WHO WAS THIS BRADISH JOHNSON FELLOW, ANYWAY?
By Stu Chamberlain
Anyone who attends even one service at St. Mark's surely is taken by our matchless stained-glass windows. From my usual seat in the choir pews, my eye is often drawn to the Angel's Praise window over the South Transept, and I notice it was given in memory of Bradish Johnson and his wife Louisa.
I have also noticed other windows given by, or in memory of, Bradish Johnson: the Fisherman Window in the North Transept, and the St. Elizabeth of Hungary and Life of Christ windows in the Nave. And every time I go into the Choir Room in the Parish House, I see a brass plaque noting that that facility, too, was given by Bradish Johnson.
And it occurred to me to ask: who was this Bradish Johnson fellow anyway?
Actually, our windows and Choir Room were either given by, or in memory of, four different men named Bradish Johnson, all of whom lived at least some of their lives in East Islip and all of whom were members of St. Mark's.
The first Bradish Johnson was probably the most colorful. He was born in 1811 on his family's plantation, Woodlands, in Louisiana. He was the third son of his father, William M. Johnson, and his unusual first name was derived from his father's business partner, George Bradish. Johnson's business was growing and selling sugar, and he operated several plantations, using slave labor.
Young Bradish Johnson came to New York to attend Columbia, earning a law degree and gaining admission to the bar. But because his father (in the words of the New York Times) was “old and feeble,” he took over the management of his family business, buying large tracts of real estate on Manhattan's west side in order to operate at least two distilleries and a sugar refinery. It was reported that at one time he owned much of the land between 15th and 42nd Streets, from Ninth to Tenth Avenues.
Bradish Johnson was the subject of controversy in his lifetime. He was involved in what was called the “swill milk” scandal. It was customary for distilleries to use their vegetable waste to feed livestock, and Johnson's waste went to a dairy that used diseased or dying cows to produce milk – which was sold at low cost to poor families and which caused many of their children to sicken and die. Tammany Hall, which derived a lot of money from the milk producers and which never admitted that any of this was wrong, nonetheless got the practice of producing “swill milk” outlawed.
During the Civil War, Bradish Johnson, as a Louisiana man living in New York, reportedly offered his slaves their freedom and transport to the African colony of Liberia – but they allegedly declared they were much happier on the plantation and declined the offer. Johnson then wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, urging that Louisiana be readmitted to the Union as a slave state. Mr. Lincoln wrote back, saying, politely, that he would do no such thing.
Johnson was a founder of a bank that was eventually absorbed into Chemical Bank, now a part of J.P. Morgan Chase. One of his business partners was Moses Lazarus, whose daughter Emma wrote the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. A picture of the manor house of one of his plantations was used for many years on the label of Southern Comfort whiskey.
Bradish Johnson's wife, Louisa, was a member of the patrician Livingston family of New York. The family spent much of their time on the family's East Islip estate, also called Woodlands.
After Bradish Johnson's death, his son, also named Bradish, took over the family business. The Manhattan holdings were sold to a corporation owned by the family for more than four million dollars, a staggering sum in 1900. Young Bradish Johnson tore down the original mansion in East Islip and replaced it with a larger one, which today houses the Hewlett School. He also owned a Manhattan mansion (today the site of an office structure known as the Bradish Johnson Building) and a mansion in New Orleans, now a National Historic Landmark and the home of a prestigious girls' school. He died in 1918 at age 67.
Bradish G. Johnson, the third of the name, was a Manhattan businessman. He served in the Army during World War I, and was primarily involved in running the Bradish Johnson Company's real-estate holdings. He was, among other things, a longtime vestryman at St. Mark's. During World War II, he loaned his East Islip mansion to the exiled King and Queen of Norway; there is no doubt the Norwegian monarchs saw, and perhaps worshiped, in the little Norwegian stave-style church on Montauk Highway.
Bradish Johnson IV was a photographer for Newsweek magazine, and in 1937 became the first American journalist killed while covering the Spanish Civil War. He, his brother and his sister gave the Life of Christ window in St. Mark's nave in memory of their father.
The original Bradish Johnson was a founding member of Manhattan's exclusive Union Club and was a member of the South Side Sportsmen's Club. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. His descendants were prominent in New York Society; gossip columnists at the time placed various Bradish Johnsons at all the finest debutante balls and at exclusive events in places like Tuxedo Park. They are often linked to names like Astor, Roosevelt, and of course Vanderbilt.
For all his faults, we should remember that Bradish Johnson and his heirs were men of substance the like of which we are unlikely to see ever again. Like the Vanderbilt family, they gave substantially to St. Mark's, not only with their money but with their time and expertise. It's unfortunate that their lives and deeds have been largely forgotten, but I hope that every time we look at their names on our stained-glass windows, we can recall their good deeds with our undying gratitude.