Lost Newburgh Composer Willie Fullerton


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Fullerton MansionJudge Fullerton’s brick, Italianate home has quietly presided over the northern end of Grand Street in Newburgh, New York, since 1868, but the once-famous trial lawyer has long since been forgotten. Visitors sometimes inquire about ghosts or secret passageways or buried caches of coins. I tell them all the same thing: the real treasure is in the history. In this respect, I have been richly rewarded.

Hidden away beneath the visible architecture was a cornucopia of stories. Some took place on the historical stage; others on theatrical stages; some were once known to the world at large, at a time when telegraph wires strung along railroad lines turned locally-printed newspapers into “mass media”; others are deeply personal, private stories of success, failure and loss.

But above all, I found Willie.

Folklore and Fact.

Unearthing accurate historical truth about forgotten figures entails some difficulty. Local histories (easily found at public libraries or through historical societies) often provide a useful starting point, but the facts may be exaggerated or simply wrong.

An example that popped up early in the research: ex-Congressman Samuel Eager’s 1846-7 History of Orange County describes a dramatic encounter, in 1778, between 12-year old Mary (“Polly”) Whitaker (future grandmother of Judge Fullerton) and the great Mohawk war-chief Joseph Brant, at the so-called Wyoming Massacre:

Brant took her by the hair of the head and held her up by one hand and painted her face with red paint with the other, and then let her go telling her “that was the mark of safety.”

This fascinating story was repeated in a Middletown, New York newspaper as recently as 1976; unfortunately, it’s not true. For one thing, modern historians are in agreement that Joseph Brant was nowhere near the battle that took place in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley during the American Revolution. Lurking beneath this bit of apocrypha, however, is a genuine saga of hardship and survival on the borderland fringes of the nation’s formative war.

The harrowing image of rough pioneer roots provides a dramatic counterpoint to the life of Polly’s grandson, William Fullerton, who rose to the prominence in the elite world of New York City trial lawyers. The contrast is even starker in the case of Judge Fullerton’s only son – William Fullerton, Jr. (“Willie”) — a gentle, romantic, expatriate composer who briefly occupied a prominent place in London’s bohemian circles, prior to an early death.

Another bit of 19th Century Orange County folklore: the charming tale of how William Fullerton, Sr. became “Judge Fullerton.” An 1895 version went like this:

In 1867, while in Canada on his annual salmon-fishing trip with Chester Alan Arthur and other friends, he was appointed Justice of the Supreme Court to fill a vacancy in his district, this being without his knowledge. The appointment thus made him ex-officio a member of the Court of Appeals….”

The reality is far more complicated. There was a well-documented salmon-fishing trip with future-President Chet Arthur, but it happened in 1875, and requires a little explaining.

Judge Fullerton

Illustration of Judge Fullerton from Daily Graphic courtesy Michael Green’s personal collection

From January to July, 1875, the country was riveted by a Brooklyn courtroom spectacle – the adultery trial of the great orator and religious modernizer, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. The rehashing of the case and the many issues that were at stake (in what was otherwise a garden-variety love triangle) is beyond our present scope, but Beecher and the “trial of the century” have been the subject of many books and articles over the ensuing 140-plus years.

In the end, a majority of the jury sided with Beecher, but his reputation was left in tatters, in large part due to a withering four-day cross-examination by ex-Judge William Fullerton. The trial lawyer was catapulted into celebrity status. Judge Fullerton memorabilia such as CDVs (“cartes de visite”) and cabinet cards can still be found.

After the trial, Fullerton was invited by Chester A. Arthur on a month-long trip to a remote Canadian fishing camp. There was a “vacancy” caused by a death – a politically-connected fishing foursome had lost one of its members, and the newly-famous Fullerton was recruited to fill the opening.

At that time, Arthur was a top lieutenant to Republican Party boss Roscoe Conkling, and served as Collector of The New York Customs House, which was the largest single source of patronage jobs in the U.S.

Chet Arthur, Senator Conkling and other “Stalwarts” had been thriving under the “spoils” system of doling out jobs to political supporters, but the Stalwarts were under attack from an alliance of reformers, whom they labeled Mugwumps. Beecher was a major voice for reform; while Arthur’s dominion over the Customs House was a flash point for criticism of the entire corrupt system. The suspicion is unavoidable that the fishing invitation was, at least in part, a reward for Fullerton’s role in destroying an enemy of the Stalwarts.

Posterity has many delightful details of this trip. The senior figure among the foursome was George Dawson, an influential Albany newspaper editor, and close associate of another New York Republican party boss, Thurlow Weed. Dawson’s weekly vacation column treated readers to enchanting anecdotes – including Fullerton’s somewhat bewildered efforts to catch his first salmon.

Somehow, Fullerton’s temporary appointment in 1867, by Governor Fenton, to the New York State Supreme Court and the prestigious Court of Appeals became conflated with Dawson’s 1875 tales of manly camaraderie in a Canadian fishing camp with native guides and costly gear.

Back in 1867, however, New York’s courts were clogged with litigation, with serious money at stake; America’s first great takeover battle – the struggle between Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould for control of the Erie Railway– was just getting underway. Orange County, New York, with several critical transportation junctions, was no sleepy backwater; there was likely a back-story to Fullerton’s appointment to such a strategic judicial post.

Willie and Percy.

The breath-through took the form of an old letter.

I had spent several years disentangling some of the threads of William Fullerton’s half-century courtroom career when I located some of his descendants. They were thrilled to learn about the restoration of the ancestral house, plus the information and artifacts I had been accumulating.

Local histories and biographical sketches of Judge Fullerton stated, accurately enough, that his only son had been a noted composer who died at age 34 in London. But the family had some bits of correspondence that had been passed down for generations, including a mournful letter dated August 26, 1888, from Percy Anderson to Judge Fullerton. This tiny fragment of history described Willie’s final illness (diagnosed as consumption) and death in an English country manor near Odiham in Hampshire County. Writing to the bereaved father – Percy’s words laid bare a committed, but forbidden, relationship:

I loved him too dearly, but not more, I think than he loved me….He would have helped me through life, as I would have helped him.

Through the miracle of the internet, identifying the writer was easy enough – but I had plunged through the looking glass into unfamiliar territory: the bohemian, artistic circles of Victorian (and Edwardian) London. In the years following Willie’s death, Percy Anderson had become a much-admired and even transformational figure in the world of theatrical costume design. And it all began with Willie.

The great comedic baritone C. Hayden Coffin provided a nostalgic look-back at Percy/Willie, in a memoir published in 1932:

White Lilies Waltz

“White Lilies” sheet music cover courtesy Michael Green’s personal collection

The two were living together in Anderson’s suite of beautiful rooms, artistically furnished….where the musical and dramatic worlds used to gather….The two often gave delightful musical evenings. Anderson was an aspiring painter, with aristocratic connections. Coffin’s American-born parents were successful dentists in England, and he was expected to go into their practice. Will Fullerton had been publishing popular songs; the dedications in the surviving sheet music show a connection with the highest levels of British society, and probably hint at discreet gay and lesbian circles. A pristine example, which I found (online) for sale by a London dealer: “White Lilies Waltz”, dedicated to the Duke of Albany, i. e., Prince Leopold, fourth son of Queen Victoria.

When Willie decided to compose a light opera, he persuaded his friends to work with him. Coffin’s memoir provides a grateful glimpse at the beginnings of his and Anderson’s long, illustrious careers: “[w]e were all novices….it was a great venture.”

Possibly due to Willie’s extravagance and manic energy, the new operetta was plagued with cost overruns and delays. But The Lady of the Locket finally opened in London’s Empire Theatre in March 1885. Although reviews were mixed, the public flocked to see the lavish production. The composer’s success did not go unnoticed back home. A reviewer in Chicago praised and chafed at the same time:

The composer of “The Lady of the Locket”, which has secured a decided success in London, is William Fullerton, Jr., an American gentleman. It is to be regretted that he did not deem it advisable to produce it for the first time in his own country. Better conditions should prevail.

Locket Hearts

“Lady of the Locket” sheet music cover courtesy Michael Green’s personal collection

Perhaps the writer was only lamenting America’s limited theatrical offerings and venues. But it was well-known that the gentleman-composer was the son of a famously-aggressive trial lawyer, and was living abroad with another man.

Willie had come of age in the 1870’s, when conditions for gay men in New York were less than propitious. In addition to occasionally-enforced criminal laws, the nascent psychiatric profession was treating homosexuality as a mental illness, so there was a genuine risk of being institutionalized. Modern scholars have even made a connection between the agony of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and the status of gays. The liberal attitudes prevailing at Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn made it something of a safe haven, where “bachelor couples” could participate and worship without fear of public rebuke.

In 1875, when his father became a celebrity by publically demolishing Beecher’s moral stature, Willie was 21 and enrolled at Columbia University’s School of Mines (precursor to The Columbia School of Engineering). For whatever reasons, the following year, Willie obtained a passport and soon left for studies in Germany. Subsequent visits to New York were rare.

The 1885 production of Lady of the Locket turned out to be Willie’s high-water mark. He set to work on another light opera, called Waldemar – The Robber of the Rhine. Anderson and Coffin were again collaborating with him. There were grand hopes for an opening at the new Prince of Wales Theatre and plans to bring the production to New York as well. Maurice Barrymore – a hard-living and popular actor (best-known as ancestor of the still-famous acting clan) – wrote the libretto and worked closely with Willie, who struggled to finish as illness overtook him.

Barrymore’s Waldemar came to New York in 1893, with Coffin in the lead role and Anderson’s costumes, but another composer’s music. It failed quickly.

Percy’s 1888 letter to Judge Fullerton describes burying his beloved friend in a Norman-era churchyard in tiny Crondall in Hampshire County. Coffin’s book, however, provides one more detail — forty years later, in 1928, Percy Anderson was buried, at his own request, in the same cemetery. Thanks to special efforts on the part of Mary Harris, Clerk to Crondall’s Parish Council, both graves have now been identified.

Hidden Butterflies

Butterfly 1It might be said that the butterflies found me, rather than the other way around.

Judge Fullerton seems to have made no effort to rekindle interest in his son’s work and Willie was forgotten soon after his death. Only one piece published after Willie’s demise has been found. A diligent archivist at the U.S. Library of Congress helped uncover a song called “Spanish Serenade”, which had been included an 1890 compilation, published in Chicago under the title “Choice English Songs.” The piece (without the lyrics) has now been recorded by my long-distance collaborator, Albert Garzon, and can be found on a YouTube video under the title “Seville Love Song”.

A biography of Maurice Barrymore describes Willie’s features as delicate and aristocratic, but strangely, no photograph or other visual likeness has surfaced.

Still, Percy left behind thousands of drawings; every costume for every production had its own precise, water-color illustration. Many of these lovely pieces are in collections worldwide. So a search for clues in the drawings can hopefully be excused; along with an ongoing search for lost music, especially (against all hope) any Waldemar fragments.

The Waldemar/Percy connection led to an inquiry from a family in Australia, who happened to have a group of Percy Anderson drawings on their wall, including some Waldemar costumes. The drawings had belonged to their deceased father; they knew only that he had obtained them in London long ago.

Butterfly 2Naturally, I prodded my correspondents (via email) to look for any other papers. And so, the butterflies emerged. Tucked away in a closet, among the deceased mother’s papers, was a large envelope with more Anderson drawings. The drawings had been given by the artist to the father, who had once been an aspiring artist in London in the 1920’s. Buried within this long-concealed cache were three drawings with no references to acts or scenes or characters. Each portrays the same young man — painfully thin, with delicate features – inside a butterfly, in the process of ascent.

I try to be thorough and meticulous and to refrain from unfounded speculation. But in these drawings, I see a butterfly- angel ascending to heaven. I see Percy’s lost Willie.

Try this at Home.

Anyone who has struggled with the challenges of an old house has at least a vague inkling of curiosity about prior occupants, and has possibly done a little research. My advice is — get to work right away, now. Sources vanish, opportunities evaporate.

There will be dead-ends and obstacles and disappointments. Your family will grow tired of hearing about your latest discovery, and you may have trouble following people’s conversations about sports or the latest show on Netflix, because you are obsessing about persons long since gone and places changed beyond recognition.

But you may find new friends and allies in the most unlikely places, and – just maybe — you will find your own Willie.

Copyright 2017: Rights Reserved.

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Michael Green

About Michael Green

Michael Aaron Green is the founder of the Fullerton Cultural Center in Newburgh, New York. Since 2009, he has been restoring the 1868 Fullerton Mansion, as well as researching and writing about the 19th century occupants of the home. His articles have appeared in New York Archive Magazine and the Orange County Historical Society Journal. (Author photo by Ruedi Hofmann of Newburgh).

4 thoughts on “Lost Newburgh Composer Willie Fullerton

  1. Raya Lee

    Oh my … what a sad and moving story … beautifully told …. wonderfully researched! Thank you for sharing

    Reply
  2. Eugene Kaplan, PhD

    Well written; makes this wonderful tidbit of history come alive. This is literally a post-Victorian/Edwardian gossip column, with all the fun of modern columns. Green should be appreciated as historian, not of major events, but of people’s lives in that lost era.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Newburgh: The Lazell-Cathcart Moment | The New York History Blog

  4. Julie Kilburn

    How lovely to read this account! I, too, have been researching but from the other end of the thread. My grandmother was an Anderson and a cousin(?) of Percy’s. We all have at least one charcoal portrait in our homes drawn by him and for years I’ve been searching for information about Thomas Percival Anderson- his real name. My search has led me from York Minster Choir School to a rather dull career as a portraitist of society ladies and powerful gentlemen. It was exciting to find he later became Percy Anderson, stage costume designer and centre of a bohemian group of young men in London. I am visiting Crondall church this summer to find the graves of Percy and William and will lay some flowers in remembrance. Meanwhile my search for further chapters in Percy’s story continues…

    Reply

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