Erastus Wiman

This article was written by Bill Lamb

Once famous but now long-forgotten, Canadian-born capitalist Erastus Wiman was deeply involved in the post-Civil War commercial affairs of greater New York, focusing much of his attention on transforming his adopted home of Staten Island into a regional center of trade and transportation. A self-made millionaire, Wiman also expended time and treasure on attracting tourists/potential new residents to the under-populated area by means of Wild West shows, theatrical extravaganzas, cricket matches, and other entertainments hosted by the Wiman-owned Staten Island Amusement Company. In December 1885, Wiman added a major league baseball club to his stable of local attractions, purchasing the New York Metropolitans of the American Association and relocating the Manhattan franchise to playing grounds on Staten Island.

The Wiman foray into the baseball business was not a success. Lackluster performance by the Mets on the field and disappointing attendance at newly constructed St. George Grounds prompted the new magnate to cut his losses and sell the ballclub after only two seasons. The failure of his Mets investment roughly coincided with the onset of other reversals in Wiman's fortunes, the most costly of which was the collapse of a scheme to convert sleepy Staten Island into the New York-area terminus of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. By 1893, Wiman was seriously in debt, besieged by creditors, and forced to place his assets with a receiver. His fall from grace accelerated the following year when Wiman was convicted of criminal forgery and briefly imprisoned. The conviction was reversed on appeal, but Wiman's reputation was beyond salvage. He died physically debilitated and near-destitute in early 1904.

The ill-starred Erastus Wiman was born on April 21, 1834, in Churchville, Ontario, a village about 30 miles west of Toronto.1 His parents were Erastus Wiman, Sr. (1798-1834), a New York-born veteran of the War of 1812 and Churchville general store proprietor, and his Canadian wife, the former Therese Amelia Mathews (1809-1874). The elder Erastus died while his son was still an infant, but his mother would outlive two more husbands, her unions with John Dyson (1809-1843) and Henry Weir (d. 1848) providing Erastus with two younger half-sisters.2

Wiman received the local elementary school education standard for the times, and entered the workforce at age 13. He began as a newsboy in Toronto. At 16, he was hired as a printer's devil (apprentice) by his cousin William McDougall, managing editor of the Toronto North American,3 and was said to faithfully surrender his meager $1.25 salary to his mother at the end of each week.4 Bright, energetic, and ambitious, young Erastus quickly climbed the ranks in the newspaper business. While still in his early 20s, he became a financial reporter for the Toronto Globe.5 Within several years, Wiman was the paper's financial editor, where he quickly garnered acclaim for the accuracy of his market reports. In one notable instance, the prescience of his estimate of the wheat crop earned Wiman a gold watch from the Toronto Board of Trade.6 The rise in professional renown was soon accompanied by a change in Wiman's marital status. In 1860, he married Toronto native Eleanor Anne Galbraith who, in time, would provide him with six children.7

Word of Wiman's financial acumen did not escape the notice of Robert Graham Dun, the head of a newly formed mercantile agency. In 1861, Wiman joined R.G. Dun & Company as head of its Canadian operations. Five years later, he transferred to New York City to become managing director of the company's main office. The relocation required Wiman to remove his young and growing family to a new home, and soon the Wimans took up residence in nearby Staten Island. Wiman quickly developed attachment to his new surroundings, a development that would have fateful consequences for both him and the isolated New York City suburb.

Nestled close to Elizabeth, New Jersey, but governmentally a part of the State of New York, post-Civil War Staten Island consisted of politically independent small towns and villages, and was surrounded by water. The nearest New York landfall was located more than a mile east across the Verrazano Narrows in Brooklyn. Lower Manhattan lay considerably farther to the northeast across New York Bay.8 Commercial access to Staten Island from either place was confined to ferryboat traffic. As his annual salary at R.G. Dun grew from $5,000 to $50,000 to a staggering $90,000,9 so did Wiman's prominence in his new home base. Eventually, the family settled in the St. George community on the island's northeast shore where their stately mansion and surrounding 400-acre estate was dubbed Erastina.

While he retained control of operations at R.G. Dun, Wiman branched out, taking on ventures of his own. Retaining his ties to Canada, he became president of the Great Northwestern Telegraph Company in 1881, and was thereafter a vocal advocate for commercial (if not political) union between Canada and the United States.10 Closer to home, Wiman wrested control of Staten Island ferry service from the Vanderbilts, and subsequently erected a new terminal in St. George. But his most ambitious venture began in 1884 when, as president of the Staten Island Railway Company,11 Wiman shepherded the legislation through Congress needed to authorize construction of a railroad bridge across the Arthur Kill waterway that separated Staten Island from New Jersey. The bridge's completion afforded freight haulers the prospect of direct access to New York harbor on the Staten Island side. In partnership with Robert Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, then nation's largest hauler, Wiman planned to extend long-distance rail traffic onto the island, with an eye toward developing Staten Island into a regional trade and railroad hub. If that could be accomplished, Wiman stood to vastly expand his private fortune, given that he had quietly scooped up title to large tracts of the northeast shore property where the B & O terminus was likely to be sited. Although he remained a Canadian citizen, by now Wiman was popularly known as "the King (or Duke) of Staten Island," with estimated personal wealth in the $2-to-$3 million range.12

While reputed to be a sportsman fond of fast horses and racing, there is no evidence that Erastus Wiman played baseball in his youth, or that he had any particular interest in the game as an adult. Rather, his entry into major league ballclub ownership was primarily another business venture, a logical addition to the attractions offered by his Staten Island Amusement Company. Having a local baseball team, moreover, would likely increase patronage of the Wiman-owned Staten Island rail and ferry lines. And whether by coincidence or design, just such a ballclub was up for sale: the New York Metropolitans, a north Manhattan-based nine that had only recently been the champions of the major league American Association.

The Mets were the longer-established but the less-favored of the two major league teams operated by the Metropolitan Exhibition Company, the closely held corporation formed and dominated by clubs' founder John B. Day, a prosperous cigar manufacturer originally from Connecticut.13 When it came to distribution of playing talent, game dates at the mutually shared Polo Grounds, and club expenditures, preference was accorded the National League New York Gothams, the MEC nine led by Day himself.14 Despite that favoritism, the Mets outperformed the Gothams, winning the American Association pennant in 1884 while the Day club struggled mid-pack in NL standings. To rectify the situation, Day transferred astute Mets field leader Jim Mutrie to his club during the off-season, and thereafter, via some rule-bending chicanery, signed Mets stars Tim Keefe and Dude Esterbrook to Gothams contracts. Whether fairly accomplished or not, the desired outcome was obtained. The Day nine, soon called the Giants, began the ascent in National League standings that would see the club crowned World Champions in a few seasons. The denuded Mets, meanwhile, promptly sank to seventh place in AA standings.

At the close of the 1885 season (during which the Giants had drawn almost three times as many fans to the Polo Grounds as had the Mets),15 Day decided to sell the now-unprofitable Mets.16 Enter Erastus Wiman, looking for another attraction to place upon the St. George amusement grounds. In early December, Day and Wiman closed the deal for a reported $25,000.17 The sale and removal of the Mets to Staten Island, however, precipitated immediate resistance in the American Association, with club owners voting to expel the New York franchise from the circuit and substitute one from Washington, DC in its place. Injunctive relief promptly obtained by Wiman attorneys temporarily blocked the moves,18 while the fledgling club owner blasted the now-stayed expulsion edict. "In all my experience, I never heard of proceedings so unjustifiable," the indignant Wiman proclaimed. "Staten Island shall have a baseball club and already I have had offers to form a new and stronger association than the one just now guilty of the sharp game reflecting very little credit on baseball ethics."19 The vow to fight promised by Wiman was reiterated by newly appointed club secretary George F. Williams who directly blamed the AA action on Brooklyn Grays club boss Charles Byrne, fearful of competition based in nearby Staten Island and covetous of slugging Mets first baseman Dave Orr and outfielder Chief Roseman.20

Other American Association magnates had little appetite for battle with the far-wealthier Wiman, and the league soon capitulated. On December 28, 1885, the Wiman-owned New York Mets were admitted to full AA membership.21 Soon thereafter, Byrne was compelled to relinquish any claim upon the services of Mets players Orr and Roseman.22 Wiman then set about getting the St. George Grounds ready for baseball. Although a handsome edifice with a two-tier grandstand capable of seating about 4,100, the grounds layout was more suitable for the Wild West shows, theatrical productions, and cricket matches previously played there than it was for a baseball game. As aligned for baseball, the entire grandstand sat behind home plate perpendicular to the pitcher's box, with no seating along the baselines or outfield. Nor did the new ballpark have any baselines or outfield fencing.23 But as an incentive to entice distant customers to the grounds, admission to Mets games included round-trip ferryboat fare to and from Battery Park in lower Manhattan or Jewell's Wharf in Brooklyn.24

Given that Staten Island was outside the borders of New York City and Brooklyn, the Mets were largely ignored by metropolitan dailies, prompting one out-of-town journal to observe: "Erastus Wiman ought to start a paper in his Staten Island resort, so that his club would receive occasional mention when they are home. The New York papers are inclined to neglect the Mets."25 It is unclear, however, how actively club president Wiman participated in the day-to-day operation of the ball club. Administration of routine club affairs was likely the duty of managing club director Walter Watrous and/or club secretary Williams. Wiman was busy on other fronts. In addition to his myriad business responsibilities, he was then deeply engaged in efforts to repeal the New York statutes that sanctioned the civil imprisonment of debtors.26 But foremost in Wiman's mind was success of the railroad-dependent venture to transform Staten Island into a trade and transportation mecca. Nevertheless, making the grand gesture that he was fond of, Wiman donated an expensive, glass-encased solid silver trophy, cast in the form of a 26-inch-high figure of a batter at the plate, to be awarded the American Association champion at season's end.27

On April 22, 1886, the New York Mets inaugurated play in their Staten Island ballpark by dropping a 7-6 decision to the Philadelphia Athletics. "Fully five thousand were in attendance," noted the New York Herald, but added that "judging from the inconvenience that they were put to, it is not likely that the crowd will be so large every day."28 The Herald proved prophetic. Only 1,500 showed up at St. George Grounds the following day to see the A's drub the Mets, 14-6. By late-May, Wiman had seen enough of his club's poor play. He discharged holdover manager Jim Gifford for being "too easy on the boys," replacing him with crusty veteran Bob Ferguson.29 The managerial change made little difference. The Mets' 1886 seventh-place finish in league standings duplicated the previous season's result, while attendance at St. George Grounds was about the same (67,000) as the year before at the Polo Grounds, but spread over 11 more home playing dates.30 On the bright side for the club owner, many of those spectators had reached the ballpark via the Wiman-controlled ferry or railway and, having now found the way to Staten Island, might well return to patronize other Wiman entertainments. Meanwhile, Erastus Wiman had become a popular figure among his AA peers.

Shortly after the season, mercurial Chris Von der Ahe, owner of the AA champion St. Louis Browns and now proud holder of the Wiman Trophy, proposed the Staten Islander for American Association president, confident that a Wiman candidacy would be supported "by a large majority" of AA club owners.31 Wiman, however, was far too busy with more substantial business endeavors to consider accepting the post. He would limit his involvement with baseball to being owner of the New York Mets.

The Mets began the 1887 campaign by losing their first ten games, and by late May were solidly ensconced in the AA cellar. Then without warning, real calamity struck the club owner. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad president Robert Garrett, Wiman's partner in the scheme to convert Staten Island into a transportation hub, suffered a nervous breakdown from which he would never recover. Soon, the B & O was controlled by directors hostile to the Garrett-Wiman Staten Island venture. Thereafter, the project was delayed, then largely abandoned, placing Wiman's investment at perilous risk.

As alarming events unfolded in the railroad boardroom, the Mets did little to divert their worried owner. By mid-June, it was publicly reported that Wiman had lost enthusiasm for baseball club ownership.32 A month later, Wiman confirmed that "I may give up baseball at Staten Island. The 'Mets' are certainly not a success."33 Shortly after the Mets concluded the 1887 season with their third-straight seventh-place finish, Wiman sold the ball club for the same $25,000 that he had paid for it two years earlier.34 His dalliance with baseball reportedly lost him some $30,000.35 The new Mets owners, perhaps surprisingly, were Charles Byrne and the other magnates who controlled the rival AA Brooklyn club. Byrne promptly transferred desirable Mets players Dave Orr, Paul Radford, Darby O'Brien, and Al Mays to the Brooklyn roster, released the rest, and then relinquished the player-less franchise to the American Association.36 The franchise hulk was subsequently transferred to Kansas City, thereby bringing to a close Staten Island's run as a major league baseball venue.37

Although it would not become public knowledge for another five years, the collapse of the B & O/Staten Island Railway joint venture began the unraveling of Wiman's finances. The failure of the railroad scheme adversely affected his other Staten Island businesses and depressed the value of the heavily mortgaged northeast shore real estate that Wiman had purchased. To keep his business endeavors afloat, Wiman began borrowing money. In time, his indebtedness ran into six figures.

In February 1893, the 25-year engagement of NYC operations director Wiman by R.G. Dun & Company was severed by mutual consent.38 Left unannounced by the parties was the fact that a $300,000+ loan made by the company to Wiman had not been repaid. Or that auditors had discovered that Wiman had embezzled more than $40,000 from the firm.39 With his total indebtedness to creditors approaching $1 million, Wiman was obliged to accept the appointment of a receiver in anticipation of a bankruptcy filing.40 Among the assets subsequently assumed by the receiver was the Staten Island shoreline property purchased as part of the unrealized venture with B & O president Garrett. The Wimans were also compelled to surrender the Erastina mansion and the estate surrounding their home.41

The following year brought even darker times for Erastus Wiman. Whether because of friendship or to avoid public embarrassment of the firm, R.G. Dun declined to refer the Wiman embezzlement to the Manhattan District Attorney. But Wiman's forging of a client's signature on a $5,000 check was breach of a fiduciary duty that could not be ignored by Dun. The matter was referred to authorities for criminal prosecution. Wiman was arrested, tried on a felony forgery charge, and convicted following a jury trial.42 He was thereafter sentenced to a five-and-one-half-year prison term, and remanded to the dreaded New York City House of Detention (aka “the Tombs”) to await transportation to Sing Sing Prison. After a two-week stay in the Tombs, Wiman's attorneys secured his release on bond pending appeal. He was subsequently the beneficiary of a hyper-technical reading of the trial court's instructions to the jury in a 2-to-1 decision by the New York State Supreme Court. The Wiman conviction was vacated and a new trial ordered.43 The majority ruling was thereafter affirmed by the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest tribunal.44 Savaged during defense cross-examination during the first trial, R.G. Dun declined to assist the prosecution a second time. The forgery charge against Wiman was therefore dismissed.45

Having obtained his freedom, and with the long-cherished hope for knighthood by Queen Victoria now dashed, Wiman finally applied for and was granted United States citizenship.46 But his business reputation was shattered beyond repair, and attempts to revive his fortunes were fruitless. Meanwhile, unsatisfied creditors remained at the Wiman door. In 1899, settlement of indebtedness that was fixed at $913,000 was reached, with creditors getting about 50 cents on the dollar owed.47 Two years later, Wiman suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. From then on, he remained confined to his home, a small cottage not far from his one-time Erastina mansion. In early February 1904, the sale of furniture at public auction netted the family about $2,000.48 Days later, Erastus Wiman was dead, taken by the last of a series of strokes. He was 69. Following funeral services at Episcopal Christ Church, the deceased was laid to rest at Silver Mount Cemetery in Sunnyside, Staten Island. Survivors included wife Eleanor, half-sister Sarah Dyson Fish, five adult Wiman children, and a host of grandchildren.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Joel Barnhart, and fact-checked by Alan Cohen.

 

Sources

Sources for the biographical detail provided herein include Robert Craig Brown, "Erastus Wiman" in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. XIII (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994); David Nemec and David Ball, "Erastus Wiman" in Major League Player Profiles: 1871-1900, Vol. 2, Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011); Robert H. Schaefer, "The Wiman Trophy, and the Man for Whom It Was Named," Base Ball, A Journal of the Early Game, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 2007; Wiman family posts accessed via Ancestry.com, and various of the newspaper articles cited below, particularly the Wiman obituary published in the New York Times, February 10, 1904. General baseball information has been confirmed through consultation of Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet, while ballpark attendance figures have been taken from Chapter Seven, Major League Attendance, Robert L. Tiemann, Total Baseball, John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Michael Gershman, eds. (Kingston, New York: Total Sports Publishing, 7th ed., 2001).

 

Notes

1 Erastus was the only surviving child of his parents' union. An elder brother named James (born 1832) did not survive infancy.

2 The half-sisters were Sarah Amelia Dyson (1841-1914) and Mary Frances Weir (1846-1892).

3 Wiman's cousin Sir William McDougall (1822-1905) later became a prominent Canadian political leader and is widely viewed as the father of the Canadian federation.

4 According to Oscar Willoughby Riggs, " A Notable Man: From Printer's Boy to Financier and Railroad Magnate," Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 18, 1886: 9.

5 The North American, Wiman's previous employer, was absorbed by the Globe in 1855.

6 As noted in one of his obituaries. See "Death of Erastus Wiman," New York Times, February 10, 1904: 7.

7 The Wiman children were William (born 1861), Mary (Minnie, 1863), Martha (1865), Henry (1867), Frank (1870), and Louis (1877).

8 At the time, New York City consisted entirely of Manhattan and portions of the west Bronx. The City of Brooklyn as well as the towns and villages of Queens, Staten Island, and the remainder of the Bronx were not incorporated into New York City until January 1, 1898.

9 "Death of Erastus Wiman," New York Times, February 10, 1904: 7. See also, "The Death of a Well-Known Financier," San Jose Evening News, February 10, 1904: 8.

10 See e.g., "Commercial Union: Erastus Wiman and Congressman Butterworth for It," New York Times, November 19, 1887: 2: "Erastus Wiman Talks on Question of Commercial Union with Canada," Washington Post, February 4, 1889: 1.

11 Wiman owned 11,000 of the 14,000 shares issued by the Staten Island Railway Company. See "Notes of Various Interest," New York Times, April 3, 1889: 5.

12 See Robert Craig Brown, "Erastus Wiman," in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume XIII (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994).

13 For more on Day and the early history of the New York Mets, see the SABR BioProject profile of John B. Day.

14 The Mets president was MEC minority shareholder Joseph Gordon, a Manhattan coal merchant and Tammany Hall insider.

15 In 61 home dates with a general admission charge of 50 cents, the Giants drew 185,000 fans to the Polo Grounds in 1885. With general admission just a quarter, the Mets, meanwhile, attracted only 68,000 fans to their 52 home dates.

16 By one report, the Mets posted an $8,000 loss in 1885. See Peter Golenbock, Amazin': The Miraculous History of New York's Most Beloved Team (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002), 5.

17 See "Mr. Wiman's Baseball Club," New York Times, December 5, 1885.

18 As reported on December 11, 1885 in "Sporting Notes," Dallas Morning News; "The American Association Restrained," New Haven (Connecticut) Morning Journal and Courier; "Erastus Wiman's Baseball Club," New York Tribune, and elsewhere.

19 As quoted in "Erastus Wiman Indignant," New York Times, December 9, 1885: 2.

20 Per "To Stand by Mr. Wiman," New York Times, December 13, 1885: 10.

21 As reported in "Mr. Wiman's Final Victory," New York Times, December 28, 1885: 1. See also, untitled item, New York Tribune, December 30, 1885: 4.

22 There had previously been reports that Orr and Roseman had signed with Brooklyn for the 1886 season. See e.g., "The Mets and Brooklyn," New York Times, December 30, 1885: 2.

23 The singular features of the St. George Grounds are depicted in a color lithograph reproduced on the back cover of Base Ball, A Journal of the Early Game, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall 2007).

24 Per Philip J. Lowey, Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of Major League and Negro League Ballparks (New York: Walker & Company, 2006), 149

25 "What the Players Are Doing," Wheeling (West Virginia) Register, April 11, 1886: 3.

26 See e.g., "The Imprisoned Debtor: Pushing a Movement to Secure Their Freedom," New York Times, March 31, 1886: 5. In time, civil commitment of debtors in New York was restricted to those who had engaged in fraud.

27 As reported in "Sporting News and Gossip," Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, April 25, 1886: 5; "Wiman's Splendid Gift," Sporting Life, April 28, 1886: 1; and elsewhere. The trophy had an estimated value of $1,000 to $2,000. For more, see Robert H. Schaefer, "The Wiman Trophy, and the Man for Whom It Was Named," Base Ball, A Journal of the Early Game, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall, 2007), 44-54. See also, "Erastus Wiman's Trophy," Baseball History Daily, posted May 20, 2013.

28 "Batting for Championships," New York Herald, April 23, 1886: 8.

29 Per David Nemec and David Ball, "James H. Gifford," Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 2, Nemec, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), 123-124.

30 As calculated from Retrosheet data. The 135 games that the Mets played in 1886 were 25 more than the previous season, but did not include any home doubleheaders.

31 See "The New President," The Sporting News, November 6, 1886: 1.

32 See e.g., "Erastus Wiman," Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 19, 1887: 8.

33 As quoted in "Mr. Wiman and the Mets," New York Herald, July 22, 1887: 9.

34 As reported in "The Metropolitans Sold," New York Times, October 9, 1887: 3. See also, "A Big Surprise: Erastus Wiman Out of Base Ball," unidentified news article dated September 28, 1887, contained in the Erastus Wiman file at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York.

35 Per Schaefer, 52.

36 See David Nemec, The Beer and Whisky League: The Illustrated History of the American Association – Baseball's Renegade Major League (New York: Lyon & Burford, 1994), 146-147.

37 Early in the 1889 season, the National League New York Giants, displaced from the original Polo Grounds, played 23 games at the St. George Grounds while awaiting the opening of the New Polo Grounds in far north Manhattan.

38 As reported in "Erastus Wiman Severs His Connection," Washington Post, February 23, 1893: 7.

39 Schaefer, 52.

40 Per "Wiman Gives Up the Fight," New York Times, May 14, 1893: 2.

41 See "Mrs. Erastus Wiman's Sacrifice," Washington Post, October 6, 1893: 4. Wiman had titled much of the family's Staten Island property in wife Eleanor's name.

42 As reported in "Wiman Guilty of Forgery," New York Times, June 16, 1894: 1; "Wiman Found Guilty," Washington Post, June 16, 1894: 1, and newspapers nationwide.

43 See "Wiman Goes Free," New York Herald, March 16, 1895: 11; "Mr. Wiman Gains a Point," New York Times, March 16, 1895: 1. The majority in the Supreme Court strained to find error in the instruction on the principle of criminal intent. Dissenting Justice David L. Follett found the jury charge error-free and voted to affirm the Wiman conviction.

44 People v. Wiman, 148 N.Y. 21, 42 N.E. 2d 408 (Ct. App. 1895).

45 See "Wiman Escapes Another Trial," New York Herald, February 11, 1896: 4; "Erastus Wiman Free," New York Times, February 11, 1896: 1.

46 See "Erastus Wiman, Citizen," New York Times, August 11, 1897: 5.

47 Schaefer, 52, citing the Wiman obituary in the New York Times, February 10, 1894.

48 As reported in the Wiman obituary published in the Jersey (Jersey City) Journal, February 10, 1904: 2.