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City of God

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City of God

  City of God

  A Novel of Passion and Wonder in Old New York



  New York London Toronto Sydney



  A Novel of Love, War, and the Birth of America

  City of Dreams:

  A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan

  City of Glory:

  A Novel of War and Desire in Old Manhattan

  Simon & Schuster

  1230 Avenue of the Americas

  New York, NY 10020

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2008 by MichaelA, Ltd.

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Simon & Schuster Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

  SIMON & SCHUSTER and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Swerling, Beverly.

  City of god: a novel of passion and wonder in Old New York / Beverly Swerling.

  p. cm.

  1. New York (N.Y.)—History—1775–1865—Fiction. 2. Manhattan (New York, N.Y.)—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3619.W47C63 2008 813'.6—dc22

  ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-9444-4

  ISBN-10: 1-4165-9444-2

  Visit us on the World Wide Web:


  For Bill as always,

  and for Michael, our forever darling boy. RIP.


  Author’s Note

  How It Happened—


  Book One1834–1835

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Book Two1836–1837

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Book Three1842–1844

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Book Four1848–1853

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-one

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Chapter Thirty-three

  Book Five1857

  Chapter Thirty-four

  Chapter Thirty-five




  Glory be to God for dappled things—

  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

  For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

  Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;

  And àll tràdes, their gear and tackle and trim.

  All things counter, original, spare, strange;

  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

  With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

  He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change; Praise him.


  Author’s Note

  THE DEVELOPMENT OF the theory and technology that in the 1840s led to the building of those breathtaking birds of paradise, the mighty clipper ships, is told as accurately as my research allowed, but in the matter of the timing of particular voyages and the exact dates when certain records were set, I have bent the truth to serve my need. The Houqua was launched in May of 1844, not 1843 as happens in this book. As for the Hell Witch of my tale, I made her up, and appropriated for her the accomplishments of a legendary ship called Sea Witch, who set out for Hong Kong in December of 1846. And while it’s true that New York University was founded in 1831, the School of Medicine opened a decade later, not around the same time as I have it here.

  How It Happened—

  A Short History with No Quiz, and No Penalty for Skipping Straight to the Story

  SOMETIMES IT IS difficult to tease out history’s threads; not so for this book. The spiritual currents that play a dominant role in this story were let loose in Europe in the early 1700s, in a phenomenon known as the Great Awakening. Reacting to the secularizing forces of the Enlightenment, which railed against organized churches and insisted that reason tells us all we need to know of life, there were those who protested that true religion did exist. Marked, they said, by reliance on the heart over the head, feeling over thinking, and the belief that biblical revelation is meant to be taken literally.

  The Evangelical movement had been born, and its fervor swept it across the ocean. In 1730 the Scots-Irish Presbyterian minister William Tennent and his four clergyman sons began preaching in the colonies of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and established a seminary to train others who could bring sinners to Evangelical conversion. (Originally called Log College, that seminary is today Princeton University.) Before long the intensity of their conviction spread to the Congregationalists and Baptists of New England.

  The fire of Evangelicalism burned brightly in the New World; then politics and war—first with the French and their Indian allies, next with the British—stole the oxygen from struggles of the spirit. The movement remained quiescent until the flint of the ideas that had fueled an unprecedented break with a king—the notions of individual freedom and every man’s right to pursue happiness—met the spark of religion without hierarchical authority or complex theology and burst into new flames. What historians have since labeled the Second Great Awakening was nothing short of the rebirth of the Evangelical movement in the infant U.S.A.

  In the years immediately after Independence, itinerant Methodist and Baptist preachers roamed the hardscrabble, largely churchless frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee and sought out venues where they could address a crowd. Those gatherings became known as camp meetings. Dedicated to religious revival, frequently days long, they were occasions when prayer and witness were full of song and spirit and individual conversion in front of huge assemblies created a kind of public ecstasy. Adherents to this emotional and intensely personal form of religion shared an unshakable belief that they held the key to the perfection of society. Drink and crime, carnal excess, poverty and suffering, indeed all injustice and inequality could be eliminated by personal renunciation of sin, acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and strict adherence to biblical teaching.

  Such ardent American belief could not ignore the young nation’s Sodom and Gomorrah. In the 1820s and 1830s revival meetings came to Broadway.

  The response of entrenched mainstream Protestantism was to coopt the new beliefs, and some Evangelical ideas soon found their way into sermons preached from Establishment pulpits.

  At the same time New York’s Catholics, long marginalized in a city where they had been a tiny minority, were seeing their nascent institutions—a few churches largely serving foreign diplomats and one rather grand edifice, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on the c
orner of Prince and Mott streets—overwhelmed by thousands of nominally Catholic, mostly Irish immigrants. Dirt poor, usually illiterate, and frequently in thrall to the twin evils of alcohol and violence—perceived as the only relief from daily struggle—they were crammed into an already notorious district known as the Five Points and turned it into a hellhole of indescribable misery.

  The bishops summoned reinforcements. In the 1820s Catholic Sisters, religious women newly freed from the stricture of cloister, appeared for the first time on Manhattan streets. Black crows they were called. Jezebels. Satan’s whores. They did not preach or hand out bibles, they did not cry out for temperance and abolition and women’s rights and universal free education, the just causes espoused by the Evangelicals. They turned their back on a woman’s highest calling, wife and mother, and instead made vows of poverty and chastity, swearing as well obedience to a foreign ruler, a pope many thought to be the Antichrist. Direct action—feed the hungry, clothe the naked—confronted the notion that true charity is to preach morality and Gospel salvation and allow American free market opportunity to meet economic needs. Only when epidemics of cholera and yellow fever turned the city into a charnel house and the Sisters went on exactly as before, did their fearless heroism win them a certain grudging respect and allow a truce of sorts to be established. It did not, however, put an end to the ongoing demonizing of popery and all its works.

  As if this mix were not sufficiently combustible, another once minuscule group saw its numbers swelled by waves of immigrants come to satisfy the nation’s insatiable hunger for workers. During the years 1835 to 1855 approximately one hundred and fifty thousand European Jews made their way across the Atlantic. Many settled in Baltimore, Cincinnati, and even San Francisco, but the large majority stayed in New York. Since 1654 when New York was New Amsterdam there had been one Jewish synagogue on the island of Manhattan, Shearith Israel, first located on Mill Street (now Stone Street), and in the time period of this book moved to Crosby Street. Shearith Israel followed the liturgical practice of the Sephardim, Jews who had lived in Spain and its colonies for the more than fifteen hundred years since their exile from the Holy Land. The new American congregants, mostly German Jews known as Ashkenazim, wanted their prayer book and their liturgy to prevail. When Shearith Israel refused their demands, the Ashkenazim founded the new synagogue of B’nai Jeshurun, followed by Anshe Chesed, then dozens more. Meanwhile some among them were also hearing the siren song of change and renewal. The movement for Reform Judaism begun in Europe at the end of the 1700s came to New York in 1845 with the founding of Temple Emanu-El in the loft of a nondescript building on the corner of Grand and Clinton streets in what we now call the Lower East Side, soon followed by a move to a former Methodist church on Chrystie Street. (Thus began a progression up the island that culminated in 1927 with the building of Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue and Sixty-fifth Street, today the largest Jewish house of worship in the world.)

  On the island of Manhattan the bitter division that almost inevitably follows the inauguration of new ways was, like so much else, intensified by the city’s dynamism, her lust for life, and the proximity of extremes. Introduce family feuds, heroes and villains, love and hate, and the still unchecked malignancy of human slavery, and the scene is set for this tale of miracles of medicine—painless surgery and antisepsis—and others that science cannot explain, though they are written in real flesh and real blood. Here, then, is a story of the city and its people in the run-up to what will be a devastating civil war, during a time when they meet a demanding and a jealous God.

  City of God


  July 4, 1863,

  The Temporary Field Hospital at Cemetery Ridge,

  Gettysburg in Pennsylvania

  “So you’re here, Dr. Turner.”

  “I am here, Mr. Whitman. No, don’t touch that.”

  Walter Whitman withdrew his hand from a table that held an array of scalpels and needles threaded with catgut. “I apologize. It looked as if you were ready for the next ligature.”

  “You have a good eye for surgery. I am.” Turner leaned forward, procured the needle himself, and began carefully stitching the final flap of skin covering the soldier’s elbow. There was no longer a forearm. “But I doubt, Mr. Whitman, that you washed your hands before you came to find me.”

  “Ah, yes. Your little…What do you call them?”


  “Ah, yes. Germs.”

  The tent was pitched on a high ridge covered in silent dead, in one section of what had been the sprawling killing fields of a three-day battle engaging almost two hundred thousand fighting men. Inside the tent, among the living, it was hot and humid and stank of blood and feces and swiftly putrefying flesh. Bodies—most missing one or other appendage, all with some part of their person bandaged, some in blue uniforms, more in gray—were everywhere. A few lay on pallets; most lay on the ground. Two black-clad women moved among them.

  “It hardly seems I could add anything more distasteful to this atmosphere,” Whitman said.

  “Indeed, in a general way you could not. But germs are particular, not general. Those ligatures were dipped in a solution of carbolic acid, a disinfectant. Your hands were not.”

  “The surgeons in Washington don’t believe in your germs. They say you’re a darned fool.”

  “Just as well,” Turner said, “otherwise you’d probably be soliciting money on their behalf, not mine. Not so good for their patients, however. What have you brought me, Mr. Whitman?”

  Whitman held out the small leather satchel in his left hand. “Soap. More of your carbolic acid. More of your sulfuric ether as well. Though it looks as though you’ve enough of that.” He nodded towards the man on the table. No part of him twitched as Turner finished stitching his flesh.

  “Wrong for once, Mr. Whitman. I used the last of my ether for this one.”

  “The Washington surgeons say chloroform and sulfuric ether are immoral. They say it’s against the law of God to interfere with man’s ability to feel pain.”

  Turner stopped stitching and raised his head. “Do they, now? And what do you say to that, Mr. Whitman? All these preachers telling us what to think, are they always right?” Leaves of Grass his book was called. Poems about people, bodies, sex. Biblically inspired the poet claimed, but his critics, many of them clergy, loudly disagreed. Even banned his book sometimes.

  “Folks talk a lot about the law of God,” Whitman said. “Doesn’t mean they know much about it.”

  “Yes, that’s my opinion as well.” Turner again bent his head to his task. “As for the ether you brought me, I am enormously grateful. We’ve made an excellent job of killing vast numbers here in Pennsylvania these last few days, but I expect we are not done with maiming and murdering each other.”

  Back in Fredericksburg the year before, the first time Walt Whitman was ever in a field hospital, he watched men who called themselves doctors sawing screaming soldiers into pieces with nothing to deaden the pain at all—and no thought for Dr. Nicholas Turner’s germs. He couldn’t stand that there should be so much suffering and nothing he could do about it. It’s why he took a government job, so he could be in Washington, closer to the war, and start visiting as many of the wounded as he could manage. And raise money to buy supplies for the doctors working on the battlefields. Most of that went to Dr. Turner these days. Turner’s patients moaned as they came round, they didn’t scream. And he treated them all, Yankees and Southerners alike. In the huge and lumbering Confederate retreat of the previous day, Lee had taken as many of his wounded with him as he could manage to cart away, but it was inevitable with a battle so enormous and so devastating that many were left behind. Turner’s unconscious patient wore a gray uniform.

  “There are some as give,” Whitman said, “who wouldn’t be pleased to think their contributions used to ease the enemy’s pain.”

  “Then we will refrain from telling them.” The surgeon looked up again, meeting the other man’
s gaze full on. “That’s correct, isn’t it, Mr. Whitman?”

  “It’s entirely correct, Dr. Turner.”

  Whitman figured Nicholas Turner was some fifteen years older than himself. Call it late fifties. He looked older still. Exhaustion had hollowed his cheeks and made dark circles around his gray eyes. Even his considerable height seemed diminished by the necessity to stoop beneath the low-slung canvas ceiling. His red hair was plastered to his scalp with sweat.

  “Truth to tell, sir,” he said, “I don’t tell them exactly what the money’s for either. Not about the carbolic or the ether.” Help save the lives of our boys, Whitman told them, never said whose boys exactly. And as soon as he made his little speech about how their contributions would help the war, he switched to reading his poems. Even if they hated them, it was a distraction.

  One of the black-clad women slipped out of the tent. Another arrived to replace her and came at once to stand beside Turner’s operating table. “Are you finished, Doctor?”

  “Yes. You can take him away now and…” Turner looked up, paused. “Oh…you are indeed a surprise. I didn’t know…we should speak, my dear. I was—”

  “You are busy. There is no need.”

  She sounded calm, Whitman thought, cool even. Turner on the other hand seemed unnerved. The woman wore one of those black bonnets that mostly shaded her face and like those he’d seen on the battlefield, a black frock. Black crows roaming among the dead, following behind the soldiers on burial detail, pecking at the earth and occasionally pulling up a prize, a body with some life left in it.

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