Archive for the ‘Lower East Side’ Category

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]

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 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]

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]

A songwriter’s desperate end in a Bowery hotel

April 24, 2017

If you’ve ever found yourself humming “Camptown Races” or “Oh! Susanna,” then you know Stephen Foster.

He’s the genius behind these and other catchy Antebellum-era favorites, many of which supposedly captured life in the Old South — even though Foster was born in Pennsylvania in 1826 and only visited the South when he honeymooned in New Orleans.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the inventor of the pop song: “the bastard stepchild of the parlor song and the minstrel song, of the European and African strains of American music,” as Michael Friedman wrote in The New Yorker in 2014.

And sadly, his tragic life trajectory echos that of many of today’s pop stars.

Growing up, Foster learned to play various instruments. He tried college, then went to work for his brother. But music was his passion, and he began selling songs in the 1840s to sheet music publishers.

“Oh! Susanna,” in 1848, was his breakthrough hit; it sold an astounding 100,000 copies and was performed by the popular New York–based Christy Minstrels.

“The song spread like wild fire with people whistling it in the streets,” states Pittsburgh Music History. “People all over country were singing it.”

Foster was famous now, churning out hits he liked to call “American melodies” (he reportedly disliked the demeaning, racially charged language in many minstrel tunes and tried to make the characters in his songs, both black and white, sympathetic).

He also inked a deal with a New York publisher that paid him 2 cents in royalties for every copy of his music that sold.

But the 1850s weren’t kind to Foster. His wife left him, he was creatively stuck, and pirated copies of his songs took a toll on his finances. He moved to Hoboken for a spell, then returned to Pennsylvania before coming east again.

In debt and alone by 1860, he lived in various Bowery hotels, took on a writing partner, and tried to restart his career.

Living on the Bowery (above, at Chatham Square in 1860) — which was then transforming from a lively theater district to a wilder strip of lowbrow stages and saloons — wasn’t a good move for a man already beset by depression and alcoholism.

“He rented a room in a cheap hotel at the corner of Bayard Street (at right), hoping for inspiration,” wrote Michael Leapman in The Companion Guide to New York, “but instead developed an undetermined fever and a gargantuan taste for drink.”

On January 10, 1864, Foster’s writing partner, George Cooper (below with Foster) found him on the floor of his room, naked and bleeding from the neck. He’d apparently slipped and cut his throat on a porcelain washing basin.

Brought by carriage to Bellevue, he died a few days later, at age 37. In his pocket was 38 cents and a note that read “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts” but nothing else.

“Beautiful Dreamer,” which he wrote in his Bowery hotel room, was published after his death and became arguably his most enduring song, a standard to this day.

[Top photo: Bowery Alliance; second image: Alamy; third photo: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 48.79; fifth image: Pittsburgh Music History]

Tiny Jewish cemeteries hidden in busy Manhattan

April 10, 2017

They’ve been there for centuries, just steps away from traffic lights and the rush of crowds: three small burial grounds tucked behind iron fences and shaded by untended trees.

They’re not in the best shape. Some of the headstones are broken or knocked askew, as this photo of a cemetery on 21st Street and Sixth Avenue shows. The Hebrew lettering on the stones has been worn down by the elements. Graffiti marks a brick wall.

But the story behind how these cemeteries came to be starts with the story of the first Jews to live in New York City.

That means going back to the 17th century. In 1654, a ship carrying 23 men, women, and children docked in Lower Manhattan. They were refugees fleeing Brazil, which the Portuguese had just recaptured from the Dutch.

This little group of Spanish and Portuguese Jews felt that New Amsterdam might be a more welcoming place.

Eh, not exactly. Peter Stuyvesant tried hard to throw them out. The refugees wrote letters to Holland to solicit support so they could stay.

A year later, the Dutch West India Company gave them the go-ahead to remain as long as they “do not become a burden.”

Free to build new lives here, the group quickly founded the continent’s first synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel. And though the synagogue had no permanent space until 1730, space for the deceased was established in 1656.

That original burial ground has disappeared. But what’s considered the first Jewish cemetery in the city still remains in Chatham Square (above), in a pocket facing St. James Place behind several tenements (below right, in a 1900 photo).

This cemetery opened in 1683. It once contained 256 graves, including those of Jewish Revolutionary War veterans. The above sketch of what Chatham Square looked like marks the “Jews Burying Ground” at the top right.

Speaking of the Revolution, the cemetery made an important appearance. In 1776, Major General Charles Lee wrote to George Washington:

“The East River, I am persuaded, may be secured in such a manner that [British] ships will scarcely venture into it…A battery for this purpose is planned at the foot of the Jews’ burying ground.”

An expansion of the Bowery cut the burial ground down in size to closer to 50. Some of the lead epitaph plates are missing because during the Revolutionary War, British soldiers melted them down to make bullets.

In 1805, a second cemetery opened on the outskirts of the city, at Sixth Avenue and what was then Milligan Place (below). The expansion of the city grid chopped its size as well to a tiny triangle.

“Initially, this graveyard was the burial site for victims of communicable diseases like yellow fever and malaria, for recently immigrated Jews who did not have strong ties to Shearith Israel, and for those who died at their own hand through suicide,” states the Shearith Israel website.

After the city banned burials below Canal Street in 1823, the Sixth Avenue cemetery became the main Jewish burial ground — until a third cemetery opened in what was then the bucolic country fields of Chelsea and is now a big-box shopping mecca (below).

“The lot for the Third Cemetery was purchased in 1829 for the then-princely sum of $2,750,” wrote Tablet magazine. “The cemetery operated until 1851, after which a law was enacted forbidding burial anywhere south of Manhattan’s 86th Street.”

Shearith Israel operates out of a majestic synagogue building on Central Park West with some spectacular history of its own; the wood floorboards under its reader’s desk are the same floorboards from the first permanent synagogue built in 1730 on Mill (now South William) Street.

The congregation maintains these three burial grounds, and near Memorial Day, members hold a ceremony at the Chatham Square cemetery, honoring the Jewish Revolutionary War veterans interred there.

Each cemetery has a story to tell about Jewish life in the city and the development of New York as a whole. Look for these ghostly reminders of Gotham’s first residents next time you’re nearby.

Manhattan is a necropolis of other little-known burial grounds, especially in the East Village.

[Fourth photo: NYPL; Sixth photo: MCNY: 93.91.359; Tenth photo: NYPL]

Creative ways to use a tenement fire escape

March 6, 2017

fireescapecoupleIn February 1860, a swift-moving evening blaze raged through a tenement on Elm Street—today’s Lafayette Street.

Ten women and children died, largely because firefighters’ ladders didn’t reach past the fourth floor.

The Elm Street fire certainly wasn’t the first to kill tenement dwellers. But thanks to newspaper coverage and the high death toll, it prompted an enormous outcry from city residents for building reform.

So a law was passed two months later mandating that city buildings be made of “fireproof” materials or feature “fire-proof balconies on each story on the outside of the building connected by fire-proof stairs.”

fireescapenypljunkThis regulation, and then the many amendments that came after it, was the genesis of the iconic New York fire escape—a sometimes lovely and ornate, often utilitarian and rusted iron passageway that helped cut down the number of casualties in tenement fires.

But as anyone who has ever lived in a tenement knows, fire escapes have lots of other uses aside from their original purpose—and you can imagine how handy they were in an older, poorer, non-air conditioned city.

First, storage. For large families sharing two or three rooms in a typical old-law tenement flat, fire escapes functioned as kind of a suburban garage or mud room, even though by 1905, clutter was outlawed.

It was an especially good place to keep an ice box in the winter, where food that had to be kept cold could be stored until it was time to eat.

fireescapesleepbettmancorbisThe railings off of a fire escape also made for a handy spot to air out bedding and mattresses and hang laundry to dry after it was washed by hand.

Playgrounds arrived in the city at the turn of the century. But fire escapes doubled as jungle gyms and play areas, where kids could burn off energy close to home yet away from the eyes of parents.

During what was called the “heated term,” fire escapes became outdoor bedrooms, the summer porches of the poor.

Families dragged out mattresses and tried to catch a faint breeze on steamy summer nights, when airless tenements felt like ovens. Sadly, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to fall off while sleeping and be killed.

fireescapepuckbuilding

But on the upside, there’s the most romantic use for a fire escape: as a private space for couples, where darkness and moonlight turn even the most depressing tenement district into a wonderland under the stars.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverFire escapes didn’t have to be as beautiful as the one on the Puck Building, above, to have some magic and enchantment.

Fire escapes and the tenements they’re associated with are icons of late 19th century metropolis, and The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 offers a first-person feel for what it was like to live in one.

[Top photo: Stanley Kubrick; second photo: MCNY; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: Bettman/Corbis]]

A Bowery tinsmith paints his city of memory

February 13, 2017

Born in 1801, William Chappel was a Manhattan native who made a modest living as a tinsmith and resided with his wife and kids at 165 Bowery opposite the Bowery Theatre.

[“The Buttermilk Peddler,” location unknown]

chappelbuttermilkpeddler2

He was also an amateur painter (and the father of a more renowned artist, Alonzo Chappel). The elder Chappel’s depictions of day-to-day street life offer a fascinating peek at New Yorkers at work and at play in the city of approximately 1810.

At that time, Gotham’s population stood at less than 100,000, most residents lived in 2- or 3-story wooden houses, the urban core barely stretched past Canal Street, and conveniences such as clean water and mass transit were still pipe dreams.

[“The Baker’s Wagon,” Hester Street]

chappelbakerswagon

Even without the amenities New Yorkers are long used to, life in the 1810 city isn’t so far off from the metropolis of today.

Peddlers sell food—buttermilk, strawberries, baked pears, bread. A watchman, one of the leather-helmeted patrolmen who predate the city’s first police force, walks his beat. Boats ferry people to Brooklyn from a dock at the end of Catherine Street.

[“City Watchman,” Elizabeth Street]

chappelnightwatchman

Well-dressed women head to a tea party. Bathers wade into the cool water at Dandy Point, at today’s 13th Street. Shoppers buy meat and fish at a marketplace called the Fly (from the Dutch “Vly”) Market. Volunteer firemen attract admirers as they wash their engines on the Bowery.

[“Firemen’s Washing Day,” The Bowery]

chapellfiremenswashingday

Chappel’s work in currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which notes that the 27 small oil paintings on display were all done in the 1870s, decades after the time period they depict.

[“Tea Party,” Forsyth and Canal Streets]

chappelteaparty

“Chappel’s images defy easy categorization because his practice and motivation remain elusive,” states a summary of the exhibit mounted beside the paintings.”

“Did Chappel produce these works, in all their minute detail, from older sketches or from youthful memories?”

[Bathing Party, 13th Street at East River]

chappelbathingparty

“One thing is certain: Chappel’s scenes offer a rare glimpse of early nineteenth-century New York and its diverse working-class communities as it began its tumultuous ascent to the United States’ financial capital.”

What Economy Candy looked like in the 1980s

January 30, 2017

Sweets emporium Economy Candy, a beloved time machine of a candy store, got its start on Rivington Street in the 1930s (hence the very Depression-friendly name).

economycandysign

Today the shop has one of New York’s most recognizable old-school signs (above), and its maze of candy bins and shelves of nostalgia brands draw big crowds on weekends—a testament to its reputation as well as the Lower East Side’s revival.

economycandy1980sBut things at 108 Rivington looked very different in the 1980s, when this NYC Department of Records photo was taken.  (Click the thumbnail to see it larger.)

How it looked inside, I have no idea. But outside are boarded-up upper windows, graffiti near the facade—and a sign noting Israeli specialties and Halvah, reflecting the tastes of the neighborhood 30-plus years ago.