Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

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]

The Eskimo boy who lived in a New York museum

February 15, 2016

Miniknyc

It’s a story that seems incredulous to modern sensibilities.

On September 1897, American explorer Robert Peary and his crew docked their steamer under the Brooklyn Bridge after returning from a long expedition to Greenland.

It was one of several trips Peary took to the Arctic beginning in the 1880s in his quest to become the first Westerner to reach the North Pole.

Peary didn’t reach his goal on this voyage. But he did bring back some curious cargo, which he displayed a few days later at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for thousands of New Yorkers who turned out for a glimpse.

Minikwallacefamily

On deck was a 100-ton meteorite—and six Inuits, including a father and his 7-year-old son, Mene, but called Minik.

It’s unclear why Peary brought the Inuit people, who were dressed in sealskin coats trimmed with polar bear fur and appeared somewhat distressed in the early autumn sun, reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Apparently he thought experts he knew at the American Museum of Natural History would like to study them.

Abandoned by Peary and with no where to go, the Inuits were housed in the museum basement and “treated as specimens and spectacles,” according to pbs.org. They were not part of an official exhibit but were on view for some museum guests.

MuseumofnaturalhistoryThe Inuits didn’t stay at the museum long. Their next stop was Bellevue.

With no immunity, all six became ill. In the fall, Minik’s father and three others died; one returned to Greenland. Minik survived but was now on his own.

Although he found New York at first to be “like a land that we thought to be just like heaven,” and he laughed when he saw bicycle riders in Central Park, he was now an orphan.

“Alone and out of place in New York, Minik benefited from the benevolence of one person—William Wallace, the superintendent at the Museum of Natural History,” stated pbs.org.

RobertpearyThe Wallace family (with Minik, above) educated him; he even attended Manhattan College. “But despite being adopted and raised as part of the Wallace family, Minik never really felt at home in this foreign land.

“One newspaper described him as a “virtual prisoner.”

To make matters worse, he discovered that museum officials never gave his father the proper burial they claimed. Instead, his body became part of the museum collection.

In 1909, the same year Peary (at right) claimed to have reached the North Pole (a claim that has long been in doubt), Minik was finally able to leave New York and sail back to Greenland.

Menewallace“The appeal of the Eskimo, Mene Keeshoo, brought here by Commander Peary and left on the lee shore of New York, to be returned to his native North Greenland again proves that home is a lodestone’s attraction for the most uncivilized of God’s creatures,” wrote the Eagle.

It wasn’t the homecoming he’d hoped. Minik didn’t feel as if he belonged in Greenland either. In 1916 he returned to America, where he found work in a New Hampshire lumber camp.

There, he contracted influenza during the epidemic of 1918 and died.

Minik is not the only human who lived in the museum. In 1906, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga also spent time there—before being put on exhibit in the Bronx Zoo. Really.

[Second photo: PBS American Experience; Fifth photo (the birthdate is said to not be accurate): Findagrave.com]

The most tragic day of Teddy Roosevelt’s life

February 8, 2016

TRdiaryfeb14At the beginning of 1884, everything seemed to be going Theodore Roosevelt’s way.

The 25-year-old Harvard graduate, a descendant of a colonial Dutch family with deep roots in New York City, had already written an acclaimed first book, The Naval War of 1812.

He’d also been elected to the state assembly and was making a name for himself as an energetic and outspoken Republican who wouldn’t tolerate financial corruption.

His personal life was going spectacularly as well. In 1880 he had married the tall, willowy girl of his dreams, Alice Hathaway Lee (below).

Roosevelt was crazy in love with Lee and ecstatic that after a year of courtship she agreed to marry him.

AlicehathawayleefullOn a sleigh ride near her family home in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, after they had become engaged, “the horse plunging to his belly in the great drifts, and the wind cutting my face like a knife,” Roosevelt gushed about his love in his diary.

“My sweet wife was just as lovable and pretty as ever; it seems hardly possible that I can kiss her and hold her in my arms; she is so pure and so innocent, and so very, very pretty,” he wrote on February 3, 1880.

“I have never done anything to deserve such good fortune.”

Roosevelt’s political career would continue to soar. He became New York’s police commissioner, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, state governor, U.S. vice president, and then, thanks to an anarchist’s bullet, the nation’s president in 1901.

But before his political career would hit the national stage, fate would cut short this personal happiness.

TRportrait1881Three years after he wrote that diary entry, on February 12, 1884, Roosevelt’s wife gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt, in Roosevelt’s parents’ home at 6 West 57th Street, where they had been staying.

But the joy of a first child was short-lived. In another room, Roosevelt’s beloved mother, Mittie (below), was dying of typhus.

Lee’s health had also turned grave. One floor above Mittie, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt was battling an undiagnosed kidney disorder. Roosevelt went from room to room, but there was little he could do.

Both women died on February 14, Valentine’s Day.

In his diary that day, Roosevelt (above, in 1881) drew a large X. “The light has gone out of my life,” he wrote. The two Mrs. Roosevelts, one aged 22 and the other 48, were laid to rest at a double funeral at Green-Wood cemetery.

TRmittieroosevelt3“Her baby was born and on February 14 she died in my arms,” wrote Roosevelt on February 17.

“As my mother had died in the same house, on the same day, but a few hours previously. . . . For joy or for sorrow my life has now been lived out.”

Two years later, Roosevelt would marry childhood playmate Edith Carow and have five more children, and by all accounts a very happy family life.

[Diary page: Library of Congress]

Two Brooklyn memorials to one 1960 plane crash

January 11, 2016

Newspaper headlines described a horrible scene. “Air crash rains death on city” screamed the New York Daily News on December 17, 1960.

Brooklynpubliclibrary1

At 10:30 a.m. the day before, two passenger planes heading to LaGuardia collided over New York City.

A TWA airplane from Dayton, Ohio came down on Staten Island. A United DC-8 from Chicago hit the ground at Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope.

Aircrashstephenbaltz

The final death toll of what was then the city’s worst air disaster would reach 134, including six victims in Brooklyn who were going about their day when the TWA craft plunged out of the sky.

AircrashstephenbaltzToday, Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue has long been cleaned up, though a few signs of the destruction of the crash remain. There’s no memorial at the intersection—but there are two not far away in Brooklyn.

One honors an 11-year-old boy who survived the initial crash. Stephen Baltz (left) was flying on his own to join his mom and sister in Yonkers, where they were planning to spend Christmas.

Baltz was badly burned, but he survived through the night before dying at Methodist Hospital up Seventh Avenue the next morning.

Inside the hospital’s Phillips Chapel is this understated plaque, above. “Our tribute to a brave little boy” it reads, next to the bronzed dimes and nickels Stephen had in his pocket. His parents put them in the hospital donation box after he died.

AircrashdailynewsIn Green-Wood Cemetery, a newer memorial marks the burial site of the bodies burned beyond recognition in the fiery aftermath of the crash.

“In an era before DNA identifications were possible, three caskets of ‘Fragmentary Human Remains’ were filled from the Park Slope crash site and were buried in a grave in lot 38325 that was purchased by United Airlines,” according to Green-Wood Cemetery.

Fifty years later in 2010, a granite memorial went up on the site. Inscribed on it are the names of all the victims.

Aircrashgreenwoodplaque

Nearby a bronze and granite stone poking out of the grass simply says, “In this grave rest unidentified remains of victims of the airplane crash in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY, December 16, 1960.”

[Top photo: Brooklyn Public Library/Irving I. Herzberg; third photo: New York Times; fourth photo: airliners.net/moose135photography]

Welcome aboard the “muggers’ express” train

December 21, 2015

If you weren’t around to experience it yourself, you’ve probably heard all about the New York City subway system in the 1970s: gritty, practically bankrupt, and a lot more dangerous than it is today.

Muggersexpress1973wiki

How bad was it? In 1978 alone, there were nine murders on the subway. By 1979, felonies occurred on trains and in stations at a rate of 250 incidents each week.

Muggersexpress4trainwikiCity officials were so alarmed by the number of thefts, beatings, and murders underground, Mayor Ed Koch responded by having a uniformed cop ride every train that ran between 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

But one subway line had a dicier reputation than the others. The IRT Lexington Avenue line—today’s 4, 5, and 6 trains—earned the nickname the “muggers’ express” because so many passengers were robbed on board.

Muggersexpressarticle

Some sources have it that only the 4 train was the muggers’ express. It’s hard to say if the 4 was worse than the 5 or 6, though; all three lines went through some pretty rough neighborhoods in Manhattan and the Bronx, and the 4 and 5 went deep into Brooklyn too, just as they do today.

[Top photo: Jim Pickerell/US National Archives and Records Administration; second photo: UPI; third photo: Wikipedia]

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.

Tomcatfloatfelix1927

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.

Tomcatfloat

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.

Trampjacobriis1890

“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]


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