Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

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.

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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.

A bit of the London Blitz adorns a downtown gate

April 6, 2015

CherubgateThe front entrance to Trinity Church (and its 17th century burial ground) faces Broadway.

It’s a fascinating, haunting place to lose yourself in early New York history and read the faded gravestones of city founders.

But it’s on a lonely gate at the back of the churchyard (at left), on Trinity Place, where a curious relic—a stone cherub head—can be found.

What’s it doing there?

The head comes from St. Mary-le-Bow church in London’s East End, founded in 1080 and built in 1680 by Christopher Wren.

CherubgatecloseupDuring the Blitz in May 1941, St. Mary-le-Bow, along with thousands of other homes and buildings in London, was leveled by German air raids.

After the war, Trinity Church, a sister church to St. Mary-le-Bow (below, in the 1890s) since Trinity was founded in 1697, pledged $50,000 to help the parish rebuild.

Found in the rubble during construction, the cherub head was gifted to Trinity Church by the people of St. Mary-le-Bow in 1964 as a thank you.

Stmarylebow1890sThe strangely undamaged cherub head now adorns what Trinity has renamed “Cherub Gate” on Trinity Place.

It’s not the only bit of the Blitz to make it to New York City. The landfill used to create the FDR Drive contains pieces of bombed out buildings from Bristol.

And many New Yorkers, including Mayor La Guardia, feared the arrival of German bombers on our side of the Atlantic, so much so that they commissioned this public service poster to alert residents of what to do if a devastating attack on the city actually happened.

 Cherubgateplaque

A young socialite goes down with the Titanic

March 30, 2015

EdithCorseEvansTales of incredible heroism mark the sinking of the Titanic, doomed by an iceberg in the North Atlantic 103 years ago next month.

One young New York City woman’s quiet sacrifice, however, has been mostly forgotten.

Edith Corse Evans was born into a wealthy New York family in 1875. She survived the Blizzard of 1888 (years later, her sister recalled trudging to school with Edith after the storm ended, in “an enchanting city with trackless snow”).

By all accounts, Edith became an independent, socially prominent woman.

Edithevansmemorial

In the spring of 1912, when she was 36 years old, she reportedly went to England to attend a family funeral, then embarked on a clothes-shopping trip to Paris.

Accompanied by her aunt and two female relatives, she decided to take the Titanic home to New York, boarding at Cherbourg, Normandy and booking first-class accommodations.

GracechurchpostcardAt 11:40 on April 14, the mighty Titanic was ripped by an iceberg. Over the next few hours, as the ship listed, women and children were lowered into lifeboats.

As time went on and the situation became increasingly grave, Edith and one relative, Mrs. Caroline Brown, remained on deck, according to passenger Archibald Gracie IV.

Gracie (of the Gracie mansion Gracies) survived the sinking and recalled Edith’s last moments in his 1913 book, The Truth About the Titanic.

“I heard a member of the crew, coming from the quarter where the last boat was loaded, say there was room for more ladies in it,” wrote Gracie.

Gracie grabbed Edith and Caroline and rushed them to the last boat. “You go first,” Edith reportedly told her friend, according to Gracie. “You are married and have children.”

EdithevansobitnytWith Caroline safely on the lifeboat, Edith tried to board it as well. But she had difficulty climbing over the ship’s gunwale. “Never mind,’ she is said to have called out. ‘I will go on a later boat,'” wrote Gracie.

There was no later boat, and Edith perished in the sea with 1,516 other passengers. Her body was never recovered.

Shortly after her death, a plaque for Edith was installed under a stained glass window inside Grace Church, where her memorial service was held (above, her New York Times obituary notice).

“Love is strong as death” it reads, a quiet monument to a small act of great bravery.

What became of the Triangle factory owners?

March 23, 2015

The names Isaac Harris and Max Blanck probably don’t resonate with New Yorkers today.

Yet 114 years ago, everyone knew them: Harris and Blanck (below) owned the Triangle Waist Company on Greene Street, where a devastating fire killed 146 employees on March 25, 1911.

Blanckandharris

From that horrific tragedy rose a stronger workers’ rights movement and new city laws mandating safer workplaces.

But what happened to Harris and Blanck, both of whom were in the company’s 10th floor offices that warm Saturday afternoon and managed to survive the fire unscathed?

Like many of their “operators,” as the girls who worked the rows of sewing machines were known, they were Jewish immigrants.

BlanckandharrissoloBoth started as workers in the growing garment industry in the 1890s and then became business owners, making a fortune manufacturing ladies blouses and earning the nickname the Shirtwaist Kings.

They certainly were easy targets to blame, and both men were indicted on first and second degree manslaughter charges, thanks to evidence uncovered by detectives that a door on the 9th floor leading to a fire exit had been locked, a violation of law.

Protected by guards and represented by a big-name lawyer at their December 1911 trial, Harris and Blanck each took the stand, countering the testimony of surviving workers who claimed that the door was always locked to prevent theft.

BlanckandharrisfightingfireOn December 27, they were acquitted. “Isaac Harris and Max Blanck dropped limply into their chairs as their wives began quietly sobbing behind them,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle.

To avoid an angry mob of family members outside the courthouse demanding justice, the two men were smuggled through a side exit away from their waiting limousines. They went into the subway instead.

Immediately they relaunched the Triangle company on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.

But their names made headlines again. “All of their revenue went into paying off their celebrity lawyer, and they were sued in early 1912 over their inability to pay a $206 water bill,” states PBS.org.

Blanckandharrisfactoryafterfire

“Despite these struggles, the two men ultimately collected a large chunk of insurance money—$60,000 more than the fire had actually cost them in damages. Harris and Blanck had made a profit from the fire of $400 per victim.”

In 1913, at a new factory on 23rd Street, Blanck paid a $25 fine for locking a door during working hours, and he was warned during an inspection that factory was rife with fire hazards.

Blanckandharris9thfloorafterfireA year later, the two were caught sewing fraudulent labels into their shirtwaists that claimed the clothes had been made under sound conditions.

By 1918, after agreeing to pay $75 per deceased employee to families that had brought civil suits against them, they threw in the towel and disbanded the company.

[Photos 1-3: Kheel Center, Cornell University; 4-5: Brown Brothers]

The final days of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

March 2, 2015

On April 5, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to the electric chair for committing espionage for the Soviet Union.

Rosenbergs1951trialFor the next 14 months, a flurry of appeals, pleas, and protests was hatched to try to save the lives of the husband and wife convicted spies, ages 32 and 35, both natives of the Lower East Side.

In March 1952, their lawyers filed an appeal in Federal court, claiming the conduct of the sentencing judge, Irving R. Kaufman, denied them a fair trial.

That appeal was denied, as was an appeal to the Supreme Court claiming the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment.

Rosebergsdailynewsheadline“Doomed couple in Sing Sing for 18 months take news calmly,” a headline read in October 1952.

A stay of execution pushed back their scheduled March 9 date with death. Meanwhile, a clemency plea to the president was dismissed in February 1953.

Eisenhower replied that “their betrayal of United States atomic secrets to Russia could bring to death ‘many, many thousands of innocent citizens,'” wrote The New York Times in May 1953.

In May, the Supreme Court ordered the stay vacated. Electrocution was set for the week of June 15.

Religious leaders around the world cabled President Eisenhower and asked for clemency for the couple. Protesters marched in Boston, Los Angeles, and outside the White House.

Rally For The Rosenbergs

A final Supreme Court ruling, with only Hugo Black and William Douglas dissenting, paved the way for their deaths on June 19.

Rosenbergsdailynewsheadline2In New York that afternoon, 5,000 supporters rallied at the north end of Union Square, spilling onto East 17th Street (above).

But the execution proceeded that evening at about 8 p.m.

Julius went first. “As a clean-shaven Rosenberg neared the brown-stained oak chair he seemed to sway from side to side,” wrote the Times.

Ethel “entered the death chamber a few minutes after the body of her husband had been removed,” said the Times.

Wearing a green polka-dot dress and her hair close cropped, she kissed the cheek of a prison matron and was then strapped into the chair, a leather mask put over her face.

Rosenbergsrallygettyimages2After five shocks, she was pronounced dead.

Whether the death penalty was an appropriate punishment is still a contentious topic. Both admitted no culpability, but Soviet-era files later revealed that Julius was indeed a spy.

Ethel appears to have been implicated by her own brother, who testified against her to spare his own wife from prosecution.

[Top photo: AP; second and fourth images, NY Daily News; third and fifth photos: Getty Images]

A new president is sworn in on Lexington Avenue

February 9, 2015

A piece of New York’s hidden presidential history sits at 123 Lexington Avenue. This is the brownstone that was once the home of Chester A. Arthur, prominent city lawyer and U.S. vice president elected in 1880.

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And in the front parlor, Arthur took the presidential oath of office at 2:10 a.m. on September 20, 1881, just hours after the death of his Republican running mate, James Garfield.

It was a hastily arranged swearing-in. Ten weeks earlier, on July 2, Garfield had been shot in the back at a Washington train station by a disgruntled federal office seeker.

ChesterarthurswearinginGarfield lingered in critical condition all summer. His doctors thought he was getting better, despite the shoddy care they gave him.

Finally, Garfield succumbed to infection at 10:30 p.m. on September 19.

“It becomes our painful duty to inform you of the death of President Garfield and to advise you to take the oath of office as president of the United States without delay,” read the telegraph sent to Arthur just before midnight.

Upon receiving the news, Arthur, a recent widow, wept at his desk in his upstairs room; he reportedly never wanted to be  commander in chief in the first place.

ChesterarthurstatueAs crowds of New Yorkers gathered outside his house in the early-morning hours, Arthur summoned a judge to administer the oath of office.

There, he became the 21st president of the United States. (above).

Two days later, he caught a train to Washington and began his single term as U.S. president.

In 1885, he returned to Lexington Avenue, resumed his law career, and died the next year.

His bronze likeness stands today in Madison Square Park (left), not far from his longtime home. The two brownstones flanking it give us an idea of what the house must have looked like before it was brick-faced and altered.

Since 1944, 123 Lexington has been occupied by Kalustyan’s, the Indian food store in the neighborhood once called Little Armenia and now known as Curry Hill.

A gruesome prank sparks the city’s weirdest riot

January 12, 2015

DoctorsriotnyhospitalIt started with a doctor’s prank from the window of New York Hospital, then at Broadway and Pearl Street.

“In the spring [of 1788], some boys were playing in the rear of the hospital, when a young surgeon, from a mere whim, showed an amputated arm to them,” wrote J.T. Headley in The Great Riots of New York, published in 1873.

One boy climbed a ladder to get a closer look. The boy became convinced that it was recently deceased mother’s arm. His response set off one of New York’s weirdest events, known as the “Doctors’ Riot.”

The horrified boy ran and told his father, a mason working on Broadway. The father rushed to his wife’s grave in Trinity Churchyard, had it opened—and saw that the body was gone.

Doctorsriograverobbers

He concluded that the surgeon had stolen his wife’s corpse, and he immediately gathered a throng of working men to storm the hospital.

Now, it wasn’t farfetched at all for the father to assume the surgeon stole the body. Students at the city’s medical schools routinely did this (or hired others they politely called “resurrectionists” to do it) in the 18th century, as it was the only way they could study anatomy.

Doctorsriotharpers1882

“The fear of [grave-robbing] was so great, that often, in the neighborhood where medical students were pursuing their studies, persons who lost friends would have a watch kept over their graves for several nights, to prevent them from being dug up,” wrote Headley.

DoctorsriotmayorduaneUsually the med students robbed the graves of outcasts, or they went to the burial grounds of the city’s black population, where there was less of a chance they would attract the attention of city officials.

But lately they’d stolen corpses of more well-off citizens, angering many in the young city.

But back to the riot. The men tore down the hospital door, and when they found fresh bodies in various states of dissection, they attacked the students. Officials quelled the mob and locked the students in jail for their own safety.

The next day, 300 men showed up at the jail. “Bring out your doctors!” the angry crowd yelled, hurling stones and carrying muskets.

DoctorsriotnyhospitalnyplMayor James Duane brought in a militia, which killed four in the mob. They hustled doctors and students into carriages headed to the country, where they hid out until the riot blew over.

The next year, the city passed a law against grave robbing, and officials came up with another way med students could learn their trade: using the bodies of hanged criminals. Nobody seemed to complain.

[Top and bottom photos: NYPL Digital Gallery; second photo: Corbis]

A chilling holocaust memorial at Madison Square

January 5, 2015

For such a stark yet provocative memorial, it’s easy to miss.

Appellatecourt25thstreetwikiBut if you head to 25th Street and Madison Avenue, on the facade of the circa-1900 marble Appellate Division Courthouse facing Madison Square Park, you’ll see it at eye level: a bas relief of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

It’s a grim and affecting aerial view of the camp. Buildings are arranged inside a high walls. “Torture Chamber” and “Commandant’s House” are inscribed beside two separate structures.

 “Execution Wall” and “Gas Chamber and Crematorium I” are chillingly noted as well.

Holocaustmemorialaerialview

A small plaque next to it lets us know that this is a “Memorial to All Victims of the Holocaust,” completed in 1990 by Harriet Feigenbaum, who used a photo as her guide.

Holocaustmemorial25thstreet“Feigenbaum’s choice of source material is used to question the moral character of the Allies, who, by the taking the photo itself, exhibit their awareness of the camp existence, and their simultaneous indifference to addressing that very existence,” wrote Nasha Virita at Untapped Cities.

“By doing so, she demonstrates the terrors that arise when law and justice are left by the wayside.”

The smokestack-like column that tops the memorial mimics the columns of the rest of the building. Note the flames carved on the side, above the words “indifference to justice is the gate to hell.”

New York’s postwar-planned Holocaust memorial in Riverside Park remains unbuilt.

[Top photo: Wikipedia]

A crime of passion in 19th century Little Italy

December 22, 2014

MariabarbellaWhen she first arrived in New York City in 1892, Maria Barbella, 24 (at right), fit the template of a typical Italian immigrant.

She was poor, she lived with her family in Little Italy at 163 Mott Street (below), and she found work in a factory as a seamstress making $8 a week.

But her life took a turn a year later when she met another Italian immigrant, a cad named Domenico Cataldo.

On her way to work, she would pass by Domenico’s shoeshine booth at Canal Street, and the two began seeing each other romantically.

MariabarbellaitalianarticleWhat Maria didn’t know was that Domenico was already married with a family.

She also probably didn’t suspect that Domenico would drug her drink one night, then take advantage of her while she was passed out.

When she realized what had happened, she told Domenico that he had to do the honorable thing.

“He showed her a savings book with a $400 deposit and promised to marry her,” states this summary of the case.

Maria163mottst“However, he continued to put it off and led Maria on for several months. She continued to meet with him at the boarding house in the hopes that he would consent to marrying her. She was devastated when he told her that he was returning to Italy and was ending the relationship.”

By now, Maria’s family were involved, and they too insisted he set a date.

The day before Domenico was set to sail to Italy, Maria and her mother approached him at a bar on East 13th Street where he was playing cards.

His response when they brought up marriage? “Only pigs marry.”

That’s when Maria slit his throat with a straight razor. He staggered out to the street and died on Avenue A.

Mariabarbella2Her trial, which opened in July 1895, was a media sensation. Found guilty of premeditated murder, she was the first woman ever sentenced to death in Sing Sing’s relatively new electric chair, which made its debut in 1890.

But the media attention of her case, and her notoriety as the first female set to die by electrocution, brought her lots of support, with letters and telegraphs coming in from all over the world asking the state to give Maria clemency.

A new trial was granted in 1897, and this time, her lawyers came up with a novel defense: they claimed Maria couldn’t be responsible for her actions because when Domenico mentioned pigs, it set off an epileptic seizure.

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The defense worked; Maria was found not guilty. She reportedly married a fellow Italian immigrant in 1897 and disappeared from public life.

A 30th Street memorial to a martyred president

November 27, 2014

LincolnplaquecornersignNinth Avenue at 30th Street is a noisy corner, thanks to recent High Line–inspired construction and idling tunnel traffic.

But on the facade of the hulking Morgan Postal Facility on the southwest corner is a little piece of history, a hard-to-see plaque that traces the trail of a martyred president.

The plaque marks the spot as the former site of the Hudson Railroad Depot, where Abraham Lincoln arrived when he visited the city in February 1861 en route to his inauguration as president.

Lincolnplaque2It was also the place of his final departure from New York, on April 25, 1865.

That’s when Lincoln’s casket was lifted into the special car of what was termed his funeral train. This followed 24 hours of public viewing of his open casket at City Hall, and then a solemn funeral procession up Broadway to Union Square.

The day before, on April 24, Lincoln’s body arrived in New York via a ferry from New Jersey to Desbrosses Street.

A crowd of thousands greeted his casket as it was loaded onto a horse-drawn carriage to City Hall.

The next day, as this illustration shows, another crowd sent his casket off by rail, where it would travel to Albany, then cities in Ohio and Indiana before stopping in Chicago and finally Springfield, Illinois for burial.

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Perhaps this is how the Lincoln Tunnel was named, thanks to its proximity to the depot torn down in 1931? A quick check of Lincoln Tunnel historical sites doesn’t mention anything about it though.


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