Matthews Mausoleum

John Matthews
1808-January 12, 1870

One of the most effervescent tombs gracing Green-Wood’s grounds is the monument to John Matthews. Its spectacular array of ornamentation looks like it just bubbled out of the ground in a terracotta and marble ooze. And well it should bubble; for John Matthews brought soda water to America. Mathews was born in England. As a teenager he apprenticed in the shop of inventor, Joseph Bramah, where he learned how to make machinery and most importantly learned how to make carbonic acid gas, the essential ingredient for soda water. In 1832 he left England for America and soon set up shop at 55 Gold Street in Manhattan where he began to manufacture carbonating machinery and sell soda water to local retailers.

Matthews’ business took off when he realized he could use marble chips to make soda water and that there was an ample supply thanks to the many construction projects taking place in the booming burg of New York. In fact, there were enough scrap marble chips from the building of nearby St. Patrick’s Cathedral to make twenty-five million gallons of soda water. Matthews’ other advantage over his competitors was his rather ingenious human-safety-valve in the form of an ex-slave named Ben Austen. At the time, safety valves were unreliable and there were frequent explosions. Ben Austen had a large and powerful thumb that he held over the pressure cock. When the pressure blew Austen’s thumb off the pressure cock, the pressure in the tank had reached the desired limit of 150 pounds and the pressurization was stopped.  Austen’s thumb was so valuable that when a number of blacks were lynched during the Irish riots during the Civil War, Austen was hidden in a shipping crate to avoid detection. The term, “Ben’s thumb” was part of the jargon in the soda water manufacturing industry, meaning the soda water was at the proper pressure.

John Matthews’ business continued to prosper and he opened up numerous soda fountains, sold soda water, added flavoring to soda water and licensed soda water apparatus. By the time he died, Matthews owned over 500 soda fountains. The Soda Water King’s final resting place is in the form of a catafalque/sarcophagus encompassed in a castrum doloris (Latin for castle of grief) a type of elaborate tomb usually reserved for royalty, Popes and the elite. These tombs are adorned with funerary symbols, allegorical figures and often scenes from the person’s life. The Matthews tomb has the faces of his daughters carved into the gables, his wife (some accounts say it is a statue of grief) seated above him, gargoyles and various woodland animals scampering around the edges. Prostrate and almost melting into his sarcophagus, Matthews looks up at relief panels, which depict events in his life —apprenticing at the shop in England, leaving England for America, pondering the idea of soda water and finally being crowned for his achievements. The area around the Matthews tomb is peppered with the graves of other members of the Matthews family.

The tomb, which was crafted by Karl Muller, won an award as the “Mortuary Monument of the Year” soon after it was built in 1870. However, noted art critic Effie Brower had other words for it. In her 1878 book In Memoriam: Greenwood Leaves she said [it reflected] “the hideousness of morbid taste”.
Photo and text © Douglas Keister Visit Doug’s Author Page

[address cemetery=”Green-Wood Cemetery” street=”Willow Avenue” city=”Brooklyn” state=”New York” zip=”11218″]

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