Robert’s march to war was more of a reluctant shuffle. In August 1864, by which time his twin brother already had completed a three-year hitch and the end of the drawn-out conflict was no longer in doubt, Robert signed up for a 100-day tour of duty in the Home Guards. His unit’s assigned task: to protect trains and the rail terminal at Elmira in upstate New York.
By the time the fighting was over, everyone had drifted back to New York. 1870 census listings and city directories for various years show Henry and sons John and Robert living and working in Lower Manhattan and son Henry settled down with a new wife and bartender’s job in Brooklyn. Within 10 years all wound up in Brooklyn.
As for the three surviving “lost sons,” the 1860 census finds Seth, 12, and Frank, 15, living with farm families in adjoining Hamilton and Marion counties, north of Indianapolis, and Joseph, 14, in the Brooklyn home of Kelly Girvin, an Irish-born industrialist to whom he and several other boys from Randall’s Island were indentured.
That would be the last confirmed spotting of Frank and Joseph, although Children’s Aid Society journal entries show Frank wrote in 1868 inquiring about Joseph and that the agency responded. Seth, on the other hand, settled down in rural central Indiana and remained there until his death in 1919.
Incidentally, the Society recorded the family name incorrectly as Worthman, and this misspelling stuck with the Indiana branch. They weren’t even aware of the error until brother Robert appeared surprisingly on their doorstep some 30 years later. Or it may have been old Henry himself; both versions of the story have been passed down, with apparently no hard evidence to support either one.
Of the eight Wortman children, only Henry and Seth had children of their own to pass on the family name. (See footnote at end of text for their names.) John took a wife shortly after the Civil War, and they may have had a son. His wife and the presumed son died before 1880 and John never remarried. William, Robert and Mary Selina were never wed. If Frank and Joseph had wives and children, no one ever heard of it.
Perhaps as intriguing as the family’s pathetic tale was its grim setting. Every place they lived over a 15–year span was within a short walk of Five Points in Lower Manhattan’s old Sixth Ward. Temperance-minded reformers once described the cruelly overpopulated neighborhood as “the underside of urban life” and “the most depraved spot in America.” Its name was drawn from the star-like core intersection where, using today’s street names, Worth cuts into the crossing of Baxter and Park.
The infamy of Five Points was so widespread that Charles Dickens, with two bodyguards at his side, stopped by to check it out during a countrywide tour in 1842. His description in a popular travel book, American Notes, is as grim as any lines he’d written a few years earlier about Fagin’s den of little thieves in Oliver Twist:
“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. … Debauchery has made the very houses permanently old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”
An early print shows the heart of the teeming Five Points neighborhood as it looked about the time Charles Dickens arrived to see for himself if the area lived up to – or down to – its reputation. Reform-minded Methodists once described Five Points as a foul blend of “miserable-looking buildings, liquor-stores innumerable, neglected children by scores, playing in rags and dirt, squalid-looking women, brutal men with black eyes and disfigured faces, proclaiming drunken brawls and fearful violence.”
An apartment in which Henry and Hester Wortman may have begun their married life was just a couple of blocks away from Five Points. By the time Dickens came to town, however, they’d moved to a back-street tenement on nearby Oliver Street, tucked conveniently between a church and a brewery. Then they spent a few years on West Broadway before alighting once again on the Lower East Side, two blocks off Oliver, on slightly tonier Hamilton Street. They lived on Hamilton in the fateful year of 1852.
A short time after losing their sons Henry and Hester left these haunts near the grimy East River docks and relocated six blocks north to The Bowery, to an address on Prince Street known to have had a grocery store along with living quarters. This is the first hint the enterprising Henry might have been a grocer now and then. At any rate, the move undoubtedly was a step up in class as well as geographically.
Lacking family records – except for fat Civil War military files of sons John, Henry and Robert – we can only ponder what drew the family to Philadelphia, and then to the bucolic Pocono Mountains just prior to the war. Or what drove them back to turbulent Manhattan a few years later.
The 1860 census poses another thorny question. If poverty compelled them to abandon their sons in 1852 to what would be called nowadays indentured servitude, which seems likely, how did they bounce back within eight years to declare a combined worth of $2,000 in real estate and $3,000 in personal property? On paper, at least, that made them one of the wealthiest families in Newfoundland – richer, even, than the town’s lone doctor.
The head of the family was christened Henry William Wortmann, but dropped the second “n” prior to becoming a citizen of the United States. He was born in 1812 to Conrad Wortmann, who was German, and his wife, Eva, a Dane. Although Henry’s Danish citizenship could reflect an origin in Denmark itself, it’s more likely he came from one of the two German duchies north of Hamburg then under personal rule of the King
of Denmark. His birthplace is listed in various records as Denmark and Hamburg, but more often simply Germany.
The family name itself is German and rather common among Ashkenazic Jews. Vortmann in Yiddish means someone who can be trusted to keep his word.
Henry’s death record lists his trade as druggist, but over the years he tried his hand at various tasks and endeavors. He was toiling as a porter (doorman) when his name appeared for the first time in a city directory (1839), later became a cigar maker and tobacconist, and worked well into his 70s as a drug store clerk.
Various unconfirmed city directory listings and one vague census entry indicate he may have thrived during “good times” as a grocer. This ill-defined calling in mid-19th century New York covered a multitude of sins, including men and women who furtively sold booze in unlicensed grog shops or back-room speakeasies known as “diving bells.”
His wife, Hester, was born in Ireland in 1816. Family lore says the Brennans came from Belfast, but a tall monument on the family plot at Calvary Cemetery in Brooklyn identifies them as natives of County Westmeath, which is much closer to Dublin. They may have moved to Ulster to seek work, or simply set sail from Belfast’s busy port.
Hester’s family – including a few Scanlons from her mother’s side -- fled the Ould Sod a decade before the long-suffering country was further wracked by the potato blight and resultant Great Famine of 1845-50.
The Wortman children were all born in Lower Manhattan. Recapping, they were John Henry (1838 - 1903), William (1840 - 58), twins Henry C. (1843 - 1903) and Robert (1843 - 1917), Francis/Frank (1845 - after 1872), Joseph (1846 - after 1870), Seth (1848 - 1919), and Mary Selina (1851 - 1906).
Finally, let’s look at the facility known as The Nursery. Some 150 years after the fact, the name seems quaint and somewhat ill fitting for an institution with about 1,000 male and female inmates, some as old as 17. Even then, newspaper stories usually referred to the place simply as Randall’s Island.