What the harbor looked like on October 4, 1905, to be precise, with several ships pumping gray smoke into the sky.
There’s the Statue of Liberty—less than 20 years old—in the distance, and what looks like Staten Island far off on the left.
Born into a well-to-do Staten Island family in 1866, Alice Austen found her life’s passion after her sea captain uncle brought back a camera from his travels.
[Street Musicians, 1896]
At 10 years old, she began taking photos, and by 18 was carrying around a heavy trunk filled with equipment, chronicling social events, family gatherings, and parties.
By the 1890s she was bringing her camera to Manhattan, where she “photographed the newly arriving immigrants and older residents as they went about their business,” states the website for Staten Island’s Alice Austen House, which preserves her home and legacy.
[Bike Messenger, 1892]
“Alice always photographed the people and places of her world as they actually appeared, giving us a beautiful visual window on 19th century America.”
She collected many of these photos in “Street Types of New York City,” an 1896 portfolio of images of peddlers, salesman, and other workers as she encountered them on city streets. She continued taking photos through her life; over 3,500 survive.
[Hester Street Egg Stand Group, 1896]
Austen’s comfortable life imploded after the stock market crash of 1929. For the remaining decades of her life, she and her companion, Gertrude Tate, lived in poverty.
Just before her death in 1952, her work finally received notoriety, and in the decades since, her standing as a pioneering female photographer of the beautiful and rich as well as the poor and struggling has continued to grow.
The Alice Austen House recently ended an exhibit of her street photography. But the house continues to promote her reputation as an artist and early female photographer.
[All photos copyright Alice Austen House]
The boats carried 10,000 New Yorkers heading to see not fireworks or another summer celebration but an execution.
The doomed man was Albert W. Hicks, a 40-year-old sailor who confessed to the gruesome murders of the skipper and two mates aboard the schooner A.E. Johnson earlier that year.
The Johnson was an oyster sloop, on its way from Spring Street to Virginia to procure a shipment of oysters. Days after departing, it was found floating 50 miles from New York without its crew, the cabin awash in blood and human hair.
So he confessed: He said he’d been drugged and shanghaied onto the sloop, then to escape he killed the crew, dumped their bodies into the Atlantic, and left in a yawl to Staten Island, making off with a few hundred dollars.
His trial captivated the city. After being convicted and sentenced to hang, he claimed he’d killed dozens of men at mining camps around the country.
That July morning he met his fate, the thousands of spectators created “a motley and strange scene,” The New York Times reported.
“On the water, there were not less than from 10,000 to 11,000 persons present, in costumes almost as variegated as at a carnival. White shuts, red shirts, blue shirts, blue jackets, red jackets, green jackets and ever steamer, vessel and yacht, decorated with lively-colored flags, while the uproar was incessant—cries of “Down in front,” “Get out of the way,”—rising from hundreds of throats at the same time.”
At 13 minutes past 11 a.m., Hicks was hanged, the last person to be put to death for piracy in New York.
[Second photo: boats jockeying for the best view of Hicks' hanging; ad: an ad for a trip to see the execution]
Exchange the wool bathing outfits for bikinis, and female beachgoers today aren’t much different from their 1908 counterparts, as depicted in John Sloan’s 1908 painting “South Beach Bathers.”
“Sloan first visited South Beach, an amusement park on Staten Island that attracted primarily working-class clientele, on June 23, 1907,” states the web site for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
“Like many of his New York–themed works, his depiction of South Beach suggests a story that begins when one person looks at another. In South Beach Bathers a woman adjusting her hat is eyed appreciatively from the side and behind by men lounging on the sand.”
“Women play several roles at once in Sloan’s art: beyond being objects of desire, they record the new independence of modern New Yorkers, while also presenting a variation on old ideals of beauty in art.”
Call it the other South Beach—not the one in Miami notorious for its topless bathers but the less posh South Beach on the eastern shore of Staten Island, featuring bathers sporting wool suits in this 1920-ish (?) postcard.
Back then, it was a jam-packed resort with hotels, an amusement park, beer gardens, bathing pavillions, and a general Coney Island-like vibe.
A century later, it’s a quieter place renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt Beach with a much thinner crowd and a view of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (not seen here, as it won’t be completed until 1964).
If things went according to plan and the Fourth Avenue subway tunnel connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island, proposed in 1912, was actually built, would Staten Island have become as urban as the other four boroughs?
We’ll never know, because like so many other ideas tossed out by the MTA and its forerunners, this one got shelved.
Okay, it did get off the ground a little bit. In 1923, the Brooklyn Transit Company began digging a tunnel under Owl’s Head Park in Bay Ridge that would connect the Fourth Avenue line to Staten Island off St. George.
The Depression ended that. In the early 1960s, community leaders proposed adding subway tracks to the under-construction Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
But anti-mass transit Robert Moses, Triborough Bridge Authority boss at the time, wasn’t going to let that happen.
[Black and white map, above left, reveals the original 1912 tunnel plan]
In 1908, you had one transportation option if you were traveling between Staten Island and Bay Ridge—say to get to Coney Island or South Beach (Staten Island’s Coney-like amusement pier): the ferry.
The ferry departs Brooklyn from Gelston’s Wharf in Fort Hamilton.
I don’t know if there still is a wharf known by that name, but the Gelston family settled here almost two centuries ago, reports a 1918 New York Times article:
“George S. Gelston came to Fort Hamilton in 1839 and bought the property on which was located the old Hamilton House, erected in 1750, and used during the Revolutionary War by both George Washington and Lord Howe as Headquarters.”
Today, Gelston Avenue in Bay Ridge looks like it may have at one time run down to the water.
Anarchist, pacifist, and committed Catholic Dorothy Day is in the process of being canonized for sainthood.
She’s not the first New Yorker to become a saint or be in line for the designation, but she may be the least likely candidate.
Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Day spent her early adult years as a Marxist journalist and agnostic, anti-war, pro-suffrage activist.
She lived lived on the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, in common-law arrangements with men, and had an abortion.
Then in the 1920s, after her daughter was born, she experienced a spiritual awakening. Day started going to mass daily, studied scripture, and embarked on an ascetic life.
And she founded the Catholic Worker movement: a newspaper with a socialist, pacifist slant that included a larger dedication to serving the poor.
Day herself lived in one, a group of cabins in Staten Island, the borough where she died in 1980 and is now buried in.
She never gave up her commitment to peace and improving the lives of the poor, which earned her accolades on the left.
But she also condemned abortion and birth control, which won her praise from conservative Catholics.
Then check out what New Yorkers were forced to stare at on subway cars and bus depots in the late 1930s when LaGuardia was mayor.
They were made by the Works Progress Commission’s Federal Art Project, and if you dig the cool design—or have an interest in the history of bacterial STDs—you can buy reproductions from www.vintagraph. com.
Albert Fish came to New York in the 1890s, earning a living as a male prostitute and then a house painter.
He married and had kids, yet family life didn’t alter his many horrific compulsions, most disturbingly, to molest and murder children.
But it was the killing of Grace Budd, who lived at 406 West 15th Street, that put Fish on the list as one of the city’s biggest monsters.
After going to the Budd home in Chelsea in 1928 to meet with Grace’s brother about a job, Fish spotted the 10-year-old girl. He offered to take her to a party he claimed to be going to that afternoon.
Grace’s parents said yes . . . and never saw their daughter (at right) again.
The case was solved after Fish sent a letter to the family in 1930 describing the terrible things he did to little Grace.
It took four years, but the NYPD traced the letter back to the boardinghouse on East 52nd Street where Fish rented a room.
Confronted by police, he confessed to strangling Grace in a cottage in Westchester and then cannibalizing her corpse.
At the end of his sensational 1935 trial, he was found guilty. He was executed at Sing Sing in March 1936, unrepentant and looking forward to the “supreme thrill” of the electric chair.
Decades later in the 1980s, another New York cannibal escaped execution.