Thursday, October 31, 2013

What Lies Beneath: New York's long-forgotten graveyards

Bryant Park in 1907, with construction on the library well underway.  This was the site of one of the final official potter's fields in Manhattan before they were moved to the islands of the East River. (Picture courtesy New York Public Library)

Happy Halloween!  To put you in the spirit of the season, take a look at my new article for the Huffington Post: Manhattan's Forgotten Graveyards, Under Public Parks, Famous Hotels and Supermarkets

Will you ever visit the Houston Street Whole Foods the same way again?

And if you haven't listened to our newest podcast Early Ghost Stories of Old New York, this is the perfect occasion.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The real 'Ghostbusters': 25 spooky, historical New York facts about 1984's slimiest supernatural comedy

Malevolent entities and pretty special effects drape themselves over New York City.

I have gained an incredible appreciation for the Ivan Reitman-directed horror comedy Ghostbusters ever since we started recording ghost-story podcasts seven years ago.

This goofy, supernatural tale starring Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson was one of the biggest hits of 1984, a rare blend of wry comedy, special effects and spectacular New York City landscapes.  Despite its preposterous premise -- that ghosts look either like oozing fat blobs or Sheena Easton-ish supermodels -- the film flawlessly displays the easy comic talents of its stars and reveals a New York City with only monsters as its greatest threat.

But in looking over old tales of mediums, haunted houses and ancient legends for our annual Halloween podcasts, I realized there was a very broad, but legitimate basis of historical spiritual skepticism behind this story, written by Ackroyd and Ramis.  There have been both believers and cynics from New York history who have attempted to prove the existence of supernatural forces and have even tried to purge them from the city.

From there, I took a deeper look into the historical people, places and events depicted in the film, if not only to find evidence of New York's ghostbusting forefathers, then at least to enjoy the pop culture references of the early 1980s.  Ghostbusters was a mainstream offering, so it goes very light on its urban commentary of a city picking itself up out of withering debt.  Its ghosts are quite democratic, in fact, terrorizing libraries, public places, ethnic neighborhoods and wealthy condominiums alike.

Here are 25 fascinating pieces of trivia about Ghostbusters, putting the film within the context of New York City history.  Obviously there are a ton of spoilers here, in case you haven't yet seen it.  But hopefully I'm giving you a good excuse to catch on television this Halloween!

1)  Ghostbusters is set in 1984, late October-early November, judging from the dates on newspapers and magazines which appear midway through the film.  But the film's release date was in June 1984, so technically the film documents future events.

The appearance of Sumerian gods on the Upper West Side and a team of wise-cracking ghost exterminators certainly would have been the top story of the year.  Real life is not as magical.  The big story in New York City that year came over a month later, when Bernhard Goetz shot four men who tried to mug him in the subway.

2) The New York Public Library, setting for the delightfully shushy spectre in the opening scene, may actually be haunted.  After all, it sits on land that was once a burial ground.

According to historian Charles Hemstreet, writing in 1899, "The ground between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Fortieth and Forty-second Streets, now occupied by Bryant Park and the old reservoir, was purchased by the city in 1822, and in 1823, a potter's field was established there, the one in Washington Square having been abandoned in its favor."

By the way, the two lions (named Patience and Fortitude) are prominently featured in the opening, a sly parallel to the stone monsters which will appear later.

3) Our ghostbusting heroes are originally located at Columbia University, in Weaver Hall (actually Havemeyer Hall).  Although there is no actual department of paranormal psychology, Columbia does have a connection to one of New York's earliest institutes of paranormal study.

The American Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1884 -- exactly one century before Ghostbusters -- as a legitimate organization looking to separate spiritualist quacks from actual supernatural phenomena.

Its most prominent leader was James H. Hyslop (at right), a former professor of ethics and logic at Columbia University.  His early studies read like a jazz-age X-Files, investigating ghosts, spiritual possession and a strange variety of mental abilities.  (We speak of Hyslop in two of our old ghost story podcasts, investigating a case of spiritual harassment and contact via a Ouija board.)

4) While no hauntings are actually displayed at Columbia University in the film, they certainly could have been.  The campus is located on the site of old Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, where more than a few mentally disturbed individuals met their end.  Columbia bought the facility in the 1880s and demolished most of it to make way for their McKim, Mead and White-designed campus.  But one structure still remains -- the Macy Villa, a home for mentally-troubled rich gentlemen, in today's Buell Hall, home of La Maison Francaise.

5) The deck of cards used by Dr. Venkman (Bill Murray) to test the telepathic abilities of his patients (and to flirt with the pretty blonde) are called Zener cards, invented by Karl Zener and J. B. Rhine, who was inspired to enter psychical research after listening to a lecture by author and paranormal cheerleader Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In 1980, the New York Times printed a set of Zener cards in its January 29, 1980 edition. "The reader may judge for themselves."

6)  Dr. Venkman's continued skepticism gives Murray a host of excuses to stare at the camera and mug sardonic.  But his character probably has the most in common with New York's original ghostbusters, especially adventurer and conjurer Joseph Rinn.  He and his childhood friend Harry Houdini basked in debunking frauds while keeping alive the illusion of magic and mystery for their acts.  Rinn most famously held a demonstration at Carnegie Hall where he taunted mediums and mystics to exercise their powers for a prize pot of $10,000.  Nobody ever won the money.

7) Manhattan City Bank, depicted in the film, is not real.  Coincidentally, the scene was filmed at another bank directly across the street from the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue/41st Street.  In fact, you can still see the library scaffolding to the left.

What was the scaffolding for?  In 1982, the library embarked a $20 million renovation project.  It's difficult to imagine today, but this classic New York institution had been badly abused over the years.  The 1982 renovation was meant to return the building to its original glory. "It is a restoration in some ways, a modernization in others," said the Times. "[T]his ambitious plan emerges out of the conviction that this building is as much a part of our cultural heritage as the billions of words that it contains."

Ghostbusters headquarters -- the TriBeCa fire house on North Moore. Pic courtesy Phillip Ritz

8) Perhaps the most beloved New York site from the film is Ghostbusters headquarters, the Hook and Ladder Company No. 8 fire station at the corner of North Moore Street and Varick Street.  If the building looks awkwardly slender to you, there's a good reason -- half the building was demolished in 1914 when Varick Street was widened.  Several other buildings, including St. John's Chapel, owned by Trinity Church, were not so lucky, wiped out entirely by Varick's expansion.

Spengler (Harold Ramis) says of the firehouse. "I think this building should be condemned....The neighborhood is like a demilitarized zone."  In fact, the converted lofts and warehouses of TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal) -- the name was slightly over a decade old in 1984 -- were a haven for artists, designers and musicians by this time and probably deemed 'gritty' by the standards of 1980s American film goers.

9) Sigourney Weaver is probably the most New York-centric star of Ghostbusters and a perfect choice for the role of Dana, the sophisticated lady possessed by an ancient God.  (Dana's in the New York Philharmonic after all!)  Weaver was a regular on the off-Broadway stage, an offbeat star who once starred in a Christopher Durang play about the Titanic.  Her first two film performances are in two 1970s New York film classics -- Serpico and Annie Hall.

10) As Sigourney arrives at her apartment building, you can clearly identify Checker Cabs passing on the street, even though that were already a dying breed by this time, the last rolling out from its Michigan plant in 1982.

11) The Sedgewick Hotel, site of the Ghostbusters' most conspicuous catch, is one of several Los Angeles locations pretending to be in New York.  However, if they wanted a haunted hotel near the New York Public Library, they could have looked no further than the Algonquin Hotel, two blocks north on West 44th Street, notoriously famous for the ghosts of the Round Table.

The Sedgewick is played in the film by L.A.'s Biltmore Hotel, site of several Academy Awards ceremonies and itself haunted by a famous ghost, that of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia.

12) Ectoplasm isn't just a cool word for 'slime'.  In 1922, the New York Evening World ran photographs of mediums coated in ectoplasm.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described it as "thick, sticky, whitish substance exuding from the medium in trance and strong enough to lift tables, perform spirit rappings and other weird stunts."

13) A New Jersey high school student named Jeff Nichols found momentary fame when he accidentally appeared as an extra in the film, during the brief scene in which Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd storm through Rockefeller Center.  (Did they not sign release forms back then?) The scene appears in a montage of the crew's many ghost-exterminating antics.

Nichols' fame was then compounded by being interviewed by the New York Times in July.  ''I got a bunch of phone calls from friends who saw it, saying, 'Hey, Jeff, you're in the movie,' '' said a surprised Jeff last week. ''It's strange to think that I'm in a movie that's playing all over the country...... I guess it's like being part of history.''

No offense to Jeff, but I'm kinda more fascinated in another brief scene during this montage, when the Ghostmobile speeds past Umberto's Clam House in its original location (the corner of Mulberry and Hester).

14) Larry King on the radio in Ghostbusters in 1984:

And you can click here to see Larry King actually recording his show in 1984.  The difference? In the real video, he's smoking a cigarette!

15) There's a silly montage of 1984 publications that go swirling by.  A People Magazine touting the trio also reveals "Princess Di Expecting Again!"  The magazine (supposedly from October 1984) is a little off -- Prince Harry was born on September 15, 1984.

The New York Post also celebrates one off-screen Ghostbusters' victory: GHOST COPS BUST CHINATOWN SPOOK.

In the early 1980s, the Post gave $50,000 a week in its WINGO! lottery promotion.  According to author and former Post reporter Charlie Carillo, the contest illicited some rather mysterious winners:

"One Wingo winner showed up soaked in sweat and literally looking over both shoulders.  He wouldn't even tell me his real name, and he covered his face with his hands when the photographer lifted the camera.  'No pictures!' he cried through his fingers.  'Can't have my picture in the paper!'"

16) Also given credible prominence during this montage is the long-gone OMNI Magazine, a science publication with the unique distinction of being one of the first magazines to simultaneously publish a digital edition (in 1986).

Here's a copy of the October 1984 issue from the movie, and the actual October 1984 issue:

17) Dana listens to Casey Kasem gab about the Ghostbusters during his Top 40 countdown show.  His wife Jean Kasem appears later in the movie as Rick Moranis' ditzy date.  Had we been privy to the entire broadcast, we would have heard that the top five songs that week were (in Kasem countdown order): 5)  "Lucky Star" by Madonna, 4) "Purple Rain" by Prince,  3) "Hard Habit To Break" by Chicago,  2) "Caribbean Queen (No More Love On The Run)" by Billy Ocean, and 1) "I Just Called To Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder.

18) Veteran New York broadcaster Joe Franklin appears on television, asking Murray, “I'm sure there's one big question on everybody's mind, and I imagine you are the man to answer that.  How is Elvis, and have you seen him lately?”

Franklin, presumably recording from WWOR's brand-new studios in Secaucus, NJ, was touching on a hot-button issue in 1984.  That year, some believers found proof that Elvis Presley was actually still alive, due to an infamous photograph that emerged in the press of Elvis with Muhammed Ali.  A video of that investigation is below:

19)  A supernatural upheaval of godlike forces emerges from Dana's icebox, located in a penthouse at 55 Central Park West.  In the film, this building, constructed in 1929, was made with cosmic connections in mind, with a super-conductive antenna, "pulling in and concentrating spiritual turbulence." Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) adds,  "The architect was either a certified genius or a pathetic wacko."

In Ghostbusters lore, the architect is Ivo Shandor.  In reality, the building was constructed by the less immortal architectural firm of Schwartz and Gross, best known before then for their building The Majestic on West 75th Street.  55 Central Park West has been home to Rudy Vallee, Ginger Rogers, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.

There does appear to be something strange going on with the building. According to the latest AIA Guide: "[I]f the sun seems brighter at the top than the bottom, it is brighter.  A flush of brick from red to yellow rises from the second floor to the sun."  Gozer is impressed.

20) Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) just wants somebody to like him.  Although a "nerd" in the classic 1980s nerd style, he's pretty much a prototype for the modern hipster.  In a futile effort to get Dana to his party, he proclaims that they will "play some Twister, do some breakdancing."

1984 was the year that this form of street dancing went mainstream, with films, fashion and music that year monopolizing on the trend.  Breakin' was in theaters for a month already when Ghostbusters opened on June 8, 1984.  It handily beat a competing film making its debut that same week -- Beat Street (see below).  Believe it or not, Beat Street debuted on more screens than Ghostbusters, but lost in the box office battle.

21)  Louis runs into Central Park to escapes Gozer's demon minion but is cornered at Tavern On The Green.  It would have been quite a party that Louis and the hellbeast were crashing, as the fancy restaurant was celebrating its 50th anniversary that very month.  Tavern On The Green opened on October 20, 1934, with a lavish dinner attended by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and parks commissioner Robert Moses (pictured below, image courtesy New York Times)

22) Later, a possessed Louis (as the Key Master) streaks through Times Square in a demoniacal rage, looking for the Gate Keeper.  It's a fairly nondescript early 80s midtown landscape, but look for the curious chain restaurant WienerWald in the background.  The German franchise had several locations throughout the United States but was unable to turn Americans on to its menu -- mostly chicken, despite the name.  One intrepid Ghostbusters fan has successfully located the precise block on Seventh Avenue where this WienerWald was located.

23)  With the city in crisis, the Ghostbusters are invited to City Hall for a meeting.  As they enter the building, you can clearly see the banner for an exhibit in the rotunda called "Furnishing the Streets: 1902-1922."  This was an actual exhibit which opened on September 22, 1983, featuring antique street decorations -- from fire posts and old subway signs to even an old horse trough.  Because the banner could not be removed for some reason, the filmmakers cleverly obscure the exhibition's date with a flagpole.  However you can still make out that it says 1983.

24)  The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in his deliciously savage rage stomps up Central Park West from Columbus Circle.  The most significant landmark destroyed by this sugary-sweet demon spawn is Holy Trinity Lutheran Church which sits next to 55 Central Park West.

The picturesque Gothic building has been a magnet for chaos from the very beginning.  Over 3,000 people filled the street when its cornerstone was laid in November 1902, causing a traffic meltdown.  According to the New York Tribune, "It was as much as the police could do for a time to prevent people from being run down by trolley cars and automobiles, as many people were compelled to stand in the middle of the street."

25)  Our brave heroes vanquish Gozer and return to the street, greeted to the applause of grateful New Yorkers.  I would be remiss, however, if I didn't mention another set of Ghostbusters who once scoured Manhattan of its supernatural nuisances:  the 1940s wacky Bowery Boys comedy troupe made a film in 1946 called Spook Busters.  Instead of a fire station, these exterminators of unwanted phantoms set up shop in a candy store:

If you like this article, you might also want to check ou my 'historical trivia' story on Midnight Cowboy and some interesting New York City trivia on The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul at the Morgan Library: Genius from a dark place, his strange torment on display

An illustration by Eduardo Manet from a 1875 French reprinting of "The Raven"

We are all too comfortable with Edgar Allan Poe in the abstract.  His fingerprints seem to be on everything these days.  His morbid tastes and the flowering dark genres he helped create appear just underneath much of American pop culture in the 21st century, from crime procedurals to teen supernatural romances.  He inspired the modern detective novel (and, by extension, film noir) and an uncountable number of American mystery and horror stories.

But do you dare get closer to the man, to the stained papers and morbid inner thoughts of a writer who practically cornered the market on early 19th century American perversity?  In Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul, the brilliant new show at the Morgan Library & Museum, you are trapped in a bloodred box with the writer, his letters, notes and original publications in an intimate and vaguely disturbing setting.

Yes, the room is actually painted red.  And a silhouette of Edgar's haggard face glares down at you as you huddle in a perfectly awkward closeness over evidence of Poe's brilliance, fame and madness.  Terror of the Soul is an autopsy of a strange career, revealed through first edition volumes and original newspaper clippings, then confirmed through bold, occasionally terse letters from the author himself.  A vivid portrait of the public Poe emerges -- erratic, rarely satisfied -- allowing you to speculate upon his private, tormented side.

Among the treasures here is a copy of Poe's first book of poetry Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, published in 1829, a book so rare that it inspired one of the 20th century's great book thefts.  Nearby sits the first publication of "The Raven," next to handwritten notes from Poe about changes to be made in future reprintings.

Terror of the Soul is as much about other people's perception of Poe as it is about the writer himself.  Eduardo Manet's expressive lithographs from a 1875 French edition of "The Raven" are a highlight of the show, a perfect synthesis of elegance and gloom.  A selection of sketches, daguerreotypes, photographs and even a bust of Poe are on display, his hollow face in an array of contortions and somber moods.

Most of the objects here require you to move closer, your eyes peering over old text of a sometimes unsettling nature.  Often the format is downright alien, as in the odd, mysterious scroll on which he chose to lavishly transcribe his poem "The Bells" in 1849, one month before his death.  The scroll has pencilled changes along the margins; in one change, he ponders using the word 'menace' over 'meaning'.  Along the edges of the scroll is evidence that it had been set on fire at some point.

There are many such tiny mysteries among the artifacts of Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul, a show with more horrors contained within it than any Halloween-inspired haunted house could ever provide.

Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul, at the Morgan Library & Museum, through January 26, 2014.  Visit their website for more information.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Turkey raffles were 19th century versions of bar trivia nights

Hopefully this young lady acquired this turkey by legitimate means.

In this week's podcast, I feign shock at the wild party held at the old home of famed actress Charlotte Melmoth, a former school for etiquette-turned-booze hall.  To quote historian Henry Reed Stiles directly:

"After [Charlotte's] disease, the house was converted into a tavern, which became the favorite resort for the dissipated young men of the town, who there indulged in drinking, eating oysters, raffling for turkeys, geese, etc. their orgies being carried on with a freedom to which the retired character of the spot was particular conducive."

What's so indulgent about a raffle?  Today they're used mostly in expos and high school fund-raisers, a relatively benign form of gambling (although governed by specific state-wide rules).  But in the 19th century, raffles were widely seen in saloons, a jovial excuse for men to get liquored up and throw their money in for a chance at a moderate prize.  In essence, it was gambling most fowl.

Below: Three victors at a local turkey raffle, 1912, location unknown (LOC)

"[T]here are many men on this fast old planet who are unable to resist the seductiveness of a turkey raffle," the New York Sun reported in 1891.  "[P]erhaps there are enthusiasts who regard the practice of turkey raffling as not gambling, but a spirited method for the distribution of food products."

The most common form of turkey raffle involved a game of dice.  Men paid for the privilege of rolling a pair of dice three times, and the man with the highest total score took home the turkey.

Another popular raffle method involved tossing several pennies into a hat, then dumping them out on a table.  The man who had the most pennies to come up heads would get his choice of the turkey or its cash equivalent. (Author Andrew Smith reports of one such raffle with a turkey value of 4 shillings, an approximate value of $10-$20 today.  Most took the money.)

Raffles were a quick and easy way for bartenders to get patrons to drink more. In this way, they're very much like a weekly karaoke party or a pub trivia night.

Below: Geese also got into the game. This great 1837 painting is by Long Island artist William Sidney Mount, called "The Raffle (Raffling For The Goose)."  The scene takes place in the backroom of a tavern, the hat containing raffle tickets.  Today this painting hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A November 1887 account in the New York Evening World (reprinting an article from Buffalo) recounts the tale of a bank teller who won a six-pound turkey in a bar raffle:

"[H]is friends, many of whom he had never met before, crowded around him and congratulated him.  Then they swarmed him over to the bar and, of course, it was necessary to order some slight liquid refreshment for the gentlemen who felt some amicably disposed to him.  One hundred and fifty lagers were quickly disposed of, and the bank teller waxed hilarious.  Taking the turkey by the legs he swung it around his head in triumph....... Before he had left the place he had paid for $20* worth of liquor."

*According to the Inflation Calculator, that's about $500 today. 

The reputation of the turkey raffle as an instrument of vice and debauchery was such that a 1914 article in the New York Sun heralded their demise. "It has long been suspected that this form of gambling was ruining men and wrecking homes."

Turkey raffles were finally outlawed in New York bars in 1914.  "That kind of chance taking is now classed as gambling, and every holder of a liquor license is forbidden to allow it in his place." [source]

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A short history of a short street named Raisin Street

[34-36 Barrow Street]

A 1932 photo of 34-36 Barrow Street by Charles Von Urban, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York. Click here to see what this section of the street looks like today

In this week's Ghost Stories of Old New York podcast, Tom speaks of the ghosts at romantic restaurant One If By Land, Two If By Sea, located in an old carriage house that was moved from its original location to its present home on Barrow Street in today's West Village.

Barrow Street is a quiet hook of a path, emanating from the southeast side of Sheridan Square, bending west when it meets odd, little Commerce Street, then wanders westward to the water's edge.  If you've ever been lost amid the crooked streets of the West Village -- and who hasn't, at some point -- then you've certainly stumbled onto Barrow.

The road that became Barrow was close to the estate of Richmond Hill, the esteemed manor that was once home to America's first two vice presidents, John Adams and Aaron Burr.  In the heady post-Revolution period, this path was originally named Reason Street, for Thomas Paine's 'The Age of Reason'.  Indeed, Paine once lived at a couple nearly locations, at 309 Bleecker Street and 59 Grove Street (where he died).

As legend has it, however, residents soon took to calling it Raisin Street, both as an accented corruption of the original name and a possible insult to Paine (who was not beloved at the time of his death in 1809).

Raisin Street, most notably, became the home of New York's first 'Orphan Asylum' in 1805.  Six orphaned children were placed here under the care "of a pious and respectable man and wife." [source]

While many streets in New York City are named for healthy fruits -- Brooklyn produces Pineapple, Orange and Cranberry Streets, for instance -- few are named for shriveled ones.  In 1807, Trinity Church, the principal landowner of Reason/Raisin Street, directed that the street be renamed for Thomas Barrow, a vestryman and agent for the church.

I'm sure it is a happy accident that a principal character in Downton Abbey is also named Thomas Barrow.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ghost Stories of Old New York: Tales from the Revolution, restless Indians, haunted forts and a drunk, headless actor

The Van Cortlandt House, 1906

PODCAST This is the Bowery Boys 7th annual Halloween podcast, with four new scary stories to chill your bones and keep you up at night, generously doused with strange and fascinating facts about New York City.

For this episode, we've decided to go truly old-school, reaching back to old legends and tales from the years of the Revolutionary War and early 19th century.   These ghosts have two things in common -- George Washington (directly or indirectly) and ghosts! Although no ghosts of George Washington.

We venture to the haunted woods of Van Cortlandt Park for the tale of an Indian massacre and a forlorn servant girl, looking for her master's silver.  From there, we head to the early days of Greenwich Village and tormented vice president Aaron Burr (at right), waiting for his daughter's return.

Meanwhile, over in Brooklyn, the ruins of an old Revolutionary War fort in the future neighborhood of Cobble Hill provide the setting for a horrific tale of a late-night booze run gone wrong.  And, finally, no Bowery Boys Halloween podcast would be complete without an historic cemetery (in this case, the burial ground at St. Paul's Chapel) and the ghost of a dramatic actor -- in this case, one without his head!

PLUS: How did Westchester County become so rocky? The Devil did it!

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 #157 Early Ghost Stories of Old New York

A cairn of stones memorializing Danial Nimham at Indian Field in Van Cortlandt Park, in 1906, the year it was placed here by the Daughters of the American Revolution.  The original plaque states that 17 members of the Stockbridge Militia lost their lives, though it's now believed that up to 40 men may have died during the massacre of August 1778. (NYPL)

Looking out the upstairs window of the Van Cortlandt House, looking out in the park. The house has seen its share of strife and, if legends can be believed, more than a few spirits.

Van Cortlandt House as it looked last weekend. What's that in the window?

Richmond Hill, the beautiful mansion home of both John Adams and Aaron Burr.  The carriage house from this old manor was moved to Barrow Street and is today the restaurant One If By Land, Two If By Sea. (NYPL)

Theodosia Burr, the daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr, who was mysteriously lost at sea. Was she shipwrecked, rescued by an Indian prince, or forced to walk the plank? (Courtesy NYPL)

A short remnant of Red Hook Lane still exists in downtown Brooklyn.  You are unlikely to find anything too scary at this street corner however.

A 1822 illustration of the George Frederick Cooke monument and the man who paid for it, actor Edmund Kean.  Kean so admired the late actor that he actually took a very odd portion of his body back with him to England.

The monument to George Frederick Cooke in the graveyard at St. Paul's Chapel, pictured here sometime in the 1940s.  Does his ghost still linger here? [NYPL]

We had a very chilling event occur as we were recording last weekend.   Just as I began to launch into the ghosts of the Stockbridge Militia, our recording equipment went all insane, spewing out a distorted and very disturbing version of our voices.  It went on for about 20 minutes.  Below is a sampling of the audio.  What do you think -- otherworldly interference or a faulty mixing board?


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Remnants of the Bull's Head Tavern: Could this be the greatest New York archaeological find of the year?

The former Atlantic Gardens, revealed during a demolition. Underneath it lies evidence of an even greater historical discovery. Courtesy Adam Woodward/Lower East Side History Project

Big news on the urban archaeological front -- remnants of the Colonial-era Bulls Head Tavern may have been discovered during an excavation for a new hotel.  The Bull's Head was itself built over in the late 19th century for the grand Atlantic Gardens beer hall (mentioned in our Beer History podcast). then enjoyed a rather non-descript past century at 50-52 Bowery in various guises, most recently a drug store and restaurant.

Check out the story here (Unearthed: A Possible Stop Along the Revolution) and follow The Lo Down for all the latest developments in the coming days.  And take a few minutes to marvel at preservationist Adam Woodward's photographs of the site here.  It might not look like much, but verification of its identity would prove to be a pretty big deal for lovers of American history.

Below, I'm re-posting my article from 2009 on the history of the Bull's Head Tavern.

The Bull's Head Tavern was the gathering-place for farmers, drovers, and merchants in the 18th century, located well outside city boundaries just east of Collect Pond. (At the Bowery, right at the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge.)

It soon became the center of Manhattan's entire meat selling and rendering industry, with the area surrounding the nearby Collect overrun with tanneries and slaughterhouses.  As the Bull's Head was also located right on the Boston Post Road (later the Bowery), situated at a crossroads of livestock yards and stables, it became an ideal place for both commerce and carousing.

The Bull's Head was in operation as early as 1755, enjoying business as "the last halting-place for the stages before entering the city."

Within the next few decades, industry enveloped the area, transforming the Bull's Head into a cattle market, with pens adjoining the main building where farmers from the surrounding area herded their best specimens for sale.  Inside the tavern became a literal stock market, with transactions, news and gossip being shared over brew and a hot meal in "smoky, low-ceilinged rooms."

Those who lingered well into the night sometimes played a strange game called crack loo -- often gambling away any profits they might have made earlier in the day. Out in the pen, dog fights and "bear baiting" sometimes occured as entertainment.

As Washington Irving describes, at the Bull's Head he would "hear tales of travelers, watch the coaches and envy the more pretentious country gentlemen in Castor hat, cherry-derry jackets and doeskin breeches."

On November 25, 1783, Evacuation Day, the Bull's Head entered history.  As the British fled New York that day, George Washington and his entourage met at the Bull's Head, preparing themselves for their triumphant entry into town. Governor George Clinton and over 800 uniformed troops and town people gathered right outside, preparing for the procession.

Henry Astor, the older brother of John Jacob, stepped in as owner of the Bull's Head in 1785.  Already an accomplished butcher, Henry served his "celebrated cuts of meats" and often outpriced his own clientele when a particularly choice herd of cattle came travelling by.

Of course, New York was outgrowing its old boundaries by then.  By 1813, Collect Pond had been drained and high society eyed the Bowery, sweeping away the filthy stockyards and factories to construct homes, shops and theaters.  Moving with the changing times, some civic minded businessmen bought out Astor and moved the Bull's Head somewhere safely outside the city -- this time at 3rd Avenue and 24th Street!

In 1830, this new location fell into the hands of young rancher and entrepreneur Daniel Drew, who turned the tavern into a sort of bank, marketplace and social club for local cattlemen, upgrading the establishment and building his own reputation as a savvy financier.  The neighborhood was even sometimes referred to as Bull's Head Village.

As this time, according to an old history, "various types of men mingled in the bar-room of the Bull's Head, from the rough country man to the speculative citizen, butcher and horse-fancier. Plain apple-jack and brandy and water... were the principal liquors passed over the bar. Guests were so numerous that at the first peal of the dinner-bell. it was necessary to rush for the table or fail miserably." And of course, after hearty meal and vigorous drink, came the gambling, "throwing dice for small stakes."

Drew eventually went on to become a steamboat mogul.  The site of the old Bull's Head eventually hosted the notorious Bowery Theatre (built upon its old cattleyards), then the sumptuous Atlantic Gardens by the mid-19th century.  Drew's uptown location on 24th caved in to a growing residential neighborhood and soon moved again -- this time to 42nd Street.  That location was famous torched during the Draft Riots.

However, near the 24th Street location, there is a new Bull's Head Tavern that probably smells a lot better than the original.

And not to forget, there was also a Bull's Head Tavern in Staten Island, at Victory Boulevard and Richmond Avenue. Built in 1741, this Bull's Head was a popular destination for British-loving Tories before the days of the Revolutionary War.  Before it was destroyed in a fire, "people from all over the country made special trips to the old house, just to see the famous Tory headquarters," according to one old history.

The neighborhood that sprouts around that intersection at Victory and Richmond is named Bulls Head in the old tavern's honor.

Monday, October 14, 2013

This Friday: Bowery Boys 7th Annual Ghost Stories Podcast

Above: The Doppelgänger, a creepy wood engraving from Harper's Magazine, 1871 (Courtesy NYPL)

It's our favorite time of year -- time for the annual Bowery Boys New York ghost stories podcast! The new show -- featuring four more frightening tales -- will be available this Friday.

Catch up on the tradition by listening in to our last six ghost story shows. You can listen at the links below, download them from iTunes or find them anywhere you listen to podcasts:

Ghost Stories of New York (2007) [download] [iTunes]
The ghosts of a tragic Ziegfeld girl, a scandalous doyenne of old New York, a bossy theater impresario and the ghoulish bell-ringer of St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery. [original blog post]

Spooky Stories of New York (2008) [download] [iTunes]
The drunken spirits of the Algonquin, the mysteries of a hidden well in SoHo, the fires of the Witch of Staten Island, and 'the most haunted brownstone in New York'. [original blog post]

Haunted Tales of New York (2009) [download] [iTunes]
The secrets of the restless spinster of the Merchants House, the jovial fright of the Gay Street Phantom, the legend of the devil at Spuyten Duyvil Creek, and the spirit of a dead folk singer. [original blog post]

Supernatural Stories of New York (2010) [download] [iTunes]
The scary revelations of a New York medium, married Midtown ghosts who fight beyond the grave, a horrific haunting at a 14th Street boardinghouse, and the creepy tale of New York's Hart Island. [original blog post]

Haunted Histories of New York (2011) [download] [iTunes]
What's horrors are buried at the foot of the Statue of Liberty? What's below a Brooklyn Catholic church that makes it so dreadfully haunted? What ghost performs above the heads of theatergoers at The Palace? And what is it about the Kreischer Mansion that makes it Staten Island's most haunted home? [original blog post]

Mysteries and Magicians of New York (2012) [download] [iTunes]
Grab a drink at the Ear Inn, one of New York's most historically interesting bars, and you might meet Mickey, the drunken sailor-ghost.  A frightening story of secret love at old Melrose Hall conjures up one of Brooklyn's most popular ghostly legends.  A woman is possessed through a Ouija board, but while she accept the challenge by one of New York's first ghostbusters?  And a tale of Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the line between the supernatural and mere sleight of hand. [original blog post]


Last night, I was on New York's Fox 5 News speaking about a couple of the ghost stories from our past podcasts. (Actually, all the ghost stories mentioned in this piece are from past podcasts. Wonder who they got those ideas from?) Here's the entire, goofy segment:

New York News

Thursday, October 10, 2013

MetroCard adventure: The 10 best free Open House NY events that don't need a reservation

The Edgar Allen Poe Cottage -- with horse and buggy! -- photographed between 1910-1915. You can visit it as part of Open House New York and even go visit their new visitors center. (Courtesy LOC)

Open House New York is the absolute best time of the year to wander the city and visit dozens of New York City's greatest historical landmarks and architectural wonders.  Unfortunately, reservations for many of those places pretty much filled up within ten minutes.

Never fear, for a great many of the most interesting ones don't take reservations and are wander-in-as-you-please type venues. Go to their website or pick up a copy of the Open House schedule and stitch together some great weekend plans.  

Trust me, I never, ever remember to make reservations (although, for the first time ever, I actually did get in a couple this year) so I always rely on the free sites.  And there are plenty to choose from.

You can even make a theme day out of OHNY free sites. For instance, do this free tour of Bronx historic homes:  the Van Cortlandt House, the Valentine-Varian House, the Bartow-Pell Mansion and the Edgar Allen Poe Cottage, all open this weekend.  NOTE: Be aware that the government shutdown has shuttered some of these locations for the weekend.  So no Hamilton Grange, no African Burial Ground and no Grant's Tomb!

Below are some my personal recommendations, ten must-see stops for your weekend.  I'll be spending my weekend hitting several Open House sites, including some of those listed below.  You can follow along with my trek through the city on Twitter (@boweryboys).   I've also made some podcast listening suggestions below; you can download them from the links, pick them up on iTunes, or stream them on Stitcher and other services.

All the times below are from the Open House New York website. Please check their site before you go for any changes!

Above: One of the first playgrounds in the city, located in the Settlement yard. You'll see this on your tour. (Pic courtesy Facts on File)

Manhattan, Lower East Side, 265 Henry Street
Open: Saturday only, with free open tours at 10am, 10:45am, 11:30am, 1:30pm, 2:15pm, 3:00pm, 3:45pm
If you are anywhere near the Lower East Side this weekend, you owe it to yourself to take a look inside here.  The Henry Street Settlement is a landmark medical and social-outreach facility, founded 120 years ago by Lillian Wald to serve the over-crowded immigrant community.  You have to see how they've stitched together this series of classic old row houses from the inside.  Wait until you see Lillian's sleeping porch!
Before you go: Read this profile on the settlement that I wrote last year for the Partners In Preservation program.

Manhattan, East Village, 41 1/2 Second Avenue and 52-74 2nd Street
Open: Sat and Sun, 10am-5pm
Manhattan's two oldest cemeteries are quiet oases from the street, spacious greens interspersed with the grave and vault markers of New York's oldest families.  Worth a short visit, even if you've been before. Do you remember a couple years ago when they found some C-4 explosives in the 2nd Street site?

Manhattan, Chelsea, 71 West 23rd Street
Open: Sat and Sun: 11-2pm
I think I recommend this every year. Because it's totally bonkers! These elaborate ceremony rooms dripping in gilded finery will set you imagination ablaze. You'll need three hands to count the number of pipe organs. Paranoid people or those allergic to decorative pomp should probably avoid.

Manhattan, Midtown East, 7 West 55th Street
Open Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 12:30pm-5pm
Reservations to the Trinity Church bell tower downtown filled up pretty quickly.  But if really, really want to tour a Gothic tower, look no further than this beautiful church's clock tower, which will be open to those in comfortable shoes.  Afterwards, just a few minutes east, go take a look at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden in one of Manhattan's oldest buildings. (Open Sun 11am-4pm)

Manhattan, Upper East Side, 10 East 71st Street
Open: Sat-Sun Noon-3pm, tours on the hour
There are a lot of great sites open on Fifth Avenue along Central Park. Start with the Central Park Arsenal and later on, proceed up to the Ukrainian Institute of America, the National Academy Museum and the New York Academy of Medicine, all free.  But don't leave out this new addition to the OHNY calendar, the Frick Art Reference Library, built in 1935 and designed by John Russell Pope (better known for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC). If you spend your afternoon touring all these buildings along Central Park's east side, you'll feel instantly smarter.

Brooklyn, Sunset Park, 140 58th Street
Open: Saturday 11am-5pm
Believe it or not, this was designed by Cass Gilbert, the same person who gave us the Woolworth Building.  Completed in 1919, this was the largest military supply base in the United States through World War II, an awe-inspiring space that today is leased to private tenants.. If industrial architecture fascinates you and you haven't yet seen this building up close, make this your first stop of the day. (Picture courtesy On The Real NY)
Before you go: If you'd like a primer on Gilbert's early New York work, here's my article on Gilbert's three other buildings constructed prior to the Woolworth.

Brooklyn, Park Slope, 336 3rd Street
Open: Sat 9-5pm, Sun 10-5pm
This reconstructed Revolutionary War site is already a favorite for many in the neighborhood. But there's one particularly fascinating reason to visit this weekend -- on Saturday, reinactors in period uniforms will play baseball based upon 1864 rules.  The Kings County Fiber Festival will also be taking place. You can never have enough fiber in your diet! (Of the crochet variety, that is.)
Before you go: Hear about the history of the Old Stone House in our podcast on New York and the British Invasion 1776. [website] [podcast]

Staten Island, St. George, 35 Hyatt Street
Open: Sunday only, 10 am-2pm, with a free guided tour at noon
A few minutes walk from the ferry terminal, this fabulous old theater was built in 1928 and a few years later purchased by William Fox, the powerful movie executive whose name is attached to 20th Century Fox and the Fox Television Network. The stage is frequently used on television and movies. Were you a fan of NBC's 'Smash'? The faux Marilyn Monroe musical was mounted here.
Before you go: Listen to the Bowery Boys podcast on the Staten Island Ferry to learn the origins of the name St. George. [download here] [webpage]

The Trans-World Airlines Flight Center, open this weekend for your intercontinental enjoyment. Pic courtesy Life Magazine.

Queens, JFK Airport
Open: 11am-4pm
Yes, this means you'll have to go to the airport without the benefit of having a vacation attached to it.  But if you haven't see this Eero Saarinen masterpiece up close yet, it's worth the voyage.  One of the most flamboyant examples of modernist architecture still standing, Saarinen's groovy, bird-like structure  embodies a way of thinking about flight and broke the mold for fashionable public spaces.  I dare you to come out here dressed as a vintage flight attendant.
Before you go: Listen to the Bowery Boys podcast on Idlewild/JFK Airport to discover the secrets to JFK's 'charm bracelet' design. [download here] [webpage]

Queens, Flushing, 45-57 Bowne Street
Open: Sat-Sun 8am-9pm, free tours at 12, 1:30, 2:30 4pm  
One of the most fascinating religious structures in New York, the Ganesh Temple was built in 1970 with granite shrines and imported stone from India.  Wandering through with your shoes off is both marvelously peaceful and slightly disorienting.  A beautiful, otherworldly gem in the midst of Flushing.  And there's a delicious canteen in the basement.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Meet the Mastodon Hog, the biggest star at a 14th Street museum

Worth's Museum of Living Curiosities, one of New York's most popular dime museums, paired cheap 'curios' with vaudeville performances on the main stage.  On December 29th, 1889, the star of the show was a massive hog named I-Am. "The Biggest Porker in existence. Guess his weight. If you do you will get a prize. Every purchases of a reserved seat is entitled to a guess.  Three gold medals, made of $20, $10 and $5 gold pieces".

I can find no information on what the correct weight of this monster was.  However, this large animal capped a year of peculiarly sized beasts at Worth's.  The year began with what was proclaimed as Baby Bunting, "the smallest horse living."

Worth's Museum was located at 106-108 East 14th Street, across from the Academy of Music.  The buildings were demolished in the 1920s -- near the same time that the Academy was itself demolished -- and the lavish Palladium concert hall was put in its place.  The Palladium became a nightclub in the 1990s.  It too was later bulldozed and replaced with a New York University residence hall.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Arbuckle's Deep Sea Hotel, aka 'the Working Girls Hotel', a coffee king's housing solution for independent women

The boat hotel built by a coffee manufacturer, photo from January 1913 (courtesy LOC)

Arbuckle's Deep Sea Hotel was neither in the deep sea, nor was it a hotel.  But for hundreds of young, single women at the end of the Gilded Age, it was home.

Accommodations were indeed limited for the thousands of women who arrived in New York City at the start of the 20th century.  Wealthier single ladies could enjoy a degree of independence by indulging in fashionable apartment living.  Affordable options like boarding houses were often socially binding.  For instance, the morality-minded YWCA housed hundreds of New York women by the 1890s.  It was often too expensive to rent on your own place, even with roommates, and the neighborhoods where such housing was available would not have been too desirable.

Enter Brooklyn coffee millionaire John Arbuckle.  The sugar manufacturer, already a chief competitor of William Havemayer, innovated the mass production of coffee by the 1890s, making himself extremely wealthy.  His Jay Street plants and Water Street warehouses dominated the Brooklyn waterfront in the area of today's DUMBO.

In emulation of greater New York philanthropists, Arbuckle commissioned free water-bound excursions for the overcrowded poor of the Lower East Side.  However, when a steamboat owned by another company -- the PS General Slocum -- exploded during one such excursion, killing over 1,000 people, such trips quickly went out of fashion.  Arbuckle then decided to use one of his ships in a more unconventional way -- a long-term hotel for single women.

His ship the Jacob A. Stampler was turned into a floating hotel for one hundred women, with a smaller ship nearby for young working men.  It was docked at West 21 Street on the Hudson River, near the massive piers for passengers liners.

"The fundamental idea of this hotel scheme," according the New York Tribune in 1905, "is to benefit young men and young women who are receiving low wages and are striving to live respectable lives."  In 1905, its first year of operation, women paid "40 cents a day, or $2.80 a week, while the young men pay 50 cents a day or $3.50 a week." [source]

From the Tribune profile:

While both genders benefited from the unusual hotel idea, Arbuckle's focus was in the assistance of women.  "A young fellow can fight for himself and get along his own way," said the millionaire, "but it is different with a woman or girl confronted with problem of keeping herself respectable while working for low wages."

The women were fed well and provided a selection of magazines and newspapers, not to mention a piano for Sunday evening sing-alongs.  They were also given sewing machines and laundry facilities.

The rocking of the boat and the relative bustle of a busy pier seems not to have bothered Arbuckle's early tenants.  "It's so quiet here. No rattle and roar from the streets," said one young woman. [source]  Ladies could receive gentlemen callers, but men had to vacate by 10 pm.  As many women worked quite late in the day, this probably didn't amount to much socializing.

During the summer, the boat actually did take regular trips to various places in the region, from Coney Island to the shore of Staten Island.  In July, the two floating hotels would head out to Coney Island every day, docking for a couple hours at Dreamland amusement park.  Surmising from its frequent journeys, I imagine Arbuckle's floating hotels had few long-term summer tenants in these early days.

Below: The dining room and the sleeping quarters of the Deep Sea Hotel, circa 1913 (LOC)

Over the next ten years, the Deep Sea Hotel took fewer trips, becoming more or less a semi-permanent, floating apartment complex.  It was referred to by this point as the Working Girls Hotel.  At some point, perhaps due to overwhelming traffic at the Chelsea piers, the Stampler made the east side its home, regularly docking at East 23rd Street.

The floating hotel never really made a profit, and after Arbuckle died in 1912, his inheritors attempted to shut it down.  I should also note that the Stampler was a very, very old boat. "[The] ship was beginning to rot and soon would be unsafe," said the New York Sun.  The women who lived there, however, fought successfully to keep it open until 1915, when they were finally told to permanently disembark

Interesting fact to note about its final days -- both single men and women lived aboard the boat by 1915.  Its last documented population was 50 girls and 16 boys, according to the Sun.  It rarely sailed to Coney Island in the sumner, but had become a destination in itself.  "One of the five decks is fitted up as a dance hall," "crowded every night with dancers" when music from a nearby pier begins to play.

The last tenants finally left on September 1, 1915, with many unable to find further housing.  "There isn't a girl on this boat that makes $9 a week," said one mournful tenant, "and you know how far that goes in this city." [source]

By 1917, the Stampler was a rotted breakwater off of Bayville Beach in Oyster Bay.  To this day, perhaps, some remnant of the ship still sits in the water off the coast of Long Island.

By the way, they still make Arbuckle's Coffee today.