Leo Hershkowitz, 92, Dies; Unearthed New York City History

Leo Hershkowitz, 92, Dies; Unearthed New York City History

“It is a lonely world,” Professor Hershkowitz told The New York Times in 1990 about his dives through archives, some of them dusty enough to require wearing a protective mask. “I don’t have much company.”

Professor Hershkowitz, who taught history at Queens College for about 50 years, died on Aug. 10 in Boston. He was 92.

His son Herbert Berger-Hershkowitz said the cause was polycythemia vera, a slow-growing blood cancer.

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Leo Hershkowitz found a presidential campaign ribbon for Horatio Seymour and Gen. Frank P. Blair, who lost to Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax in 1868. Credit New-York Historical Society

Professor Hershkowitz’s archival adventures were put to their most renowned use in “Tweed’s’ New York: Another Look” (1977), a revisionist look at the powerful machine politician who was memorably lampooned by Thomas Nast, the Harper’s Weekly cartoonist. Professor Hershkowitz found dusty packets of meticulously kept payrolls and vouchers that helped form his view that Tweed did not pilfer the city’s treasury of tens of millions of dollars, as his accusers have long believed.

“So little has been done to obtain even basic information about the man, and what is known is generally wrong,” he wrote. “Perhaps never has so much nonsense been written about an individual.”

Rather than portraying him as corrupt, Professor Hershkowitz determined that Tweed had been the victim of illicit machinations at his embezzlement trial; that he had shown more vision about the city’s growth than some reformers; and that he had been prosecuted to deflect attention from Republican corruption in Washington. Indeed, he said, the trial prosecutors arranged with Gov. Samuel J. Tilden of New York to handpick a judge who was prejudiced against Tweed.

Tweed was found guilty in 1873. But he was “never tried or found guilty of graft or theft, the crime Tweed stands accused of by history,” Professor Hershkowitz told The Times in 1976.

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Leo Hershkowitz at the Museum of the City of New York in 2005. Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

“He was convicted after some strange, improper, even illegal judicial proceedings,” he added, “which were, in many ways, worse than anything Tweed supposedly committed.”

Professor Hershkowitz’s conclusions were far from the consensus view of Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies.

In a review of his book in New York magazine, the historian Walter Karp dealt skeptically with Professor Hershkowitz’s argument for Tweed’s innocence as a “brave thesis.” If Tweed was innocent, Mr. Karp wrote, “How could so many people combine in so massive a conspiracy against an innocent man?”

And in Commentary magazine, the scholar Suzanne Weaver wrote that “on the crucial question of the kickbacks themselves, Hershkowitz’s only verdict is, ‘Probably no one will ever know.’ ”

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Leo Hershkowitz recovered a Bill for work “Don att City hall” by John Carr in 1728. Credit New-York Historical Society

Leo Hershkowitz was born in the Bronx on Nov. 21, 1924. His father, Elias, worked in a tie factory, and his mother, the former Bertha Wachtel, was a homemaker. As a youngster, he said, his resistance to authority prompted the principal of one of his schools to predict, “You’re going to be a bum.”

After serving in the Army, fixing airplane radios in Hawaii, he attended Hunter College in Manhattan, then received his master’s from Columbia College and his Ph.D. from New York University. He told his family that without the G.I. Bill, which enabled him to go to college, he might have ended up making ties.

Professor Hershkowitz, whose expertise was New York City history and the early history of Jews in the city, began teaching at Queens College in 1960. In later years he also taught at N.Y.U.

There was an outdoor complement to his search for records in warehouse and offices: He was also an urban archaeologist, digging at sites where he hoped to unearth historical artifacts. In 1968, at the enormous ditch where the original World Trade Center would rise, he sifted the ground for weeks, and his work was rewarded with Colonial pottery, handblown glass bottles, early wooden city water pipes and clay smoking pipes.

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Professor Hershkowitz rescued a New Netherland property deed, in Dutch, from 1661. Credit New-York Historical Society

Before the skyscraper at 55 Water Street was erected, he dug up items like Revolutionary War-era wig curlers.

“Whenever he saw an excavation in New York City, he’d sneak into it,” his son said.

William Asadorian, a former student who accompanied Professor Hershkowitz to archives and digs, said in an interview, “He saved a tremendous amount of court records, but because he wanted to save history, he also had an interest in archaeology.”

In 1971, Professor Hershkowitz ventured to the northwest corner of City Hall Park to verify that City Hall had been built on the site of an 18th-century prison, insane asylum and house for vagrants. Using old maps that he had discovered, he and a small team of students dug three holes, each two and a half feet deep, to locate the foundation stones of the complex and establish its footprint.

In addition to his son Herbert, Professor Hershkowitz is survived by another son, Henry; four grandchildren; and a sister, Frances Spiegel. His wife, the former Marcia Berger, a lawyer, died in 2013.

At his longtime home in Freeport, on Long Island, and later at his apartment in the East Village of Manhattan (across the street from land that was once the farm of Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch director-general of New Netherland, which included New Amsterdam, the settlement that became New York City), he displayed excavated artifacts and the models of early ships that he made.

But it is most likely that the documents he saved from shredders’ blades will be his legacy. Albert Rosenthal, a former judge on the New York Court of Appeals, wrote about Professor Hershkowitz’s work in a book he co-edited, “Opening Statements: Law and Jurisprudence in Dutch New York” (2013).

“He has climbed into Dumpsters to retrieve unappreciated items,” Judge Rosenblatt wrote. “He tells of hearing, `You want these things? Take ‘em.’ ”

He happily took them — and preserved some chapters of history.

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