Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

A 1951 stamp explains the Battle of Brooklyn

May 25, 2015

This image of George Washington evacuating his troops illustrates the dramatic escape made by Patriot forces to Manhattan after the bruising Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776.

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The stamp was issued in Brooklyn in 1951, commemorating the battle’s 175th anniversary. This is Brooklyn Heights 239 years ago; the Fulton Ferry house is at right. Here’s the historical recap:

“On August 27, the Red Coats marched against the Patriot position at Brooklyn Heights, overcoming the Americans at Gowanus Pass and then outflanking the entire Continental Army,” states history.com.

“Howe failed to follow the advice of his subordinates and storm the redoubts at Brooklyn Heights, and on August 29 General Washington ordered a brilliant retreat to Manhattan by boat, thus saving the Continental Army from capture. At the Battle of Brooklyn, the Americans suffered 1,000 casualties to the British loss of only 400 men. On September 15, the British captured New York City.”

A missing Brooklyn woman transfixes the city

April 27, 2015

JessieMcCannWhen 23-year-old Jessie McCann didn’t return after work to her family’s Brooklyn home on December 4, 1913, newspapers jumped on the story.

After all, Jessie’s disappearance had all the elements that would draw in readers: money, romantic intrigue, and mental illness.

The daughter of a food wholesaler who counted Mayor Ardolph Kline as a friend, Jessie lived with her family in a comfortable home at 438 East 21st Street in Flatbush (21st Street, below).

Like many privileged young women of her era, Jessie pursued work as a teacher and social worker at settlement houses.

McCannheadlinefoundNYTThe day she vanished, she left for work at the Home for Destitute Children on Sterling Place in Brooklyn . . . but never showed up.

“Miss Jessie McCann . . . is 5 foot 7 inches tall, of slender physique, weighing not more than 120 pounds,” wrote the New York Times on December 9, 1913.

“She had a light complexion with brown hair and blue eyes. . . . she wore a brown satin dress with a cutaway coat and a velvet Tam ‘o Shanter hat with an orange plume.”

And also like many of her privileged peers, she was described as having a “nervous” disposition. She suffered from “melancholia,” according to her family, and was being treated by a doctor.

 McCannflatbush21ststreetJessie’s disappearance made headlines for weeks, and the press pounced on every clue. Why was she last seen Thursday afternoon on Wall Street in Manhattan? Could she really have been spotted wandering around Zeller’s drugstore on Coney Island?

The family shot down rumors that she eloped. But a romantic angle emerged: a Columbia student came forward to say that he was Jessie’s fiance.

Her family dismissed the man’s claim, insisting that Jessie thought of men as “nuisances” and was “not of a romantic disposition.”

But police confirmed through her friends that she and the Columbia student were secretly engaged, and that he had sent her a letter the morning she vanished, telling her that they could not get married until he finished his studies in three years.

JessieMcCannheadlineveningtelegram

The weeks went on, detectives continued to investigate, and her family offered a $1,000 reward. Sightings of Jessie as far away as Chicago didn’t pan out.

JessieMcCannfoundheadlineNYTFinally, on January 5, the headlines changed: Jessie had been found, her body washed ashore on Coney Island.

Based on how decomposed it was, police believe she drowned the very day she went missing, a suicide victim despondent over her fiance’s postponing their marriage.

Her family insisted it had to be an accident, though they admitted “her nerves were unstrung.”

A thief called the “cleverest woman in America”

April 20, 2015

AnniereillybyrnesbookmugshotWith its growing wealth and a police force more focused on patronage than professionalism, New York in the mid- to late 19th century was a thief’s paradise.

One female Irish immigrant was so successful at robbing the homes of the well off, she earned the nickname “the cleverest woman of her line in America.”

Her name was Anne Reilly. Born in Ireland in 1844, she came to New York and worked as a maid and nanny.

Her job made stealing relatively easy. Bright, charming, and able to speak three languages, “. . . she makes a great fuss over the children, and gains the good-will of the lady of the house,” before stealing all the valuables, wrote Thomas Byrnes, New York’s notorious chief of detectives in his 1886 in his book Professional Criminals of America.

AnniereillypickpocketUnder the alias of Kate Connelly, Kate Manning, or Kate Cooley, “Little” Annie plied her trade in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other Northeastern cities, falling in with a group of professional con women and sneak thieves headed by Marm Mandelbaum, who lived on Clinton Street.

After small stints in prison, in 1880 she was finally sentenced to doing real time—three years—on Blackwell’s Island for robbing a Second Avenue home of a Mrs. Evangeline Swartz.

Anniereillynytimes1879She went back to her old ways upon release, getting a job as a servant at the New York Hotel and stealing thousands of dollars in jewelry from guests’ rooms. She also tried to make off with a watch from a Macon Street, Brooklyn, jeweler named Charles Jennings.

ThomasbyrnesThose crimes scored her time in the Kings County Penitentiary, where the official record of her life and misdeeds appears to end.

“This woman is well worth knowing,” Byrnes (at left) wrote. “She has stolen more property in the last 15 years than any other four women in America.” The four women include her three aliases.

[Article clippings: New York Times]

Glowing beauty of the Brooklyn Bridge at night

April 13, 2015

Now this is enchantment: the globes of light from the bridge deck, the boat lights illuminating the East River, the twinkling skyline of lower Manhattan.

Brooklynbridgenightpostcard

“This view shows the well known Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground, and the most prominent of New York’s skyscrapers in the distance,” reads the back of this postcard.

“This scene is probably more familiar than any other to the multitude of people living in Greater New York.”

Who was crowned Miss Brooklyn in 1939?

March 2, 2015

All spring, the contest was heavily advertised in the Brooklyn Eagle. Any single woman born in New York City and currently living in the borough between the ages of 16 and 23 could enter.

Missbrooklynfinalists2

Interestingly for a beauty contest, beauty was not necessary, according to the Eagle. “Judging will be on the basis of poise, personality, and appearance,” the guidelines stated.

MissbrooklynrulesThe judges, a group of business leaders, were tasked with looking for someone who exemplified the “typical local girl.”

Hundreds of women entered the competition that year, with several deemed finalists (and getting their photos in the Eagle) before the winner was revealed during Brooklyn Week at the World’s Fair in May.

So who won? The crown went to Miss Elinore Bertrand, 16, of West 2nd Street, who attended Bay Ridge High School.

Missbrooklyn1939She was awarded $25 and the chance to compete for Miss New York later that summer.

Bertrand (at right) seemed to be a bit of a sore loser. After she failed to grab the Miss New York title, she was so upset, she ran away to Philadelphia!

Miss Brooklyn wasn’t the only beauty contest of the era. Miss Rheingold, running until 1964, may have been even more popular.

And Miss Subways, which existed from the 1940s to the 1970s, was huge citywide.

When New York winters were spent on the ice

February 16, 2015

One of the few activities open to both men and women in the 19th century city, ice skating was hugely popular.

“Skating in a moral and social point, is particularly suited to our republican ideas as a people,” stated the handbook published by the Brooklyn Skating Rink Association for the 1868-1869 season.

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Above, skating at Brooklyn’s Union Pond in 1863, once in the town of Williamsburgh on Marcy Avenue.

“The millionaire and the mechanic, the lady of fashion and those of humbler rank, all meet together to enjoy this fascinating and beautiful exercise.”

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How democratic ice skating was is not exactly clear. Ice was plentiful, but you needed the money to buy or rent skates.

And the fashionable attire worn by ladies on the ice, as seen in this Winslow Homer painting from 1861, was not cheap.

Currierandivescentralparkwinter

These sleighs and the handsome teams that pulled them were costly as well, afforded by only the richest New Yorkers.

This Currier & Ives lithograph shows the skaters and the sleighs, sharing a snowy Central Park in what looks like the 1860s.

The Manhattan Bridge’s two lost lovely ladies

February 9, 2015

Look closely: in this 1920s postcard depicting the grand Manhattan Bridge approach from Brooklyn, you can make out two statues inside the granite pylons flanking the roadway.

Manhattanbridgeapproach1925mcny

These heroic sculptures—created during the City Beautiful era, when art was meant to inspire and uplift—were known as “Manhattan” and “Brooklyn.”

Installed seven years after the bridge opened in 1909 and designed by Daniel Chester French, these 12-foot lovely ladies represented the attributes of each borough.

Manhattanbridgestatues

Impressive, right? But by the 1960s, they were gone—victims of bridge reconstruction in the age of Robert Moses and the automobile.

Luckily, Manhattan and Brooklyn didn’t end up in pieces in a Meadowlands dump, the sad fate of parts of the original Penn Station.

ManhattanstatueInstead, they were brought to the Brooklyn Museum, where they’ve guarded the entrance since 1963.

Interestingly, the attributes of each statue represent the way we view the boroughs today.

For Manhattan, that means hubris. “The pose of the figure of Manhattan typifies splendor and pride, of which the peacock at her side is the emblem,” says a 1915 article.

Brooklynstatue“The right foot of the statue rests upon a treasure-box and a winged ball in the statue’s hand suggests the City’s domination in world affairs.”

Meanwhile, Brooklyn has a softer, more artistic and educational vibe.

“Beside the figure of Brooklyn stands a church and the arm of the statue rests upon a lyre, symbolizing music.”

“A Roman tablet which the figure holds on its knee indicates study, and a child at its feet reading from a book typifies the Borough’s well-filled schools.”

[Statue photos: Brooklyn Museum]

A tasty Christmas menu from 1885 Brooklyn

December 22, 2014

“The Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York was founded by Washington Irving and others, as an organization to commemorate the history and heritage of New York, and to promote good fellowship among the members,” reads the St. Nicholas website.

Stnicholassocietymenu1

Since its beginning in 1835, the Society has hosted dinners—and this menu, from the wonderful collection of the New York Public Library—gives us a peek into what was served to commemorate Christmas 1885.

Held in Brooklyn Heights, the dinner was hosted by the “Nassau Island” branch of the Society, an interesting distinction.

Stnicholassociety2

The menu (or Spyskaardt, an homage to Brooklyn’s Dutch beginnings) seems very New Amsterdam: turtle soup, oyster pies, roast goose. And sweet breads with peas!

Five hero firehouse dogs of old New York City

December 15, 2014

FirehousedogsNew York has had firefighters since Dutch colonial days, first in the form of volunteers and then, beginning in 1865, a professional paid force.

And in the days of horse-drawn engines and a less-sophisticated alarm system, firehouse dogs played an important role.

Often a stray who found his way to the house or an unwanted pup given to the chief, many these canines served their companies heroically, explains 1897 New York Times piece.

FiredogjacknytimesThere was Jack (left), of Hook and Ladder Company 18, on Attorney Street. He’s described as a “large, sober-looking, brown-and-black shaggy full-bred shepherd dog” by the Times.

“When the alarm rings, Jack hurries the horses by biting at their hind legs,” stated the Times.

“He runs with the team, directly in front of the engine, and when the scene of the fire is reached is the first to investigate, dashing recklessly in amid the smoke and flames.”

FiredogbarneynytimesJack reportedly would use his teeth to drag the hose up the stairs of a burning building, and when pleased “will show his teeth and laugh in a perfectly Rooseveltian manner.”

At Engine 25 on Fifth Street, Barney (right) was the resident fire mutt.

“At a fire in Engel & Heller’s wine cellar recently one of the men was overcome by the smoke,” noted the Times.

“Barney saw his comrade’s danger, and, remaining by his side, barked furiously until the others investigated and found the unconscious fireman.”

Firedog1930mcny

Spot, of Engine Company 21 on East 40th Street, also earned kudos. “She goes into all the fires, unless too hot, and has distinguished herself for her bravery a number of times,” wrote the Times.

Firedog1920mcny“At command she bounds on the shoulders of a fireman, or on the back of one of the horses. The latter she makes her special charges . . . barking when they chance to gnaw at the pole straps.”

In 1936, on something called Animal Hero Day (sponsored by the New York Anti-Vivisection Society), a 3-year-old dalmatian named Susie, from Engine Company 2 on Lafayette Street, scored top honors.

Susie “was sunning herself in front of the firehouse when she smelled smoke in a paper twine warehouse next door,” stated the Times. “Her frantic barks brought the firemen and the blaze was put out.”

Firedog1905mcnyBut perhaps no dog was honored for bravery more than Chief, a stray who hung around Engine Company 203 in Brooklyn in 1929 and stayed for 10 years.

While helping with firefighting duties, “’Chief’ received numerous injuries, such as: cuts from broken glass and falling debris, burns from scalding water, and bruises from falling off the fire engine,” states the website of the New York City Fire Museum.

“His hallmark rescue was in 1936, for which he won 4 medals of honor. On November 21, a fire broke out in the Bermudez home in Brooklyn.

Firedogchief“Sixteen year-old Johnny Bermudez escorted his family part way downstairs but went back to the fourth floor to get his cat. ‘Chief’ ran into the building and returned carrying the cat, with his teeth.”

After being killed by a car in 1939, firefighters had Chief stuffed and mounted in the firehouse. Today, he belongs to the Fire Museum (above).

[Top and bottom photos: NYC Fire Museum; photos 2 and 3: NYTimes; photos 4,5, and 6: MCNY digital collection]

Why Gotham stuck as New York’s nickname

November 24, 2014

Washingtonirving1820It may have started out as an insult.

In 1807, Washington Irving was a young writer who ran with a pack of literary-minded pals, frequenting writerly haunts like the Shakespeare Tavern and Park Theater.

That year, he and his friends launched a literary magazine called Salmagundi, which ran satirical essays chronicling the “thrice renowned and delectable city of Gotham.”

Salmagundireprint1869Why Gotham? It was the name of an English village made popular in a series of stories from the Middle Ages about a town whose residents were all fools or madmen.

Translating into “Goat’s Town” (with goats not exactly being the smartest of animals), “Irving’s nickname was intended to mock New York’s culture and politics as he called out the ‘fools’ who had helped the city earn its new name,” stated museumofthecity.org.

Poking fun at the behavior and attitudes of fellow citizens is a time-honored New York tradition. But why would a nickname that could be interpreted as insulting stick?

Gothamtheaterbrooklynnypl

“Many of the tales merely portray the simple-mindedness of the townsfolk, but some—and here perhaps is the reason Irving’s New York didn’t reject the nickname right away—cast their folly differently, as a kind of in-joke of their own,” writes Jesse Zuba in New York.

Gothamsheetmusic1899nyplNew Yorkers love to feel like they’re clever enough to be in on the gag, and that may be why Gotham has triumphed as a popular nickname to this day (helped along two centuries later, when Gotham City became Batman’s hometown.)

You can actually read an 1826 version of The Merry Tales of the Three Wise Men of Gotham, the book that started it all.

[Second image: Salmagundi reprint from 1869; third: Gotham Theatre, NYPL Digital Gallery; fourth: 1899 sheet music, NYPL Digital Gallery]


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