A streetcar, a drunk, a fight, and murder in 1871

Every few years a shocking murder occurs in New York, one that overwhelms the city’s attention and provokes fear and outrage about the randomness of urban crime.

The “Car-Hook Tragedy” of 1871 was one of those murders.

It happened on the evening of April 26. Avery Putnam (below), by all accounts a mild-mannered Pearl Street merchant, was escorting a dressmaker family friend identified as Madam Duval to the Church of the Advent at 55 West 46th Street.

Madam Duval’s younger daughter was at the church singing in the choir. Putnam was taking Duval and her older daughter, 16-year-old Jenny, to the performance from their home on Broadway and Ninth Street.

The three boarded an uptown streetcar at University Place. The main form of public transportation at a time when elevated trains were still in infancy, streetcars were pulled by horses along steel tracks embedded in the street.

For a nickel fare, passengers could expect a sometimes noisy, smelly, bumpy ride — an increasingly in the Gilded Age, crime.

The streetcar carrying the three traveled up Broadway. At about 29th Street — as it passed the then-new Gilsey House (right), a hotel and now an apartment house still standing today — Jennie went on the car’s outside platform to look at the clock.

At that moment, a drunk, recently fired conductor named William Foster (below left) leered at Jenny, and then her mother, “in a most offensive manner,” reported the New-York Tribune.

Only a few other passengers were in the car. Putnam had words with Foster, asking him to leave the women alone. Foster began cursing him out, declaring that he would “fix [Putnam] when he got off.”

At 46th Street and Seventh Avenue, Putnam and the Duvals left the streetcar. True to his word, Foster followed behind them with a car-hook (an iron tool conductors used) and bashed Putnam over the head with it.

The merchant was left mortally wounded in the street, the Duvals shrieking in horror. He died at St. Luke’s Hospital two days later.

The savagery of the murder was rivaled by the callousness of passersby.

“None of the passers-by stopped to assist the ladies in dragging the body of their unfortunate friend to the sidewalk, out of the way of a down car, which was rapidly approaching,” wrote Harper’s Weekly.

Foster, a hulking New York native had a previous job working for Boss Tweed, was arrested and arraigned on murder charges. “Foster had very little to offer in his own defense,” states Murder by Gaslight.

“There had been several witnesses to the murder in addition to Madam Duval and her daughter, and at the time of his arrest, Foster admitted to the crime. He denied that the murder was premeditated and claimed he was too drunk to know what he was doing.”

As Foster himself put it: “Drink had crazed my brain, and to that cursed demon . . . I render thanks for the position I now occupy.”

Prosecutors, however, said the murder was premeditated, in part because Foster forced the driver to give him the car-hook four blocks before Putnam left the streetcar.

At his trial in May, the jury found him guilty, and Foster was sentenced to hang in the Tombs.

The focus of the car-hook tragedy now turned to Foster’s sentence. Many New Yorkers supported it; others felt he deserved mercy, as he was a husband and father.

There were also allegations that Foster’s wealthy father and friends tried to bribe Madam Duval to ask the governor to pardon the killer.

Foster got several reprieves. But in the end, he died for his crime, in front of 300 witnesses in the yard inside the Tombs (right).

[Top photo: typical streetcar in 1872, Alamy; second photo: Harper’s Weekly; fourth photo: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy; fifth photo: New York Times headline; sixth and seventh photos: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy]

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10 Responses to “A streetcar, a drunk, a fight, and murder in 1871”

  1. Herbphilly@aol.com Says:

    In 1928 Harold Lloyd made a 90 minute long silent movie called “Speedy,”
    which features extended scenes of a horse drawn streetcar. You could even
    say the streetcar is a character in the film. Much of the film was shot in
    NYC and we get to see street scenes, Coney Island, Yankee Stadium (with a
    cameo by Babe Ruth) and much more.
    It is a fast paced and very funny film. Highly recommended. It’s on
    YouTube. Look for it under the title “Relámpago”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks–I’ve seen it, and it is funny (as well as a great guide to the city at the time):

    • Beth Says:

      TCM will air Speedy on Wednesday, April 24, 2017 at 6 am.

      John Bengston produced a book containing stills from the film and photos of the same spots in 2010. He did a great job scouting all of those locations. The book is called Silent Visions

  2. Tom B Says:

    Doesn’t this offensive leering happen all the time now? Of course the defense lawyer would say the women tempted Foster with their dress and flirtatious looks. So Putnam had no right to get all up in Foster’s grill. He disrespected me! Foster would definitely get off with a mild sentence today. You are not responsible for your actions while under the influence. This is a humorous (sarcastic) reply with some plausibility about today for those who don’t know me.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Tom, your reply really is on target in today’s world. Leers like that (and groping, comments, etc) are now called street harassment, and they’re taken a lot more seriously than they were in 1871.

    I wanted to write about this case because it’s so similar to the kinds of things that happen today: mass transit travel, drunks, guys getting into a beef, someone ends up dead.

  4. Ruth Edebohls Says:

    William Foster is buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. I gave a tour on April 8th, “Scandals, Scalawags & Murder Most Foul” and his burial spot and story were on the tour.

  5. robert dowling Says:

    regards. ruth i hope you dont mind me asking, but do you have the corrdinates of fosters grave or some where of noting where it is in greenwood, i understand it is iunmarked, but would like to se if i get there. have relativd buried iu greenwood and curioues if there in same area. if least is ladmarks thats ok. thanks for your time. bob.

    • Ruth Edebohls Says:

      The plot is on the corner of Chapel and Orchard Avenues, I believe diagonally across from Levenger. There are two white marble monument on the plot, both with the name “Foster” on them. This is not far from Samuel F. B. Morse and very near to Steinway. At the time, many owners of plots in Green-Wood protested against a murderer being buried there.

  6. Aishwarya Says:

    I wandered my way here and it is lovely to read the chronicles of this city that I have never been to. Also, the post is written beautifully. It is gritty and engaging. Looking forward to reading lots more. Cheers

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