In October of 1870 a young Catholic priest named Henry Brann was named Rector to a massive, though sparsely populated, parish that included the whole upper northwest portion of Manhattan and part of Westchester County.
In a 1911 memoir, the then Monsignor Brann wrote that his parish included the “Spuyten Duyvil, Kingsbridge, Mosholu, and Riverdale, all of which formed an “out-mission” served from Fort Washington, which had annexed to it a part of Carmansville, the whole of “Toebbe Hook”-now called Inwood-and “Cold Spring,” adjoining settlements on the old Island of Manhattan.“
Even in 1870 a bustling downtown made Inwood and the surrounding parts of northern Manhattan an uptown oasis.
“It was a beautiful region, with winding roads, scattered orchards, and magnificent trees. In winter when the snow clothed the boughs and lay deep on the ground, or when the sleet froze and gleamed in the sunlight on the pine, maple, elm, and tulip trees; in the autumn when the brown, red, and yellow colors tinged the decaying leaves; or in the early spring and summer, when the dogwood, the cherry, the apple, and the pear trees burst into bloom, and the birds-the robins, the catbirds, the orioles, and the thrushes sang their sweetest songs-it would be impossible to find a pleasanter place in which to enjoy the beauties of Nature, to study metaphysics, to write poetry, or to become a contemplative and a mystic.”
But despite its natural beauty, Northern Manhattan in the 1870’s could be a terribly lonely place. The young Father Brann would sometimes go days at a time without setting eyes on another soul. Some of the few characters Father Brann ran into on his travels were likely highway bandits and criminals making their way in or out of the City. Brann however suffered no fools. “I had besides two guns and a revolver, always loaded and in excellent condition.“
An eclectic reader and avid supporter of Irish freedom, Brann had a wry sense of humor when describing even the most mundane aspects of running what he called a “Barren Parish” consisting of an impoverished and sparse Catholic population.
Despite his many hardships, Father Dunn saw humor all around him. What follows is one of Father Brann’s favorite tales from his days in the neighborhood.
Pat Dunn’s Goat
By The Right Rev. Mgr. Henry A. Brann, D.D., LL.D., 1911
“Dunn (now dead, God rest his soul!) had an old billy-goat that was the terror of all the amateur horticulturists in the neighborhood, and I was one of them. Nothing could keep him out of my garden. If you complained to the owner, Dunn, he told you
to shoot the goat. But I did not like to do this, until provoked beyond endurance one Easter Saturday by the fact that “Billy” had destroyed the whole of my flower garden, freshly planted, and had nibbled off every bud on my rosebushes.
I had driven him out of the garden by throwing an old boot at him, but he came back. The housekeeper, already named, attacked “Billy” with a broom, but he turned on her and drove her into the house. “Bad luck to him,” I heard her cry out, “I believe the divil is in him!”
John the sexton was called out of the rear garden-a small vegetable one that a blanket might cover-and drove “Billy” away with a spade. There were only two characters that “Billy” feared; one was John, my sexton, the other was any policeman. He knew John by sight, and could scent a policeman a mile off. Whenever I saw “Billy” running along the Kingsbridge Road I knew either John or a policeman was not far distant.
When I saw “Billy” return for the third time to grub up my gladiolas and tuberose bulbs that were just beginning to show their green heads above the sod, I reached for my gun, took deliberate aim, through a window, and knocked “Billy” sprawling. I thought I had killed him; so I sent for John, and told him to take the carcass away, throw it among the bushes in the valley behind the church, and report the murder to Dunn.
The old housekeeper, hearing the shot, rushed up to me, and said in great alarm: “Oh, Docthor! you have spoiled the Aisther collection.” She was afraid that the murder of the goat would create a bad spirit in the parish, as many of my parishioners owned goats. I then reloaded the gun with bird-shot, the only kind adapted to it, and returned to see what John was doing.
I looked out of the window and saw him laughing heartily, while old “Billy,” far away, was standing on a rock in Bennett’s field, looking back at the rectory and the church with an expression of sarcasm and profound contempt on his diabolical face. The shot had knocked him down but had not seriously injured him, and within half an hour he was back again in the garden.
I went out on the road and stopped a mounted policeman, who soon got a brother officer to help him. They tied a rope around “Billy’s” horns and proceeded to drag him to the pound at Carmansville, a mile and a half away.
The whole of Fort Washington’s population, particularly the boys, joined in the procession, yelling, laughing, and jibing the poor policemen as they tugged and pulled “Billy” along the road. The goat now bucked like a mustang, then plunged forward and attacked the rear of the horses alternately, then tried to bite through the rope, and did everything he could to break loose.
A more comical procession I never saw; and fortunately my attempt at goat- murder did not spoil the Easter collection, but rather increased it, for every one was grateful to me for freeing the neighborhood of Pat Dunn’s goat.”
Great story. I like to think of myself as having read most of what is extant about IWH, but you’ve come up with some stuff I haven’t seen. I must admit that many years ago, participating in a wedding at St. John’s Church in Kingsbridge, I was surprised to read in a little history displayed in the back of the church, that St. John’s was carved out of St. Elizabeth’s in Washington Hts. , St. E’s being the church that did in fact cover all of the Heights, Inwood and Kingsbridge before the turn of the last century.
I loved the story on so many levels. The Priest vs. the Billy Goat. I live in the California foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and have a dairy goat herd from my daughter’s 4 H days but I was raised in the Dyckman Projects of Inwood. It is fun to think of my old city neighborhood as a rural oasis that was terrorized by an old billy goat.