Past Imperfect - Lost Historic Sites

The White House
Where Aaron Burr arranged his memoirs

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

It is but a short walk from Prospect Hall to the northwest corner of Sussex and Hudson Streets, where stood almost intact until a few years ago a three-story brick house partly surrounded by the ghostly remains of an old garden in the shape of three dead trees, which with the aid of a venerable high brick wall helped to shut the house away from the chance passer-by. It is not very likely that it ever attracted any one’s curiosity, although there was something of an air of quiet mystery about it, and few knew or cared that it was once the shelter of the famous Aaron Burr.

To Jersey City, in the summer of 1830, according to Burr’s biographers, who only mention the fact briefly, the tired practitioner, weary of the din and heat of New York and a multitude of troubles, came to enjoy the pleasures of a comparatively retired situation. This house was then locally called the “White House,” for its white color, which made it almost as much of a waterfront landmark as the Edge Windmill, loved by so many bygone generations of sailors entering the harbor. It must have afforded Burr a refuge very much to his taste, for he remained there for the best part of the following three years.

The White House was then owned by Colonel Varick, and rented by him to a Mrs. Hedden, who at his solicitation gave lodging to his old Revolutionary comrade. Mrs. Hedden was a gentlewoman in reduced circumstances, and it is a most curious coincidence that once before in her life she had been the housekeeper of another famous and much maligned man, Thomas Paine, then living in the little house on Columbia Street, where he died. (Columbia Street, New York City, is now named Grove Street).

The dwelling was very near the park of the Lyons Hotel, and had a fine situation. From its front windows a view of the panorama of passing merchantmen, frigates, and sailing craft was ever before the eye. On fair days the residents only needed to gaze from them to learn the hour from St. Paul’s church clock, that antique mediator of the affairs of men, which was consulted alike by the merchant prince and the poorest clerk in his counting-house, the gay Broadway gallant and the beautiful belle of “North River Society,“ in fact, all the world of old New York. Hudson Street was then a leafy thoroughfare like Grand Street, and there on sunny afternoons a stately figure in an old Continental blue coat could be seen walking to and fro, taking his constitutional, seemingly lost in thought. An interested audience of children, quaint little figures in nankeen suits and cotton print gowns, curiously watched the old gentleman, and always stopped their play when he came out of the Hedden garden by the front wicket gate.

In 1830 the city of Jersey, or Paulus Hook, as most of its residents still continued to call it, was experiencing its first real and long-expected boom, owing to the many improvements taking place under the plans of the “Jersey Associates.” Towards the close of that year the citizens were priding themselves on the establishment of a post-office, as all their letters had formerly been taken to New York or Newark, and also the opening of a shore route for stage-coaches to Paterson. It then received a great stimulus from an influx of good families, which before that time had held aloof from the place. Cadwallader D. Colden, a descendant of a famous Knickerbocker family, and, like Colonel Varick, a former mayor of New York City, left his Kinderbook summer villa for a house on Greene Street. He was interested in the construction of the Morris Canal, and that is the reason given for his having brought his family away from their long-established home.

Cadwallader D. Colden in early life formed an intimacy with Robert Fulton which grew into an affection almost fraternal. Before he came to reside in the city of Jersey he is said to have frequently crossed the river, neglecting his extensive law practice, to spend hours with him at the Fulton factory on Morgan Street, where the celebrated “Clermont” was built. Colden was related to a large number of the most prominent New York and New Jersey families, and many of them found their way to his Greene Street residence to visit him. He was very fond of society and the theatre, and his portrait was in the painting of the interior of the Park Theatre done by John Searle for William Bayard, Esq. in 1822

The Seeman brothers, sons of another well-known New York family, also arrived about this time. The wedding of one of these brothers to a young lady of Morris Street is still remembered. Barrels of wood sprinkled with oil burned on top of all the high sand-hills along the present Montgomery Street in honor of the celebration, and so much merriment did the wedding occasion that those who did not succeed in obtaining entrance to the rather small house danced in the street rather than give up their share of the fun. Liberal refreshments were passed to them through the windows. Then there were the newly arrived Schuyler family from Belleville, the Kissams and Townsends from New York, as well as the Deys, Wards, Dodds, and a few others of note.

Very little is known of Aaron Burr’s life in the primitive city. A few old residents who gazed upon him in their childhood remember little details about him. One tells of a black body-servant called “Kester” who waited on him, and another states that he arranged his memoirs in the White House. This seems to be corroborated by the fact that Mrs. Hedden used to drive away those same little children who watched Burr on his promenades when they raised their shrill childish voices to too high a pitch by her garden wall. While there, Burr mingled freely with the best people, although he was generally ostracised in New York. As his character has been much maligned, it is only fair to him to state that he won the respect and undying regard of his landlady, who vigorously defended him to any of the neighborhood who dared asperse his name in her presence. During the last year of his stay he began his courtship of Madame Jumel, who had previously played such an important part in his life and that of his rival in her affections, Alexander Hamilton. Burr has been much defamed for his treatment of the noted old French beauty. Although his sins were many, something of the best side of his nature, which acrimony and an almost world-wide unpopularity have so deadened, is shown in the fact that she always spoke well of him in her last years. Although it is not generally known, shortly before her death she offered her magnificent home, still standing at Washington Heights, New York, to a son of Alexander Hamilton’s, to make some amends for her husband’s unfortunate injury to that family.

In the several biographies of Aaron Burr there is but one mention of his life in Jersey City, and that is in the following interesting anecdote given in the memoirs which were partly arranged by himself and finished by J. Parton. It reads:

A little adventure which he had in one of these last years will serve to show how completely he retained the youthful spring of his spirits and muscles when old men generally are willing prisoners of the arm-chair and chimney-corner. He was still living at Jersey City when Fanny Kemble and her father played their first engagement in New York. vThey created, as many will remember, a ‘sensation,’ and the newspapers teemed with articles laudatory to their acting. Burr, who took a lively interest in all that was passing, went to see them perform in the play of the Hunchback, accompanied by a young gentleman, a student at law, to whom I am indebted for the story. At that period the ferryboats stopped running soon after dark, and Burr engaged some boatmen to be in waiting at the dock to row them back to Jersey after the play was over. (Author's note: the Jersey City ferry-boats did not run after dark until 1834.)

The theatre (the Park Theatre) was densely crowded. It was whispered about that Aaron Burr was present, and he was the target of a thousand eagerly curious eyes. . . Meanwhile the weather had changed, and by the time they reached their boat an exceedingly violent storm of wind and rain was raging, and it was very dark. The waves dashed against the wharf in a manner that was not at all inviting to the younger of the two adventurers, who advised Burr not to cross.

"Why!" exclaimed the old gentleman, as he sprang lightly into the boat, "you are not afraid of a little salt water, are you? This is the fun of the thing. The adventure is the best of all."

His companion embarked, and they pushed off. The waves broke over the boat and drenched them both to the skin in the first five minutes. On they went, against wind, waves, and tide, and after an hour’s hard rowing, Burr all the while, in hilarious spirits, they reached the shore. Such a tough, merry, indomitable old man was Aaron Burr on the verge of fourscore !

A few years after this adventure, and some time after Burr had closed his eyes on the world in the old Richmond House at Mersereau’s Ferry, now Port Richmond, Mrs. Hedden gave up her home in Jersey City, and it passed into the hands of Charles Durrant, who, tradition says, was the first man to ascend in a balloon in New Jersey. (The Richmond House was the homestead of Judge David Mersereau until 1820 It was erected shortly after the Revolution, on the site of a British fort, and is still standing in Port Richmond to-day. The old knocker that Aaron Burr used embellishes the great hall door, and the chamber where he died has been little changed.)

The White House was destroyed a few years ago by a drug manufacturer, and a frame structure now stands on the site of the old garden. Along the Sussex Street side a portion of the high wall still remains. No longer giant trees guard it from the garish sunlight, and its time-stained bricks gaze almost reproachfully at the passer-by. Perhaps it knows that behind it once stood a shelter of Aaron Burr that history has been content to let pass away unnoticed and forgotten.