The Love Letters of Jane Schenck Malbone and Ralph Malbone

  • Posted on Apr 17, 2017 by

In June of 2016, the Brooklyn Museum purchased the correspondence of Jane Schenck Malbone and Ralph Malbone at a Swann Gallery auction. This exciting acquisition enriches the Library’s holdings of primary source and published documentation on the Schenck family, who were prominent Dutch farmers in Brooklyn and one of the first families to settle the area around 1650. The historic homes of two members of the Schenck family, Jan Martense who was Jane’s great great grandfather, and Nicholas Schenck Jr, who was Jane’s father, are on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum. The recent acquisition consists of one hundred and twenty-three letters.  Ninety one of these letters are between Jane and Ralph and the other thirty two are between Jane or Ralph and various correspondents including family members, business partners, and friends. The majority of the letters date from the period of Jane and Ralph’s courtship (1810-1815), although they do range all the way to 1859 right before Ralph’s death. The letters are teeming with contextual information about Jane and Ralph’s lives in the nineteenth century. They not only chronicle a fascinating love story, but also give important details of life in Brooklyn during the War of 1812, societal expectations of Jane and her experience with feeling pressure from her family, the smallpox epidemic in New York, and Ralph’s entrepreneurial business affairs.

1.	Nicholas Schenck House from Canarsie Park, ca. 1770-1775. Whole house Brooklyn Museum.
Nicholas Schenck House from Canarsie Park, ca. 1770-1775. Whole house Brooklyn Museum.

Jane Schenck Malbone (1792-1843) grew up in Flatlands, Brooklyn, New York at the turn of the nineteenth century. She was the eldest girl of eight siblings, and was independent in spirit. The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives owns the personal journal of Jane Schenck, which has been consulted as a primary resource for the history of Brooklyn on several occasions. Most of Jane’s family spoke Dutch before her birth, and the journal, along with a stitching sampler Jane made to practice her English alphabet, let us know that Jane was fluent in English from a young age. The stitching sampler is also on view inside her historic home in the Decorative Arts gallery of the Brooklyn Museum. We are lucky enough to have a primary resource like Jane’s journal which documents countless events in her life in great detail including births, deaths, marriages, and social gatherings. In 1815, however, there is an abrupt entry stating Jane’s own marriage to a Mr. Ralph Malbone of Connecticut, lacking any further details or previous mention of the man. It was not until the acquisition of Jane and Ralph’s personal correspondence, that we learned the truth behind her silence.

Schenck, Jane. A Journal (manuscript). 1812-1816. Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives.
Schenck, Jane. A Journal (manuscript). 1812-1816. Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives.

Ralph Malbone (1785-1860) was born in Killingly, Connecticut and moved to Brooklyn around 1810 at the age of about 25. His ancestors were wealthy merchants from Newport, Rhode Island; among them was Colonel Francis Malbone Sr. (1728-1785) who fought in the Revolutionary War and was most likely Ralph’s great uncle. Around 1773 artist Gilbert Stuart painted a portrait of Francis Malbone Jr., who would later become a U.S. Senator, and his brother Saunders Malbone. This painting now resides in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Ralph’s extension of the family moved to Connecticut and eventually fell upon hard financial times. When Ralph came to Brooklyn in 1810, he was unknown to the community and did not have a prominent family name or fortune to back him up. When he set his sights on Jane Schenck, he was looking far beyond his reach.

Stuart, Gilbert. Francis Malbone and His Brother Saunders, about 1773. Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 111.8cm (36 x 44in.). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Stuart, Gilbert. Francis Malbone and His Brother Saunders, about 1773. Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 111.8cm (36 x 44in.). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The couple met when Ralph began boarding at the Schenck family home in 1810. The attraction was instant, and Jane’s parents forbade her from being in contact with Ralph, for in their eyes, he was an unsuitable match for Jane. Once we discovered this information by reading their letters, it was obvious why Jane did not describe Ralph in her journal before their marriage—she would not have risked producing such evidence for their secret courtship. In order to communicate surreptitiously, Ralph developed an elaborate ruse to keep Mr. and Mrs. Schenck from discovering their letters. He addressed his writings to a Miss Enaj Werter (Enaj is Jane spelled backwards) and would have them delivered to the Manhattan post office. Since there was no one in the city by that name, the letters would sit at the post office until Jane was able to retrieve them. Sending the letters to a Manhattan post office rather than a Brooklyn one insured that Jane would not be recognized by the local Brooklyn townspeople when she picked up the letters. As an extra manner of secrecy and perhaps flirtation, the couple would use a form of backwards writing in which the words of the sentence are in the correct order but each individual word is spelled backwards. Often times a single line of backwards writing is found amidst a regular letter, but in one particularly fascinating letter from 1810 (seen here), written while he was still boarding at Jane’s house, Ralph chose to write the entire letter backwards, surely to deter any suspicious readers from reading its steamy contents.

Malbone, Ralph. [Letter to Enaj Werter from Ralph Malbone], March 20, 1812. Letter. From the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives, Correspondence between Jane Schenck Malbone and Ralph Malbone, 1810-1859.

Malbone, Ralph. [Letter to Enaj Werter from Ralph Malbone], March 20, 1812. Letter. From the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives, Correspondence between Jane Schenck Malbone and Ralph Malbone, 1810-1859.

 

Malbone, Ralph. [Letter from Ralph Malbone to Jane Schenck], July 20, 18[10]. Letter. From the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives, Correspondence between Jane Schenck Malbone and Ralph Malbone, 1810-1859.

Malbone, Ralph. [Letter from Ralph Malbone to Jane Schenck], July 20, 18[10]. Letter. From the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives, Correspondence between Jane Schenck Malbone and Ralph Malbone, 1810-1859.

In June of 1812 the war broke out, and Ralph, ever the resourceful entrepreneur, saw it as an opportunity to amass the fortune he so desperately needed in order to marry Jane. Having been trained in administering vaccines back in Connecticut, Ralph decided to leave Brooklyn and travel around the Northeast United States administering smallpox vaccines to soldiers and citizens. Their secret courtship persisted for another three years until Ralph returned to Brooklyn in 1815 with his modest fortune and officially asked for Jane’s hand in marriage. They were married on August 18, 1815 at the St. James Episcopalian Church in Newton, Long Island. For the first few months of their marriage, Ralph continued to travel around Long Island administering vaccines. On March 10, 1816 Jane revealed to Ralph in a letter that she was pregnant with their first child, and on October 23, 1816 Nicholas “Schenck” Malbone was born. Nicholas was primarily referred to as Schenck, which may have been a tradition at that time, since Jane’s eldest brother was called Remsen, their mother’s maiden name. Ralph settled down to tend to his family and opened up a grocery store at 310 Fulton Street where they lived from about 1817-1837. The couple had four children—Nicholas Schenck, Julia Maria, Mary Esther, and Evan Johnson.

6.	Schenck, Jane. [Letter from Jane Schenck to Ralph Malbone], undated. Letter. From the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives, Correspondence between Jane Schenck Malbone and Ralph Malbone, 1810-1859.

Schenck, Jane. [Letter from Jane Schenck to Ralph Malbone], undated. Letter. From the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives, Correspondence between Jane Schenck Malbone and Ralph Malbone, 1810-1859.

The Brooklyn Museum has more than one connection to Jane and Ralph Malbone. In 1825 the cornerstone for the Brooklyn Apprentice’s Library was laid by General Lafayette at the corner of Cranberry and Henry Streets in Brooklyn. In 1858 Walt Whitman recounted the event in an article for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle saying, “The writer hereof was present at the laying of the Library corner-stone—being then, (Fourth of July, 1825,) a little Brooklyn school-boy, six years old—and remembers the whole scene very distinctly…Lafayette himself assisted. The writer recollects well the pride he felt in being one of those who happened to be taken into Lafayette’s arms, and passed down.” 1 Jane and Ralph were living on Fulton Street at this time, and were well-known members of the community. It is very possible that they were in attendance at this event or at least were aware of its happening. The Brooklyn Apprentice’s Library was reorganized into the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1843 and would later become what is now known as the Brooklyn Museum.

Engraving of the Brooklyn Apprentice’s Library, circa 1825. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives.

Engraving of the Brooklyn Apprentice’s Library, circa 1825. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives.
Black, J.W. [Walt Whitman]. Print, around 1860. From the Bayley Collection, Ohio Wesleyan University.
Black, J.W. [Walt Whitman]. Print, around 1860. From the Bayley Collection, Ohio Wesleyan University.

Around 1837 Jane and Ralph moved to Fayette, NY in Seneca County. Jane lived out the remainder of her life there, passing away on May 28, 1843 at the age of 51. Ralph immediately moved back to Brooklyn and took up an office at 1 Front Street where he worked in real estate until his death in 1860. Although Ralph remarried, he was eventually buried next to his true love, Jane, at the Dutch Reformed Church Cemetery in Flatlands. In 1862 Whitman wrote a column for the Brooklyn Standard called “Brooklyniana.” In this column, he lists the “old and well-known citizens of Brooklyn” and Mr. Ralph Malbone makes the cut, even two years after his death.2 Ralph ascended from being a penniless outsider to a well-known and respectable citizen of Brooklyn. His and Jane’s love story not only tells the tale of two young defiant lovers, but also of the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and determination of young Americans living in Brooklyn at the onset of our nation’s independence. 

Giana Ricci, Kress NYARC Fellow for Reader Services, Brooklyn Museum Library


Works Cited

[1] Whitman, Walt. “Our City Just 35 Years Since.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 3, 1858.

[2] Whitman, Walt. "Brooklyniana, No.17." Brooklyn Standard 5 April 1862.

 


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