Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

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.

Redfieldspoliceman

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]

The remains of a luxury ship at a Brooklyn church

May 26, 2016

NormandieposterThe biggest bottle of champagne in the world helped christen the French luxury liner the S.S. Normandie when it first launched in 1932.

Too bad this nautical marvel and Art Deco beauty didn’t plough the Atlantic for long.

In 1941, after the Germans took over France and with the Normandie safely docked in New York, the U.S. Coast Guard seized control of the ship.

The plan was to renovate the 1,000-foot liner into a ship for troops and to rename it the USS Lafayette.

Workers were busily converting the 1,000-foot vessel when it caught fire and capsized in its berth on the Hudson in February 1942.

Normandieonitsside1942

The destruction of the Normandie—everyone thought it was sabotage, but that wasn’t the case—was major news in wartime New York City.

People lined up to view its remains, as Pete Hamill recalls in his memoir, A Drinking Life:

Normandiedoors

“[His mother] took us there again and again, to gaze at its parched hull, more than a thousand feet long, its giant propellers high out of the water. In my memory, the ruined liner looks humiliated, like a drunk who has fallen down in public.”

After the Normandie was hauled away, its ruins were sold for scrap metal—with a few exceptions.

Normandiedoors2

NormandiechurchThe magnificent doors of the first class dining room from the Normandie’s luxury liner days were salvaged by Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral (right) in Brooklyn Heights.

To this day, the doors—with their intricate medallions showing scenes and sights in Normandy and lovely carvings of trees and leaves—greet visitors to the church at two different entrances at Henry and Remsen Streets.

They’re a quiet remnant of New York during World War II, a time that fewer and fewer residents have any memory of.

A 1947 mob murder on Grove Street jolts the city

May 16, 2016

GrovestreettenementFrom the river pirates of the 1800s to the mobsters of the 20th century, New York’s once-thriving waterfront had always been riddled with crime.

One man’s murder on a quiet West Village street in 1947 revealed just how depraved and corrupt the criminals who ran the piers could be.

On the morning of January 8, 1947, Anthony Hintz was leaving the third-floor apartment he shared with his wife at 61 Grove Street (right).

Hintz was headed to Pier 51, at the foot of Jane Street, where he was the hiring boss. His job was to run the “shape-up,” the process of deciding which longshoremen looking for a job that day would be picked to work.

GrovemurderjohndunnAlmost all of the city’s piers were run by hiring bosses under the thumb of crime syndicates. The bosses would demand kickbacks from men who wanted to work, and the money would be shared with the mobsters.

Pier 51 (below), however, was not controlled by the mob. Hintz refused to submit to gangsters.

Naturally, the mob want to get rid of Hintz. The job was undertaken by gangster and enforcer John “Cockeye” Dunn (left) and his associate, Andrew “Squint” Sheridan.

On January 8, these two killers with the noir-ish nicknames (along with a thug and former boxer named Danny Gentile) lay in wait for Hintz beside the stairwell in his building.

Grovestreetpier51Dunn, Sheridan, and Gentile ambushed Hintz right just after he kissed his wife good-bye and walked out the door.

He was shot six times and lay bleeding in the hallway in front of his wife, who came out to see what was happened. “Johnny Dunn shot me,” he said.

Gravely injured, he was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital up Seventh Avenue. There, he held on long enough to tell police that Dunn was the shooter. Hintz died three weeks later.

Dunn and Sheridan were quickly arrested; Gentile turned himself in a few months later. All three were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to the electric chair.

Grovestreetnytimesjuly81949Gentile was lucky; his sentence was commuted. Dunn and Sheridan, ruthless and remorseless, were electrocuted in 1949.

If any of this real-life mob murder sounds familiar, here’s why: the story of Hintz’s murder and an exhaustive New York Sun series about it inspired Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.

[Second photo: mafia.wikia.com; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery; fourth image: New York Times headline July 8, 1949]

The tearjerker Titanic Memorial inside Macy’s

March 28, 2016

StrausportraitWhen the Titanic met its end in the icy Atlantic early in the morning of April 15, 1912, many very rich passengers went down with the ship.

Among them were Ida Straus and her husband, Isidor, the German-born department store magnate who had owned Macy’s since the late 1800s.

Ida and Isidor had an exceptionally loving marriage. After an iceberg ripped the ship and women were being urged into lifeboats, Mrs. Straus refused. “As we have lived, so will we die together,” she reportedly said.

Strausplaquemacys

“They expressed themselves as fully prepared to die, and calmly sat down on steamer chairs on the glass-enclosed Deck A, prepared to meet their fate,” wrote wealthy New Yorker Archibald Gracie, who was with the couple that terrible night.

StraussunheadlineIsidor Straus’ death hit his Macy’s employees hard—which is almost impossible to imagine today, when CEOs are not exactly beloved by their underlings.

“‘Mr. Isidor,’ as he was known, regularly walked the shop floor, a pink carnation boutonnière stuck in the lapel of his dark suit jacket as he greeted workers by name,” according to a 2012 article in The Jewish Daily Forward.

Straus felt a sense of responsibility to his employees. He created a mutual aid society, offered basic health insurance, and built a cafeteria that served up hot (and subsidized) meals.

StraushebrewAfter the news emerged that he was lost at sea, Macy’s employees “contributed what little they could afford to create a memorial plaque for their boss,” and his wife, reported the Forward.

The plaque was ceremoniously unveiled in June 1913 in the Macy’s cafeteria Isidor Straus built.

In attendance were 5,000 employees and the Straus’ surviving family members. A century later, the bronze plaque is still on display at Macy’s in an entrance on 34th Street.

“Their lives were beautiful and their deaths glorious,” reads the inscription on the tablet, described as “a voluntary token of sorrowing employees.”

[Third image: carnegiehall.com; fourth image: a Yiddish songbook “Sacrifices of the Ship Titanic”]

Stopping at the Buckhorn Tavern on 22nd Street

March 21, 2016

Imagine that it’s the early 19th century.

You’re a farmer coming from the vast countryside of Manhattan or a traveler from Albany or Boston, and you’re trying to get to the actual city of New York, which is concentrated below Canal Street.

Buckshorntavern2

Roads aren’t so great, and travel by wagon or stage takes a long time. Good thing that when you need to eat, rest, or take a bed for the night, there are taverns that will welcome you.

One of those taverns is the Buckhorn (or Buck’s Horn), which since 1812 stood on once-bucolic Broadway and 22nd Street. (Below, today, not so bucolic)

Bucksheadtavern20162Described by one 1911 book as “an old and well-known tavern,” this rustic outpost “was ornamented with the head and horns of a buck and was set back a short distance from the street about ten feet higher than the present grade.”

This short description of the tavern also offers a glimpse of the few roads surrounding it.

“It was a favorite road-house for those who drove out upon the Bloomingdale Road (Boston Post Road) … the drivers of the day used to come as far as the Buck’s Horn, then turn through the quiet and shady Love Lane to Chelsea, and thence by the River Road through Greenwich Village and back to the city across the Lispenard meadows.”

Buckhorntavernfire

Buckhorn Tavern “was the stopping-place for the butchers and bakers,” reminisced one New Yorker in 1866, who recalled the cock fights there.

MadisoncottageOh, and it had a ten-pin alley for bowling, a popular pastime in the post-Colonial city.

The Buckhorn met its end in an early morning fire, which consumed the entire building in 1842 along with four stabled horses.

Luckily another popular roadhouse, Madison Cottage (above), was just a few blocks away at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street—by 1850 a much more populated area.

A witness paints the tragic Triangle shirtwaist fire

March 7, 2016

Before he became a noted painter in the mid-1940s, Vincent Joseph Gatto was just another kid growing up in Little Italy.

He lived with his widowed stepmother and made ends meet as a plumber’s helper, a milk-can washer, steamfitter, and a featherweight club fighter.

Victorjosephgattotrianglefire

Looking for extra cash, he decided to show some of his paintings at the annual Greenwich Village Art Show, thinking his unschooled artistic efforts were better than what he saw on display along the sidewalks.

He quickly found fame and gallery representation for the works he painted from “outa my head,” he told Life in 1948.

VincentjosephgattoOne of those from-memory paintings focused on the Triangle shirtwaist fire. On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, Gatto (left), then 18, witnessed the terrible inferno on Washington Place and Greene Street.

Thirty-three years later, he recalled what he saw: the intense smoke and fire, helpless crowds, and the shrouded bodies of workers who jumped or fell to death being laid out on the sidewalk by firefighters.

The painting is part of the Museum of the City of New York’s Activist New York exhibit.

[Photo: Smithsonian Institute/Renwick Gallery]

A New York bus driver takes a joy ride to Florida

March 7, 2016

CimillobusnewspapersCollect fares, hand out transfers, navigate traffic—like most jobs, driving a city bus is pretty routine.

That’s why William Cimillo, 37, a married father of two from the Bronx who had been driving a bus for 16 years, became fed up.

“Day in and day out it was the same old grind. He was a slave to a watch and a schedule,” reported the Brooklyn Eagle.

CimillonytBoredom led to daydreaming. Cimillo (left), who strangely looked like Ralph Kramden, wondered what it would be like if he “disobeyed the rules and forgot to look at his watch and did not get to that street corner at the right time,” wrote the Eagle.

One morning in March 1947, something came over him as he pulled away from the garage to start his shift on the BX15 route along Gun Hill Road.

“‘All of a sudden I was telling myself, baby, this is it. I left that town in a hurry. Somehow, I didn’t care where I went. I just turned the wheel to the left, and soon I was on Highway 1, bound for Florida.'”

So began Cimillo’s joy ride. Instead of taking nickels from passengers, he drove across the George Washington Bridge to Hollywood, Florida.

CimillobusheadlineHe parked the bus on a side street, called the bus company to ask them to wire him $50 so he could refuel and return home, and then went to a local racetrack. Police arrested him there and transported him back to New York in his bus (below).

Cimillo was indicted for grand larceny, but instead of throwing him in jail, the bus company seemed to be on his side. They paid his bail, after all.

CimillovideoOnce his busman’s holiday made the newspapers, he generated sympathy from the public. Even his fellow bus drivers held a fundraiser to pay for his legal fees.

Charges were later dropped. He became something of a mini-celebrity, with passengers asking for his autograph and plans for a movie about his adventure announced.

Cimillo continued driving a bus for years. When asked by one newspaper why he took his detour to the Sunshine State, he replied that he “just started out and kept going … the fellows at the bus company will understand, I’m sure.”

[Top iamge: AP; second, New York Times; third: Brooklyn Eagle headline; fourth: British Pathe film clip]


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