and supposedly bought the castle back from his uncle, he offered proof of ownership by showing Louise a postcard of the castle Koenitz. 

But owning a castle in an ongoing expensive endeavor, as the Baron explained to Louise. Castles require constant upkeep. That's where the term "dollar princess" comes from in the first place. Property-rich but cash-poor aristocrats in Europe married American heiresses for their money, and in exchange, the American "dollar princess" received a title of nobility. To help him keep up his castle, Louise mortgaged her house on West 86th Street and gave her beau Boto $45,000 in cash.

Boto began to feel protective of his income source, and when his partner Professor Bainbridge suggested investment ideas to Louise, Boto advised her against them. Soon Boto would renege on the finder's fee agreement he had with Bainbridge for finding him a bride. Boto apparently didn't know it's not a good idea out-scheme a schemer, but he would soon find out. In the meantime, Baron Boto and the aging heiress Louise ran off to Jersey City, and on November 28, 1909 they were secretly married at St. Mark's Church.

The count and the heiress were married here, at St. Mark's Church in Jersey City. Image from
If it's one thing that New York society families of that era abhorred, it was publicity about their personal lives. And perhaps no one was more aware of that disdain for press than Professor Bainbridge, who made a living mingling with and milking the wealthy. Because Boto closed Louise's wallet to him, I suspect it was Bainbridge who leaked the news about the wedding. Whatever the source, the scandal immediately made headlines.

The bride was so upset with the attention that the couple called off their honeymoon trip to Europe, and her two sisters retreated in shock to the family's country estate. But don't consider those reactions as signs of weakness. The sisters were daughters of a Brigadier General and they soon pulled together to face the fire, but we have a journey to take before we get to that point.

While the sisters were each in seclusion, the groom met with the press. To prove his worth, he pulled $50,000 out of his pocket during an interview, because, apparently, that's what classy aristocrats do. Of course, that cash was largely the money that Louise gave him after mortgaging her house. His meeting with the press flopped further when his photograph was printed in the paper because people from his past recognized him, and none of them called him "Baron."

A warden from Sing-Sing recognized him as a former prisoner. A lawyer recognized him as a client who served time for larceny. A man from the Rockaways recognized the cad as someone who was run out of Washington D.C. for courting the daughter of his wealthy friend. And, there was the society lady from Manhattan who recognized him as a waiter from New Jersey.

Instead of landing herself a titled German Baron, Louise married German restaurant worker, and instead of owning a castle, he had lived at the Paterson YMCA.

Paterson, New Jersey YMCA, one-time home of the Baron Boto von Koenitz.

The short version of his stint in prison goes like this - in 1906 Boto stole $350 from a roommate and fellow employee at the German restaurant in Jersey. He spent $50 of the cash on a trip to Coney Island before he was caught by the cops and sent to jail.

By 1908, when Boto met Louise, he was the son of Baron Paul von Koenitz of Germany. The young Baron claimed he fought in the Boer War in South Africa where a wound caused a permanent limp, traveled to Pernambuco in South America where he had interest in a coffee plantation, and went to Mexico to purchase mining claims in Sonora. With all those world travels, I guess it's understandable he forgot to mention the trips to Coney Island and state prison.

Despite the press, Louise didn't grasp that her husband was a con man yet. Boto kept her isolated, and she didn't get the full gist of what happened for many more weeks. She still thought she had a married a man with a pedigree.

Went South, Fast

Soon after the wedding, the couple left for Florida. Unfortunately, Boto changed from courting Louise to being cruel to her. He kept her from seeing her family and friends and he monitored her correspondence.  He even put a revolver to her head and handcuffs on her wrists as warnings of what would happen if she didn't comply with his demands for her money.

Louise was a clever woman, however, and her family and friends were resourceful and serious about protecting their own. Within a few weeks of marriage, she managed to make secret arrangements to put her assets into trust, with her sisters in control.

A few weeks after the trust was set up, Louise quietly cut her husband out of her will. Still, she stayed with him, and I think it's because she thought she could get an annulment only if he broke his marriage vows to be faithful. She wrote, "As soon as I have proof of his infidelity, I shall leave him for then I shall feel free from all obligation to him." The couple never consummated the marriage and they traveled as mother and son, a fact Louise made sure to share.

It's sad to think she accepted his cruelty as something to endure as a wife, but she was determined to stay with him until evidence proved he was unfaithful as a husband. 

The good news is, it didn't take long for him to prove that.

Boto jumped right into the Florida lifestyle and immediately bought two automobiles and a motorboat. He ordered a yacht to be built, purchased an orange grove, and gave a girl from St. Augustine named Rose a diamond ring. He also might have financed a troupe of chorus girls too, but it's hard to keep track.

After moving from place to place, they ended up at the Tampa Bay Hotel about four months after they married. The hotel would be the last place they stayed together (in separate rooms).

Tampa Bay Hotel, where Boto and Louise last saw each other.

It was that girl named Rose who finally gave Louise the chance to leave. Louise overheard Boto plan a getaway with the girl, and when he left for the tryst, Louise and her maid took a train to New York City. She sent word back to Boto that she left him for good.

Boto took the news by applying for a passport and going to Europe for the summer.

History Repeats Itself

In February 1911, Louise was granted the annulment she wanted, and that's when she left town again. She hightailed it off to Europe with another a young man living off her money, her old pal Rev. Nelson. Louise's lawyer said, "A clergyman is somewhat better than an ex-convict," but nephew John Ewen didn't quite see the difference. John described Nelson as "nothing but a weak, willy, pink-faced parasite."

I haven't lost track of the story of the stones yet. We're getting to the part where the park was donated to the city.

Things get complicated, but the bottomline is the family was skittish about losing control of their assets after the Baron cost them $100,000 during his short time with Louise. With the Baron behind them and the Rev. Nelson in front of them, everyone tightened ship.

But that's not how Louise saw the financial tightening. Rev. Nelson told Louise that her nephew John thought she was too incompetent to handle her own affairs. Caroline heard that John called Louise a foolish old thing.

With that remark, Caroline was offended on behalf of her sister.

So offended was Caroline that her sister was called a foolish old thing that Caroline cut her nephew John off. She left her entire estate to humane societies for cats around the world.

When Caroline died in 1913 and her cat-will was read, nephew John contested it. And then it was Louise's turn to be offended on behalf of her sister.

So offended was Louise that Caroline's decisions about her own money were thwarted, that Louise also cut her nephew off.

Eliza took no chances. To prevent John from contesting her will and to keep Louise from inheriting property that in turn could be given to Rev. Nelson, Eliza gave away her land before she died. In 1916, Eliza wrote a letter to the New York City Parks Commissioner, Borough of the Bronx, offering five acres of her land to the city with the stipulations that the park be called Ewen Park in honor of her father and that she be allowed to live in her house on the land until she died.

Eliza was the last sister left. She lived in the family's country home, no longer in the countryside but surrounded by the city, until her death. The path toward the park donation was laid in the family fights over finances that first started when Baron Boto von Kuenitz arrived on the scene. So, in a way, we have him to thank for the park in the Bronx.

Wherever your path, you're walking with a story underneath you.

Updates on some of the characters

  • The Baron disappeared, but around 1917, Louise sent $150 to Paul von Koenitz in California. I'm unsure if this person is Boto with a new name, or if it's his father who Boto claimed was named Paul.
  • Rev. Nelson lived with Louise for a decade, until she passed away. He spent his time golfing and asking her for money. Louise left him $20,000 in her will, and after Louise died, Nelson married a school teacher named Elsie, returned to the ministry, and moved to Queens.
  • Mary Mackid, daughter of a Canadian banker and chorus girl in The Dollar Princess, married a son of a banker and raised a family in New Jersey.
  • In addition to leaving land to the Parks Department, Eliza left $116,000 to charities. I don't know if her nephew John contested her will and received anything.
  • When Caroline died, Louise took in Caroline's beloved cat named Petie. Louise planned to have Petie euthanized when she died to prevent him from being mistreated when she wasn't around to care for him. Apparently, her plans were carried out and Petie was buried with Louise.

Sources: click here.

For the musical score of The Dollar Princess, go here.


  1. An outstanding article on an outstanding blog. I appreciate all the research that went into this, and the careful documentation.

    I came across your article because I had discovered Boto's story independently, and coming from a different direction. I was researching an itinerant portrait painter named Otto von Koenitz, who titled himself "Professor" and "Count", among other honorifics. I first came across him in Leavenworth, Kansas, but he was all over the Midwest and Upstate New York. He appears to have stayed in NYC long enough to wed a Johanna Busch in 1882. When he died in 1893,the news article said he had "a wife and children" in New York. Johanna appears to have remarried in 1886, and maybe more times. One does not get the impression of a stable home life.

    My unproven hypothesis is that Boto was Otto's son, that he barely knew his father, if at all, but heard stories from his mother about how his father was a German baron, and believed them. Boto was quoted in newspaper articles as saying he would go to Germany to either negotiate the purchase of his "ancestral lands" or attempt to just claim them. He did go to Germany in 1910, but returned quickly, without title.

    1. What great info, Bob. I did encounter the artist Koenitz when researching this story and couldn't quite make him fit into the narrative. I'm very interested in how you're making the people fit - good work. I'm curious if you have seen any of the portraits Otto painted (I'm wondering if he was any good!)? As I noted, there was a Paul von Koenitz in California - have you found out anything about him? Thanks for your message.

    2. A friend asked me to help find a couple of paintings that, over the last 150 years, have gone missing. The friend's German immigrant ancestors lived in Leavenworth in the 1800's, had some money, and had individual portraits painted of all 12 family members. The whereabouts of 10 of those paintings is known, but the other two may have wound up in estate sales years ago.

      After trying all the easy things I could think of, I tried to figure out who the artist was, to see if I could "reverse engineer" it. But none of the paintings were signed. It looks like only two portrait painters were active in Leavenworth at the time, one of whom was "Professor" Otto von Koenitz, also a German immigrant. He seemed the most likely candidate, and that's how I began my search. But so far, I cannot prove that he was the artist, though I think he's the strongest candidate. I have yet to find a portrait attributed to him on the internet.

      Itinerant portrait painters, I've learned, often had a wagon full of canvases of pre-painted torsos, and would just paint faces onto them when sales were made. Wouldn't call it great art, no.


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