Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

A turkey dinner at the Municipal Lodging House

November 24, 2016

It’s Thanksgiving Day, 1931, in New York City.

By early 1932, one in three city residents will be out of work. Roughly 1.6 million were on the relief rolls, according to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Down and out New Yorkers began building a Hooverville in Central Park.

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And an astounding 10,000 men waited for their turn to sit down to dinner at the Municipal Lodging House, the public city shelter for homeless men, women, and children at the foot of East 25th Street.

This New York City Department of Records photo captured a group of these men in bulky overcoats and hats. They’re young and old, mostly oblivious to the camera and focused only on consuming their turkey and potatoes.

Firefighters racing to a blaze in 1905 New York

November 21, 2016

Their engine is pulled by horses, and the long coats these smoke eaters are wearing look awfully bulky. But that’s how New York’s firefighters did it in 1905, when this postcard image was made.

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thegildedageinnewyorkcover-1Amazingly, the city’s fire department had only been professionalized since 1865. Prior to that, various volunteer engine and ladder companies put out New York’s fires, sometimes competing with one another to do so.

Find out more about the rough and tumble early days of the FDNY, when the volunteer companies also served as social and political clubs, in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

The first children’s court was in the East Village

November 14, 2016

childrencourtstreetsignSay you were a 19th century New York kid picked up by cops for pickpocketing or stealing candy.

Like all alleged offenders, your case would go before a judge, and you might even have been held in one of the city’s infamous prisons, like the Tombs, with other adults.

But in the early 1900s, a novel idea hit in the city: trying minors under age 16 in a special court just for kids, to “guard children against the exposure and environment of crime,” as a 1902 New York Times piece put it.

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City law already made a few concessions for minors; for example, they waited for their case in a separate room, so they wouldn’t come into contact with “the intemperate and dissolute classes that are found in police courts.”

But reformers wanted to take it a step further. Most of the crimes kids committed were misdemeanors, and the thinking was that a separate court “inclined toward mercy,” in the words of another Times writer, would help keep children from becoming hardened criminals.

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With this in mind, the city’s first Children’s Court opened that year at Third Avenue and 11th Street (second image) in today’s East Village, “with much fanfare,” wrote Robert Pigott in his 2014 book, New York Legal Landmarks.

The building had been part of the criminal justice system in New York already; it was the former headquarters of The Department of Public Charities and Correction.

childrencourt22ndstreetx2010-7-5154Thousands of kids were brought in during the court’s early years, and the top charges were disorderly conduct and petit larceny. Forgery, arson, and even drunkeness also made the list of offenses.

“William Buckley, fourteen years old, was charged with intoxication,” read one Times article in 1905. “He also realized that he had lost his job, by which he had supported himself for two years since the death of his mother.”

“Justice Deuel talked to the lad about the dangers of drinking, released him on parole, and told him to report at once to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in the event that a friendly laundryman could not find a place for him.”

Children’s Court didn’t curb the number of crimes committed by kids. But it was deemed a success because judges were able to keep children out of the criminal justice system by giving them suspended sentences or probation, not jail or reformatory time.

Of the young offenders brought in, it is “reasonable to state that at least 50 percent would have been committed to institutions under the old method,'” the Times quoted the chief probation officer.

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In 1912, Children’s Court moved to East 22nd Street (above left). It’s now part of the city’s Family Court system, but the second building still stands today and is part of Baruch College, a branch of CUNY (above).

[Second photo: MCNY, 1911, 2010.11.41961911; third photo: LOC/Bain Collection, 1902; fourth photo: MCNY, 1917, 2010.7.5154; fifth photo: Google]

The 1870 murder trial that transfixed New York

November 14, 2016

abbysagemurderbygaslight2Adultery, a jilted husband, an abused wife, a deathbed marriage—the 1870 murder trial of New-York Tribune writer Albert Richardson had it all.

The story begins in 1857, when Abby Sage, a 19-year-old actress, married Daniel McFarland, who claimed he was a wealthy lawyer.

Turns out he wasn’t a lawyer, nor was he wealthy. Instead, he was an alcoholic prone to violence.

abbysagealbertrichardsonWhile Sage earned success as a playwright and on stage opposite Edwin Booth at the Winter Garden Theatre, McFarland would drink, go into violent rages and threaten homicide or suicide, then promise he’d clean up his act and find a steady job.

Things changed, however, in 1867, when the couple and their two young sons moved into a boarding house at 86 Amity Street—today’s West Third Street.

There, Sage met another boarder, a widower named Albert Richardson. At the time, he was a writer for the New-York Tribune and had made a name for himself in literary circles. During the Civil War he served the Union as a spy, was captured by the Confederacy and then escaped a prison in North Carolina.

abbysagedeathbedmurderbygaslightSage and Richardson became friendly and began spending days together, working on their writing. When McFarland found out, he went into an angry spiral, threatening murder and suicide again.

Finally, Sage left him—and soon her friendship with Richardson turned romantic.

McFarland was enraged. Sage began divorce proceedings, and McFarland attempted to get custody of their sons.

Desperate to be free of her violent estranged husband so she could be with the man she loved, Sage temporarily moved to Indiana, where divorce was allowed for extreme cruelty and drunkenness. In fall 1869, 16 months later, she came back East, believing that her marriage was legally over.

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Her ex-husband, however, made good on his murderous threat. On November 25, McFarland entered the Tribune office on Spruce and Nassau Streets, pulled out a pistol, and shot Richardson, mortally wounding him.

abbysagebrooklyneaglearticleapril51870Richardson was taken to the posh Astor House Hotel, where he lingered for a week. In that time, while McFarland was in the Tombs, he and Sage arranged to be married—by famous Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher.

There was never any question that McFarland killed Richardson. But to get McFarland off the hook for his crime, defense lawyers had to shift the spotlight from the shooting to Sage and Richardson’s relationship, which began while Sage was technically still married.

“The prosecution focused on the misery of the McFarland marriage, with Abby’s relatives and friends, including Horace Greeley [owner of the New-York Tribune, who knew Sage as well from her literary endeavors], giving testimony,” according to 19th century crime website Murder By Gaslight.

abbysageastorhouse1874“The defense changed the focus to the adulterous relationship between Abby and Albert Richardson. An intercepted letter from Albert to Abby, coupled with Daniel McFarland’s family history of mental instability, allegedly triggered the insanity in McFarland that led to the shooting.”

“The trial lasted five weeks. The jury deliberated for an hour and fifty-five minutes and found Daniel McFarland not guilty.”

[Top image: Murder by Gaslight; second image: Wikipedia; third image: Murder by Gaslight; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 5, 1870; sixth image: Astor House Hotel, 1874, NYPL]

RIP New York’s elevated West Side Highway

October 24, 2016

If you pine for the days of an edgier New York, then you would have loved the city’s “express highway,” as the back of the 1940s postcard below called it.

This was the elevated West Side Highway, which ran above West Street and 12th Avenue from Lower Manhattan to Riverside Drive.

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But most drivers hated it. Built between 1929 and 1951, the freeway officially called the Miller Highway was supposed to make the avenues below safer for pedestrians and less congested.

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Unfortunately it was poorly designed, too narrow for trucks and with sharp turns at exit ramps. It was also poorly maintained.

westsidehighwaygansevoortstWeakened by years of salt and pigeon poop, a chunk of the highway (left) actually fell into Gansevoort Street in 1973. (Above, at 14th Street, with a piece missing)

Today, a few sections of the elevated remain, but most of it was dismantled in the 1980s—to the dismay of some sun worshippers, bicyclists, and urban adventurers, who enjoyed having the crumbling roadway all to themselves in New York’s grittier days.

[Top photo, Wikipedia; third photo: Preservenet]

What remains of Jefferson Market’s police court

October 10, 2016

New York is rich with creatively repurposed buildings. A once-stately Spring Street bank is now a Duane Reade. The shelves of a elegant Fifth Avenue bookstore now carry lipstick and nail polish sold by a makeup brand.

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And the magnificent Jefferson Market Courthouse building (above, in 1878, a year after completion) on Sixth Avenue and Tenth Streets—with its Gothic turrets and stained glass loveliness—has been a New York Public Library branch since 1967.

jeffersonmarketstairsIt’s a terrific place to read. But perhaps the best part is that the interior contains the remnants of its late 19th century use as a police court (with an adjacent jail).

Jefferson Market was one of several local courts at the time that handled neighborhood crimes.

Head down the spiral staircase to the basement reference room, where long arched hallways, doorways, and a main area are lined with brick.

This is where the holding cells once were for the parade of (alleged) drunks, prostitutes, and petty thieves taken in by cops.

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There was room for 138 suspects. Here they bided their time until brought to see the judge, or waited after sentencing to be escorted to one of the city’s jails or workhouses.

jeffersonmarketcourtdoorUpstairs in the first-floor children’s room was the actual courtroom, with imposing Victorian Gothic-style entryways.

Suspect after suspect lined up here, pleading their cases before the magistrate brought the gavel down.

The famous and infamous made appearances along with average joes. In 1896, writer Stephen Crane came in to defend a woman arrested for solicitation who he met while “studying human nature,” as he put it.

Harry K. Thaw, the jealous husband of Evelyn Nesbit who killed Stanford White ten years later on the roof of Madison Square Garden, also appeared before a judge here, who determined that Thaw should be held without bail and sent to the Tombs.

jeffersonmarketnightcourtnypl1907-1909

It must have been a circus when the night court opened in 1907. Keeping the court open through the wee hours of the next morning helped alleviate crowding, and it made it a lot easier to process the nightly haul of “prodigals” trucked down in police wagons from the vice-ridden Tenderloin district in today’s Chelsea.

jeffersonmarketnyplsketchcriminals“The night court in Jefferson Market sits in judgment only on the small fry caught in dragnet by police,” wrote one publication in 1910.

“Tramps, vagrants, drunkards, brawlers, disturbers of the peace, speeding chauffeurs, licenseless peddlers, youths caught red-handed shooting craps or playing ball in the streets; these are the men with whom the night court deals.”

Women, too, crowded the holding cells and courtroom. “Old—prematurely old—and young—pitifully young; white and brown; fair and faded; sad and cynical; starved and prosperous; rag-draped and satin-bedecked; together they wait their turn at judgment.”

For women especially, night court became a tactic of intimidation. Since most of the other females there were prostitutes, the association with them was supposed to intimidate “nice girls” under arrest.

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This was the goal when striking shirtwaist workers were deposited at Jefferson Market in 1909, according to the NYPL history site. But the female strikers didn’t break (strikers leaving a police wagon and entering the courthouse, above).

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Jefferson Market’s police court days were over by 1940, though the building retained its association with criminal justice, thanks to the fortress-like jail that provided terrific street theater for decades, the Women’s House of Detention, built in 1929 and demolished in 1973.

jeffersonmarketgarden-orgToday, the site of the women’s jail is now a beautiful garden behind the restored and beloved (and thankfully saved from demolition in the 1960s) Jefferson Market Library.

Take a walk around the library and grounds, and feel the presence of a rougher, wilder slice of the city. Now, can anyone shed light on who the old man on the exterior fountain might be?

[First image: Alamy; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Greenwich Village History; seventh image: unknown; eighth image: Jefferson Market Garden]

That time a Dodgers fan beat an umpire in 1940

October 7, 2016

It happened on September 16, 1940. The Brooklyn Dodgers, stuck 10 games behind first-place Cincinnati, were playing the Reds at Ebbets Field in front of 6,782 fans.

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Among those fans was a 21-year-old petty criminal named Frank Germano, who lived at 128 33rd Street, opposite Green-Wood Cemetery, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

dogersfrankgermanoleadawaygettyimages“Game after game, [Germano] had sat on a hard wooden seat, [and] watched his beloved Dodgers, in second place in the National League, try to overtake the first-place Reds,” explained Life magazine two weeks later.

The Dodgers were in the lead until the Reds tied the game in the ninth. In the tenth inning, umpire George Magerkurth called two Reds runners safe after Dodger second baseman Pete Coscarart dropped the ball.

Cincinnati won the game—and the Dodgers were left to finish out another pennant-less season.

“Frank Germano sat stunned,” wrote Life. “He knew the runner was out. . . .  Just as the last Dodger was put out, Frank stood up on his seat, yelled ‘Burglar! Burglar!’ rushed out on the field, swung on Magerkurth, tripped him, started to pummel his face.”

“Magerkurth, who weighs 245 pounds, fought back,” continued Life. “There were curses, hard stinging blows.”

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Eventually the two were separated by other umpires. Germano “paid for his enthusiasm by being lodged in the Raymond Street klink after his arraignment on charge of third degree assault,” wrote The Eagle.

dodgerfanfrankgermanolifemagazineDespite his unsportsmanlike behavior, Germano had plenty of support in Kings County. Eagle sports columnist Jimmy Wood had this to say: “Pardon us for smirking, but we can’t get broken up about that young fellow taking the bull by the horns yesterday out at Ebbets Field.”

Germano “may have done something no law-abiding citizen of baseball can ever do with impunity—assault an umpire—but he has fulfilled the secret ambition of millions of fans.”

So what happened to Germano? Ultimately Magerkurth decided not to press charges, and after a judge set him free in April 1941, Germano left the courthouse in Flatbush only to encounter the umpire he tackled.

The two men shook hands and went their separate ways, the Eagle reported.

[Top photo: Life magazine; second photo: Getty Images; third and fourth images: Life magazine]

The mess halls for inmates on Blackwell’s Island

September 26, 2016

It could not have been easy to be an inmate—as it was called in the 19th century—on Blackwell’s Island.

The thin strip of land in the East River, bought by the city in 1828, was were New York brought its undesirables: criminals biding their time in the Penitentiary, sick people sent to the Hospital for Incurables, Lunatic Asylum, or the Small-Pox Hospital, the homeless and disorderly sentenced to the Workhouse.

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I’m not sure where these circa-1896 photos were taken, but based on the age and appearance of the diners (and the information provided by the Museum of the City of New York in the caption), they may give us a glimpse into the Almshouse.

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There were actually two Almshouses, one for men, one for women. “None but the aged and infirm, who are destitute, are admitted,” wrote James D. McCabe in 1872’s Lights and Shadows of New York Life. “Each newcomer is bathed immediately upon his or her arrival, and clad in the plain but comfortable garments provided by the establishment.”

Staff determined how much and what kind of work each newcomer could do, McCabe wrote. In 1870, 1,114 people lived there, he added—these are probably some of them.

[Top photo: MCNY 93.1.1.4918; second photo: MCNY 93.1.1.4917]

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]