Posts Tagged ‘Civil War New York City’

A boy remembers New Year’s calling in the 1860s

December 31, 2017

The tradition—a carryover from colonial New Amsterdam—died out with gaslights and elevated trains.

But going “calling” on New Year’s Day was still in full swing in the 1860s, as sculptor James E. Kelly remembers in his memoir of later 19th century New York, Tell Me of Lincoln.

“There was great preparation on all sides for calling and receiving on New Year’s Day,” recalled Kelly. “Parties were made up and lists prepared. Those who had money hired a coach or sleigh, while others less fortunate footed it.”

Kelly lived with his middle-class parents in the West 50s off Eighth Avenue. He and his pals hoofed it on January 1 to the homes of neighbor girls, who waited to receive callers in a very gender-specific and competitive ritual.

“Girls prepared all sorts of refreshments and vied with each other with the number of callers. . . . “Small boys ran from store to store bursting in with yells: ‘Wish you a happy New Year, what are you going to give us?’ The streets were filled with cutters and sleighs with jingle bells—it was joy inspiring.”

“After church, two or three of my friends would gather at my house, and well primed with cake, coffee, or lemonade, we would start out for the day visiting our neighbors and gradually extending our circle.”

“The glow and tingle of the walk was heightened by the gust of warm spice-laden air that greeted us, and as our pretty little girl schoolmates received us at the doors in all their holiday finery.”

“We lined up on the sofa, and they overwhelmed us with  the embarrassment of riches: oranges, cake, apples, lemonade, coffee, doughnuts, raisins, and spice New Year’s cake, etc.”

Kelly and his chums were adolescents, so mingling with girls meant lots of awkwardness—with the girls giggling and tugging at their short dresses and the boys spilling drinks. We “would whack or punch each other on the knees, till we finally mustered up the courage to bid a happy New Year and start for the next house.”

For slightly older men and women, calling served as a socially acceptable way for the sexes to meet and greet and potentially find a match.

“New Year’s morning, with shutters closed, and blinds drawn down, gas lighted, the young ladies prepared to receive their guests. All seemed to reflect the glow and color of the pendant prisms on the chandeliers and candelabra.”

“The girls in full dress with flowers in their hair, clustered around a long table. Its glistening silver coffee urn, liquors, etc., with the usual turkey and other substantial things, which they served to the groups of merry friends who had driven up in their cutters.”

“Among those who received special attention were some young veteran soldiers, whose empty sleeves gave the girls an excuse to hover around and serve them.”

“Most of the guests seemed anxious to make a record for the number of calls they made—as the girls were anxious as to the number of calls they received by counting their visiting cards—but others evidently came to stay judging from the way they clustered around the beautiful young girls.

“One sang by request the then popular song, “Ever of Thee,” while a taller and fairer on accompanied her lightly on the harp.”

Kelly also recalls the demise of calling. “As years went on, some exclusive [families] used to hang out baskets on the door knob to receive cards from the pilgrims of friendship.”

“This sort of frigid acknowledgment soon killed the enthusiasm, and after a few seasons, the joys of New Years calling were no more.”

Now for a little girl’s version of the holiday, here’s an excerpt from an 1850 diary. Want to revive the tradition? Join guests at the Merchant House Museum on January 1.

A lynching on a Greenwich Village street in 1863

January 14, 2013

ClarksonstreetsignAt 6 p.m. on the hot evening of July 13, 1863, William Jones, an African-American cartman, left his Clarkson Street home to buy a loaf of bread.

He couldn’t have known that a vicious mob enraged by the Civil War had begun a five-day rampage known as the Draft Riots. And Jones was right in their path.

The rioters were mostly working-class Irish immigrants. They were angry about a federal draft law that conscripted poor men while allowing their wealthier counterparts to buy their way out of the army. And they feared newly freed blacks would come to New York and take their jobs.

That morning, after destroying a draft office at Third Avenue and 47th Street, crowds of rioters dispersed around Manhattan.

Clarksonstreetlynching

They burned the homes of draft supporters, destroyed train tracks, beat wealthy residents, torched and looted the Brooks Brothers store, and attacked police and soldiers.

Their rage was directed especially toward black New Yorkers: they set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Eighth Avenue and 44th Street, killed a black coachman on West 27th Street, and chased three black men who happened to be walking down Varick Street.

Clarksonstreetlynchingharpers2Those three got away. That’s when the mob targeted Jones.

“A crowd of rioters in Clarkson Street . . . met an inoffensive colored man returning from a bakery with a loaf of bread under his arm,” states an 1863 police report about the Draft Riots.

“They instantly set upon and beat him, and after nearly killing him, hung him to a lamp-post. His body was left suspended for several hours. A fire was made underneath him, and he was literally roasted as he hung, the mob reveling in their demonic act.”

A total of 119 people were killed; an estimated 11 of those were black. Finally on July 16, 6,000 soldiers hit the streets, and things went back to normal.

The city’s black residents did not. Twenty percent left the city for good.

[above: an illustration from the NYPL]

When dog vs. rat fights entertained the city

February 3, 2011

New York after the Civil War had a feral edge.

Amid the poverty, crime, and gangs that packed the Bowery, Five Points, and waterfront districts, a brutal pastime reached new heights in popularity: rat-baiting—pitting a terrier against a rat until they fought to the death.

And no dive was more famous for its rat-baiting than Kit Burns’ Sportsmen’s Hall at 273 Water Street (illustrated at right and below).

“The pits, at Kit Burns’ and elsewhere, were uscreened boxes, with zinc-lined wooden walls eight feet long and four and a half feet high,” wrote Luc Sante in his must-read account of 19th century Bowery, Low Life.

“Matches typically drew no fewer than one hundred betting spectators, from all walks of life, with purses starting at $125. A good rat dog could kill a hundred rats in half an hour to forty-five minutes….”

But not all New Yorkers considered rat-baiting morally okay.

A New York Times article about 273 Water Street (now luxury apartments, of course) quoted Edward Winslow Martin’s 1868 The Secrets of the Great City:

“Most of our readers have witnessed a dog fight in the streets. Let them imagine the animals surrounded by a crowd of brutal wretches whose conduct stamps them as beneath the struggling beasts, and they will have a fair idea of the scene at Kit Burns.”’

The sport died out by the 20th century, thanks to the new ASPCA.