The century-old wishbones hanging in McSorley’s

So many incredible relics of old New York are taped to and hanging from the walls of McSorley’s Old Ale House, it’s hard to notice the row of dusty wishbones over the crowded bar.

But Sunday’s New York Post mentioned these artifacts and a fascinating story behind them. Were they really placed there by soldiers going off to World War I?

According to several city guidebooks, yes. “Those are the wishbones from going-away dinners of doughboys who never returned from the Great War,” writes Jef Klein in 2006’s The History and Stories of the Best Bars in New York.

“Never dusted, never touched, the wishbones ensure that a part of these soldiers’ lives will be remembered and their sacrifice appreciated, even while their bones may lie in forgotten graves.”

But Joseph Mitchell’s McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, from 1940, doesn’t mention soldiers, just that the owner had a thing for wishbones:

“[Owner] Old John had a remarkable passion for memorabilia. For years he saved the wishbones of Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys and strung them on a rod connecting the pair of gas lamps over the bar, the dusty bones invariably the first thing a new customer gets inquisitive about.”

However they originated, the city health department made the current owner take them down and clean them off this past April.

[Above, Berenice Abbott’s 1937 photo of inside McSorley’s. The wishbones should be off to the left]

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11 Responses to “The century-old wishbones hanging in McSorley’s”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    I’m glad to see that New York’s Health Department is on the job–it only took them 90+ years to get around to inspecting this tavern.

    McSorley and I would get along. I also save wishbones, but keep mine discretely out of sight, at least until I can think of some art project to use them for. Since most of them cook apart in the soup, I call it “lucky chicken soup” since the luck from the wishbones just runs back into the soup.
    –Road to Parnassus

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I wish our health department had better things to do than demand wishbones be cleaned, among other ridiculous offenses….

  3. Minnie McSorley Says:

    They have also banned yours truly, a harmless little cat. I can understand, what with all violent crime in the city being eliminated.

  4. Alex Baugh Says:

    These would have been left alone if it weren’t for Bloomberg and his A,B,C restaurant ratings, or the BOH wouldn’t have done a thing (after all, they hadn’t for 90 years.).

  5. The Day | Billy’s Antiques Will (Temporarily) Close - The Local East Village Blog - Says:

    […] Ephemeral New York wonders whether the wishbones at McSorley’s were actually hung by soldiers going off to war, as legend has it. […]

  6. Bill W. Says:

    While Joseph Mitchell mentions the bones, and the story he was told of their provenance, a photo taken in 1906 does not show the bones, nor does a John Sloan’s 1912 painting. John McSorley died in 1910, before the WWI.

    The story of the bones dates to a firsthand account by the late John Smith, a McSorley’s bartender for over 25 years.

    Mr. Mitchell’s work is not infallible, but by far the best source when first published in 1940,and for decades since.

  7. cjbnyc Says:

    Those bones never seemed to have enough dust on them for their age! Or perhaps my own house is particularly dusty….

  8. John Sloan paints many moods of McSorley’s Bar | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] in 1970, has been memorialized many times in art and literature, most famously by Berenice Abbott, Joseph Mitchell, and e.e. […]

  9. The curious fireplace in McSorley’s back room | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] are framed newspaper clippings from the 19th century, Harry Houdini’s handcuffs, a collection of wishbones left by soldiers who never returned from World War I, and of course, that pot-bellied stove that […]

  10. A moment in McSorley’s by an Impressionist artist | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] of a lush scene of light and air, Hassam’s “McSorley’s Bar” gives us a rich interior glimpse of the saloon with a well-dressed man holding a bottle (or […]

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