MURRAY HILL — A little known tea party on Park Avenue and East 36th Street may have saved lives during the American Revolutionary War — if you believe the legend.
The Battle of Brooklyn, which began on Aug. 27, 1776 and saw General George Washington’s forces pushed off Long Island in a hasty retreat under the cover of darkness to Manhattan, is not remembered as being among the finer moments of the young nation.
But within that history is the more triumphant story of one brave woman, Mary Lindley Murray, who legend has it kept British forces from advancing on the retreating Americans using just her feminine wiles and tea.
Murray, whose family and estate gave the current-day neighborhood of Murray Hill its name, has long been credited with hosting British commander Admiral William Howe and his men in a ploy that gave the retreating Americans a chance to escape.
According to the tale, Murray held a soiree at the Murray Mansion — located at what is now Park Avenue and East 36th Street — and fooled Howe, a known womanizer, into dilly dallying as the Americans headed north to Harlem according to historian Valerie Paley.
“He was known to be a bit of a womanizer, and the story has been that he must have been enchanted by the Murray women in order to allow the Americans time to get away,” said Paley, who is vice president and chief historian at the New York Historical Society.
But the reality is likely more complicated.
According to Paley, New York was not a hotbed of patriotic fervor during the war, especially in 1776, with the most powerful navy in the world parked in the harbor and the fate of the nation in doubt. New York was a center of commerce, and many business leaders were willing to work under whomever allowed them to go about their business smoothly, she said.
Enter the Murrays. Robert Murray, Mary’s husband, was a founder of the New York Chamber of Commerce, and during the war he would go on to make a killing selling gunpowder to both sides, according to Paley.
In the aftermath of the battle, when Great Britain occupied the city for the remainder of the war, it was in Murray’s interest to get along with the British, which according to Paley he did by hosting lavish gatherings at the Murray mansion. It is possible that Admiral Howe’s tea-time with the Murray women was something of a precursor to that chummy rapport, Paley said.
Regardless of whether it was Murray’s intention to use her charm to delay the Brits, her apparently heroic deed lodged itself in the imagination of historians and the legend began to coalesce in the mid-to-late 1800s, Paley said.
It was a time in which historians were beginning to construct the larger historical narrative of America’s birth, and no matter how you look at it, the Battle of Brooklyn and the subsequent landing of British forces at Kips Bay were routs, in which the American forces were beaten soundly and forced into retreating repeatedly.
So a wily move by a savvy patriot may have provided just the positive sheen the episode needed in order to be chalked up as something other than total defeat, according to Paley.
“Later on, the historians had to spin it in a way that seems a little more positive,” she said. “They say history is written by the victors, and though the Americans lost that battle they won the war. So they were thinking about spinning this in a way that perpetuates an idea of exceptionalism, this triumphant fight for liberty.”
The legend also arose in response to the somewhat baffling decision by the British to allow the escape of the Americans, Paley said.
“There has always been the question of why Admiral Howe delayed when he could have easily wiped out the retreating American militias,” she said. “I think this legend came into play as an answer to that.”
But again, the reality is likely more mundane. According to Paley, there were standing orders for British forces to wait in Kips Bay rather than pursue the Americans, and tea party or no this blunder likely would have allowed the militia to escape.