Monday, September 30, 2013

When the Bowery Ballroom was a shoe store and other scenes from Delancey Street in the 1930s

The Tree-Mark Shoe Store at 6-8 Delancey Street. You may know this building today as the Bowery Ballroom, a music venue since 1997. (Wurts Brothers, date unknown, both courtesy NYPL)





The interior of the shoe store, 1930 (Pic courtesy MCNY)

8 Delancey Street. Tree-Mark shoe store, interior.

This building has had a rocky history, according to historian Matthew Postal.  Using remnants of an old theater at this spot, the current building was constructed in 1928 as a retail store, but the stock market crash the following year ensured tenants never stayed for long.  Tree-Mark was home here the longest, almost thirty years.

Tree-Mark Shoe Stores, a family-owned establishment since 1919, was an affordable shoe outlet with three locations in New York by the late 1950s -- the original Delancey Street location, one off Herald Square and another on Kingsbridge Road n the Bronx.

"Comfort, rather than high style, is the goal," the New York Times mentioned in a fashion write-up of the shoe franchise.  "However, it is possible to get a good-looking pump with a stacked heel for as little as $13.95."  In a later article about the popularity of boots, Tree-Mark is mentioned as "specializ[ing] in boots for women with larger than average calves."

The advertisement, at right, is from a 1934 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  "8,000 customers cordially recommend them."

On an unrelated note, in 1971, employees at the Herald Square location all chipped in to buy a lottery ticket and won $100,000.
_________________________________

Here's a couple bonus photos of life along Delancey Street in the 1930s. The first captures the southwest corner of Delancey and Ludlow. Judging from this 1929 picture of the same corner, that building being torn down is a public school.  Today that is the location of the swanky lounge The DL.


And here's the northeast corner of Delancey and Essex, Wurts Brothers, date unknown (NYPL)  Outside of the Blue Building towering over it all, this street corner isn't that much different today.



Friday, September 27, 2013

This weekend: Explore an abandoned factory in DUMBO



For several decades, Ben Forman & Sons occupied the three-story, brick-constructed factory at 201 Water Street in today's neighborhood of DUMBO, an industrial metal plant which produced "ornamental dies, lamp parts, brass sheets, chopsticks, domestic cutlery sets, butter spreaders, flatware sets, domestic serving utensils" and a myriad of other metal objects for the home. [source]

In a very typical story for the neighborhood, the factory is gone, and recently the building was purchased and is being transformed into residences.

For the past few years, the factory has been known as the Jay Street Arts Building.  This weekend appears to be one of its final weekends before construction, and they are opening their doors a final time for a site-specific art project that will allow people to explore this fascinating building on their own.



Fabrika 7 is hosting this weird event, with art pieces dispersed throughout the building, applied with a heavy does of Am I supposed to be wandering around here?  Many installations use materials found in the building itself; other works are cleverly placed in former offices and even in factory washrooms.

I stumbled into this accidentally while meeting a friend there a few weeks ago, and within minutes, I was pretty sure I didn't want to leave.

It's gloomy and melancholy in places, and downright frightening in others.  An insistently unanswered phone rings somewhere in a cavernous space, as your eyes try focusing on a heap of twisted metal illuminated in blood-red light.  In other corners, you'll find evidence of the men that formerly worked here.  On the top floor -- an open room hoarding all the natural light -- it appears the ceiling as collapsed into a mass of metal entrails.



You can visit the Jay Street Art Building this weekend only.  It's located at 201 Water Street at the corner of Jay Street (take the F train to York Street), just a couple blocks from Brooklyn Bridge Park, so make a day of it! Oh, and did I mention, there's no admission charge?

Friday, Sept 27, 6-9pm, Saturday, Sept 28, 12-9pm, and Sunday, Sept 29, 12-6pm.

The installation is open this weekend as part of the Dumbo Arts Festival.  Check here for other events going on in DUMBO this week.

Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How well can you do on this New York history trivia quiz -- from 1914? Prepare to be a little frustrated.


No amount of studying will prepare you for some of these odd questions.  (A girl at Seward Library, photographed by Lewis Hine.)

Trivia quizzes are very popular today in bars and pubs throughout the city, but in the past, they've had more elitist purposes.  In November 1914, a group of possibly insecure ex-New Yorkers in Chicago -- united under the organization named the Empire State Society of Chicago -- announced a contest featuring fifteen questions on New York history.

The New York Sun got hold of this list of questions and posed them to people actually living in New York. What they got was mostly befuddlement and blank stares.  Rather than admit they were stumped, many basically said, whatever, they're in Illinois.  "Some have been heard to give as an excuse for their ignorance -- judged by the contest questions -- that perhaps the Chicago-New York exiles have selected such queries as will reveal what is greatest and best in the State according to Illinois standards."

From the Sun:



The fifteen history questions published by the New York Sun are below.  How many can you answer correctly?  The answers are below the jump.

Keep in mind these questions pertain to the entire state of New York, not just the city.  Good luck!

1. Where is the Milburn House (below) and with what event is it associated?



2. What happened at Dunkirk, May 15, 1851?

3. Identify the following well known New Yorkers:  Roswell P. Flower (below), Clement C. Moore, Marshall Lefferts, William Cooper




4. In what famous work of fiction is the story of the Bloody Pond massacre related?

5. In what great work of fiction does the character of Anthony Van Corlaer appear?

6. What great religious movement originated in Palmyra?

7. Whose monument stands at Stone Arabia and what occurrence does it commemorate?

8. From what does the town of Painted Post derive its name?

9. Name one person of national reputation whose name is prominently associated with each of the following places:  Auburn, Kinderhook, Tarrytown, North Elba, Yonkers



10.  Relate the history of the 'Yankee Doodle' house at Rensselaer. (Pictured above)

11. To what natural advantage is attributable the commercial supremacy of Rochester?

12. Give the name and work of a woman of Troy who made an important contribution to the cause of higher education of women.

13. Who was 'the Poet of the Revolution' and where did he reside?

14. When and where was the New York City Chamber of Commerce organized?

15. What building once stood at the northeast corner of Wall and Nassau streets, and with what great event is it associated?



ANSWERS BELOW:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

150 years ago, the Russians invaded New York City


The fleet of Russian ships, sailing into New York Harbor in September 1863, as depicted by Harper's Weekly

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, New Yorkers flocked to the waterfront to see a startling sight -- Russian war ships in New York Harbor.

They were here as a display of force, but not to threaten the United States.  Russia's Atlantic Squadron, as the fleet was known, was patrolling the Atlantic Ocean as a show of strength against England's Royal Navy.  They arrived in the harbor on September 24, 1863, initially anchoring in Flushing Bay, and stayed in the city for a couple months. (A description of the various Russian vessels can be found in this 1863 New York Times report.)

The fleet was led by the massive frigate Alexander Nevski (pictured below), an American-designed ship commissioned and built by the Russian government.  A reporter for Harper's Weekly, joining a reception onboard the vessel, praised its beauty.  "A lady with the most immaculate skirts and kid gloves can move any where, on deck or below, without danger of soiling either, so perfectly clean every thing about the ship is kept."

America was in the midst of the Civil War, and New York itself was still recovering from the Draft Riots that July.  Many Americans believed the appearance by the Russians underscored a healthy support for the Union over the Confederacy, but most scholars today believe the Russians were acting with far more self-interest.

Still, most New Yorkers embittered by war welcomed the impressive show by friendly foreign powers, kicking off "a slight craze in the public mind."  Harper's Weekly remarked, " [E]very citizen felt bound to do what in him lay to testify to the Russians our sense of gratitude for the friendly manner in which Russia has stood by us in our present struggle, while the Western Powers [England and France] have done not a little to work our ruin."

New Yorkers marveled at the mighty mast of the Alexander Nevsky, "lying almost on a line westward from Trinity Church," as it shot off its cannons and a band on-board attempted to play 'Yankee Doodle Dandy.'  The ship officially docked on the west side at 23rd Street, and the procession, joined by city leaders, marched through the streets (pictured at left, courtesy NYPL), past Union Square and down Broadway.

"[T]he scene became splendidly animated.  The moving pageant rolled in a glittering stream down the broad thoroughfare between banks of upturned human faces, the trappings of the equipages, the gold and silver epaulets of the Muscovite guests and the sabres, helmets, and bayonets of the escort reflecting back in unnumbered dazzling lines the glory of the evening sun."

In particular, New York women were captivated by the brawny Russian contingent in their handsome uniforms.  "Throngs of ladies in the windows most vigorously waved their 'kerchiefs, to the great delight of the Russian officers, who never left off bowing, smiling, and even uttering their thanks aloud, while they doffed their gold-laced chapeau."

(Not every woman was infatuated.  The following day, two Russian officers reported being robbed by three women "at a disreputable house.")

Below: A group of Russian soldiers, taken October 1863, courtesy Library of Congress




The finest hotels of New York were adorned with American and Russian flags. Tiffany's, at its location on Broadway between Prince and Spring Streets, unfurled a gigantic Russian banner that stretched the length of the building.

Throughout the following weeks, the Russians were continually feted by the grateful Americans.  At a dinner with Mary Todd Lincoln and other American dignitaries, Mrs. Lincoln toasted the Russians for their kindness.  Russian dignitaries frequently met with Mayor George Opdyke and the Common Council and were wined and dined at virtually every hotel in town, including an opulent banquet at the Academy of Music in early November (depicted below in an illustration in Harper's Weekly).




"They are dined, walked, driven, and are, with unconcealed gratification, availing themselves of the many opportunities of seeing us and all around and about us," said the New York Times that October. "Yesterday, a number visited Central Park and enjoyed its fine drives and beautiful walks; others were whirled to High Bridge, and others were entertained with City sights of interest."

The Russian ships would remain in American waters for almost seven months, darting up and down the coast, including a period of time in Washington D.C.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Boy Mayor of New York: John Purroy Mitchel and a series of unfortunate events shake up a New York election


John Purroy Mitchel, the 'boy mayor', after his resounding victory. (LOC)

PODCAST As New York City enters the final stages of this year's mayoral election, let's look back on a decidedly more unusual contest 100 years ago, pitting Tammany Hall and their estranged ally (Mayor William Jay Gaynor) up against a baby-faced newcomer, the (second) youngest man to ever become the mayor of New York City.

John Purroy Mitchel, the Bronx-born grandson of an Irish revolutionary, was a rising star in New York City, aggressively sweeping away incompetence and snipping away at government excess.  Under his watch, two of New York's borough presidents were fired, just for being ineffectual!  Mitchel made an ideal candidate for mayor in an era where Tammany Hall cronyism still dominated the nature of New York City.

Nobody could predict the strange events which befell the city during the election of 1913, unfortunate and even bizarre incidents which catapulted this young man to City Hall and gave him the nickname the Boy Mayor of New York.

But things did not turn out as planned.  He won his election with the greatest victory margin in New York City history.  He left office four years later with an equally large margin of defeat.  Tune in to our tale of this oft-ignored figure in New York City history, an example of good intentions gone wrong and -- due to his tragic end -- the only mayor honored with a memorial in Central Park.

 PLUS: The totally bizarre death in 1913 of Tammany Hall's most popular leader

To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #156 The Boy Mayor Of New York


Mayor William Jay Gaynor on his inauguration day in 1909, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, from his home in Park Slope.


William Jay Gaynor at the very moment he was shot in 1910, on an ocean vessel docked in Hoboken.  This picture was taken by a New York World photographer, one of the most famous works of early journalism photography.


Gaynor (at left) attempted to stage a political comeback (after being by Tammany Hall) at the notification of his independent candidacy at City Hall in September 1913.  The shovel in front of him was his campaign emblem.  Within a few days, he would be dead of the assassin's bullet he received three years earlier.


The death of Big Tim Sullivan also caused ripples in the mayoral election of 1913. The picture below is of the Bowery, overflowing with mourners. While Sullivan was out of politics (and in an asylum) by 1913, his sudden and unusual passing had an effect on Tammany Hall supporters, throwing another strange event into an already tumultuous year.


Mayor Mitchel with President Woodrow Wilson in May 1914, at a memorial service for American marines and seamen killed in Veracruz during the Mexican Revolution.



Mitchel at his desk at City Hall, presumably cracking down on some kind of over-expenditure or waste. Or possibly silently suffering from migraine headaches which plagued him during his entire term as mayor.



John with his wife Jane.


Gerstner Field in Louisiana, where Mitchel had his tragic airplane accident on July 6, 1918.



Another New York funeral: The body of John Purroy Mitchel is carried in a procession from City Hall, through the Washington Arch, and up to St. Patrick's Cathedral.


Theodore Roosevelt, one of the pallbearers at Mitchel's funeral, leaves St. Patrick's in this short film by Edison.



The John Purroy Mitchel memorial, near the reservoir in Central Park. (Courtesy Flickr/stormdog42)



By the way, the recording that was featured in this episode is called 'New York, What's the Matter With You?, recorded by vaudeville star Nat M. Wills in 1913.  The song references Mayor Gaynor and his planned curfew of restaurants and bars that is mentioned in the podcast.  It references several dances of the day, including the grizzly bear.




 Most pictures above are public domain, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Polo Grounds: The final game, 50 years ago today


The Polo Grounds in 1923, the first year of a major expansion to accommodate fans of the New York Giants baseball team and a great many historic boxing matches (LOC)

Fifty years ago today, the final game was played at the Polo Grounds, the legendary sports field that had once been home to the New York Yankees, the New York Giants (both baseball and football), and the New York Mets in their debut season.

The last game at the Polo Grounds was hardly memorable.  The Mets were in their second season, almost as forgettable as their first.  The team went 40-120 in its inaugural season, one of the worst results for a season in baseball history.  In their second season, they fared marginally better  (51-111).  The Mets last home game of their second season -- and the last game ever here -- was a loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, 5-1.

Hardly anyone cared.  No, really, that's how the New York Times put it.  "Hardly anyone cared."

The New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1950 (picture courtesy Dugout Legends, with another great article on the stadium's history)



"The smallest crowd to watch the Mets at the Polo Ground -- 1,752 paying customers -- turned out for this finale at the Harlem ball yard.  Maybe the fact that there had been two previous major league 'last games' at the Polo Grounds took a bit(e) from the occasion."

The writer is referring to the last game by baseball's New York Giants in 1957 and the Mets last game from the 1962 season, when there were supposed to move into their new digs at Shea Stadium.  But Shea wasn't ready, and the Mets remained at the Polo Grounds for a final season, apparently to an audience of crickets.

"There wasn't too much fuss and bother about the affair yesterday," the Times lamented.

The Mets first game at Shea Stadium was in April 17 the following year.  The brand-new stadium dazzled; the Mets did not.  They lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, 4-3.  One week earlier, April 10th, their former home was torn down.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The real Sleepy Hollow didn't have a Starbucks


An 1864 wood engraving of 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' for Harper's Magazine (NYPL)

The new Fox television show Sleepy Hollow debuted last night.  The storyline involves Continental Army soldier Ichabod Crane who confronts a masked Hessian soldier on the battlefields of Westchester County in 1781.  He chops off the Hessian's head but is knocked unconscious. Next thing you know, Crane has woken up in 2013 and so too has the Hessian, aka the Headless Horseman.

The Headless Horseman is looking for his head and has a masterful grasp on modern weaponry.   There are also witches who were burned at the stake -- in the early 19th century -- and whispers of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse returning to earth.  What follows is certainly New York's very own version Grimm, the crime procedural set amid the fairy tale traditions of the Brothers Grimm.

Below: From Disney's 1949 'The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad', still one of the best versions of 'Sleepy Hollow' put to film, at least atmospherically


I'm sure this will be light and fun to watch, a la ABC's contribution to the modern fairy tale genre Once Upon A Time.  But it is shocking how much of Washington Irving's original tale they've simply eliminated.  Irving's Ichabod Crane was a school teacher.  The character's name was probably inspired on an actual soldier named Ichabod Crane;  he distinguished himself with valor in the War of 1812 but would have been four years old in 1781.

In Irving's tale, the Horseman "is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during  the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind."

Also, the show is filmed in North Carolina.

If you wanna get in the autumn mood with the real story of Washington Irving and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow', check out my back catalog podcast (Episode #19) on the life of the writer, his beginnings as a publisher in colonial New York and his tenuous connection to Irving Place below Gramercy Park.

Download it on iTunes, directly from our satellite site, or listen to it here via SoundCloud:


Thursday, September 12, 2013

'The Big Crowd': Kevin Baker takes on an unsolved mystery, the murder of Kid Twist and the secrets of a fallen mayor


New York City, 1953, the setting for Kevin Baker's The Big Crowd. Photo by Eliot Elisofen, courtesy Life/Google images

BOWERY BOYS BOOK OF THE MONTH Each month I'll pick a book -- either brand new or old, fiction or non-fiction -- that offers an intriguing take on New York City history, something that uses history in a way that's uniquely unconventional or exposes a previously unseen corner of our city's complicated past.  You can find some our past selections here and links to purchase them from Amazon at the bottom of this post.

The Big Crowd: A Novel
by Kevin Baker
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The Half Moon Hotel (pictured at left), named for Henry Hudson's ship, was Coney Island's most glamorous accommodation when it was built in 1927.

In the fall of 1941, the mob informer Abraham Reles, nicknamed Kid Twist, was being held here, heavily guarded by police officers.  Reles had information on dozens of murders, putting away some of Brooklyn's most notorious gangsters.

Next on his list was Albert Anastasia, better known in the press as the leader of Murder Inc.  On November 12, Reles plummeted out the window to his death.  Was Reles trying to escape?  Or was he murdered?

This real life mystery is at the heart of Kevin Baker's new historical novel The Big Crowd, a brassy noir of New York City in the post-LaGuardia era.

Baker is one of the more thrilling historical novelists working today, latching colorfully and with epic flourish into specific New York eras, obsessed with the seedier elements which make the city tick.  He is unafraid of embracing real-life characters and emboldened by difficult, abrasive eras.  In Paradise Alley, his imagination ran wild through the Civil War Draft Riots.  In my favorite Baker novel, Dreamland, gangsters and freaks collide amid famous Coney Island landmarks.  He somehow even fits in Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud along the way.

He's written about the life of Kid Twist, too, in Dreamland.  But it's his death that sits in the smoldering center of The Big Crowd, exposing the connection between waterfront gangland activity and the upper reaches of New York government, reaching, in fact, all the way to the very top.



While Baker has fictionalized the lives of real-life people in the past (a young Malcolm X being the most ambitious, in his novel Strivers Row), for his latest, he's transformed Mayor William O'Dwyer into Mayor Charlie O'Kane.

While their biographies are nearly the same -- an Irish mayor brought down by scandal -- O'Kane is a lustier, more mysterious figure, escaping America and becoming an almost godlike figure in Mexico City.  His brother Tom works for the New York district attorney's office, attempting to clear his brother's name while solving the mystery of Reles' death.

The Big Crowd often feels like an unmade gangster film, its beat cops and waterfront roughs rendered from a world of cinematic grays.  At the core is Baker's relentless attention to historical detail, even when it seems impossible to believe, manifesting into occasional weirdness.

For instance, O'Kane's lascivious wife, who incidentally sleeps with his brother, fancies herself a bull-fighter. (O'Dwyer's real wife Sloan Simpson did become a bull-fighter in Mexico.)

Some of my favorite 20th century figures are successfully evoked, including Toots Shor and racketeer Joe Ryan.  Robert Moses is glimpsed without apology as a menace;  a powerful passage late in the book envisions the wreckage of a demolished Bronx neighborhood, "the cityscape melted into a pile of pure, mindless wreckage."

Like other Baker adventures, The Big Crowd rewards history buffs with dozens of recognizable signposts, but not so many as to seem like an over-researched theme park.

The underlying story of Reles' murder languidly ebbs and flows through the book, unspooling gradually, via interrogations and in few eloquent monologues.  (In real life, the mystery was never solved.)  But The Big Crowd is the type of book where the distractions are often the most entertaining.  Baker has once again created a magnificent alternate New York of exacting, glamorous detail.


PAST BOWERY BOYS FEATURED BOOKS:

 


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

One hundred years ago today, the mayor of New York died


Mayor William Jay Gaynor's final appearance at City Hall was at a notification rally, declaring his independent candidacy.  He brandishes a shovel as a symbol of a new era of subway construction (the eventual fruits of the so-called 'dual contracts' which had finally be agreed to earlier that year.)


Today's mayoral primary falls on a very grim anniversary in New York City political history.  One hundred years ago today, Mayor William Jay Gaynor collapsed and died while on a voyage to Europe, succumbing to an assassin's bullet which had been lodged in his throat for over three years.

Gaynor was not in New York when he was shot, and he was not in New York when he finally succumbed to its effects years later.  On August 9, 1910, he boarded a German ocean liner in Hoboken, New Jersey, for a planned trip to Europe. A disgruntled dock worker James J. Gallagher approached and shot him through the neck.  The moment was gruesomely captured by a New York World photographer.

Although the injury derailed Gaynor's presidential ambitions, it did not prevent him from leaving office.  The bullet remained stuck in his neck, slowly weakening his health and eventually deterioriating his ability to speak.

But he remained a feisty opponent of city corruption. So much so that corruption-fueled Democratic machine Tammany Hall refused to support his re-election bid in 1913, throwing their support to judge Edward E. McCall, a more pliant candidate to their whims.  McCall would run against Fusion candidate John Purroy Mitchel, the firebrand reformer and president of New York's Board of Aldermen (city council).

Gaynor would not be sidelined.  On September 3, he announced an independent run for the mayor from the steps of City Hall.  To a crowd of 5,000 supporters, Gaynor's secretary had to read his speech for him as he was unable to raise his voice due to his injuries.  At the very end, however, as his secretary declared the mayor's intention to eradicate graft, Gaynor leaped to his feet and cried, "Yes, that is what we are going to do -- shovel all those miserable grafters into the common dump!"

Gaynor at his candidacy announcement, buffered by supporters



The following day, he boarded another ocean liner with his son, intending to convalesce for two or three weeks.  It was unannounced voyage -- Gaynor naturally wanted to keep his deteriorating condition quiet --  although the newspapers found out and splashed it upon their front pages.  "It was a feeble figure that went slowly up the gangplank leaning heavily on the arm of his son Rufus," said the Evening World.

He was intending to return on September 21.  However, six days into his voyage, on September 10, the mayor finally succumbed to his wounds, aggravated by other afflictions in his stomach and lungs.

His body was returned to New York on the RMS Lusitania nine days later.  The following day, his body lay in state at City Hall as thousands of mourners paid their last respects.

Gaynor would be the second New York mayor to die in office -- William Havemeyer died of a heart attack while in office in 1874 -- and the fifth to die in office if you count those from before the Revolutionary War.

Gaynor's passing turned the coming election into a free-for-all, with the remaining candidates scrambling to appeal to the former mayor's moderate voting base.  In the end, Mitchel was elected that November, becoming the city's second youngest mayor in history.

A memorial for Gaynor was placed in Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn in 1926, inscribed with the anti-corruption slogan "Ours is a government of laws not men."  Gaynor lived in Park Slope at 20 Eighth Avenue.

Below are some images from his funeral at City Hall, September 20, 1913

All images courtesy the Library of Congress



Mourners at City Hall (LOC)


Former president William Howard Taft at Gaynor's funeral (LOC)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Meet Andrew H. Mickle, perhaps the least qualified man to ever serve as the mayor of New York City


New York City Hall and its brand new water fountain, in 1846, courtesy Currier and Ives (LOC)

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

Mayor Andrew H. Mickle
In office: 1846-1847

New York City has had many useless and incompetent mayors.  To be fair, that legion of forgettable and unspectacular men is bloated by the ways in which mayors were chosen in the early days.

Before 1783, mayors were assigned to the city by the governor of the New York colony.  The hand-picked mayor presided over a board of aldermen that were elected by the people.  He operated at the behest of the British crown, often overseeing a group very much opposed to British rule.

This curious arrangement carried on even after the Revolutionary War, with New York governors continuing to assign mayors to the city until 1821, when the Common Council (today's City Council) received the authority to appoint mayors themselves.

The role of mayor was not powerful at this time.  Before 1821, they were essentially a mouthpiece for the will of the state government. After 1821, mayors were beholden to the Common Council for their very existence. The job frequently went to well-liked merchants with unsullied reputations, uncontroversial men who rarely rocked the boat.

When the New York state charter was amended in 1834, mayors became popularly elected.  (The first was Cornelius Lawrence, in a violent, chaotic election.)  But this did not necessarily alter the quality of office holders.  Mayors now became the puppets of both powerful council members and thriving political machines like Tammany Hall.  Corruption ensured that the position of mayor be considered a valuable but neutered prize.

Further minimizing their role in 1834 was the reduction of the mayoral term to one year (until 1849, when they were given two).  Even the most savvy and adroit politician would wither in frustration under these limitations.  Men questing for substantive political power sought other prizes. The office of mayor became, in essence, a beauty pageant.

And thus enters into the picture one Andrew H. Mickle, tobacconist and mayor of New York City from 1846 to 1847.

Andrew was born in 1805 to a Scottish couple in New York's Sixth Ward, the future Five Points.  Of course, this was in the era when Collect Pond was being drained, and new residences around this area weren't yet considered notorious slums.  However it seems later biographers gave his back story a bit of that Five Points patina. "He was born in a shanty in the 'bloody aude Sixth', in the attic of which a dozen pigs made their habitation," claimed Gustavus Myers.

As a young man, he began working for the tobacconist George B. Miller at Water and Wall Streets.  He would eventually fall in love with Miller's daughter, marry her, then take over the business entirely.

Below: Wall Street in 1846. Mickle's tobacco shop would have been located in the distance, near the tree. (NYPL)



A 40-year-old tobacco seller might not fit the profile of mayoral candidate today, but it did in 1845.  The mayor of New York at the time was sugar manufacturer William Havemeyer, who had actually tried doing something in office (namely, reforming the Common Council), to the consternation of Tammany.

With a surge of immigration adding new voters, Democratic leaders looked for a relatable candidate, somebody who was "one of the people," but one with little political motivation.  These were the years of the Native American party, a drive to flush America of the thousands of Irish immigrants who were arriving in New York.  Mickle, though fully unsuited for a life of politics, represented the opposition, the surge of new voters and the core of the Democratic party.

It also helped that Andrew, with his modest upbringing, was known as the son-in-law of a popular tobacco concern, one that many political men visited on a weekly basis.

But if we are to believe the eyewitness of Nathaniel Hubbard, Mickle's entry into city politics was engineered almost entirely by a different source -- his mother-in-law.

Mrs. Russell* was one of the most powerful women in early Tammany Hall history.  She was known, according to Hubbard, for giving her employees the day off at the tobacco counter, "a holiday for electioneering purposes," the writer claims.

Desiring a bit of power for herself,  Mrs.Russell essentially bribed Tammany Hall.  "She sent a letter to the rulers of Tammany with a pledge to give them $5,000 on condition they would nominate and elect her son-in-law to the office of mayor of this city," wrote Hubbard.

At right: The first Tammany Hall, at Frankfurt and Nassau Streets, their first official home after moving from Martling's Long Room

Perhaps it says something about the office of the mayor that Tammany Hall took the bait willingly, placing this non-entity Mickle at the top of the ticket.  Political machines, especially in the early years, felt strongly about holding offices, with few concerns about who went into them.

Hubbard describes Mickle as "an uneducated man," with abilities of "a very common order."  But in 1845, perhaps, a man of middling skills could properly govern, if he represented the right things. And so Andrew Mickle was resoundingly elected, receiving more votes than his competitors in the Whig and Native American parties combined.

For somebody accustomed mostly to cigars, Mickle did not embarrass himself in his new task.  Tammany Hall was pleased with their purchase;  Mickle would be considered a "tried and conservative Democrat." Hubbard would only say that Mickle "passed through his duties ... quite satisfactorily to the political party which elected him." [source]

He exhibited no amount of political acumen, nor was any required of him.  The city prospered of its own accord under Mickle.  Telegraph poles began appearing in this city in 1846, connecting New York with Albany and Washington DC, and New York's first great department store, owned by A.T Stewart, opened that year, just a block from City Hall.  Richard Hoe's innovation of the rotary press that year revolutionized journalism.

Mickle encouraged the construction of a new workhouse and insane asylum, leading eventually to Blackwell's Island becoming a sort of one-stop for all of New York's undesirable industries.  After the Great Explosion of 1845, Mickle also saw to developing New York's fire-fighting infrastructure, although it would remain in the hands of private operators until the 1860s.

He announced his retirement at the end of his term in 1847 and retired once again to the world of tobacco, officially renaming the family business A. H. Mickle & Sons.  He remained well-liked in Tammany circles up until his death in 1863.

As a curious side note to his later life, Mickle took up residence in the area of Bayside (today, the neighborhood of Bayside, Queens), "situated on one of the most commanding elevations in that section of Long Island."  His spacious manor here was called Bayside Lawn.  Many years after his death, in October 1890, the mansion was destroyed in a fire.

Below: A map of the Mickle estate (MCNY)

Map of 1000 Lots and 30 Villa Plots of the Mickle Estate, at Byaside, Queens County, Long Island.


*I have no clue why she's Mrs. Russell and not Mrs. Miller, but I'm still researching this fact.

EDIT: An earlier version of this story stated that Mickle was preceded as mayor by Philip Hone. In fact, it was William Havemeyer.