The Great Patroness: Blandia Dudley

Blandina Bleeker Dudley bas relief by Erastus Dow Palmer

Blandina Bleeker Dudley bas relief by Erastus Dow Palmer

Writing about Blandina Dudley can be tricky.  I can wish it were different, but almost all of our sources focus on her relationship with the men around her.  Basically, any discussion of Mrs. Dudley fails the Bechdel test.

Mrs. Dudley was born Blandina Bleecker, part of the prosperous Dutch Bleecker family.  Her great-grandfather, Jan Jansen Bleecker (1641-1732), emigrated to American in 1658.  He started out as a blacksmith, but quickly became financially successful as a merchant, surveyor and land speculator.  Most famously he owned part of the Saratoga patent that included Bemis Heights.  He was politically successful as well, serving in various roles in Albany politics, including Mayor in 1700.

Jan Jansen’s grandson, Rutger Bleecker (1745-1831), continued the tradition of land speculation and surveying.  Somehow after the Revolution he ended up with a fair amount of property seized from Tories and became very wealthy from the sale.  Rutger’s wife, Catharina Elmendorf, gave birth to Blandina in 1783.

And now we run into problems.  We know nothing about Blandina’s life until she marries Charles Dudley, and then nothing until after his death.  Her connection to the Observatory begins in 1851, when she supported the original capital drive to build an observatory by donating $10,000, around $300,000 in today’s money.  When she did so, she cited her late husband’s interest in astronomy and mentioned a honeymoon stop at the Greenwich Observatory.

Things get complicated after that.  Once again, Blandina is surrounded by men who take up most of the spotlight.  The banker Thomas Olcott and one of her nephews convinced her to up the donation to $13,000.  That allowed Olcott to claim credit for this and later donations, as if Blandina’s actions were not really her own.

One way or another, Blandina remained one of the most reliable supporters of the observatory.  When the Lazzaroni struck their deal with James Armby to support the observatory in return for the purchase of some specialized equipment, it was Blandina who agreed to foot the bill for the instruments.  (The most expensive item, the heliometer, never got made, so it’s not clear she ended up paying.)

On the day of the inauguration, Blandina donated a further $50,000.  When all was tallied up, Blandina donated around $105,000, around $3 million in today’s money.   It was a remarkable donation during the years leading up to the civil war.

American observatories have a knack for selling immortality.  Real estate magnate James Lick would be forgotten, except perhaps as the man who introduced America to Ghirardelli chocolate, if he hadn’t paid for Lick Observatory.  Charles Tyson Yerkes would be grimly remembered as one of the most corrupt men in America had he not funded the Yerkes Observatory.

So it goes with Blandina Dudley.  Oddly, despite the fact that she named the Observatory after her late husband, we remember her and forget him.  Unfortunately, we remember that she donated the money, and that’s about it.  As always, I’m convinced there’s a trove of letters out there just waiting to shed some light on the rest of Blandina’s life.  If anyone has stumbled across something involving Blandina Bleecker Dudley, please drop us an email.

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