Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

A Bank Street building once held prisoners of war

September 5, 2016

BankstreetsignToday it’s a stylish clothing boutique. In the 1990s it housed a Thai restaurant. In the early 20th century, it was a hotel called Laux’s.

But whatever business occupies 417 Bleecker Street at the corner of Bank Street, it can’t beat the remarkable role the building played during the early 19th century—when it was called “The Barracks” and held more than 100 British POWs captured during the War of 1812.

You could say that New York lucked out during that military conflict, which lasted until 1815.

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The city prepared for combat by putting up fortifications like Castle Clinton at the Battery and blockhouses in what became Central Park. Luckily, the British never attacked.

BankstreetbarracksvillagerYet this war also played out far overseas. “On the afternoon of Feb. 24, 1813, at the height of the War of 1812, the U.S.S. Hornet, an 18-gun warship, set its sights on a British sloop anchored on the Demerara River in Guyana, South America,” wrote Eric Ferrara in The Villager.

It took minutes for the men on the Hornet to sink the British ship, the H.M.S. Peacock (described not as a sloop but a man-of-war in the Historical Guide to the City of New York, published in 1909).

The Americans then rescued more than one hundred British seamen, recounted a 1918 article in the Daughters of the American Revolution magazine. “On reaching the city, [the British sailors] were taken straight to ‘The Barracks’ at Bleecker Street and confined there till peace was declared,” the article stated.

BankstreetprisondeptofrecordsphotoInterestingly, the Daughters noted that the Americans didn’t treat the British as awful as they treated our POWs during the Revolutionary War, when thousands of men were starved on prison ships in Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay.

After the war was relegated to history and the sailors presumably freed, the passage of time changed the building that no one called The Barracks anymore.

“In 1901 the remains of this structure, which had been used as a private residence with a store at street level, was converted to the Laux Hotel, named after the owner,” states 1969’s Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report.

“By the late 1930s, the building had been modified still further, faced with brick, and raised from three to four stories.”

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Not much of the original Barracks is left in the modernized building. But some remnants of the prison exist here, unmarked and largely unknown.

[Third image: via The Villager; Fourth image: NYC Dept. of Records Photo Gallery, 1980s tax photo]

The first confidence man was a New Yorker

August 29, 2016

Of course the first confidence man would perfect his scheme in Manhattan. New York was all about making money, a place where greed overtook common sense and hucksters found plenty of victims.

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One of those swindlers was a suave, 20-something with dark hair named Samuel Thompson, who also went by the name of Samuel Willis, among other aliases.

Conman1872attackonaswindlerIn the booming, increasingly anonymous mid-19th century city, Thompson would approach a stranger who appeared to be well-off, pretend to know the man, and after a little conversation ask, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow,” explained the New-York Herald in July 1849.

“The stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing ‘confidence’ in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.”

After stealing from marks all of the city, Thompson was finally arrested in 1849; he mistakenly hit up a man he already stole a watch from the year before.

Conmannytribune1855The press made a big deal out of Thompson’s arrest, dubbing him the “original confidence man” and taking a certain glee in the fact that so many New York fat cats fell for the ruse. One writer even proclaimed that the new breed of Capitalist businessmen were the real con men.

“Let him rot in ‘the Tombs,’ while the ‘Confidence Man on a large scale’ fattens, in his palace, on the blood and sweat of the green ones of the land!” seethed a writer from Knickerbocker Magazine.

Thompson was convicted of grand larceny and spent a few years in Sing Sing, then apparently took off to ply his act around the country, though he ripped off another rube in New York in 1855, according to the New-York Tribune.

ConmanmelvillebookNaturally, all kinds of scammers began copying Thompson’s brilliant con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card monte.

Thompson even inspired Herman Melville, who published The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in 1857, one of many Melville characters who originated in the headlines.

Hat tip to Jonathan from New York Local Tours for this entertaining bit of New York trivia, via the Crime in NYC tour.

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery; second image: New-York Tribune 1855; third image: NYPL]

The cat rescued from a Hell’s Kitchen mailbox

August 26, 2016

Cat antics and exploits make for irresistible clickbait—come on, who doesn’t love keyboard cat? But felines were huge media stars in the pre-Internet era too.

Case in point: Blackie, a sleek inky furball who ended up inside a mailbox in Hell’s Kitchen just before World War II. Here she is, posing for renowned crime and police photographer Weegee.

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The story of her misfortune and rescue is a bit of a tearjerker. “A garage worker called the cops when he heard meows issuing from a box in Hell’s Kitchen, but they couldn’t do anything about it, April 29, 1941,” the original photo caption states, per Getty Images.

“They had to call the Post Office. A mechanic opened the box and found Blackie. Whoever threw her in also tossed in a couple of clams and some pretzels.”

No word on what happened to Blackie after her rescue and turn as a media darling—or who tried to mail her.

[Hat tip: researcher extraordinaire History Author. Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images]

The 1872 “horse plague” cripples New York City

August 15, 2016

HorsefluhorsespullingstreetcarIt started in Toronto in the summer of 1872, then spread to New England and Michigan before finding its way to New York in the fall.

“The Horse Plague,” read the headline of the New York Times on October 25. “Fifteen thousand horses in this city unfit for use.”

New York had seen outbreaks of disease among horses before, most recently in 1871. But this epizootic of equine influenza was different, sickening (but rarely killing) nearly all horses exposed to it.

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This was a big problem in New York at the time. In a city powered by horses—pulling stages and street cars filled with people, hauling heavy wagons and drays of raw materials and merchandise—business and travel were all but shut down.

Horseflunytoctober271872Stage lines on almost all avenues were suspended or put on greatly reduced schedules. The express companies that handled business deliveries within the city were closed or scaled back.

In a city without horsepower, men were forced to do the labor horses usually did (above sketch).

“People were forced to transform into beasts of burden, using pushcarts and wheelbarrows to transport the merchandise that was piling up at docks,” wrote Nancy Furstinger in Mercy.

HorsefluhenryberghOxen (above) were even brought in to take over some of the work, their handlers charging $10-$12 a day for their use.

Not every horse owner allowed his teams time to rest and recover. The New York Herald on October 26 reported that one street car line “is running the horses as long as they will stand up, and the result promises to be fearful in the extreme, as many of them have dropped down in the street from overwork.”

That angered Henry Bergh (left and checking street car horses in the illustration at top), who headed the recently formed American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh stood outside of Cooper Union and personally “ordered the brutes to stop driving the gasping beasts.”

MCNY1913The conditions horses lived in were partially blamed for the outbreak. “The car and stage horses of this city suffer invariably from all possible forms of equine disease . . . badly fed, worse housed, overworked, and never groomed, they are ready victims of disease,” commented the Times.

The outbreak was over in New York by December, and horses went back to work, doing their duty as the “mute servants of mankind,” as Bergh called them, until they were largely replaced by automobiles.

[Top image: Harper’s Weekly; second image: NYPL; third image: NYT story October 27, 1872; fifth image: MCNY]

A grisly murder and a city society scion in 1841

August 1, 2016

ColtmmurdernysunportraitLike lots of lurid murder cases, this one involved a rotting body.

In late September 1841, a sailor on the Kalamazoo—
docked for days at Maiden Lane because rain kept it from heading to its destination, New Orleans—
noticed a rancid odor coming from a shipping crate.

When investigators opened the crate, a man’s decomposing corpse appeared. Officers knew who he was: a Gold Street printer named Samuel Adams, who had been reported missing about a week earlier.

ColtmurderfindingthebodyAnd with the help of the car man who brought the crate to the dock and the clerk who handled the shipping paperwork, officials also knew the killer: a bookkeeper named John C. Colt, who was already being held for the crime.

Colt wasn’t just any numbers cruncher. He was the brother of Samuel Colt, of Colt revolver fame, and the scion of a prominent New England family.

Colt was socially connected, “of fine personal appearance,” wrote the New York Times, and an instant media magnate in a city already transfixed by the Mary Rodgers “Beautiful Cigar Girl” slaying.

ColtmurderhatcetnyplFittingly for a bookkeeper, Colt committed his crime during a fight about money. In his office at Broadway and Chambers Street on September 17, Adams had come to see Colt about money Colt owed him for printing Colt’s bookkeeping textbook.

The argument turned physical. After a struggle, Colt bashed Adams’ skull with a hatchet.

Colt confessed it all: how he scrubbed away bloody evidence, his plan to ship Adams’ body out of the city, and the grisly murder itself.

Coltmurdertombs1896“I then sat down, for I felt weak and sick. After sitting a few minutes, and seeing so much blood, I think I went and looked at poor Adams, who breathed quite loud for several minutes, then threw his arms out and was silent,” he confessed, according to the website Murder by Gaslight.

“I recollect at this time taking him by the hand, which seemed lifeless, and a horrid thrill came over me, that I had killed him.”

A famous family with a gruesome death made for a sensational trial.

Despite arguing that he killed in self-defense and that temporary insanity led him to try to ship Adams’ body, Colt was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging in the Tombs (right, in 1896).

ColtmurdertombshanginggallowsYet the story doesn’t end with a hanging. On November 18, Colt’s execution date, a fire raced through the Tombs. After the blaze was put out, Colt’s hanging was to go on. But a clergyman found him dead in his cell, a dagger in his heart.

Rumors swirled: was the fire set, and did Colt escape?

What really happened to Colt was such a topic of discussion, it’s even referenced in Bartleby the Scrivener, New York native Herman Melville’s 1853 short story about a Wall Street clerk who “would prefer not to.”

[Images: New York Sun; NYPL; Getty Images]

A desperate appeal to save the city’s sick babies

July 25, 2016

In 1911, a card went out to city residents asking for donations to help fund a precious commodity.

Over a thousand “little white hearses passed through the streets of New York City in two weeks last summer,” the card read. “One-eighth of the 123,433 little ones born during the year . . . died under 12 months.”

Milkcommitteeappealpage1

One of the causes of this appalling infant mortality rate? A lack of access to clean, fresh milk among New York’s poorest families.

Milk in the 19th century had a deservedly bad reputation, with much of New York’s supply coming from “‘swill’ milk stables attached to breweries and distilleries in the city,” explains this post.

Milkcommitteepage2

“The cows in these stables ate the leftover grains from the fermentation process in the brewery or distillery. Unfortunately, the milk produced from these stables was very low quality and often full of bacteria. Even milk brought to the city from the country was often adulterated with water and carrying bacteria.”

With the rise of pasteurization, officials began touting milk as a healthy part of a child’s diet. There were still a lot of bad, or “loose” milk for sale at corner groceries though.

Milkstationconsultationday

Sp safe milk stations went up around the city (above). Some were funded by individual philanthropists; the dairies in Central and Prospects Parks were built to offer clean milk.

Other milk depots were run by the New York Milk Committee—which also sent nurses into poor families’ homes to help spread the word about hygiene and good nutrition.

Were they successful? In the summer of 1911, the Committee sold an average of 3,800 quarts of milk a day through its depots at below cost, serving 5,000 babies and attracting twice as many mothers as expected.

[Many thanks to the New York Academy of Medicine Library, which has this card and more in its Milk Committee Ephemera Collection]

The mystery of these Washington Place fire relics

July 18, 2016

On a quiet walk down Washington Place just east of Sheridan Square, some unusual symbols came into view.

Firemarkwashingtonplace

Three of the lovely Federal-style 1830s townhouses on the south side of the street had small plaques on their facades, each with a different image and letters.

FiremarkFAhoseOne featured an eagle and the words “Eagle Hose No. 2.” Another depicted what looked like a fire pump steam engine. A third had a hose attached to a barrel and the initials F.A.

What was all this fire imagery about? These Fire marks, as they’re officially called, were produced by fire insurance companies in the 19th century.

“Possibly the latter day reader never heard of a fire mark, but they could be found on the front of many buildings in the city before 1870,” explains a 1928 New York Times article.

Firemarkeaglehoseno2“Those were the days of the volunteer fire department, and the fire marks were posted by insurance companies to make known that a reward was ready for the firemen should they save the building from destruction by flames.”

“The fire mark might be a symbol cut in stone, a cabalistic iron letter or some other design of metal,” continued the Times.

Fire marks had other uses, like serving as advertising for insurance companies. They may also have “minimized the amount of damage to a property as the firefighters did their job.”

FiremarkenginepumpIf firefighters saw a fire mark, they may have been more careful when entering a property and extinguishing the fire,” states nycfiremuseum.org.

Plus, “a fire mark may have deterred an arsonist from maliciously destroying a property. The fire mark signaled that the owner would be compensated for damages and that law enforcement would likely attempt to find the arsonist.”

Fire marks began disappearing after 1865, when the city’s 124 volunteer engine companies, hose companies, and hook and ladder companies were replaced by the professional (and paid) Metropolitan Fire Department—which was supposed to fight fires without regard to whether the property was insured or not.

firemarkvolunteerfirefighterThey became collectors’ items in the 20th century. “There are still a few of these fire marks embedded in the walls of byways of the old city,” wrote the Times in 1928. “Yet the extent of rebuilding on Manhattan Island must soon sweep them away.”

Were these fire marks bought at antique shops and affixed to the facades by later homeowners to give their townhouses more authenticity?

One owner I spoke to on Washington Place, who offered some backstory on these relics, believes they were put up in the 19th century.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverThe NYC Fire Museum maintains a photo gallery of fire marks to browse and terrific images, like this Currier & Ives depiction of a volunteer fireman in the mid-1800s.

[Many thanks to Washington Place townhouse owner and enthusiast R.R. for filling me in on the history of these remnants of 19th century New York City.]

For more about the early days of Gotham’s professional firefighters, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, available for preorder now and in bookstores September 27.]

Sick of Prohibition, New York holds a beer parade

July 4, 2016

Beerparademarchersio(By 1932, alcohol-loving New Yorkers had had enough.

For 12 years, Prohibition had been the law of the land, a law enforced in the city by a team of sometimes crooked prohibition cops and ignored by people who openly drank at the city’s legendary speakeasies.

So New York’s mayor, party guy and frequent speakeasy visitor James J. Walker, proposed an idea.

Beerparadefreerepublic

He wanted to stage an enormous protest parade, with participation on the part of labor activists, government officials, and regular citizens, up Fifth Avenue.

It wouldn’t be the first “wet parade” in the city. Anti-Prohibition marches were held in the 1920s as well, attracting many drys, as they were known, as well.

Beerparade1932souvenirBut what was dubbed the “We Want Beer” parade of 1932 had more support than ever.

The argument was strong: legalizing beer and other beverages would add millions in tax money to government coffers and also open up an industry that would employ thousands in Depression-era America.

On May 14, at least 100,000 marchers strode down Fifth Avenue from 80th Street, with picket signs, in costume, and cars festooned with slogans.

The marchers went west on 59th Street and back north on Central Park West, parading into the night.

BeerparadebrooklyneagleheadlineMayor Walker, dapper in his derby and suit (and about to be brought up on corruption charges before resigning as mayor), led the procession.

Other cities and towns held beer parades as well, and Coney Island had its own on Surf Avenue a month later.

(Interestingly, at noon, the marchers paused for a minute of silence in honor of Charles Lindbergh Jr., whose body was found dead in woods in New Jersey two days earlier.)

How effective was the beer parade? Hard to say. It  generated big media coverage (check out this old newsreel) and may have helped put the final nail in the coffin for Prohibition, dead and gone 19 months later.

Beerparadenydnews

[Top image: via Free Republic; second image: via i09; third image: MCNY; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle headline; fifth image: New York Daily News]

Smart advice from an 1871 New York travel guide

June 20, 2016

RedfieldsinsideTourists have always been easy prey for the city’s criminals.

“A stranger who visits a metropolitan city for the first time naturally feels no little anxiety as to how he shall avoid being surrounded by the land-sharks who will beset him on his arrival and dog his footsteps in the city if he should manifest the least evidence of being a stranger,” explains Redfield’s Traveler’s Guide to the City of New York, published in 1871.

Which is why Redfield’s, put out by a Fulton Street publisher who also produced collections by Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, laid out some warnings.

First, no playing cards for cash. Euchre, like faro and poker, was apparently a popular card game at illegal gambling dens as well as a type of dive bar known as a “free and easy.”

Redfieldseuchrepickpocket

The pickpocket warning above came at the right time. The 19th century city was overrun by pickpockets, many working in gangs composed of women or kids and targeting tourists on crowded street cars.

Redfieldsgreenbacks

Exchanging bills for checks or gold? That sounds like the unsophisticated 19th century version of the Nigerian email scam.

Redfieldshackman

I’m surprised taxi drivers in the 1870s actually had licenses displayed in their carriages—the way today’s cabbies are supposed to have their ID and photo in the sleeve behind the driver’s seat.

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Finally, don’t ask random street folks for information or directions—look for a cop instead, never mind that the 1870s was an especially corrupt time in New York City police history, with the department in the pocket of Tammany Hall.

A July Fourth bomb goes off at the World’s Fair

June 20, 2016

There’s still a lot of nostalgia for the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and 1940—an ode to progress and optimism that helped distract the city from the harshness of the Depression and an escalating war in Europe.

Bombapphoto

But amid the fun spread out on 1,200 acres along a former ash heap in Queens, the fair has a grim distinction.

It was the site of a mysterious bombing that killed two policemen. The crime remains unsolved 76 years later.

BombworldfairmcnyairviewThe blast happened on Independence Day in 1940. An electrician in the British Pavilion noticed a suspicious canvas overnight bag—then realized it was ticking.

The electrician brought the bag to his boss, who had security carry it out of the pavilion to a fence about 150 away.

The NYPD bomb squad was contacted. Squad members were already on alert, as a call came in two days earlier warning that the pavilion would be blown up.

“At 5 p.m., the peak of the pavilion’s teatime holiday business, two squad members, Detectives Joseph Lynch and Ferdinand Socha, squatted near a 20-foot maple tree, crouching over the little buff-colored bag,” explained the New York Times in a 2008 article.

Bombbritishpavilion“They gingerly cut away a two-inch strip. Inside, they could see sticks of dynamite.”

Almost instantly, the bomb exploded in their faces, killing them and critically injuring five other security and law enforcement officers.

Fair-goers nearby thought the explosion had come from firecrackers, which had been set off intermittently throughout the day for the Fourth of July holiday.

Police were unable to trace the call that warned about the bomb. While trying to gather clues, they rounded up “Bundists, Fascists, or members of the Christian Front” who were attending open-air meetings in Columbus Circle.

BombplaquelynchsochaNone of those suspects were charged, and the city apparently had no leads. Police thought maybe IRA sympathizers planted the bomb. An ex-Bund member was questioned but let go.

Despite a $26,000 reward, no one was ever arrested.

Before the start of the 1964 World’s Fair at the same site, a plaque was dedicated to Lynch and Socha, killed in the line of duty 24 years earlier.

[Top image: MCNY; second image: AP; third image: MCNY; fourth image: findagrave.com]