Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

A plane collides with a Macy’s Thanksgiving float

November 9, 2015

Ever since Macy’s added balloon floats to their iconic Thanksgiving Day parade in 1927, mishaps and fails have become regular occurrences.


Felix the Cat (above) got tangled in telephone wires that year. Popeye dumped cold rainwater that had collected on his cap onto the crowd in 1957. And poor Kermit the Frog; his head sadly deflated in 1991.

ParadefloatairplaneheadlineBut at least it’s been 83 years since a float was hit by an airplane.

This midair collision happened in 1932 over a heavily populated area of Jamaica, Queens—long after the parade had ended and the helium-filled balloons were released into the sky (the custom in the early 1930s).

Annette Gipson, 22, happened to be at the controls of a biplane with her instructor, flying at 5,000 feet.

TomcatannettegipsonAll of a sudden, the brazen “girl flyer,” as newspapers dubbed Gipson, noticed the 60-foot Tom-Cat balloon coming her way.

“She shouted, ‘I think I’ll have a piece of the neck’ to [her instructor], as she took dead aim at the cat,” reports the book Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“Upon impact, the balloon wrapped itself around the left wing. The plane went into a deep tailspin and sped toward the ground out of control.”

Afraid that the plane would catch fire when it hit the ground, Gipson turned off the ignition. “Witnesses in the surrounding neighborhoods, straining their necks to look skyward, gasped as they heard the engine die and saw the plane plummeting to earth.”

Before it did, her instructor managed to take over. As the craft came within 80 feet of rooftops, he got control and was able to land at Roosevelt Field, as planned.


Considering that she almost crash-landed in the middle of Queens, Gipson was nonplussed.

Tomcatheadline2“It was a sensation that I never felt before—the whirling housetops, rushing up to meet me—and the thoughts of a whole lifetime flashed through my mind,” she told reporters who had rushed out to Roosevelt Field to speak to her after they’d been tipped off about her collision.

Gipson went on to become a prominent “aviatrix,” as the newspapers called her, touring the country and hosting headline-grabbing women-only air races at Floyd Bennett Field.

The tramp: a new kind of homeless in the 1870s

November 2, 2015

On December 28, 1873, after a terrible economic recession descended on New York—bringing with it unemployment and eviction—the New York Times sounded the alarm on a new urban threat.


“At the present time there is supposed to be at least 3,000 vagrants in this City, while there is a large number who travel from place to place, either begging as they go along, or doing odd jobs for their meals,” warned the front page article.

Trampsfrankleslies1877“These tramps are always pretending to look for work, but it is very rare that they will accept it if offered, unless to get a chance to steal something.”

Tramps had arrived in New York—ragged, disconnected men who appeared on sidewalks and park benches in high numbers, scaring residents who felt they were “an army of the poor threatening respectable society,” states The Poor Among Us.

“The threat created by tramps was certainly exaggerated, but the underlying problem was real.”

Tramp1890snyplTramps “first appeared in the 1870s,” wrote Luc Sante in Low Life. “Many of them were probably Civil War veterans who hadn’t been able to adjust.”

“In the years when Central Park was new, tramps would hide out there, living in its sylvan recesses. They attracted notice as a public nuisance with their penchant for lying prone on the pavement and draining the lees from empty beer kegs set out in front of saloons.”

Tramps lived in 5 cent lodging houses or on police station floors—the  homeless shelters of the Gilded Age for those with absolutely no where else to go.

Trampsongbook1894As the 19th century went on, Tramps became the face of homelessness in the city.

Charities directed their efforts toward decreasing the number of homeless children and women, who the public felt were more deserving of aid.

“By the end of the 19th century, however, the typical homeless person was a tramp,” states The Poor Among Us.

Tramps could be found all over downtown. Flop houses catered to them. City officials built farm colonies where they could be put to work. They became colorful characters in vaudeville and early movies.

Trampsingersargeant1904-1906Though their numbers were reduced during World War I in New York, they never really went away from the city for long, of course.

These were the “forgotten” men living in Central Park Hooverville shanties during the Depression, the Bowery bums drinking and standing around trash can fires through the postwar decades, and the homeless of today, begging on sidewalks and parks or edged into the shadows under bridges and inside subway stations.

[Top image: Jacob Riis, 1890; Harper’s Weekly; NYPL Digital Gallery; NYPL Digital Gallery; John Singer Sargent, 1906]

Body parts wash ashore the East Side in 1897

October 26, 2015

GuldensuppenackThe upper half of the torso and arms were found first, on June 26, 1897, by boys playing on a pier off East 11th Street.

The rest of the torso came ashore near High Bridge. The legs showed up off the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The body was that of a well-built man who had been alive just a few days before, according to the medical examiner. But who was he?

The gruesome details gripped the tabloids, which investigated the story along with the police.

Clues soon emerged, thanks to tabloid reporters bent on solving the murder—and selling more papers. The man had strangely soft hands, and his body parts were wrapped in a distinctive oil cloth with a red and gold floral pattern.

GuldensuppethornjailDetectives traced the seller of the cloth, who pointed police in the direction of a Danish midwife named Augusta Nack (above).

Workers at the Murray Hill Turkish Baths on 42nd Street identified the body as that of William Guldensuppe, a German masseur.

Guldensuppe was a tenant in a West 39th Street building owned by Nack. Apparently Nack was also living with a barber named Martin Thorn (left), and the three were involved in a love triangle.

By July, police had arrested Nack and Thorn, thanks to a confession Thorn gave to a barber friend.

According to the confession, Guldensuppe had beaten Thorn senseless after he found him in bed with Nack. So Thorn decided to kill his rival by luring him to a house in Queens.

GuldensuppenackjeffersonmarketAfter shooting him in the back of the head with Nack in the house as well, Thorn said that “we threw him into the bath-tub, and while he was breathing heavily I cut off his head with a razor, and stripped the body.”

Thorn sawed the body, put the head in plaster, and wrapped body parts in the oilcloth, then threw everything into the East River while taking the ferry back to Manhattan with Nack.

GuldensuppenacknewspaperIn December 1897, a jury found the couple guilty. On August 2, Thorn was electrocuted at Sing Sing. Nack served 10 years in prison upstate, then fell into obscurity.

This “trial of the century” earned its name not only because of the bloody details—but the way the press inserted themselves into the story and made 1897 a banner year of yellow journalism.

[Top photo: New York Times; second: LOC; third: New York World; fourth:]

Coney Island’s “disaster spectacles” thrill crowds

September 14, 2015

ConeyislandfightingtheflamesConey Island at the turn of the century let visitors escape the conventions of city life and experience a fantastical world: of thrilling rides and exotic animals, carnival games, freak shows, Eskimo and lilliputian villages, even a trip to the moon.

But perhaps the most bizarre exhibits were the disaster spectacles.

These shows recreated a real-life disaster so visitors could witness the death and destruction that took place.

The fall of Pompeii, the San Francisco Earthquake, the eruption of Mount Pelee in Martinique, and the Johnstown and Galveston Floods exhibits were hugely popular.


“Six hundred veterans of the Boer War, fresh from Johannesburg, re-fought their battles in a 12,000-seat stadium,” stated PBS’ American Experience show about Coney Island.

“Galveston disappeared beneath the flood. Mount Pelee erupted hourly, while across the street, Mount Vesuvius showered death on the people of Pompeii.”

ConeyislandpeleeadsAnother spectacle called “Fire and Flames” had real firemen set a four-story building on fire, then extinguish it as “residents” of the building, really actors, jumped out of windows, just like in a real New York City fire (except they jumped into safety nets).

The fire spectacle, at Luna Park, was so successful, Dreamland came up with their own version, called “Fighting the Flames” that brought in actual fire rescue equipment.

What was so fascinating about disaster to Coney Island visitors of the era?


“In its very horror, disaster conferred a kind of meaning to its victims’ lives, transforming commonplace routine into the extraordinary,” writes John F. Kasson in Amusing the Million.

“Sensationalized recreations of such disasters gave a vicarious sense of this transcendence to their audience—with of course the inestimable advantage of allowing them to emerge from the performance unharmed.”


It’s really no different from our more contemporary attraction to disaster movies, like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, says Kasson.

107 colorful years at a Meatpacking District motel

September 7, 2015

Today’s gleaming, touristy Meatpacking District has no room for low-rent motels. But the Liberty Inn, at 51 Tenth Avenue, which famously charges by the hour, is still hanging in there.


This flatiron-shaped building is a remnant of the days when 14th Street west of Eighth Avenue was a commercial and ship-docking district, home to a produce market, meatpacking plants, sailors’ dives, and sex clubs.

LibertyinndelamatersquareThe hotel had a dicey reputation from the start.

It first opened in 1908 as a sailor’s boardinghouse called the Strand on a patch of land known as Dalamater Square (right, 1938).

“It is a three-story structure, on the ground floor of which is a saloon and the upper part of which contains 28 rooms,” stated a court document from 1914.

“[The Strand] accepts only men as roomers,” the document added, and caters “to the class of trade that has business at the river front.”

In other words, it was a rough place–which might be why it had its “all-night license” revoked in 1910.

Its waterfront location came in handy after the Titanic sank in 1912. To cover the story, the New York Times rented a floor of rooms at the Strand (below, at Pier 54).


“The editors sent reporters to the pier with orders to buttonhole survivors and then run into the Strand and dictate their notes on one of the telephone lines, which were connected to the newsroom in Times Square,” the Times recalled in a 2012 article.


There’s no reason to think the Strand—or whatever it was called as the decades went on—ever changed its seamy vibe.

And why would it, since the Meatpacking District became the haunt of sex workers and the site of sex clubs from the 1970s through the 1990s.

mp0271The Anvil operated out of the ground floor of the building from 1974 to 1986, where “drag queens and naked go-go boys danced upstairs and those looking for a more hands on experience wandered the dark passageways below ground,” recalled the Daily News.

[Above: Photo by Brian Rose]

Today’s Liberty Inn, which limits rooms to 2 guests each and charges $80 for two hours, is a far cry from the debauchery of the Anvil.


But it’s the most unsavory place you’ll find in a neighborhood that’s scrubbed its down and dirty past clean.

[Third and fourth photos: NYPL Digital Collection. Fifth Photo: Brian Rose.]

The gaudy elephant hotel of 1880s Coney Island

July 6, 2015

When Coney Island went from remote sandbar resort to the city’s biggest beachfront playground in the 1880s, tawdry amusement attractions began to pop up on the West End: beer halls, roller coasters, and freak shows.


But perhaps the gaudiest addition was the Elephantine Colossus, a nearly 200-foot tall hotel sheathed in blue tin and with a gilded howdah on top.

Encircled by the Shaw Channel Chute roller coaster, the hotel looked like a bizarro version of one of the live pachyderms on exhibit at Coney Island’s amusement parks at the turn of the century.


Completed in 1885 at Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, the 12-story elephant was divided into 31 rooms. Visitors could also climb to the observatory and pay 10 cents to get an incredible aerial view of New York City by looking through the elephant’s eyes, which were actually telescopes.

Elephanthotelrollercoaster“The forelegs contained a cigar store and diorama and the hind legs held circular stairways leading to the rooms contained above,” wrote Michael Immerso in Coney Island: The People’s Playground.

The developer called the elephant hotel the eighth wonder of the world. Locals soon began calling it a brothel; apparently it wasn’t too popular with regular tourists, so prostitutes took over.

ElephanthoteladIn fact, “seeing the elephant” became a slang term for visiting the hotel and hiring a hooker, according to this clip from the New-York Historical Society.

As a gimmick, the elephant hotel gripped the imagination. But as a business, it lost money, and by the 1890s, the structure had been abandoned.

ElephanthotelfireIts ultimate demise was spectacular. The hotel burned down in 1896 in a blaze so fiery, it reportedly could be seen from Sandy Hook in New Jersey.

The Elephantine Colossus isn’t the only pachyderm to come to a gruesome end at Coney Island.

Topsy the elephant, a temperamental creature brought to Luna Park so park-goers could ride on her back, was put to death by electrocution there in 1903 under the direction of Thomas Edison, who wanted to test his new direct current.

[Photos: top, New-York Historical Society; second, fourth, and fifth:]

A Bronx serial killer escapes from prison in 1916

June 22, 2015

FrederickmorsheadshotIn 1914, residents of a Bronx nursing home called the German Odd Fellows Home began dying.

This is hardly unusual in a nursing home, of course. But officials there realized that the residents were dying in larger numbers than usual.

Officials didn’t have to do a drawn-out investigation. In February 1915, a peculiar new porter and nursing orderly at the home described as “neurotic” and a smoker of “Egyptian cigarettes” walked into the Bronx district attorney’s office.

Clad in a corduroy hunting outfit and wearing a feathered Alpine hat, he admitted that he killed eight octogenarians.

Frederickmorsheadlinenyt2Frederick Mors, 26 (above), a recent Austrian immigrant, told authorities that he used chloroform (and in one case arsenic) to “put people out of their misery.”

“When you give an old person chloroform, it’s like putting a baby to sleep,” he told police. “It frees them from all pain. It is humane and kind-hearted.”

 He claimed he was egged on by the home’s superintendent, who urged him to “‘hurry the deaths’ of some of the more aged and suffering inmates,” wrote The New York Times in 1915.

Frederickmorsheadline2He confessed, he said, because he was afraid the superintendent would pin all of the murders on him.

Though some aspects of Mors’ story appeared to check out, the DA’s office wasn’t convinced. They decided to give him a psychiatric test.

Mors failed, and the DA deemed him a victim of “homicidal hallucination.”

Instead of being prosecuted, he was committed to the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane in Poughkeepsie (below).


Scheduled for deportation back to Austria, Mors escaped prison in May 1916.

He was never seen again, but a skeleton found in a patch of woods in Connecticut may have been his; police found a bottle next to the skeleton that indicated suicide by poison.

A daring drunk lands a plane in Upper Manhattan

June 22, 2015

Like so many crazy stunts, it reportedly started with a bar bet.

On September 30, 1956, Thomas Fitzpatrick (below), a 26-year-old steamfitter from Emerson, New Jersey, was drinking at a tavern on St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights.


For reasons that appear to be lost to history, Fitzpatrick bet another bar patron that he could get in a plane and land it in Washington Heights in 15 minutes.

Airplane1956headshotIt’s not clear if he made the time limit. But he did get a plane, a Cessna 140 two-seater stolen from Teterboro Airport, and flew it to Manhattan, where he landed it on St. Nicholas Avenue and 191st Street at 3 a.m.

Despite being drunk, Fitzpatrick “brought it down safely between six-story apartment buildings,” wrote The New York Times in 1958.

The plane “landed on a street with lampposts and cars parked on both sides,” a witness told The New York Times in a 2013 article. “It was a wonder—you had to be a great flier to put that thing down so close to everything.’’

Fitzpatrick told police that he brought the plane down in the street (below) because he had engine trouble, but they didn’t buy it. Originally charged with grand larceny, Fitzpatrick eventually paid a $100 fine.

That wasn’t Fitzpatrick’s only aeronautic feat. While drinking in a Washington Heights tavern on October 4, 1958, he told a patron about his previous Upper Manhattan plane-landing experience.

AirplanewashingtonheightsphilinqWhen the patron refused to believe him, Fitzpatrick drove with the man to Teterboro, secured a plane, flew it to Upper Manhattan, and landed on Amsterdam Avenue and 187th Street at about 1 a.m.

“Yesterday’s incident surprised and frightened residents and motorists who heard the plane descending,” wrote the Times. “The craft touched down, taxied a few yards and stopped in front of a Yeshiva University building.”

That second landing scored him six months in jail, after which as far as anyone knows, he never tried to fly to Washington Heights again.

[top two photos: New York Times; third photo, Philadelphia Inquirer]

A 1951 stamp explains the Battle of Brooklyn

May 25, 2015

This image of George Washington evacuating his troops illustrates the dramatic escape made by Patriot forces to Manhattan after the bruising Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776.


The stamp was issued in Brooklyn in 1951, commemorating the battle’s 175th anniversary. This is Brooklyn Heights 239 years ago; the Fulton Ferry house is at right. Here’s the historical recap:

“On August 27, the Red Coats marched against the Patriot position at Brooklyn Heights, overcoming the Americans at Gowanus Pass and then outflanking the entire Continental Army,” states

“Howe failed to follow the advice of his subordinates and storm the redoubts at Brooklyn Heights, and on August 29 General Washington ordered a brilliant retreat to Manhattan by boat, thus saving the Continental Army from capture. At the Battle of Brooklyn, the Americans suffered 1,000 casualties to the British loss of only 400 men. On September 15, the British captured New York City.”

The claw hammer murder rocks 1930s New York

May 18, 2015

PhelanleavingcourtEarly on New Year’s Eve 1933, the battered body of a 68-year-old retired stockbroker was found in his five-room apartment at the Grinnell (below), a luxurious building at 800 Riverside Drive.

Douglas Sheridan’s corpse was slumped in the bathtub with scalding water from the shower pouring down over it.

His head had been bashed in, once in his face and once in the back of the skull.

The scene was grisly, but it offered detectives immediate clues.

“In the courtyard below they discovered a hammer which they believe to have been the murder weapon,” wrote the New York Times on January 1, 1934.

Detectives also noticed that Sheridan’s housekeeper, 52-year-old “gray haired” Catherine Phelan (left), had bloodstains on the lenses of her glasses.

Phelan, who had worked for Sheridan for 28 years, had called police to the apartment and led them to Sheridan’s body.

She told police she had the night off, and that she left the apartment to see a movie after two guests of Sheridan’s arrived.

Phelanmurdergrinnell“Later in the evening, she was quoted as saying, she became vaguely uneasy because Mr. Sheridan had been drinking, and she started back toward the apartment,” stated the Times.

Soon after, she discovered her employer’s body—his two guests gone, she claimed. Hours later, she called police.

Detectives cast doubt on her story, but they didn’t arrest her immediately. It took a day to check out her version of events and look into Sheridan’s personal and financial life.

PhelanmurderheadlineThey soon learned that Phelan stood to gain $8,000 from Sheridan’s will, and that Sheridan was about to fire her, according to apartment building employees.

In addition to that, Sheridan apparently had a “fondness for young women friends.” One of his guests the evening he died was a young female, and police believed Phelan killed Sheridan out of jealousy.

After her arrest on January 1, she insisted she was innocent. Charged with murder, she stood trial in November.

A month later, she was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. “Thank you for the Christmas present, your honor,” she told the judge, before heading off to Auburn state prison.


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