Archive for the ‘Lower Manhattan’ Category

The first confidence man was a New Yorker

August 29, 2016

Of course the first confidence man would perfect his scheme in Manhattan. New York was all about making money, a place where greed overtook common sense and hucksters found plenty of victims.

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One of those swindlers was a suave, 20-something man with dark hair named Samuel Thompson, who also went by the name of Samuel Willis, among other aliases.

Conman1872attackonaswindlerIn the booming, increasingly anonymous mid-19th century city, Thompson would approach a stranger who appeared to be well-off, pretend to know the man, and after a little conversation ask, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow,” explained the New-York Herald in July 1849.

“The stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing ‘confidence’ in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.”

After stealing from marks all of the city, Thompson was finally arrested in 1849; he mistakenly hit up a man who he already stole a watch from the year before.

Conmannytribune1855The press made a big deal out of Thompson’s arrest, dubbing him the “original confidence man” and taking a certain glee in the fact that so many New York fat cats fell for the ruse. One writer even proclaimed that the new breed of Capitalist business men were the real con men.

“Let him rot in ‘the Tombs,’ while the ‘Confidence Man on a large scale’ fattens, in his palace, on the blood and sweat of the green ones of the land!” argued a writer from Knickerbocker Magazine.

Thompson was convicted of grand larceny and spent a few years in Sing Sing, then apparently took off to ply his act around the country, though he ripped off another mark in New York in 1855, according to the New-York Tribune.

ConmanmelvillebookNaturally, all kinds of scammers began copying Thompson’s brilliant con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card monte.

Thompson even inspired Herman Melville, who published The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade in 1857, one of many Melville characters who originated in the headlines.

Hat tip to Jonathan from New York Local Tours for this entertaining bit of New York trivia, via the Crime in NYC tour.

[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery; second image: New-York Tribune 1855; third image: NYPL]

Taking a “century ride” with the city’s wheelmen

August 22, 2016

In the 1890s, huge numbers of New Yorkers donned new riding suits, bought or rented a bike, and took part in the cycling craze—peddling along park paths or roads newly paved with smooth asphalt.

Centuryridewilliamsburghwheelmen

Leisurely rides were fine for the masses. But for hardcore wheelmen (and sometimes wheelwomen) looking for a real challenge, nothing beat the exhilaration of a new kind of competition: the century ride.

CenturyrideticketA century ride clocked in at 100 miles. It wasn’t a race but a feat of personal endurance. Each rider had 14 hours to get from start to finish and prove their cycling prowess.

“Bicycling clubs were formed all over the city,” reminisced future governor Al Smith in his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now.

Centuryrideticketnj1895“You acquired full membership when you belonged to what was called the Century Club. That meant you had ridden 100 miles in a single day.”

Every neighborhood had a club, among them the Kings County Wheelmen (known as “scorchers” for their speed), the Riverside Wheelmen (bottom photo, 1888), and the Williamsburgh Wheelmen (top photo, in 1896).

Century rides were popular with young, athletic men. “With a number of young men from my neighborhood, I left Oliver and Madison Streets at nine o’clock on Sunday morning and wheeled to Far Rockaway,” wrote Smith.

Centuryridewhanderson1897“We went in swimming, had our dinner, and wheeled back.”

Century rides often went round trip from Brooklyn to Eastern Long Island, as the ticket at the top right shows.

Another ticket from of an 1895 century ride lists each stop on the route from New York City to New Brunswick and back.

Century rides still take place today, and they sound like a lot of (very exerting) fun.

But their heyday remains the turn of the 20th century, when safer, more accessible bikes hit the market just as leisure time began to rise and a trend toward physical fitness gained popularity.

Centuryclubriversidewheelmen

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverAnd street pavements improved—thanks to the invention of asphalt, which was put down on an increasing number of city roads that were once paved with blocks, stones, even wood.

The cycling craze wasn’t the only sports trend to hit New York in the 1890s. Baseball, tennis, boxing—find out more in Ephemeral New York’s upcoming book, The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top photo: MCNY, unknown photographer, 1896, accession number 49.300.7; second image: MCNY, 1897, in the Collection on Sports, accession number 49.300.14; third image: MCNY, 1897, in the Collection on Sports, accession number 49.300.16; fourth photo: W.H. Anderson, New York State Century Club winner; fifth photo: MCNY, Riverside Wheelmen Bicycle Club, 1888, X2010.11.13347]

Manhattan street names on tenement corners

August 12, 2016

If there’s an actual name for these cross streets carved or affixed to the corners of some city buildings, I don’t know what it is.

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But they’re fun to spot anyway. I’ve never seen one quite like this decorative sign on an otherwise unremarkable tenement at 169th Street and Broadway.

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Fancy, right? This one at Horatio and Washington Streets is also a notch above the usual corner address sign, which is typically carved into the facade in a plain font.

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A good example of the traditional style is this one below, worn and so faded it’s hard to see the letters, at Mott and Bleecker Streets.

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I’ve heard that these street signs are up high because they were meant to be seen from elevated trains. But there were no trains running on Mott and Bleecker, or Horatio and Washington.

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Or West End Avenue and 82nd Street, for that matter. This is a beauty of a sign that’s survived the elements on the circa-1895 facade of former Public School 9, now strangely called the Mickey Mantle School.

Some of my favorites are carved into tenements in the East Village. And of course, the loveliest in the city is at Hudson and Beach Streets.

1930s posters pleading for “planned housing”

August 8, 2016

Disease, fire, crime, infant mortality—could better housing conditions make a dent in these social and environmental problems plaguing Depression-era New York City?

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Fiorello La Guardia thought so. After taking office in 1934, Mayor La Guardia made what was gently called “slum clearance” a priority and argued that the “submerged middle class” needed better housing.

WPAposterjuveniledelinquency

Tear down the old, build up the new!” he thundered on his WNYC radio show. “Down with rotten antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels, down with disease, down with firetraps, let in the sun, let in the sky, a new day is dawning, a new life, a new America.”

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La Guardia wasn’t necessarily being melodramatic. Much of the housing stock for poor and working class residents in New York consisted of tenements that were shoddily built to accommodate thousands of newcomers in the second half of the 19th century.

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By the 1930s, many tenements were falling apart. And it’s safe to assume that not all of them adhered to the requirements of the Tenement Act of 1901, which mandated adequate ventilation and a bathroom in every apartment.

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To help make his case for housing improvement, La Guardia created the Mayor’s Poster Project, part of the Civil Works Administration (and later under the thumb of the WPA’s Federal Art Project).

LaguardiaradioArtists designed and produced posters that advocated for better housing—as well as other health and social issues, from eating right to getting checked for syphilis.

La Guardia achieved his goals. Under his administration, the first city public housing development, simply named the First Houses, began accepting families in today’s East Village in 1935.

The mayor—and his posters—set the stage for the boom in public housing that accelerated after World War II. Whether these developments helped ease the city’s social ills is still a contentious topic.

The Library of Congress has a worth-checking-out collection of hundreds of WPA posters from around the nation.

A grisly murder and a city society scion in 1841

August 1, 2016

ColtmmurdernysunportraitLike lots of lurid murder cases, this one involved a rotting body.

In late September 1841, a sailor on the Kalamazoo—
docked for days at Maiden Lane because rain kept it from heading to its destination, New Orleans—
noticed a rancid odor coming from a shipping crate.

When investigators opened the crate, a man’s decomposing corpse appeared. Officers knew who he was: a Gold Street printer named Samuel Adams, who had been reported missing about a week earlier.

ColtmurderfindingthebodyAnd with the help of the car man who brought the crate to the dock and the clerk who handled the shipping paperwork, officials also knew the killer: a bookkeeper named John C. Colt, who was already being held for the crime.

Colt wasn’t just any numbers cruncher. He was the brother of Samuel Colt, of Colt revolver fame, and the scion of a prominent New England family.

Colt was socially connected, “of fine personal appearance,” wrote the New York Times, and an instant media magnate in a city already transfixed by the Mary Rodgers “Beautiful Cigar Girl” slaying.

ColtmurderhatcetnyplFittingly for a bookkeeper, Colt committed his crime during a fight about money. In his office at Broadway and Chambers Street on September 17, Adams had come to see Colt about money Colt owed him for printing Colt’s bookkeeping textbook.

The argument turned physical. After a struggle, Colt bashed Adams’ skull with a hatchet.

Colt confessed it all: how he scrubbed away bloody evidence, his plan to ship Adams’ body out of the city, and the grisly murder itself.

Coltmurdertombs1896“I then sat down, for I felt weak and sick. After sitting a few minutes, and seeing so much blood, I think I went and looked at poor Adams, who breathed quite loud for several minutes, then threw his arms out and was silent,” he confessed, according to the website Murder by Gaslight.

“I recollect at this time taking him by the hand, which seemed lifeless, and a horrid thrill came over me, that I had killed him.”

A famous family with a gruesome death made for a sensational trial.

Despite arguing that he killed in self-defense and that temporary insanity led him to try to ship Adams’ body, Colt was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging in the Tombs (right, in 1896).

ColtmurdertombshanginggallowsYet the story doesn’t end with a hanging. On November 18, Colt’s execution date, a fire raced through the Tombs. After the blaze was put out, Colt’s hanging was to go on. But a clergyman found him dead in his cell, a dagger in his heart.

Rumors swirled: was the fire set, and did Colt escape?

What really happened to Colt was such a topic of discussion, it’s even referenced in Bartleby the Scrivener, New York native Herman Melville’s 1853 short story about a Wall Street clerk who “would prefer not to.”

[Images: New York Sun; NYPL; Getty Images]

A desperate appeal to save the city’s sick babies

July 25, 2016

In 1911, a card went out to city residents asking for donations to help fund a precious commodity.

Over a thousand “little white hearses passed through the streets of New York City in two weeks last summer,” the card read. “One-eighth of the 123,433 little ones born during the year . . . died under 12 months.”

Milkcommitteeappealpage1

One of the causes of this appalling infant mortality rate? A lack of access to clean, fresh milk among New York’s poorest families.

Milk in the 19th century had a deservedly bad reputation, with much of New York’s supply coming from “‘swill’ milk stables attached to breweries and distilleries in the city,” explains this post.

Milkcommitteepage2

“The cows in these stables ate the leftover grains from the fermentation process in the brewery or distillery. Unfortunately, the milk produced from these stables was very low quality and often full of bacteria. Even milk brought to the city from the country was often adulterated with water and carrying bacteria.”

With the rise of pasteurization, officials began touting milk as a healthy part of a child’s diet. There were still a lot of bad, or “loose” milk for sale at corner groceries though.

Milkstationconsultationday

Sp safe milk stations went up around the city (above). Some were funded by individual philanthropists; the dairies in Central and Prospects Parks were built to offer clean milk.

Other milk depots were run by the New York Milk Committee—which also sent nurses into poor families’ homes to help spread the word about hygiene and good nutrition.

Were they successful? In the summer of 1911, the Committee sold an average of 3,800 quarts of milk a day through its depots at below cost, serving 5,000 babies and attracting twice as many mothers as expected.

[Many thanks to the New York Academy of Medicine Library, which has this card and more in its Milk Committee Ephemera Collection]

The globe and quill in the Meatpacking District

July 14, 2016

Who would build the headquarters of a publishing company on far West 13th Street at the turn of the century—amid the warehouses and cold storage spaces of what was then the center of New York’s produce, meat, and dairy markets?

Colliersbuildingglassdoor

Peter Collier did. Collier was the founder of popular Collier’s magazine, which covered “fiction, fact, sensation, wit, humor, and news” and ran some noteworthy authors (Hemingway, Fitzgerald) and groundbreaking muckraking pieces too.

Collierscover1921Collier put his company offices and printing plant (he published books too) in this neoclassical building at 416-424 West 13th Street, constructed from 1901 to 1902.

West 13th Street here was Astor-owned land, and Collier’s son was married to an Astor daughter.

In the 1920s, 700 people worked in the company headquarters (including e.e. cummings), cranking out thousands of books and periodicals a day.

But the Collier company decamped from the building in 1929. It did turns as a General Electric warehouse, girdle factory, and moving company home base.

Collierslogo

More than a century later, in the revived and revamped Meatpacking District, Collier’s stately and inspiring globe logo, flanked by a quill pen and fountain pen and topped by a torch, represent a very different West 13th Street.

[Top image: Glassdoor.com]

The magical colors of a New York sky at twilight

July 11, 2016

I haven’t been able to find out very much about Edward Willis Redfield, the Impressionist painter behind these three scenes of the city as it slips from day to night.

[“Lower New York,” 1910]

Lowernewyorkredfield1910

Born in 1869 in Delaware, he studied in Philadelphia and Paris during the Gilded Age and after the turn of the century gained fame for his landscapes of rural Pennsylvania and Maine.

[“Brooklyn Bridge at Night,” 1909]

Brooklynbridgeatnightredfield1909

Redfield spent some time in New York City around 1909. What comes across in these three paintings from his time in the city is a deep enchantment with the landscape of Lower Manhattan at twilight.

Betweendaylightanddarknessredfield

[“Between Daylight and Darkness,” undated]

His depictions of the twinkling lights of the city under the dreamy, magical colors found only at the mysterious time when evening chases away the day are beguiling.

The best place for swimming in the East River

June 27, 2016

Swim in the East River? Without a wet suit, no adult would do it today, let alone allow their child to take a dip there.

eastriverswimfultonfishmarket

Yet even after the river became the dumping ground of the city’s untreated sewage, lots of people cooled off in its bracing, choppy waters.

Perhaps no group of New Yorkers relied on the river during the hot summer months more than poor tenement kids, who often faced overcrowded public swimming and bathing facilities or preferred the freedom of diving off a city pier with their pals.

Eastriverswim1910

One of those tenement kids was Alfred E. Smith (below, in 1877), future governor of 1920s New York. In his 1929 autobiography, Up to Now, he reminisced about his boyhood summer days in the river.

Eastriverswimalsmith1877age4coneyisland“The East River was the place for swimming, and as early as April and as late as October the refreshing waters of the East River, free entirely at that time from pollution, offered the small boy all the joys that now come to the winter or summer bather on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean,” he wrote.

Smith was born in 1873 in a house on South Street. His river swimming days were in the 1870s and 1880s.

“The dressing rooms were under the dock. Bathing suits were not heard of,” stated Smith.

“In fact, it would have been dangerous to suggest them, for fear you might be accused of setting a fashion that everybody else could not follow.”

EastriverpikeslipsignThat explains not only the many photos that exist from the era of unclothed boys jumping into the river but also George Bellows’ famous 1907 painting, 42 Kids.

“The popular swimming place was the dock at the foot of Pike Street, built well into the river, and there was a rather good-natured caretaker who paid no attention to small boys seeking the pleasure and recreation of swimming in the East River.”

Pike Slip (but no dock) still exists—almost entirely in the grimy shadow of the Manhattan Bridge.

“In the warm summer days it was great fun sliding under the dock while the men were unloading the boatloads of bananas from Central America,” wrote Smith.

Eastriverboysswimmingatrutgersslipbain1912

“An occasional overripe banana would drop from the green bunch being handed from one dock laborer to another, and the short space between the dock and the boat contained room enough for at least a dozen of us to dive after the banana.”

Eastriverswim1937

[Top image: New-York Historical Society; second and fourth images: 1910 and 1912, George Bain/LOC; fifth image: from 1937, via Stuff Nobody Cares About]

The magic of old Cooper Square by moonlight

June 2, 2016

Here is a moonlit Cooper Square under a starry sky looking north around 1905.

It’s not a square but a triangular park, a juncture of elevated train routes and avenues, a place where old neighborhood boundaries shifted (like the early 19th century Bowery Village) and new ones (Noho, anyone?) popped up.

Coopersquareatnight2

It’s a carnival of history. On the right are modest Federal-style homes with dormer windows, built in the 1820s. Cooper Union’s 1858 Great Hall hosted presidential hopefuls going back to Abraham Lincoln.

A sketchier, pre-boutique hotel Cooper Square in late 1980s was also the site of a peddlers’ market of sorts, where the desperate put out anything they could find (or steal) for sale in an empty parking lot.


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