Elbridge Thomas Gerry

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For other people named Elbridge Gerry, see Elbridge Gerry (disambiguation).
Elbridge Thomas Gerry
Born Elbridge Thomas Gerry
Died 1927
Spouse(s) Louisa Matilda Livingston
Children Robert Livingston Gerry, Sr. (1877–1957)
Peter Goelet Gerry (1879–1957)

Elbridge Thomas Gerry (December 25, 1837 – February 18, 1927) was an American reformer.


Gerry graduated from Columbia College with honors in 1857, and read law with William Curtis Noyes, whose partner he later became. After Noyes died, Gerry joined William F. Allen and Vaughn Abbot, practicing as Allen, Abbott & Gerry.[1] Admitted to the New York bar in 1860, by his death 67 years later, familial wealth and real estate investments made Gerry one of the city's wealthiest men. In 1867, Gerry served as a delegate to New York state constitutional convention, but never again sought elective office.

He also served as governor of the New York Hospital (1878-1912), member of the Tammany Society (a/k/a Tammany Hall, or the Democratic political machine of Boss Tweed) for more than 35 years, and as a trustee of the New York Life Insurance Company. He was usually called "Commodore" Gerry, signifying the office he held with the New York Yacht Club from 1886 to 1892.

In 1874 Gerry took up the case of Mary Ellen McCormack, abused by her foster parents, which he eventually argued before the Supreme Court of New York.[2]

Gerry took an active role in the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children(sometimes called the Gerry Society), which he co-founded in 1875 as a result of Mary Ellen McCormack's case, together with Quaker philanthropist John D. Wright and Henry Bergh (who he had previously helped found the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). It was one of the first child protection societies in the country. Gerry also helped pass numerous laws to protect children. Ultimately he devoted most of his attention to this cause, though he still retained his interest in other humanitarian movements.[3] However, the activities of some of his agents (as vice-President of the SPCCC, then as Wright's successor from 1879-1901, and finally as legal advisor until his death) aroused controversy. The Society's deputies, nicknamed "Gerry men" or "the cruelty," enforced various laws, including child labor laws concerning public performances and were allowed to remove children from homes. Some criticized their activities as interfering with family life, or for imposing aristocratic white Protestant values upon immigrants, many of whom were Catholic or black.[4]

After 1903, many such child protection societies changed their focus from police to welfare work, following a Massachusetts model.[4] Furthermore, the United States Supreme Court in the widely reviled case, Hammer v. Dagenhart in 1918 found the new federal child protection law (Keating-Owen Act of 1916) violated the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, in a case now known for its dissent by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr..[5]

Thus, two years later and six years before his death (and immediately after his wife's death), with Gerry still as the organization's legal advisor, the SPCCC bought the former House of Mercy (which Harriet Starr Cannon had reorganized beginning in 1863 to assist abandoned and delinquent women and girls), for use as a temporary facility to house juveniles awaiting judicial action, since they had previously either been held at stationhouses or jailed with adult prisoners, where they were often victimized. While the SPCCC built its facility on 5th Avenue between 105th and 106th streets, the Inwood Hill facility had an average daily population of 152 and an eight day average stay.[6]

Other public service activities by Gerry included chairman of the New York State Commission on Capital Punishment (that replaced hanging with the electric chair) (from 1886–88), and chairman of the New York City Commission on Insanity in 1892.


Gerry was the grandson of Founding Father, Massachusetts Governor and U.S. Vice President Elbridge Gerry, whose exact name he shared. His father was Thomas Russell Gerry (1794 - 1848), and this Gerry was active in the Sons of the American Revolution. His mother was Hannah Green Goelet (1804 - 1845), of another prominent family; his first cousin once removed was Robert Walton Goelet. Gerry married Louisa Matilda Livingston (1836-1920), and their children included businessman and race horse owner Robert Livingston Gerry, Sr. (1877–1957) and Peter Goelet Gerry (1879–1957) (U.S. Representative and later U.S. Senator for Rhode Island).

Death and Legacy[edit]

Gerry died about two weeks after breaking his hip in a fall, outliving his wife by seven years. He was entombed in St. James' Churchyard, Hyde Park, New York.[7] The associated Episcopal church is best known for its association with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served on the vestry and as senior warden,[8] and tours of the cemetery continue to be offered.[9]

At his death, Gerry was reputed to be worth $26 million, primarily in landholdings. His family's New York mansion at 2 East 61st Street had long been a center of cultivated and fashionable life, even as it came to be surrounded by skyscrapers. When he built it, he told architect Richard Morris Hunt specifically about needing to house his collection of 30,000 law books. The family mansions were soon demolished, that in Manhattan to make way for the Pierre Hotel. Gerry also maintained a summer home named "Seaverge" on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island.

His wife's estate in the Catskill Mountains was called "Aknusti" (supposedly from an American Indian word meaning "expensive proposition").

In 1904 the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947) painted Gerry's portrait, which still hangs in the New York Yacht Club.


  1. ^ Tammany Times, vols 8-9 (unclear date) p. 7 (p.895 of compilation at http://books.google.com/books?id=6JM6AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA895&lpg=PA895&dq=elbridge+gerry+reformer&source=bl&ots=Gkb9nOlAag&sig=Vcop1RHxQT5YBsoAnDsEdnyNpKQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=PIlqU-_fH9fLsASeioLICQ&ved=0CEAQ6AEwBjgK#v=onepage&q=elbridge%20gerry%20reformer&f=false)
  2. ^ Markel, Howard (December 14, 2009). "Case Shined First Light on Abuse of Children". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-12-15. In fact, though, the quotation is from the 1874 case of Mary Ellen McCormack, below, a self-possessed 10-year-old who lived on West 41st Street, in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. It was Mary Ellen who finally put a human face on child abuse — and prompted a reformers’ crusade to prevent it and to protect its victims, an effort that continues to this day. 
  3. ^ Gerry, Elbridge Thomas. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-07
  4. ^ a b http://www.faqs.org/childhood/Re-So/Societies-for-the-Prevention-of-Cruelty-to-Children.html
  5. ^ The Supreme Court overruled Hammer v. Dagenhart in 1941, upholding the Fair Labor Standards Act in United States v. Darby Lumber Co..
  6. ^ http://myinwood.net>/house-of-mercy/
  7. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=92681101
  8. ^ http://www.stjameshydepark.org/sjhistory.htm
  9. ^ http://www.stjameshistoricgraveyardtours.com/