Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

Coney Island’s “disaster spectacles” thrill crowds

September 14, 2015

ConeyislandfightingtheflamesConey Island at the turn of the century let visitors escape the conventions of city life and experience a fantastical world: of thrilling rides and exotic animals, carnival games, freak shows, Eskimo and lilliputian villages, even a trip to the moon.

But perhaps the most bizarre exhibits were the disaster spectacles.

These shows recreated a real-life disaster so visitors could witness the death and destruction that took place.

The fall of Pompeii, the San Francisco Earthquake, the eruption of Mount Pelee in Martinique, and the Johnstown and Galveston Floods exhibits were hugely popular.


“Six hundred veterans of the Boer War, fresh from Johannesburg, re-fought their battles in a 12,000-seat stadium,” stated PBS’ American Experience show about Coney Island.

“Galveston disappeared beneath the flood. Mount Pelee erupted hourly, while across the street, Mount Vesuvius showered death on the people of Pompeii.”

ConeyislandpeleeadsAnother spectacle called “Fire and Flames” had real firemen set a four-story building on fire, then extinguish it as “residents” of the building, really actors, jumped out of windows, just like in a real New York City fire (except they jumped into safety nets).

The fire spectacle, at Luna Park, was so successful, Dreamland came up with their own version, called “Fighting the Flames” that brought in actual fire rescue equipment.

What was so fascinating about disaster to Coney Island visitors of the era?


“In its very horror, disaster conferred a kind of meaning to its victims’ lives, transforming commonplace routine into the extraordinary,” writes John F. Kasson in Amusing the Million.

“Sensationalized recreations of such disasters gave a vicarious sense of this transcendence to their audience—with of course the inestimable advantage of allowing them to emerge from the performance unharmed.”


It’s really no different from our more contemporary attraction to disaster movies, like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, says Kasson.

107 colorful years at a Meatpacking District motel

September 7, 2015

Today’s gleaming, touristy Meatpacking District has no room for low-rent motels. But the Liberty Inn, at 51 Tenth Avenue, which famously charges by the hour, is still hanging in there.


This flatiron-shaped building is a remnant of the days when 14th Street west of Eighth Avenue was a commercial and ship-docking district, home to a produce market, meatpacking plants, sailors’ dives, and sex clubs.

LibertyinndelamatersquareThe hotel had a dicey reputation from the start.

It first opened in 1908 as a sailor’s boardinghouse called the Strand on a patch of land known as Dalamater Square (right, 1938).

“It is a three-story structure, on the ground floor of which is a saloon and the upper part of which contains 28 rooms,” stated a court document from 1914.

“[The Strand] accepts only men as roomers,” the document added, and caters “to the class of trade that has business at the river front.”

In other words, it was a rough place–which might be why it had its “all-night license” revoked in 1910.

Its waterfront location came in handy after the Titanic sank in 1912. To cover the story, the New York Times rented a floor of rooms at the Strand (below, at Pier 54).


“The editors sent reporters to the pier with orders to buttonhole survivors and then run into the Strand and dictate their notes on one of the telephone lines, which were connected to the newsroom in Times Square,” the Times recalled in a 2012 article.


There’s no reason to think the Strand—or whatever it was called as the decades went on—ever changed its seamy vibe.

And why would it, since the Meatpacking District became the haunt of sex workers and the site of sex clubs from the 1970s through the 1990s.

mp0271The Anvil operated out of the ground floor of the building from 1974 to 1986, where “drag queens and naked go-go boys danced upstairs and those looking for a more hands on experience wandered the dark passageways below ground,” recalled the Daily News.

[Above: Photo by Brian Rose]

Today’s Liberty Inn, which limits rooms to 2 guests each and charges $80 for two hours, is a far cry from the debauchery of the Anvil.


But it’s the most unsavory place you’ll find in a neighborhood that’s scrubbed its down and dirty past clean.

[Third and fourth photos: NYPL Digital Collection. Fifth Photo: Brian Rose.]

The gaudy elephant hotel of 1880s Coney Island

July 6, 2015

When Coney Island went from remote sandbar resort to the city’s biggest beachfront playground in the 1880s, tawdry amusement attractions began to pop up on the West End: beer halls, roller coasters, and freak shows.


But perhaps the gaudiest addition was the Elephantine Colossus, a nearly 200-foot tall hotel sheathed in blue tin and with a gilded howdah on top.

Encircled by the Shaw Channel Chute roller coaster, the hotel looked like a bizarro version of one of the live pachyderms on exhibit at Coney Island’s amusement parks at the turn of the century.


Completed in 1885 at Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, the 12-story elephant was divided into 31 rooms. Visitors could also climb to the observatory and pay 10 cents to get an incredible aerial view of New York City by looking through the elephant’s eyes, which were actually telescopes.

Elephanthotelrollercoaster“The forelegs contained a cigar store and diorama and the hind legs held circular stairways leading to the rooms contained above,” wrote Michael Immerso in Coney Island: The People’s Playground.

The developer called the elephant hotel the eighth wonder of the world. Locals soon began calling it a brothel; apparently it wasn’t too popular with regular tourists, so prostitutes took over.

ElephanthoteladIn fact, “seeing the elephant” became a slang term for visiting the hotel and hiring a hooker, according to this clip from the New-York Historical Society.

As a gimmick, the elephant hotel gripped the imagination. But as a business, it lost money, and by the 1890s, the structure had been abandoned.

ElephanthotelfireIts ultimate demise was spectacular. The hotel burned down in 1896 in a blaze so fiery, it reportedly could be seen from Sandy Hook in New Jersey.

The Elephantine Colossus isn’t the only pachyderm to come to a gruesome end at Coney Island.

Topsy the elephant, a temperamental creature brought to Luna Park so park-goers could ride on her back, was put to death by electrocution there in 1903 under the direction of Thomas Edison, who wanted to test his new direct current.

[Photos: top, New-York Historical Society; second, fourth, and fifth:]

A Bronx serial killer escapes from prison in 1916

June 22, 2015

FrederickmorsheadshotIn 1914, residents of a Bronx nursing home called the German Odd Fellows Home began dying.

This is hardly unusual in a nursing home, of course. But officials there realized that the residents were dying in larger numbers than usual.

Officials didn’t have to do a drawn-out investigation. In February 1915, a peculiar new porter and nursing orderly at the home described as “neurotic” and a smoker of “Egyptian cigarettes” walked into the Bronx district attorney’s office.

Clad in a corduroy hunting outfit and wearing a feathered Alpine hat, he admitted that he killed eight octogenarians.

Frederickmorsheadlinenyt2Frederick Mors, 26 (above), a recent Austrian immigrant, told authorities that he used chloroform (and in one case arsenic) to “put people out of their misery.”

“When you give an old person chloroform, it’s like putting a baby to sleep,” he told police. “It frees them from all pain. It is humane and kind-hearted.”

 He claimed he was egged on by the home’s superintendent, who urged him to “‘hurry the deaths’ of some of the more aged and suffering inmates,” wrote The New York Times in 1915.

Frederickmorsheadline2He confessed, he said, because he was afraid the superintendent would pin all of the murders on him.

Though some aspects of Mors’ story appeared to check out, the DA’s office wasn’t convinced. They decided to give him a psychiatric test.

Mors failed, and the DA deemed him a victim of “homicidal hallucination.”

Instead of being prosecuted, he was committed to the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane in Poughkeepsie (below).


Scheduled for deportation back to Austria, Mors escaped prison in May 1916.

He was never seen again, but a skeleton found in a patch of woods in Connecticut may have been his; police found a bottle next to the skeleton that indicated suicide by poison.

A daring drunk lands a plane in Upper Manhattan

June 22, 2015

Like so many crazy stunts, it reportedly started with a bar bet.

On September 30, 1956, Thomas Fitzpatrick (below), a 26-year-old steamfitter from Emerson, New Jersey, was drinking at a tavern on St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights.


For reasons that appear to be lost to history, Fitzpatrick bet another bar patron that he could get in a plane and land it in Washington Heights in 15 minutes.

Airplane1956headshotIt’s not clear if he made the time limit. But he did get a plane, a Cessna 140 two-seater stolen from Teterboro Airport, and flew it to Manhattan, where he landed it on St. Nicholas Avenue and 191st Street at 3 a.m.

Despite being drunk, Fitzpatrick “brought it down safely between six-story apartment buildings,” wrote The New York Times in 1958.

The plane “landed on a street with lampposts and cars parked on both sides,” a witness told The New York Times in a 2013 article. “It was a wonder—you had to be a great flier to put that thing down so close to everything.’’

Fitzpatrick told police that he brought the plane down in the street (below) because he had engine trouble, but they didn’t buy it. Originally charged with grand larceny, Fitzpatrick eventually paid a $100 fine.

That wasn’t Fitzpatrick’s only aeronautic feat. While drinking in a Washington Heights tavern on October 4, 1958, he told a patron about his previous Upper Manhattan plane-landing experience.

AirplanewashingtonheightsphilinqWhen the patron refused to believe him, Fitzpatrick drove with the man to Teterboro, secured a plane, flew it to Upper Manhattan, and landed on Amsterdam Avenue and 187th Street at about 1 a.m.

“Yesterday’s incident surprised and frightened residents and motorists who heard the plane descending,” wrote the Times. “The craft touched down, taxied a few yards and stopped in front of a Yeshiva University building.”

That second landing scored him six months in jail, after which as far as anyone knows, he never tried to fly to Washington Heights again.

[top two photos: New York Times; third photo, Philadelphia Inquirer]

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.


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

“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.”

The claw hammer murder rocks 1930s New York

May 18, 2015

PhelanleavingcourtEarly on New Year’s Eve 1933, the battered body of a 68-year-old retired stockbroker was found in his five-room apartment at the Grinnell (below), a luxurious building at 800 Riverside Drive.

Douglas Sheridan’s corpse was slumped in the bathtub with scalding water from the shower pouring down over it.

His head had been bashed in, once in his face and once in the back of the skull.

The scene was grisly, but it offered detectives immediate clues.

“In the courtyard below they discovered a hammer which they believe to have been the murder weapon,” wrote the New York Times on January 1, 1934.

Detectives also noticed that Sheridan’s housekeeper, 52-year-old “gray haired” Catherine Phelan (left), had bloodstains on the lenses of her glasses.

Phelan, who had worked for Sheridan for 28 years, had called police to the apartment and led them to Sheridan’s body.

She told police she had the night off, and that she left the apartment to see a movie after two guests of Sheridan’s arrived.

Phelanmurdergrinnell“Later in the evening, she was quoted as saying, she became vaguely uneasy because Mr. Sheridan had been drinking, and she started back toward the apartment,” stated the Times.

Soon after, she discovered her employer’s body—his two guests gone, she claimed. Hours later, she called police.

Detectives cast doubt on her story, but they didn’t arrest her immediately. It took a day to check out her version of events and look into Sheridan’s personal and financial life.

PhelanmurderheadlineThey soon learned that Phelan stood to gain $8,000 from Sheridan’s will, and that Sheridan was about to fire her, according to apartment building employees.

In addition to that, Sheridan apparently had a “fondness for young women friends.” One of his guests the evening he died was a young female, and police believed Phelan killed Sheridan out of jealousy.

After her arrest on January 1, she insisted she was innocent. Charged with murder, she stood trial in November.

A month later, she was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. “Thank you for the Christmas present, your honor,” she told the judge, before heading off to Auburn state prison.

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.


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]

The fate of two brothers watching Lincoln’s funeral procession

April 13, 2015

While researching a book about Abraham Lincoln, writer Stefan Lorant uncovered this April 25, 1865 image of Lincoln’s funeral procession passing Broadway at 13th Street.


The photo is one of many taken on that solemn afternoon. And it contains an amazing coincidence.

The building on the corner was the mansion of Cornelius van Schaack Roosevelt. Peering out the second-floor window are his seven- and five-year-old grandsons, Theodore and Elliott Roosevelt.

Elliottrooseveltadult“Yes, I think that is my husband, and next to him his brother,” confirmed Edith Carow Roosevelt, Teddy’s widow. A childhood friend of the Roosevelt boys, she too was at the mansion that day.

We know how Teddy Roosevelt’s life unfolded: he attended Harvard, became a state assemblyman and then reform-minded city police commissioner, colonel of the Rough Riders, New York governor, vice president, and in 1901, at age 42, the youngest president in history.

TR was dynamic, combative, robust, and moralistic—a family man who found his greatest happiness in his home life with his wife and five children.

But what about Elliott?

As Teddy’s life was marked by achievement and success, Elliott’s took the opposite direction.

Anna Hall RooseveltWell-liked and amiable, Elliott (above) was supposed to be the academic and athletic star of the family.

But while Teddy went to Harvard, Elliott used his inheritance to travel, enjoy society, and drink, developing the alcoholism and drug addiction that would plague him his entire life.

In 1883, he married a beautiful socialite named Anna Hall (left). Elliott and Anna had three children, including first-born Eleanor (below).

By all accounts, Elliott was adored by Eleanor. But sickly and overwhelmed by life, he continually sought escape, and his behavior was erratic and disturbing.

ElliottandfamilykidsStints in the business and real-estate world didn’t last. By the early 1890s, his drinking was out of control. He fathered a child out of wedlock with a servant, and he spent time in a European sanitarium.

Disgusted with his brother’s behavior, TR sought to have him declared insane, so his money could be put in a trust for his children.

More misfortune fell. Anna, estranged from her husband, died of diphtheria in 1892. Son Elliott Jr. succumbed to scarlet fever in 1893.

Separated from his children, he wrote letters to Eleanor, who lived with her maternal grandmother on West 37th Street.

Elliottrooseveltnyt“Elliot, as his daughter Eleanor was to note later, now had ‘no wife, no children, no hope,'” according to this 1988 article.

In 1894, Elliott jumped out of the window from his house on West 102nd Street, either attempting suicide or in a delirious state.

He died in his bed on August 14, 1894, the year before Teddy would become New York’s police commissioner and be launched toward a life on the national political stage.


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