Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

Waiting for word about the Titanic survivors

April 7, 2014

On the morning of April 15, 1912, at least one New York newspaper carried the grim announcement: the Titanic had sunk. What wasn’t clear for several days, though, was how great the loss of life was.

Whitestarlineofficestitanic

So anxious New Yorkers with friends and relatives aboard the unsinkable ship went down to the Bowling Green Offices Building at 9 Broadway, which housed the headquarters of the White Star Line.

Whitestarlineofficebowlinggreen

A crowd outside the building soon grew, spilling over onto the sidewalk and then across Bowling Green. At first, a White Star spokesman assured everyone that the ship was safe.

Whitestarlineofficestoday

Then wireless reports began to trickle in. But only when the Carpathia docked on the rainy night of April 18 did people really learn whether their loved ones were safe or if they had gone down with the ship.

The White Star Line is long gone, but their former headquarters remains—now home to a Subway.

An anarchist bomb explodes on Lexington Avenue

March 31, 2014

Lexington103rdstreetsignIn 1914, labor leaders and anarchist groups had John D. Rockefeller Jr. in their sights.

They blamed Rockefeller, head of U.S. Steel and one of the world’s richest men, for the Ludlow massacre—the deaths of striking workers and their families at a Rockefeller-owned mine in Ludlow, Colorado in April.

LexingtonavebombAnarchist leader and New Yorker Alexander Berkman ( below), who had served time for attempting to murder industrialist Henry Frick in 1892, called for Rockefeller’s assassination.

Other anarchists and labor leaders, roughed up during a subsequent protest at Rockefeller’s Tarrytown estate, also felt that a bomb left at Rockefeller’s estate would be appropriate payback.

So out of a top-floor apartment in a tenement house on Lexington Avenue at 103rd Street, several men armed with dynamite and batteries set to work.

Alexanderberkman

On July 4—Independence Day, oddly enough—the bomb exploded prematurely, killing three anarchists, the girlfriend of one, and injuring other residents of the otherwise unremarkable tenement in working-class Italian East Harlem.

“Lexington Avenue and the thickly populated intersecting streets in the neighborhood were crowded with men, women, and children on their way to seashore or park to spend the holiday, when suddenly there was a crash like that of a broadside from a battleship,” wrote The New York Times.

“Simultaneously the roof of the tenement house at 1626 Lexington Avenue was shattered into fragments and the debris of it and the three upper floors showered over the holiday crowds, some of it falling on roofs two and three blocks away.”

Lexingtonavenuebombsite2014Four mostly mangled bodies were eventually found. The dead were IWW (International Workers of the World) leaders or followers with “anarchist leanings,” as the Times put it.

A week later, about 5,000 people came to Union Square to hear a tribute to the would-be bombers.

As officials investigated, Berkman first denied any involvement. He later admitted that he was aware that the bomb was destined for Rockefeller’s estate.

Here’s the tenement at 1626 Lexington Avenue today; its anarchist past long obscured.

Identifying the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire victims

March 22, 2014

TriangleshirtwaistcorpsesThe fire started at 4:40 p.m. It was Saturday, March 25—a workday in 1911.

As flames quickly turned the top three floors of the Asch Building at Greene Street and Washington Place into a “roaring cornice of flames,” dozens of employees crowded the windows and fire escapes.

Half an hour later, when the fire had been extinguished, 146 Triangle Waist Company workers were dead, many burned beyond recognition. The grim task of identifying so many victims had begun.

Triangleshirtwaistcorpsesgreene

Over the next several hours, their corpses were laid out on the sidewalk, tagged, put in coffins, and loaded into wagons.

They were going to Charities Pier, off East 26th Street—nicknamed “Misery Lane” because it was the makeshift morgue where city officials routinely brought victims of lethal disasters.

Trianglefireoutsidemorgue

“When the wagons arrived, they were met by a team of homeless men dragooned from the Municipal Lodging House, who were assigned to open the boxes and arrange them in two long rows,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.

Trianglefiremorgue

“At midnight, the doors opened. The first in a growing line of friends and family members began shuffling up one long row and down the other. Low voices, slow footsteps, the cry of gulls, and the lapping of water punctuated the heavy silence.

“A faint sulfuric glow fell from the lights hung high in the rafters. They did little  to illuminate the coffins, however, so policemen stood every few feet holding lanterns.

Triangleunidentifiedprocession

“When a loved one paused at a box and peered close, the nearest officer dangled his lantern helpfully.

Trianglememorialevergreens“The light swayed and flickered over the disfigured faces. Now and then a shock of recognition announced itself in a piercing cry or sudden sob splitting the ghastly quiet.”

The task of identifying the dead lasted four cold, rainy days. Pickpockets and the morbidly fascinated lined up along with family members.

Within a week, all but seven bodies had been ID’d.

In April, they were honored in a procession (above) and buried together at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Chronicling a city “shrouded and mute in snow”

February 10, 2014

JosemartiMarch 11, 1888, a Sunday, had started out spring-like, with temperatures hitting 40 degrees by noon. But afternoon rain turned to evening sleet, then heavy snow overnight.

New York’s surprise blizzard of 1888 had set upon the city. Before the 60 mile-per-hour winds and blinding snow ended on Tuesday, 20 inches would blanket the metropolis, paralyzing the city for days and killing about 200 people.

During the blizzard, Jose Marti wrote. Marti (above photo) was a Cuban journalist who had moved to New York in 1881 after leading his country’s fight for independence from Spain.

Blizzardstreetsceneloc

In exile, Marti wrote dispatches about life in New York for Spanish-language newspapers and continued his fight for Cuban freedom. He chronicled the “white hurricane” for the Argentinian paper La Nacion in searing, poetic language, capturing a city stuck without the communication and transportation systems it greatly depended on.

Blizzardmadisonave“[T]he first straw hats were just beginning to be seen on the streets of New York along with the glad, bright clothes of Easter, when the city opened its eyes one morning shaken by the roar of a storm, and found itself shrouded, mute, empty, buried in snow.”

“The snow was knee deep, and the drifts waist-high. The angry wind nipped at the hands of pedestrians, knifed through their clothing, froze their noses and ears, blinded them, hurled them backward into the slippery snow, its fury making it impossible for them to get to their feet, flung them hatless and groping for support against the walls, or left them to sleep, to sleep forever, under the snow.”

On Tuesday, a shaken city began to dig out. Trains that had been grounded resumed running, and residents set out to their workplaces.

“The elevated train, encamped for two days in sinister vigil next to the corpse of an engineer who set out to defy its gale, is running again, creaking and shivering over the treacherous rails that gleam and flash.”

Blizzardwest11thst

“This city of snow dotted with brick-red houses is terrible and astonishing, as if flowers of blood were suddenly to bloom on a shroud. The telegraph poles broadcast and contemplate the mess, their lines lying in tangles on the ground like disheveled heads.”

Blizzard14thst6thave“The city awoke this morning without milk, coal, mail, newspapers, streetcars, telephones, or telegraphs. . . . All businesses are closed, and the elevated train, that false marvel, struggles in vain to take the angry crowds that pack the stations to work.”

“The city is coming back to life, burying its dead, and pushing back the snow with the chests of horses and men, the ploughs of locomotives, and buckets of boiling water, sticks, planks, bonfires. And there is a feeling of immense humility and sudden goodness, as if the hand we all must fear has resting on all men at once.”

After the blizzard, Marti continued to write and push for Cuban independence, returning to Cuba in 1895. Later that year, he perished on the battlefield.

Blizzard of 1888 Bdwy at 31st St.

A bronze statue heralding Marti as an “apostle of Cuban independence” was dedicated in Central Park in 1965. On the pedestal, a plaque notes his literary genius.

[Photos: Library of Congress, New-York Historical Society, New York Public Library Digital Collection, New York Times]

The visionary who created New York City

December 30, 2013

The name Andrew Haswell Green typically draws blank stares from today’s city residents, who are unfamiliar with his accomplishments helping to build the parks, museums, and zoos of 19th century New York—not to mention the consolidated city itself.

AndrewgreenIn the late 1850s, Green was a member of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, tasked with selecting the design for the new park.

It was Green who recognized the beauty and brilliance of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Greensward Plan, with its woodsy and pastoral landscapes. He shepherded the plan, helping it become reality.

The New York Public Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History, Central Park Zoo—give props to Green, now city comptroller, for these late 19th century achievements.

His 1868 proposal to consolidate the city, however, was a harder sell.

Nicknamed “Green’s Hobby,” the idea of combining Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other towns and cities along the city’s port barely gained traction.

Andrewgreencentralparkbench

But Green persisted. In 1890, the city council created a task force to look into the idea. By the middle of the decade, after much debate (and grumbling from Brooklynites), consolidation was approved; the new city was born on January 1, 1898.

Andrewgreenconsolidation1

Consolidation was an economic and practical success. But Green didn’t live long enough to see the results.

In 1903, while arriving at his home on Park Avenue, he was killed, ambushed by a gun-wielding man who mistook Green, then in his 80s, for someone else with the same last name.

The “father of New York City” was memorialized in Central Park with a bench bearing his name. He now also has a riverfront park named for him overlooking the East River at 60th Street.

[Middle photo: NYC Parks Department]

A deadly fire rages through Barnum’s Museum

December 21, 2013

If you wanted to see exotic animals in mid-19th century New York, there was one option: P.T. Barnum’s American Museum (below, in 1858).

Barnumsmuseum1858Located on Broadway and Ann Street, the museum was famous for its freaks: Anna the Giantess, the Feejee Mermaid, and Siamese twins Chang and Eng, among others.

But Barnum wasn’t all about human oddities.

He displayed an incredible menagerie of exotic creatures New Yorkers would not have been able to see otherwise.

For 25 cents, up to 15,000 visitors a day observed live beluga whales, monkeys, birds, and snakes—until July 13, 1865.

On that post-Civil War day, a terrible fire tore through the museum building. Firefighters arrived quickly to aid the human exhibits, but the flames spelled doom for many of the animals.

Barnumsmuseumfire1865

“The whales were, of course, burned alive, wrote The New York Times the next day. “At an early stage of the conflagration, the large panes of glass in the great ‘whale tank’ were broken to allow the heavy mass of water to flow upon the floor of the main saloon, and the leviathan natives of Labrador, when last seen, were floundering in mortal agony. . . .”

BarnumsmuseumfiretigerThe snakes tried to slither away, but “their mortal coils heated quickly,” as the florid Times article stated, and they were not saved.

A kangaroo, alligator, and monkeys also perished.  A report of an escaped lion terrified crowds, but that apparently turned out to be a hoax. (Perpetuated by Barnum maybe? He certainly knew how to attract attention. )

BarnummuseumfiregiantessNed “the learned seal,” a popular exhibit, was one of the few live animals that escaped unharmed.

As for the human attractions, Anna the Giantess was too big for firemen to carry out of the burning building, so she was hoisted down via a crane.

The museum was destroyed, but Barnum rebuilt. That new museum also burned three years later. Barnum turned to circus exhibits, where his name lives on.

[Third photo: NYPL Digital Collection]

The end of sucking subway tokens from turnstiles

December 21, 2013

Subwayturnstile1970sharlemImagine putting your mouth on a turnstile. Revolting, right?

Thankfully the existence of the Metrocard spelled doom for the practice of token sucking, or “stuff and suck.”

Yet for decades, it was not uncommon for the criminally inclined or desperate to inhale a token out of the turnstile.

“The criminal carefully jams the token slot with a matchbook or a gum wrapper and waits for a would-be rider to plunk a token down,” wrote Randy Kennedy in 2003 in his wonderful but now-defunct New York Times column, Tunnel Vision.

“The token plunker bangs against the locked turnstile and walks away in frustration. Then from the shadows, the token sucker appears like a vampire, quickly sealing his lips over the token slot, inhaling powerfully and producing his prize: a $1.50 token, hard earned and obviously badly needed.”

Some token suckers amassed more than $50 in tokens a day, wrote Kennedy. “Token booth clerks were known to sprinkle chili powder into the token slots most often jammed.”

Subwayturnstiles1970swired

“Some officers resorted to spraying a small amount of Mace around the regular slots and keeping an eye out for the usual suspects. The ones with bright red lips were then arrested.”

The advent of the Metrocard meant the end of the token era (RIP 1953-2003). And with the demise of tokens went the stomach-turning sight of someone putting their lips on a turnstile.

[Bottom photo: Wired New York]

A corrupt city cop is sent to the electric chair

November 25, 2013

CharlesbeckerThe NYPD has fielded lots of bad-apple police officers, especially in the notoriously crooked late 19th century.

But Lieutenant Charles Becker (left) went down in history as one of the most rotten.

Born in upstate Sullivan County, Becker worked as a bouncer at popular beer garden the Atlantic Garden on the Bowery.

After meeting corrupt state senator and Bowery fixture Big Tim Sullivan, he was able to buy an appointment on the force in 1893 for $250.

Like so many others, Becker became a cop on the make. Appointed to the vice squad, he patrolled the infamous sin district the Tenderloin, centered roughly between 23rd and 42nd Streets from Broadway to Eighth Avenue.

Hotelmetropole1900mcny2He took thousands in kickbacks from gambling houses and brothels in exchange for agreeing to keep police off their backs.

Then, in 1912, a minor gangster and casino owner named Herman “Beansy” Rosenthal blew the whistle on Becker.

Rosenthal and Becker had agreed that for a price, Becker would steer clear of Rosenthal’s Hesper Club casino on West 45th Street.

But Becker decided to have the private club raided to get on the good side of new police chief Rhinelander Waldo, a progressive reformer.

Two days after Rosenthal’s story hit the press, he was gunned down by four mobsters inside the Hotel Metropole on 43rd Street in Times Square (above, photo from the MCNY).

CharlesbeckersingsingDistrict Attorney Charles Whitman was sure Becker was behind Rosenthal’s murder. He had Becker transferred to desk duty in the Bronx, then placed under arrest.

After two first-degree murder convictions—the first verdict was overturned on appeal—Becker was brought to Sing Sing (left, heading from New York to prison).

In 1915, two years after the gangsters he hired met their fate in the electric chair, Becker was electrocuted as well. Charles Whitman, now governor of New York, signed his death warrant.

He execution lasted several minutes and surely caused Becker agony in his final moments. He maintained his innocence until the end.

A Brooklyn con man who impersonated everyone

November 12, 2013

Stanleycliffordweymanmug1943“One man’s life is a boring thing. I lived many lives; I’m never bored.”

Those were the words of Stanley Clifford Weyman, born in Brooklyn in 1890, who spent his life as a fabulist who pretended to be other people.

He didn’t always get away with it. But after every arrest, he returned to a life of impersonating others.

Weyman first pretended to be the U.S. counsel representative of Morocco. Arrested for fraud, he then claimed to be a diplomat, a lieutenant, and the Romanian counsel general.

Caught again at his own fancy dinner party at the posh Hotel Astor, he  was jailed for a year and paroled by 1920.

Next he convinced an Algerian princess into giving him $10,000; she thought he was a state department official who could get her an appointment with President Harding. He pulled it off (that’s him on the left in the photo)—but got snagged anyway.

StanleyweymanprincessWeyman was pretty shameless. At Rudolph Valentino’s funeral in 1926, he pretended to be the personal physician of Valentino’s companion, actress Pola Negri.

In the 1940s, “he operated a school in draft-dodging in Brooklyn, where he trained his students in feigning feeblemindedness before draft boards,” wrote The New York Times in 1960.

The amazing thing is that after decades of compulsive impersonation, he apparently made a go of living a straight life after his final prison sentence, for forgery, in the 1950s.

In 1960, Weyman was working at a hotel in Yonkers; it was held up one night. He tried to intervene and was shot to death.

Eight years later, he was the subject of a fascinating article in The New Yorker titled “The Big Little Man From Brooklyn.”

The suicide hotspot of an uptown el train station

October 28, 2013

It was the tallest peak of the entire New York City subway during the early 20th century: a sharp curve along the Ninth Avenue elevated line where the tracks suddenly switched over to Eighth Avenue at 110th Street.

Suicidecurve110thstpostcard

This S-curve, part of the original 19th century elevated system, practically hugged the tenements that were eventually built around it; the motorman had to slow the train drastically to navigate the curve.

Suicidecurve110thstreetBut it also has a grim distinction: it was nicknamed “suicide curve” because of the high number of jumpers who leapt to their deaths there.

A 1925 New York Times article marks the eighth suicide from the tracks.

“Climbing over the guard rail on the platform of the 110th Street station of the Sixth and Ninth Avenue elevated trains at 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon, Henry Milch, 44 years old, of 715 West 175th Street, committed suicide by throwing himself from the structure. . . .”

“His body struck the pavement at the corner of 110th Street and Manhattan Avenue, within a few feet of a group of children at play in Morningside Park.”

A 1927 Times piece notes that local merchants felt all the jumpers were killing their business.

Suicidecurve110thst1905According to a merchant association official, “there were eleven suicides from that station in the past year, and the effect has been such that potential customers prefer to walk a little further rather than risk seeing a person hurtle from above.”

The merchants asked that mesh screens be placed around the sides of the station. Apparently this never happened, but the problem was solved when the el tracks there were dismantled in 1940.

The Central Park Reservoir was another suicide hotspot for New Yorkers in the first decades of the 20th century.

And the Empire State Building has always attracted the despondent and dramatic.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,418 other followers