Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

What one painter saw on Armistice Night, 1918

November 12, 2018

Almost exactly 100 years ago, social realist painter George Luks—who honed his artistic skills in Philadelphia before moving to New York in 1896—captured this scene on the night World War I ended.

“In Armistice Night, as in his earlier illustrations, Luks does not deliberate over particulars: the painting is a blur of American and Allied flags, faces, and fireworks,” states the Whitney Museum of Art.

“Blue smoke obscures the buildings in the background, and few individuals stand out in the quickly-rendered crowd. Typically, Luks was more committed to capturing the spirit of the moment than to transcribing visual facts—in this case the action and human drama in a celebratory crowd.”

I only wish I could positively identify the location. Union Square?

A 23-year-old launches a 1909 labor revolt

November 5, 2018

In the early 1900s, Clara Lemlich’s life resembled that of thousands of other immigrant girls.

Born in the Ukraine in 1886, she came to New York with her family in 1903. Still a teenager and barely five feet tall, she toiled at a job as a draper in a waist factory.

“We worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week,” she wrote in a 1965 letter. “The shops were located in old dilapidated buildings, in the back of stores . . . the hissing of the machines, the yelling of the Foreman made life unbearable.”

Strikes were frequent, and Lemlich didn’t shy away from the picket line. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses,” she wrote.

From 1906 to 1909, Lemlich was arrested more than 17 times and was beaten up by hired thugs who broke her ribs and tried to intimidate her.

Their tactics didn’t work. “Infuriated by working conditions that, she said, reduced human beings to the status of machines, she began organizing women into the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) soon after her arrival,” stated the Jewish Women’s Archive.

“The older, skilled male workers who dominated the union resisted her efforts, but whenever they attempted to strike without informing the women, Clara brazenly warned them that their union would never get off the ground until they made an effort to include women.”

Lemlich’s bravest hour, however, came in November 1909.

A meeting was being held at Cooper Union (left, in 1899) to determine whether sweatshop workers citywide should go on strike.

Defying older male union leaders, she rose to the podium. “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike,” she told the crowd in Yiddish.

In her own letter recalling the incident, she wrote that she actually said, “I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Whatever she said exactly, her words helped galvanize support for a strike that began in late November 1909.

“Between 30,000 and 40,000 young women garment workers—predominantly Jewish immigrants (some pictured at left)—walked off their jobs over the next few weeks,” explained the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, the strike made newspaper headlines; workers who were arrested had their bail paid for by wealthy women (like Anne Morgan, below, daughter of J.P. Morgan) who supported their efforts.

By February 1910, the strike was over. Most of the sweatshops agreed some of their demands for better pay, improved work conditions, and shorter hours.

One that didn’t was the Triangle Waist Company—where a little more than a year later in March 1911, 146 workers perished in a fire at the Greene Street factory.

The Triangle fire was a turning point in New York, helping to create laws to guarantee safer factories and more fair wages.

It was a turning point for Lemlich as well. Blacklisted from garment factories for her union activities, she married in 1913 and had three children.

Her revolutionary nature didn’t change, however. She rallied for affordable housing and access to education. She was instrumental in organizing the kosher meat boycotts of 1917 and the citywide rent strike of 1919.

Even as a senior citizen, Lemlich continued to fight. While she was a resident of the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles in the 1960s, she helped staff orderlies organize a union.

Lemlich died in 1982 when she was 96. At the time, her death went largely unnoticed.

But a push to recognize activists like Lemlich has brought her new attention—as one of the farbrente Yidishe meydlekh (fiery Jewish girls) who led the battle for better working conditions, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

A hidden city park named for a murdered activist

October 29, 2018

Walk to the far end of East 51st Street, past the bishop’s crook lamppost of lovely Beekman Place, and you’ll find yourself at a dead end blocked off by a cast iron fence.

The high, spectacular views of the East River are enchanting. But there’s more to this spot than immediately meets the eye.

To your left beside the Gothic-style entrance of a prewar apartment building, you’ll see the beginning of a stairway—then steep steps surrounded by brownstone. They’re like a portal to a mysterious part of Turtle Bay few know about or visit.

The steps take you to Peter Detmold Park, a quiet strip of gazebos, park benches, and a dog run beside the river, with trees partly shielding the FDR Drive.

The serenity of this hidden park stands in contrast to the tragedy that inspired its name.

Peter Detmold (below) was a World War II veteran who made his home in Turtle Bay Gardens, the beautifully restored brownstones spanning East 48th and East 49th Streets between Second and Third Avenues.

As president of the Turtle Bay Association, he led the fight in the 1960s and early 1970s to preserve the character of the neighborhood.

“When landowners began to rent out office space in residentially zoned areas, Detmold defended the rights of tenants and homeowners, protecting the quiet, neighborly spirit of the area, now a designated historic district,” states the NYC Parks website.

But Detmold’s time as a community activist was cut short.

On the night of January 6, 1972, after walking home from a Turtle Bay Association meeting with two colleagues, Detmold was murdered in the stairwell of his apartment building.

“According to police reports, the 48-year-old Detmold was stabbed as he entered his five-story walk-up building,” explained Pamela Hanlon in her book, Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: The Story of a Midtown Neighborhood.

“He struggled to reach his top-floor apartment, but collapsed on the stairwell, where a neighbor found him. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Bellevue Hospital.”

The park was named for Detmold later that year. Almost half a century later, his murder remains unsolved.

[Third photo: Getty]

The sign behind the sign at a Grand Street store

September 10, 2018

I’m not sure exactly when 229 Grand Street was built in the late 19th century. But as far as Lower East Side walk-ups go, it’s a cut above its neighbors.

That’s mainly because of the Gothic-inspired upper windows and the decorative accents on the ground-floor storefront.

And the checkerboard pattern at the entrance to the building—another wonderful old-school touch.

M. Kessler Hardware has occupied 229 Grand Street for decades. (It’s never open when I walk by late in the evening, but I assume it still operates.)

The shop has been there for so long, you can even see the Kessler name in flaked, faded paint on the window behind the more prominent hand-painted “M. Kessler Hardware” sign.

But look closely on the glass above the entrance door at the left. It looks like another layer of faded paint spells out “jeweler.”

Did Kessler share the space with a jeweler or jewelry store—or did a jeweler set up shop here between Elizabeth Street and the Bowery before Kessler Hardware came along?

A clue emerges in the New York Times archive. A January 1927 story describes the trial of a man accused of a “gem holdup” at a pawnshop at 229 Grand Street; $47,000 in jewelry was stolen at gunpoint from the Schwartz Brothers pawnbrokers.

With a haul like that, it sounds like this pawnshop had an extensive jewelry collection and may have advertised that on the store window.

[Top photo: Streeteasy]

A 1935 crime of passion shocks New Yorkers

July 30, 2018

When she was found by a police officer on the third floor of Beekman Tower on the morning of November 12, 1935, Vera Stretz didn’t deny that she had just fired four bullets into the married man she was having an affair with (below).

“I shot him,” the blond, 31-year-old NYU graduate confessed to the officer, who spotted her sitting on the floor by the elevator of the sleek Art Deco hotel at First Avenue and Mitchell Place (below left).

In her purse, Stretz was carrying a revolver, ammo, a bloody negligee, and her will—along with the passport and apartment key of Fritz Gebhardt, 43, her German businessman lover.

The Manhattan DA’s office probably assumed it was a slam-dunk case; a crime of passion with a quick confession and lots of evidence.

But this lurid murder would take an unusual turn, with Stretz ultimately claiming that Gebhardt asked her to do something so “unnatural,” she had to defend her honor.

The details emerged when her trial began in March 1936. Stretz met Gebhardt on a cruise to the West Indies and fell hard for the smooth-talking World War I pilot and intellectual. (He was a fan of Nietzsche, apparently.)

Back in New York, Gebhardt got Stretz a job in his office and an apartment for her below his in Beekman Tower.

When Gebhardt sailed to Germany in July, Stretz assumed it was to divorce the wife he’d left behind so he could come back and marry her.

But when her paramour returned to New York in November, he was still married. Worse, he said he had no intentions of marrying Stretz.

This is where the crime of passion theory veers into totally different territory, one with salacious details that captivated New Yorkers.

Stretz’s defense lawyer was Samuel Leibowitz (at the right of Stretz in the above photo), the celebrated attorney who represented Al Capone and the Scottsboro Boys.

Leibowitz put Stretz on the stand.

“Through tears, Stretz told the court how he dominated her, and of the horrible events on the night of the shooting,” wrote the New York Daily News in a 2010 recap of the story.

“She said Gebhardt had called for her to come to his apartment because he was feeling ill. Once there, he tried to force her to perform an ‘unnatural act.’

She shot, Leibowitz declared, in defense of her honor.”

The “unnatural act” was assumed to be oral sex—and the 12-man jury apparently agreed that no morally straight man would ask a woman to take part in this sexual activity. Leibowitz also capitalized on anti-Nazi sentiment by painting the dead man as a Nazi sympathizer.

Stretz was found not guilty on April 3. She never made headlines again.

[Top photo: via Daily News 1936; second photo: Wikipedia; third photo: AP; fourth image: Daily News 1936; fifth photo: Daily News 1936]

An epidemic gave rise to a beloved Village church

February 19, 2018

Disease can shape a city—and that’s what drove the huge population boom in the country resort of Greenwich Village in the first half of the 19th century.

In the 1700s, Greenwich was a bucolic suburb dotted with estates. by the 1790s and early 1800s, this part of Manhattan, with its cool breezes and healthy air, was overrun with residents fleeing lethal outbreaks of yellow fever in the downtown city center.

“Those marvelously healthy qualities as to location and air, that fine, sandy soil, made it a haven, indeed, to people who were afraid of sickness,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

How fast did Greenwich grow? “From daybreak to night one line of carts, merchandise, and effects were seen moving toward Greenwich Village and the upper parts of the city. . . . persons with anxiety strongly marked on their countenances, and with hurried gait, were hustling through the streets.”

With so many new homes going up, churches needed to be built as well. So Trinity Church decided to build a parish on Hudson Street.

In 1820, with an assist from Clement Clarke Moore (a theology professor not yet famous for his Christmas poem whose Chelsea estate was just north of Greenwich Village), a new church was born: Saint Luke in the Fields.

The evocative name was a reference to Greenwich Village as a countryside enclave. And Saint Luke? He’s the physician evangelist, patron saint of physicians and surgeons.

His name is a nod to “Greenwich’s role as a haven for the multitudes fleeing disease in the city,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham.

The fields aren’t totally gone—St. Luke’s has one of the prettiest secret gardens of any church in New York City.

[Top photo: MCNY; 1895; 93.1.1.17296; Second and Third Images: NYPL]

A Revolutionary War hanging near the Bowery

November 20, 2017

The man sentenced to die in a field beside the Bowery was Thomas Hickey.

Hickey was an 18-year-old private, described as a “dark-complexioned” Irish deserter of the British army who then signed up to serve on the American side as the Revolutionary War was heating up.

In spring 1776 he was part of the personal “life guard” George Washington put together before the British were expected to occupy New York City.

The 50 or so men in the life guard protected Washington and his headquarters. Decked out in stylish coats (below left) and hats with a blue and white feather, they were “made up of the most physically fit and best performing soldiers,” states Henry M. Ward in George Washington’s Enforcers.

But in June, Washington got word that Hickey and another life guard member were part of a much wider treasonous plot.

Hickey “was implicated in a scheme to sabotage the Continental Army that was reportedly coordinated by royal governor William Tryon,” states Cruel & Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, by John D. Bessler.

After an investigation, 20 or so more men were accused of being in on the sabotage scheme—including the city’s Loyalist mayor, David Matthews. The scheme may have included a plan to kidnap or kill Washington.

Hickey wasn’t the only member of the life guard to be accused—but he was the one who was made an example of.

“At the subsequent court-martial proceeding, [other accused men] gave sworn testimony that Hickey had joined the conspiracy, accepted small sums of money from a gunsmith named Gilbert Forbes, and tried to recruit additional participants,” states a 2002 article on Hickey in the Irish Echo.

“Even if true, the testimony makes it clear that Hickey was probably on the lowest end of the conspiracy’s hierarchy and that many others were at least as susceptible to the charge of mutiny and sedition.”

In any event, a jury found Hickey guilty of mutiny, sedition, and “holding a treacherous correspondence with the enemy.” He was sentenced to die the next day.

“Handbills went up all around the city announcing June 28 as the date of Hickey’s execution,” states the Irish Echo. “On that day, Hickey was led to a field near the Bowery where a hastily constructed gallows stood.”

“At 11 a.m., before a cheering crowd of some 20,000, he was hanged.”

Sources place the site of the hanging at today’s Bowery and Bayard Street as well as Bowery and Grand, both well out of the city and in the Manhattan countryside, as the above illustrations show.

It was the first execution by the Continental Army; Washington signed the death warrant. He also insisted that every soldier not on duty attend the execution as a warning “to avoid those crimes and all other so disgraceful” to a soldier.

[Second image: Ratzen map, NYC 1767; Last image: Washington on his triumphant return to Manhattan in 1783, Evacuation Day]

The 1984 murder of a Studio 54 “miss party girl”

September 18, 2017

Connie Crispell lived in New York City from 1974 to 1984.

Her life in the city hit many of the cultural touchstones of the 1970s and 1980s—nights at Studio 54, after-hours clubs downtown, panic over AIDS. Yet her name and her tragic murder have mostly been forgotten.

Born to a prominent family in Virginia, Crispell came to Manhattan at age 22. She rented a two-bedroom at 12 East 86th Street for $500 a month and tried her hand at various jobs—marketing jewelry made out of subway tokens, founding a bartender-for-hire service.

But her true place in the city seemed to be on the dance floor at Studio 54.

Crispell and her roommate, “fell into a routine that began with taking a nap after work,” stated New York magazine in a 1984 article, which quoted a friend describing her as “miss party girl of New York City.”

“They rose at about 10 p.m. and showered. They put on disco music to get themselves in the proper spirit, and Crispell often made a pitcher of vodka tonics. Then they hopped in a cab and headed for Studio 54,” arriving back on 86th Street (below left) at 4 a.m.

By the end of the 1970s, her roommate gave up the party scene and moved out; Studio 54 shut down briefly. Crispell continued to spend money she didn’t have and was evicted from her apartment.

“With some financial help from her family, Crispell moved into a studio apartment in the old FBI building, on East 69th Street,” wrote New York. “She seemed to identify with the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and she sometimes called her place ‘my Holly Golightly apartment.'”

As the 1980s began, Crispell worked in an office position with designer Carolina Herrera, then as an account executive at Ogilvy & Mather and later as a salesperson at Brooks Brothers.

Studio 54 reopened again, and Crispell returned night after night. “She became a kind of celebrity of the dance floor and was often admitted to the club without paying,” according to New York.

She dated a blue blood preppie and then moved in with a 60-something diamond tycoon. After that relationship ended, she took a $120 a week room at the all-female Martha Washington Hotel on East 30th Street.

She supported herself by signing up with an escort service that gave her a beeper and sent her to meet men at the city’s poshest hotels.

As her former roommate and other friends fell into more settled lives, Crispell continued to live on the edge. She told people she thought she might have AIDS, and she did a 10-day stint in Bellevue after threatening to jump from a 9th floor apartment.

Once she was released, she was back at Studio 54, inviting fellow club-goers home with her to her new sublet at 58 West 58th Street (above right) in the wee hours of the morning. “Soon Crispell’s home became a kind of salon,” wrote New York, attended by heiresses, designers, and Village People band member Randy Jones.

One of those after-hours party guests, however, was a 20-year-old convict named Charles Ransom. According to newspaper accounts, Ransom said that he and Crispell had sex after she hosted a Kentucky Derby party in April 1984. Afterward, Crispell told him that she thought she had AIDS.

Ransom said he blacked out and strangled Crispell, stuffed her nude body in a trunk, and put the trunk on the balcony of the apartment. He invited two prostitutes to stay at the sublet for several days before the owners returned and called police.

Ransom got a minimum of 25 years in prison. A month after the murder, Crispell’s friends held a memorial at Fifth Avenue’s St. Thomas Church to mourn “the loss of the girl who always wanted one more moment of fun,” wrote New York.

[Top photo: New York; second and third photos: Biography.com; fourth photo: Manhattan Scout; fifth photo: streeteasy.com; sixth image: Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin; seventh photo: New York Post via New York]

The understated 9/11 memorial few people know

September 11, 2017

It’s just a simple plaque, mostly bronze with a bright red, white, and blue American flag, four sentences plus a bas relief image of the skyline before September 11, 2001.

Unless you regularly walk up First Avenue in Kips Bay, you probably wouldn’t even notice it. The understated plaque is affixed to the side of a VA Hospital building on First Avenue near 23rd Street.

I don’t know when the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System put it up.

But in a city filled with sizable memorials and monuments commemorating the immense bravery and tragedy of 9/11, there’s something to be said for a small quiet plaque that sits off to the side.

On another note, is this an archaic use of “hale” as a verb in the second sentence below?

In the lyrics for the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag is “hailed.”

A brutal murder on 23rd Street rocks Manhattan

September 4, 2017

By all accounts, life in 19th century New York had been good to Benjamin Nathan.

A spectacularly rich stockbroker known to wear diamond studs on his dress shirts, Nathan was born in Manhattan in 1813.

In the 1850s, he became vice president of the New York Stock Exchange and as a member of the Union Club was one of the few Jewish residents embraced by New York’s business elite.

He used his wealth to support various charities and build himself, his wife, and his eight kids an elegant brownstone at 12 West 23rd Street (above). His four-story house was across from the Fifth Avenue Hotel (below in 1886) in one of the post–Civil War city’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

So who murdered him in his brownstone on the night of July 29, 1870, bashing his skull repeatedly with an iron bar and leaving blood splattered on the walls and floor?

Nathan’s brutal murder rocked the city, and the details are particularly gruesome. His body was discovered first by his 22-year-old son, Washington Nathan, who like his father and older brother, Frederick Nathan, 26, was staying at the house while the rest of the family was summering at their New Jersey estate.

At 6 a.m., “Patrick McGuvin, a janitor at the elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel, was hosing down the sidewalk outside the hotel when Washington Nathan burst screaming from the brownstone at 12 West 23rd Street,” wrote Josh Nathan-Kazis (a descendant of Benjamin Nathan) in Tablet magazine.

McGuvin thought Washington was drunk, but then Frederick came onto the stoop screaming too. Both brothers had their father’s blood on their clothes.

When police arrived, they noted that Nathan’s body was found on the second floor (illustration above), and that “Mr. Nathan’s watch, and diamond studs had been stolen, the safe key taken from his clothes, the safe unlocked and some of the contents scattered on the bed,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle the next day.

“There were indications that a terrible struggle had taken place at the office door,” stated the Eagle. The working theory was that Nathan—who was last seen by his son Washington at about midnight—had interrupted a burglary.

But questions lingered, and they focused on Washington. “[Washington Nathan] was an intemperate man who frequently fought with his father over his ‘habits of life’—drinking, whoring and reckless spending,” states Murder by Gaslight.

“His character made him the likely killer, and the press noted that he did not exhibit the same level of emotion as his brother Frederick.”

Both brothers had tight alibis. Frederick had gone to Brooklyn to visit a female friend on Carroll Street, then ate a late supper on 21st Street before coming back to the brownstone around midnight, wrote Nathan-Kazis.

Washington spent his time at several Gilded Age hot spots. “Between 7:30 p.m. and 12:20 a.m., Washington claimed to have visited the bar at the St. James Hotel three times, read a magazine at Delmonico’s, visited the Fifth Avenue Hotel, taken in an open-air concert at Madison Square Park, and spent nearly three hours at a brothel.”

After an inquest, however, both brothers were cleared—as was a live-in housekeeper and her adult son, who lived on an army pension and did odd jobs for the Nathans.

In the end, no one was indicted. The police believed he was murdered by professional thieves, even though the value of the items taken was small and it seemed odd to burglarize a house when Nathan was home, rather than on one of the days he was at his summer estate.

It’s been 147 years since Nathan was bludgeoned to death. As Murder by Gaslight put it, quoting infamous NYPD detective Thomas Byrnes: “The Nathan case is, ‘the most celebrated and certainly the most mysterious murder that has ever been perpetrated in New York City.'”

For more on the crimes and tragedies that rocked the Gilded Age city, read The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top image: Tablet; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle July 30, 1870; fourth image: Murder by Gaslight; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NY Times; seventh image: NYPL; eighth image: Murder by Gaslight]