According to legend, as the history of most social clubs is so often based, the Hoboken Turtle Club was founded in 1796. It is reputed to have been the oldest social club in the United States.
The club was the brainchild of John Stevens, a former Captain in George Washington’s Continental army. An inventor, lawyer and treasurer for the State of New Jersey, Stevens amassed a fortune through shrewd real estate investments, the invention of a screw-driven steamboat capable of ocean navigation and marriage into an extremely wealthy family. Among Stevens’ holdings was the Stevens Castle, currently the home to the Stevens Institute of Technology.
But, despite all of Stevens’ accomplishments, he had a problem. Turtles.
According to an 1878 New York Times article, Stevens’ riverfront Hoboken, New Jersey estate was plagued by conniving cold-blooded reptiles, which often poached his prized European chickens.
One day Stevens hired a local shepherd boy to go down to the riverbank to investigate. As the chickens dug for clams on the muddy shore, the boy sprawled out on the ground nearby engrossed in a romance novel.
Suddenly, according to the Times “a huge turtle, with an arched back completely covered with moss, crept out of the river, seized an unsuspecting hen by the leg and dragged her off to his felonious retreat on the river bottom.”
Ever the soldier, Stevens declared war on his hard-shelled nemesis in a most ingenious manner. He summoned a group of wealthy Manhattan businessmen to cross the Hudson to dine on turtle soup. “He was remarkable in his selection of great eaters.”
The Times described the members of the newfound Hoboken Turtle Club as “one of the weightiest assemblages of solid men to be found between Wall Street and the Treasury Department.”
Their motto: “Dum vivimus vivamus,” Latin for, “As we journey through life, let us live by the way.”
The feasts often went on for days and, after several years, the Hoboken Turtle Club had devoured the local supply of turtles.
Soon these powerful men who had been duped into pitching tents on the Jersey side of the Hudson numbered several hundred. Before long they would move their annual feast into the city. By 1878 Tammany Hall was hosting the event. A giant turtle shell emblazoned with the letters “H.T.C “ hung from the balcony.
As the years passed, entrance to the club became one of the most coveted memberships in town. In an 1896 speech marking the 100th anniversary of the Turtle Club, the organization’s president, William Sulzer, noted that Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Burr and Clay had all been Turtle Club members.
By the 1890’s, the Turtle Club had fallen on hard times. Membership was down. Still the party went on. Manning the soup kettle for the latter half of the 19th century was a man named John Tarbell; described by many as stout, clean-shaven and secretive. Tarbell’s talents were renowned among turtle aficionados. His turtle soup recipe, a “state secret,” was shared only with the president of the organization. Two days before the guests arrived Tarbell would enter the cookhouse with his turtle, “its flippers tied and its eyes abulge with apprehension.” Forty-eight hours later the turtle would “emerge in a soup that is fragrant, palatable and nutritious.”
In June of 1893 the Turtle Club found a new home in the old Kingsbridge Hotel, once the site of Hyatt’s Tavern; an important drinking establishment dating to the days of the Revolution. William Sperb, a veteran member and turtle enthusiast purchased the old hotel to ensure the club’s survival.
There, on the Spuyten Duyvil, members achieved truly remarkable levels of excess unheard of even in the Club’s early days. It was not uncommon for a man to drink ten cocktails before breakfast, but the amount of alcohol consumed was hard to measure, because, as a bartender at the King’s Bridge Hotel told one reporter, “the veterans drink their cocktails from pitchers.”
Breakfast was served at 8:00 a.m., and, according to a Times article published that year, “consisted of cocktails, stewed eels, fried eels, baked and fried bluefish, porterhouse steak and turtle steak.”
Members of the Turtle Club were not simply there to dine; they were expected to participate in the preparation of the feast. Famous members, including “such men as John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr adopted the rule that no one could partake of turtle unless he had taken some part in its preparation.” Dinner was served at 4:00 in the afternoon and consisted of boiled eggs, brandy and, of course, turtle soup.
Surprisingly, the secret to a good turtle soup is not turtle. In 1878 Tarbell confided to a reporter that, “You see, this is turtle soup of the best kind, but there’s not much turtle in it. It wouldn’t do you know. Too much turtle spoils turtle soup…If 1,500 turtles made any better soup than six; we’d have the 1,500. But they wouldn’t; they’d spoil it. It would be so rich, nobody could eat a cupful of it.”
Tarbell’s hearty concoction was so famous it was reportedly served to French General Lafayette when he visited America.
The main ingredients, Tarbell told the reporter in a hushed tone, were vegetables including: potatoes, turnips, cabbage, radishes, peas, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers and cauliflower. Of course there were other ingredients Tarbell refused to divulge.
So what does turtle soup taste like?
Dr. I. I. Hayes, a polar explorer and Club member, compared the taste of turtle to fried seal’s liver and walrus bacon. It was said the soup was so rich that no man could eat more than two plates, but of course, members had consumed a huge breakfast. Not to mention a superhuman number of cocktails.
While many had never tasted seal’s liver and walrus bacon, the 1887 Times article provided this description:
“To receive a turtle soup you must first chop a hard boiled egg very fine in the bottom of your plate. Then you squeeze into the egg the juice of half a lemon, and pour into it, also, a teaspoon full of mellow old Otard brandy from a bottle, which furnishes you a drink at the same time. The egg is to prepare the plate, and the drink is to prepare the stomach. Then your plate is filled with soup, and while the egg struggles from the bottom to float on the surface, you lay aside all earthly thoughts, forgive all your enemies, and forget all your creditors and put a teaspoon full of it into your mouth. Then you remove the spoon and shut your eyes, and your soul, on the wings of sensuous thought, passes outward into lotus land, and for a time you are lost in a dream that is so still, so perfect, and so all absorbing that you wish, lazily and sadly, it might never end. But you swallow the soup and open your eyes, discover that the face of nature is unchanged, and then, your intellect having reasserted its sway, you conclude that the turtle, like the swan, yields its only perfect symphony in its death.”
Unfortunately the Hoboken Turtle Club, whose name had been changed in 1892 to the New York Turtle Club, would once again resume its nomadic existence.
On October 27th, 1903, the Old Kingsbridge Hotel was destroyed in a fire that swept through the Kingsbridge area. At least twenty other buildings were destroyed in the inferno.
By 1938, the Club was meeting in the Rathskeller of Manhattan’s Terminal Hotel, where inscribed above the door, a sign read, “When you enter this cellar, you meet a good feller.”
Shortly thereafter the former Hoboken Turtle Club faded into memory.