The gritty history of an 18th century Village lane

Prison inmates, slaughterhouse workers, runaway pigs, and unlucky sailors are some of the New Yorkers who tread the paving stones of Charles Lane—a Greenwich Village alley between Perry and Charles Streets that has a colorful history.

The prisoners walked here first. The lane was laid out in 1797, states the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. It formed the northern border of Newgate State Prison (below), built at the foot of the Hudson River that same year.

Newgate was supposed to be a new kind of prison a mile or so from the city downtown; it gave rise to the saying “sent up the river.” The novel idea was to provide moral instruction rather than just harsh corporal punishment.

But it quickly became overcrowded, and inmates frequently rioted.

Prisoners sentenced to death likely had to walk past Charles Lane to get to Washington Square Park, where execution awaited, according to Mike Wallace, coauthor of Gotham, per a New York Times article.

After Newgate was shuttered in 1828, the lane became “Pig Alley,” thanks to “the slaughterhouse which formerly graced the middle of it,” explains a 1913 Evening World article.

“There were always stray pigs about the place then, without sense enough to leave the spot where they were to meet their certain dooms.”

Men who worked the ships met terrible fates here too. “It was a wicked place of nights,” the Evening World continued, rather illustriously.

“Many a poor sailor or longshoremen has been carried out from under its yellow lanterns never to wake again except among the company of harped and winged saints who came by way of the Potter’s Field. . . . “

By 1893, Charles Lane got its current name and was officially mapped, states GVSHP.

When photographer Berenice Abbott shot Charles Lane in 1938 (left), the view looking north toward Washington Street shows us an unkempt alley filled with debris—but oh, those beautiful old blocky stones!

Today the alley is cleaned up, and the West Street end buts up against luxury glass co-ops. I don’t know if those co-op owners ever walk through Charles Lane, but I hope they do. I hope they tread lightly and feel its ghosts.

[All Photos © Ephemeral New York except photo 2, from the NYPL, image 3, from the NYPL, and image 5, from MOMA]

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5 Responses to “The gritty history of an 18th century Village lane”

  1. Zoe Says:

    1000 x this: “those beautiful blocky stones!”

    I noticed the seeming (?) incongruence of the glassy building also. But then there is something perfect about it.

    “except among the company of harped and winged saints” I love the florid language of these old newspaper men! (& occasional women who squeezed through). I can smell the ink coming off those words.

  2. Dymoon Says:

    enjoyed the history and read…. thanks

  3. trilby1895 Says:

    As always, ephemeral, your historical peeps are much valued and thank you! This one, especially, since, for some reason, I enjoy views of the “darker” aspects of Manhattan history; more colorful, I suppose, than society “correctly observed”. I’d read of the origin of the term “up the river” some time ago and especially like knowing that something now quoted for centuries and world-wide had it’s colorful origin here in Gotham.

  4. David H Lippman Says:

    I know this street well…my father kept our car in the “Oil Market Garage” on Perry Street between Perry and Charles Lane, between Washington Street and the river. We would often go down there to pick it up or drop it off. I remember the perfect cobblestones.

  5. Where the hangman lived on Washington Square | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] 1819, this “keeper of the potter’s field,” who also served as the hangman for Newgate Prison at the end of Christopher Street, paid $500 for a corner plot of land on today’s Washington Square South and Thompson […]

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