It All Started With A Ghost Story
It all started with a ghost story, but the infatuation truly began when I saw his portrait. A white shirt with upturned collar frames a handsome face. His elbow rests on the frame of a celestial globe as he gazes thoughtfully off into space. Who was the man in this 1834 portrait? In the age of selfies and social media why did I care?
A book that I discovered in Book Hampton by local artist Val Schaffner, The Astronomer’s House, tells the tale of a Sag Harbor home haunted by the spirit of an astronomer. It was fall, nearly Halloween; I was in the mood for a ghost story. The tale intrigued me. Who was this local astronomer? Google stalking yielded few results. A walking tour of Sag Harbor that I discovered on the Art and Architecture Quarterly of the East End website showed a photo of the astronomer’s house with his true name. The character of the astronomer was based on Sag Harbor resident, Ephraim Niles Byram.
I had to see this house. I found it easily on Jermain Avenue, a sage green Italianate Villa with central three story tower. I could picture Byram upstairs with his telescope mapping the stars. Schaffner’s story involved a mausoleum in the cemetery next door. I was here; why not take a walk in Oakland Cemetery? It was a sunny fall afternoon, I could bravely face any ghosts in residence.
A mausoleum does stand near the entrance of the cemetery, but belongs to the Fahys family of watchcase factory fame, not the Byram’s. More exploration would be needed.
I wandered along scanning for the name Byram. I had the cemetery completely to myself. The souls at rest reposed in solitude. A large monument drew my attention, its beautiful white marble a full size carving in the shape of a broken mast. The dates on the memorial gave a sobering testimony of the whaler’s youth, the bas-relief of sailors in distress at the bottom of the monument, beautiful and heartrending. “Entombed in the ocean, they live in our memory.” Contemplating this, I glance across the graveyard towards the Byram property. A tall monument with a spherical top drew my eye. There lay the Byram family.
At this stage, I still had yet to see Byram’s portrait. That came later when curiosity had me dig deeper. My search hit upon a black and white photo of a portrait on the Smithsonian website. The portrait was by Sag Harbor artist and contemporary of Byram, Orlando Hand Bears. Each stone that I turn uncovers another mystery to explore.
I began a weblog called Painting the Hamptons in 2012 as a means of encouraging my own painting, but it has morphed into a place to share photos of the east end’s beauty, plein air painting adventures, local history, area artists and visits to galleries and museums. The ghost story and ties to a nearly forgotten astronomer became perfect fodder for a pre-Halloween blog entry.
After I posted the story about the astronomer I noticed blog traffic from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. One of MIA’s bloggers had posted a color photo of a portion of the Orlando Bears portrait. Oh my, the portrait was gorgeous. The Smithsonian black and white didn’t do it justice. I emailed Tim Gihring at MIA and he replied that he had taken the photograph and the painting was currently on loan from a private collector in the museum’s American wing.
Shortly there after two posts appear in the comments section of my blog:
Someone sent me this blog, and my husband and I own the painting of Ephraim Niles Byram. It is presently on loan to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It has lovely colors and is in a great yellow-gold painted frame.
Thank you for this very nice piece. Although my reclusive astronomer is based only very loosely on Byram, who in real life had many friends, the first part of the story, including the old ladies playing solitaire, is quite true. I really did visit the house when they had it on the market for $192,500 in 1985. Best– Val Schaffner
I am clearly not the only one intrigued by the astronomer of Sag Harbor.
Further research has necessitated finally getting my library card at the John Jermain Memorial Library, becoming a member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Society, Sag Harbor Historical Society, and becoming a Google stalker extraordinaire. A summary of what I know right now:
Ephraim Niles Byram grew up during the height of the whaling industry. Sag Harbor’s international port was filled with sailors importing whale oil as well as other exotic treasures from around the world. Hanging out near long wharf listening to stories of dangerous sea voyages must have been a popular pass-time. The tales of adventure surely fascinated young Byram. He was an avid reader with a natural curiosity. He amassed a collection of seashells and other natural flora and fauna from around the world. Byram’s interest in the problems of navigation inspired him to learn everything possible on the repair and manufacture of compasses, telescopes, chronometers and other ships gear.
His fascination with the stars resulted in the constructing of a celestial globe. It is this globe, which he poses next to in the painting by Orlando Bears. You can see the globe today in the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. In his mid 20’s Byram won a prestigious award for building a working model of the solar system or an orrery. He took this planetarium on the road, giving lectures on the stars and solar system to much acclaim.
Byram’s reputation was such, that the Sag Harbor Methodist church commissioned him to construct a clock, his first, for their steeple. Tower clocks were an important part of community life. Wearable timepieces were still a rarity at that time. Byram, and later the partnership of Sherry and Byram, built tower clocks for New York’s City Hall and the United States Military Academy at West Point among others. His clocks were known for their beauty and accuracy. Byram is Long Island’s only tower clock maker.
Byram’s father, Eliab, was a master builder and craftsman. His son, Ephraim, learned well as evidenced by some of the items that have survived and been identified as made by him; children’s furniture made by Byram in the customer house collection, a case clock that he made for his home now in the John Jermain Memorial Library collection and the ornately carved legs on his celestial globe. His account book, now in the Sag Harbor Whaling and History Museum, makes mention of the many types of furniture that he repaired as well as musical instruments tuned and serviced.
Byram was known as a walking encyclopedia and famous for his large library. His book binding business was a constant source of income throughout his life.
What about romance? This handsomely portrayed gentleman remained single until the ancient age of 45 when he met and married 18 year-old Cornelia Pierce, a student at Cooper Union. Byram installed his tower clock in City Hall about that time. I would love to know the story of how they met. She was a gifted musician and artist. The couple had three children, Henry Eliab, Ivan Clinton and Loretta Sophia. There is supposedly a collection of letters that he wrote to his family while on the road installing tower clocks, which I am seeking for further insight.
I was recently surprised to learn that there are two portraits of Ephraim Niles Byram by Orlando Hand Bears. Besides the waist up portrait of Byram that is now residing in a Minnesota private collection, there exists a full-length portrait of Byram with telescope owned by a collector here in our area. The painting was recently shown at a local art fair and is available for sale. I did go and see it. I did talk to the owner. He is just as infatuated with Byram as I am.
The story of Ephraim Niles Byram (1809-1881) is one that deserves to be told. Who knows where this ghost story will lead me next.