Posts Tagged ‘” Gilded Age New York City’

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]

East 26th Street: New York’s “Misery Lane”

December 12, 2016

It was in a part of Manhattan, at the edge of a poor neighborhood of tenements and groggeries, where no one wanted to end up.

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But thousands of city residents did found themselves on Misery Lane, as the short stretch of East 26th Street between First Avenue and the East River was known in the turn-of-the-century city.

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This block was a dumping ground for the sick, alcoholic, and mentally ill, who sought treatment at Bellevue Hospital, which bordered East 26th Street (above).

Some New Yorkers had a sense of humor about it, as this rhyme from a 1917 medical magazine demonstrates:

miserylane19142T.B., aneurysm, and gin-drinker’s liver;
Tabetics, paretics, plain drunk, and insane;
First Avenue’s one end, the other’s the river;
Twenty-sixth Street between they call Misery Lane!

Criminals showed up on Misery Lane as well.

Men and women convicted of a range of crimes were deposited via police wagon on a dock known as Charities Pier at the end of East 26th Street (below).

From there, they were ferried to the workhouse and penitentiary across the East River to Blackwell’s Island to serve their time.

miserylanenypl1899

The poor also stood in line at Charities Pier. Unable to afford rent, food, coal, and other necessities, their last resort was the Blackwell’s Island almshouse.

Misery Lane was the site of the Municipal Lodging House, built in 1909 to house mostly homeless, often derelict men (top and second photos), but also women and children.

trianglefireoutsidemorgueWith the city morgue on 26th Street as well, Misery Lane was the last place New York’s unknown dead went before being interred in the potter’s field on Hart Island.

And when mass tragedy struck the city, Misery Lane was involved as well.

Bodies found after the General Slocum disaster were brought here to be identified—as were the horribly burned corpses of Triangle Fire victims (above right).

Misery Lane is long gone, of course.

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Today, 26th Street ends not at a charity-run pier but with a lovely view of the deceptively placid river . . . all the way to Blackwell’s, er, Roosevelt Island (above).

[Top and third photos: NYC Municipal Archives; second and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: LOC/Bain Collection]

A Gilded Age writer’s home is now a Starbucks

November 27, 2014

I wonder what Edith Wharton would say about the Starbucks that occupies the ground floor of her former childhood home at 14 West 23rd Street, just off Fifth Avenue?

Edithwhartonhome

Wharton, beloved by many New Yorkers, was the witty, perceptive writer who chronicled the city’s Gilded Age and early 20th century upper crust society.

EdithwhartonyoungportraitShe noticed manners and morals, and though a coffee chain like Starbucks probably wouldn’t have been her stomping ground, she might have had some sharp insight into why some New Yorkers flock to the place, while others revile it.

Her thoughts about Starbucks can never be known, but she did pen a lovely third-person description of Fifth Avenue in the 1860s.

That’s when young Edith Jones (left) lived in what was then a new brownstone (below, on the right, in the 1880s) in the fashionable Madison Square neighborhood.

Edithwhartonhome1880picturehistory“The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Avenue; the old Fifth Avenue with its double line of low brown-stone houses, of a desperate uniformity of style, broken only—and surprisingly—by two equally unexpected features: the fenced-in plot of ground where the old Miss Kennedys’ cows were pastured, and the truncated Egyptian pyramid which so strangely served as a reservoir for New York’s water supply,” Wharton wrote in 1934’s A Backward Glance.

Edithwhartonportrait“The Fifth Avenue of that day was a placid and uneventful thoroughfare along which genteel landaus, broughams, and victorias, and more countrified vehicles of the ‘carryall’ and ‘surrey’ type, moved up and down at decent intervals and a decorous pace.”

Wharton’s family left the home in the 1870s; it was extensively remodeled, with a cast-iron front added, and barely resembles the stately brownstone it once was.

But down the block are a few brownstones that still maintain parts of their original facade. The New York Times has a piece from a few years’ back on the history of 14 West 23rd Street.

[Third photo: Picture History via The New York Times]

The front page of the Sunday paper in 1896

February 3, 2014

At 40 pages with a color cover, the Sunday Journal in the late 19th century was quite impressive.

Sundayjournalfrontpage

What I love about it, besides the cyclist in her winter riding outfit, are the headlines: “The Death Traps of New York,” “Smallest Baby in the World,” something about a millionaire’s house—it’s the same sensationalist copy peddled in print and online these days.

The 10-page pullout from the Patriarch’s Ball rounds it out. The Patriarch’s Ball was an annual party for the cream of the crop of New York’s social scene . . . the same kind of celebrity event given wall to wall media coverage today.

The wildly ornate lobby inside a budget hotel

December 6, 2010

From the outside, the Hotel Wolcott, at 4 East 31st Street, isn’t anything extraordinary.

Sure, this discount hotel has a lovely Beaux-Arts exterior, mostly obscured by scaffolding these days. But so do many other buildings nearby.

Still, if you head past the no-frills entrance and look up at the lobby ceiling . . . wow!

It’s a Louis XVI–style time machine, with an ornate high ceiling, mirrored panels, stained glass, marble pillars, and incredible chandeliers.

All this ornamentation reflects the Hotel Wolcott’s early days as a luxurious residence for the rich in Gilded Age New York.

Built in 1904, guests included Edith Wharton, and the hotel is frequently mentioned in society columns of the era.

It’s not everyone’s style, but the ceiling is incredibly preserved. A copy of the hotel’s brochure from 1904 is available on its website.

The ladies who watch over Ladies’ Mile

April 18, 2010

A row of six life-size caryatids—decorating the facade of stately 118 Fifth Avenue—peer out at the street below.

When 118 Fifth was built, these female figures would spend their days watching other females.

Fifth Avenue at the time was part of Ladies’ Mile, the premier shopping district for Gilded Age New York women.

Lavish department stores such as B. Altman, Siegel Cooper, and Arnold Constable catered to the desires of these rich wives and mothers, who arrived in elegant carriages looking for the latest fashions and furnishings.

With so many shoppers and shopkeepers concentrated between Broadway and Sixth Avenue south of 23rd Street, it was safe for women to shop unaccompanied, which they did here until the Depression, when opulent stores moved northward.

Since the 1990s, Ladies Mile has had its comeback. But does anyone notice these figures above them?

Why did thieves dig up this New Yorker’s corpse?

April 2, 2010

When he died in 1876, department-store magnate Alexander Turney Stewart was one of the wealthiest men in New York City.

He opened a succession of dry-goods stores in Lower Manhattan beginning in the 1820s.

But it was his “iron palace” at Broadway and 10th Street (in photo), the first store to have dozens of departments, that made him rich and renowned.

Which must be why greedy thieves decided to dig up his body two years after he was interred in a family vault at St. Marks in the Bouwerie and hold it for ransom.

This couldn’t have been easy. The vault, covered by a stone slab, was several feet in the ground.

 

 

Once the robbers removed another slab and entered the 15 foot–long vault, they still had to open the casket carry out the decomposed body.

The ghoulish crime netted the corpse-nappers $20,000 from Stewart’s widow, who then reburied her husband on Long Island.

The A.T. Stewart store was taken over by Wanamaker’s in the 1890s. Today, it’s the site of a massive apartment building called Stewart House.

“Knocking around” Manhattan with O. Henry

March 19, 2010

Short story master (and convicted embezzler) William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry, arrived in New York City in 1902 like so many other writers—to be near the publishing business and really make it big.

And like struggling writers still do, he spent time walking around, laying low in odd corners and quarters of the city.

“When I first came to New York I spent a great deal of time knocking around the streets,” he told The New York Times in 1909.

“I used to walk at all hours of the day and night along the river fronts, through Hell’s Kitchen, down the Bowery, dropping into all manner of places, and talking to anyone who would hold converse with me.”

And though he’s most closely associated with Pete’s Tavern, the 146-year-old bar on Irving Place down the street from his apartment at the time, he credits his “knocking around” with providing great story material:

“If you have the right kind of eye—the kind that can disregard high hats, cutaway coats, and trolley cars—you can see all the characters in Arabian Nights parading up and down Broadway at midday,” he said.

Yes, the awning on the side of Pete’s Tavern, above, really does say “The Tavern O. Henry Made Famous.”

“A Winter Wedding—Washington Square”

January 7, 2010

Painter Fernand Lungren captures wedding guests, coachmen, and passersby at dusk in the snow on genteel Washington Square North in 1897.

Like so many other New York artists, Lungren supported himself doing illustrations for popular magazines—such as Century and McClure’s.

Hard to believe, but at the time he painted this scene, the marble Washington Arch was only five years old!