The creators, guides, supporters, and defenders of the Asylum were the twenty-six members of the Board of Governors of the New York Hospital, charged with setting the goals of this institution, ensuring its financial solvency, selecting its leadership, and keeping watch over its operations as part of the broader program of the hospital in general. A quick look at its membership clearly confirms Andrew Dolkart’s characterization of this group of men as members of “the social elite.”
The hospital was one of the city's oldest and largest charitable institutions. In the nineteenth century, its board of governors included many of the most venerable family names of New York and Northeast seaboard: Depeyster, Verplanck, Stuyvesant, Jay, Morris, Bayard, Beekman, Duer, Gerry, Choate, Bowdoin, Astor, Roosevelt, and their friends and kin. They represented some of the wealthiest indivivduals in the city and nation: bankers, merchants, lawyers, public servants, and managers of inherited fortunes. They had the economic and political connections to help find needed financial support for the asylum, to make generous gifts of their own, and to defend the institution against those who would do it harm Overwhelmingly Protestant (largely Episcopalian) by confession and Republican by political persuasion, they represented the old patrician establishment of the city, frequently ill at ease with the rapidly changing world of late nineteenth century New York.
A better sense of who they were can be provided by brief sketches of the three men, two of them pictured on this page, outstanding but hardly exceptional representatives of the board in 1888, a year when the Asylum was faced with an existential challenge.
James Muncaster Brown, who had been a member of the board since 1862 and was elected its president in 1887, was a partner of the important private banking firm of Brown Brothers and Company (which would later go on to become Brown Brothers Harriman). Among other things, he served as president of the Chamber of Commerce from 1884 to 1887, and was a Trustee of New York Life and Trust, a Director of the Bank of America, one of the Vice Presidents of the American Bible Society, a trustee of Saint Luke’s Hospital, a Member of the Board of Directors of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and a trustee of Greenwood Cemetery.
Cornelius Bliss, a senior partner of Bliss, Fabyan, and Co., one of the largest dry goods retailers in the United States, had just been elected a member of the board in 1884 and then its treasurer in 1887. He would continue to serve for many years after the move of the asylum to White Plains. Among the other important leadership positions he would occupy in business during his career were those of vice president of the Fourth National Bank and director of the Central Trust Corporation and the Equitable Life Assurance Company. He was very active in Republican politics and had frequently been urged but refused (for business reasons) to run for mayor of New York City and governor of New York State. In 1887 and 1888, he was chairman of the New York State Republican Committee in 1887 and would go on to become treasurer of the National Republican Party in 1892 and 1896. In politics he was a resolute foe of the Tammany machine, and would later play a key role in the fusion campaign that defeated that organization with the election of reform candidate William L. Strong as mayor. President McKinley would later invited him to become Secretary of Treasury in his administration, but because he was reluctant to take on that degree of responsibility he served instead as Secretary of the Interior from 1897 to 1899. He was invited to be McKinley's running mate in 1899, but refused the offer, which was taken up by Theodore Roosevelt instead.
Joseph Choate, elected a member of the board in 1877, was a descendant of the famous New England family of that name, a graduate of Harvard University, and one of the city’s leading lawyers. A Republican political activist and skilled orator, he had played a key role in bringing down the Tweed ring in 1871. In the course of his career, he served as president the Bar Association of New York and the American Bar Association as well as president of the boards of the New York State Charities Aid Association, the New York Association for the Blind, the American Society for the Judicial Settlement of International Disputes, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As a lawyer, he played a key role in cases involving the Vanderbilt and Tilden estates and anti-trust battles with Standard Oil Company and big tobacco growers and manufacturers. He was also famous for having alienated a large part of the Irish-American political establishment and Irish Americans in general by an 1893 speech in which he sarcastically invited them to leave New York and go back to Ireland to deal with its problems. In 1899, he was appointed ambassador to Great Britain by President William McKinley.
The Governors were far a simply serving as a benign, hands-off rubber stamp in their oversight of the asylum. Instead, they actively strove to shape and guide its program. The original move of the asylumto a new, more promising setting, for example, was initiated and actively promoted as a project by Thomas Eddy, who was Vice President of the board and later its President from 1822 to 1827, and a committee of the governors, not by the medical staff. Reports of the governors' asylum subcommittee frequently express concerns about particular conditions or policies at the Bloomingdale, and there were often sharp differences of opinion between the attending physicians and the governors: Drs. MacDonald, Earle, and Nichols were all reported to have resigned as a result of such disagreements. They were often ready, too, to make generous gifts — the last two major additions to the Bloomingdale — the Green Pavilion and the Macy Villa — were both presents from presidents of the Board. And with few exceptions, they would rally to the defense of the asylum when it was attacked in the New York State Assembly between 1886 and 1889.
A special subcommittee of six was delegated to the task of direct oversight of the Asylum, charged, among other things, with visiting it at regular intervals to inspect its ongoing operations. The approval of one of the members of the committee was formally required for admission of a patient to the Asylum, although it does not appear that this rule was always observed. Annual rotation of at least two of the members of the Asylum in the interest of providing a broad acquaintance among all the members with this part of the hospital’s operations. Far from all of the governors participated, however. Of the 123 governors who served the hospital between 1835 and 1894, less than half (55) ever served on the committee, and of those, a much smaller group actually devoted the lion’s share of the time to the task. This may be reflected in the complaint of one disgruntled trustee, Frederick Conkling to the New York Assembly committee investigating the Asylum, to the affect that the committee tended to keep its work to itself and simply present its proposals to the larger board for rubber stamp approval. However it may have operated, it was clearly in close touch with the Board’s leadership, since one or another of its officers — secretary, treasurer, or vice president — was typically a member of the smaller group. It would be worth exploring to see if this supposed close inner circle overseeing the immediate affairs of the asylum can explain some of the seemingly contradictory coexistence of an ambitious latter-day building program (Green Hall and Macy Villa) alongside preparations for a move in the near future to another locality.