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Alexander Gardner

Autographed Letter

1249398-1

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Photographer Alexander Gardner, together with over forty of Washington's luminaries, pay tribute to one of America's earliest strongmen and fitness gurus: Abner S. Brady.

Rare Letter Signed, "Alex Gardner," "Ward H Lamon," "Ely S. Parker," together with forty other Washington notables, 3 pages, 7.75" x 9.75", Washington, May 9, 1866, addressed to strongman and gymnast Abner S. Brady inviting him to a benefit at Grover's Theatre in Washington to be held in his honor. Moderate toning from dampstain, some glue and blue ink remnants on verso of page one, small hole at top left of page one not affecting text, usual folds, else very good.

The letter reads in full: "We the undersigned, members & friends of your Gymnasium, in the high appreciation in which you are held by us, as well for your indefatigable zeal in promoting the physical well being of all who have placed themselves under your instruction & care, as for your uniformly genial and exemplary deportment as a citizen, have determined on the night of the 28th inst at Grover's Theatre, to tender to you a complimentary benefit, and for this purpose have already engaged the building. We propose in addition to the giving a full Gymnastic Exhibition to vary the entertainment with choice music, to the end that our efforts may prove a decided success. Please advise us of your approval or otherwise of our action in this matter."

Within two years of affixing his extremely rare signature to this letter, Alexander Gardner left photography to start an insurance business. Interestingly enough, just above Gardner's signature is that of fellow photographer John Goldin who created the print, Death Bed of Lincoln / April 15, 1865. Other luminaries who added their signature to the invitation include Ward Hill Lamon (1828-1893) a personal friend of Lincoln and self-appointed bodyguard; Henry Clay Ford (1844-1915) brother of John T. Ford, and stage manger of Ford's Theatre at the time of Lincoln's assassination (Ford was the one who informed John Wilkes Booth that Lincoln would be attending Ford's Theatre the evening of April 14, 1865); Ely S. Parker (1828-1895) U.S. Grant's military secretary during the Civil war, the last Grand Sachem of the Iroquois, and the first Native American to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs; Grant's aide-de-camp, P.T. Hudson; Richard Wallach (1816-1881) the first Republican Mayor of Washington (1861-68) who oversaw the police response to Lincoln's assassination; and William E. Chandler (1835-1917) as Solicitor and Judge Advocate General of the Navy (later served as Secretary of the Navy in the Arthur Administration).

Abner S. Brady (c. 1835 - 1890) assumed management of the Washington Gymnasium in 1864. Located on the corer of Louisiana Avenue and West 9th Street, the facility was established in 1857 by L. W. Shattuck, and featured a large hall, approximately 70 by 55 feet, with "an elliptical race-course, about sixty yards in length... designed for exercise in running, after the manner of the ancients... The rest of the hall is occupied with every variety of gymnastic apparatus..." (The States, Washington, June 5, 1857, 3). Brady, an early 'strongman' and fitness guru, got his start in New York, where he ran "Abner S. Brady's Zouave Manufactory" on St. Mark's place, "where the soldiers of the Seventh Regiment are exercised far beyond drilling, and where all civilians who see fit to join are greatly strengthened for the battle of life..." (New York Times, February 15, 1861) Brady was a member of the regiment himself, joining in 1854 and resigning in 1863. In recognition of his contributions, the regiment awarded him with a medal (National Republican, Washington, August 16, 1864, 2).

There must have been a scramble among the organizers of the Grover's Theatre benefit as it would appear that the "28th inst." was not going to work for Mr. Brady. Plans were soon adjusted and the fete for the celebrated strongman and gymnast was instead held on June 4, 1866 at Grover's Theatre (today known as the National Theatre), in a grand concert (in which Brady's wife sang soprano), and Mr. Brady himself performed an "EXHIBITION OF GYMNASTICS" together with "FORTY of his best Pupils, surpassing any professionals in the country..." (Evening Star, Washington, June 4, 1866).

After a few more years in Washington, Brady gravitated back to New York, which by 1869 had become caught up in the craze for velocipedes—the precursor to the modern bicycle. The following year, Brady opened a new venue in Jersey City, New Jersey offering "Brady's Curriculum, Gymnasium, Velocipedes, Bowling, Shooting, Ice Cream &c &c.". Brady appears again in the news 1871, again in Jersey City, New Jersey where he & another man were arrested for assaulting a black man. Brady was acquitted, but his treasurer, Robert Beggs was convicted of "a simple assault." ("Velocipede Notes," New York Herald, June 7, 1869, 10; Jersey Journal, June 13, 1879, 2; Ibid, January 5, 1871, 1; Ibid, February 11, 1871, 4 ).

Following this ugly incident Brady appears to have returned to New York where in 1876 he established the "Health-Lift Company" in Union Square which marketed a novel exercise machine. After this point, Brady disappears from the news, On April 30, 1890 Brady died of consumption. His funeral was held at the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue on May 3. Members of the Lafayette Post of the G.A.R. organized the service (Daily Graphic, New York, December 11, 1876, 7; New York Tribune, May 3, 1890, 7).

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