Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moving Day: Oh, the madness!!


Above: A Moving Day calamity in 1831!

I'm moving into a new apartment starting tomorrow morning, and the whole process should take a few days. But on a brighter note, tomorrow will be my first day as a resident of Brooklyn! As a result the blog will be a little quiet until Friday afternoon, when I'll have some notes on this week's podcast, corrections and additions, and some recommendations of other books to read.

Historically, of course, May 1st has been considered Moving Day in New York City and was a sort of unofficial holiday, the day when leases uniformly began throughout the city. Thousands of people filled the streets with their possessions, causing what must have been the year's most unusual traffic jams: horsecarts, pushcarts and wheelbarrows, loaded with furniture.

The tradition has been traced all the way back to the city's Dutch days.

In 1832, the mother of Anthony Trollope wrote, "On the 1st of May the city of New York has the appearance of sending off a population flying from the plague, or of a town which had surrendered on condition of carrying away all their goods and chattels. Rich furniture and ragged furniture, carts, wagons, and drays, ropes, canvas, and straw, packers, porters, and draymen, white, yellow, and black, occupy the streets from east to west, from north to south, on this day."

No less than frontiersman Davey Crocket was flummoxed by the strange event.: "Broadway, it seemed to me that the city was flying before some awful calamity..... It seemed a kind of frolic, as if they were changing houses just for fun. Every street was crowded with carts, drays, and people. So the world goes. It would take a good deal to get me out of my log-house; but here, I understand, many persons ‘move’ every year."

You can read more about this curious custom of early New York here. And I'll be back to post in Friday if I haven't lost my mind!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Welcome to 1864! A 24-karat gold hoax, New York's first theme restaurant, and a Confederate plot to torch the city



Barnum's American Museum at left (the building with the flag) and the Astor House at right, from the vantage of City Hall Park, circa 1850. Both buildings were victims of the Confederate plot of 1864 to burn the city.

PODCAST We're officially subtitling this 'Strange Tales of 1864', presenting you with a series of odd, fascinating stories from one pivotal year in New York City history. With the city both fatigued by the length of the Civil War and energized by Union victories, New Yorkers were often at their best -- and their worst.

The city unites around an unusual parade -- the first regiment of African-American troops -- even as it elects a pacifist mayor sympathetic to the Southern cause. A grand and flamboyant fair, uniting the community, offers up a surprising New York tradition -- the theme restaurant. Meanwhile, a local newspaper editor devises an elaborate hoax to get rich quick off the gold market.

But with the November re-election of Abraham Lincoln also comes a deadly threat -- a Confederate conspiracy aimed at New York's luxury hotels. Tune in as we recount the botched plot to destroy New York in an conflagration of 'Greek fire'.

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: Hoaxes and Conspiracies of 1864

The Knickerbocker Kitchen, a featured restaurant at New York's Metropolitan Fair. Women dressed in traditional Dutch and Colonial garb and served items believed to be popular with the residents of old New Amsterdam. [NYPL]


Pavilions were specially constructed around Union Square for the Metropolitan Fair, which raised money for the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

The 'Indian Department' at the Metropolitan Fair. [Library of Congress]

A nighttime 'torchlight' rally for presidential candidate George McClellan, the clear choice for New Yorkers in 1864. For a Democratic stronghold like New York, the former general was an especially appealing alternative to Abraham Lincoln. [NYPL]

A scene from the New York Gold Room, epicenter of American gold speculation. During the Civil War, traders would buy and sell based upon Union victories and defeats. The trade was also susceptible to false information, such as the events of the Gold Hoax of 1864. (NYPL)


Robert Cobb Kennedy, the only one of the Confederate conspirators to be caught. He was executed at Fort Lafayette in 1865, a couple weeks before the end of the Civil War.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Podcast will arrive this weekend -- with the hurricane!


Coming this weekend: a podcast in the lap of New York luxury in 1864, including the Fifth Avenue Hotel, pictured above (at far right) in the 1900s. But wait, is that something burning?

This has been a pretty insane week, especially as I'm moving to a new apartment this Tuesday and Tom's recently back from his vacation. As a result, the podcast will go live this weekend, most likely Sunday morning, August 28. But I assure you it will be worth the wait and a great distraction as Hurricane Irene comes barreling through the city!

Since I've been focusing on subjects from the year 1864, you might have a good guess on what this week's podcast topic is. But here's another small clue: like a wealthy tourist, we'll be spending a lot of times in fancy hotels, but it won't be for pleasantries. (Don't worry, this show won't be quite as depressing as the Draft Riots!)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fort Wadsworth and the ghosts of the Civil War


Battery Weed pictured above, a peaceful ruin with almost two hundred years of history

In 1864, there were few places in New York harbor more intense than the three fortesses alongside the Narrows. On the Brooklyn side, Fort Hamilton served as a training site, while Fort Lafayette partially functioned as a Confederate prison, notably holding the only man captured for the terrorist conspiracy of November 1864, involving the arson of several posh New York hotels. (That man, Robert Cobb Kennedy, was also hung here at the fort.)

But its companion fort on the Staten Island side -- Fort Richmond -- was equally crowded. Notably, the 5th Regiment of New York Volunteers was stationed out of here. In August 1864 the military installation was loaded with new weaponry (based on early designs by then-ally Robert E. Lee from a decade before!), and in that year, it was also given a new name. The Union general James Wadsworth was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness that May, and his memory was honored with the renamed Fort Wadsworth.

Today, the collection of old batteries, buildings and fortresses, in a wonderful state of ruin, are managed by the National Park Service. And the grounds are well worth an afternoon of wandering. By the way, the picturesque Battery Weed, the structure in the photo above, is also named for a Union war hero -- General Stephen Weed.



You can find other photos from my Fort Wadsworth walk over on our Facebook page.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Earthquake of 1884! A few parallels to today's quake

New York has never suffered severely from the effects of an earthquake. But the one just felt today-- reportedly of 5.8 or 5.9 magnitude, centered around Virginia and affecting many Northeast metropolitan areas -- ranks quite high on the list of tremors felt here.

There's no way to compare it to the really early quakes, as the Richter scale was only created in 1935. But quakes have hit the city as early as December 18, 1737, when a guesstimated 5.2 rattled holiday chimneys. But an equally dramatic tremor that hit on Sunday, August 10, 1884, has a few parallels to the recent one.

"No Damage Done But Queer Sensations Experienced" reported the New York Tribune the next day. From the Sun: "An Earthquake Shakes Us." The tremor occurred at 2:07 pm "by the City Hall clock" in a couple separate waves. (Today's was at 1:59 pm.) No living New Yorker in 1884 had obviously ever experienced an earthquake in their city. Some ran to their windows expecting to see a runaway horse car. Others standing under the newly built elevated railroad thought the train was arriving.

Those stopped on the street felt something beneath their feet and became starkly confused. Eventually some people left their homes and collected in parks, such as the assemblage the Tribune reports formed outside of City Hall. Today we feel a rumbling and just assume the subway, which wasn't built yet in 1884 (outside of the short lived pneumatic tube, of course).

There was some damage reported to homes in the Lower East Side, and some residents -- being mostly immigrants, perhaps more in tune to the dangers of tremors in their home lands -- rushed out into the street with their furniture. A few horse stables shook open and their residents fled into the streets.

Apparently, those in the poshest hotels felt it strongly, or at least announced to reporters that it had rattled them so. At the Fifth Avenue Hotel, a clerk described, "On the upper floors the guests say that the oscillations were marked" and reported a rattling of the chandeliers. Apparently, an admired set of colored drinking glasses at the Astor House was thrown from its nook and smashed on the floor.

Rumors spread. Some thought the west side gas works on 14th Street had exploded, while others circulated that dynamite had gone off in the Hell Gate. A "mouldy headed orator" in Harlem -- near one of New York's natural fault line at 125th Street -- proclaimed that Manhattan was built upon a rock shelf that had been abruptly brushed by a passing whale, the tremors caused by its flapping tail.

The sensation of the tremor seemed to be felt almost at random; for instance, those living along the Hudson reporting it rattling dishes, while tourists atop the newly built Brooklyn Bridge barely felt a thing. Some electrical services were briefly disrupted, as was telegraph service. (That's a lot of extra dots and dashes, I suppose.)

On First Avenue, a drunken afternoon reveler ran out of a local saloon "and hurrahed for earthquakes and for social revolution." Uptown at the Hoffman House, a California businessman quietly said to his friend, "Well, if everything in New York wasn't nailed down I should say that we are having an earthquake."

(By the way, according to the New York Sun, an aftershock was felt the following afternoon in Far Rockaway, as well as parts of New Jersey. So be prepared!)

At top: An image from the DVD box to 'After Shock: Earthquake In New York', a must-see of awful filmmaking that you'll have to check out when it's inevitably broadcast on the SyFy channel

C. Godfrey Gunther: the other Civil War, pro-South mayor


Continuing with the theme of '1864', here's a revised and expanded version of an article I wrote back in 2009 on the man who was mayor of New York during that crazy year:

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 C. Godfrey Gunther


In office: 1864-1865

His past glories were built on a mountain of fur pelts, and his future would wash up on the half-developed shores of Coney Island. But in 1961, it was Civil War that nearly derailed the political career of Charles Godfrey Gunther.

The groundwork was laid in 1857 by former mayor Fernando Wood, who rebelled against Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine he formerly led, to form his new political organization called Mozart Hall. This assemblage of working class reformers and Wood devotees returned him to City Hall in 1960, foisting from office the German paint mogul Daniel Tiemann who had first unseated Wood back in 1857.

Back in business, Wood heralded a feisty pro-South, anti-abolitionist stance, pitting himself against Albany and threatening to secede Manhattan from the state.

By the election of 1861 however, a swell of national support for the Union cause turned against Wood. The Democrats were in a precarious spot, splintered between rival Democratic groups. It's here in our story where we introduce Charles Godfrey Gunther, Tammany's official candidate for mayor in 1861.


Gunther was born at Maiden Lane and Liberty Street, on Feb 7, 1822 -- into a German family that had made its fortunes in the fur trade, rivals of the city's true fur king, John Jacob Astor. Charles spent his youth in his father Christian's tutelage, taking over the family mercantile business C.G. Gunther & Co. (pictured at left)

Charles was active in Democratic politics at an early age, sharpening his teeth during party squabbles. In 1855, he was elected an almshouse governor, overseeing the city's prison and pauper populations. (The blog Correction History has a nice rundown of this unusual elected job function.)

His backroom political successes, paired with his wealth, attracted the attentions of Tammany Hall. The furrier's son worked his way up through the political lodge, eventually becoming sachem (or district leader) in 1856.

He was Tammany's candidate for mayor in 1861, against the rebellious Wood, and it would have made for a fine contest between them. Wood still had his Irish supporters, but Gunther's inclusion lured German voters away from him. In fact, Gunther did beat Wood in that election, scoring 600 more votes than Wood.

But of course, there was another contestant, the Republican George Opdyke. With Wood and Gunther appealing to the same constituencies, they split the traditional Democratic vote, and Opdyke ascended to office.

Perhaps Charles should have been grateful. The years 1862 and 1863 were not gracious times to be mayor of a major city. Opdyke's execution of military conscription angered poorer New Yorkers, and his fumbled handling of the ensuing draft riots permanently damaged his political reputation.

By the fall of 1863, New Yorkers craving a change in leadership were given a strange buffet of choices. The Republicans, shedding Opdyke and at a serious political disadvantage, brought forth alderman and gun-maker Orison Blunt, inventor of the 'pepper box gun'. Tammany meanwhile offered up Francis I. A. Boole, a rather corrupt city official notable for heading the street cleaning department.

With these weak choices at such a pivotal period in history, rebels from both parties -- and heavily peopled with disenfranchised former Wood supporters -- split to form a temporary coalition of working class Irish and Germans.

With the strong support of the city's surging German newspapers, Gunther was chosen as their candidate. That November he swept past Blunt and Boole to become New York's 77th mayor. Boole took it especially hard; he "became insane and died shortly afterwards."

Was the Gunther an effective mayor in 1864? His reviews have always been mixed. An "honest, pleasant gentleman, with frank and cordial manners," he's praised for his penny pinching tactics, at one time even cancelling a celebration of George Washington's birthday as it was thought to be too extravagant. In 1964, on the verge of a national election, he clamped down on any serious city celebrations of Union victory as being too 'political' in nature.

Many, however, saw a darker reason for Gunther's actions. He was also pro-South and anti-war, but practically so and far less treasonous sounding than Wood. "He was probably a genuine pacifist," according to author Ernest McKay. "His opposition was a matter of principle that appeared to be closely connected with his religious beliefs." Let's just say, I doubt either Fernando or Benjamin Wood considered Gunther much of a political ally.

Regardless, throughout his term, Gunther attempted to curtail renewed draft efforts in the city and tried to deter 'brokers' from hanging around Castle Garden and signing up green young men from off the immigrant boats. He made public strides to prevent a potential anniversary of the Draft Riots, although it is unclear whether such violence would have reoccurred in 1864, with the war clearly gaining steam for the Union.

The new mayor also strived to clear the streets during his tenure, with the removal of slaughterhouses and roaming herds of cattle all over the city.

Ultimately, Gunther was seen as a rather weak political figure, with little influence over other city offices. Perhaps this was because he was comparatively honest -- living "by his principles" according to McKay -- and the bureaucracies of city government dreadfully corrupted. Running for re-election in 1865, he was crushed in the polling, with three other candidates out voting him. The victor that year was true-blue Boss Tweed crony John Hoffman.



Above: the Coney Island terminal for the Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island Railroad line

Gunther's story doesn't end here. He became a prominent leader in New York volunteer fire department and eventually even a partner in a very lucrative venture -- the Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island Railroad. It was this rail line that allowed thousands of New Yorkers to escape the city, eventually transforming Coney Island into a popular resort and amusement palace.

The train line, nicknamed Gunther's Road, operated "six steam locomotives and 28 passenger cars" and "carried almost 400,000 passengers" in 1882 alone. Gunther would even own his own resort out on Coney Island, although it burned down a few years later.

And I end with a rather colorful anecdote from a 1906 article about Mr. Gunther and his railroad, from The Third Rail:

"There was one engineer who had served in the war of the rebellion, and who was particularly patriotic, who painted his engine red, white and blue.

Gunther saw it from a distance, on its first trip, tearing across the country, and he was frantic.

"For God's sake, Drummond," he said, when he overtook his engineer, "whatever possessed you to paint that engine red, white and blue?'

"You're a true American, ain't you?" said Drummond.

"Yes, but-but-"

"Well, so am I."

"Yes, but that engine looks like a traveling barber shop."

Gunther could not convince Drummond, however, and the latter quit his job rather than submit to any alterations.

The engine was afterwards painted according to Mr. Gunther's ideas.

It was painted a flaring yellow."


Mr. Gunther died on January 22, 1885 and is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery.

ADDED: One of our Facebook fans reminded me of an even more spectacular fact about Mr. Gunther -- there was actually a short-lived Brooklyn neighborhood named after him. Guntherville was actually part of the pre-consolidation town of Gravesend and naturally featured many properties owned by C. Godfrey. The map below from 1873 illustrates its place along the Gravesend shore. Judging from comparing maps, it appears that part of Guntherville would later comprise the fleeting, beach side amusement venture Ulmer Park.


Pics courtesy of the New York Public Library

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Birth of the modern (i.e. totally insane) stock market


Wall Street's curbside traders, in the throes of unregulated buying and selling.

From here until next Friday and the release of the next podcast, I'll be posting stories from a particular, namely the year 1864. It's one of the weirder years in New York City history.

You would think that having part of your city in ruins due to the Draft Riots in 1863 might demoralize a city. You might think four years of war, overcrowded slums, burgeoning street violence, and ever sophisticated methods of government corruption (via a newly empowered Tammany Hall) would send the city's fortunes into a tailspin.

In fact, New York in 1864 proved the adage that war makes for good business. Still seen in some circles as a Southern ally, New York regularly traded with the South. And the city's merchant class flaunted its wealth with new homes and imported fashion, even while making grand but ultimately shallow gestures to curtail its luxuries.

Wall Street was benefiting grandly, and an innovation in 1864 would change the way stocks would be traded, increasing the number of transactions and paving the way for American Gilded Age wealth.

Before 1864, shares were still be sold in a traditional auction format with comparatively few transactions during only two sessions a day. The previous year, the New York Stock And Exchange Board had changed its name to the New York Stock Exchange and had commissioned a beautiful new home at 10-12 Broad Street. The building would be completed a year later. But some radical traders, impatient with the stodgy board and its traditional method of selling, couldn't wait for the new trading floor.

Below: The south side of Wall Street, circa 1864. At the far left of the picture is the Merchants Exchange building at 55 Wall Street. Broad Street and the Long Room would be to the right of the camera.


In 1864, these traders, operating as the Open Board of Stock Brokers, rented out another room at 18 Broad Street. (The current stock exchange building is at this address today.) The room is historically called 'the Long Room', although there are many long rooms associated with New York history, such as the long room of Fraunces Tavern and Martling's Long Room, the birthplace of Tammany Hall.

In this Long Room -- "a cockpit 145 feet long and 45 feet wide" [source] -- traders broke out of the auction format and began a method of continuous trades, occurring all at once, throughout the day. A circus-like atmosphere prevailed, a claustrophobic display of activity that could be witnessed by curious onlookers from above. The layout presaged the modern trading floor, with various ports where multiple stocks could be traded simultaneously. Traders floated from spot to spot in a constant state of transaction.

Another feature that resembles today's traditions was the Long Room's exclusivity. Just as one may purchase a license to physically trade on today's stock market floor, the Long Room also has annual fee for admittance. Another source says there was a lofty door fee of $50.

This single expansion of business exploded the stock market, increasing business tenfold. According to Jay Gould biographer Edward Renehan, "in the 1860s, the Regular Board might see $7 million in business on any given day, and the Open Board $70 million."

The 'regular' stock exchange was seen as more reputable, but the continuous market -- and the even shifter street corner traders (pictured at top) -- was clearly making people wealthier. And naturally, this opening of financial floodgates encouraged hysteria and eventually vast malfeasance.

You can argue that America would not have become the nation it did without this accelerated alteration to the stock market, but you cannot argue that this 'improvement' made the industry more prone to speculation and outright manipulation.

For more information on the history of the stock exchange, check out our podcast on the New York Stock Exchange, newly 'illustrated' and up on our archive feed. Download it from here.

Top pic courtesy NYPL.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

We're not slumming! New podcast on the way next week


Seems like forever since we've had a new podcast right? Well, Tom is back from vacation this week, and we'll begin work on the new show. Episode #128 will be ready for download on Friday, August 26. Then we should be back to our regular monthly schedule -- with one or two surprises in between -- straight through until the end of the year.

Just wanted to note that the blog will have a couple less updates than normal over the next two or three weeks as I'll be moving to a new apartment. Starting tomorrow I'll begin posting here on subjects pertaining to next week's podcast topic.

And finally, I'll have some exciting news about a Bowery Boys-related LIVE EVENT coming in September.

Poster image courtesy the Library of Congress

Monday, August 15, 2011

New York landmarks: No stranger to lightning


The city received a right, proper Transylvania-style thunderstorm this weekend, with more than a few bolts streaking overhead early Sunday morning. You might find this shocking: According to the National Weather Service, the Empire State Building is struck by lightning an average of 23 times a year, or slightly more than one might be comfortable with while standing in its observation deck. [source: NYC.gov]

Ten years ago, the brunt of New York's lightning strikes not surprisingly hit the World Trade Center, the tallest building in the city. In fact, after the towers fell, scientists worried about an uptick of lightning fatalities in the city.

Lightning has thrilled and frightened New Yorkers even before the days of skyscrapers. A letter in a May 1853 issue of the New York Times mentions a large loss of life in the city due to lightning strikes and urges property owner to equip themselves with Benjamin Franklin's century-old invention of the lightning rod. No rods were evident a couple months later in Green-Wood Cemetery, when a series of bolts destroyed part of its new picket fence.

Meanwhile, lightning might have presented itself a most dangerous hazard (after drowning, heatstroke and overdrinking) along Brooklyn's southern beaches back in its glory days. A few cursory searches on news articles from the 1890s-1910s brings up a few horrifying articles. From 1893: "ONE KILLED, THREE INJURED; LIGHTNING STRIKES A BATHING PAVILION AT CONEY ISLAND." While in 1905, a series of lightning strikes killed five and injured eight, including a death at Ulmer Park.

According to a 1884 journal on the wonders of electricity, an errant bolt even struck the Brooklyn Bridge while it was under construction, snapping a mast and sending currents through the wires.


Above: An Arent cigarette card, from the Age of Wonder and Power series. Yes, collectible cards in a cigarette box! (Courtesy NYPL)

Friday, August 12, 2011

New York City Hall: Open for business for 200 years!


Above: City Hall in 1900 (Courtesy NYPL)

Never have I been more elated to write about a City Council meeting.

At the start of the 19th century, city affairs were still being conducted on Wall Street at Federal Hall. For many years they shared the corridors with George Washington and the first American Congress.  By 1800, the federal offices were long gone, but that 'old City Hall' was no longer an adequate structure for the affairs of a fast growing city.

So a new City Hall was planned in 1803 by New York's most notable designers of the day, Joseph Mangin and John McComb, to be placed at the site of the city's old common grounds. After years of delays, however, it seems city leaders grew a tad impatient. Although the new City Hall building would not officially be completed until 1812, the mayor and the Common Council moved in anyway.

According to state records, the very first meeting between Mayor DeWitt Clinton and the council was held on August 12, 1811.

"The Common Council met agreeably to adjournment in the new City Hall in the room designed for the Mayor's office." Mayor Clinton was joined in his chambers by a recorder and the 17 members of the Common Council, including both Caleb and John Pell, whose family holdings would become the basis of Pelham Bay Park.

And what, you may ask, was the big item on their agenda? The proposal to fence in Chatham Square.

That open patch of land, on the Bowery and to the west of City Hall, had become an open air livestock market. The famous old Bull's Head Tavern was located nearby, and farmers from all over Manhattan came to this area to sell their wares to merchants and to factories located around Collect Pond. Some on the council believed a fence around this place of business would constrict farmers attempting to move in and out of the property.

Still, a fence brought the promise of cleanliness. Collect Pond was being drained and levelled, and city leaders expected the land values surrounding it to increase. Thus the fence was approved. You can find a picture of Chatham Square and the newly constructed fence below.

But more importantly, with this decision, two hundred years of civic bureaucracy were well underway!

For more information, check out our podcast on the history of City Hall and City Hall Park (Episode #93).


Courtesy the New York Public Library Digital Image gallery


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Violence across time: the riots of London and New York

Above: The 1863 Draft Riots and the aftermath of violence in London

In a couple weeks, Tom and I will finish off our three-part Civil War series with a strange tale taking place during the war's final years. But it seems I can't quite get our last subject -- the 1863 Draft Riots -- out of my mind, especially in light of the ongoing riots in London. I don't profess any particular knowledge on the subject of rioting or its underlying psychology, and I'm far from truly understanding the nuances of the current strife in the UK. But having just studied and talked about violence in the streets of New York, the events in London seem uncannily similar in many ways.

A popular instinct upon hearing about the deadly riots of the summer of 1863 is that such gruesome and senseless mass violence in New York couldn't happen today. Why, we're civilized now! There's always an assumption that people were just more violent back then. And in a sense, that is true. As an example, the rioters in 1863 were only a couple generations from one that used dueling as an acceptable form of resolving conflict. War was in their backyard; death, by epidemics, by diseases today eradicated, was in the front.

The city seemed to stand on two sides, financial and social divides with little to bridge them. It took the announcement of a Union conscription drive -- and a $300 exemption for the wealthy -- to highlight the disparity of class that played out every day, stripping bare the mechanism to expose the racism ('nativists' vs. immigrant, black vs. white) that seemed to fuel almost every aspect of life in New York in the 1860s.

Although the linchpin of the London riots resembles that of other modern conflicts (like the Los Angeles riots of 1992), other details seem to parallel those that occurred in New York almost 150 years ago.

An initial peaceful event (in this case, a protest march in the Tottenham police station) quickly overtaken by mob rule. An initial police action that proves too inadequate. City leaders, off vacationing, caught off-guard. Conflicts between rioters and law enforcement driven by raw anger of class inequality, eventually stripped to acts of thuggery against innocents and, by the third day, spreading like a virus to the surrounding areas. And as we learn more of the individual stories from the London streets, I'm afraid the ugliest aspect of the Draft Riots will also be revealed here -- the systematic violence amongst the rioters along racial lines.

That's nothing explicitly linking the two events other that the very nature of rioting itself. And this is not to say that, ultimately, the London riots may, in some ways, be worse. But I think it's important to keep in mind when returning to the Draft Riots that such violence and turmoil is not a part of mere historical mindset, but of a chaos that can still make itself known in the modern-day urban world.

New York's rioters were disorganized and fueled by rumor and assumption. Even with an Internet, 24 hour news coverage and Twitter, the London rioters seem similarly dislodged. But there is one striking difference: UK law enforcement has already arrested hundreds, some thanks to photographic and video evidence. In New York, few rioters were ever prosecuted. That's partially due to the ascent of the Democratic machine Tammany Hall, which favored the motivations of the Irish rioters. In London, we may find that the political climate there will also influence who is ultimately convicted.

Of course, you don't need to reach back too far in New York City history to find similar events either. From the Harlem riots of the mid 20th century to even the Stonewall Riots in 1969, seemingly small events (the arrest of a shoplifter, the closure of a dive bar) can auger or spark violent outrage to devastating effect.

And it was twenty years ago this very month that New York saw its last deadly riot in Crown Heights, bringing to force the underlying conflicts of that neighborhood's black and Jewish populations. Those events began one hot August Monday when a Guyanese child was struck by an automobile in a Hasidic motorcade. By the end, dozens were injured, property burned and one man was killed.

That was just twenty years ago. London is just a seven hour flight from New York. All of a sudden, a 148-year-old riot doesn't seem like a historical artifact anymore.

Top picture courtesy NYPL. Bottom picture courtesy IBT/Reuters

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Coney Island unveils a new alternative to pedicabs


Goats were the environmentally friendly way to see Coney Island in 1904. The short lived 'Coney Island Zoo' was actually a part of Dreamland amusement park, alongside the bizarre dwarf village Lilliputia and the infamous room of premie babies in incubators.

The goats pictured above were joined at the modest zoo with a collection of thalycines -- also called Tasmanian tigers -- an animal that is today considered extinct. According to the blog The Circus 'No Spin Zone, thalycines were sometimes sold in pet shops, although its extraordinarily wide-opening jaws and non-retractable claws probably made this an unpopular pet.

The zoo -- along with the rest of Dreamland -- burned down one hundred years ago.

Picture courtesy the Library of Congress.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Happy Hour Riddle: Is Sober Drunk?

From an August 1911 edition of the New York World:


I believe the address of Mr. Sober, 47 Fair Street, was near Fort Greene Park.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Summer Streets NYC 2011: Take us with you!

This Saturday the city begins its annual Summer Streets program, closing a corridor of avenues from the Brooklyn Bridge to 72st Street and transforming them into pedestrian havens.  From 7am until 1pm on August 6, 13, and 20th, you can walk, bike, skateboard or generally meander in any way you please for miles. You can find a complete route map here, and there's a smaller version below. It's an terrific way to see the city; you can stare up at buildings at length and take photographs of things only a daredevil in traffic would hasten to do.

And it's also a great time -- to listen to a history podcast! We've actually spoken at length about many destinations along this route. So take one of these shows with you and experience a little history right where it happened.

As always you can download it from iTunes or other podcast aggregators, or you may right-click onto the links below:

1. African Burial Ground
The Summer Streets route begins near Foley Square, partially situated atop the remains of an ancient burial ground belonging to New York's original black population. Take a gander at the extraordinarily unusual monument to the west of the square. [Download]

2. Collect Pond
You'll progress up Lafayette Street and past Collect Pond Park. Below you once sat the city's source of 18th century drinking water and an eventual cesspool that had to be drained via a canal (that then became Canal Street). [Download]

3.  Petrosino Square (featured in 'Case Files of the NYPD')
Four blocks north of Canal Street sits a small park named after legendary cop Joseph Petrosino. In our 'Case Files of the NYPD' show, Tom recounts the thrilling tale of Petrosino's rise into the police force -- and his tragic demise. [Download]

4. Puck Building
Lafayette Street seems nice so far, right? The street is a bit of a destroyer however, lobbing off an original section of the Puck Building when the road was expanded south. Oh, but this former home of a 19th century satire publication is full of many surprises.... [Download]

5. The Astors 
Lafayette Street was named by John Jacob Astor who developed many luxury properties in this area -- and hundreds of far less luxurious ones everywhere else. To your right above 4th Street is the old Astor Library (which today houses the Public Theatre) and to the north is the great Astor Place. So why not learn a little about the family? [Download]

6. The Apple Orchard at 11th Street (featured in 'The Grid')
The path now moves from Lafayette to Fourth Avenue. At 11th Street, notice that the street doesn't cut through to the west. Grace Church sits there like a fortress! In our show on the Commissioners Plan of 1811, we recount the tale of Henry Breevort's apple orchard that once sat here and managed to break up the city's grand uniform plans. [Download]

7. Union Square
You'll take Fourth Avenue all the way to 14th Street, where you will be greeted with one of New York's most popular parks. Union Square used to be an oval and also the centerpiece of high society in the mid 19th century. As you begin your walk up Park Avenue South, take note of the petite sculpture of the namesake of the street where you began your walk -- the Marquis de Lafayette. [Download]

8. Park Avenue Tunnel (featured in 'New York's Elevated Railroad')
As you enjoy your stroll up an empty Park Avenue, take note of the now-carless tunnel that plunges under the street at 33rd Street. The origin of this strange underground detour stretch back to the 1830s and the early days of the New York and Harlem Railroad. I retell the story of this former 'open sore' in our show on the New York's Elevated Railroad. [Download]

9. Grand Central
Oddly enough, one of my favorite parts of Summer Streets involves the one moment you're blocked from the sun. With no vehicles, pedestrians are able to walk around the classic structure via the elevated road. You can also closely check out the statue to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who changed the city forever with his railroad and ferry acquisitions. [Download]

10.  Met Life Building (Pan Am Building)
This is probably the structure you're the least excited to see, but hopefully, in our podcast (a personal favorite of mine), we make a convincing case for giving this building its proper due. [Download]

11. Steinway
The sleek Seagram Building on Park Avenue and 52nd Street will catch your eye, or at least that weird yellow teddy-bear sculpture will. But a hundred years before the Seagram was even built, Henry Steinway had a huge manufacturing plant here, where he delivered to music-minded New Yorkers the finest instruments in town. The factory was almost destroyed during the Civil War Draft Riots. (You'll have to listen to the show to find out how they saved it!) [Download]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Who won the Great Gimbels Air Race of 1911?


The place to be one hundred years ago today was Greeley Square, that bustling public space just south of 34th Street from Herald Square. Thousands of people crowded the sidewalks outside the department stores that afternoon, and many hundreds more shoved themselves into the elevated subway station.

These crowds were centered around Gimbels department store at 33rd and Broadway, but nobody was there to look for bargains. No, they were simply looking up.

Below: Gimbels store on 33rd Street. Today the building houses the Manhattan Mall, but you can still see vestiges of the old store in its copper green traverse. Courtesy the CUNY archive.


Imagine a century ago when air flight was so novel that just the sight of a plane zipping through the heavens could elicit shock and amazement. Now imagine three aeroplanes racing across the sky, right over your head. Most buildings in midtown Manhattan were no more than a few stories tall in 1911, allowing crowds an unencumbered view of something historic.

In the early days of flight, pilots were often driven by cash rewards. The Gimbels Brothers, the chief rival of Macy's department store across the street, had opened their new emporium here at 33rd Street just the year before. As a publicity stunt, they offered $5,000 to the pilot who could fly between their New York store and their Philadelphia location the fastest.

Three airmen took up the offer: Hugh Robinson, a young engineer working for early aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss; Lincoln Beachey, a stunt flyer known for his dapper fashion sense, and another pilot, Charles Hamilton. On the morning of August 4th, 1911, the three pilots headed to the busiest air field in New York -- Governor's Island -- to prep their new flying machines.

The Gimbels were not the only ones benefiting from publicity that day. All three men would be flying crafts made by Curtiss, who never missed a chance to grab headlines from his bitter rivals, the Wright Brothers. But as flight time approached, the skies above New York appeared overcast, and Hamilton -- fearful of flying a new craft in windy conditions -- dropped out. No matter! On hand to replace him was faithful Curtiss flyer Eugene Ely. (He's the one pictured at top, pictured in 1911, photo courtesy LOC.)

At 2:30 that afternoon, the three planes lifted off from Governor's Island and headed over Manhattan. All over the city, New Yorkers craned their necks to stare at the three specks streaking over the sky. According to the Evening World, "Every window of every hotel and office building which opened towards the route of the flyers were full of faces." The best seats in the city were atop the Gimbels building itself, where VIPs sipped liquid refreshment and fanned themselves as studious members from the Aero Club of America timed the competitors.

The three planes flew over Manhattan then circled the Gimbels store, to the delight of the crowds, before heading off over the Hudson River and into New Jersey.

Only two planes made it to Philadelphia that day. At one point, Beachey (pictured at right, impeccably dressed) landed his craft in Trenton, becoming momentarily disoriented. He quickly made it back up in the air. Robinson ran out of gas around Princeton Junction; luckily for him, some cheerful motorists sped into town and retrieved additional fuel for the pilot. Robinson was back up in the air in less than 20 minutes.

Eugene Ely, the replacement derring-do, wasn't as lucky. Having flown dangerously within feet of Beachey, Ely's fuel tank began to leak, and he was forced out of the sky. 

The remaining two air crafts arrived in Philly a little over two hours after leaving Governor's Island. It was raining, but the enthusiastic crowds still filled the streets. Lincoln Beachey got there first, encircling Philadelphia City Hall and the statue of William Penn before flying past the Gimbels store and landing in Fairmount Park. Robinson was close behind and both pilots "were drenched to the skin, having passed through thundershowers between Trenton, NJ, and Philadelphia." [source]

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Brooklyn baseball: the Superbas and the worst batter ever

The New York Times this morning had an intriguing story about a unfortunate fellow who plays for the Chicago White Sox named Adam Dunn -- nicknamed 'the Big Donkey'.  This has been a banner year for Mr. Dunn as he is about to make the list as one of the worst players in the history of the sport.

It's that list that brings the story back to New York. Dunn has a current batting average of .165. For you complete novices, that the number of hits Dunn has scored divided by the number of times he's been at bat. (Ed.: I'm obviously one of those novices. Check the notes below for a clearer definition.) That is roughly my batting average when I played for my church softball team when I was nine years old.

According to writer Sam Borden, "a number like .165 will put his name in the record books for the lowest single-season batting average by an everyday player since 1909, when Bill Bergen, a catcher, hit .139 for the Brooklyn Superbas." With a basic average of almost 9 outs for every 10 at-bats, who is this Bill Bergen and why was he allowed to play at all?

The history of baseball would be nothing without Brooklyn. Not only were some of the first leagues formed in the former independent city, but perhaps the sport's most legendary team (the Brooklyn Dodgers) played here at Ebbets Field. The first enclosed ballfield, the Union Grounds, was built in 1862 in today's Williamsburg.

Brooklyn's first professional National League team in the 1890s went by many unofficial names. At one point, they were called the Brooklyn Bridegrooms -- not the most rousing name -- then the Brooklyn Robins. By the time Brooklyn consolidated with New York in 1898, the team received a new nickname, and from a surprising source.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the daredevil vaudevillian acrobats the Hanlon Brothers, known for extraordinary feats of human agility mixed into theatrical extravaganzas. They made their debut at Niblo's Garden in 1858, and fifty years later, their sons were still carrying on the tradition of thrilling audiences with their mix of fantasy, theater and gymnastics.

In the 1890s, the Hanlon sons focused their energies on two popular traveling variety shows, elaborate productions akin to a stadium rock show, often employing revolving stages, costumed casts, and sophisticated harnesses and props. The first, Fantasma!, would later be the subject of Thomas Edison's early films. Their second, Superba!, would accidentally inspire the world of baseball.

In 1899, scrappy baseball superstar Ned Hanlon -- who made his career in the 1880s in Cleveland and Pittsburgh -- moved to Brooklyn to manage the then-named Brooklyn Bridegrooms.  Ned Hanlon was not related to the flamboyant Hanlon brothers in any way.  However, simply by confusion or a cheeky name-play by journalists, the team was soon called the Brooklyn Superbas, borrowing the title of the popular theatrical show. (You pronounce it the Su-PER-bas.)  The name stuck until the early 1910s, when the borough's primary form of transportation inspired another nickname -- the Trolley Dodgers, soon shortened to just the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Bill Bergen (at left), the man with the lowest batting average in professional baseball history, was a catcher for the Brooklyn team during much of its Superbas era. Bill was a superb catcher -- in fact, still considered one of the best by baseball historians -- but a lousy batter. In 1909, he set that rather infamous batting average, and over the course of his entire eleven year career, he hit just two home runs.

Let us not criticize Bergen too harshly. Several years earlier, his big brother Marty Bergen, also a baseball star, suffered from devastating mental issues. In 1900, Marty murdered his own wife and kids with an axe, before taking his own life with a straight razor. That certainly makes a crappy batting average seem rather trivial.

And no, Brooklyn did not name its Bergen Street -- which runs a dozen blocks north of Ebbets Field -- after this early baseball star. The name of that lovely street has a far older history.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

History in the Making: The Final Chelsea Check-Out Edition


Interior of the Hotel Chelsea, photo from 1972, by Carter Tomassi

Imagine taking a treasured New York landmark and slowly strangling the very reason it was famous in the first place until nothing was left of it but an empty shell. Welcome to the Chelsea Hotel, August 2011. [New York Times] You can also follow Ed Hamilton's Hotel Chelsea blog for updates.

These are truly strange days for one of New York's most famous addresses, as it closes for renovations by yet another new owner. But just who is this "mysterious big shot" new owner? [New York Observer]

For some background on the embattled old Chelsea survivor, take a listen to our podcast on the Hotel Chelsea's long, strange history. Download it from here or find it on iTunes. It's episode #89!