Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

The body of the first Union officer killed in the Civil War comes to City Hall

May 31, 2021

The metal coffin reached Jersey City by train at half past three o’clock on May 31, 1861. It was loaded into a hearse and onto a ferry, and when it arrived in Manhattan it was brought to a parlor inside Astor House—at the time New York’s most luxurious hotel, on Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets.

For several hours there, the coffin lay under a large draped American flag. Family, friends, and National Guardsmen mourned the man inside it, whose “pallid features,” as the The Sun described them the next day, could be seen through a piece of oval glass.

“Few would have recognized in the ghastly features the gallant commander once so full of life and intelligent,” the newspaper wrote.

At 10 pm, the coffin went back in the hearse for the short trip to City Hall, where flags stood at half-mast and black and white crepe hung over the entrance. “Here an immense crowd had assembled on the steps and in front of the building, awaiting the funeral cortege,” wrote The Sun.

Politicians, such as mayor Fernando Wood, paid their respects. Soon the public was allowed to enter, and over the next few hours 10,000 New Yorkers passed by the coffin that contained Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, 24, the first Union officer to be killed in the Civil War.

“Remember Ellsworth” was a popular rallying cry among Union supporters during the War Between the States. Today, Col. Ellsworth, who commanded a funeral cortege similar to that of Abraham Lincoln’s four years later, has largely been forgotten. Who was he, and why did the death of this young lawyer from upstate earn such an elaborate farewell in New York City?

Part of it had to do with his status as a dashing young law clerk and National Guard Cadet who took a job in the Springfield, Illinois office of future President Lincoln. “The young clerk and Lincoln became friends, and when the president-elect moved to Washington in 1861, Ellsworth accompanied him,” stated Smithsonian magazine.

Ellsworth also had a deep interest in military science. When President Lincoln put out the call for Union troops after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 launched the Civil War, he responded by “raising of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, which he dressed in distinctive Zouave-style uniforms, fashioned after those worn by French colonial troops,” according to the NPS.

The 11th New York Volunteers were also known as the First Fire Zouaves, since many members of this unit—with their distinctive flashy uniforms and billowy pants—were recruited from New York’s volunteer fire departments.

In May 1861, Ellsworth returned to Washington with his Fire Zouaves. On May 24, the unit went to Alexandria, Virginia to remove a large Confederate flag that had been flying from the roof of a hotel called Marshall House, which could be seen from the White House roof 10 miles away.

The next day, “Ellsworth succeeded in removing the flag, but as he descended the stairs from the building’s roof, the hotel’s owner, James W. Jackson, shot and killed Ellsworth with a single shotgun blast to the chest,” wrote the NPS.

Jackson, a “zealous defender of slavery,” Smithsonian magazine stated, was then shot to death by one of the fire zouaves, Cpl. Francis Brownell.

The death of Col. Ellsworth so shook President Lincoln, he reportedly said, according to a PBS.org article on Ellsworth, “My boy! My boy! Was it necessary this sacrifice should be made?” Before Col. Ellsworth’s body came New York’s City Hall, Lincoln had it lay in state at the White House.

Col. Ellsworth became something of a folk hero, his image and actions reproduced in lithographs and sheet music. His story stuck in New York City’s memory through the first half of the 20th century. In 1936, an Ellsworth memorial was dedicated in Greenwich Village: It’s the flagpole at Christopher Park, the triangle across from Sheridan Square. (Above, a marker on the flag pole.)

[First image: Billy Hathom/Wikipedia photo of a portrait; second image: whitehousehistory.org; third image: Currier & Ives lithograph/Wikipedia; fourth image: Musicology for Everyone; fifth image: Corbis via Smithsonian magazine; sixth image: The Historical Marker Database]

The 1911 New York fire that changed history

March 15, 2021

On the eighth floor of a women’s garment factory steps from Washington Square Park, a fire broke out in a wood bin filled with fabric scraps. It was about 4 pm on a Saturday, and the workday should have been ending.

Instead, the blaze grew, reaching the ninth and tenth floors of the factory. When workers tried to escape, they encountered locked doors. One fire escape collapsed to the ground under the weight of desperate employees.

Many of those trapped in the upper floors jumped to the sidewalk in front of horrified onlookers, others burned in the flames because firefighters’ ladders were too short to reach the windows. A total of 146 workers were killed in the fire of March 25, 1911—mostly young female immigrants.

As tragic as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was, the terrible toll had a profound effect in New York City—leading to stricter workplace safety laws and harsher legislation protecting workers. These new mandates had strong support from an outraged public, whose horror was reflected in piercing illustrations that appeared in newspapers for weeks.

This one above is by John Sloan, published in The Call. The illustrator of the second image is unknown, but that sure looks like the Asch Building, where the Triangle fire occurred.

A lethal hotel fire at the St. Patrick’s Day parade

March 8, 2021

When the Windsor Hotel was going up in the early 1870s, it was one of the modern new buildings transforming sleepy Fifth Avenue above 42nd Street into the “storied splendor of the future of New York City,” as the New York Times excitedly wrote at the time.

“The Windsor is to be a first class hotel in every respect, and not to be excelled in general arrangements, size of rooms, attendance and completeness by any establishment of the kind,” stated the Times in May 1872, in a glowing review of the plans for the 500-room, seven-story hotel, which was set to open a year later at Fifth and 47th Street.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Windsor. Not only was Fifth Avenue all the way up to 59th Street at Central Park booming during the Gilded Age, but hotel living was becoming a popular alternative to owning a single-family mansion for many wealthy New Yorkers.

Yet 26 years later, a carelessly tossed cigarette would reduce to hotel to smoldering rubble—and crowds lining Fifth Avenue to watch the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade (below, in 1904) found themselves witnesses to desperate hotel guests jumping to their deaths to escape the flames.

The fire started around 3 in the afternoon on March 17, 1899. A hotel guest reportedly lit his cigarette or cigar with a match in the second-floor parlor, then tossed the match out the window. But instead of falling to the street, the lit match was blown into a curtain. Almost instantly, the fire spread across the drapes and to the wall, according to the Times the day after the blaze.

The fire moved fast inside the hotel. But outside was a festive scene, with paraders “marching gayly up Fifth Avenue in front of the hotel, and thousands of people keeping time to the lilt of Irish tunes, while hundreds watched from the windows of the hotel the passing troops and waving flags,” the Times reported.

The head waiter at the Windsor, John Foy—who tried to stamp out the flames when they were still confined to the drapes—raced outside to the street yelling fire, but his cries were “drowned out by the music.” He tried to alert a policeman but was told to get back.

Finally the flames engulfed the second-floor parlor, and the smoke began to attract the attention of parade watchers before the fire exploded upward.

“Women turned pale and screamed, little ones shrank back sobbing, and men felt the sweat break upon their brows, as the heads of panic-stricken people protruded from the hotel windows…calling for help in tones that made the hearers sick,” the Times reported.

Guests trapped in their rooms had one escape route: they could climb out the window via the safety rope installed in every room—this is what passed for a fire safety exit at the time. But many people who started down the ropes ended up letting go because of the friction of the rough rope against their hands—and they subsequently plunged to the sidewalk, the Times wrote.

Firemen came to the scene quickly, but “milling thousands” of parade watchers prevented the firemen from getting inside the building easily. By the time they did, the Windsor ‘was blazing like an oil-soaked rag in a pitch barrel,” according to a Popular Science article that reexamined the fire in 1928.

The final death toll was estimated to be 86. Many of the bodies suffered so much trauma, they went unidentified and buried in an unmarked mass grave in Kensico cemetery in Westchester.

“The Windsor, although it was the most fashionable residence hotel in the city, was a veritable tinder box, ‘built to be burned,’ fire chief John Kenyon said, per Popular Science. “It has no fire escapes, no standpipes, no fire buckets. In short, it represented the worst type of the old-style ‘quick burner.'” Kenyon was a lieutenant at the time of the fire, but as FDNY chief in 1907 he was responsible for the first high-pressure hydrant system in the city.

This terrible tragedy loomed large for decades. It was even turned into a song—dedicated to Helen Gould, widow of financier/robber baron Jay Gould, who lived near the hotel and turned her “double house” mansion into a makeshift hospital to treat the injured. But over time, the Windsor receded in the city’s collective memory.

Yet there is a recent poignant twist to the story: In 2014, the unidentified victims who perished in the fire and were interred in Valhalla finally got a black granite monument to mark the mass grave. “They’re all unidentified and cemeteries are about memorialization,” Chet Day, Kensico’s president, told local paper lohud in 2014. “I felt something had to be done.”

[Top image: MCNY 91.69.15; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY X2010.11.9345; fifth image: MCNY X2010.11.9340; sixth image: MCNYX2010.11.9354; seventh image: MCNY X2010.11.9350; eighth image: Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection, Johns Hopkins University]

A 1904 eviction in a New York tenement district

January 25, 2021

Leave it to Everett Shinn, social realist Ashcan artist, to paint an eviction scene that gives viewers much more than just a portrait of a family thrown out of their tenement and onto the street.

In “Eviction (Lower East Side),” we see piles of rickety belongings, men carrying a trunk and what looks like a folded mattress down the building’s stairs. A crowd of onlookers—former neighbors?—watches the eviction, as does a cop, who appears to be standing guard, perhaps in case the crowd rushes to grab the family’s things.

It’s a ghastly scene of anonymous New Yorkers, one that’s part of the Smithsonian and can be seen via magnification here.

A teacher aids flu victims in a 1918 hospital ward

October 19, 2020

Influenza arrived in New York in August 1918, reportedly brought to the East Coast by ocean liners (though how the flu got here is still up for debate).

After the first cases were diagnosed, New York City’s health commissioner told the public, “the city is in no danger of an epidemic,” wrote Edward Robb Ellis in The Epic of New York City.

“He was wrong,” stated Ellis. In the next few months, the highly virulent and contagious disease dubbed the Spanish flu infected thousands of New Yorkers.

Residents safeguarded their health by wearing masks, hospitals were inundated with the sick, and volunteers were desperately needed to replace ill doctors and nurses.

Answering this call in 1918 was a young woman named Marion Lynch. At 23 she began traveling from her home in Darien, Connecticut to Manhattan to volunteer at Roosevelt Hospital on 59th Street and Ninth Avenue (below, in 1925), which had an influenza ward.

We don’t know exactly what motivated Lynch to volunteer at the hospital, and many of the details of her experience are unknown as well. (Lynch died in 1989 after a long career as a teacher in Rye, New York.)

But toward the end of her life, she began to jot down memories. One focused on what she saw at Roosevelt Hospital; it’s a small glimpse that reveals how dire conditions were.

“There must have been at least 15 beds on each side of the ward and the same on the long porch (perhaps more),” wrote Lynch. “There was no room for the dead. Blanket rooms and all available spaces were used.”

“There was such a shortage of blankets that patients were covered with paper instead, and that there was a horrifying rattling of the paper as they breathed,” Lynch reportedly told a cousin years later.

Lynch’s story came to me through her great nephew, an Ephemeral reader who thought his aunt’s diary snippet echoed what hospital workers saw in ERs across the city last spring, when New York was the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

What hospital workers witnessed in chaotic ERs several months ago will probably haunt them forever. What will they recall and write down about the coronavirus epidemic in New York City decades later?

[First, fourth, and fifth images: National Archives and Records Administration via Influenza Archive; second image courtesy of Dana Lynch; third image: MCNY 93.1.3.589]

New York City’s last unsolved murder of 9/11

September 7, 2020

Nineteen years ago on 9/11, a total of 2753 people were killed at the World Trade Center by Al Qaeda terrorists.

But one more person was murdered on that terrible day, shot to death on a dark Brooklyn street just before midnight.

Almost two decades later, amid yearly tributes to the victims at the World Trade Center, his death on a Bed-Stuy block is still unsolved.

The victim was Polish immigrant Henryk Siwiak, a 46-year-old father of two. Siwiak came to the United States 11 months earlier looking for work, according to a WNYC report from 2011.

Siwiak was staying near his sister in Far Rockaway. On the morning of 9/11, he arrived at the Lower Manhattan construction site where he had been working, but the site had closed due to the terrorist attacks.

“So he walked to Brooklyn and sometime later went to a Polish employment agency,” states WNYC. “There he was offered a job: to clean a Pathmark supermarket in Flatbush. The pay was around $10 an hour and he would start that same night.”

He went home to Queens and called his wife. “He borrowed a map from his landlady,” Siwiak’s wife, Ewa, later told WNYC. “I spoke to her later. She tried to stop him, told him it wasn’t a good neighborhood, it was not a good time to go there, and definitely not on that particular day.”

That night, Siwiak took an A train and got off at Utica Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which was unfortunately a long way from the supermarket.

Apparently trying to find the store, he ended up on Albany Avenue between Fulton and Decatur Streets (above right, the block in 2019).

At 11:45 pm, residents heard gunshots. Siwiak was hit in the chest. He made it up the stoop at 119 Decatur Street (above left, in 2011) and rang the doorbell before dying, the New York Times reported in 2011.

The gunman got away. Was it a robbery? Money in Siwiak’s pockets had not been taken, according to the Times.

“His widow has theorized that Siwiak was targeted in the aftermath of the attack because he looked Middle Eastern, with a dark complexion, and spoke with an accent,” states the Daily News article. “And she noted that her husband wore an army fatigue jacket and camouflage pants on the night he was blown away.”

To this day, police still have not said they have any leads. (At right, 119 Decatur Street in 2019)

His case remains cold, his death a mystery overshadowed by the horrors of 9/11 and memorialized by no one outside his family.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: Google 2019; third image: Todd Heisler/NYT; fourth image: Google 2019]

How NYC taught school during a lethal outbreak

August 17, 2020

School districts all over the country are facing a dilemma right now. Should they hold classes in school buildings—or keep schools closed, as they have been since the coronavirus pandemic began, and continue teaching kids at home via digital classes?

In the early 1900s, New York school and health officials faced a similar dilemma. So they came up with a novel way to teach kids safely under the threat of a lethal infection: they built outdoor and open-air classrooms on rooftops, in schoolyards, and even on ferryboats (above, 1908).

Pioneered in Germany in the early 1900s, fresh-air classrooms, as they were also known, were adopted by some New York City schools to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in the city’s crowded, airless school buildings.

Tuberculosis may not have been a full-fledged pandemic in New York at the time. But the “white plague,” also known as the “captain of the men of death,” was Gotham’s leading killer in 1900.

A cure for TB wasn’t developed until the 1940s. In the 1900s and 1910s, treatment meant fresh air and sunlight. Prevention efforts included public health campaigns against spitting and building apartments and hospitals that allowed for better ventilation and light.

A school for kids stricken with TB opened on a ferry docked at the East River (top photo) in 1908. Four more ferries and the Vanderbilt Clinic on 16th Street were also converted into classrooms, with students gathered around on chairs and a teacher leading lessons, according to the 1918 book, Open-Air Schools.

Thanks to their success, public health officials began thinking about using the same strategy to prevent infections in kids who might be predisposed to the disease because of their home environment or their own physical health. They also proposed that so-called “normal” pupils would benefit as well.

So in 1909, the city set aside $6500 for the construction of open-air classrooms, according to the New York Times on October 30 of that year.

An elementary school on Carmine Street began holding “open-window” classes, as did a grade school in Chelsea. In these and other public schools, “there is no supplementary feeding, no rest period, and no extra clothes provided,” Open-Air Schools explained. “The children wear their street wraps in cold weather.”

[At right: A student in an outdoor class on the Lower East Side, 1910]

Horace Mann, the private school then located in Morningside Heights, also launched open-air classes. The school built open classrooms on the roof, with windowed walls on three sides of each room. “Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary.”

Kindergartners were not spared from the open-air school idea (above). Young kids at Brooklyn’s Friends School were taught on the roof. “As yet the children are wearing their own coats and wraps, but later in the season we expect to have sitting-out bags…only in the really cold weather are the blankets to wrap up the smaller children used,” a November 5, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article stated, quoting a teacher.

In the coldest weather, some schools provided students with a new garment called a “parka,” or “fuzzy Eskimo suit,” as one Brooklyn school described them in a 1933 Brooklyn Times Union article (photo above).

Other cities across the country launched their own outdoor or open-air classrooms, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston.

The open-air school movement seems to have died down by the 1930s though, perhaps because TB wasn’t quite as feared, and a new scourge—polio—began causing panic, especially in the summertime when public pools opened.

Could New York City kids (and their teachers) handle open-air or outdoor classes today? Interestingly, according to the newspaper sources used in this post, parents did not have a problem with the open-air policy.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: LOC; third photo: MCNY, 90.13.4.66; fourth photo: MCNY 90.13.4.68; fifth photo: MCNY 90.13.2.36; sixth photo: LOC; seventh photo: Brooklyn Times Union; eighth photo: LOC]

The Midtown corner where the Draft Riots began

July 13, 2020

It’s the worst riot in New York City history, and it kicked off 157 years ago today.

On July 13, 1863, with the Civil War raging, the New York Draft Riots began: four days of mostly working-class Irish men marauded across the city—burning homes and buildings and targeting police, abolitionists, pro-war newspaper offices, and black residents, among others.

“By far the worst violence was reserved for African-American men, a number of whom were lynched or beaten to death with shocking brutality,” states History.com. An estimated 119 people were killed, and countless buildings destroyed.

Though the riots spread to parts of Brooklyn on the third day, most of the violence took place in Manhattan. The atrocities kicked off on this unassuming East Midtown corner at Third Avenue and 47th Street.

Why here? This is where the Ninth District provost marshal’s office was located. A new federal conscription law had been passed, and the names of all men in the district who were deemed eligible for military duty were entered into a lottery here. Those selected would be called up to serve.

The draft law was unpopular among working men. “The complaints—and the violence that followed—focused mainly on two exempted groups: the rich, who could pay $300 to escape the draft, and blacks, who were not considered citizens,” wrote the New York Times in 2017.

The first day of the lottery, Saturday, July 11, was peaceful. The second drawing, two days later on Monday morning, took a dark turn.

“Employees of the city’s railroads, shipyards, machine shops, and ironworks and hundreds of other laborers failed to show up for work,” stated Stephen D. Lut in an 2000 article in America’s Civil War, via historynet. “By 8 o’clock, the workers were streaming up Eighth and Ninth avenues, closing shops, factories, and construction sites and urging their workers to join them.”

“The procession congregated in Central Park for a brief meeting, then formed into two columns that marched to the Ninth District provost marshal’s office. They carried ‘NO DRAFT’ placards.”

As the lottery got underway, the crowd of about 500 outside threw stones and bricks at the windows, terrifying families who lived on the upper floors of the building, according to a Times article written the next day.

The crowd battled their way inside, destroyed paperwork, beat the deputy provost marshal, and fought off policemen who tried to quell the disorder.

A fire was lit—possibly by firemen who joined in the rioting—and the entire block was consumed, touching off bloodshed and destruction all across Manhattan. A month after the riots were finally stopped by 4,000 federal troops, the draft lottery process resumed.

[Second image: Digital Library of America; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: House Divided/Dickenson College]

A garden rises where a fireman died by arson

July 6, 2020

In 1977—with city coffers empty, crime rising, and residents fleeing at historically high rates—more than 13,000 New York City buildings were intentionally set on fire.

One of these arson fires happened on July 2 at 358 East Eighth Street, an abandoned tenement between Avenues C and D. The blaze, set with diesel oil, broke out on the fifth floor at about 3:10 pm.

Firefighters from Engine 15 saw the smoke while heading back to their station house on Pitt Street after responding to a false alarm. They detoured to the burning tenement to take on the four-alarm blaze, according to the New York Daily News on July 7, 1977.

With the firefighters on the fifth floor, the arsonist allegedly came back and set a second fire on a lower floor, reported the Daily News. (At right, the six-story building in 1940)

“When the new outburst of flames surged upward, the firemen crawled to a window where Ladder Company 11 had extended its cherry picker,” stated the Daily News.

One fireman made it to the cherry picker; three were overcome by smoke inhalation and had to be rescued inside.

Firefighter Martin Celic, 25, a Staten Island native who was to be married later that year, tried to get in the cherry picker. He tripped and fell 70 feet to the sidewalk.

Celic spent a week at Bellevue with massive head injuries before dying on July 10, his fiancee at his bedside.

A 17-year-old was arrested for setting the fire; he allegedly told officials that he did it to prevent winos and junkies from getting inside the building. In 1978 he was ordered to stand trial for arson and murder.

In 1978, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, admitting that he set the fire, according to the Daily News on July 7 of that year. He received 8-25 years.

This tragic story would be just a footnote of 1970s New York City history if not for the efforts of community members.

“Longtime neighborhood residents Ansley and Kelly Carnahan had begun gardening in the lot adjacent to the abandoned building in 1975,” states NYC Parks. “After the burnt-out building was condemned and torn down, the Carnahans and other local residents expanded their garden to the new lot.”

They named it the Firemen’s Garden (or Fireman’s Garden; it’s spelled both ways), “in honor of those who risk their lives daily in every borough and district,” continues NYC Parks. “Marty Celic’s family donated benches made of cedar and wrought iron.”

The garden became a nonprofit in 1989, then was transferred to the New York City Parks Department control in 1999. Shady, leafy, and with brick paths inside, it’s one of many firefighter tributes throughout the city.

For many New Yorkers, the Firemen’s Garden is a little off the beaten path. A “special ceremony is held in mid-July in remembrance of the sacrifices of all New York City firemen,” NYC Parks says, might be worth making the trek for.

[First and second photo: New York Daily News; third photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services]

The “Croton bug” infests 19th century New York

June 8, 2020

They began appearing in New York City in large numbers in the 1840s, and newspapers described them as “miserable pests,” the products of “slovenly housekeepers,” and “filthy and destructive insects.”

“Never in all New York’s history has such a plague of vermin visited us,” wrote an anonymous “apartment dweller” in The New York Times in 1921.

What was this hated creature?

The common house cockroach, which was dubbed the “Croton bug” and known by that misnomer throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The name comes from the Croton Aqueduct, which opened in 1842 (above, a celebration in City Hall Park) and brought fresh water from upstate to New York City residents.

The appearance of  these roaches (technically known as German cockroaches) in the city coincided with the advent of the Croton water system—leading New Yorkers to associate the bugs with Croton and blame the system for infesting Gotham.

The Croton aqueduct itself wasn’t to blame, but the water pipes installed in many homes to access the water was.

“The new water system not only supplied New York with cheap and abundant water, it also provided the cockroach with warm water pipes that were dank, dark conduits from apartment kitchen to apartment kitchen,” wrote John Leland in Aliens in the Backyard.

With Croton bugs popping up in kitchens across the city, efforts to get rid of them were introduced. Ads for poisons and powders filled newspapers. One doctor even advised that “stale beer” could kill them, as it’s “the cockroach’s favorite drink.”

Guides for housekeepers were also published. “Use pulverized borax, which they do not like,” one 1903 manual for servants advised. “Sprinkle it into their haunts, especially under and around sinks and stationary washstands.”

This manual went on to describe them “like Noah’s weary dove, seeking human companionship, or perhaps, still more like another scriptural type, going to and fro and walking up and down seeking something to devour….They do not leave town for the heated term.”

No, roaches don’t leave for the heated term, aka summer…in fact they apparently don’t leave New York at all, considering how many city residents still deal with them.

Perhaps changing their name back to “Croton bugs” will make them more endearing?

[Top image: science text 1915; second image: New York Daily Herald, 1852; third image: MCNY 0.13.4.154; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1908; fifth image: Evening World]