The landmarked Garibaldi Meucci Museum, set in the heart of Rosebank, preserves the legacy of the two men who once called it home. It was a long-held belief that Meucci and his wife, Esther, lived in the house for a few years before Garibaldi arrived in the United States, but an exciting finding in their archives showed they were here at the same time.
“After Meucci and Garibaldi met at a social gathering and bonded over their former lives on the Italian peninsula, they each expressed a desire to move into a quiet home, away from the hustle-and-bustle of New York City,” said Amanda Seaman, an Administrative Assistant at the Garibaldi Meucci Museum.
Meucci made his way to Staten Island, continuing technical work with an opera company that moved from Italy to Cuba and to New York. Garibaldi was forced to flee Italy when Rome fell in 1849. He was being hunted by Austrian, French, Spanish and Neapolitan troops before he arrived on Staten Island.
Meucci was born on April 13, 1808, in Florence. He studied arts and sciences, but stopped attending school because it was too expensive -- though his studies laid the foundation for his future as an inventor, Seaman said. He found employment as a stage technician in the Teatro della Pergola Opera House, where he met Ester Mochi, who was a costume designer. They married on Aug. 7, 1834, in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. A year later, the couple left Italy for Havana, Cuba, to continue their work in theater.
While in Cuba, Meucci made a discovery that eventually led to his invention of the telephone.
“Back in the day, to treat migraines, you would use electrotherapy,” Seaman said. “He was trained in that. He had administered electrotherapy on a friend. He heard him screaming over the wire. He got the idea that sound can travel over copper wires, so he brought that idea with him to Staten Island.”
At his home, he rigged up a system connecting his workshop to the second-floor when Esther became confined to bed with crippling arthritis, Seaman said.
“He used it to check up on her during the day,” Seaman said. “It was essentially, the invention of the telephone.” But Meucci couldn’t afford the $200 to purchase a patent for his invention, so he obtained a one-year caveat for $20.
“The caveat was a cheaper version of a patent and he only had it for a short amount of time,” Seaman said. “He wouldn’t have been able to claim the telephone as his invention under a caveat. Eventually, the patent went to Alexander Graham Bell.”
Though, Meucci did display his invention publicly, the news was only covered in an Italian newspaper. A fire consumed the printing press and destroyed any published accounts of Meucci’s work.
“Meucci tried desperately to prove himself to be the true inventor of the telephone, which resulted in a court case against Bell,” Seaman said. “There were no records to help support his case. He also didn’t speak English, which didn’t help his case in court when he was trying to defend himself against Bell’s telephone company.”
Once Meucci lost at trial, an appeal was planned, but he died before the case could be brought back to court.
“Antonio Meucci lived most of his life unable to amass great wealth due to his inventive and curious nature which usually led him to spend most of his earned money on books and equipment for said inventions,” Seaman said. “He did drum up some support from Americans who understood his plight, but he never enjoyed the luxuries of his invention during his lifetime. Meucci died a poor man but in the last two years of his life he is reported to have received a small pension from the Italian government to pay for very basic living expenses.”
As of the early 2000s, Meucci has been recognized for his work on the early model of the telephone by the City of New York and by the Federal Government of the United States.
While Meucci was fighting his battle for the patent on the telephone, Giuseppe Garibaldi was in a fight of his own: To unite Italy.
Gen. Garibaldi was born in the provincial city of Nice in 1807. In 1833, he joined the young Italy movement but failures in battle led to him to flee to Brazil, where he found himself among other Italian exiles. He formed the Italian Legion in 1843 – a black flag represented an Italy in mourning, but the volcano at its center symbolized their dormant power in their homeland. Later, in Uruguay, the Italian Legion sported the “red shirts” that became their symbol. He returned to Italy in 1848, but was forced to flee again when Rome fell on June 30, 1849. His wife, Anita, who was pregnant with their fifth child, died during the retreat.
He eventually made his way to the quarantine grounds on Staten Island with his friend, Major Paolo Bovi Campeggi, according to Seaman. They later stayed at the Pavilion Hotel in St. George to be closer to Gen. Garibaldi’s physician. He met Meucci at a social gathering and they began looking for a rental home in Harlem and Long Island, but didn’t find anything suitable.
“Meucci’s wife, Esther, was hellbent on having a house,” Seaman said.
Garibaldi and Meucci were joined by Lorenzo Salvi, a talented opera tenor and friend to the Meucci’s, in looking for a rental home. Salvi eventually suggested the vacation home of impresario Max Maretzek, a Czech violinist and founder/owner of the Max Maretzek Italian Opera Company, located in the Clifton area of Staten Island.
“The lease for the house was turned over to Antonio Meucci who, at the time, had the most viable bank account,” Seaman said. “The Meucci’s, General Garibaldi, Major Campeggi, and Lorenzo Salvi then occupied the property.”
Meucci continued with his inventions, developing smokeless candles. Garibaldi joined him in his candle-making workshop.
“Along with making preserved meat products, brewing beer, making furniture, hunting and fishing, and other similar activities the group also hosted and entertained financiers and businessmen who helped raise money for the Italian cause,” Seaman said.
Garibaldi returned to Italy in 1854 and would ultimately be hailed as its unifier. He died on June 2, 1882.
Meucci died in his home on Oct. 8, 1889, and his ashes were buried on the grounds. Esther’s remains were originally buried elsewhere, but she was later reinterred on the museum’s grounds too.
After Meucci’s death, the house was cared for by members of the surrounding Italian-American community, and eventually became the Garibaldi Memorial in dedication to the freedom fighter’s 100th birthday. It was later renamed in honor of both men. It was landmarked in 1967 and contains some of the original belongings of both Garibaldi and Meucci, including a shaving mirror, a wooden walking stick, a red shirt worn by Garibaldi’s famed army, a handmade piano, and a rocking chair. It is now maintained by the The Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America.
“It has such an important place in Staten Island history, especially in the wider aspect of Italian-American History,” said Seaman. “The museum gives a good and honest look at what the life of these two men looked like and how they’ve made their mark on the world in one way or another. During the lives of Giuseppe Garibaldi and Antonio Meucci, the home was a beacon for Italian businessmen, financiers, and revolutionaries who were all working towards the common goal of establishing the Italian nation while simultaneously making an honest living here in the United States. Now, the house is a beacon for those who want to reconnect to their Italian roots as they walk throughout each room and hear about each man’s greatest triumphs and tribulations.”
For information on the Garibaldi Meucci Museum, visit their website at https://www.garibaldimeuccimuseum.com.
(Photos courtesy of the Garibaldi Meucci Museum)