Friday, July 31, 2009

Ellis Island: When the world came to New York City

For millions of Americans, Ellis Island is the symbol of introduction, the immigrant depot that processed their ancestors and offered an opening into a new American life. But for some, it would truly be an 'Island of Tears', a place where they would be excluded from that life. How did an island with such humble beginnings -- 'Little Oyster Island', barely a sliver of land in the New York harbor -- become so crucial? Who is the 'Ellis' of Ellis Island? And how did it survive decades of neglect to become one of New York's most famous tourist attractions?

Dedicated to my niece Courtney, who specifically suggested this episode.

PODCAST Listen to it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or click this link to listen to the show or download it directly from our satellite site

CORRECTION: In the show, we mention that island namesake Samuel Ellis bought Little Oyster Island in 1784. In fact, it's possible he owned the island well before that, possibly by 1770.

As always, click on pictures for a bigger view

Before Ellis, there was Castle Garden, the former performance hall that became New York's immigration depot from 1855 to 1890. The building bore witness to a great influx of German and Irish immigrants, however the facilities were seen as inadequate and unsafe.

New immigrants emerging from Castle Garden would find themselves beseiged by grifters, runners and utter chaos, as evidenced by this 1882 illustration from Puck Magazine.


Temporary Digs: For four non-consecutive years, the Barge Office nearby Castle Garden would serve as New York's immigration depot. It would serve first in 1890-92 when the state government closed Castle Garden and the federal government was still getting Ellis Island ready. Later, after the original structured on Ellis Island burned down, immigration would return here, from 1898-1899.


The Long Way Around: New immigrants unload in front of the doors of the main Ellis Island building in 1902. Steamships would coast into New York harbor, arrive at their Manhattan dock to release their first class passengers, then pack the steerage people into a barge which would take them to Ellis. (Pic courtesy here)


Penned In: See, it really was like cattle! The registry room of Ellis Island would keep people at close quarters as officiates began the arduous process of examining everyone.


OVERDRESSED? William A. Boring and Edward Lippincott Tilton gave the new Ellis Island center an elegant Beaux-Arts touch with exotic towers and limestone ornamentation. Immigrants would be greeted with a building that resembled European structures back home.


Revealing: Some unfortunates who were pulled aside for further evaluation, this time for potential skin diseases. The room they are standing in is now one of several museum displays detailing the grueling experience of those who were 'pulled aside'. (Pics courtesy here.)


The Grand Tour: President William Howard Taft goes on an inspection tour of the Ellis Island facility. The immigration center was frequently a sore spot politically, a lightening rod for restrictionists and immigrant aid agencies alike. (Pic courtesy here)


Itself Excluded: Ellis Island was a mess of ruins and overgrowth by the 1970s, a victim of decades of neglect. Even the National Parks service failed to do much with it before Lee Iacocca and the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation came along to save it.

The picture below is from 1978. Most of the island is created from landfill. The buildings to the front of the image were not only hospital facilities, many of them specifically for the care of measles, a common malady of immigrant children. (Courtesy here.)

You can visit the Ellis Island website to check to see if any of your family members happened their way through the island.

And finally, Thomas Edison's 1906 silent footage of immigrants arriving at the island.

(Top pic courtesy here)

One of these children may be your great-grandparent

Sorry I was having some serious sound/recording issues this week on the newest podcast, so it's not available this morning, but I should have it up and running by tonight or Saturday morning latest. Thanks for your patience!

Ellis Island 1908 Photo courtesy the National Archives

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Quarantine in the Lower East Side! Beware 5 Essex St.

STORY UPDATED -- October 24, 2014

A picture of Essex Street and Seward Park from 1999. The Park has been completely refurbished. The buildings on Essex, however, look almost exactly the same. (Photography by Dylan Stone)

The neighborhood converging at the intersections of Essex Street, Rutgers Street, Canal Street and East Broadway in the Lower Lower East Side -- officially called Straus Square** -- strikes a healthy balance between gentrification and history. With Seward Park and Forward Building to the east, it retains some of its turn-of-the-century character, while allowing for both Chinese-run restaurants and grocers and trendier spillover in the form of designer restaurants and music lounges.

But one building harbors a secret -- 5 Essex Street.   It was at this address in the winter of 1892 that dozens of victims of the dreaded typhus disease were quarantined.

Thousands of immigrants were arriving in New York harbor by the late 19th century and making their home here in the Lower East Side, where aid organizations would often house families without means to support themselves. By 1892, the Lower East Side had become one of the most densely populated places on earth.

These were also the opening days of Ellis Island, and the strict examination that would make the immigrant center infamous had not yet been established. New York had safeguards in place to stop the spread of diseases, but they weren't perfect.

The steamship Massilia (pictured at right) arrived during Ellis Island's first month of operation, January 1892, carrying over 700 hopefuls, most of them Italians and Russian Jewish immigrants escaping persecution.

Most of them ended up in the Lower East Side, including members of the Mermer family, who the United Hebrew Charities organization arranged to live in the small tenement at 5 Essex Street.

The passengers had not been properly checked for various diseases, including typhus, a devastating disease that had swept through America through much of the 19th century. It would reach its height of destruction in Europe during World War I, where it would kill millions.

This horrifying sickness, spread by fleas or mites, was on the Massilia. And its passengers were now spread throughout the Lower East Side.

The condescending press of the day described the ship's passengers as "the impoverished, unkempt class that usually comes from that land, and of the kind that such a scourge as typhus would be likely to mark as its own."

It was first noticed among 15 Massilia passengers at another address, 42 East 12th Street. The city and the United Hebrew Charities scoured the city for all the remaining Massilia immigrants and found out to their horror that over 70 of them had typhus, including members of the Mermer family at 5 Essex.

Below: The busy scene further up Essex Street.

Those with symptoms of the disease were carted out to North Brother Island. However all other passengers were forced into the two addresses -- 5 Essex Street and 42 East 12th Street -- and quarantined there, with police guarding the doors to make sure that nobody could go in. Or escape.

The remaining members of the Mermer family were now trapped at 5 Essex. The mother Fayer was dead and two symptomatic children (who would later survive) were taken away. They were now quarantined in their home with dozens of others, unsure if they would all succumb to the same fate.

Inevitably, the disease still found its way out. There had been little spread of typhus in the 1890s; now, with the arrival of the Massiia, dozens of cases were reported up and down the major cities of the East Coast.

Fearing a new outbreak, city officials did something drastic. In March, they emptied the two quarantined clinics and placed everybody on North Brother Island, whether they had the sickness or not. It would be a nerve wracking month, a disturbing introduction to America. After a few weeks, if patients were without symptoms, they would finally be allowed to leave.

The quarantine seemed to do the trick; less than 50 people died from this potentially disastrous outbreak.

Further contemporary news reports of the quarantine house at 5 Essex can be found here.

**Straus Square is named for Nathan Straus, the philantropist and co-owner of Macy's Department Store. Coincidentally, Nathan's brother Oscar would become Secretary of Commerce under Theodore Roosevelt and oversee the administration of Ellis Island. Nathan's other brother Isidor would die on the Titanic.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Today in history: crash at the Empire State Building!

Above: War-time Empire State Building, circa 1943. The upper floors would dim at night to conserve energy costs (Photo Andreas Feininger)

Sixty-four years ago today, July 28, 1945, a B-25 bomber on its way to Newark Airport accidentally meandered over the foggy city and smashed into the Empire State Building. Some rather startling details of the event:

-- The pilot, Lt. Colonel William Smith, was simply on his way to pick up his commanding officer

-- Finding himself off-course and over the city, Smith managed to avoid crashing into the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center and the New York Central building (today's Helmsley Building).

-- It was impenetrably foggy that morning, which would explain his final words: "From where I'm sitting, I can't see the top of the Empire State Building"

-- It was a Saturday, however a few businesses were open that day. As a result 11 people in the building died that day, on top of the three crewmen in the plane. Eight employees of the Catholic War Relief Office, on the 79th floor, were killed.

-- One engine crashed through the entire length of the building and came out the other side to land and promptly destroy the penthouse apartment (and thousands of dollars of artwork) of sculptor Henry Herring at 10 W. 33rd Street, a building owned by Vincent Astor.

-- Betty Lou Oliver, on the 80th floor, barely escaped the crash, but when rescuers attempted to lower her out of the building via the elevator, the cables snapped and she and the elevator car plummeted 75 stories (over 1,000 feet). She survived.

-- The Army ended up shelling out payments for damage, including compensation for a restaurant plate-glass window that had been blown out over ten blocks away.

(Above: Ernie Sisto's famous front-page photograph of the wreckage for the New York Times)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Revisiting Washington Irving and Knickerbocker

New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert named a beer after him

Despite the fact that New York has one of the richest histories of any city in the country, it's a faux history of the city written in 1809 by Deitrich Knickerbocker -- aka Washington Irving -- that has fooled, amused and captivated since it was published two hundred years ago.

In 'Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York', city historian Elizabeth L. Bradley traces the cheeky creation from its inception to its strange influence over New Yorkers in the past two centuries -- from the first usage of the word 'doughnut' to the birth of a basketball team.

And she'll be speaking about it in person tomorrow, Tuesday July 28, 6:30 at the Museum of the City of New York. Click here for more information about tickets.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Castle Garden and Battery Park: Bowery Boys rerun

ABOVE: Battery Park in "ye olden time" from the NYPL Picture Collection

No new podcast this week, but here's a link for one of our older shows from early 2008 on the history of Castle Clinton and Battery Park. We've enhanced some of the older shows with some rather cool old images that magically pop up while you listen.

You can also download these image-enhanced episodes at our catalog feed NYC History: Bowery Boys Archive which you get download for free on iTunes.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sailin' with Stephen Allen, NY's first elected mayor (sorta)

KNOW YOUR MAYORS Our modest little series about some of the greatest, notorious, most important, even most useless, mayors of New York City. Other entrants in our mayoral survey can be found here.

Mayor Stephen Allen
In office: 1821-1824

There was a time when New Yorkers were told who their mayor was going to be. Imagine Governor David Patterson with the power to install who he chose, or worse, a handful of Albany insiders entirely beholden to special political interests.

This was precisely the manner in which New York City adopted its mayors every year. The Council of Appointments, four specially selected state senators, were in charge of hundreds of yearly state and local appointments, approving and (just as often) altering the wishes of the governor. Those appointed to the job were either prominent citizens, figureheads, or politicians with strong connections to the governor.

After a groundswell of dissent over this and many other eccentricities of the New York constitution, the rules were finally amended in 1821. Among its changes were a new method of choosing a mayor -- still appointed, but by the city's Common Council (or city council). Citizens voted for the aldermen who then voted, among their membership, who would become mayor -- indirect, imperfect, but seen at the time as a great step forward. It would not be until 1834 that New Yorkers could directly vote for a candidate (Cornelius Lawrence).

For their first appointment, city leaders did not stray from the successful formula of choosing one of the wealthiest, well-connected businessman among them. In 1822, Stephen Allen became the first mayor appointed by the Common Council, 'chosen' by the people because he had first been elected to the council in the first place.

Allen was an inspired candidate, a self-made success story with roots in the American Revolution. According to an 1848 biographical 'sketch book', Allen "affords another instance of what may be accomplished without money, without family connexions or friends. Mr. Allen commenced life, it is said, as a poor sailor boy."

He was born here in New York in 1767 and remained here with his family through the British occupation during the Revolutionary War. During that time he became an apprentice to a British Tory sail maker when he was only 12 years old. Times were rough for young Stephen in the stressed, over-crowded city; he lived with several other apprentices in a tiny 'sail loft', eating only bread and butter for supper.

The Continental Army couldn't have won the war fast enough to young Allen's liking. A teenage Allen was witness to Washington's return to the city in November 1783: "This was a happy day for the real friends of America and it was celebrated accordingly by young and old, particularly by those who had left the city at the commencement of the troubles and had now returned for the first time from an exile of eight long years."

Allen worked his way into the sailmaking partnership of Hillson and Allen by age 22. Disgruntled with his partner's lack of business acumen which, in his own words, tended to "irritate and promote altercation," Allen launched his own sail-making business by the age of 30.

With the war ended, the British gone and New York becoming the dominant American port, Allen soon became one of the city's wealthiest artisans by the 1810s. As a member of the Tammany Society -- he would eventually become grand sachem -- he transitioned seamlessly into local politics, first as a member of the Common Council in April 1817 then finally as their first appointee for mayor in December 1821.

For a man who made his fortunes from sails, it's not surprising that his primary concern as mayor was water. Clean drinking water was a scarcity; the city's previous source for fresh water, Collect Pond, had been levelled just years due to pollution from local industry. What would replace it?

He headed a committee that sought additional sources of drinking water, eventually focusing on Rye Pond in the future borough of the Bronx, and a potential canal to be built in Westchester. Allen and the council were raring to move forward, but state bureaucracy, yellow fever outbreaks and focus on the Erie Canal would delay the development of a viable aqueduct for many years.

Allen made a bigger impact on New York's prison system as a member of a state committee that inspected conditions at the first state prison in Auburn, New York. Their evaluations eventually led to the construction of Sing Sing prison.

He left office after three years as mayor, but he didn't leave politics or Tammany behind, eventually becoming a state senator and helping raise money to build the first Tammany Hall.

He spent his latter days at home on Washington Square, but tragically, he did not end up dying peacefully in bed here as other future mayors would do. He was aboard the steamship Henry Clay in July 28 1952 when, after an ill-advised race with another vessel, it caught fire and crashed on the Hudson River, killing dozens of passengers including Nathaniel Hawthorne's sister, famed landscapist Andrew Jackson Downing and, sadly, our former mayor Allen.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bowery Billy, sniffing out those transfer grafters!

Click pic for greater detail
Caption: Billy, peering over the edge of the hood, saw the motorman pass the package back to Sim Levy.

Ah, the good old days! The image above was taken from amazing Dime Novels and Penny Dreadful website. If you want to wile away a couple hours when you should be doing something more important, I highly, highly recommend visiting the site, which catalogs dozens of 19th century pulp publications.

You can also find the other adventures of Bowery Billy here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bensonhurst's Sbarro: a non-New Yorker's New York pizza

The Sbarro family in their original salumeria in Bensonhurst

In my Friday roundup of famous New York-style pizzerias, I left out the one pizza company that could technically be called the most recognizable New York pie -- at least to those who live outside the city.

Sbarros Pizza is a fixture of shopping malls and roadside traffic stops across the nation. In fact, "across 30 countries" according to the website. In many of these countries, Sbarros is most likely introducing the actual concept of pizza, much less its modified 'New York style' offering.

I was surprised to learn that Sbarros actually got its start in Brooklyn, 50 years ago, and in a fashion similar to Lombardi's Pizzeria.

It too was started up by a Neapolitan named Gennaro -- the highly alliterative Gennaro Sbarro, to be exact -- with his wife Carmela and their three sons. Like Gennaro Lombardi, the Sbarros didn't start off selling pizza either. Their original salumeria (delicatessen) in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was located at 1701 65th Street and 17th Avenue, opening in 1959 and serving the usual Italian-style deli fare, eventually incorporating pasta and pizza onto the menu -- and sit-down service along with it.

The similarities stop there. The Sbarros had a mind to expand, keeping a tight reign on their operation as they opened 14 additional New York locations well into the 1970s, with all the food made at the original Bensonhurst location. Carmela even continued to personally make the cheesecake.

It could have stopped there, but keep in mind that the 1970s was the age of the shopping mall, and the lure of the food court greatly appealed to the Sbarros. Their first experimental pizza outlet was at the King's Plaza mall in Marine Park. It was here that Sbarros became a counter fast-food restaurant, shedding its salumeria image for a bright, uniform place with a set menu of popular Italian standards.

Needless to say, it was a successful experiment. Incorporating the family business in 1977 and opening the brand up for potential franchises, the Sbarro sons took their restaurant chain national by the 1980s after their father's death, and rolled it out to international locales by the 1990s.

The original Bensonhurst Sbarros was closed a few years ago, and it's difficult to find the inherent Brooklyn-ness in a standard-issue Sbarros restaurant today. But if you look carefully, you might find some dusty, fake-looking meats hanging in the window, harkening back to its early Bensonhurst roots.

It's definitely the closest you're ever going to find New York-style pizza in, say, Salt Lake City or even Kazahkstan.

(Picture courtesy PMQ Pizza magazine)

Monday, July 20, 2009

1969: Astronauts land in New York!

Below: two pictures of the ticker-tape parade thrown in New York City on August 13, 1969 to celebrate Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins and their successful landing on the moon.

Believe it or not, this was the second space-themed ticker-tape parade that year. In January, Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, and William A. Anders, were honored in similar grandiose fasion for their Apollo 8 mission.

How special was that year, 1969? The third and final ticker-tape parade that year would be in honor of the New York Mets, winner of their very first World's Series.

Cick here for more information on some other famous ticker-tape parades.

Pics courtesy Life

Friday, July 17, 2009

Kings of New York Pizza: Lombardi, Totonno, Patsy, Ray?

Gennaro Lombardi and (I believe) Antonio Totonno Pero with a dog who must have been fed very well. You'll notice that Lombardi's is still a grocery store in this picture. Some bananas with your pizza? Although Gennaro is credited with opening New York's first pizzeria, it may have been Antonio who came up with the pizzas.

PODCAST Listen to it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or click this link to listen to the show or download it directly from our satellite site

New Yorkers are serious about their pizza, and it all started with a tiny grocery store in today's Little Italy and a group of young men who became the masters of pizza making. In this podcast, you'll find out all about the city's oldest and most revered pizzerias -- Lombardi's, Totonno's, John's, Grimaldi's and Patsy's, in all its variations.

But if those are the greatest names in New York-style pizza, then who the heck is Ray -- Original, Famous or otherwise?

New York-style pizza, in its purest form. Lombardi's pizza was also sold by the slice back in the day, though today its strictly whole pies. And they no longer don't wrap them up in paper and tie them with string like they used to!


Pictures from Totonno's official website of its creator Antonio 'Totonno' Pero, who opened his first pizza restaurant in Coney Island in 1924. The original location was gutted in a fire just this year, but they should be reopening anytime.


Although John Sasso had the great misfortune of opening his small pizzeria just as the Great Depression was getting started, it managed to survive through hard times to become the West Village's go-to destination for classic slices.


Patsy Lancieri opened his great East Harlem pizzeria in East Harlem in 1933. They'll be celebrating their 76th anniversary next month with some truly retro prices. Get there early this time -- let this be a warning.

NOT to be confused with this place -- the venerable Patsy's Italian Restaurant in midtown. This Patsy's does not sell pizza.

To make sure you don't confuse the two, why don't you read a U.S. District Court document 'Patsy's Italian Restaurant v Patsy's Pizzeria'. The words 'Sauce Litigation' are actually used.

Grimaldi's "under the Brooklyn Bridge" used to also be a Patsy's. Today it's your surest bet for a long line, reportedly still worth the wait.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Broadway snapshot: Photography Temple of Art

I'm busily working a new podcast which will be available by tonight. In the meantime, enjoy this really old photograph of the extravagent photo studio of Charles D. Fredricks, sometimes known simply as C.D Fredricks. This picture of his 'Temple of Art' was taken, according to the National Archives, in 1850, although I believe it to be sometime a bit later, possibly 1857. (click on the picture to zoom in and to details)

The 'Temple' was located at 585 & 587 Broadway near Houston Street, nearby many other photographic studios, and not too far from the studio of Matthew Brady (at 359 Broadway).

Click here to see an original advertisement from the Photographic Temple of Art.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated News describes thusly: "Fredricks' Photographic Gallery, 585 and 587 Broadway, was brilliantly illuminated with colored lanterns. The words "Photographic Temple of Art" were formed by hundreds of lamps, covering a semicircular arch of sixty feet in curve. The windows and balconies of these magnificent Daguerrian rooms were crowded during the day with spectators, almost to the interruption of business.

"There is no more popular photographic gallery in New York than this, and no where are portraits obtained with greater fidelity. Fredricks' Gallery is usually resorted to for groups, especially of military, and he was called upon, on Saturday, to exercise his art on the officers of H.B.M. steam frigate Gorgon, whose portraits he took." (Thanks to Historic Camera for this description.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Russia vs. the Waldorf Astoria: Nikita gets stuck

Seeing red: Khrushchev with Fidel Castro in New York (photo by Hank Walker)

Nikita Khrushchev, Cold War leader of the Soviet Union, is perhaps the strangest tourist New York has ever seen. Pete Carlson's new book 'K Blows Top' (named for a snarky Daily News headline) documents Khrushchev's odd and rocky thirteen-day tour through the United States, in September fifty years ago this year. I heard Carlson on On The Media over the weekend and was particularly struck by an event that occurred at the Waldorf Astoria, an embarrassing situation that might have sparked World War III.

Khrushchev's arrival in New York was a press sensation and crowds (supporters, protesters and curiousity seekers) gathered outside the Waldorf Astoria, where he and his family were staying. The Russian leader happened to be riding the elevator with U.N. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and the manager of the Waldorf Astoria when the elevator abruptly stopped between floors.

The manager was unable to get the elevator working again, so Khrushchev had to be lifted up with the U.N. ambassador literally shoving the Russian's buttocks out of the stalled elevator car -- which then became functional moments later.

Believe it or not, this was the second controversy surrounding Nikita and the Waldorf Astoria. The first involved a convention of dentists booked in the hotel at the same time as Khrushchev's visit. Mayor Robert Wagner asked the dentists to move so that he could throw Khrushchev a luncheon there. The dentists adamantly refused.

Russians vs dentists. You'll have to read the book to find out who wins.

I don't have any pictures of Khrushchev crawling out of an elevator, but enjoy these images, courtesy Life Google images, of his visit to New York. Carlson's book has other details of his trip, including Nikita's lackluster opinion of the Empire State Building.

Police outside the Waldorf Astoria (photographed by Al Fenn and Stan Wayman)

Nikita draws rock-star sized crowds in midtown (photographed by Ed Clark)

Monday, July 13, 2009

A stroll through haunted ruins: North Brother Island

Pic courtesy

I just noticed that Thirteen/PBS's The City Concealed did a great video piece exploring the rarely seen abandoned hospital structures of North Brother Island. Creepy! Watch it here.

North Brother Island, today a bird sanctuary located in the crowded channel between Queens and the Bronx, is best known for its 19th-century smallpox quarantine hospital that became the unfortunate home of Irish immigrant Mary Mallon whom the press called Typhoid Mary. Its brother South Brother Island meanwhile was a haven for a beer mogul. Read our brief history on the Brother Islands here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Martling's Long Room: power plays, power drinkers

Well, would you?Illustration from sheet music 1908

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, every other Friday we'll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

LOCATION Martling's Tavern
Corner of Nassau and Spruce streets, Manhattan

I promise to move away from the messy business of Tammany Hall for awhile after I profile the surprising location of their birth, a tavern that would collect the most powerful men in the city and form a political club that would influence New York history forever -- Martling's Tavern.

Power frequently held court in New York's taverns in the early days. Few New York locations are more important to the American Revolution than Fraunces Tavern, where the seeds of rebellion were sewn and, once victorious, where George Washington resigned from the Continental Army. The Bull's Head Tavern became a veritable marketplace for area cattlemen and a place to share a bit of gossip.

When it formed in 1789, the Tammany Society was a mere fraternal, patriotic organization with little interest in real-time political maneuvering. [You can find out more by listening to our last podcast on the early days of Tammany Hall and the rise of Boss Tweed.] Its ceremony and costumed rituals were even looked down upon by elite elements of society as "a vulgar parade."

But by the late 1890s, this flamboyant men's club was permanently repurposed as a deft political machine. Early mayors like James Duane were 'sachems' who slowly began using the society's ostensibly innocent functions as cover for more political gains.

As a social club, Tammany would naturally require a tavern for a meeting place, especially one with a grand hall to accommodate all their members. The very first meeting place (or 'wigwam') for the Tammany Society was Barden's Tavern on Broadway and Murray Street, just a stone's throw from the center of local and, in 1789-90, even national government. Society members even feted actual native Americans here, a contingent of Creek Indians who must have smirked at seeing all these prominent white males in native drag.

In 1790, according to Gustavus Myer's famous history of Tammany Hall, "the Tammany Society and the military escorted the Indians to Secretary [Henry] Knox’s house, introduced them to [President] Washington and then led them to the Wigwam at Barden’s Tavern, where seductive drink was served."

Tammany remained at Barden's until they outgrew it in 1798 and moved to a location on the edge of the city (Nassau and Spruce streets) that was owned by one of their members -- Abraham 'Brom' Martling.

Martling's place didn't look like much, a 'forlorn' one-story building. According to author Peter L. Bernstein, "The building was so rundown many people referred to it as the Pig Pen." Perhaps the transition to politics required a locale with a rougher edge. They would make Martling's their home until 1812, and it is generally referred to as the first 'real' Tammany Hall.

Wicked politics was already at play by the time the Society settled into Martling's spacious 'Long Room' where a majority of Tammany business would be conducted. When Aaron Burr, flanked on either side by Tammany men, shot his enemy and Tammany scourge Alexander Hamilton, it's alleged that the Society threw a gala that evening in celebration, with toasts raised to Burr's good aim.

Make no mistake; although the business of government was on their mind, these men could drink. According to Myers, "every night men gathered there to drink, smoke and “swap” stories," a "den where the Wolves and Bears and Panthers assemble and drink down large potations of beer":

There’s a barrel of porter at Tammany Hall,
And the Bucktails are swigging it all the night long

The society became so associated with the place that they were frequently called Martlingmen. Alternatively, Tammany would call their future meeting chambers a 'long room' in honor of this rundown but effective space.

Martling himself would even became a Tammany sachem, and a tempestuous one at that. Myers: "Taking offense, one day, at the remarks of one John Richard Huggins, a hair-dresser, [Martling] called at Huggins’s shop, 104 Broadway, and administered to him a sound thrashing with a rope." Take that, hair-dresser!

As Tammany became more powerful and larger (with some 1,500 members), they would eventually have to move from the Long Room into a headquarters of their own. But they didn't move far from Martling's however. The very first Tammany Hall would be built at Frankfurt and Nassau, mere steps the tavern that had quenched their thirst and saw the adolescent society grow to become a viable political force.

Location of Martling's Tavern:

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Salute to Ulmer Park, short-lived Brooklyn beer getaway

All aboard the train to Coney Island, Ulmer Park and Bath Beach Above pic courtesy NYPL

Next weekend on Coney Island is the annual Siren Festival, sponsored by the Village Voice. Are you going? Believe it or not, over a 100 years ago, there was once a time you could get your beer, music and mayhem at a Brooklyn 'pleasure park' just a few stops short of Coney Island -- near today's Bensonhurst neighborhood.

Ulmer Park was the lark of William Ulmer, one of Brooklyn's most successful brewers in an age where much of the nation's finest beer was coming from the future borough. The German-born son of a wine merchant who learned the trade from his uncle, Ulmer opened his eponymous brewery in the 1870s at Belvedere Street and soon came upon the idea of opening a park as a way of selling more beer. (Not a bad idea. Jacob Ruppert would have similar designs in mind when he bought the New York Yankees in 1915).

The park would open in 1893 in Gravesend Bay along the southern shore of Brooklyn -- back when there was an actual shore -- between Coney Island farther south and the more conservative Bath Beach resort community to its west. Ulmer Park seemed to have more in common with Bath Beach -- clean, family friendly (keep Dad happy so he keeps drinking!) with a beer garden, carousels and swings, rifle ranges, a dance pavilion and of course plenty of beachfront property.

The park seemed to be particular popular with Germans -- Ulmer after all was German, and this was a beer garden -- and particularly the annual 'Saengerfest' festival. A Times article even claims that 100,000 gathered at Ulmer Park for the end of one such festival.

Below: an illustration of Ulmer Park. Note the grand pier which stuck out into into the bay

We can get a good idea of Ulmer's intentions for the park by looking at his failure at obtaining a "liquor tax certificate" (or license) in a report from 1900. "A picnic ground, or open air pleasure resort, of about two acres" between Harway Avenue and the shore, the park had a bowling alley, a pier with canopied bar at the end, two or three other beer pavilions scattered throughout the property and a hotel.

Ultimately, neither the resort at Bath Beach nor amusements at Ulmer Park could compete with Coney Island which was about to enter its golden age in the early 1900s; apparently, it was grit and decadence people wanted in their summertime Brooklyn getaways. Ulmer closed in 1899.

The land remained a public space hosting baseball, cricket and track and field events. Eventually it was wiped away and redeveloped. It remains in name only, at the Ulmer Park branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and the name of the neighborhood bus depot.

For your frame of reference, the park was located a couple blocks west of today's bus depot, located here:

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FYI, did you know that Central Park and Prospect Park designer Calvert Vaux drowned "under mysterious circumstances" in 1895 and that his body washed up on shore not too far away from Ulmer Park?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Execution Corner: 13th Street and 2nd Avenue

Public hangings were a rare but grisly part of 19th Century New York life. The one illustrated above is from 1862. Another would famously haunt the area near an East Village intersection.

I pass through the intersection of 13th Street and 2nd Avenue fairly frequently on my way home from work. The plain intersection is probably best known as the home of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary and for being a block away from a movie theater with some rather small movie screens. If you're a foodie, you probably know it for Momofuku's Milk Bar.

The most recent modern drama this corner has seen might be the electrified manhole cover that almost killed somebody awhile back. But 185 years ago, when this area was nothing more than a large meadow once the property of the Stuyvesant family, it was the site of one of the most well-attended public execution in American history.

It may be hard to understand why (as some reports suggest) almost 30,000 people came to observe the hanging of John Johnson from this field in 1824.  Another source claims 50,000 people came to see the gruesome execution, which at the time would have been almost one-third of the entire city population of New York.

Perhaps the facts of his crimes were simply too shocking to ignore.  Johnson, a family man who kept his wife and children at an upstate farm, ran a boardinghouse for wayward sailors during New York's heyday as a port city in the 1820s.  It was located in the bustling heart of the city and dozens of men passed through his door.  It was not exactly a four-star resort, however, and certainly the occasional home for misdeeds. But for the visiting seamen, these types of seedy places were hard to avoid, and the threat of murder would have been bone chilling indeed.

One day in 1823, in a nearby alley, the body of sailor James Murray was discovered, his head split open with a hatchet. Murray was staying at Johnson's lodge; upon inspection, bloody sheets were found in Johnson's cellar, and the innkeeper was arrested.

Johnson's behavior was especially erratic.  He admitted to the crime, then retracted his statement, saying he was merely protecting his family.  He claimed another guest had attacked Murray and that Johnson was merely guilty of "neglecting his duty as a host." His confession and subsequent about-face piqued public curiosity, with his wife's letters and even his own minister's spin on the tale quickly printed up into pamphlets.

Any printed entreaties to his innocence fell on deaf ears.  Decrying his innocence to the end, Johnson was sentenced to hang on April 2, 1824. (I have also seen sources that say April 4.) He was escorted to the gallows by his minister and even infantrymen who had to part the growing crowds, "a solid mass of living flesh -- men, women and children of all colours and descriptions," by one account.

Public executions were actually quite rare by this time or else relegated to one of New York's lonely islands (such as Blackwell's Island or the tiny oyster island that would later become Ellis Island).  Not because they were horrifying displays, but because they attracted large crowds of drunks, rowdies and pickpockets. So in the most macabre sense possible, the event of Johnson's death signified something unique.

Whether Johnson had truly been fairly treated is unclear but the story had reached a fever pitch, its details splashed across newspaper and gossiped about at city taverns.  By the time he stood overlooking the crowd with a rope around his neck, Johnson had become a figure of evil.  After hanging, his body was donated to a medical school.

Civility would soon come to this death field, as avenues and streets along the grid plan were carved out and the area quickly developed. Violence would return to the neighborhood during the Civil War draft riots of 1863. A block away, a witness to the murder, Peter Stuyvesant's pear tree at 3rd Avenue and 13th street, would stand until 1867 when it was mowed down by a wagon.

A plaque stands in honor of Peter's pear tree.  No evidence remains of the public execution which occurred just a few yards -- and one block -- away.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Augustus Saint-Gaudens calmly graces the Met

The summer exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have gone blatantly carnal, from the churning, desolate voids of gore featured in the Francis Bacon retrospective to the pristine glamour of female flesh in the "Model As Muse: Embodying Fashion."

But you'll have to swing down to the American wing for a bit of New York history, displayed in a new exhibit exploring the career of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, maestro of Beaux-Arts floridity and creator of some of New York's great public monuments.

The Irish-born artist quickly became one of America's greatest stylists in the late 90s century, imbuing the philosophies of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts both within the homes of wealthy patrons and in the plazas and parks of big cities. The Met exhibit gives you a quick overview of his life and a nice sampling of work, from simple sculpture to coinage commissioned by Theodore Roosevelt.

Saint-Gaudens made a specific mark on New York, working closely with New York's greatest architectural firm at the time, McKim Mead and White. His first major commission was the Admiral Farrugut monument in Madison Square Park; later he would design the Diana weather vane that would stand atop the Madison Square Garden building nearby. A couple replicas of Saint-Gauden's Diana are included in this show, although the original Diana graces the Philadelphia Museum of Art grand staircase.

His best known work in the city is mostly like the General Sherman equestrian statue at the southeast corner of Central Park, with its striking gold Victory leading the way (she appears in miniature in this exhibit). But the location most intimately connected with Saint-Gaudens is his New York studio at 148 W. 36th Street, where Augustus is depicted working in the famous painting of him (pictured above) by Kenyon Cox. His home at this time was down on 22 Washington Place, right off Washington Square.

The exhibit at the Met just opened and will be running through the summer and fall, through November 15.

Incidentally, Saint-Gaudens sculpted another favorite of mine -- the Peter Cooper monument just outside of Cooper Union.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Independence Day 1876! (Where are you, Mr. Tweed?)

(Click for greater detail)

The city of New York unfurled its patriotism in a lavish celebration of America's 100th birthday. The illustration above pictures a great rally at Union Square. Later revelers would gather at City Hall for an elaborate fireworks display with "volumes of sulphurous vaper wreath[ing] the City Hall until it seemed some mansion of a nether world, some Plutonic castle, where a dim, weird Prosperine might rule and revel." (Ahem, that's the New York Times in 1876 for you. )

And where, pray tell, was Boss Tweed?

Hiding out, in disguise with a new name (Mr. Secor), in the streets of Santiago de Cuba, having escaped the Ludlow Street Jail and fled the country. That same night, Tweed enjoyed a lesser display of pyrotechnics from the balcony of the Hotel Lascelles, enjoying a short-lived freedom. Sickly, away from his family, in a place where he barely knew the language, pockets crammed with mostly embezzled money -- happy July 4th, Mr. Tweed.

Less than two months later, Tweed would be captured off the coast of Vigo, Spain.

Illustration from Our first century : being a popular descriptive portraiture of the one hundred great and memorable events of perpetual interest in the history of our country. (Springfield, Mass. : Nichols, 1882) Devens, R. M. (Richard Miller), Author. (via NYPL)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

William 'Boss' Tweed and the bitter days of Tammany Hall

Hail to the thief: an imposing man with money on his mind

PODCAST Listen to it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or click this link to listen to the show or download it directly from our satellite site
You cannot understand New York without understanding its most corrupt politician -- William 'Boss' Tweed, a larger than life personality with lofty ambitions to steal millions of dollars from the city.

With the help of his 'Tweed Ring', the former chair-maker had complete control over the city -- what was being built, how much it would cost and who was being paid.

How do you bring down a corrupt government when it seems almost everyone's in on it? We reveal the downfall of the Tweed Ring and the end to one of the biggest political scandals in New York history. It began with a sleigh ride.

ALSO: Find out how Tammany Hall, the dominant political machine of the 19th century, got its start -- as a rather innocent social club that required men to dress up and pretend they're Indians.


William M. Tweed, son of a chair maker, as photographed by Matthew Brady in 1865. The Lower East Side would not spawn a man as powerful as Tweed until the rise of Al Smith in the 20th Century. Tweed's influence, however, came at great expense to the city.

The M. in his middle name is something of a controversy. Marcy or Magear? It's commonly assumed to stand for Marcy; however, there's no real documentary evidence for this (according to biographer Kenneth Ackerman) while Magear is his mother's maiden name.

Below: a younger-looking Tweed appears on a tobacco box


The powerful Democratic machine Tammany Hall (or, officially the Tammany Society) was actually in a hall, located at Frankfurt and Nassau streets, near City Hall. Built in 1811, the new headquarters saw the once benign social organization morph into an influential and often ruthless group with political objectives.

During Tweed's reign, Tammany Hall was actually located at 14th Street between 3rd Avenue and Irving Place. Tammany moved here in 1867 and would remain until the late 20s, when they would move just around the corner to Union Square. This photo was taken in 1914. Today the Con Edison building, with its beautiful clock tower, stands in its place.


The Tweed Ring -- on in this case 'the Four Knaves' -- as interpreted by their harshest critic, illustrator Thomas Nast. The Ring was composed of Tweed, Mayor A. Oakey Hall, chamberlain Peter Sweeny and 'Slippery Dick' Connolly, the comptroller. Emanating from this core group would be other underlings and associates who would assist in the Ring's graft and embezzlement

Nast's charges of voting fraud below weren't hyperbole. The elections of 1868, which installed Hall into the mayor's seat and Tammany disciple John Hoffman into the governor's chair, was one of the most manipulated in American history. Fraud was only too common in New York elections in the 19th century.


The New York County Courthouse, also known as the Tweed Courthouse for the vast amount money supposedly thrown at it during construction. Contractors would wildly overbill for their often shoddy work, with members of the Tweed Ring skimming from the totals. It would take over 20 years for the building to finally be completed -- longer than it took to build the Brooklyn Bridge.


BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS: If you want to learn more about Boss Tweed, go immediately to Kenneth Ackerman's excellent 'Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York'. For a broader overview on Tammany Hall, seek out a copy of Oliver E. Allen's 'The Tiger: The Rise And Fall of Tammany Hall' which I believe it out of print but worth looking for.

RELATED PODCASTS: Listen to our prior show on Greenwood Cemetery, where Tweed is buried. Re-visit our Union Square show to get a taste of Tammany's wily Fernando Wood. Last year I wrote about the Ludlow Street Jail, where Tweed saw his final days.