Augustus Graham (baptized April 15, 1776-November 27, 1851) was a manufacturer, social activist and philanthropist. Because of his name change and the mystery surrounding him, he has always had a certain appeal. Now with the strong gay rights movement, there is more interest in him because he left his wife and children (though he continued to support them) to live for decades with a man whom he called his “brother.”
Graham was born Richard King in Devonshire, England, the son of John King, a hatter and clothier, and Mary Barrons. When he immigrated to the United States he called himself Augustus Graham, and in October, 1806, he married Martha Cock in Frederick County, Maryland. They had two children, one of whom grew to adulthood. In 1808 Graham was issued a certificate of naturalization.
Around that time he and John Bell, a young Scotsman from Northern Ireland, started a successful stagecoach line from Frederick to Baltimore. The two men decided to “unite their capital, adopt a kindred name and relation, and proceed further north in quest of better fortunes.” The circumstances strongly suggest a homosexual relationship. Leaving his wife and children on her parents’ Maryland farm, Graham and his new “brother” moved to upstate New York. They ran a lumber business in Delhi and started a country store and a brewery and distillery in Norwich. During the War of 1812 they probably provided supplies for the troops. In 1815 they moved their brewery business to Brooklyn. There they were later joined by their “widowed sister,” Maria Graham Taylor, who lived with them until her death in 1829.
In 1822 the Graham “brothers” retired from their brewery business and divided their large fortune. Determined to use his money to create jobs for the unemployed, Augustus Graham established that same year a factory that helped lay the foundation for the white lead business in the United States. Two years later to attract young workingmen away from grogshops and gambling resorts, he founded the Apprentices’ Library, which offered lectures and entertainment, as well as books to read. In spite of-or perhaps because of-his long involvement in the brewery business, Graham became part of the first radical temperance movement in Brooklyn. To set a good example, he and others planning the library agreed among themselves not to offer liquor to visitors, though the “ladies stigmatized the rules of the new society as ungentlemanly.”
The Apprentices’ Library, which Graham nurtured, expanded, and rechartered through the years, grew into the Brooklyn Institute and later became the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In 1843 the Institute offered the first ambitious program of evening classes in Brooklyn, adding to the usual subjects classes in mechanical, architectural, landscape, and figure drawing. In his will Graham endowed it with $27,000 to establish a school of design and a gallery of fine arts. He is remembered as the Brooklyn Museum’s founder. A medal bearing his name is presented annually in recognition of community involvement, generous patronage of the arts and outstanding contribution to the museum.
In 1833 Graham helped found the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn which he attended regularly. His concern “for the poor, the suffering, the young, and those” neglected “portions of the community” and his determination to secure for them a larger “share of the great moral and intellectual privileges” made him a role model for that church’s great settlement work, out of which grew the housing reforms of Alfred T. White. In 1840 Graham was in England for the coronation of William IV. While there, using his birth name, he built and endowed in Devonshire the Modbury Library and Scientific Institution-which lasted until 1954-both as a social meeting place and a place of higher education. In 1846 he established the Brooklyn Hospital to which he gave $32,500 in his lifetime and $5,000 in his will.
Before Graham’s death, it was rumored that he had abandoned his given name and that he and John Bell Graham, also an active Brooklyn philanthropist, were not related. As if to proclaim that the great good he had accomplished was more important than who he was, Graham planned a nameless monument for his grave in Vista Hill, the First Church’s burial ground in Green-Wood Cemetery. Designed by John Quincy Adams Ward, the monument is a bust of Graham above the Brooklyn Institute and the Brooklyn Hospital, two buildings he gave to the city that he had adopted, nurtured, and loved.
At a time when most people were buried from their homes, Graham’s funeral was the first one held in the First Church’s 1844 building. The church’s trustees attended the service en masse, and the following Sunday the church’s third minister, Frederick Farley, eulogized Graham. Although he had neither signed the church membership book nor taken communion, Farley proclaimed that the more he knew Graham, the more he respected him. Graham had purchased two prominent church pews, attended regularly and also presented the church with a costly silver communion service. “When in ordinary health, and home,” Farley reminisced, “he was ever in his seat. He was a candid, thoughtful, attentive, indulgent hearer. Methinks I see him now, leaning forward or even outward from his pew, as if he would catch and treasure every word.”
Graham left an estate of $300,000. Much of it went to his daughter who with her husband and two children came to Brooklyn to live with him during his final illness. Among his many charitable bequests Graham left nearly $20,000 to bolster Unitarianism. Of this the American Unitarian Association got $10,000, Meadville Theological School $5,000, and Brooklyn’s First Church $2,500. A thousand dollars was left to promote Unitarianism in England.
Information on Graham and his family is found in the Modbury Parish Registers and the Andrews Family Diaries, 1700-1870, in the Plymouth Record Office, England. Graham papers are in the Brooklyn Historical Society and a printed copy of his contested will along with court papers are in the New York Public Library. Graham’s gift to Devonshire is described in “The Modbury Institute,” in A History of Modbury (1971). See also Olive Hoogenboom, The First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn: One Hundred Fifty Years (1987); American National Biography, s.v. “Graham, Augustus”; Henry R. Stiles, History of Brooklyn. . . , vol. 3 (1870); and Ralph Foster Weld, Brooklyn Village, 1816-1834 (1938). Later newspaper accounts dealing with Graham include “Three Tangled Lives,” New York Herald, October 24, 1886; “An Unsolved Brooklyn Mystery,” Brooklyn Eagle, March 4, 1906; and “Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences,” Brooklyn Eagle, October 7, 1935. An obituary is in the Christian Inquirer, December 6, 1851, and a death notice is in Brooklyn Eagle, November 28, 1851.
Article by Olive Hoogenboom
Posted August 30, 2001