New York American March 1907

Register Gass’s office looted of records for private draft

Last properties interests are involved by seizure of public documents

Women discover frauds

 Books are held by men who exact enormous fees to permit searches

An investigation involving property interest worth immense sums has been instigated on the office of the Register of New York by two women. Charges embodied in an affidavit were placed yesterday in the hands of Register Frank Gass, which alleged that serious offenses have been committed in his office, “such as the stealing, mutilation and defacing of the public records.” It also is charged that a great quantity of the missing records is in the possession of private individuals, who make a business of permitting searchers to examine them upon the payment of large fees. So grave were the allegations of the affidavit that the Register has decided to enlist the aid of the District Attorney’s Office.

Theft of Records Admitted

(the beginning is largely unintelligible) Estelle and Isabelle Evesson, granddaughters of Abraham Bassford…the different counties of this State.  Yours very truly, (so signature) 307 West 11th Street, New York.

“I called at Number West one hundred and Sixteenth Street, said Miss Evesson “and met a woman there who said she owned the records referred to.  She said her husband had been a searcher in the Register’s office many years, and that upon his death, last November, he willed her all of his property.

Asked $60,000 for records

(the beginning is largely unintelligible) …show anything of her husband’s business, except that he made extensive copies of the city’s …The records were the property of a searcher in the Register’s office and were left to his widow.” “We, however, have a certain interest in them, as they were stored with us by the searcher. At number 307 W. 116th Street a woman, who said that her husband had for years been a searcher the Register’s office had placed a large quantity of maps in Realty records in storage at number 280 Pearl Street.”

Records date back to 1873

Another set of records now said to be in possession of private individuals, was found, the Evesson sister say, in the house in East 178th St., the Bronx. They are supposed to have been taken from the Department of Taxes and Assessments, and relate to Westchester County property which was annexed to the city. “I visited the place,” said Miss Evesson, “and after I had paid a deposit a young woman who said she was the daughter of a public official, now dead, brought out a large number of maps and records, bound, with city of New York in gilt lettering on the volumes. I also saw their what were represented as official assessment rolls for 1872 and 1873…(this section) is largely unintelligible) request for cash payment of $10,000, to be deferred for a cash payment of $5000. This ended my visit.”

…quantity of the missing records is in the possession of private individuals, who make a business of permitting searchers to examine them upon payment of large fees.  So grave were the allegations of the affidavit that the Register has decided to enlist the aid of the District Attorney’s Office.  Estelle and Isabelle Evesson the granddaughters of Abraham Bassford, one of the largest owners of New York real estate a half century ago, are the women who aroused the Register to action. They assert that as a result of two years labor among the public archives in the effort to prove that they were defrauded out of property now worth from $10 to $20 million dollars; they have unearthed crimes of outstanding boldness, dating from the days of Boss Tweed and Richard T Connolly, and continuing down to the present time. That public records have been stolen from the Register’s office has already been admitted. That official books have been tampered with which seem evident from the numerous erasures, insertions and iterations party brought to the Register’s attention, but as this phase of the investigation will necessitate careful inquiry, the facts underlying these changes may not be discovered for some time. A cursory investigation made by the District Attorney’s Office has elicited from employees of the Register’s office and many hundreds of the original libers and maps are missing. Only copies now are available.

Public records in private hands

Some of the original volumes were put away where rats have well-nigh devoured them. Others have disappeared altogether. The Evesson sisters also made the charge that in some manner a large quantity of the records belonging to the city have found their way into the hands of private owners, who make a business of permitting searchers to examine them upon the payment of extortionate fees.

“I have learned of the existence of four different sets of records,” said Miss Estelle Clayton Evesson yesterday, “the possessors of which all claim that they are the original records, the property of New York City, for which they now will not permit to be examined without pay.”

In the affidavit to which Miss Evesson and her sister have affixed their signatures, and which is now in the possession of Register Gass, mention is made of 18 cases of maps and records plainly marked with the city’s official seal and dates of filing in which many persons whom we can produce have…(illegible) and led her in the possession of four men…280 Pearl Street, Borough of Manhattan, New York City

City property willed to her

The names of the four men also were given to the Register with a formal request that he take all necessary steps to restore these documents at once to the Hall of records.

“I first learned of these eighteen cases of missing maps and books,” said Mrs. Evesson, “through a circular letter handed me while at work in the Register’s office. It read in part as follows: “Dear Sir—I take this liberty in writing you to inform you of the existence of the complete set of real estate and mortgage records, that are for sale or for rent. The records and maps can be seen at any time upon appointment of one day in advance. They are in a light and clean room in a storage warehouse, suitable for searching purposes, which upon a proper fee, will be at your service at any time. I feel sure that these records will be the means of enlightening you upon a good many lost pieces real estate records in records in the different counties of this State.  Yours very Truly… At one time she said that she be had been offered as high as $40,000 for them by the Great American Title and Mortgage company but declined the sum holding them…

For the purpose of investigating this a standing proposition my sister and myself and hurt into negotiations offering the woman a certain sum in advance of the stipulated percentage of our ultimate recovery.

She assented and it was arranged that we go to number 280 Pearl St. with a truck to obtain those records which had especially to do with the Bassford estate.

At the Pearl Street address, we encountered a set of men who had once began to make trouble and asserted that of the widow did not own the record; that if we wanted to do business, we must come to an understanding with them. They said that the figures of our agreement with her were ridiculously low and that a large cash fee was necessary in addition to a much greater percentage of gross recovery.

Graft and extortion alleged

Finally, things came to such a pass at one of the men grossly insulted us, and seizing the widow by the arm, hurled her away. The man asserted again and again that the records were original documents and part of the official records of the Register’s office.

A witness to this same proceeding is an attorney with offices on the fifth floor of the Mutual Life building. When seen, he said, “at present I do not care that mining be used in this matter. It is true that the man who claimed possession of the maps and records at number 280 Pearl Street made the assertion to me as well as Miss Evesson that these documents are the official city records. It is high time that lawyers unite to fight the graft and extortion in the Register’s office. One attorney alone is powerless, because if he takes up arms against these abuses, he is ever after were persecuted by the crafter. His business is ruined and his career.”

Miss Evesson who has come to be known among members of the legal profession is a veritable Joan of Arc. (Illegible)…of the city has shrunk also told an American reporter that representatives of the great title insurance companies are granted special privileges in the Register’s office, so that they practically dominate the custodians and other officials. The reason for this partiality is the fact that not a few officials of the Register’s office, she added, are employed by these companies.

“For example, several times when the hour of closing came, I have been compelled to drop my work in the part, although the insurance searchers were permitted to remain as late as he pleased. When I complained I was told that the companies paid for such extra privileges.”

Admits Possession of Documents

At number 280 Pearl St., American reporters found a representative of a firm of importers, who referred all inquiries to a diamond merchant at number 65 Nassau Street A clerk at the Nassau Street office stated that the diamond merchant might be seen at his Harlem home. There was a young man who said he was a son and was empowered to act for his father.

“Have you any maps are records that might assist the Bassford estate heirs in the search of title?” The son was asked. “We certainly have,” was a reply. “These records however are very valuable and if you wish to use them, you’ll have to pay for doing so.”

“Are these maps and records official?”

“They certainly are,” answered the young man emphatically.

“Are these documents the original city records?”

“I don’t want to answer that question. You’ll have to see for yourself.”

“How much are they worth?”

“Why the whole outfit is certainly worth $50,000,” responded the young man

Maps Vanishing Constantly

Among the mutilations to which Miss Evesson has called the attention of Register Gass are pages in grantee books, where the name of Bassford has been erased and other names substituted. In one instance the name of Berry is written over Bassford.

On the flyleaf of index book “B,” grantee number four, January 1857 through June, 1864, this remarkable inscription was discovered: “Take out grantor leaves and make it grantee in place of.”

The Register’s lieutenants frankly admit that maps are constantly disappearing. One of the last to vanish was the original map of Little Hell Gate, a property involved in the litigation.

Some of the charges made to the Register were brought before Assistant District Attorney Krotel, a fortnight ago by the granddaughters of Abraham Bassford, acting for their mother, Mrs. Florine A Evesson, only surviving child of the great landholder.

Seized by Tweed Ring

Mr. Kotel examined several witnesses from the Register’s office, but took no further action at that time, as the facts then elicited did not convince him that the District Attorney could properly act.

Miss E Clayton Evesson and Mrs. Isabel Evesson Cooper, her sister, before taking up the search of the labyrinthine Bassford title were well-known in the theatrical world. Although their mother was born to great wealth and reared in luxury, the daughters were compelled to earn their own way.

The property originally owned by their grandfather, the sisters say, consisted of large farm tracks in the Bronx and valuable lots in Fulton and Centre streets and other downtown districts.

It is alleged by the Bassford heirs that the commissioners appointed to distribute the Bassford property among the heirs only reported upon a small portion of the holdings. The remainder was seized; it is unsure who covered up their operation by chains of false deeds and transfers.

Not a few prominent businessmen have been enlisted by the Bassford heirs to aid their fight, among them being George P Sheldon, president of the Phoenix Insurance company; George W Fortmeyer, of the National Lead Company; William J Rogers, president of the Bordon Condensed Milk Company; T A Liebler, of Liebler and Company, theatrical managers; O J Gude, president of the OJ Gude advertising company; Walter Bruen, president of the Parker Bruen Fire Escape Company, and ex-judge, Peter Schmuck.

The experience of the granddaughters of Abraham Bassford in finding persons who claim to possess city records did not astonish Cyril H Burdette, secretary of the title insurance company. He said that his corporation had been approached by persons who desire to sell maps and records, said to be official documents of the city. He added: “if the Register has proof the city records are in possession of outside parties is his business to replevin them.”

Walter Linder, solicitor for the Title Guarantee and Trust company, when asked if the loss of original maps from the Register’s office did not seriously endanger the title of lands for many thousands of property owners, replied: “So complete is the equipment of a title company that it makes little if any difference how many maps now on record disappear.