Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

A former thief dedicates his life to the city’s poor

October 13, 2014

JerrymcauleyBy his own account, Jerry McAuley was a rogue and a serious crook.

Born poor in Ireland and sent to live in New York City at age 13, he became a drunkard and river pirate who frequented the rum shops and brothels on Water Street, one of the worst sections of pre–Civil War Manhattan.

At 19, he was convicted of highway robbery and went to Sing Sing in the 1850s. McAuley learned to read and write and found religion in prison, he explained in an autobiographical sketch.

When he was released seven years later in 1864, he returned to Water Street—and after a couple of relapses into crime, he decided to change his ways and help men like himself straighten out their lives.

In 1872 he renovated a former dance hall at 316 Water Street and called it Jerry McAuley’s Mission.

Mcauleymission

This “helping hand for men” was one of many religious missions in the city determined to aid the down and out with food, job training, and lodging via prayer meetings and bible study.

McauleycremornemissionMcAuley’s effort was similar, except in one crucial way: he accepted everyone.

At a time when an increasing number of missions and benevolent societies were dedicating themselves to helping the poor, the sentiment was that only the “deserved poor” should be offered charity.

The so-called undeserving poor—drunks and criminals, basically—were on their own. And thanks to the Panic of 1873, there were many more deserving and undeserving poor who desperately needed help.

“No one, however wretched, however far gone in sin, is ever turned away; a helping hand is extended to all, and the vilest outcast is made to feel welcome and confident that there is still a chance for salvation left him,” wrote James D. McCabe, Jr. in his 1882 book New York by Gaslight.

McauleyfountainMcAuley’s mission earned notoriety citywide, and many wealthy New Yorkers provided financial support.

In the 1880s, McAuley and his wife founded a mission on West 32nd Street in the Tenderloin called McAuley’s Cremorne Mission to help prostitutes and other “fallen” women turn their lives around.

McAuley didn’t live much longer. He died in 1882 from tuberculosis, contracted during his stay at Sing Sing. His mission still exists as the New York Rescue Mission.

He’s also memorialized on a 1913 water fountain in Greeley Square, with the inscription: “I will give to him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”

[Last photo: via pilot-projects.org]

A serial killer stalks Times Square in the 1970s

October 6, 2014

Timessquare1984mcnyfeiningerThe first two women were found on separate twin beds in a hotel room in flames in December 1979.

A firefighter at the scene, inside the then-seedy Travel Inn at 515 West 42nd Street, grabbed one of the women and brought her outside to a hallway. He was about to administer CPR before realizing she had no head or hands.

Neither did the other woman. Police determined that both had been killed, their bodies set on fire with lighter fluid, by a man who had arrived at the hotel using a fake name and phony New Jersey address.

TravelinnThen in May 1980, another woman’s body was found in a room at the low-rent Seville Hotel on East 29th Street after a fire had been set there.

The body was mutilated but mostly intact, and police identified her as a 25-year-old prostitute (one of the women from the Travel Inn had been as well, while the other was never officially ID’d).

CarltonhotelwikiThe similarities between the two crime scenes led law enforcement to dub the killer the “Times Square Ripper.”

The Ripper targeted vulnerable sex workers in an area so sleazy, a stretch of it was nicknamed “The Minnesota Strip” for all the teenage runaways from Middle America who ended up there.

It wasn’t long before police caught the Times Square Ripper. He was nabbed by New Jersey police later that month in a North Jersey motel, where he had tortured a teenage runaway.

After matching his fingerprints, comparing handwriting samples to his signature on the motel registry, and finding a “trophy room” in his home of items belonging to the dead women, the police had their man.

RichardcottinghamRichard Cottingham (left) was a mid-30s computer programmer who worked in Manhattan and lived in New Jersey with his family.

By all accounts a clean-cut guy, he was convicted of the murders of five women and sentenced to life in a New Jersey prison.

[Top photo: by Andreas Feininger, 1984; middle photo: the Travel Inn today; third photo: The Seville Hotel today, renamed the Carlton; fourth photo: Richard Cottingham]

The firemen tomb in a former Village cemetery

September 15, 2014

James J. Walker Park at Hudson Street and St. Luke’s Place is named for the colorful, corrupt, showgirl-loving former mayor, who governed the city during the highs and lows of the Jazz Age and the start of the Great Depression.

Stjohnscemeterytomb

But like most city parks, this landscaped stretch of playgrounds and ball fields had a more somber start—as a necropolis.

From 1799 to 1858, this acre of green served as an active burial ground called St. John’s Cemetery, part of Trinity Church.

Hudsonpark1895mcnyAn estimated 10,000 New Yorkers were interred there—mostly lower-class immigrants who lived in what had once been a posh residential enclave and slowly became a rougher-edged waterfront neighborhood by the middle of the 19th century.

When the city banned burials in this part of Manhattan, St. John’s slid into disrepair.

“The cemetery has for many years been in a dilapidated condition,” wrote The New York Times in an 1894 article about the new park to be built over the dead. Beer bottles and other trash littered the grounds.

“The monuments have toppled over, and many of the tombstones have fallen.”

Stjohnscemeteryfiremancryptnypl

“Many of the bodies will undoubtedly be removed, especially those contained in the underground vaults. Thousands of those buried in ordinary graves long ago mingled with the earth.”

Because relatives of those buried there were likely also deceased, “it is probably that thousands of the friendless dead will be allowed to rest in peace under the surface of this new park, as they do in the old Potter’s Fields, now known as Washington Square and Tompkins Square Parks, respectively.”

StjohnscemeteryplaqueToday, beneath kids playing T-ball and soccer, the “friendless dead” remain, with the occasional marker turning up during construction.

The only visible remnant of the the burial ground is a fascinating artifact: an 1834 sarcophagus dedicated to three young firemen from Engine Company 13 who were killed fighting a blaze on Pearl Street.

StjohnscemeteryhelmetsTheir tomb (today and in a 19th century photo at its original site, above) is marked by a granite coffin with stone helmets resting on top.

It’s near the bocce courts on the St. Luke’s Place side.

[Second photo, MCNY Collections Portal; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery]

The fading 9/11 Memorial under Union Square

September 8, 2014

Unionsquare9:11memorialhallwayInside the Union Square subway station, just past the small transit police precinct, is a long, sparsely populated corridor. At about the halfway mark is an understated wall of remembrance to the thousands of victims of the September 11 attacks.

It’s right out there in public along a wall of white tiles. As visible as it is, it’s also one of the quietest and most unassuming 9/11 memorials in the entire city.

Office-like paper labels have been affixed to the tiles, each with the typed name and hometown of one of the dead.

Unionsquare9:11memorialwall

There’s no bronze plaque, no poetry, no pomp, no statues. Just names on tiles, some marked by poignant handwritten notes from loved ones.

Unionsquarememorialfisher

It’s been up since 2002. “Erected this month by the Manhattan-based nonprofit group ArtAid, the memorial’s missives grow daily,” states a Daily News article from March 30 of that year, which noted that the MTA had no plans to take it down.

Unionsquarememorialdavid

Time has taken its toll on the wall. Some of the labels have fallen off or otherwise disappeared, while others are fading out and hard to read.

Still, if you like your public memorials to be uncrowded and inconspicuous, or you remember how Union Square become kind of a gathering place for New Yorkers in the days after the towers fell, this is the place to be on September 11.

What was the NYPD phone number before 911?

August 25, 2014

Before July 1968, if you had an urgent situation to report, you actually had to dial the NYPD’s seven-digit main number: 440-1234.

That all changed when the police department adopted the 911 system. Developed by the FCC and AT&T in the mid-1960s, New York was the first city to implement it, for police calls only.

NYPost911ad

It was a big success, increasing daily calls to central command from 12,000 to 17,000, cutting down on street crime, and leading to more police cars being dispatched, according to a March 1970 New York Times piece.

As this New York Post ad from December 2, 1970 shows, two years after the police began using 911, the fire department and EMTs adopted it too.

A Riverside Park Holocaust memorial never built

August 18, 2014

Riverside84thstsign“On Sunday, October 19, 1947, fifteen thousand people gathered in the rain to witness the dedication of the site for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial in Riverside Park,” wrote Wayne Jebian in the Columbia Journal of American Studies in 1995.

On that gray day, Mayor O’Dwyer spoke; Jewish leaders and 100 survivors of Buchenwald and Dachau appeared at the ceremony.

RiversideparkmemorialnytThe stone plaque placed in the ground was supposed to be the cornerstone of a larger Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial, one of the first Holocaust monuments planned in the United States.

But it was never built, and 67 years later, the cornerstone and the plaza surrounding it have become the memorial.

Considering that the postwar Upper West Side was home to many concentration camp survivors and Jews who fled war-torn Europe, what happened?

“Over several decades sculpture proposals for this location were submitted by Jo Davidson, Percival Goodman, Ivan Mestrovic, and Erich Mendelsohn and Nathan Rapoport, among others, but none received funding,” states the NYC Parks Department website.

Riversideparkholocaustmemorial

That’s because city officials in charge of approving sculptural monuments rejected the proposals as “too ugly, too depressing or too distracting for drivers on the West Side Highway,” wrote The New York Times in 1993.

One sculpture that did get city approval. “On June 17, 1951, the New York City Art Commission unanimously backed the design by Mendelsohn and Yugoslav sculptor Mestrovic,” wrote rememberwomen.org.

Riversideparkholocaustplaque

“The sculpture was to be of an eighty-foot pylon of two tablets on which the Ten Commandments would be inscribed, a 100-foot wall of bas-relief depicting humankind’s struggle to fulfill the Commandments, and a giant carving of Moses. When Mendelsohn died in 1953, the momentum seemed to die with him.”

The idea for a memorial was scrapped in the 1960s. These days, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is commemorated every April at the cornerstone, the Upper West Side’s de facto public Holocaust monument.

The bicycle “scorchers” menacing the 1890s city

August 9, 2014

Cyclists racing down city streets at top speed, darting around pedestrians on sidewalks and roadways? It’s not just a contemporary New York thing.

ScorchersongbookThe Gilded Age city dealt with reckless bike riders first.

Called “scorchers” for their speed, they gave the very trendy new sport of cycling a bad name and were much-discussed in newspaper articles of the day.

“A new menace appeared in the streets: the ‘scorcher’ or bicycle speed fiend, ‘that idiot with head sunk between bent handle bars,’ body thrown forward and pedaling at top speed,” wrote Peter Salwen, author of Upper West Side Story.

The Upper West Side was especially popular with riders. From Columbus Circle to 72nd to Riverside Drive and Grant’s Tomb, the broad avenues were packed with riders—and some terrified residents.

“The Boulevard, in the vicinity of 72nd Street, is becoming a place very difficult to cross, and at times dangerous to limb and possibly to life,” one New York Times letter writer complained in November 1895.

Scorchersquad

“The number of ‘hoodlums’ scorching along there with heads down, with no regard to the safety of persons crossing, is rapidly increasing; and the matter certainly needs regulating by the officers of the law.”

One month later, police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt approved the formation of a “scorcher squad,” four men who were tasked with catching and ticketing these speeding cyclists.

Cyclistsfifthave124thst1897

Considered a success, the scorcher squad eventually expanded to include 100 officers (middle photo).

But as the cycling fad eased and the automobile took over city streets, the squad’s days were numbered. Considering that we’re in a new bicycle era and not all riders follow traffic rules, maybe it’s time for a second incarnation of the scorcher squad?

[Top image: via tubulocity.com; third photo, cyclists rounding the corner at Fifth Avenue and 124th Street in 1897 : MCNY]

A little girl goes missing in 1960s Chelsea

July 14, 2014

EdithkiecoriusphotoIt was February 1961, Washington’s birthday. Four-year-old Edith Kiecorius had taken the subway from her Brooklyn home with her widowed mother and brother to visit her uncle in Manhattan.

Her uncle’s apartment was on Eighth Avenue near 18th Street, in the “deteriorating” neighborhood of Chelsea, as one newspaper described it at the time.

Edith spent the afternoon playing outside on the sidewalk. Her uncle left her alone for a few minutes to buy cigarettes, and by the time he came back around 4 pm, the little girl in a purple snowsuit had vanished.

In an era without Amber Alerts or even 911, police seemed to pull out all the stops to find her. Over the next week, they set up special hotlines for anyone who may have seen her; they searched rooftops, sewers, and the bottom of the Hudson.

Edithkiecoriuspolicegetty

“Detectives leafed through records of mental hospitals for women recently released and checked death lists,” reported the New York Times, as the police felt the person who took her might have “a frustrated mother instinct.”

Edithk307west20thstOn February 27, Edith’s body was found on a bed in a one-room flat at 307 West 20th Street (at left today), a “dingy Chelsea rooming house,” as a front-page Times piece put it. She’d been sexually assaulted and beaten to death.

The killer was captured a few days later. Fred Thompson, a 59-year-old drifter who had just rented the room in the West 20th Street house. He admitted to cops that while in a drunken stupor, he lured Edith to his room by telling her that he had his “own little girl” she could play with.

He assaulted and beat her, then left her in the room while he spent days drinking on the Bowery. When he learned that police had found Edith’s body and that he was the prime suspect, he fled to Philadelphia and then to a New Jersey chicken farm.

Edithkfredthompsonnyt“Assistant Chief Inspector James J. Walsh of the New York City police said after questioning Thompson he had said, ‘I know I deserve my full punishment for what I did,'” the Times wrote.

“Asked what he meant by ‘full punishment,’ Thompson was quoted as saying ‘life imprisonment or the electric chair.'”

Thompson was tried and found guilty later that year; the verdict carried a mandatory death sentence.

But according to one source, Thompson, above, was instead institutionalized for the rest of his life.

[Second photo: Getty Images; Fourth photo: NYTimes]

Herman Melville imagines the brutal Draft Riots

July 7, 2014

DraftriotsmelvilleHerman Melville wasn’t in New York City in July 1863 to actually witness the Draft Riots.

A city native born on Pearl Street, he returned to the metropolis from Massachusetts that same year, moving with his family to a farmhouse on East 26th Street.

But the horror of the city’s worst riot certainly affected him. In 1865, he published Battle Pieces & Aspects of the War, which included a poem about the four horrific days of violence and murder that began 151 years ago this week.

The riots were ignited by opposition to the Civil War and class animosity, but more specifically the new draft begun days earlier that forced poor men to fight while richer men could buy their way out.

Draftriotsarson

Titled “The House-top. A Night Piece,” the poem “is an imaginative reconstruction of the awful scene with his judgment of the results,” states the introduction to The Poems of Herman Melville, edited by Douglas Robillard. It begins with a hot, restless night:

“No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And blinds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.”

DraftriotsillustrationnyplThe steamy Monday after the draft began, thousands of mostly poor and working-class Irish immigrants, enraged by the draft lottery, began setting fires to buildings citywide and attacking and killing black residents who happened to cross their path.

“The town is taken by its rats—ship-rats
And the rats of wharves. All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.”

[Below: The New York Seventh Regiment was called in to quell the rioters]

Draftriotsseventhregiment

Read the full text of the poem, which hints at the military force brought in to finally put an end to the Draft Riots and serves a harsh indictment of man’s dual nature to do good and evil.

As for Melville, he spent the Gilded Age falling into obscurity, working at the Customs House on West Street near Gansevoort—a street named after his Revolutionary War Hero grandfather.

[Third image: NYPL]

A row of trees in Union Square mark a genocide

June 16, 2014

ArmeniantreesNew York is a city of memorials. Some you can’t miss: Grand Army Plaza, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park, and the new 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

Others are so low-key, you might walk past them thousands of times without realizing they exist. That describes this row of trees on the northern border of Union Square Park.

Lovely, yes. But unless you notice this small plaque at the eastern end, you’d never know that they were planted almost 30 years ago to commemorate the Armenian Genocide early last century.

Armenianplaque

New York’s “Little Armenia” community was centered not too far away in the upper 20s at Lexington Avenue.

But there doesn’t appear to be any connection between the former Armenian neighborhood and the memorial, which remains understated and little-known on one of the busiest stretches of Manhattan.


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