Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 19th Century’

A 19th century mayor’s fascinating social diary

December 17, 2018

Philip Hone served as New York’s mayor only from 1826 to 1827.

But Hone—the son of a carpenter who made a fortune in the auction business as a young man—spent the next two decades serving the city in another way.

From 1828 to his death in 1851, Hone kept a diary (free to access) chronicling the political and social changes of the growing metropolis.

His diary offers a fascinating glimpse of the daily life of New York filtered through the mind of a reflective writer, whose thoughts about culture and politics echo some of the same conversations we continue to have today.

“The old custom of visiting on New Year’s Day, and the happy greetings which have so long been given on that occasion, have been well kept up this year,” Hone wrote January 2, 1831.

“I am glad of it; few of those good old customs remain which mark the overflow of unsophisticated good feeling, and I rejoice whenever I can recognize any part of the wreck which the innovations of fashion have left afloat.”

The same year, he also noted the city’s “new University”—today’s NYU (above, in 1850)—and dined often with friends like Washington Irving at the Washington Hotel, at the southern tip of Broadway.

In 1836 he marked the one-year anniversary of the “great fire”—an 1835 blaze that destroyed much of downtown (left). “To the honor of the merchants, and as an evidence of the prosperity of the city, the whole is rebuilt with more splendor than before.”

Hone noted a party he went to in a mansion lighted by gas, when most homes were lit by candlelight. The gas “gave out suddenly in the midst of a cotillion; this accident occasioned great merriment to the company, and some embarrassment to the host and hostess, but a fresh supply of gas was obtained, and in short time the fair dancers were again ‘tripping it on the light fantastic toe.'”

The financial ruin brought on by the Panic of 1837 didn’t change Hone’s circumstances, but their effects were seen across the city. “No goods are selling, no business stirring, no boxes encumber the sidewalks of Pearl Street….”

Hone was a regular theater-goer, and he wrote about opening night at a new venue. “The National is the prettiest theatre in the United States; but it is not Broadway, and the New Yorkers are the strangest people in the world for their predilection for fashionable locations.” (at left, when it was destroyed in 1839.)

Before moving to Broadway and Great Jones Street, he lived in a townhouse on Broadway opposite City Hall next to the American Hotel (below). He worshipped at Trinity Church.

On Good Friday 1839 he wrote, “I went, as usual, to church this morning, and afterward into Wall Street [at right, in 1846], where the din of business drowns the sound of the bell’s invitation to worship, and the gravity of devotion is put out of countenance by the restless, anxious looks of speculative men of ‘this world.'”

Hone, a Whig, wrote about the politicians of the day; his dining partners included John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren (left, in 1828). He noted a reception held for the arrival of Henry Clay.

Hone also wrote of “the Irish and other foreigners” and other “discontented men” for fomenting labor troubles on the wharves in 1836.

He recorded the names of steamships that crossed the Atlantic; an amazing feat in his day and even toured ships when they were docked at the Battery or North River.

He took excursions to the country suburb of Hoboken, dined at friends’ estates in Manhattanville, West Farms in the Bronx, and Flushing. He and his adored wife and children went to many “fancy balls.”

While having dinner at his home with William Astor and other distinguished New Yorkers in December 1838, he experienced something sadly common in the city at the time.

The doorbell rang, and an abandoned infant with its name pinned to its gown was at the doorstep. Hone described the baby as probably a week old and “one of the sweetest babies I ever saw.”

“It did not cry during the time we had it but lay in a placid, dozing state, and occasionally, on the approach of the light, opened its little, sparkling eyes, and seemed satisfied with the company into which it had been strangely introduced,” wrote Hone.

“Poor little innocent—abandoned by its natural protector, and thrown at its entrance into life upon the sympathy of a selfish world….” Hone wrote that he thought about taking the child into his own home, but his dinner guests convinced him otherwise, and the “little wanderer” was brought to the city almshouse.

This part of Hone’s diary brings me to tears. But the horrible tragedy of infant abandonment touched Hone (at left, near the end of his life) enough to include it in his diary, so I included it here too.

[All images: NYPL Digital Collections]

The doctor’s summer home on West 94th Street

June 4, 2018

Today, the rich and distinguished summer in the Hamptons. In the mid-1800s, they summered on the Upper West Side.

The “delightful palazzo” above was the summer mansion of Dr. Valentine Mott, the most prominent physician in 19th century New York—a pioneer of heart surgery who at the age of 75 helped Civil War battlefield hospitals implement anesthesia.

His year-round residence was on fashionable Gramercy Park. But when summer hit, he hightailed it to today’s West 94th Street and the former Bloomingdale Road.

Built in 1855, the country house “was at almost the farthest reach for summer residences away from the city,” according to Old New York in Early Photographs.

Today, the house would be smack in the middle of Broadway. Back then, this was the country; the Upper West Side as we know it today was a collection of estates and small villages in the mid-1800s, like Harsenville and Strycker’s Bay.

Dr. Mott died here in 1865—but his summer house lives on in a photo taken by French-born New York photographer Victor Prevost the year the house was built.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second photo: Wikipedia

A streetcar, a drunk, a fight, and murder in 1871

April 17, 2017

Every few years a shocking murder occurs in New York, one that overwhelms the city’s attention and provokes fear and outrage about the randomness of urban crime.

The “Car-Hook Tragedy” of 1871 was one of those murders.

It happened on the evening of April 26. Avery Putnam (below), by all accounts a mild-mannered Pearl Street merchant, was escorting a dressmaker family friend identified as Madam Duval to the Church of the Advent at 55 West 46th Street.

Madam Duval’s younger daughter was at the church singing in the choir. Putnam was taking Duval and her older daughter, 16-year-old Jenny, to the performance from their home on Broadway and Ninth Street.

The three boarded an uptown streetcar at University Place. The main form of public transportation at a time when elevated trains were still in infancy, streetcars were pulled by horses along steel tracks embedded in the street.

For a nickel fare, passengers could expect a sometimes noisy, smelly, bumpy ride — an increasingly in the Gilded Age, crime.

The streetcar carrying the three traveled up Broadway. At about 29th Street — as it passed the then-new Gilsey House (right), a hotel and now an apartment house still standing today — Jennie went on the car’s outside platform to look at the clock.

At that moment, a drunk, recently fired conductor named William Foster (below left) leered at Jenny, and then her mother, “in a most offensive manner,” reported the New-York Tribune.

Only a few other passengers were in the car. Putnam had words with Foster, asking him to leave the women alone. Foster began cursing him out, declaring that he would “fix [Putnam] when he got off.”

At 46th Street and Seventh Avenue, Putnam and the Duvals left the streetcar. True to his word, Foster followed behind them with a car-hook (an iron tool conductors used) and bashed Putnam over the head with it.

The merchant was left mortally wounded in the street, the Duvals shrieking in horror. He died at St. Luke’s Hospital two days later.

The savagery of the murder was rivaled by the callousness of passersby.

“None of the passers-by stopped to assist the ladies in dragging the body of their unfortunate friend to the sidewalk, out of the way of a down car, which was rapidly approaching,” wrote Harper’s Weekly.

Foster, a hulking New York native had a previous job working for Boss Tweed, was arrested and arraigned on murder charges. “Foster had very little to offer in his own defense,” states Murder by Gaslight.

“There had been several witnesses to the murder in addition to Madam Duval and her daughter, and at the time of his arrest, Foster admitted to the crime. He denied that the murder was premeditated and claimed he was too drunk to know what he was doing.”

As Foster himself put it: “Drink had crazed my brain, and to that cursed demon . . . I render thanks for the position I now occupy.”

Prosecutors, however, said the murder was premeditated, in part because Foster forced the driver to give him the car-hook four blocks before Putnam left the streetcar.

At his trial in May, the jury found him guilty, and Foster was sentenced to hang in the Tombs.

The focus of the car-hook tragedy now turned to Foster’s sentence. Many New Yorkers supported it; others felt he deserved mercy, as he was a husband and father.

There were also allegations that Foster’s wealthy father and friends tried to bribe Madam Duval to ask the governor to pardon the killer.

Foster got several reprieves. But in the end, he died for his crime, in front of 300 witnesses in the yard inside the Tombs (right).

[Top photo: typical streetcar in 1872, Alamy; second photo: Harper’s Weekly; fourth photo: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy; fifth photo: New York Times headline; sixth and seventh photos: “The ‘Car-Hook’ Tragedy]

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.

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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.

miserylane2016

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]

Stand here and feel the ghosts of Five Points

October 3, 2016

Let us “plunge into the Five Points,” wrote Charles Dickens in American Notes, after his disagreeable 1842 trip to New York, when he toured New York’s shocking and notorious slum.

fivepointsgeorgecatlin1827

“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere of dirt and filth. . . . Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotting beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”

fivepoints1853map

New Yorkers at the time wouldn’t take issue with Dickens’ description. But more than a century after Five Points was wiped off the map thanks to late Gilded Age progressive ideals that fostered slum clearance and new development, where exactly was it?

5pointsstreetsignThe corner of Baxter and Worth Streets south of Columbus Park in Chinatown is the best modern-day approximation.

Five points formed roughly a five-point intersection at the juncture of four streets (see above 1853 map): Anthony, Orange, Cross, and Little Water Street to the north. Now, Anthony is Worth Street, Orange is Baxter Street, and Cross is Mosco Street—cut off from the others when the park was built in 1897. (Little Water was obliterated altogether.)

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New York often succeeds at burying the remains of its past. Standing at the corner of Worth and Baxter, beside the bustling park and contemporary courthouse complexes, it’s hard to imagine what Five Points was like in its heyday: the rum shops and rookeries, the stifling tenements, dancers like Master Juba tapping and stepping in makeshift dance halls, the pigs roaming the streets serving as garbage collectors.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverThe top photo reveals what Baxter and Worth Streets looked like in 1827, when George Catlin painted this image of Five Points.

Here’s what Five Points looks like today in a very different New York City.

How did Five Points become so awful? Find out more in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, on sale now.

[Top photo: George Catlin painting, 1827; second photo: 1853 map from William Perris’ Atlas of New York City]

The visionary who created New York City

December 30, 2013

The name Andrew Haswell Green typically draws blank stares from today’s city residents, who are unfamiliar with his accomplishments helping to build the parks, museums, and zoos of 19th century New York—not to mention the consolidated city itself.

AndrewgreenIn the late 1850s, Green was a member of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, tasked with selecting the design for the new park.

It was Green who recognized the beauty and brilliance of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Greensward Plan, with its woodsy and pastoral landscapes. He shepherded the plan, helping it become reality.

The New York Public Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History, Central Park Zoo—give props to Green, now city comptroller, for these late 19th century achievements.

His 1868 proposal to consolidate the city, however, was a harder sell.

Nicknamed “Green’s Hobby,” the idea of combining Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other towns and cities along the city’s port barely gained traction.

Andrewgreencentralparkbench

But Green persisted. In 1890, the city council created a task force to look into the idea. By the middle of the decade, after much debate (and grumbling from Brooklynites), consolidation was approved; the new city was born on January 1, 1898.

Andrewgreenconsolidation1

Consolidation was an economic and practical success. But Green didn’t live long enough to see the results.

In 1903, while arriving at his home on Park Avenue, he was killed, ambushed by a gun-wielding man who mistook Green, then in his 80s, for someone else with the same last name.

The “father of New York City” was memorialized in Central Park with a bench bearing his name. He now also has a riverfront park named for him overlooking the East River at 60th Street.

[Middle photo: NYC Parks Department]

A heartbroken spirit haunts an East Village home

October 28, 2013

Merchantshousemuseum

Gertrude Tredwell, born into privilege in genteel 19th century New York, had many advantages.

She also reportedly had a domineering father and a lost love. And 80 years after her death, her spirit is rumored to roam the house where she lived all of her 93 years.

Her life began in 1840, the youngest of the eight children of merchant Seabury Tredwell.

Tredwell had a successful hardware business, and five years before Gertrude was born, he moved his brood into a new Federal-style townhouse on East Fourth Street.

Gertrudetredwellyoung

At the time, the area between Washington Square Park and recently opened Lafayette Place was the most fashionable section of the city.

Gertrude grew up in comfort, but her life took a tragic turn. “According to the family’s history, Gertrude fell in love with a doctor, Lewis Walton,” wrote Philip Ernest Schoenberg in Ghosts of Manhattan.

“But her father, an Episcopalian, forbade her to marry Walton because he was Catholic, Irish, and poor.”

Perhaps Getrude never found love again. Or maybe she did it to spurn her father, who died in 1865. But Gertrude never married.

Along with her mother and several never-married siblings, Gertrude continued to live in the house.

TredwellchildrenAs the years went on, East Fourth Street became a grittier industrial enclave. The Tredwells were seen taking carriage rides but kept to themselves.

“They barricaded themselves there against a city creeping uptown like a tide,” wrote The New York Times in 1951.

One by one her mother and siblings passed on. By 1909, she was 69 years old and alone. “The blinds were kept closed in the drawing room; the dining room was never used; and the dust of years accumulated,” the Times wrote in 1936.

“By then, she was considered an eccentric recluse whose only interest seemed to be keeping the house exactly how it was when her father died,” wrote Cheri Farnsworth in The Big Book of New York Ghost Stories.

GertrudetredwellagedShe died in 1933 in the same four-poster bed she was born in.

With the house in pristine 19th century condition, it became the Merchant House Museum, a fascinating place taking visitors back to New York in the 1840s.

And Gertrude? Over the decades, she’s been seen in the kitchen, spotted gliding up and down the stairs, playing the piano, and arranging teacups.

Perhaps she is reluctant to leave the house where she grew up, fell in love, and had her heart broken.

[Above: six of the Tredwell children as adults; right, Gertrude in her older years]

The beautiful saloon ceiling on Grand Street

October 7, 2013

OniealsexteriorThere’s a lot of New York history at 174 Grand Street.

This corner, at Centre Market Place, was the location of a polling place in the 1860s, a church in the 1870s, and a deadly jewelry store robbery in the 1920s.

A brothel operated there, as did a saloon-turned-speakeasy catering to officers who worked across the street at the old police headquarters.

Oniealsceiling2

Cops didn’t have to actually cross the street to get a drink there. A tunnel was dug from the police building directly to the bar (and still exists today; it’s now a wine cellar). Very convenient.

Oniealsceiling1Now it’s the site of a restaurant/bar called O’Nieal’s. And though the neighborhood no longer has raffish old New York charm, O’Nieal’s lovely ceiling will transport you back to that version of the city.

The beautifully carved chunk of mahogany wood spans the entire restaurant. Walk in, and look up.

[Top photo: onieals.com]

Scenes of a young Manhattan, at work and play

August 26, 2013

There’s not very much information out there on an artist named Louis Augier.

I’m not even sure he was actually in New York in the first half of the 19th century, the time period these depictions were supposedly created.

Augierstpaulschapel1831

But his life-like, detailed images of the new city of New York (above, “New York in 1831,” showing St. Paul’s Chapel on Lower Broadway) in the 1810s through the 1850s are captivating.

In the absence of photos, they seem to tell us how upper-crust residents lived (below, Bowling Green in 1831).

Augierbowlinggreen1831

No doubt these images are cleaned-up versions of the way the city really looked: there’s no trash in the streets, no poverty, no problems bigger than a traffic jam.

Augiercityhall1819

Social realism they are not. Still, we see the fashions the city’s elite wore, the way their homes looked, and how they got around (those omnibuses in the top image look a little rickety).

And they seem to enjoy the same thing New Yorkers of today love doing: strolling along the streets of their neighborhoods, which look strangely similar now as it did then (above: City Hall, 1819).

Manhattan’s 19th century temperance fountains

May 4, 2013

Temperancefountaintompkinssquare2Just as abortion and the death penalty are hot-button issues today, temperance divided Americans in the 19th century.

The millions of members of the American Temperance Society, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and other groups believed that banning alcohol could eliminate major social problems like poverty and crime.

These organizations were pretty powerful. But it was hard to persuade people to give up booze when alcoholic beverages were often safer to drink than water.

That’s where the temperance fountain comes in.

“The premise behind the fountains was that the availability of cool drinking water would make alcohol less tempting,” wrote Therese Loeb Kreuzer in a 2012 article in The Villager.

Temperancefountaintomkinssquare3“In the 19th century, temperance fountains could be found in cities and towns from coast to coast. Now few of them remain.”

Two still stand in Manhattan. One is in Tompkins Square Park, a strange place for a temperance fountain considering that the area was packed with beer-loving Germans at the time.

Donated by a wealthy temperance crusader who had it cast in 1888, it features a bronze figure of the Greek Goddess Hebe, cupbearer to the Gods, on top of a pedestal supported by four columns.

Blocks away on the west side of Union Square is New York’s second remaining temperance fountain. Paid for by another rich temperance convert and dating to 1881, it’s a figure of Charity that really works the innocent mother and children angle.

Temperancefountainunionsquare“Bronze dragonflies and butterflies frolic above the lions,” wrote Kreuzer in The Villager. “Then comes a richly sculpted band of acanthus leaves and birds. The ensemble is topped by a figure of a mother dressed like the Virgin Mary in a Renaissance painting. She holds a child in her right arm, while dispensing water from a jug to another child who looks at her adoringly.”

Both statues are the legacies of the movement that gave us Prohibition—and speakeasies—in the 1920s.

[Top two photos: Wikipedia]