A sugar barrel, a pastry shop, and a body in 1903

May 22, 2017

New York has had its share of gruesome murders. But this case, kicked off early one morning in April 1903 after a scrub woman discovered a man’s body, was especially disturbing.

The corpse—riddled with 18 stab wounds on the neck and a clean cut across the throat—was found stuffed in a wooden sugar barrel (below) that had been left on East 11th Street near Avenue D.

“He was evidently a foreigner—a Greek or Armenian or Italian, and about 35 years old,” stated the New York Times the next day.

The Times article noted the dead man’s manicured nails and “good garments,” indicating that he was probably fairly prosperous.

It didn’t take long for the police to conclude this was likely a mafia hit.

Detectives went door to door in the “Italian Quarter,” as the Times called the Little Italy neighborhood centered below East Houston Street, asking people to visit a station house and try to identify the man’s face (below). No one could.

Even without an identity, police made quick progress on the case.

Three Secret Service agents in New York City who were surveilling a counterfeiting ring swore they saw the dead man in a butcher’s shop on Stanton Street the night before the barrel was found.

Police arrested eight men who had also been in the butcher’s shop with the man. All were Sicilians armed with revolvers and daggers and suspected counterfeiters, the Times wrote in a second article.

The leader of the counterfeiting group was Giuseppe Morello, an early gangster who used Black Hand extortion to terrorize Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.

The sugar barrel itself helped cops figure out where the murder was committed. The barrel and the sawdust inside it matched another one found inside a pastry shop at 226 Elizabeth Street (as it is today, right; in 1903, below).

Morello—known as the “Clutch Hand” for his deformed right hand with only one finger (below)—lived in the tenement above the shop.

While the arrested men were held at Jefferson Market courthouse, the dead man was ID’d, thanks to detective work by Joseph Petrosino, one of the few Italian Americans on the NYPD at the time and an early investigator of Black Hand extortion techniques and the Mafia.

Benedetto Mondania was the man in the barrel. Why he was murdered so brutally wasn’t entirely clear.

“Some say he was a member of the [Morello] gang who wanted out of his lifetime membership, while others say he was the closest relative of a gang member suspected of turning informer,” wrote Andrew Roth in Infamous Manhattan.

Meanwhile, the city went about charging some of the men with murder and preparing for a trial, which proved to be difficult considering the power the arrested men had in Italian neighborhoods.

“There was a forced collection across New York’s Italian communities to pay for the gang’s defense and bail costs,” according to gangrule.com. “Most of the people subpoenaed to be on the jury began to make excuses when they learned of the nature of the trial.”

In the end, the case fell apart because the district attorney’s office didn’t think there was enough evidence or willing witnesses to win a conviction.

It wasn’t the last New York heard from Morello. He was convicted of counterfeiting in 1909 and got 20 years in prison—then was killed in a mafia crime war in 1930.

His crime gang (which evolved into the Genovese family) pioneered the barrel murder style of execution, and Mondania certainly wouldn’t be the last dead man found stuffed into one on New York’s streets.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on the Gilded Age city’s most notorious murders.

[Second and third images: the Evening World; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: the Evening World]

Would you do laundry in the Central Park lake?

May 22, 2017

Would you wash your clothes by hand in the lake in Central Park? These three women did it, and they had a reason.

December 16, 1949—the day the photo was taken—was “dry Friday” in New York City. Thanks to a severe drought that left upstate reservoirs at 34 percent capacity, city residents were forbidden to shave, bathe, or do any other activity that day if it required water.

These three women—Copacabana girls, part of the East Side nightclub’s famous chorus girl lineup, per the caption on the photo—are demonstrating their patriotic duty to do laundry without any running water.

The 1960s heyday of Village bar the Lion’s Head

May 22, 2017

It had an early incarnation on Hudson Street. And even past its heyday, it lingered on as a popular neighborhood bar until the taxman shut its doors in 1996 (left, during last call).

But the Lion Head’s glory days as a legendary Greenwich Village watering hole was during the 1960s.

That’s when the downstairs bar at 59 Christopher Street equally attracted literary types and longshoremen, and drinkers could rub elbows with writers, newspaper reporters, Irish folk singers, politicians, and a pre-fame Jessica Lange, who waited tables.

Pete Hamill, a writer at the New York Post in the mid-1960s, recalled the energy and excitement there in his wonderful 1994 memoir, A Drinking Life.

“In the beginning, the Head had a square three-sided bar, with dart boards on several walls and no jukebox,” he writes.

“I don’t think many New York bars ever had such a glorious mixture of newspapermen, painters, musicians, seamen, ex-communists, priests and nuns, athletes, stockbrokers, politicians, and folksingers, bound together in the leveling democracy of drink.”

“On any given night, the Clancy Brothers would take over the large round table in the back room. . . . Everybody joined in singing, drinking waterfalls of beer, emptying bottles of whiskey, full of laughter and noise and a sense that I can only describe as joy.”

The Lion’s Head has been shuttered for 21 years; in its place is the Kettle of Fish (below), another old-school Village bar that moved over from MacDougal Street.

Kettle of Fish still packs in crowds, but too many of the regulars who remember the “glorious mixture” Hamill recalls at the Lion’s Head are not with us anymore.

There are accounts like Hamill’s in many books and memoirs, but more and more of the memories of nights at the Lion’s Head are lost to the ages.

[Top photo: Chang W. Lee/New York Times; third photo: Petehamill.com]

A lovely day to relax in Green-Wood Cemetery

May 15, 2017

It might sound a little macabre to our modern sensibilities.

But in a city with almost no public parks until the late 19th century, what better place was there to take in the fresh air and views of New York Harbor and enjoy the natural landscape than a burial ground?

Which is why half a million Brooklynites and tourists a year flocked to Green-Wood Cemetery, founded in 1838.

Green-Wood was one of the new “rural” cemeteries that allowed people to stroll the grounds, ride 17 miles of carriage drives, and picnic inside a necropolis of 150,000 souls by 1870, according to Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

“[T]he sunlight falls brightly, the birds sing their sweetest over the new-made graves, the wind sighs its dirge through the tall trees, and the ‘sad sea waves’ blend with it all in their solemn undertone from afar,” wrote author James D. McCabe, in wonderfully flowery Victorian-era prose.

Green-Wood “has come to be, next to the Central Park and Prospect Parks, one of the favorite resorts of the people of New York and Brooklyn.”

[Top photo: Green-Wood Cemetery; bottom photo: NYPL]

The many lives of an 1834 wooden Village house

May 15, 2017

With its steeply pitched roof and side staircase, the house at 6 Weehawken Street might be the most Dorian Gray of Village homes.

Built in 1834, it’s almost unchanged from the way it looked in the mid-19th century.

And all of its various incarnations over two centuries reflect the enormous changes that took place in this part of the West Village, just yards from the Hudson River.

The story of 6 Weehawken Street (also known as 392 West Street, as there’s an entrance on this side as well) begins in the 1830s. That’s when tiny Weehawken Street was created on the former site of Newgate State Prison.

Closed in 1829, Newgate was overcrowded and dangerous, and this waterfront area in the booming village of Greenwich made for attractive real estate.

The city decided to turn the property into a produce, meat, and fish market called Greenwich Market (one of many open-air markets along the Hudson River at the time) bounded by Christopher Street and Amos Street, the 19th century name for today’s West 10th Street.

Weehawken Street was paved, and market buildings in the usual style of the era—open in the front and with projecting eaves to protect the goods for sale from the elements—were constructed.

Six Weehawken is “almost certainly a surviving portion” of a market house, states the Weehawken Street Historic District Report, published in 2006.

The market went bust in 1844, and the buildings were left unoccupied. A boat builder named George Munson bought and renovated number 6 in 1848, adapting it for his boat business and according to some accounts, turning it into a saloon too.

Considering the neighborhood at the time—dockworkers, boat builders, and working class folks who made their living in riverfront factories and the fishing industry—business was probably pretty good.

Six Weehawken continued to change hands. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the sketch above on the left shows the building in the 1870s), it housed an insurance brokerage, cigar store, and pool hall, which was the site of a headline-grabbing police raid in 1906 that landed 12 men in jail cells.

As late as 1900 (above right), similar-style wood market buildings still existed on Weehawken Street. Intrigued by their origins, newspapers wrongly claimed they were built in the 1790s.

According to 1905 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article (photo above left):

“Within a stone’s throw of the old prison site stands to-day the original row of frame houses, or shanties, that adorned the same block more than 100 years ago. It is the block bounded by Weehawken, West, Christopher, and Tenth Streets.”

As colorful as it sounds, the Eagle‘s historical information is incorrect.

In the 1920s, with Prohibition in effect, 6 Weehawken became “Billie’s Original Clam Broth House” (above right), which must have been a wonderfully dark and atmospheric place to get a bowl of hot soup on days when those cold Hudson River winds came in.

In the 1940s (at left), a new owner refurbished the building and sold “work clothes, canvas gloves, tobacco, and a strange assortment of odds and ends desired by seafarers and dockwallopers, who constitute his friends and customers,” wrote the Historic District Report.

For the next several decades, 6 Weehawken was occupied by a trucking company and a tire business.

By the 1970s, in a vastly less industrial West Village, gay bars moved in. Choo-Choo’s Pier opened in the 1970s, Sneakers existed through the 1990s.

The latest plan for 6 Weehawken brings it back to the Manhattan of the 17th century.

Last year, the son of artist Louise Bourgeois announced that the building he bought in 2006 for $4 million will be donated to the Lenape Nation and renovated into a prayer house. (An old for-sale listing for the house gives you an interior shot of a loft bedroom.)

Right now, the house appears to be empty, more shabby than chic—a silent sentry whose Hudson River side is marred by graffiti (above), waiting for its next generation of occupants.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on some of the city’s most iconic 19th century residences and commercial buildings.

[Third image: Harper’s Magazine, 1870s; fourth photo: MCNY, 1900, x2010.11.3687; fifth photo: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1906; fifth photo: MCNY, 1920, x2010.11.3690; sixth photo: NYPL]

Is this the last OTB parlor in New York City?

May 15, 2017

In 2010, Off Track Betting went the way of the Automat and checker cabs—shut down by the state thanks to financial issues caused by waning interest in betting on horses.

But in Chatham Square in Chinatown, amazingly, the ghost of one OTB remains. Its doors are locked but the sign (and a Chinese translation!) is in place, a forgotten relic of a grittier 1970s and 1980s city.

New Yorkers of a certain age will remember OTB parlors (like the one below, in Times Square in 1971), each with its own cast of colorful, often sad-sack regulars placing bets or just hovering around the entrance.

A 2013 article from Daily Racing Forum recalled the Chatham Square OTB in all of its grimy glory.

“It was always crowded, and until the citywide ban you could barely see through clouds of cigarette smoke,” wrote Ryan Goldberg. “Before the races, Chinese men used to sit at the counter of the greasy dim-sum restaurant next door, examining the entries while eating Frisbee-sized pork buns.”

“Flyers notifying patrons where to cash their remaining tickets are still stuck on the dirty windows. Standing there, you half expect somebody to walk up and unlock the door, open the register and begin taking bets.”

[Second photo: NYPost/Getty Images; third photo: Bay Ridge OTB, 1977, via Flickr by Anthony Catalano]

The loneliness of a New York all-night cafe

May 8, 2017

Lamb, beef, and eggs are on the menu board on the sidewalk. Inside, the room is lit up, and people appear to be sitting together, or at least in close proximity to one another.

But this lone figure standing on the snowy sidewalk outside an all-night cafe in New York circa 1900 isn’t part of it. He’s an emblem of the 24-hour, modernized city, a New York with more than three million residents divided and isolated.

Maybe he can’t afford to go in; perhaps it’s not his class or crowd. Painter Everett Shinn, a member of the Ashcan School — artists who focused on the grittier side of urban life — isn’t letting us read the man’s face for clues.

Shinn had a studio on Waverly Place. Could the current occupant of this cafe be Joe Coffee at 141 Waverly?

The haunting beauty of a brick Bronx factory

May 8, 2017

A century or so ago, red-brick factory buildings in every borough of New York City hummed with the sounds of workers and machinery — producing everything from ketchup to wallpaper to pianos to candy.

These days, the red-brick factory is an endangered species.

If they haven’t been bulldozed or turned into luxury apartments (a Lifesaver factory in Chelsea has been rebranded the “Lifesaver Lofts“), they sit empty and forlorn — the company name barely discernible on the facade.

The Marcus Brush Company building is one of these factories.

The hauntingly beautiful structure is on Willow Avenue and East 135th Street in Point Morris, a South Bronx neighborhood three stops from Manhattan on the 6 train that was once a manufacturing hub.

Marcus Brush moved here in 1925, according to Walter Grutchfeld’s well-researched photo website.

The company went bankrupt five years later, but another brush company called Acme took over and remained there, possibly through the 1970s.

Perhaps the old factory is in use today. But on a recent visit, it seems as deserted as the rest of Willow Avenue, a building with no pulse and a smattering of graffiti on one side.

Considering that Point Morris is making something of a comeback these days — a brewery and distillery occupy nearby spaces — the Marcus Brush factory will probably come back to life soon.

It would be wonderful if the faded lettering on all sides isn’t wiped clean, and that it remains a reminder that in a different city, people made “high-grade brushes” and a living behind these faded brick walls.

Reading a tenement on the Lower East Side

May 1, 2017

A century ago, in New York’s densely packed neighborhoods, corner buildings often had the names of the cross streets carved into the facade, usually on the second story.

It’s never been clear to me if this is because poorer neighborhoods lacked real street signs or if it was part of an ornamental trend.

It makes sense on corners that would be seen from elevated trains — but sometimes the street names appear on buildings where no elevated line ever passed. (Maybe an elevated train was planned for the corner at one time and never came to pass?)

In any event, it’s always a treat to spot a new one though, like this one on a tenement at Canal and Eldridge Streets. It’s hard to see, hiding under 120 or so years of grime and traffic exhaust.

Here’s a whole bunch more, some fanciful and lovely, others more utilitarian.

The past lives of the “bunker” on the Bowery

May 1, 2017

The first people to hang out at the red brick, Queen Anne–style building that opened in 1885 at 222 Bowery were working-class men.

At the time, the Bowery was a cacophonous circus of vaudeville theaters, beer gardens, pawnbrokers, rowdies, and streetcars all under the screeching rails of the Third Avenue elevated train.

Much of New York loved this, of course, and lots of men flocked there, living in the five-cent hotels or in doorways. Reformer Jacob Riis estimated their numbers at more than nine thousand.

But this was the 1880s, and to keep young men who were “not yet hardened” from getting sucked into sin, the YMCA built their first New York branch at 222 Bowery and called it the Young Men’s Institute.

It was actually a novel idea and an example of Gilded Age uplift. The institute was to promote the “physical, intellectual, and spiritual health of young working men in the densely crowded Bowery,” states Landmarks of New York.

Instead of bars and dance halls, men ages 17 and 35 who joined could attend lectures by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Ward Beecher.

They could borrow books from a circulating library (this is before the New York Public Library was established), work out in the gym or pool, or use the bowling alley. Classes in mechanical drawing, architecture, penmanship, and bookkeeping were offered—and Bible reading too, on Sundays.

After the turn of the century though (above, in 1910), as the Bowery’s fortunes fell even further, membership declined.

The Y sold the building in 1932 and it became a residence on the mid-century Bowery, less a raucous zone of fun and vice and now a strip of forgotten men and bars (1930s Bowery at right).

That’s when the artists arrived—like Fernand Leger. After fleeing the Nazis in Normandy, the French surrealist painter landed in Manhattan and lived and worked at 222 Bowery, even after it was sold to a dental manufacturing company.

By the time 222 Bowery was  turned back into a residence in the late 1950s, more artists and writers came, like Mark Rothko, who painted his Seagram murals in the former gymnasium.

Fellow abstract artists James Brooks and Michael Goldberg (his “Bowery Days” painting, at left) moved in too, as did poet John Giorno. Andy Warhol held parties there. Allan Ginsberg and Roy Lichtenstein spent time at 222 as well.

It was William S. Burroughs (right, with Joe Strummer inside 222 Bowery in 1980) who dubbed the building the Bunker.

Burroughs arrived in 1974 and officially stayed until his death in 1997, though he lived his last years in Kansas.

Patti Smith recalled visiting Burroughs there in the 1970s. “It was the street of winos and they would often have five cylindrical trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cigarettes,” she wrote in Just Kids.

“You could look down the Bowery and see these fires glowing right to William’s door.”

Burroughs’ nickname for this gorgeous survivor of the Bowery’s past life remains.

The building, now co-op lofts, “is still affectionately called by that name,” states the 1998 Landmark Preservation Commission report that gave 222 Bowery landmark status.

[Second photo: Alamy/King’s Handbook of NYC 1893; fifth image: Artnet; sixth image: unknown]