Greetings from Thanksgivings past in New York

November 20, 2017

Do you send greeting cards wishing friends and family a happy Thanksgiving? Probably not—especially when a text or Facebook post will do.

But New Yorkers a century ago sent out these penny postcards emblazoned with turkeys, Pilgrims, pumpkins, corn, American flags, cherubic children, and other Thanksgiving images.

The New York Public Library has a large collection of these early 1900s cards in their digital gallery. All were sent to New Yorkers (Brooklyn and Manhattan primarily).

And none have ZIP codes—those didn’t come until 1963!

[NYPL Digital Collection from 1907-1909]

A Revolutionary War hanging near the Bowery

November 20, 2017

The man sentenced to die in a field beside the Bowery was Thomas Hickey.

Hickey was an 18-year-old private, described as a “dark-complexioned” Irish deserter of the British army who then signed up to serve on the American side as the Revolutionary War was heating up.

In spring 1776 he was part of the personal “life guard” George Washington put together before the British were expected to occupy New York City.

The 50 or so men in the life guard protected Washington and his headquarters. Decked out in stylish coats (below left) and hats with a blue and white feather, they were “made up of the most physically fit and best performing soldiers,” states Henry M. Ward in George Washington’s Enforcers.

But in June, Washington got word that Hickey and another life guard member were part of a much wider treasonous plot.

Hickey “was implicated in a scheme to sabotage the Continental Army that was reportedly coordinated by royal governor William Tryon,” states Cruel & Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, by John D. Bessler.

After an investigation, 20 or so more men were accused of being in on the sabotage scheme—including the city’s Loyalist mayor, David Matthews. The scheme may have included a plan to kidnap or kill Washington.

Hickey wasn’t the only member of the life guard to be accused—but he was the one who was made an example of.

“At the subsequent court-martial proceeding, [other accused men] gave sworn testimony that Hickey had joined the conspiracy, accepted small sums of money from a gunsmith named Gilbert Forbes, and tried to recruit additional participants,” states a 2002 article on Hickey in the Irish Echo.

“Even if true, the testimony makes it clear that Hickey was probably on the lowest end of the conspiracy’s hierarchy and that many others were at least as susceptible to the charge of mutiny and sedition.”

In any event, a jury found Hickey guilty of mutiny, sedition, and “holding a treacherous correspondence with the enemy.” He was sentenced to die the next day.

“Handbills went up all around the city announcing June 28 as the date of Hickey’s execution,” states the Irish Echo. “On that day, Hickey was led to a field near the Bowery where a hastily constructed gallows stood.”

“At 11 a.m., before a cheering crowd of some 20,000, he was hanged.”

Sources place the site of the hanging at today’s Bowery and Bayard Street as well as Bowery and Grand, both well out of the city and in the Manhattan countryside, as the above illustrations show.

It was the first execution by the Continental Army; Washington signed the death warrant. He also insisted that every soldier not on duty attend the execution as a warning “to avoid those crimes and all other so disgraceful” to a soldier.

[Second image: Ratzen map, NYC 1767; Last image: Washington on his triumphant return to Manhattan in 1783, Evacuation Day]

Whose horses boarded at this 10th Street stable?

November 13, 2017

I’ve always been curious about the 19th century three-story stable at 50 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village.

Today, it’s a well-tended and enviable private house—who wouldn’t be charmed to come home to this lovely building every day? (Especially with the ghost of former resident Edward Albee hanging around.)

The stenciled letters over the stable doors hint at its past: “Grosvenor Private Boarding Stable.”

Considering that the circa-1876 Hotel Grosvenor was just down the block at 35 Fifth Avenue, it seems plausible that the stable was used by the hotel.

Perhaps it was a convenient place for hotel brass to keep horses for delivery wagons or for a private hansom cab for guests (like the ones seen outside the brownstone-and-balconied hotel in this 1890 photo).

Carriage Houses are still a thing in New York—this low-rise stretch of East 73rd Street has an entire block of them, and of course, these two Chelsea stables contain incredible history.

[Second photo: MCNY 2010.11.4277]

A painter drawn to the “Mountains of Manhattan”

November 13, 2017

Overshadowed by social realist painters and then the abstract movement early in the 20th century, Colin Campbell Cooper never quite got his due.

But his evocative takes on New York’s streetscapes and skyline reveal a fascination with the bigness of the city’s architecture contrasted against the smaller personal stories of millions of anonymous New Yorkers.

The bigness you notice first, especially with paintings like the “Mountains of Manhattan” (top) and the “Cliffs of Manhattan” (second), which both depict the city as an awesome and mighty wonder along the lines of the Rockies or the Alps.

When Cooper contrasts the big and the small, as he does here in 1917’s “South Ferry,” he gives us a more humanistic view of Gotham.

We may not be able to read their faces, but every one of those trolley riders ans sidewalk vendors has a story.

“Chatham Square,” above, from 1919, is similar. The city’s skyscraper mountains are in the background, while the day-to-day life, its human side, is in the forefront.

Commuters wait for the elevated train to pull in, soldiers march under the tracks, and movie houses attract crowds on the sidewalk. We don’t have to be able to see them up close to know they are us.

“New York From Brooklyn” gives us a more detailed and personalized County of Kings. Meanwhile, Manhattan across the river is muted, as if it’s an impenetrable fortress.

Cooper lived in New York from 1904 to 1921. “My pictures are built on these contrasts,” he once said of the juxtaposition in many of his paintings of older, smaller-scale buildings and the modern skyscrapers dominating the skyline.

“Columbus Circle” (above), completed in 1923, illustrates this perfectly.

An old piano ad on 37th Street fading out of view

November 6, 2017

On a brick wall next door to a strangely suburban-looking Marriott Hotel is a relic of New York’s piano manufacturing days.

Squint and you can make out this fading color ad for Mathushek Pianos, founded by Frederick Mathushek, who had been building pianos in New York since 1852, according to Antique Piano Shop.

Mathushek Pianos hopped around various addresses in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when having a piano in your parlor was quite a status symbol.

For a short time, the company had a showroom or office at 37 West 37th Street, according to faded ad site 14to42.net, where New Yorkers went to buy Mathushek’s prized square uprights.

A Mathushek factory occupied the corner of Broadway and 47th Street at the turn of the century, smack in the middle of today’s Times Square. Ads for pianos can still be found in the city’s corners—like this one in downtown Brooklyn.

[Second image: Wikipedia]

The somber “Angel of Death” in Prospect Park

November 6, 2017

New York doesn’t lack for doughboy statues—a testament to the sacrifices made in the city while fighting World War I.

But the doughboy statue in a Prospect Park, nicknamed the “Angel of Death” for the somber, haunting angel beside the soldier, might be the most powerful war memorial in the city.

It’s at the southern end of the park near Parkside and Ocean Avenues, surrounded by a granite and bronze honor roll commemorating the 2,800 men and women from Brooklyn who died during the Great War.

In the center is our doughboy—rifle in hand, a bandage around his head—accompanied by a very Victorian-looking shrouded angel who appears to guide him into the afterlife.

“What makes this sculpture unique from other “pensive” Doughboy motifs is the angel behind him, either speaking or wrapping her protective wings around him to whisk him off,” writes Kevin C. Fitzpatrick in World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to The Great War.

“Her wings come over his head, and it appears he’s bent his head to hear her.”

Designed by Arthur D. Pickering and sculpted by Augustus Lukeman (he did the Straus Memorial on the Upper West Side), the Angel of Death honor roll was unveiled in 1921.

An estimated 35,000 Brooklynites attended the unveiling, and the ceremony was preceded by a march to the park of Gold Star mothers, Catholic priests, and hundred of Civil War veterans, says Fitzpatrick, all paying their respects to Brooklyn’s war dead.

[Photos Ephemeral New York]

The woman who didn’t want women to vote

November 6, 2017

“Why force women to vote?” read the incendiary headline in the New-York Tribune in March 1913.

The question was posed in all seriousness by Josephine Jewell Dodge (left), the leader of a group headquartered at 35 West 39th Street called the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.

It’s hard to imagine anyone in today’s city opposing voting rights for women—rights that were granted in New York State in November 1917, a century ago this week.

But the suffrage movement that played out in marches and parades on Fifth Avenue (like this one in 1913, below) since the late 19th century had plenty of opposition—from other women.

Dodge and the other ladies of the NAOWS were hardly throwback reactionaries.

Born in 1855, Dodge came from a prominent family; her father had been the governor of Connecticut, and she was educated at Vassar, one of the few women’s colleges of the era.

Like other privileged women of her time, she devoted herself to social reform, funding and then founding several day nurseries in tenement districts where poor young children could go if their mothers had to work.

But as suffrage gained steam in the 1910s (and drove newspapers like the Brooklyn Eagle to run reader polls, as seen below), Dodge’s activism took a different direction. She joined a state anti-suffrage group before starting the NAOWS in 1911.

Why exactly was Dodge opposed to suffrage? Her thinking was that women would have more success as social reformers if they didn’t get mixed up in the dirty world of politics.

“As social leaders, many of these women were dedicated to philanthropy and promoting reform, but they achieved their results without entering the world of politics and didn’t feel as though they were working against their own self-interest,”states a Saturday Evening Post article on antis from 2016.

She also didn’t seem to believe women had the time to fully grasp politics.

“The life of the average woman is not so ordered as to give her first hand knowledge of those things which are the essentials of sound government,” Dodge said in 1915 speech in New Jersey.

“She is worthily employed in other departments of life, and the vote will not help her fulfill her obligations therein.”

Of course, six years after the NAOWS was founded, women did get the vote in New York. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting voting rights to all U.S. women.

The NAOWS hung in there with other anti-suffrage groups, hoping to fight the amendment, to no avail. Dodge had resigned from the NAOWS by that time, according to her 1928 obituary, for unknown reasons.

The Gilded Age in New York 1870-1910 has a lot more on the suffrage movement from a New York City vantage point.

[Top photo: New-York Tribune; second photo: NYPL; third image: NAOWS/Library of Congress; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1912; fifth image: LOC]

A spooky Gothic mansion in Upper Manhattan

October 30, 2017

If only New York didn’t tear down the William A. Wheelock House—a glorious, eclectic confection of Victorian porches, bay windows, lace-like ironwork, and a bow-shaped mansard roof crowning off a central tower.

But because this Addams Family–esque mansion and its grounds reminiscent of Grey Gardens near Riverside Drive and 158th Street bit the dust in the 1940s, this post will be a memorial to what could have been the most perfect place to celebrate Halloween in Manhattan.

William A. Wheelock graduated from New York University in the 1840s and become a successful merchant who made enough money to retire at age 37, according to the New-York Tribune.

He moved his family to the wilds of Upper Manhattan, where painter and Birds of America author James Audubon owned acres of pristine forested land far from the urban center in today’s West 150s.

After Audubon died, Wheelock—by all accounts a decent, philanthropic-minded guy—helped Audubon’s wife, Minnie, handle her dwindling finances.

 That necessitated selling off some of her land, typically to wealthy city residents who wanted to build great homes far from the city.

Wheelock himself bought a parcel of property in 1870.

He then built his family this house on the north side of 158th Street, according to the Audubon Park Historic District website.

This painting by Gustave Wolff, “Approaching the Wheelock Mansion,” gives an idea just how remote the area was in the late 19th century.

But of course, the city would begin encroaching on the neighborhood in due time.

Change came not long after the turn of the century—after William Wheelock’s death in 1905.

Paved roads, subway access, and the northern extension of Broadway would all bring development to Audubon’s former property and encroach upon the Wheelock House.

 

The mansion managed to survive into the 1930s, a relic of another era. Berenice Abbott found it such a curiosity, she took photos of it while working for the Federal Art Project in 1938.

In 1940, the city purchased the property outright and called in the bulldozers not long afterward. Today this quiet sliver of northern Manhattan hosts a storage building and nondescript apartments—the elms, tulip trees, hills, and streams of Audubon’s land long gone.

[First, second, and fifth photos: Berenice Abbott; third photo: Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill, by James Renner; fourth image: Wichita Art Museum; sixth photo: Ephemeral New York]

A child’s casket emerges in a Hudson Street park

October 30, 2017

The dead who dwell in New York’s burial grounds have a strange way of making themselves known.

One example of this happened in 1939. Workmen renovating James J. Walker Park (second to last photo) on Hudson and Clarkson Streets in the West Village came upon an underground vault—and found a child-size cast iron casket inside.

The casket was “made to look like a shrouded Egyptian mummy,” states the Trinity Church website.

The New York World-Telegram reported on the discovery, noting, ‘The girl’s cast iron casket…had a glass window in the top. Her white silk dress still looked fresh and dainty.'” The paper noted that she was “a pretty yellow haired child.”

What was a casket doing there—and who was the girl inside it?

Until the city seized this green space to make into a park, the land was Old St. John’s Burying Ground (above and at right), run by Trinity Church for the worshipers at nearby St. John’s Chapel, since demolished, according to the New York Cemetery Project.

“It’s estimated that 10,000 people were buried in St. John’s Burying Ground in the years before 1860, when burials stopped—and very few bodies were removed and re-interred during park construction,” states Trinity’s website.

The unusual casket itself revealed the girl’s identity.

“The silver coffin plate gave the child’s basic information: Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, 6 years and 8 months old, died April 14, 1850,” according to Trinity Church.

Church archives discovered that Mary’s cause of death was listed as “brain congestion—probably encephalemia,” and she lived at “219 East Ninth Street in Manhattan, just off of Astor Place.”

Mary’s parents had married at St. John’s. Her father (above) was a British-born coal merchant who became a Mason and wrote poetry; he died in 1878.

Her brother, Fitz Gerald Tisdall, had a long career as a professor of Greek at City College.

Yet no record exists of who Mary was—if she liked school, rolled a hoop in Washington Square Park like other children, visited Barnum’s Museum, or had a favorite type of candy.

All we know about her is that she was one of untold numbers of children who didn’t make it to adulthood in New York at the time, when little was known about sanitation and hygiene and no medicine existed to fight deadly diseases.

Her casket didn’t go back underground, of course. “She rests in peace in the catacombs under Trinity Church,” according to the church website.

The only marked grave in the entire park is an 1834 sarcophagus dedicated to three young firemen who perished in a blaze on Pearl Street.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: MCNY; fourth photo: NYC Parks Department; Fifth Photo: Wikipedia]

“Chiller Theatre” used to scare a lot of city kids

October 30, 2017

Wonderama was for the Sunday morning cartoon crowd. The PIX video game came on after school. The Yule Log ran on Christmas Day, as millions of presents were being torn open in New York City homes from the 1960s to the 1980s.

And for anyone excited about Halloween or horror flicks in general, there was Chiller Theater, WPIX/channel 11’s homegrown Saturday night scary movie show from the 1960s to 1982.

Every week, low-budget films about aliens and monsters thrilled anyone old enough to stay up late and watch. Even the opening montage, which you can relive here, could give kids nightmares.