Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

A Revolutionary War sword turns up in Tudor City

February 20, 2017

hessianswordkipsbaylandingshipsTombstones, wooden ships, mastodon teeth and bones—construction crews over the years have come upon some pretty wild artifacts while digging into the ground beneath New York City.

But here’s a fascinating relic uncovered in 1929, when excavation was underway for the apartment buildings on the far East Side that would eventually become Tudor City.

It’s a Hessian sword, described as a “slightly curved, single-edged iron blade” with a wooden grip and “helmet-shaped iron pommel” by the New-York Historical Society, which has the sword in its collection.

hessianswordstainedglass2hessianswordtudorcitystainedglassHow did it end up underneath Tudor City? The story begins back in 1776. New York was a Revolutionary War battleground, and mercenary German soldiers were paid to fight alongside the British.

That September, thousands of British and Hessian soldiers sailed across the East River and invaded Manhattan at the shores of Kip’s Bay.

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Watching from a fortification at about today’s 42nd Street, George Washington and his army fled across Manhattan to Harlem Heights.

Eventually the Americans were driven out of Manhattan (temporarily, of course)—and at some point, a Hessian soldier must have dropped his sword, where it remained buried for 153 years.

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Fred French, the developer of Tudor City, donated the sword to the New-York Historical Society.

[First image: Wikipedia; second image: Tudor City Confidential; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: NYPL]

The bloody gang history of two Bowery houses

January 27, 2017

Thimble factory, bakery, oyster house, hotel, barroom, Faro bank, shooting gallery: the twin buildings at 40-42 Bowery, built in 1807, have had lots of occupants throughout the 19th century.

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Reminiscent of other Federal-style houses constructed nearby, numbers 40 and 42 feature “Flemish-bond masonry, steeply pitched roofs with single peaked dormers on the front and back, gable-end chimneys and some stone lintels,” according to the Historic Districts Council.

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Even at the dawn of the 19th century, housing wasn’t cheap. In 1826, renting one for a year ran you a cool $1000, according to this Evening Post ad (right).

But you did get to live a few doors down from the Bowery Theater (below, in 1828), once a high-class, gas-lit establishment that began featuring lowbrow entertainment as the Bowery devolved into the eastern border of the Five Points slum.

It’s during Five Points’ heyday when these two buildings earned their notoriety. In 1857, 40-42 Bowery functioned as a gang headquarters and was the site of one of the city’s bloodiest gang fights.

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Number 42 “was once a clubhouse for the Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards, two of the warring factions memorialized in the book and film, The Gangs of New York,” wrote David Freeland in his book Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville.

40-42boweryboysnyplThe Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards were havens for Nativists, who despised the Irish immigrants pouring into Five Points and forming gangs of their own, like the Dead Rabbits.

“Early in the morning of 4 July 1857, a rival gang, the Dead Rabbits, attacked the house and its immediate neighbor, the saloon at number 40, with what the Times described as ‘fire arms, clubs, brick-bats, and stones,'” wrote Freeland.

The action spilled over into Baxter Street and consumed the neighborhood. An estimated 1,000 men fought—and eight to 12 died.

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The Bowery Boys gang eventually fell apart, and the Five Points slum district was broken up by the late 19th century.

But the twin houses on this section of the Bowery survived into the era of the elevated train (above in 1881, with the old Bowery Theater renamed the Thalia) and beyond.

They serve as shabby reminders of a more rough-and-tumble Bowery as well as the promise of a genteel Bowery in early 19th century New York.

The curious 1870s cat hospital on Division Street

January 9, 2017

Even 19th century New York had its cat ladies—and the New York Tribune wrote about one Lower East Side cat lady’s curious tale.

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“On Division Street, about midway between Essex and Norfolk Streets, in this city, stands a three-story, dilapidated wooden building, that evidently dates back to the Dutch period of the city,” stated the Tribune in 1878 (image below).

divisionstreetcatsnypl1861“The third floor is given up to Mrs. Rosalia Goodman, better known by the children in that vicinity as ‘Catty Goodman,’ because she devotes much of her time to the comfort and relief of persecuted cats.”

Goodman, a widow, rented out rooms in her home and left two rooms for herself and about 50 cats, reported James McCabe’s New York by Gaslight, in 1882.

She didn’t run a hospital, as articles describing her as one of the city’s “great curiosities” claimed; Goodman seemed to simply care for homeless felines.

“Lying in the closets, on the tables, and under the stove, were cats of all descriptions,” wrote the Tribune. “Some had broken limbs or missing eyes, the result probably of prowling around at night.”

cathospitalclippinThese were some lucky tabbies. In 1894, New York’s chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals took charge of the city’s homeless cat situation by trying to find homes for them—or gassing them.

“Mrs. Goodman receives no pay for her attention to the cats, only the satisfaction which it gives her to attend to the maimed, neglected animals.”

“Her idiosyncrasy is so well known in the neighborhood that whenever a cat is found that is in want of food, or is in any way injured, the unfortunate sufferer is without delay placed in her charge.”

[Top image: New York by Gaslight; second image: Tribune article; third image: NYPL]

East 26th Street: New York’s “Misery Lane”

December 12, 2016

It was in a part of Manhattan, at the edge of a poor neighborhood of tenements and groggeries, where no one wanted to end up.

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But thousands of city residents did found themselves on Misery Lane, as the short stretch of East 26th Street between First Avenue and the East River was known in the turn-of-the-century city.

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This block was a dumping ground for the sick, alcoholic, and mentally ill, who sought treatment at Bellevue Hospital, which bordered East 26th Street (above).

Some New Yorkers had a sense of humor about it, as this rhyme from a 1917 medical magazine demonstrates:

miserylane19142T.B., aneurysm, and gin-drinker’s liver;
Tabetics, paretics, plain drunk, and insane;
First Avenue’s one end, the other’s the river;
Twenty-sixth Street between they call Misery Lane!

Criminals showed up on Misery Lane as well.

Men and women convicted of a range of crimes were deposited via police wagon on a dock known as Charities Pier at the end of East 26th Street (below).

From there, they were ferried to the workhouse and penitentiary across the East River to Blackwell’s Island to serve their time.

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The poor also stood in line at Charities Pier. Unable to afford rent, food, coal, and other necessities, their last resort was the Blackwell’s Island almshouse.

Misery Lane was the site of the Municipal Lodging House, built in 1909 to house mostly homeless, often derelict men (top and second photos), but also women and children.

trianglefireoutsidemorgueWith the city morgue on 26th Street as well, Misery Lane was the last place New York’s unknown dead went before being interred in the potter’s field on Hart Island.

And when mass tragedy struck the city, Misery Lane was involved as well.

Bodies found after the General Slocum disaster were brought here to be identified—as were the horribly burned corpses of Triangle Fire victims (above right).

Misery Lane is long gone, of course.

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Today, 26th Street ends not at a charity-run pier but with a lovely view of the deceptively placid river . . . all the way to Blackwell’s, er, Roosevelt Island (above).

[Top and third photos: NYC Municipal Archives; second and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: LOC/Bain Collection]

Who killed this pretty East Side model in 1937?

December 5, 2016

veronicagedeonphooIt was a gruesome scene inside the fourth floor apartment at 316 East 50th Street on Easter afternoon, 1937.

Veronica Gedeon, a 20-year-old model, was found naked and strangled to death on a bed; her mother, Mary, had also been strangled. Mary’s clothes were off as well, her body under the same bed.

Newspapers reported that Mary had been “ravished.” Meanwhile, a deaf bartender who had rented another room as a boarder was also dead in his bed, stabbed multiple times.

Only Mary’s pet Pekinese was spared, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 29.

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Police from the 17th precinct rushed to the home after Joseph Gideon, the estranged husband of Mary and father of Veronica, came upon it when he paid a holiday visit to the apartment, which Mary ran as a boardinghouse.

veronicagedeonhouseCops questioned Joseph, but nothing tied the immigrant upholsterer to the murders. They picked up other suspects who were cleared.

While the police tried to solve the crimes, the press focused on Veronica, known as Ronnie, according to Undisclosed Files of the Police: Cases From the Archives of the NYPD.

Her modeling work wasn’t high fashion. The pretty blonde posed sometimes nude for ads, artists, and detective magazines.

She had a fiance, but the night of the murders, she was out with another man and reportedly returned to the East 50th Street apartment intoxicated.

Her modeling work and love life were mined for clues; even pages of her diary were printed in the papers.

veronicagedeonirwinThanks to this focus, the public didn’t shy away from blaming Veronica for the crimes. “The young model probably messed around with too many men . . . she should have been more particular with her boy friends,” commented one Brooklyn resident in another Eagle story.

The real killer, however, wasn’t interested in Veronica—he was infatuated with her married older sister, Ethel.

Robert Irwin (right), a sculptor and “sex mad” divinity student became obsessed with Ethel when he boarded with the family in another apartment the Gedeons had on East 53rd Street.

A massive hunt for Irwin consumed the NYPD. “The city’s entire detective force, 1950 strong, armed with photographs and thumbnail descriptions of the vanished sculptor, probed through cheap Bowery lodging houses and saloons, through hospital wards and missions for down-and-outers,” wrote the Eagle on April 6.

Caught in the Midwest, Irwin pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

He calmly told officials the story: he “arrived at the Gedeons’ apartment on Holy Saturday night,” stated a New York Daily News article from 2008 that looked back on the crime.

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“He and Mary Gedeon chatted amicably for some time, but when Irwin pried for gossip about Ethel, Mrs. Gedeon told him it was time to let go of the imagined romance. Irwin snapped.

veronicagedeonandmomgetty‘The room was blue with death,’ he later said. ‘There wasn’t anything I could do.'” He killed Mary first, then murdered Veronica when she came home at 3 a.m. The boarder was stabbed to death as he slept.

Sentenced to 139 years in prison amid controversy about his mental state, Irwin was eventually moved to Matteawan, a state institution for the criminally insane, where he died in 1975.

[First and third photos: Life magazine, April 12, 1937; second photo: Find a Grave; third and fourth photos: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; fifth photo: Getty images]

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]