This Sunday, in a Democrat and Chronicle Guest Essay, “All of us should embrace Black History Month,” David Cay Johnston (a Talker subscriber) describes some of the virulent racial propaganda of Dr. John H. Van Evrie (1814 – 1896) called by Johnston one of “the vilest racists in American history,” echoing historian George M. Fredrickson’s assertion that Van Evrie was “perhaps the first professional racist in American history.”
Churning out popular “scientific racism” treatises before and after the Civil War, Van Evrie claimed that blacks and whites were different species, skin color was immutable and blacks were incapable of mastering white languages, expressing emotion and even producing music.
Johnston also remind us — of which few knew — that Van Evrie, who practiced medicine in Rochester’s Smith’s Arcade in the 1840’s before moving to New York, is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery.
Ironically, about the time Van Evrie left Rochester for New York to publish the Weekly Day Book — “White Men Must Rule America” printed on its masthead — Frederick Douglass moved to Rochester to publish The North Star.
My curiosity (perversely) piqued by Van Evrie’s association with Rochester, I sought what information might be available.
In Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity, 1830–1934 (2015), Melissa Stein reads Van Evrie’s 1868 polemical tract White Supremacy and Negro Subordination alongside Douglass’ 1866 address in Philadelphia supporting black suffrage and masterfully refuting claims like Van Evrie’s that black males lack manhood. As Stein demonstrates, to Van Evrie’s chagrin, Douglass would prevail with the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments.
Like other researchers, Stein learned that biographical details on Van Evrie are scant, especially about Van Evrie’s time in Rochester prior to his “successes” in New York. Describing what she found, like Johnston, Stein points out the irony: Van Evrie is buried not too far from Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.
In the accompanying photos and captions, highlighting Van Evrie’s deserved removal to the dust bin of history, Stein notes that the Friends of Mt. Hope do not list Van Evrie as a notable figure buried in the cemetery — though he certainly was.
With the help of wikitree.com and Jay Osbourne, Local History & Genealogy Supervisor at the Rochester Public Library, I found a few details that ask more questions than answer about Van Evrie’s time in Rochester.
John H. Van Evrie was born in Niagara, Canada, the son of David Van Every who during the War of 1812 served as a lieutenant in the 2nd York and 5th Lincoln Militias. At a later date, the spelling of John’s surname became Evrie. In another irony, Van Evrie — raised in a country hospitable to escaping black refugees — became a spokesman for unalloyed racism.
Most likely, Van Evrie came to Rochester in the early 1830s; he is first mentioned in the 1834 city directory as a “student of medicine” living on 4 Ann Street. Van Evrie attended Geneva Medial College (now Hobart and William Smith Colleges), although there is no clear evidence he graduated.¹
Later — first listed in the directory as a clerk in 1841 — Van Evrie’s brother Isaac Brock Van Every moved to Rochester. Isaac disappears from the directory in the mid 1860’s. He may have joined John in New York City as Isaac died in Brooklyn in 1887 — the same city as his brother.
The most interesting listing in the city directory is from 1845/46.
In 1842, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Van Evrie married Sophia Elizabeth Colman, the niece and ward of Thomas Hunt Rochester, the 6th son of Colonel Nathaniel Rochester and the 6th mayor of Rochester. According to the 1845/46 index, Evrie resided next to the Rochester family on Spring Street.
In 1845, Sophia died and her young daughter Catherine (1843 – 1922) moved in next door with the Rochester family and, at some point, was adopted. Around this time, Van Evrie moved to New York. We don’t know why he left his daughter behind or what relationship he maintained with Catherine and her adopted family.
The 1922 Democrat and Chronicle notice of Catherine’s death and internment in Mt. Hope Cemetery focuses on her as a great grand daughter of Colonel Nathaniel Rochester, not mentioning Catherine’s — by now discredited — father.
These details from wikitree and the city directory confirm that Van Evrie — a successful Smith’s Arcade physician married into Rochester aristocracy — was a prominent figure in his day.
Within a few years after leaving Rochester, in New York City Van Evrie made his national mark as a pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist, racial pseudo-scientist. In New York, Van Evrie found a lucrative audience amenable to his doctrines and during the war his Copperhead sentiments helped spark the anti-black draft riots of 1863.
We don’t know to what degree Van Evrie propagated his scientific racism during his time in Rochester. And if Van Evrie was peddling his vile ideas, we don’t know to what degree his formulations were accepted (no doubt to many they were) or rejected by elite Rochester which — if begrudgingly — accepted Douglass and Anthony.
Right now, Van Evrie’s grave in Mt. Hope Cemetery is buried under snow. When winter recedes, take your own look at Van Evrie’s forlorn, fractured and forgotten memorial hoping that, in 1845 or 1846 or 1847, Rochester was glad to bid good riddance.
¹This article found the attention of Michael E. Woods, Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. Professor Woods is at work on a book entitled The Business of Bigotry: John Van Evrie and the Rise of a Racist Publishing Empire. Thanks to the expert assistance of librarians at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, he recently uncovered a letter written by Van Evrie during his studies at Geneva Medical College. Woods has also confirmed that Van Evrie served in the Mexican War as a surgeon. Woods is planning a research trip this summer to western New York, including his own visit to Van Evrie’s grave in Mt. Hope Cemetery.
After researching the piece, I spoke with Professor Melissa Stein (Measuring Manhood) at the University of Kentucky. Stein provides us with more historical context in which to assess Van Evrie and his place in Rochester history. Melissa thanks Rebecca Scales, a classmate from graduate school and now a Professor of History at RIT, who took the Mt. Hope cemetery photos.
Referring to Van Evries’s tombstone, Melissa concludes: Put a plaque next to his grave acknowledging this part of American history, even as we continue to celebrate his contemporaries who fought to change it.
While it is tempting to think of John Van Evrie as the nineteenth-century equivalent of the bombastic uncle at Thanksgiving dinner spewing racist vitriol that everyone ignores, in fact Van Evrie was well within the mainstream of his time. In the nineteenth century, physicians and scientists were widely considered experts on race, which they had constructed as a biologically-based category of difference. Even when people challenged particular claims made by ethnologists (as the “scientists of race” were called at the time) like Van Evrie, they rarely challenged their authority over racial matters. Van Evrie had numerous platforms to espouse his views, and his treatises were widely cited by other ethnologists as well as politicians.
It may be equally tempting to think that Van Evrie was driven out of Rochester for much of his life because of his racist views, but that is unlikely. It is more likely that he moved to New York — where he was living when he self-published his proslavery pamphlets — to broaden his medical practice. And more to the point, Rochester was no different than other northern cities in the nineteenth century — ripe with apparent contradictions in regards to race. Like Rochester, Philadelphia for example boasted a thriving abolitionist movement and influential free black community, but was also a center of ethnological thought. Home to a large number of medical and scientific institutions, the city gave rise to figures like Samuel Morton, whose work on human skulls helped popularize the ethnological theory of polygenesis, or the belief that the black and white races originated separately and represented entirely different species. Similarly, just last spring, New York City removed the statue of J. Marion Sims that long stood in Central Park. A contemporary of Van Evrie’s who lived and practiced in Manhattan at the same time he resided there (though it is unclear if they knew each other personally), Sims has long been lauded as the “father of modern gynecology,” and more recently, a painful symbol of America’s history of medical and scientific racism. Much of the techniques he developed were at the expense of several enslaved black women on whom he experimented, often performing surgical procedures on them without anesthesia or consent.
If there are few records of Van Evrie’s life, few friends who memorialized him in letters or public tribute, it is more likely a matter of personality than on account of his racism. Other men who espoused similar views had friends in high places, left behind copious recorders, and were celebrated in life and in death. Though by no means uncontested, Van Evrie’s racist claims were more mainstream than we like to think, and his relative invisibility in the historical record suggests that he was ill-liked on a more personal level by his peers.
The fact that Van Evrie is buried in the same cemetery as Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony is emblematic of the complexities of America’s past — and present — in regards to race, as well as gender. It is important to remember that Van Evrie held the views he did because people like Douglass and Anthony existed. It was the challenge they represented to white male supremacy through their work first on behalf of abolition, then both black and women’s suffrage that Van Evrie found so threatening that he purchased a printing press to naturalize the status quo. Shameful though his legacy may be, it is crucial that we remember Van Evrie. Put a plaque next to his grave acknowledging this part of American history, even as we continue to celebrate his contemporaries who fought to change it.”
I first learned about Van Evrie when studying the African-American novelist Sutton Grigg’s 1899 novel Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem.
In the novel, a secret black government in Waco, Texas plots to declare war on the United States and form an independent nation.
One African-American character Viola commits suicide rather than marry the mulatto Bernard whom she loves. In her suicide note, Viola explains she is motivated by her reading of Van Evrie’s White Supremacy and Negro Subordination (1868).
Here, Viola apparently accepts Van Evrie’s arguments that miscegenation produces biological devolution. Unlike Van Evrie who feared the damage done to whites by intermarriage, Viola feels blacks are most in danger. It is unclear whether Griggs is endorsing Van Evrie’s genetic arguments against intermarriage or, instead, is ironically undermining Viola’s (mis)reading of white racial propaganda. Nonetheless, Viola’s reference to White Supremacy and Negro Subordination points to Van Evrie’s cultural power lasting into the 20th century.
See also on Frederick Douglass “The greatest American of the nineteenth century”