Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

A garden rises where a fireman died by arson

July 6, 2020

In 1977—with city coffers empty, crime rising, and residents fleeing at historically high rates—more than 13,000 New York City buildings were intentionally set on fire.

One of these arson fires happened on July 2 at 358 East Eighth Street, an abandoned tenement between Avenues C and D. The blaze, set with diesel oil, broke out on the fifth floor at about 3:10 pm.

Firefighters from Engine 15 saw the smoke while heading back to their station house on Pitt Street after responding to a false alarm. They detoured to the burning tenement to take on the four-alarm blaze, according to the New York Daily News on July 7, 1977.

With the firefighters on the fifth floor, the arsonist allegedly came back and set a second fire on a lower floor, reported the Daily News. (At right, the six-story building in 1940)

“When the new outburst of flames surged upward, the firemen crawled to a window where Ladder Company 11 had extended its cherry picker,” stated the Daily News.

One fireman made it to the cherry picker; three were overcome by smoke inhalation and had to be rescued inside.

Firefighter Martin Celic, 25, a Staten Island native who was to be married later that year, tried to get in the cherry picker. He tripped and fell 70 feet to the sidewalk.

Celic spent a week at Bellevue with massive head injuries before dying on July 10, his fiancee at his bedside.

A 17-year-old was arrested for setting the fire; he allegedly told officials that he did it to prevent winos and junkies from getting inside the building. In 1978 he was ordered to stand trial for arson and murder.

In 1978, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, admitting that he set the fire, according to the Daily News on July 7 of that year. He received 8-25 years.

This tragic story would be just a footnote of 1970s New York City history if not for the efforts of community members.

“Longtime neighborhood residents Ansley and Kelly Carnahan had begun gardening in the lot adjacent to the abandoned building in 1975,” states NYC Parks. “After the burnt-out building was condemned and torn down, the Carnahans and other local residents expanded their garden to the new lot.”

They named it the Firemen’s Garden (or Fireman’s Garden; it’s spelled both ways), “in honor of those who risk their lives daily in every borough and district,” continues NYC Parks. “Marty Celic’s family donated benches made of cedar and wrought iron.”

The garden became a nonprofit in 1989, then was transferred to the New York City Parks Department control in 1999. Shady, leafy, and with brick paths inside, it’s one of many firefighter tributes throughout the city.

For many New Yorkers, the Firemen’s Garden is a little off the beaten path. A “special ceremony is held in mid-July in remembrance of the sacrifices of all New York City firemen,” NYC Parks says, might be worth making the trek for.

[First and second photo: New York Daily News; third photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services]

The “Croton bug” infests 19th century New York

June 8, 2020

They began appearing in New York City in large numbers in the 1840s, and newspapers described them as “miserable pests,” the products of “slovenly housekeepers,” and “filthy and destructive insects.”

“Never in all New York’s history has such a plague of vermin visited us,” wrote an anonymous “apartment dweller” in The New York Times in 1921.

What was this hated creature?

The common house cockroach, which was dubbed the “Croton bug” and known by that misnomer throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The name comes from the Croton Aqueduct, which opened in 1842 (above, a celebration in City Hall Park) and brought fresh water from upstate to New York City residents.

The appearance of  these roaches (technically known as German cockroaches) in the city coincided with the advent of the Croton water system—leading New Yorkers to associate the bugs with Croton and blame the system for infesting Gotham.

The Croton aqueduct itself wasn’t to blame, but the water pipes installed in many homes to access the water was.

“The new water system not only supplied New York with cheap and abundant water, it also provided the cockroach with warm water pipes that were dank, dark conduits from apartment kitchen to apartment kitchen,” wrote John Leland in Aliens in the Backyard.

With Croton bugs popping up in kitchens across the city, efforts to get rid of them were introduced. Ads for poisons and powders filled newspapers. One doctor even advised that “stale beer” could kill them, as it’s “the cockroach’s favorite drink.”

Guides for housekeepers were also published. “Use pulverized borax, which they do not like,” one 1903 manual for servants advised. “Sprinkle it into their haunts, especially under and around sinks and stationary washstands.”

This manual went on to describe them “like Noah’s weary dove, seeking human companionship, or perhaps, still more like another scriptural type, going to and fro and walking up and down seeking something to devour….They do not leave town for the heated term.”

No, roaches don’t leave for the heated term, aka summer…in fact they apparently don’t leave New York at all, considering how many city residents still deal with them.

Perhaps changing their name back to “Croton bugs” will make them more endearing?

[Top image: science text 1915; second image: New York Daily Herald, 1852; third image: MCNY 0.13.4.154; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1908; fifth image: Evening World]

How yellow fever rebranded a Brooklyn village

April 27, 2020

Epidemics have shaped the growth and geography of New York. And one 19th century epidemic changed a neighborhood’s name, too.

That’s what happened with the Brooklyn enclave formerly known as Yellow Hook. This farming village overlooking New York Bay was originally part of the town of New Utrecht. It was located south of Red Hook, that other hook-shaped piece of land jutting into the water.

Yellow Hook was named by 17th century Dutch settlers for the “peculiar yellowish tint of the land,” according to a 1930 article in the Brooklyn Times Union.

But the name became something of a problem two centuries later, when outbreaks of yellow fever hit Brooklyn in the decade before the Civil War.

The disease was possibly carried to Brooklyn shores by the ships quarantined at Staten Island, according to Mrs. Otto Heinigke, a lifelong resident who was interviewed by the Times Union in 1929 and remembers the epidemic and the “dying shore-dwellers.”

Hundreds of people from Yellow Hook and neighboring Fort Hamilton perished, she said. After the outbreak died down, the “leading men” met at the Yellow Hook schoolhouse, which stood at today’s Third Avenue and 73rd Street, according to the newspaper.

A name change, they felt, would get rid of the negative associations Yellow Hook could have with the deadly, dreaded disease.

The group liked the name Port Lafayette, explained  Mrs. Heinigke, who was described by the Times Union as an “alert little lady” descended from a prominent local family and still living in a gas-lit mansion.

Mrs. Heinigke’s father was the one who came up with the official new name: Bay Ridge. “And so it was that when my father suggested the name ‘Bay Ridge,’ because the section overlooked the bay from a wooded ridge, they all seized upon it at once,”  she explained. “That is how the section got its name.”

As far as I know, the only remnants of the Yellow Hook name in today’s Bay Ridge is a restaurant called the Yellow Hook Grille. And I also heard that the local library has a historical marker explaining the abrupt name change.

[Top image: NYPL Map of the Battle of Brooklyn, 1776; second and third images: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 58.84.2; fifth image: Brooklyn Times Union, 1929]

A portrait of tuberculosis in 1940s East Harlem

April 20, 2020

Dubbed the “white plague” and “consumption,” tuberculosis was one of the most feared diseases of 19th and early 20th century New York City.

Spread by bacteria that thrived in dark, crowded tenements, the disease was so rampant in poor sections of the city that entire blocks were labelled “lung blocks” because so many residents were infected.

Though antibiotics helped drastically reduce the prevalence of tuberculosis in New York City in the 20th century, it was still a fearsome killer in the 1940s, as painter Alice Neel documents in “TB Harlem,” from 1940.

“In this painting, Neel portrayed Carlos Negrón, the brother of the artist’s then-lover, José Santiago,” states the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), which has the painting in its collection.

Negrón is 24 years old and a resident of East Harlem, as was Neel at the time. The bandage on his chest covers the wound from a treatment called thoracoplasty, meant to help his diseased lung by removing a rib.

“Although it encourages empathy, Neel’s painting is not sentimental,” continues the NMWA. “While retaining Negrón’s likeness, Neel distorted and elongate his neck and arms. She used heavy, dark lines to emphasize and flatten his silhouette. The lines around his wound draw attention to the sunken misshapenness of his left side. Negrón’s face expresses dignity in suffering while his pose and the gesture of his right hand recall traditional images of the martyred Christ.”

A mob torches New York’s Quarantine Hospital

April 20, 2020

New York in the 18th and 19th centuries was a place of constant ship traffic. Ships helped make the city rich—but the passengers and crew aboard them also brought bacteria and viruses.

To prevent ships from sparking more disease outbreaks in a city that was regularly besieged by them, the state built the New York Marine Hospital in 1799, a complex of buildings behind a six-foot wall in Tompkinsville, a village on the north shore of sparsely populated Staten Island.

The Quarantine, as it was known, functioned as a first line of defense.

Ships headed for the city were required to dock there, and health inspectors would board the vessel and make sure no one showed signs of disease, especially yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, or typhus (so common it was dubbed “ship fever”). If all was well, the ship could continue on to Manhattan or Brooklyn.

But if inspectors suspected or saw evidence of disease, they would flag the vessel and “divert everyone on board to the Quarantine until they were cleared as disease-free,” wrote the New York Daily News in 2013.

Those who were not sick still had to go to the Quarantine. “If the healthy passengers and crewmen did not develop any symptoms of illness over a specified period of time—the period depending on the disease—they were released,” explains a 2004 article in Public Health Reports.

As for the sick passengers, their clothes were washed immediately. They were then loaded into wagons and brought to one of the hospital buildings. (Interestingly, there was a separate quarantine hospital building for first class passengers, which was described as more of a hotel.)

If they died, they were buried in a cemetery two miles away.

As immigration boomed in the 19th century, the hospital became busier. Throughout the 1850s, two million immigrants came to the city, and the Quarantine sometimes housed a thousand newcomers at a time, according to Public Health Reports.

While the Quarantine was necessary to help prevent outbreaks, the people who lived on Staten Island in the mid-19th century weren’t too happy about having it as a neighbor. A yellow fever outbreak that killed 11 Staten Islanders in 1856 was blamed on the hospital.

Residents of Tompkinsville and other nearby villages felt that the facility hurt the value of their property. They also called out the hospital for carelessly wheeling dead bodies through their town on the way to the cemetery.

In the late 1840s, Staten Island residents convinced the city to move the Quarantine to Sandy Hook in New Jersey, but the plan stalled. For the next decade, residents fought to close and relocate the hospital, but the battle was tied up in legislation.

Finally, in August 1858, tensions hit the breaking point, and “citizens began stockpiling straw, wood, and flammable camphene near the Quarantine,” wrote the Daily News.

On September 1, the local board of health approved a resolution that ended with “Resolved: That this board recommend the citizens of this county to protect themselves by abating this abominable nuisance without delay.”

That night, about 30 men went to the Quarantine, lit a pile of straw mattresses pushed against a building, and watched the facility burn. The next night, the mob had swelled into the hundreds. Arsonists continued to burn down buildings until nothing remained.

“Three fire companies lolled their way to the scene, then stood and watched, claiming their hoses had been cut,” stated the Daily News. “A contingent of harbor policemen who arrived by boat were driven off by boys throwing rocks. City police from across the harbor didn’t even answer the alarms.”

No one in the hospital was killed in the blaze; at the time, only 60 patients were inside. Newspaper headlines talked of the “Quarantine Wars.” Two ringleaders went on trial in front of a Staten Island judge but were acquitted.

Ultimately the mob got its way. A year later, a floating quarantine hospital was anchored off Staten Island as a temporary replacement. By the 1860s, quarantine facilities were moved to Swinburne and Hoffman Islands, both created by landfill in the lower end of New York Harbor.

[Top image: JStor; second image: NYPL; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: New York Herald; sixth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; seventh image: NYPL]

A 1929 luxury residence displays 2020’s best sign

April 13, 2020

When the luxury apartment building at 325 East 57th was completed in 1929, I wonder if any of the original tenants ever thought a handmade sign and two American flags would be hanging off the elegant canopy entrance.

But in the era of COVID-19, the people living in this building decided they had something to say. Think of it as the silent version of the nightly 7 p.m. cheer for all the New Yorkers working through the pandemic.

A yellow fever outbreak made Greenwich Village

April 6, 2020

Epidemics can shape the way a city develops. And it was an outbreak of a lethal disease that helped create the Greenwich Village that’s been part of the larger city since the 1820s.

In the 17th century, the village of Greenwich was a mostly rural suburb of farms and estates (below, Aaron Burr’s home, Richmond Hill) along the Hudson River a few miles from the city center. (Seen here in a 1766 map, use link to zoom in.)

Periodic outbreaks of yellow fever (among other deadly illnesses) in the lower city—in many spots a filthy place of sewage, stagnant water, and garbage-eating hogs—would cause residents with means to leave, at least for the summer.

“Successive waves of yellow fever drove many New Yorkers to summertime residences in the countryside,” wrote John Strausbaugh in The Village: A History of Greenwich Village. (Another fine home, above, and the oldest house in the Village, at left, from 1799.) Many decamped to Greenwich, “a refuge from pestilence with its former swampland drained and its air fresh.”

But it was the especially pernicious yellow fever epidemic of 1822 that forced thousands to flee the city center for good and recreate their lives in Greenwich permanently, which only five years earlier had installed water mains and sewers.

“Many New Yorkers who had not evacuated during the previous epidemics did so during this final rampant pandemic, states a writer at creatingdigitalhistory.

“As residents moved to Greenwich Village, they built homes and businesses in attempt to replicate their downtown lifestyles. In essence, they created a makeshift city center that has since evolved into the Greenwich Village of today.”

The hurry to leave the main city was noted by Greenwich residents. “Our city presented the appearance of a town besieged,” wrote the former secretary of the city’s Board of Health in 1822, according to Anna Alice Chapin in Greenwich Village. “From daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise, and effects were seen moving towards ‘Greenwich Village’ and the upper parts of the city.”

Another resident recalled the mass exodus and influx like this: “The town fairly exploded…and went flying beyond its bond as though the pestilence had been a burning mine.” (Above right, a house on Bedford Street, circa 1820s.)

Buildings went up in Greenwich fast. “Temporary stores and offices were erecting, and on the (ensuing day) Sunday, carts were in motion, and the saw and hammer busily at work,” according to Chapin.

A post office, customs house, and newspaper offices sprang up in the formerly sleepy village. “Bank Street got its name in this way, the city banks transferring their business tither literally overnight, ready to do business in the morning,” wrote Chapin.

“Stores of rough boards were constructed in a day,” recalled Charles Haynes Haswell in Reminisces of an Octogenarian of the City of New York. With the lower city all but deserted, ferries from Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Hoboken began docking up the Hudson at Greenwich, wrote Haswell.

A growing neighborhood needs a church, and St. Luke’s, still on Hudson Street, also went up at about this time. St. Luke’s was not by accident named for Saint Luke—the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. (Above left, in 1828)

In total, 388 people died in the yellow fever outbreak, according to Haswell. Many of those victims from the lower city were buried beneath Washington Square, which was the far-away potter’s field of New York in the early 1820s.

By the end of 1825, Greenwich Village now was filled with handsome wood and brick houses. (Above right, on Van Dam Street.) “Between 1825 and 1835, the population of the Village doubled,” wrote Strausburgh. By 1850, it had doubled again.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation. “Blocks of neat row houses built in the prevailing Federal style soon accommodated middle-class merchants and tradesmen.

This sleepy hamlet (which thankfully kept some of its own original street grid) was no longer separate from the city—it became a part of the city. (Above in an 1831 map). Would it have been subsumed by the city if the yellow fever epidemic never happened? Almost certainly. But the outbreak rushed it into joining Gotham, going from countryside to urbanized in a hurry.

[First through third images: NYPL Digital Collection; fifth and sixth images: NYPL Digital Collection; Eighth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

What life was like in a Manhattan “fever nest”

April 6, 2020

New Yorkers in the 19th century came up with some very descriptive slang names for poor, crowded neighborhoods where disease outbreaks tended to happen.

One is a “lung block,” or an entire street with a high number of residents living with the “white plague”—aka tuberculosis.

Another is a “fever nest,” seen in the image above. It’s unclear if the illustration depicts East 32nd Street, possibly near the shantytown called Dutch Hill, or West 32nd Street, which could have been the upper end of the Tenderloin, Gilded Age New York’s vice district.

When was this illustration of a fever nest done? Based on the wide skirts the women are wearing, the unpaved road, and the scavenging pig in the foreground, I’d guess it depicts the 1860s—a decade racked by outbreaks of cholera and other illnesses spread via unsanitary conditions.

[Image: CUNY Graduate Center]

Cholera’s grim warning for tenement landlords

March 30, 2020

When New York’s first cholera epidemic hit in 1832 and killed 3,515 people (out of a population of 250,000), the poor took the blame.

“Many city officials implicated the residents of the poorest neighborhoods for contracting cholera, blaming their weak character, instead of viewing the epidemic as a public health problem,” stated Anne Garner, in an online article from the New York Academy of Medicine in 2015.

Cholera struck again in 1849, but by the time the next outbreak happened in 1866, cholera was better understood to be a contagious disease transmitted via contaminated water and other unsanitary conditions.

This 1866 illustration from Harper’s Weekly pins the blame on a different target: the landlords of New York’s tenements—substandard buildings that in the absence of strong housing laws often lacked ventilation and running water and were perfect breeding grounds for cholera.

A smallpox victim’s mummified body resurfaces

March 30, 2020

Construction workers operating a backhoe found her first. The workers were in Elmhurst, Queens, in an excavation pit building a new apartment complex.

They “assumed they had hit a pipe,” explained the New York Post. “But when the claws of the backhoe emerged from the ground, it was dragging a body clothed in a white gown and knee-high socks.”

Because the body, determined to be that of an African-American woman, was so well preserved, a forensic medical examiner assumed she was a recent homicide victim.

But as Scott Warnasch, a forensic archeologist from the city medical examiner’s office, investigated what was deemed a crime scene, he noticed dozens of metal fragments in the ground.

The fragments were identified as part of an iron coffin (above ad, from the Brooklyn Eagle) that had housed the woman’s remains and kept them eerily preserved in airtight conditions…until the backhoe smashed it open, according to Live Science.

Who was this woman, and how did she die? Her burial clothes held clues, appearing to be from the 19th century. The iron coffin also helped narrow things down; these were only produced in the mid-19th century, wrote LiveScience in 2018.

And there was something else: investigators found what looked like smallpox marks on her forehead and chest. Nineteenth century New York was no stranger to smallpox outbreaks. Though a vaccine had been developed, the virus killed a quarter of its victims and left survivors pockmarked or blind, wrote The New York Times in 2003.

The disease was so feared, a Smallpox Hospital was opened on Blackwell’s Island in 1856 (above).

How the woman died became clear…but still, who was she? Tests determined she was between 25 and 35 years old. She was buried in a section of Queens that had a free black community at the time, so Warnasch turned to the 1850 census.

The name Martha Peterson seemed to fit. “She would have been 26 in 1850, probably died around 1851 and lived in the household of William Raymond, a partner in the iron-coffin maker Fisk & Raymond,” Warnasch told the New York Post in 2018.

The discovery of Martha Peterson and the effort that went into identifying her was captured in a PBS show: “Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin.

She was given a new burial at Mount Olivet Cemetery by congregants of the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson Heights in 2011—a fitting end to the story of a resurfaced body that served as a reminder of New York’s deadly disease outbreaks of the past.

[Top image: From the preview for Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin”; second image: Brooklyn Eagle; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Brooklyn Star, 1858]