When Sullivan Street had a “Murderers’ Row”

Wouldn’t it be great to travel back in time and poke around the city’s old alleys and courtyards, the remnants of pre-street grid Manhattan?

Murderer’s Row in today’s West Soho was one.

No trace of this colorfully named nook exists there, amid Sullivan’s tenements and Federal-style homes. Luckily Charles Hemstreet recalls it in his 1899 book Nooks & Corners of Old New York.

“‘Murderers’ Row’ has its start where Watts Street [the top street on the map at left] ends at Sullivan, midway of the Block between Grand and Broome Streets.

“It could not be identified by its name, for it is not a ‘row’ at all, merely an ill-smelling alley, an arcade extending through a block of battered tenements.

“After running half its course through the block, the alley is broken by an intersecting space between houses—a space that is taken up by push carts, barrels, tumble-down wooden balconies and lines of drying clothes.

“‘Murderers’ Row’ is celebrated in police annals as a crime centre. But the evil doers were driven out long years ago and the houses given over to Italians. . . .

“Constant complaints are made that the houses are hovels and the alley a breeding-place for disease.”

If you wander down to look for the intersection of Sullivan and Watts Streets, you won’t find it. When Sixth Avenue was extended to Tribeca in the 1920s, the corner was obliterated—along with several tiny blocks.

But the NYPL Digital Collection has a 1916 street map of the corner.

Right: Watts and Sixth Avenue near Sullivan, about where the characters of Murderers’ Row plied their trade.

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7 Responses to “When Sullivan Street had a “Murderers’ Row””

  1. Stacy Walsh Rosenstock Says:

    Although it seems to be marked 6th Ave in the real world, if you look closely at Google Maps you’ll see a strip of Sullivan Street that runs from Canal to Grand Street, just west of Sixth Avenue, with Duarate separating it from Sixth Ave proper.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Ah, thanks, how did I miss that? So Murderers Row was over there.

  3. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Used to be an alley on Sullivan St, if I stood there about 5 minutes a man would approach and ask what I needed. “Firecrackers,” I would quietly answer, passing my two or three dollars. He’d take my bills and disappear into a building, coming out with a small bag of firecrackers. The next day at school the nuns angrily confiscated my blow-up toys with another bad report going to my mother. Of course she was outraged but damn, I wish the nuns would just leave me alone! Ha ha!

    • Tom Says:

      Mick’s recollections and comments add so much to this website. Thank you, Mick, for taking the time and adding your stories.

  4. BabyDave Says:

    Mick — Was that the street-level alley that leads to a back building, or did you have to enter the building and go out a side door down a step or two?

  5. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    BabyDave, no you stood out in the open on Sullivan St near a shut fence until you were approached. I was scared shitless and only did it twice.

  6. sallieparker Says:

    “Murderers Alley” is how it’s called in late 19th century newspapers, but the Sullivan/Grand/Thompson/Broome block was long known as The Arch. It had archway entries at Thompson and Sullivan Sts, with a blind-alley crosspiece in the middle. The neighborhood was reputed to be somewhat French in the early 1800s, but mainly became famous for having a large negro population at mid-century. It became almost entirely Italian in the 1880s and 90s, along with much of the South Village. The Arch was destroyed in the early 20th century by the extension of Watts St through the Sullivan/Thompson block, to Broome St.

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