The most infamous slum in New York City history was Five Points. In recent
years, the area was the subject of books, a location for a gang movie and
was even mentioned in passing in the movie, The Sting. If a person was
said to have come from Five Points, he or she was not someone to be trifled
with. What was this notorious area really like? Was it as bad as we think
it was? Actually, it was worse.
The neighborhood known as Five Points in the 1800s was in the Sixth Ward -
also known as the Bloody Sixth. The name derives from the five pointed
star once formed by the intersections of Anthony, Little Water, Orange and
Mulberry Streets. At this juncture, there was a small iron-fenced park known
as Paradise Square. This formed the center of the Five Points neighborhood.
Located near Mulberry Street, was Bunker Hill. This was once the site of
an old Revolutionary War fort.
Five Points was a predominently Irish neighborhood, though other ethnic and
racial groups could easily be found there. Germans, African-Americans and
English also called this area home. Five Points was not just a poor area, it
was deeply impoverished.
The location was originally the home of a swampish lake called the Collect.
Slaughterhouses lined the pond. The area that would soon be known as Five Points
was an ethnically diverse area in the 1700s. Families of the working and middle
classes called the area home. Due to the conditions, malaria was not uncommon.
The families who lived here eventually began to move elsewhere to healthier areas.
By 1813, the city had drained the Collect and filled it in with earth. However,
the stale stench of the swamp still permeated the air.
Houses soon began to crop up. These houses were poorly
built, wooden structures that were unable to withstand the dampness of the air.
The wood quickly mildewed and the buildings sunk into the damp ground.
Five Points circa 1875
The new residents to Five Points in the early to mid 1800s were European
immigrants and recently freed slaves from the south. Poor and unskilled, they
had no place to go. The cheap housing of Five Points was all they could afford.
The immense wave of Irish Famine immigrants filled Five Points to its breaking
point. By 1850, the Irish population of Five Points was so high, that it was
second in size to Dublin.
We think of Five Points as being a collection of broken down tenenment houses.
While this is true, it is only partly true. Businesses made up the bulk of the
buildings. While there were many tenements, people mostly found homes in the attics
and cellars of businesses or down in the sewers. Most of the roads in Five Points
were unpaved. Since the ground was a former swamp, the roads were marshy and muddy
most of the time.
Five Points was a densely overcrowded, high crime area. At one time,
3000 people populated a mere half-mile radius. This crush of humanity
created more problems for the neighborhood. Garbage was dumped out of the
windows of the tenements and into the streets. On some streets, garbage
was piled so high that it flowed over the tops of your shoes. Chamber pots
were also dumped into the street, causing pools of human waste and foul
odors everywhere. The stench from the sewers permeated into the streets
and into the buildings. Walls of tenements were frequently moist from
the seepage from the sewers. Disease was a common enemy. Cholera, typhoid
and tuberculosis was rampant. The cholera epidemic that ravaged New York City
in 1832 was particularly fierce to the residents of Five Points. A full one-third
of the people of the Points succumbed to cholera. The mortality rate of any given
year was shocking. In 1854 alone, 1 out of every 17 people died.
It is estimated that Five Points was the home to approximately 270 saloons
and over 500 bordellos. A common source of entertainment for the community
was 'bull-baiting': chaining a bull up in the Bunker Hill area and letting
dogs attack it. Then bets were placed to see how many of the dogs the bull
could kill without breaking its chains.
Little Water Street was considered one of the worst streets in the neighborhood.
It was lined on both sides by dilapidated wooden tenements that seemed to sink
into the swampish ground. Tenements along this street bore such frightening
names as Gates of Hell, Brickbat Mansion and Jacob's Ladder - so named due to the
rickety wooden staircase on the outside.
In an 1864 excursion to Five Points, a writer described the Paradise Square
area as the refuge for the outcasts of the city. He explained that Mulberry
Bend Street had houses that were three deep in places, with scarcely the
suggestion of a courtyard between them. Narrow alleys, hardly wide enough to
permit the passage of a man, led between houses to beer cellars, stables and
time-blackened, tumbledown tenements. These alleyways, Ragpicker's
Row, Bandit's Roost and Bottle Alley were the scenes of many wild fights, and
many a time the ready stiletto ended the lives of men, or the heavy club
dashed out brains.
Ragpicker's Row circa 1890
Without argument, the worst tenement in the Five Points area was the old Coulter's
Brewery, commonly referred to as the Old Brewery. This was an imposing wooden
structure, surrounded by alleys. Built in 1792, it was condemned as a brewery in
1837. Once the workers abandoned the building, the most impoverished of Five Points
moved in. It was home to over 1000 people, mostly Irish. One section of the building
was called the Den of Thieves. This section housed 75 people, mostly criminals and
prostitutes. There were no furnishings or bedding, and very few lights. Another
section of the building was aptly named Murderer's Alley due to the occupation of
its inhabitants. One room in this section was 15 foot square in size, but was home
to 26 people.
At night residents of the Old Brewery, as well as passers-by on the street, would
routinely hear the anguished cries for help emanating from the Murderer's Alley section.
The police estimate that at least one murder per day occured in the Old Brewery - a
total of approximately 5000 murders in a fifteen-year period. The police seldomed
entered the building, even though they knew wanted criminals were holed up inside.
If the police did have to go in, they would only do so in armed groups of 40 or more.
Any less than that, and the police would be murdered. Incest was common in the building.
It was not uncommon for children born in the Old Brewery to not see daylight until
they reached their teens. Many of the residents holed up inside, never bothered to
venture outside. The residents of the Old Brewery were reviled even by the other
inhabitants of the Points. If they ventured outside, they were usually pelted with
rocks and bricks, driving them back inside. If a person died in the Old Brewery,
they were either left in the corner for a few days, buried under the floorboards or
dumped into the sewer. Large rats fed off the corpses. The residents obtained food
by waiting outside the building until an unsuspecting person walked by with groceries.
The victim was then knocked unconscious, their groceries stolen.
A visitor to the Points estimated that as many as 382 families resided on one block - 812
Irish persons made up the largest majority, which Germans coming in a distant second at 218.
Out of 614 children, it was estimated that only 1 in 66 attended school. Two-thirds of the
adult population of the Points were illiterate.
On one block, there were approximately 33 lodging-houses located underground, ten feet below
street level. These 'caves' were devoid of sunlight, and damp and fetid from the sewers.
The average block in Five Points was home to a minimum of 20 saloons. Its customers were
mainly adults, but it was not uncommon to find children drinking inside.
Children wandered the streets unsupervised. Many of these children were barefoot, most of
them dressed in rags. They would play on the bodies of dead horses or splash around in the
puddles of human waste. If they chose not to go home at night, they would simply huddle up
together and sleep on the street. Their idols were the many gang members who roamed the Points.
By the age of 8 or 9, many children had already allied themselves to one of the gangs.
Five Points was the home to New York City's roughest gangs. Among them were the Dead Rabbits,
Forty Thieves, Kerryonians, Chichesters, Plug Uglies, Roach Guards and the Shirt Tails. These
gangs originated out of the many saloons that lined the Paradise Square area. They would hang
out in the backrooms of saloons or grocers, holding meetings, getting drunk and causing trouble.
The gang members were wanted murderers, thieves and pickpockets.
During the 1863 Draft Riots, many of the rioters were from Five Points, whether gang members or
outraged citizens. When their comrades were killed in clashes with the military or the police,
their bodies were left in the streets until nightfall. The police had remarked that by morning,
many of the bodies of the rioters had disappeared. Neighbors from Five Points would go out under
the cover of darkness to remove the bodies and bring them back to the Points. Once home, the bodies were
either buried under the tenement or dumped into the sewers.
Five Points circa 1879
Impressions of the Points
The degredation of Five Points did not go unnoticed by New York's writers
and journalists. Writers seeking ideas for crime novels found their inspiration
in the Points. Journalists looking for a popular topic for their columns
were seldom disappointed. People devoured these stories about the Points
much in the same way that people today slow down to see a car wreck. Writers
were commonly found in Five Points, though very few of them ventured down there
In his 1868 visit to Five Points, writer Matthew Hale Smith remarked:
To-day, with another companion, I went down to the Five Points. Here too
I had never been before. We went at first to one of its worst recesses,
called by the strange humorous name of Cow Bay. A filthy, arched passage-
way leads into the little bay, round which wretched houses are crowded,
as if afraid of the sunshine and fresh air. A drunken woman, with a can in
her hand came reeling into the place behind us. From the dirty windows other
women were looking out, and at the dirty door stood three or four men, some
with the devil-may-care, and others with the pale exhausted look that equally
belong to such places.
In the open part of the Five Points, there were men and women standing about
the door of the grocery where rum awas sold; children were playing around, all
dirty, and some of them sickly in appearance, and there were other figures
amongst whom were such as might have just stepped out of Hogarth's Gin Lane.
Throughout the place there was an indescribable air of confusion, dirt and misery.
Lodging-houses are under ground, foul and slimy, without ventilation, and often without
windows,and overrun with rats and every species of vermin. Bunks filled with decayed
rags, or canvas bags filled with rotten straw, make the beds. All lodgers pay as
they enter these dark domains. The fee is from five to ten cents, and all are welcome.
Black and white, young and old, men and women, drunk and sober, occupy the room and fill
the bunks. If there are no beds, lodgers throw themselves on the hard, dirty floor, and
sleep till morning. Lodging-rooms above ground are numerous in the narrow lanes, and in
the dark and dangerous alleys that surround the Five Points. Rooms
are rented from two to ten dollars a month, into which no human being would put a dog, — attics,
dark as mid-night at noonday, without window or door they can
shut, without chimney or stove, and crowded with men, women, and little children. Children
are born in sorrow, and raised in reeking vice and bestiality, that
no heathen degradation can exceed.
When Harper's Magazine writer Wirt Sikes visited Five Points in 1868,
he brought his newly-arrived friend from England, Mr. De Blase. The
purpose of the excursion seemed to be to show De Blase that Five Points
rivaled the worst slums of London:
I immediately took De Blase by the arm, led him down the steps into the street, and
directly into the midst of the ragged throng. Two dogs were fighting, and as we came
into the crowd we beheld a huge black man wrenching apart the jaws of one of the dogs,
thus to release the other dog’s neck from the teeth of the first. Curses loud and deep
flew about in every direction, and a hideous-looking Portuguese, with his gums streaming
blood and his face livid with passion, sprang with a howl upon the
negro’s back. In less time than it takes me to write it there were a dozen fights going on,
and just as I was thinking it might be wise to retreat a posse of blue-coated policemen
came charging down upon the crowd, which they cudgeled right and left with their locusts.
The principal combatants were arrested and taken to the Tombs (that famous prison being
almost within a stone’s-throw of the Five Points),
and the crowd dispersed. That is to say, it scattered itself about in the neighborhood,
standing on corners and in doorways, laughing and cursing in low tones, awed by the presence
of a brace of policemen who stood by, clubs in hand, ready to whack any too-demonstrative
head without parley. I allowed De Blase to look with horrified and
disgusted eyes on the scene about us for a few minutes before taking him away.
Near us, on the sharpest of the 'points', stood a dirty stand, on which a dirtier boy ex-
posed for sale a quantity of boiled crabs, about which buzzed a swarm of gutter-flies...While I was speaking two ragged girls near us began to throw peanut-shells in each other’s face,
quickly passing thence to angry words and Billingsgate banter, and from that to a blow in the face,
a responding clutching of hair, and then down they went upon the ground, kicking, biting, and
scratching like furies. A policeman separated them, and they went off with loud weeping and wailing.
Barefooted ghouls wrapped in sleazy shawls stared at us as they scuffled by. A blind beggar, led
by a little girl who could just toddle, went feeling his slow way past, his groping stick in one hand,
a pitcher of gin in the other. A boy with a crutch performed strange antics in the gutter close by.
Sikes' British comrade summed it up this way: It horrifies me. I never dreamed such frightful sights
could be seen in this new country.
Five Points was not just known throughout New York City, but had become nationally and internationally
infamous. In 1835, frontiersman Davy Crockett commented on
the people of the Points:
In my part of the country, when you meet an Irishman, you find a first-rate
gentleman; but these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab
By far, the most famous writer to visit the Points was Charles Dickens in 1842.
Dickens desperately wanted to see this famed slum area, but was afraid to go down
there without police protection. He visited Five Points with a police escort and
recorded his thoughts in American Notes:
This is the place, these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking
everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits
here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at
home, and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely
old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched
and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt
in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder
why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why
they talk instead of grunting?
Dickens went on to muse:
What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind
of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by
crazy wooden stairs without. What lies beyond this tottering flight
of steps, that creak beneath our tread? -- A miserable room, lighted
by one dim candle, and destitute of all comfort, save that which may
be hidden in a wretched bed. Beside it sits a man: his elbows on his
knees: his forehead hidden in his hands. "What ails that man?" asks
the foremost officer. "Fever," he sullenly replies, without looking
up. Conceive the fancies of a fevered brain in such a place as
It is believed the tenement with the 'crazy wooden stairs' that Dickens
visited was Jacob's Ladder. Dickens describes the inside of the tenement:
Ascend these pitch-dark stairs, heedful of a false footing on the
trembling boards, and grope your way with me into this wolfish den,
where neither ray of light nor breath of air appears to come.
They have a charcoal fire within; there is a smell of singeing
clothes, or flesh, so close they gather round the brazier; and
vapours issue forth that blind and suffocate. From every corner,
as you glance about you in these dark retreats, some figure crawls
half awakened, as if the judgment hour were near at hand, and every
obscene grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would howl to lie,
women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged
rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.
The most famous description of Five Points comes from Charles Dickens:
Ruined houses open to the street, whence, through wide gaps in the walls,
other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery had
nothing else to show: hideous tenements which take their name from robbery
and murder; all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.
Five Points would sink into even worse degredation in the ten years following
Dickens' visit. In the 1850s, Five Points would become the world's worst
Five Points in Song
When writers created a character whom they wanted to be the worst of the
worst, they stated that he was from Five Points. A Five Points woman was
considered a harlot and just as much a criminal or lowlife as her male counterpart.
The Points even worked its way into some songs written in the 1850s. Usually
the area was referenced when describing a vile criminal.
The 1850s ballad, Five Points written by Mr. Gates, is a humorous but
cautionary tale of a rural farmer who brings his prized cattle to New York City.
Invariably, the young man winds up in Five Points, where he's none the better for it.
You've seen the fat cattle, I s'pose,
With ribbons and roses strung over,
And I guess as how every one knows
That none but myself was the drover.
I brought them from Cheshire, you see,
Connecticut State is the go, sir,
And the butchers of Gotham agree,
To lead them about as a show, sir.
Let music then banish our grief,
We Yankee lads revel in clover;
And while you regale o our beef,
Huzza for the butcher and drover.
At the Bull Head, I stepp'd in the Bowery,
The scene of full many a prank, sir.
And what though the morning was showery,
I soon got a check on the bank, sir.
For my cattle were bought in a trice,
These butchers are darned clever fellows;
Though to make their meat cook pretty nice,
They blow it up plump with a bellows.
Let music then banish our grief, &c.
My check was soon cashed you must know,
And the notes safely stowed in my pocket:
When I thought to Bonfanti's I'd go
To purchase my Becca a locket.
Not knowing exactly the way,
I walked till I wearied, my joints, sir,
And just at the closing of day,
I found myself near the Five Points, sir.
Let music then banish our grief, &c.
I swore I was awfully scared,
Having heard such accounts of the place;
When a smiling-faced woman appeared,
Who kindly inquired of my case,
I told her as how I was lost,
she said my misfortune had grieved her,
But shortly I found to my cost,
I'd better have never believed her.
Let music than banish our grief, &c.
She spoke and she acted so kindly
I felt kind of queer, I confess sir,
And followed her home rather blindly,
I'd rather not tell you the rest, sir.
I got in a tarnal bad scrape,
And lost all my cash in the battle;
And finally owed my escape,
To the butcher who purchased my cattle.
Let music then banish our grief, &c.
My song has a moral, 'tis this,
When you drive your fat cattle to market,
Don't speak to a Five Pointer Miss,
Them gals are the devil to spark it.
Beware when these creatures caress,
Believe me, because I have tried, sir,
They'll fleece you and skin you, I guess,
Till they strip you of tallow and hide, sir.
Let music then banish our grief,
We Yankee lads revel in clover;
And while you regale on our beef,
Huzza for the butcher and drover.
Saving the People of Five Points
New York City residents with nativist leanings could only shake their heads
at the conditions in Five Points. Editorial cartoonists had a field day with
the depravity of the Points. It only reinforced their beliefs that the Irish
were poor and degenerate because they were lazy and lacking in any moralilty
what-so-ever. And since the Irish of Five Points were this way, then all
Irish must be like this. But not everyone turned a blind eye to the immense
suffering of the Points.
In 1844, a group of middle-class women formed the Ladies Home Mission Society
of the Methodist Episcopal Church. They created different missions around
New York City with the goal of bringing religion and stability to the impoverished.
In 1850, they set their sites on Five Points. In May of that year, Reverend
Lewis Pease started his work in the Points. Pease differed with the ladies of
the Society - he viewed the main problems of poverty to be alcohol and unemployment.
The Society believed the problem was a lack of religion. Pease separated from the
Society in 1851 while he continued to work in Five Points. The first order of
business was to select a site for a mission. Pease set his sights on the Old
Brewery. With a ,000 fund headed by Daniel Drew, ($1,000 of which was donated
by New York City), the Society purchased the Old Brewery.
Pease and the Society were able to get the Old Brewery condemned. But the problem
remained of how to get rid of the 1000 inhabitants? The police were finally called
in. In December 1852, groups of armed police officers, numbering close to one hundred,
stormed into the Old Brewery to evict the tenants. Brutal hand-to-hand fighting occured.
While no one was killed, scores of tenants and police officers were wounded in the process.
The police were also able to arrest approximately 20 wanted murderers who had been holed up inside.
Once the Old Brewery was cleared of tenants, the destruction of the building began.
Workers went in to clear the building. The city was shocked by what they found. Not
only did they find children living in the sewers underneath the building who had never
seen sunshine, but they found human remains everywhere they looked. As the walls were torn
down, the floorboards pulled up and the sewers cleaned out, workers lugged bag after bag of
remains out of the building. Pease and the Society fully believed that
these individuals, or what was left of them, deserved a good Christian burial. Some
remains were buried in mass graves at Potter's Field, while others were buried in
consecrated ground. What remained of the Old Brewery was burned to the ground.
From Miller's New York As It Is:
The Old Brewery, at the Five Points, recently taken
down, is deserving of som notice. Its purlieus were
those of wretchedness and crime; they have been fitly
described as "an exhibition of poverty without a parallel - a Scene of degradation too appalling to be believed,
and too shocking to be disclosed, where you find crime
without punishment, - disgrace without shame, - sin
without redemption, - and death without hope.
The Five Points House of Industry had been set up in 1851 to the tune of eighty-thousand dollars. The purpose was to help
educate the people of Five Points - not only to teach them to read and write and learn
some viable job skills, but also to preach the dangers of alcohol. In 1860, the House of Industry
received a very special visitor:
Our Sunday School in the Five Points
was assembled, one Sabbath morning, when I noticed
a tall, remarkable looking man enter the room and
take a seat among us. He listened with fixed attention
to our exercises, and his countenance expressed such
genuine interest that I approached him and suggested
that he might be willing to say something to the children. He accepted the invitation with evident pleasure;
and coming forward began a simple address, which at
once fascinated every little hearer and hushed the room
into silence. His language was strikingly beautiful,
and his tones musical with intensest feeling. The little
faces around him would droop into sad conviction as
he uttered sentences of warning, and would brighten
into sunshine as he spoke cheerful words of promise.
Once or twice he attempted to close his remarks, but
the imperative shout of "Go on! Oh, do go on!"
would compel him to resume. As I looked upon the
gaunt and sinewy frame of the stranger, and marked
his powerful head and determined features, now touched
into softness by the impressions of the moment, I felt
an irrepressible curiosity to learn something more about
him, and when he was quietly leaving the room I
begged to know his name. He courteously replied,
"It is Abraham Lincoln, from Illinois."
The Ladies Home
Mission Society dedicated their time and money to the women and children of Five Points. The
ladies went from house to house, preaching and trying to save families. The women of the families
were told that if they themselves were virtuous and clean, their children would follow suit.
When the Five Points Mission opened in 1853, a chapel and school rooms were set up for the
children. The Irish of Five Points, who were overwhelmingly Catholic, were schooled in the
Bishop John Hughes was outraged. He publicly decried the work of the Ladies Home
Mission Society as 'souperism.' Hughes himself had been busy setting up the parochial
school system in New York. He knew also that illiteracy and lack of job skills was what
was ailing the people of Five Points. Determined to save what remained of his flock, he
turned his attentions to the Points. His plan was different from that of the Mission
Society. Hughes planned to re-introduce the Irish of Five Points to their religion and
teach them to have pride in themselves.
Hughes purchased a few abandoned Protestant churches around the ward and re-opened them
as Catholic churches. He sent priests in with instructions to bring the faithful back to
the flock and teach them our values. The priests stressed all the sacraments to the people
of Five Points, but none more so than the sacrament of confession. From this, Hughes reasoned,
they would learn responsibility for their actions. This was critical in helping the Irish of
Five Points to learn that they themselves were choosing their own courses in life. The priests
reiterated that there were certain behaviors in life that were right and others that were wrong.
They must not act on impulse. They were also taught that God was their friend, and could help
them overcome any obstacle.
The residents of Five Points were also taught one of the basic doctrines of the Catholic church -
that sex outside of marriage was sinful, no exceptions. The parish was unyielding on this issue
and the people began to understand. Hughes also formed a Catholic abstinence society and gave
the pledge to over 20,000 people. (Though Hughes himself did drink.)
The Ladies of the Mission Society published an account of one family
they tried to help, in 1854. After talking with one of the street
children, a missionary persuaded him to take her to his
After much persuasion he consented. On our way down Anthony Street,
as if to prepare me for the wretchedness of his miserable home, he
said that I would find the house very dirty; but no anticipation
could equal the sad reality. The entry through which I was obliged
to pick my steps led to the door of a room, the air of which was
almost intolerable, so offensive was the odor on opening the door.
It was on the ground floor, and the crevices and holes of the broken
flooring were a receptacle for the refuse food and slops. The front
of the room had been used as a bar-room, but the partition had been
taken down, and with it large pieces of the wall and ceiling. On a
broken table, braced up against the wall to keep it from falling,
lay a dog, beside a piece of bread, a dirty plate of butter, a broken
tea-pot, and an iron pot with a few potatoes; a few plates, knives,
and forks. Other furniture there was none, save an old chair without
a back, a few dirty rags serving for bed and bedclothes, and a broken
bedstead thrown down in a drunken frolic a week before. And this was
the home of those children, with their sweet, innocent faces--this
was the atmosphere of physical and moral pollution in which these
young creatures were being trained for eternity!
A man was seated on a bundle of old and fresh herbs, with three boys
opposite him all busily engaged tying up and arranging mint in bundles,
for the markets and hotels. Could the drinkers of mint juleps, as
they lifted the cup from the marble table of the gilded saloon, have
seen the untold filth of the room in which the mint, gathered by the
side of the limpid brook, was prepared for their use, they would have
dashed down the draught with disgust from their lips and would never
have felt an inclination to taste it again.
In the far corner of the room another scene presented itself.
There lay the mother of the interesting children drunk, upon the floor.
The boy, approaching her, pushed her with his foot, saying, with
almost despairing earnestness in his tones, "Mother, get up; do get
up; here is the lady who gave Jeannie and me our clothes, do get up."
She was at length aroused by the child's appeal, and staggering
toward the mantel-piece, against which she leaned heavily, she said,
"You are very good, ma'am, for what you did for my children, and I
am very sick." I replied, "and I came here to see if I could do you
any good." She was evidently affected at these words of kindness but
she only reiterated that she was so sick. And so she was, poor
creature, with a sore and grievous sickness overpowering both body
and mind; but she was to me a most interesting woman, her face
indicating that she had not always been so degraded.
The man on the herbs, who had been listening to our conversation, and
had not before spoken, now exclaimed, "You know you are not sick at
all; you know you have been drunk all night; and I had to get the
breakfast this morning myself. That is what ails her, ma'am." "Is
this your husband?" I asked the woman. "No, ma'am, he has lived
here with me since the children's father died, and he is very good
to my children." "Are these boys all your children?" "Only one;
the other two lads who are bundling mint are not mine. I have but
two boys and one girl. Those two boys, ma'am, are orphans, whose
parents died with the cholera; and they have lived here ever since,
for I promised their mother to look after them." And in all her
degradation and poverty she had sheltered these orphans in her
wretched home, and they accompanied the man when he went into the
country to gather herbs, and assisted him to prepare them for sale;
and in this way the family was supported.
I now expostulated with her on her vicious course of life. How
could she, a mother, with three such very interesting children
growing up around her, so debase herself? She replied, that she had
no decent clothes, or they would have been married. The man,
contradicting her, said that was not the case; for he had been
willing several times to be married, but "she would go on a spree,
and then he would not have her." He added, that "if she would only
keep sober, she was as respectable as any lady in New-York." I
suggested, and then urged, that she should sign the pledge, and if
she remained sober until the Fourth of July, and they were still of
the opinion that it would contribute to their happiness to be
married, that suitable clothing would be provided, and the ceremony
should take place in the Mission-room. She took the pledge and
kept it; and on the evening of the 5th of July, 1850, they stood
respectably arrayed in front of the altar in our Mission-room,
while the missionary performed the marriage ceremony with great
solemnity, and at the close gave them an instructive exhortation
to be on their guard against the evils of intemperance.
They promised, as they returned home with lighter and happier
hearts than they had known for many a day. A comfortable room was
then procured for them. It was neatly white-washed, and furnished
with with the luxuries of bedsteads, bedding, chairs, and a table.
A place was found for the man in a coal-yard, and the elder boy,
Joseph, was placed at a trade, the younger children at school, and
the orphan boys at trades.
After some months the watchful oversight of the woman was thought to
be no longer necessary, and she broke her pledge. We besought her
again to sign it; and to our surprise she not only consented to do
so, but said, with a strength of resolution. "I shall now sign it
as I ought; I feared my habits were too strong when I signed before,
and therefore allowed you to write my name, while I put my cross
under it: I feared I would break it, but now with the help of the
Lord, I think I can keep it;" and she then wrote her name as well
as we could have written it for her; and, though nearly two years
have elapsed since, yet she maintains her integrity, and has never
tasted anything that could intoxicate. The husband has never broken
his pledge at all, but is considered a strictly honest, sober man,
and still retains his place in the coal-yard. Joseph, by his strict
attention to evening school, has learned to read and write; and his
employer intrusts him with every valuable article in his store, and
believes him to be worthy of unlimited confidence. And as we visit
them from time to time in their altered home, they show us, with
great satisfaction, some addition to its comforts--a clock, bureau,
and a few pictures, &c., which their savings have enabled them to
purchase; and if a new dress or coat is purchased, they wish us to
see it, even before it is worn, knowing how fully we rejoice in all
their prosperity. At the last Thanksgiving supper, when seven
hundred of the locality were fed in the mammoth tent, we invited
them to be present, but Joseph replied: --- "We are out of the Five
Points now, and I do not wish to eat with them;" thus proving that
when self respect is gained, they will not desire to live among the
Many of the same writers who toiled the depravity of Five Points for ideas
for their columns and novels, returned to chronicle the success or failure
of the Mission. In his 1868 visit to Five Points, write Matthew Hale
Smith found time to visit the Mission House with his friend. He recalled
the children of the Mission:
I should say there were four or five hundred little
boys here, almost all of whom had the marks of the Five Points
degradation upon them in some degree. A gentleman bowed us to
a seat on a hard bench against the wall, and we rested.
'Where are we?' murmured De Blase, with a bewildered air.
'We are in a Methodist Sunday-school,' said I.
Besides the numberless forms at which the urchins were seated—
nearly every one of them with a Bible before him—the room contained
three small book-cases with glass doors, a beautiful rose-wood piano,
wearing brown paper trowsers on its carved legs, a sort of pulpit
behind it, and a few chairs and benches. As for the boys, they
were a study. Almost without exception they were decently dressed,
and had clean faces and carefully-combed hair; but the trail of the
Five Points was over them all. Closely-shaven heads were abundant,
and there was in many of the faces that indescribable expression of
hardened worldliness and supreme impudence which is peculiar to
the New York news-boy and the Paris and London gamin. Here and
there in the scene, however, you could catch a glimpse of a bright,
pure young face, with handsome curling hair, and a manner out of
keeping with that of his fellows.
After listening to the children sing some hymns, Smith and De Blase
left the Mission House. After a severe tirade by De Blase, who called
the children 'dirty little wretches', Smith defended the work of the
Wickedness and poverty and ignorance are every where in this world,"
said I. “And now may I ask if you think our friends at the Mission
House are so very foolish and useless in their work? They may not
teach the children to feel what they sing, but this they do: They
rear those boys with consciences in their breasts. They instill
into their ignorant minds prejudices, if you will, in favor of
religion, or at least of morality, and these prejudices cause them
to grow up good citizens, who work instead of stealing — who
keep the Sabbath with at least a show of decency—who have, in a word,
at least the externals of respectability about them; and it is
such things, after all, which prevent the whole world from going
straight to Tophet. Thieves, criminals of every grade, even murderers,
swarm like vermin in these vile slums; children are begotten in shoals
among them; but it is to the credit of humanity, even in its most
degraded state, that a thief rarely wishes his own child to be a
thief—or if he does, its mother does not. The result is that great
numbers of these people permit their children to be brought under
the influence of the Mission. They are not converted into saints, as
a general thing, but they are put into the grooves of respectability, and
they grow up decent men and women.
While Hughes and the Catholic church were meeting with success in Five Points,
the Mission Society was encountering problems. Missionaries who went door-to-door
were sometimes met with open hostility and physically driven away. Residents
screamed obscenities at them or accused them of being British spies. It wasn't
an easier go at the Mission House either. Clean rooms were set up for any resident
who cared to stay there. But the residents of the Points were afraid of the building.
When it was the
Old Brewery, rumours spread of monsters and super-human type individuals who lived in
the building. One story told of Mose, a giant human who could uproot trees with one
hand and feasted on dogs. The more superstitious of the area refused to go near the
Mission, whispering of ghosts.
Many of the Irish who braved their fears to spend a night at the Mission, complained
afterwards of horrible dreams. Some dreamt of being crammed into tight, dark spaces
with scores of other people and not being able to breathe. Others dreamt of walking
the corridors, only to be accosted from behind by an unknown assailant. Others,
while awake, spoke of seeing ghosts in the Mission or of feeling cold spots and
the energy draining from their bodies. Many residents would spend only one night at the
Mission - too afraid to go back again.
The superstitions of some of the Irish confounded the Mission Society. They worked as
hard as they could to eradicate these beliefs. When an Irish resident of the Points
died, it was common for the missionaries to go in and break up the 'Irish wake.' They
believed the traditional keening and celebrating was too deviant for Christians. The
Society members worked hard to help the people of the Points, but very few stayed for long.
They complained that the work was too draining, and took an emotional toll.
The House of Industry made some important inroads. The facility would act as a daycare
provider for parents who were working. While there, the children were cleaned up and
taught to read and write. The House also taught domestic skills to the women - cooking,
cleaning and sewing. Many Irish women who
would later become seamstresses, learned their trade at the Five Points House of Industry.
This simple skill provided the poor women with a means of helping to support their families.
The scores of homeless children on the streets of Five Points, commonly referred to as 'street
arabs', were either given shelter at the Mission House or placed into the newly formed Society
for the Protection of Catholic Children, aka 'The Catholic Protectory'. The Protectory was similiar
to Boys Town. A 114-acre farm was
purchased near Westchester, where many of these children were housed. It was the Irish of New York
City themselves who funded the Protectory through private donations. Hughes firmly believed that a
community was responsible for taking care of its children.
Once the Catholic Church and the Mission Society stopped sniping at each other and worked together,
they were able to save the people of Five Points. They were able to help the Irish climb out of the
muck and into good-paying stable jobs, such as the police department. Many of New York City's Finest
came from the Points, including John A. Kennedy, the Police Superintendent during the Draft Riots.
In fact, in his
earlier days, Kennedy had been a member of the Dead Rabbit gang! Hughes set up a program for the women
of Five Points where moneyed families looking for servants could go through the church to find someone
of upstanding moral character and skill.
To access a paid database of the Old Brewery and the Five Points Mission, please see our Favorite
Five Points Today
In 1850, the crime rate of Five Points made up 60% of the crime of New York City. By 1880, it was only 10%.
Alcoholism and opium once reigned in the Points. By 1880, 60% of the residents had abstained from one or both.
Two-thirds of the Points' adult population had been illiterate. By 1890, the literacy rate in Five Points
reached 90%. Children who had formerly lived on the streets or followed gang members, entered the
priesthood or became upstanding members of society. Sixty-thousand children were saved in Five Points.
Mulberry Bend Park (now Columbus Park) was erected between Mulberry
and Orange Streets in 1896. Now it sits as a peaceful park in the
heart of Chinatown.
Five Points has ceased to exist as a neighborhood. The streets have
changed names - Orange has become Baxter Street and Anthony has become
Worth. Paradise Square, once the meeting area for the city's worst street
gangs is no more. Foley Square, with it's complex of court buildings, now
sits on that infamous ground. Where there was once law and disorder, law
and order have taken root.
Five Points was solely responsible for giving the Sixth Ward its nickname,
'Bloody Sixth.' However, with all the violence and depravity of the Points,
the Sixth Ward still didn't own the title of the most violent ward in the
city. The Sixth Ward, Five Points inclusive, didn't even have the highest
death rate of all the wards of the city.
The New York City Jail The Tombs
It's almost impossible to discuss the neighborhood of Five Points without
discussing the Tombs. The Tombs was a second home to many of Five Points
most notorious residents.
In the 1830s, New York City was in need of a new jail. City officials
decided to build one on the exact spot where the Collect Pond once stood,
in the Sixth Ward.
Architect John Havilland was commissioned by New York City to erect their
new jail. He had already designed many penitentiaries throughout the country.
When Havilland was hired by New York City, he had just returned from a trip
to Egypt and was greatly inspired by the architecture he had seen. In
August 1838, the imposing fortress-like New York City Jail opened. The building
resembled a giant mausoleum -- hence the nickname, the Tombs.
Located at the outskirts of Five Points, the Tombs stood at the intersections of
Centre and Leonard Streets, bounded by Franklin and Lafayette. It was designed
to hold different inmates on different floors, depending on the crime. For example,
burglars and thieves were housed on one floor, vagrants on another, while murderers
had their own floor. Hangings were common at the Tombs during the 1800s. Prisoners
who were sentenced to die were marched from one section of the building across a stone
bridge nicknamed The Bridge of Sighs to the gallows area. Hangings drew spectators
from around the city.
The environmental conditions that affected the buildings of Five Points also
affected the Tombs. The building began to sink into the swampish ground not too
long after it had been erected. The massive sewer system that ran under most of
the tenements of the Points also ran under the Tombs. The stench of sewer waste
hung in the air, contaminating prisoners' hair and clothes. The walls of the cells
were soaked from sewage. Rats were a common sight. Rumors abounded of cruel
mistreatment of the prisoners.
Some prisoners escaped the Tombs by following the sewers back into Five
Points. Many of the city's most-wanted criminals came out of the sewers at the
Old Brewery and stayed there for safety. The police were always hesitant to go into
the Old Brewery, so for the time being, criminals could hide there without disturbance.
It was not unusual for a criminal to escape from the Tombs, hide out in Five Points,
be picked up by the police, sent back to the Tombs, only to repeat the same process
over and over again.
For a transcription of prisoners at the Tombs from the 1850 US Federal Census, please
see our new transcription site.
The Old Fourth Ward
While Five Points in the Sixth Ward may hold the title as the most infamous
slum in New York City history, the old Fourth Ward held its own in crime and
death. In some ways, it even surpassed the Points.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the area known as the Fourth Ward was the
home to many of New York City's old moneyed families. It was once a great
location for enterprising merchants. The ships docked here, there was much
trade. Many businesses prospered.
Located to the southeast of Five Points, along the waterfront of the Lower
East Side, the old Fourth Ward contained some of New York City's most famous
streets: Cherry, Oliver, James, Roosevelt, Catherine, Pike, Water and
Dover. The Cherry Hill section, in the northeastern part of the ward along the
Five Points area, was once a posh, cherry-tree lined section consisting of mansions.
John Hancock resided on Cherry Street. Franklin Square has a storied history.
George Washington took the oath of office of the President in what would become
the old Fourth Ward.
However, the story of the settling of Five Points is also the story of the Fourth
Ward. As newly freed slaves and European immigrants made their way to the Lower
East Side in the early 1800s, New York City's rich moved north in an attempt to
escape them. Slowly, this once beautiful area fell into disrepair.
By the mid-1800s, the Old Fourth Ward was an impoverished high-crime area, even by
Five Points standards. Much like the Points, many ethnicities could be found here,
but the Irish were the predominent nationality. Diseases were rampant - typhoid,tuberculosis
and cholera were everywhere. Tuberculosis was so common in the Old Fourth Ward that it
was believed to have visited every home. The ward had the highest death rate in New
York City, especially for children. In the 1850s, the New York City Bureau of Health
estimated that of the 183 children born into the Fourth Ward over a 3 year period,
61 died within a few weeks of birth. If disease did not claim your life, then crime would.
The Bureau of Health estimated that the average house in the Fourth Ward had 4 deaths over
nine months - giving a death rate of 84 in 1000.
The Old Fourth Ward was a densely populated area. The area bounded by
Jackson, Madison, Monroe and Corlears consisted of so many people, that it averaged
out to only 9.15 square yards of space for each person. This one area housed 18
tenements, housing 153 families each - averaging 25 deaths per house over nine months.
There was no privacy anywhere, in or outside of the house. Domestic murders were common,
often brought on by excessive drinking. It was not uncommon for a resident of the tenants
to pass away inside, and the body to remain there for days.
Back of a tenement on Roosevelt Street
Much like Five Points, a sprawling sewer system wound underneath the ground of the
Fourth Ward. The sewage backed up into the streets, filling the air with an unbreathable
stench and the streets with oozing green water. Garbage and chamber pots were dumped into
the streets. Some streets were actually impassable due to the garbage. Children regularly
played among the garbage and human waste.
Rats were a common sight. They would either come up from the sewers or come inland off the docks.
They fed off the garbage and human waste. Residents reported that some of the ship rats were as
large as small dogs and particularly ferocious, charging at humans who dared walk past them in the street.
A common form of entertainment in the Old Fourth Ward was rat fighting. A small ring, resembling a
boxing ring, would be set up and two rats let loose within it. Bets would then be placed to see
which rat would win.
One of the main streets in the Fourth Ward was Water Street. The police reported
that every building along Water housed either a saloon, dance hall or bordello on
one of its floors. It was common for a family to live one floor away from a bordello.
For almost a quarter of a century, Water Street was the highest crime area in New
Cherry Street became infamous during the mid-1800s. Cherry was lined
wtih boarding houses that were known as 'crimp houses.' Since the Fourth Ward was
on the water, many ships would dock and its crew disembark into the city for the night.
Many seamen would rent rooms in these boarding houses for the night. However, though
the sign outside said 'boarding house' it was just a ruse. The unsuspecting seaman
would pay for his room and retire for the night. Once the seaman was asleep, the
denizens of the boarding house would sneak into his room, usually through a hidden
panel in the wall, then 'crimp' or rob and murder him. The seaman's body was then
dragged downstairs and dumped into the sewer. 'Crimp house' residents usually
consist of the landlord, prostitutes and maybe a bartender or two.
Sometimes the people of the boarding house would simply drug the seaman while he
enjoyed some liquor on the ground floor of the building. Chloral hydrate was
the drug of choice for crimpers, but laudanum and opium were also used.
These drugs could be purchased fairly easily on any street in the Fourth Ward.
Opium was not hard to come by as the area was full of opium dens. The crimpers
would put such a large dosage of chloral hydrate into the seaman's drink, that
it would kill him shortly after consuming it. Crimp houses had a mortality
rate of seventeen percent.
Many women found work as prostitutes in the numerous bordellos throughout the
Fourth Ward. Children were also sold into prostitution - their customers being
either adults or other children.
Unlike Five Points which was largely a business area, the Old Fourth Ward was
mostly residential. Tenements littered every block. Arch Block was a famous
tenement building that was so large it covered the entire block from Thompson
to Sullivan Street between Broome and Grand.
While the Old Brewery in Five Points was enough to give people nightmares, it
had a rival in Gotham Court, nicknamed Sweeney's Shambles. Sweeney's Shambles
held the dishonor of being the worse tenement in New York City history. Not much
is known now of the history of the building except that the nickname came from
the landlord, Sweeney.
Sweeney's Shambles was a huge imposing tenement complex that stood at 36 and 38
Cherry Street. It consisted of two rows of connected tenement houses, 130 feet in
length. It was the home of over 1000 people, mostly Irish. You could only enter
Sweeney's Shambles through one of two alley-ways that ran
around the building. On the east side was Single Alley, a mere 6 feet in width.
On the west side was the 9-foot wide Double Alley, also known as Paradise Alley.
The Fourth Ward's large, main sewer ran under Sweeney's Shambles. These sewers
were used frequently by criminals evading the police. Many escapees from the Tombs,
who refused to hide out in Five Points, would continue through the sewers until they
reached Sweeney's Shambles. It was possible to enter the building
through the sewer system.
Gotham Court's Paradise Alley, circa 1879
The New York City Bureau of Health considered Sweeney's Shambles to be the unhealthiest
building in New York City. The walls and floor were saturated with oozing sewage water.
Puddles of sewage were everywhere. Chamber pots, if there were any, were either dumped
into the main courtyard or taken to the basement and
emptied into a huge vat underneath the building which was never emptied. The hallways
were not lit and at night, tenants would have to grope their way up the rickety stairs. Large
flies buzzed overhead and large rats roamed the floors. Tenants were routinely attacked by
these rats, many while they tried to sleep. Infants were the main target of these rats.
Food was a scarcity. If none could be stolen, many residents would
feed off the rats. A cholera epidemic once claimed 195 lives in this building alone.
The Board of Health (formerly the Bureau of Health) condemned Sweeney's Shambles in 1871.
It was almost impossible to completely evict the tenants. As quickly as they were thrown out
into the street, they would re-enter the building through the sewers. This game continued for
almost 20 years, before the last of the
tenants were finally put out. Sweeney's Shambles was demolished in the late 1890s.
All of the tenements in the Old Fourth Ward were wet from the sewers. Families, too poor
to afford shoes, would splash barefoot through the puddles of muck while walking through their
house. Rats entered just about every building, seeking food. A lack of shoes made it probable
that your feet or ankles would be prone to
rat bites. Each tenement had armed residents who would protect their building from intruders.
If you didn't live in the Old Fourth Ward, then you didn't venture to go there. Otherwise, you were
robbed and killed. Your body dumped into either the sewer or the East River. The police didn't even
bother to patrol the Fourth Ward unless they could do it in armed groups of 6 or more.
Street gangs were just as common down here as in Five Points. The Fourth Ward was home to the
Daybreak B'hoys, Buckoos, Hookers, Swamp Angels, Slaughter Houses, Shirt Tails, Patsy Conroys and the
Border Gang. The waterfront
was their meeting ground. Many of these gangs passed the time as 'river pirates.' At night, they would
silently row out to the docked ships, climb aboard, murder the crew and make off with their bounty. Like
the gangs of the
Points, the Fouth Ward gangs recruited children. Children as young as 6 or 7 were taken along by the 'river
pirates.' The children could easily slip through a porthole, then unlock the door to let the gangsters in.
Many children formed their own gangs - such as the Little Slaughterhouses - who attacked and robbed people
out for a pleasant sail
along the East River. The police manned the East River in boats, in hopes of catching these 'river pirates.'
But once the criminals made it to the shores of the Fourth Ward, they safely disappeared into the sewers.
Shirt Tail Gang in Corlear's Hook Park, circa 1889
Impressions of Gotham Court
In 1872, magazine writer Edward Crapsey accompanied the police on a visit
to Gotham Court, or Sweeney's Shambles. It is one of the few first-hand
accounts of the inside of the tenement that would replace the Old Brewery
as the worst building in New York City:
As we stopped in Cherry street at the entrance to Gotham Court, and
Detective Finn dug a tunnel of light with his bullseye lantern into the
foulness and blackness of that smirch on civilization, a score or more of boys
who had been congregated at the edge of the court suddenly plunged back into
the obscurity, and we heard the splash of their feet in the foul collections of
'This bullseye is an old acquaintance here,' said the detective, 'and as its
coming most always means ‘somebody wanted,’ you see how they hide.
Though why they should object to go to jail is more than I know; I’d rather
stay in the worst dungeon in town than here. Come this way and I’ll show
Carefully keeping in the little track of light cut into the darkness by the
lantern, I followed the speaker, who turned into the first door on the right, and
I found myself in an entry about four feet by six, with steep, rough, rickety
stairs leading upward in the foreground, and their counterparts at the rear giv-
ing access to as successful a manufactory of disease and death as any city on
earth can show. Coming to the first of these stairs, I was peremptorily halted
by the foul stenches rising from below; but Finn, who had reached the bottom,
threw back the relentless light upon the descending way and urged me on.
Every step oozed with moisture and was covered sole deep with unmentionable
filth; but I ventured on, and reaching my conductor stood in a vault some twelve
feet wide and two hundred long, which extended under the whole of West
Gotham Court. The walls of rough stone dripped with slimy exudations,
while the pavements yielded to the slightest pressure of the feet a suffocating
odor compounded of bilge-water and sulphuretted hydrogen. Upon one side
of this elongated cave of horrors were ranged a hundred closets, every one of
which reeked with this filth, mixed with that slimy moisture which was every-
where as a proof that the waters of the neighboring East River penetrated,
and lingered here to foul instead of purify.
'What do you think of this?' said Finn, throwing the light of his lantern
hither and thither so that every horror might be dragged from the darkness
that all seemed to covet. 'All the thousands living in the barracks must
come here, and just think of all the young ones above that never did any harm
having to take in this stuff;' and the detective struck out spitefully at the nox-
ious air. As he did so, the gurgling of water at the Cherry street end of the
vault caught his ear, and penetrating thither, he peered curiously about.
'I say, Tom,' he called back to his companion, who had remained with me
in the darkness, 'here’s a big break in the Croton main.' But a moment
later, in an affrighted voice: 'No, it ain’t. It’s the sewer! I never knew of
this opening into it before. Paugh! how it smells. That’s nothing up where
you are. I’ll bet on the undertaker having more jobs in the house than ever.'
By this time I began to feel sick and faint in that tainted air, and would
have rushed up the stairs if I could have seen them. But Finn was exploring
that sewer horror with his lantern. As I came down I had seen a pool of stag-
nant, green-coated water somewhere near the foot of the stairs, and, being
afraid to stir in the thick darkness, was forced to call my guide, and, frankly
state the urgent necessity for an immediate return above. The matter-of-fact
policeman came up, and cast the liberating light upon the stairs, but rebuked
me as I eagerly took in the comparatively purer atmosphere from above. 'You
can’t stand it five minutes; how do you suppose they do, year in and year out?'
'Even they don’t stand it many years, I should think,' was my involuntary reply.
As we stepped out into the court again, the glare of the bullseye dragged
a strange face out of the darkness. It was that of a youth of eighteen or
twenty years, ruddy, puffed, with the corners of the mouth grotesquely twisted.
The detective greeted the person owning this face with the fervor of old ac-
quaintanceship: 'Eh, Buster! What’s up?' 'Hello, Jimmy Finn! What
yez doin’ here?' 'Never mind, Buster. What’s up?' 'Why, Jimmy, didn’t
yez know I lodges here now?' 'No, I didn’t. Where? Who with?' 'Be-
yant, wid the Pensioner.' 'Go on. Show me where you lodge.' 'Sure,
Jimmy, it isn’t me as would lie to yez.'
But I had expressed a desire to penetrate into some of these kennels for
crushed humanity; and Finn, with the happy acumen of his tribe, seizing the
first plausible pretext, was relentless, and insisted on doubting the word of the
Buster. That unfortunate with the puffy face, who seemed to know his man too
well to protract resistance, puffed ahead of us up the black, oozy court, with
myriads of windows made ghastly by the pale flicker of kerosene lamps in
tiers above us, until he came to the last door but one upon the left side of the
court, over which the letter S was sprawled upon the coping stone. The bulls-
eye had been darkened, and when the Buster plunged through the doorway he
was lost to sight in the impenetrable darkness beyond. We heard him though,
stumbling against stairs that creaked dismally, and the slide being drawn back,
the friendly light made clear the way for him and us. There was an entry
precisely like the one we had entered before, with a flight of narrow, almost
perpendicular stairs, with so sharp a twist in them that we could see only half
up. The banisters in sight had precisely three uprights, and looked as if the
whole thing would crumble at a touch; while the stairs were so smooth and
thin with the treading of innumerable feet that they almost refused a foot-
hold. Following the Buster, who grappled with the steep and dangerous as-
cent with the daring born of habit, I somehow got up stairs, wondering
how any one ever got down in the dark without breaking his neck. Thinking
it possible there might be a light sometimes to guide the pauper hosts from
their hazardous heights to the stability of the street, I inquired as to the fact,
only to meet the contempt of the Buster for the gross ignorance that could
dictate such a question. 'A light for the stairs! Who’d give it? Sweeney?
Not much! Or the tenants? Skasely! Them’s too poor!' While he mut-
tered, the Buster lad pawed his way up stairs with surprising agility, until he
reached a door on the third landing. Turning triumphantly to the detective,
he announced: 'Here’s where I lodges, Jimmy! You knows I wouldn’t
lie to yez.'
'We’ll see whether you would or no,' said Finn, tapping on the door. Be-
ing told to come in, he opened it; and on this trivial but dexterous pretext we
invaded the sanctity of a home.
Writer Edward Crapsey continued his story:
No tale is so good as one plainly told, and I tell precisely what I saw. This
home was composed, in the parlance of the place, of a “room and bedroom.”
The room was about twelve feet square, and eight feet from floor to ceiling.
It had two windows opening upon the court, and a large fireplace filled with
a cooking stove. In the way of additional furniture, it had a common deal ta-
ble, three broken wooden chairs, a few dishes and cooking utensils, and two
“shakedowns, as the piles of straw stuffed into bed-ticks are called; but it
had nothing whatever beyond these articles. There was not even the remnant
of a bedstead; not a cheap print, so common in the hovels of the poor, to relieve
the blankness of the rough, whitewashed walls. The bedroom, which was little
more than half the size of the other, was that outrage of capital upon poverty
known as a “dark room,” by which is meant that it had no window opening
to the outer air; and this closet had no furniture whatever except two “shake-
Inside an apartment in Gotham Court, circa 1879
In the contracted space of these two rooms, and supplied with these scanty
appliances for comfort, nine human beings were stowed. First there was the
“Pensioner,” a man of about thirty-five years, next his wife, then their three chil-
dren, a woman lodger with two children, and the “Buster,” the latter paying
fifteen cents per night for his shelter; but I did not learn the amount paid by
the woman for the accommodation of herself and children. The Buster, hav-
ing been indignant at my inquiry as to the light upon the stairs, was now made
merry by Finn supposing he had a regular bed and bedstead for the money.
'Indade, he has not, but a ‘shakedown’like the rest of us,' said the woman;
but the Buster rebuked this assumption of an impossible prosperity by promptly
exclaiming, 'Whist! ye knows I stretch on the boords without any shake-
Finn was of opinion the bed was hard but healthy, and fixing his eyes on the
Buster’s flabby face thought it possible he had any desirable number of “ square
meals” per day; but that individual limited his acquirements in that way for
the day then closed to four. Finn then touching on the number of drinks, the
Buster, being driven into conjecture and a corner by the problem, was thrust out
of the foreground of our investigations.
By various wily tricks of his trade, Detective Finn managed to get a deal of
information out of the Pensioner without seeming to be either inquisitive or in-
trusive, or even without rubbing the coat of his poverty the wrong way. From
this source I learned that five dollars per month was paid as rent for these
two third-floor rooms, and that everybody concerned deemed them dirt cheap
at the price. Light was obtained from kerosene lamps at the expense of the
tenant, and water had to be carried from the court below, while all refuse
matter not emptied into the court itself had to be taken to the foul vaults be-
neath it. The rooms, having all these drawbacks and being destitute of the
commonest appliances for comfort or decency, did not appear to be in the
highest degree eligible; yet the Pensioner considered himself fortunate in hav-
ing secured them.. His experience in living must have been very doleful, for he
declared that he had seen worse places. In itself, and so far as the landlord
was concerned, I doubted him ; but I had myself seen fouler places than these
two rooms, which had been made so by the tenants. All that cleanliness could
do to make the kennel of the Pensioner habitable had been done, and I looked
with more respect upon the uncouth woman who had scoured the rough floor
white, than I ever had upon a gaudily attired dame sweeping Broadway with
her silken trail. The thrift that had so little for its nourishment had not been
expended wholly upon the floor, for I noticed that the two children asleep on
the shakedown were clean, while the little fellow four years of age, who was
apparently prepared for bed as he was, entirely naked, but sat as yet upon one
of the three chairs, had no speck of dirt upon his fair white skin. A painter
should have seen him as he gazed wonderingly upon us, and my respect deep-
ened for the woman who could, spite the hard lines of her rugged life, bring
forth and preserve so much of childish symmetry and beauty.
Having absorbed these general facts, I turned to the master of this house-
hold. He was a man of small stature but rugged frame, and his left shirt
sleeve dangled empty at his side. That adroit Finn, noticing my inquiring look,
blurted out: 'That arm went in a street accident, I suppose?'
'No, sir; it wint at the battle of Spottsylvania.'
Here was a hero! The narrow limits of his humble home expanded to em-
brace the brown and kneaded Virginian glades, as I saw them just seven years
ago, pictured with the lurid pageantry of that stubborn fight when Sedgwick
fell. This man, crammed with his family into twelve feet square at the top of
Sweeney’s Shambles, was once part of that glorious scene. In answer tomy
test questions he said he belonged to the Thirty-ninth New York, which was
attached to the Second Corps, and that he received a pension of per month
from the grateful country he bad served as payment in full for an arm. It was
enough to keep body and’soul together, and he could not complain. Nor could
I; but I could and did signify to my guide by a nod that I had seen and heard
enough, and we went down again into the slimy, reeking court.
Looking upward, I saw the vast tenement house, which contained two hun.
dred such suites of apartments as the one I had just left, rising five stories above
the narrow court, and I tried to imagine the vast total of human
misery it embraced. The reflective official at my side guessed my thoughts, for he assured
me that, coming as I had on a pleasant night of the early summer, I had seen
the place at its best. In August, when these two hundred homes had been
blistered for two months, the odors would be unendurable by a stranger; and
although the atmosphere would be purer in winter, the place was then made as
ghastly in a different way by the sight of these thousands of human beings suf-
fering for want of fuel and clothing. For I knew, without being told, that only
the poor would harbor in these holes. In many of the rooms were house-widows struggling
to maintain children by their scanty earnings as ebar-
women. Where there was a male head to the family, he was usually either
physically disabled by sickness or injury, as in the case of the Pensioner, or was
one of the wretched army of unskilled labor. There were however among the
tenants some craftsmen, such as printers, carpenters, and in fact representa-
tives of all trades, who had lost their cunning through the bottle; and knowing
this fact, “Sweeney’s Shambles” loomed into the misty night an irrefutable
temperance argument. But whatever the failings of these wretched people, or
whatever the reason of their poverty, there could not be any excuse for the
barbarity wbich crams one hundred families into one building having a front
of fifty feet, a depth of one hundred and fifty feet, and five floors, when that
building is “Sweeney’s Shambles,” devoid of every appliance for health, pri-
vacy, or decency, and with those terrible vaults under the two courts upon
which the east and west sides of the edifice open.
Picking our way by the lantern light through such kitchen refuse as rem-
nants of fish and vegetables, mixed with more offensive offal, with which the
court was covered, we slowly made our way to Cherry street again. Passing
along I glanced through a score of first-floor windows, and saw in every room the
same evidences of poverty and overcrowding. Every apartment was a “liv-
ing-room” choked with adults and children, with such articles of furniture as I
had seen in the Pensioner’s room, and, worse than all, with foul odors evolved
from the room itself and the vaults beneath. It was plain there could be no
cleanliness, no privacy, no chance for decency, no godliness among these hun-
dreds of people; and I had the chief moral and sanitary problem of the great
city thrust thus forcibly upon me as I made my way through the court, which
is the common thoroughfare of all these hundreds, but which the landlord does
not light and which nobody cleans.
It was a relief to get out of Gotham Court into the fetid atmosphere of
Cherry street, and we passed hurriedly up the court on the other side of the
building, for the odors were coming up through the grating from the vault be-
neath like steam; and I was glad when, at the upper end of the court, we
passed into Roosevelt street by a narrow entrance.
I had started out to see the worst human habitation in New York, and was
convinced that my object had been fully accomplished. I knew that the law
classes all domiciles containing three or more families as tenement houses, and
that there are in the city of New York 20,000 such houses, in which 160,000
families and more than a half million of persons are packed. I knew of the
cramming and foulness of the barracks Nos. 7 and 9 Mulberry street, where a
stray spark from somebody’s pipe will some night breed a conflagration which
will destroy scores of the wretched inmates. I knew of those vast houses of
the better sort in the German portions of the city, which are furnished with
gas, have tolerable ventilation, and water as high as it can be forced, but
which have narrow halls and steep stairs, to make them in moments of alarm
perfected machines for the killing or maiming of a large per cent. of the hun-
dreds who inhabit each of them; in short, I had a general idea of the high
state of perfection to which the art of crowding the largest possible number of
people into the smallest possible space had been brought in this Christian city,
but I had not imagined the possibility of such things as the kennels for human-
ity which overhang Gotham Court.
The Old Fourth Ward Today
The tides of change that swept through Five Points weren't quite as
forceful in the Old Fourth Ward. New York City did try. Sweeney's
Shambles was demolished in the late 1890s, passing the mantel of
'New York City's worst tenement' to another location. The scene of
the demolition was not the same as it had been at the Old Brewery.
Workers complained of the stench and the puddles of ooze, but there
was nothing particularly shocking found there.
The Catholic Protectorate Society reached into the Fourth Ward to
rescue the children. Sadly, as was the case in Five Points, many of
the impoverished children found themselves on the orphan trains. While
many did find loving homes, others did not and became a cheap source
The Catholic Church and the various denominations of mission societies
found the Fourth Ward to be a tough nut to crack. The residents didn't
seem to want to improve their situation very much. There was much resistance.
It's unclear whether the apathy of the residents was due to hopelessness
or just plain stubbornness. But if mission societies, philanthropic New
Yorkers and the Roman Catholic church couldn't put an end to the debauchary
of the Fourth Ward, what could?
Unlike Five Points, the Fourth Ward changed very slowly throughout the
19th century. Gangs continued to have the run of the area.
Al Capone and Lucky Luciano formed the James Street Gang in the 1920s. They
opened massage parlors, pool halls, more bordellos and during Prohibition,
speakeasies. As the 20th century dawned, the Fourth Ward was still the playground
of vicious street toughs. Then progress came to the Fourth Ward.
The 20th century brought with it a new term, 'urban renewal.' In the 1930s, New
York City would completely change the face of the Fourth Ward. Entire blocks,
which once housed broken-down tenements, opium dens and bordellos, were razed to
make way for improved city housing projects. Streets that had crossed through
the Fourth Ward were either done away with or cut back in length. The Cherry
Street mansion where George Washington once resided was torn down to make way for
the Manhattan approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. Roosevelt Street, named after a
prominent Dutch family in Colonial New York, is now the scene of housing projects.
The denizens of the Fourth Ward, who so depended on the area's prostitution, opium
dens and river thievery, now were left with nowhere to turn. Many simply went into
the same 'businesses' in other neighborhoods, while others went to the missions for
help in turning their lives around.
While the Fourth Ward had once been the land of the infamous, it was also the
home of the famous. Alfred E. Smith, the first Roman catholic to run for office
of the President of the United States, was born on Oliver Street. American icon,
Irving Berlin, resided on the infamous Cherry Street when his family first
arrived from Russia in the mid-1890s. Throughout his life, Berlin would make
frequent trips back to his old neighborhood to catch up with old friends.
Today, the Fourth Ward bears no resemblence to what it was in the 19th century.
The Jacob Javits Federal Office Building is located down there now. The South
Street Seaport Museum is open on Front Street. The Lower East Side Tenement
Museum chose Orchard Street as its home. The FDR Drive snakes along the
One of the few holdovers from the old days is the Bridge Cafe. It is reputed to
be the longest-running drinking establishment in New York City, first opened in
1794. In 1883, customers of the Cafe had front-row seats to the construction of
the Brooklyn Bridge.
At one time, you didn't enter the Fourth Ward for fear of your life. Of course,
it's not like that anymore. If you venture down there now, you can sit at a window
in the Bridge Cafe, pondering the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge. And you can look out
onto the East River and envision the 'river pirates' rowing out to plunder ships and
murder crews. You may smell something strange, but it's just the East River. There are
no more puddles of green slime in the streets. And as you mingle among the other
tourists, remember that it wasn't that long ago that you wouldn't have dared to enter
the Fourth Ward.
To view transcriptions from the 1860 US Federal Census for the Old Fourth Ward, please see
our new transcription site.
If you lived in New York City sometime between the mid-19th century and early 20th century, and wanted a depraved night on the town, but were too frightened to venture down into the Old Fourth Ward, where did you go? Simple, you headed to the Tenderloin.
Much like Hell's Kitchen, the actual boundaries of the Tenderloin are open to argument. It was located on the West side of midtown Manhattan between Fifth and Seventh Avenues. During the 1860s, its boundaries ran from around West 24th northwards to West 43rd. This area is considered the original Tenderloin. As the 19th century progressed, the Tenderloin extended its boundaries, reaching as far south as West 20th and northwards into the West 50s and 60s. At the turn of the 19th century, the area was populated by African-Americans who had fled lower Manhattan.
The Bowery had the honor of being New York City's official red-light district in the mid-19th century. However, as the Bowery spiraled downwards due to economic conditions, the crown was passed to the Tenderloin. This ethnically and racially diverse area was home to shopping by day and commercial sex, gambling, sex scandals, saloons and all-night dance halls by night. Nothing better reflects the true character of the Tenderloin better than the story of how the area earned its nickname.
In the late 1800s, the Tenderloin fell under the control of the 19th police precinct. Captain Alexander S. Williams was toiling in another city precinct, hoping something better would come along. In 1876, he was transferred to the 19th, where his superiors hoped he could make a difference. Williams was transferred into an atmosphere full of payoffs. A few days after his transfer, he encountered a friend while strolling down Broadway. When the friend inquired after the smile on his face, Williams replied, Well, I've been transferred. I've had nothing but chuck steak for a long time, and now I'm going to get a little of the tenderloin.
On weekend nights, the brightly lit, colorful streets were packed. Tourists, soldiers, drunkards, prostitutes, police officers and lonely men mingled side-by-side. The bordellos in the Tenderloin ran the spectrum, from cheap dirty houses to expensive madams. Dollar houses were located from West 24th up to West 40th. Five dollar houses littered the side streets from West 41st up to West 60th. A bordello could employ anywhere from 10 to 30 women.
The most expensive bordellos in New York City could be found on Sisters' Row, on West 25th near Seventh Avenue. It consisted of seven adjoining buildings owned by seven sisters from New England. Callers were not admitted unless they wore evening clothes and carried flowers. They were provided with fancy clothes, pianos, champagne, food and free medical services. The women were also schooled in manners and culture. They were taught to play piano, sing and recite poetry. And they were allowed to keep a large percentage of the proceeds.
At the other end of the spectrum were the cheapest houses, along the low West 20s. The women who worked these houses were poorly fed, in poor health and poorly treated by both their customers and the owners. Even food wasn't provided for them free. Most were ravaged with some form of venereal disease and had no access to a physician, unless they paid for it themselves. An 1878 book entitled Social Conditions of New York gave a description of how business was carried out in the cheaper houses:
A customer would pay the prostitute directly. She was then required to turn all of this money over to the madam of the house, who issued a 'metal check,' a kind of receipt. At the end of the week, the prostitute was given half of the money she earned during the week, then she had to reimburse the bordello owner for food, board, drinks, clothes and any doctor's fees. She could keep what was left, if any remained. The women of the cheaper houses lived in a cycle of never-ending poverty, though they were generating a decent amount of money for the owner.
The owners wouldn't come near the cheaper houses, but would send an agent around weekly to collect the week's proceeds from the madam. If business should decline, the owner would simply open a cigar shop on the ground floor, luring gentlemen in off the streets.
As more tourists flocked to the Tenderloin, the criminal element was ready to take advantage of them. Bunco games were common on the streets. Pickpockets moved undetected through the crowds. The women of the cheaper houses were beaten on an almost regular basis.
There was a strong police presence on the streets of the Tenderloin. Yet they failed to make a dent in the crime and vice. Why? It was for want of trying.
The courts in the Tenderloin were usually packed. The records of the Court of Special Session for 1906-1907 reflect the bordellos found between West 24th and West 48th:
There was a total of 362 legal actions brought against owners of bordellos in this area. Of the 362, 270 owners were fined a total of ,110 - or an average fine of each. Four owners were sent to prison, 30 had their sentence suspended, 19 were acquitted and 39 were simply released. According to the court, the 76 different bordellos in this area employed 972 prostitutes.
The records for the Magistrate's Court for an eight month period in 1906 and 1907, reflected the same:
A total of 7351 people were arraigned in the court, relating to the bordellos of the Tenderloin. Of these, 6747 people were arraigned for disorderly conduct (street solicitation), 63 for vagrancy, 288 for running a disorderly house (house of prostitution), and 253 prostitutes were arraigned for living in brothels.
The figures are overwhelming. More startling are the numbers of people who went to jail. Of 270 bordello owners on trial in the Special Sessions, only 4 went to jail. Why were the numbers so low, considering there was such a large police presence in the Tenderloin? It is the reason that made the Tenderloin so infamous. The police were paid protection money.
Many, but certainly not all, of the police officers assigned to the Tenderloin made great money. This was not due to their salary however, but from the many pay-offs that occured in the district. All of the bordellos of the Tenderloin paid protection money to the police precinct. (At one time it was the 29th, then it became the 20th precinct.) Police officers received as much as - a month from each of the larger houses.
One bordello, located on West 27th Street, kept detailed records of its pay-offs. The figures are startling. In a one month period in the 1880s, the bordello, which employed 30 prostitutes, paid out the following sums:
Plain clothes officers:
Plain clothes sergeants:
There was also a list of daily payments to be made for the police officers on duty. The amount of the payment depended on the hours the officer worked:
8 AM - 2 PM: $1.00
2 PM - 8 PM: .00
8 PM - 2 AM: .00
Saturday & Sunday: additional $1.00
Sergeants: .00 every 2 weeks
Lieutenants: .50 every 2 weeks
Inspector: first-time initiation fee; then every month
Sergeants & detectives: .00 every 2 weeks
Ordinary plain clothes officers: .00 every 2 weeks, plus gifts*
* Gifts ran the gamut, ranging from champagne and cigars from the more expensive houses to some whiskey or beer and a night with one of the prostitutes at the cheaper houses.
In exchange for all of this, the police simply turned their head from everything that took place in the Tenderloin. When arrests were made and the case made it to trial, it wasn't unusual for police officers to testify on behalf of the defendent. (Depending on how well the defendent paid.)
The police could raise their fees at any time, and without notice. If a bordello was unable to afford the increase, the police would simply shut them down and turn the girls out into the street. As the police demanded higher rates for protection, bordello owners began to grumble amongst themselves. It was eating into their profits.
Satan's Circus occupied the area of the original Tenderloin district: from 24th Street north to 40th, between Fourth and Seventh Avenues. At least half of the buildings in this area were dedicated to one form of depravity or another: brothels, saloons, gambling dens and all-night dance halls. The Sixth Avenue section of Satan's Circus was nothing but one brothel and dive after another.
The nickname Satan's Circus came from the reformers who moved into the area in the 1870s. They thought they knew what they were getting into, but once in the original Tenderloin, they were absolutely horrified. To them, this was Satan's playground.
The most infamous saloon of Satan's Circus was the Haymarket, located on Sixth Avenue, near 30th Street. It opened after the Civil War, and would remain in business until 1913. Originally a theater, the Haymarket closed quickly due to poor sales and reopened as a saloon. Women drank free, while men had to pay a quarter cover charge. Beer and whiskey were the drinks of choice. There was dancing, peep shows and private sexual entertainment in the boxes.
Another infamous saloon in Satan's Circus was Billy McGlory's Armory Hall. McGlory was born in Five Points, and served as a leader to the area's Forty Thieves gang. In the 1870s, he went into the saloon business. Much like the Haymarket, Armory Hall offered drinking, dancing and peep shows. This was a favorite saloon of the gangs out of Five Points, the Old Fourth Ward and the Bowery, and McGlory catered to the criminal element. The bouncers were gang members from Five Points, and they walked through the bar carrying bats and guns. There were nightly, bloody bar fights. Drunks were rolled by prostitutes. If you were unfortunate enough to pass out in Armory Hall, you were rolled, stripped naked and dumped outside in the street. While McGlory employed prostitutes for the peep shows and sexual acts, he also hired transvestites. A night at Armory Hall almost guaranteed a wild time.
Other infamous saloons in Satan's Circus included the Cremorne at West 32nd and Sixth, the Star & Garter at West 30th and Sixth, Sailor's Hall on West 34th, Buckingham Palace on West 27th, Tom Gould's on West 31st and Egyptian Hall on West 24th at Sixth.
The scene in the saloons were all the same. Women drank either free or for a few pennies. Men either paid a cover charge and drank free, or paid a quarter per drink. The prostitutes employed in the saloons received a commission on every drink they sold. They would dance a version of the can-can for a quarter or dance nude for one dollar.
Police headquarters was located only a few blocks away.
American writer Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, found himself in trouble in this area of the Tenderloin. In September 1896, he interviewed a few chorus girls at the local saloons as part of a newspaper series he was writing on New York City nightlife. When Crane left one of the establishments around 2 AM, with a chorus girl in tow, he was stopped by police officer Charles Becker. After a brief unfriendly exchange, Becker arrested the chorus girl, Dora Clark, for solicitation. Crane was incensed and immediately defended the girl's morality. When Dora Clark went to trial, Crane was called as a witness. After taking the stand, he proceded to attack Officer Becker, levelling all kinds of charges ranging from indecent language to bribery. The case caused a sensation in the New York City newspapers. Some papers, including the one who employed Crane, presented him as a defender of womanhood and a slayer of corrupt police practices. Other papers dragged Crane through the mud, accusing him of being a drug addict and frequenter of prostitutes. Dora Clark would be acquitted. However the incident would cause Crane to lose his friendship with then New York City Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, this would not be the last New York City would hear of Charles Becker. He would become the only US police officer to ever be tried, convicted and executed for murder.
The Story of Charles Becker
It is a rare circumstance in the US to come across the case of a police officer who has been tried, convicted and executed. However, police lieutenant Charles Becker was one such case. A high-profile member of the police department during the Tammany Hall days, Becker was a symbol of rampant police corruption.
Charles Becker was born in Sullivan County, NY and moved to New York City in 1888, seeking a better life. He worked as a bartender on the Bowery, and then a bouncer. He had a street reputation as a vicious fighter. In the Bowery, Becker met underworld kingpin Monk Eastman, and through their friendship, was introduced to several corrupt politicians, including New York State Senator Big Tim Sullivan. Sullivan liked Becker so much that in 1893, he got Becker a job in the Police Department.
Becker's career as a police officer consisted of many ups and downs. In 1896, he shot and killed a bystander while pursuing a burglar. Worried about his own neck, Becker tried to paint the innocent victim as a known criminal. Police headquarters didn't buy the story, and Becker was suspended for 30 days. In 1898, Becker saved a drowning man in the Hudson River. For about a week, New York City lauded their new-found savior until the drowning 'victim' came forward and said that Becker paid him to jump into the Hudson so Becker could save him. Becker's precinct had had enough, and transferred him down to the Tenderloin district.
In 1907, Becker was promoted to sergeant as a reward for helping the commissioners with an earlier investigation. As a sergeant in the Tenderloin, Becker was responsible for collecting the many payoffs that took place in the district. For this duty, he received a 10% cut off proceeds. In his first year collecting payoffs, he made eight-thousand dollars.
The street gangs that had roamed New York City through the 19th century, had showed no signs of abating in the early part of the 20th century. In 1910, the police formed special squads to break up these gangs. (Similar to today's police gang units.) Becker was appointed to command one of these squads. One of the duties of the squads was to enter, break up and close down the gambling dens in Lower Manhattan. Becker saw this as his opportunity to earn more money, so he started a shake-down of every casino owner in his area. Soon, Becker was receiving payoffs from so many casino owners, that he had to hire assistants just to go collect the payments. He hired a few known murderers that worked for Monk Eastman.
In the summer of 1912, a gambler named Hertman Rosenthal received permssion from Big Tim Sullivan to open a casino in the Tenderloin called the Hesper Club, on West 45th. On opening night, Becker went round to explain to Rosenthal how it all worked. Rosenthal refused to pay any sort of protection money to Becker or his henchmen. He stated that this was Sullivan's territory and if he really had to pay anybody off, it would be Sullivan. Becker was angry, but unable to take on a senator, he backed off. Sullivan soon became too ill to make the collection rounds, so Becker stepped in and filled the void. Rosenthal still refused to hand any money over to Becker. Becker then sent another Eastman gangster, murderer Bald Jack Rose, to literally stand inside the Hesper Club every evening and pocket 20% of the casino's nightly proceeds. Rosenthal wasn't intimidated, and went to Tammany Hall to complain.
The police commissioners had been receiving many complaints about the Hester Club. They pressured Becker to simply close it down and Becker followed orders. Once the Hester Club was closed, Becker placed a uniformed officer inside the casino day and night to make sure the club didn't reopen. Rosenthal was now fuming, so he took his case to the District Attorney's office. Attorney Charles Whitman was working the DA's office, though he had dreams of obtaining political office. When Rosenthal told him his story of corrupt police officer, payoffs and underworld gangsters, Whitman knew that his dreams had come true.
Herman Rosenthal met with District Attorney Charles Whitman on the evening of July 15, 1912 and told the whole story. After hearing all the facts, an excited Whitman assured Rosenthal that he would convene a Grand Jury into the case. Relieved, Rosenthal left the DA's office around 11 PM and headed to a restaurant at the Hotel Metropole, on West 43rd in the Tenderloin.
News travelled fast in the Tenderloin, and by the time Rosenthal arrived at the Metropole, practically everyone knew of his meeting with Whitman. The Metropole fell into silence as Rosenthal proceded to a table in the back. Around 2 AM, a waiter approached Rosenthal and informed him that someone was waiting out front for him. According to witnesses, Rosenthal walked out into the dimly-lit street to find a few men lurking about. One of the men called out Rosenthal's name, and began to approach him. The man then pulled out a pistol and shot Rosenthal in the head. (Other reports say he was shot in the heart.) Witnesses then say the men ran across the street to their car and sped away. A few patrol officers walking their beat over on Broadway heard the shots and came running. Two police officers commandeered a passing car and followed the killers in pursuit down Sixth Avenue. Eventually, they were able to shake the police. As news of the hit spread through the Tenderloin, thousands converged on the Cafe Metropole.
The next day, District Attorney Whitman publicly accused the police of a pretend pursuit of the killers. All of the New York City newspapers, including the Times, put Whitman's accusations on the front page. The District Attorney's office, as well as the newspapers and general public, believed that Lt. Charles Becker was behind the hit. Rosenthal's meeting with Whitman had become public knowledge in the Tenderloin, and they asserted that Becker was exacting revenge. Becker however, had an alibi. He was home in bed with his wife at the time of the murder. This was corraborated by a reporter who had telephoned Becker alittle while after the murder for a comment on the event.
Whitman was not about to give up, so the DA's office conducted its own investigation into the murder. Several witnesses had caught the license plate number of the getaway car. Whitman traced it to the Boulevard Taxi Company. According to the company's records, Bald Jack Rose, one of Becker's collections men, had leased the car for the evening. Further investigations showed that the driver had been Tenderloin hood William Shapiro. The men in the shadows outside the Cafe Metropole, who had called out to Rosenthal, were opium dealers Bridgey Webber and Harry Vallon. Webber and Vallon were quickly arrested. Bald Jack Rose, fearing what was coming, surrendered to the DA's office. Rose ratted out the whereabouts of driver Shapiro.
Whitman knew the police department wouldn't cooperate with his office, so he decided to grant immunity to the four killers in exchange for information. After receiving immunity, Shapiro confessed to driving the getaway car and then named the killers: Louis Rosenberg, Frank Cirofici, Jacob Seidenschmer and Harry Horowitz. They were all arrested and thrown into the Tombs with Rose, Webber, Vallon and Shapiro. Everyone was now in custody.
The people of the Tenderloin were shaken by the events. Many casino owners simply closed down. The Tammany ward politicians feared the eventual fallout. The police were afraid. And for good reason. With the killers going to court and facing a possible death sentence, they would more than likely tell everything. Bald Jack Rose did just that.
On July 29, 1912, Lt. Charles Becker was arrested and indicted for conspiracy to commit murder.
Police Lt. Charles Becker pleaded an emphatic not guilty at his arraignment. However the New York press was running wild with the story. The story became so big, that it went national and international. Most of the newspapers, and all of the New York newspapers, declared Becker guilty and praised Whitman for being a hero.
Due to the publicity surrounding the case, Becker went to trial quickly - a mere two months after his arraignment. The deck was stacked against Becker from the beginning. The judge was John Goff, a known enemy to the New York City underworld and a former investigator into corruption on the New York police force. Goff ruled almost exclusively in the prosecution's favor. Becker's attorney was John McIntyre, a veteran defense attorney who had been a former DA.
Bald Jack Rose took the stand and related all of Becker's exploits in the Tenderloin. He then stated that Becker said of Rosenthal: He ought to be put off this earth. There is a fellow I would like to have croaked! Have him murdered! Cut his throat, dynamite him or anything! Becker then alledgedly assured Rose that police headquarters would not pursue an investigation into Rosenthal's murder because they all wanted him dead. Rose was responsible for recruiting the hitmen, but that Becker offered them a contract for the deed.
The other henchmen took the stand and told different stories, but all blamed it on Becker. Contradictions flew back and forth across the courtroom. Only Becker knew the truth, but he never took the stand, on the advice of his lawyer.
Defense Attorney McIntyre did as much as he could to destroy the credibility of the witnesses. After all, they were known killers and were now trying to save their own skins. He then impressed on the jury that they were all thrown together in the Tombs and had had plenty of time to corraborate their stories. Whitman had no real evidence that Becker was behind the murders. After four days of instruction from the judge, Becker's fate was handed to the jury.
Within 24 hours, the jury had reached their verdict: guilty. Becker was then sentenced to death. He was sent to Sing Sing, where he would await execution on December 12, 1915. He immediately filed for an appeal.
With Becker in Sing Sing, the trials of hitmen Rosenberg, Cirofici, Seidenschmer and Horowitz went forward. John Goff also presided over these trials, and ruled the courtroom in the same fashion he had displayed in Becker's trial. All four hitmen were found guilty and sentenced to die. The newspapers painted Whitman as a hero and savior - the man who would finally bring down the Tenderloin. This was what Whitman wanted - a ticket to the governor's mansion.
The New York State Court of Appeals heard Becker's case in February 1914. The court unanimously agreed that Judge Goff had been biased and was guilty of misconduct as well as violating procedure. Becker's conviction was overturned and he was granted a new trial. However, the Court of Appeals refused to hear the cases of the four hitmen and allowed their convictions to stand. In April 1914, Rosenberg, Cirofici, Seidenschmer and Horowitz were sent to the electric chair.
The judge in Becker's retrial was Samuel Seabury - the very man who would later bring down New York City Mayor James J. Walker. Seabury had a reputation for being fair - so the procedings went forward without much objection. With the four hitmen gone, it would be up to Bald Jack Rose to save Whitman. Rose testified as he had earlier. On May 22, 1914, Charles Becker became New York City's first re-conviction. He was again found guilty of conspriacy to commit murder and sentenced to die on July 16.
In the summer of 1914, Charles Becker found himself back in Sing Sing, again awaiting execution. He and his attorney continued to file appeals. While the execution was postponed, the appeals were eventually denied.
In November 1914, attorney Charles Whitman was elected governor of New York. He rode in on the fame he acquired from the Becker case. Whitman was seen as a man who was tough on crime and corrupt police practices.
Meanwhile, Becker had exhausted all means of appeals available to him. He was facing execution on July 30, 1915. There was only one way that Becker could now be saved from the electric chair: the Governor of New York could commute his sentence. But in a cruel twist of fate, the Governor of New York was the man who sent him to death row. Whitman wasn't about to budge.
While he languished in Sing Sing, several organizations had come forward on his behalf. Believing that Becker never had a fair trial, and that the evidence against him was mere hearsay, his supporters sent letters and telegrams to the governor's office. Pleas for clemency poured into Whitman's office.
Becker himself, in a desperate effort for compassion, wrote Whitman: I am as innocent as you of having murdered Herman Rosenthal or having counseled, procured or aided his murder or having any knowledge of that dreadful crime. On July 14, Becker's wife, Helen, went to see Whitman and pleaded with him to save her husband's life. Whitman refused to commute the sentence.
At 5:38 AM on July 30, 1915, police Lieutenant Charles Becker, found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder due to the testimony of 4 criminals trying to save their own skins, died in the electric chair at Sing Sing. After his death, friends, family and other police officers continued to state his innocence. Even the New York City newspapers had had a change of heart. They now all believed that Becker never should have been convicted on the shoddy evidence presented against him. But it was too late.
According to legend, Helen Becker had a silver plate attached to her husband's coffin that read: Charles Becker. Murdered July 30, 1915 by Governor Whitman. Police Inspector Joseph Faurot persuaded Helen to remove the plate, warning her of the possibility of libel.
The Becker case would be the beginning of the end of the Tenderloin. Attorneys were lining up to take down Tammany and ferret dishonest police off the force. The police in the district were now very afraid, and the Tenderloin began to change.
The following excerpts are from the 1910 US Federal Census for New York City, New York County:
12th Ward, ED 677
West 85th Street (no house number given)
BECKER, Charles; head; male; white; married; age 37; born New York; parents born Germany; lieutenant - police dept.; literate; rents house
BECKER, Helen L.*; wife; female; white; married; 0 children borne; 0 children still living; age 36; born New York; father born Ireland; mother born New York; teacher - public school; literate
* Helen Becker's maiden name was Lynch.
19th Ward, ED 1176
Hotel Iroquois, 49 West 44th Street
WHITMAN, Charles S.; guest; male; white; married; age 41; born Connecticut; father born Massachusetts; mother born New York; lawyer - dist. atty. NY; literate
WHITMAN, Alice H.; guest; female; white; married; 0 children borne; o children living; age 30; born New York; parents born New York; no occupation; literate
The Tenderloin Today
Reformers couldn't tame the Tenderloin. The old Fourth Ward was bad enough, but this was just more than they could take. The police were part of the problem in the area, so they wouldn't help change the neighborhood. It would take the legal system to bring down this infamous district.
After Charles Becker's execution, things were different in the Tenderloin. Casino owners began pulling out. Fewer customers were visiting the bordellos, fearing that they would be caught and brought to trial. The amount of protection money being paid to the police had drastically dropped. Tammany Hall continued to be toppled, and police corruption would continue to be investigated and prosecuted. And on top of all of this, the federal government was now taking a closer look at the district, acting on assertions of a white slave trade. Many business owners simply fled the area.
What became of the area once known as the Tenderloin? If you've ever been in New York City, then you've probably walked right through the district and never realized it.
Madison Square Garden sits between 7th and 8th Avenues, stretching from West 31st to West 33rd, on the western edge of the old district. Manhattan's world renown Garment District, home to one-third of all clothing manufactured in the United States, lies partly in the old Tenderloin. But the Tenderloin is now home to New York City's two most famous tourist attractions.
Times Square stretches from West 40th to West 52nd Streets, also encompassing Broadway, 7th and 8th Avenues. (This was also the western edge of the old Tenderloin.) An estimated 1.5 million people pass through the Crossroads of the World on a daily basis.
Over on the very eastern fringes of the old Tenderloin, sits a landmark that has probably had more movie cameos than any actor or actress in history. The Empire State Building is located at 350 5th Avenue, and has appeared in over 100 films to date. The Gorilla Building was completed in 1931, and at that time, was the tallest building in the world -- a record it held for 40 years. It is 1454 feet high and encompasses over 2 million square feet of office space. On a clear day on the observation deck, it's possible to see as far as 50 miles in any direction. In 1945, an Air Force B25 bomber crashed into the 78th and 79th floors, miraculously inflicting no structural damage. For the fiftieth anniversary of the movie King Kong, a giant inflatable gorilla was fastened to the top of the building.
Across the street from where the original Tenderloin police precinct station was located, now stands the 23rd precinct house. (At 134-138 West 30th, between 6th and 7th Avenues.) This station house was erected in 1907, and now houses the traffic division of the NYPD.
On some occasions, researchers trying to trace their Irish
ancestors in New York City, may discover that their relatives
lived up in Harlem. Almost invariably, the response is
astonishment. The image that most people have of Harlem is
one that was acquired from the Harlem of the mid-to-late 20th
century: an impoverished, violent, African-American neighborhood.
That is only a very small part of Harlem's rich history. It has
been difficult for Harlem to shake its notorious reputation.
But as you'll soon see, the history of this beleaguered
African-American neighborhood sharply parallels the histories
of 19th century Irish neighborhoods.
Harlem is an approximate 6 square mile neighborhood north of
Central Park. You're liable to enter into an argument with a
native New Yorker over where Harlem exactly begins. For the
sake of this series, we're going to say that Harlem begins just
north of 96th Street and continues northward into Washington
Heights. (Note: The southern boundary of 96th Street is a
liberal estimate. Many historians say that Harlem begins
further to the North.)
Back prior to colonial times, an Indian village encompassed the
whole area between what is now 110th and 125th Streets, and
stretching west to the Hudson River. The Manhattan Indians
called the area 'Muscoota' or 'flat place.' As the name
implies, the land was relatively flat. This, combined with
the rich soil, made it a prime spot for growing food.
When the Dutch settled the Nieuw Amsterdam colony, they
populated the southern part of Manhattan Island. The Manhattan
Indians populated the northern sections, and for the most part,
were pretty much left to themselves. According to record, Dutch
trader Mynheer Hendrick de Forest became the first white man to
visit the Muscoota area. He was so impressed by the abundant
agriculture and beauty of the area, that he built his house
there. Soon, other Dutch settlers would follow, much to the
chagrin of the Manhattan Indians.
Much in the same pattern of other settlers and Native Americans,
both sides eventually went to war. Although Muscoota wasn't
heavily populated at the time, the Manhattan Indians killed
all the settlers in the area. When Peter Stuyvesant became
Colonial Governor, he found that Muscoota would be the perfect
location for a defensive military outpost. In 1658, the Village
of Nieuw Haarlem was incorporated. By 1661, the area had become
the home to 32 families, and a group of soldiers stationed there
to keep them safe from the Manhattan Indians. In 1664, when the
British took over the colony, the village's name was changed to
In 1672, African-American slaves built one of the first major
roads in the colony. This road followed an old Indian trail
that ran from lower Manhattan up to New Harlem. (The road is
still in existence today, and is known as Broadway.) Although
the New Harlem residents now had a road to connect them to the
rest of the city, they still used riverboats to travel downtown.
New Harlem started to grow, albeit slowly. A farmer's market,
ferry house and tavern appeared in the neighborhood.
New Harlem remained a relatively quiet farming community of
estates until General George Washington brought the American
Revolution to the neighborhood. He set up his headquarters in
a country estate located at (what is now) the corner of 160th
and Edgecomb Avenue. (The Morris-Jumel Mansion.) After the
Revolution, New Harlem was renamed Harlem.
Throughout most of New York City's history, Harlem remained the
suburbs for the rich. In 1811, the City of New York unveiled
its street plan (also known as the grid plan) and Harlem went
from a sprawling agricultural community to being divided into
residential districts. In the 1830s, African-Americans moved
into the area and took to farming, mainly along what is now
East 130th Street.
As late as 1870, Harlem was still mostly farmland. Irish and
German immigrants began moving into the area following the Civil
War. While many of these immigrants found employment working
for their rich neighbors, they themselves lived in mere shacks
made from old crates and driftwood found along the shores of
the East River.
In 1880, the Second Avenue El (or elevated train) was extended
north to the Harlem River. Harlem was no longer an isolated
suburb. With the expansion of the El, more immigrants moved
north to Harlem to escape the overcrowding, disease and filth
of the Lower East Side. With the new immigrants moving in, the
old-time Harlem residents began to move out, following the same
pattern established in other NYC neighborhoods.
There has never been a reason for New Yorkers to doubt that
Harlem was part of New York City. It's situated on Manhattan
Island. But in 1903, a writer argued that Harlem was not
legally part of New York City. In his book, New Harlem Past
and Present: The Story of an Amazing Civic Wrong Now at Last
to be Righted, Carl Horton Pierce put forth that the Township
of New Harlem was never legally integrated into New York City.
To understand Pierce's argument, we need to go back in time to
both the Dutch and British colonial periods in New York. There
is no doubt that the Dutch founded the town of Nieuw Haarlem,
around 1636. When the British occupied Manhattan Island in 1664,
the town's name was changed to New Harlem. Then it becomes
In 1666, while still under British control, New Harlem was
granted its first patent -- or recognition as a legal entity --
by the crown. This patent had to be purchased, and what it did
was legitimize landholdings in the town. It also acted as a
form of taxation. This 1666 patent was called the 'First Nicholls
Patent.' (Nicholls was the name of the colonial governor of the
colony at the time.) There were some problems left
unresolved by this patent, so the same year, a second patent
was issued by the crown.
As the Dutch-English War wore on, there was a lot of taking and
retaking of land on Manhattan Island. The Dutch took back the
colony in 1673, only to lose it again in 1674. With the land
changing hands as it did, exact ownership of land became
confusing. As we know, the British finally won ownership of
The crown began to realize that they should and could get more
money from the inhabitants of the New York colony, so a new
patent was issued. In April 1686, Governor Thomas Dongan
issued a patent for New York City. The details of this
particular patent are very important. It stated that New York
City owned all the waterways surrounding Manhattan Island, up
to the low tide mark of surrounding lands. (This may also
explain why the waterfront of the borough of Brooklyn was
controlled by New York City's shipping industry.)
The property records for the Nieuw Haarlem Dutch period were either
lost or destroyed sometime in the 1700s. Following the
Revolution, Manhattan passed back into American hands and New
Harlem simply became Harlem.
In 1772 and 1775, the New York State Legislature legally fixed
the boundary between New York City and the Township of Harlem
as a diagonal line as follows: the Eastern boundary running
from what is now 74th Street and the East River to the Western
boundary at 129th Street and the Hudson River. So, following
the American Revolution, there was New York City and the
Township of Harlem. Mention is made of the Township of New
Harlem in New York State laws as late as 1835.
Pierce argued that the Township of New Harlem was never
legally dissolved as an entity and still legally existed as
late as 1903. Following this train of thought, if the Township
of New Harlem wasn't legally dissolved, then Harlem's
integration into New York City wasn't legal. Therefore, Harlem
is not legally part of New York City. And the lands in the
Township of New Harlem are vested in the descendants of the
original Dutch inhabitants.
New York City historians have argued that the history of land
ownership in Manhattan is very confusing due to the shuffling
of land back and forth between the Dutch and British. What
few records that do exist are either incomplete or they
contradict each other. Some historians also attacked Pierce
for concocting this story for his own monetary gain. At the
time his book was published, the trains were reaching into far
Northern Manhattan and the Bronx. So the land was desirable for
housing. Even if Pierce's assertion is pure bunk, it makes for
an interesting piece of reading.
What is eerie though, is what appears in the minutes of the
Trustees of the Township of New Harlem. In 1820, this committee
was appointed to oversee the subdivision and selling of land
originally held by the Dutch inhabitants. The minutes state:
The Act of 1820 appoints trustees for the freeholders and
inhabitants of Harlem seized in fee simple of the common lands.
Birth of a Ghetto
Following the end of the Civil War, Irish and German immigrants
began moving to Harlem to escape the mess on the Lower East Side.
The 1880s brought the Third and Eighth Avenue Els (elevated
trains), and with it, more businesses and residents. By the
1880s, Harlem was a stereotypical bustling NYC neighborhood: the
poor Irish and Germans in shacks in East Harlem and the affluent
populating Central and Western Harlem. Central Harlem, in
particular, was a fashionable place to live.
As New York City residents 'discovered' the neighborhood, Harlem
real estate began to boom in the late 1870s. Breathtaking
single family brownstones were erected in Western and Central
Harlem to accommodate the influx of middle and upper class
whites. Tenements were erected in East Harlem (formerly
Muscoota) for the Irish and Germans. These tenements were
erected on lots measuring 25-50 feet by 100 feet. The building
itself took up a whopping 90% of the lot! The 1901 Tenement
Housing Act required better design layouts for tenements.
Under the 1901 Act, the tenements in Harlem were reduced in
size to where the building only took up 70% of the lot.
The late 1880s saw an influx of Italian immigrants in East Harlem,
who mostly settled from east of Third Avenue over to the East
River. The influx of Italians, Irish and Germans would continue
into the 1910s.
Harlem High Bridge, 1900s
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines a ghetto as 'a quarter of
a city in which members of a minority group live especially
because of social, legal or economic pressure.' It defines a
slum as 'a densely populated usually urban area marked by
overcrowding, dirty run-down housing, poverty and social
disorganization.' As the 20th century dawned, fashionable
posh Harlem would quickly slide into a ghetto slum.
The new white immigrants who began arriving in Harlem in the
late 19th century/early 20th century were, for the most part,
poor unskilled labor. The Lower East Side didn't hold much
attraction for these new arrivals, due to the vast overcrowding,
disease and poverty. They desperately wanted to make it in
Harlem. With these European immigrants came a wave of
African-Americans who were either escaping the Lower East
Side themselves, or were migrating from the South. It was
the unprecedented building boom that lured these
African-Americans to Harlem. By about 1905, Harlem landlords
had no problem renting apartments to middle-class
African-American families. However, their rent was exorbitant.
It was not uncommon for them to pay twice what their middle-class
white neighbors were paying.
As more African-Americans flooded into Harlem, apartments were
subdivided and rents dropped. This was the official beginning
of Harlem's slide into slum conditions. As the new arrivals
came to Harlem, particularly African-Americans, the established
moneyed white families began to flee. On the heels of the
moneyed families, were the middle-class. The affect on Harlem
was devastating. The quality of life in neighborhood
immediately began to decline.
From 1870 until 1910, approximately 65,000 new residential
buildings were erected in Harlem. Then, in the early 1910s,
the bottom fell out of the real estate market. From 1910 until
around 1920, scores of new buildings in Harlem remained empty.
Businesses began to pull out. Harlem's 50,000 residents were
left to fend for themselves.
By 1930, Harlem was the most overcrowded neighborhood in
Manhattan, with an average 236 people per acre -- twice the rest
of Manhattan. It's population had soared to over 200,000. In
the 1920s, Italian immigrants continued to pour into the area,
making Harlem the site of the US's largest Italian populace.
The 1930s saw immigrants from Puerto Rico move into East
Harlem - once the home of Irish and German immigrants.
Harlem was officially a slum and a ghetto by the 1930s. The few
whites who remained lived on the fringes of society and were
too impoverished to move elsewhere. The beautiful buildings
erected in West and Central Harlem were literally falling down.
New York City decided they would demolish these brownstones to
make way for housing projects. This led to a grassroots effort
among Harlem's population. They wanted the buildings to stay.
They just wanted them repaired.
The upper and middle classes had left Harlem. Many businesses
had left Harlem. Landlords were either ignorant of the
conditions of their buildings, or they just didn't care. In
cramped apartments, two and three families lived together. The
residents were mostly undereducated (if educated at all) and
unskilled. Harlem was a time-bomb.
By the 1920s, Harlem had become an almost exclusively African-American
neighborhood. Here these families could go about their lives
and raising their families without the interruption of racism.
It was within this nurturing environment, that the Harlem
Renaissance was born.
Harlem had become a Mecca for African-American writers,
intellectuals, musicians and dancers who launched the artistic
and literary movement we now know as the Harlem Renaissance.
At the time it was happening though, it was called the New Negro
The Harlem Renaissance was a political movement as well as an
artistic one, as African-Americans threw off all racial
stereotypes and introduced the world to new creative thoughts
and visions. Historians note that the Renaissance was the true
emergence of a distinctive African-American culture in dance,
music, art and literature.
The intellectual and social freedom that Harlem provided to
African-Americans in the 1920s triggered an even larger
migration than before. African-Americans from the rural south
and other Northern cities flocked to Harlem.
Every neighborhood has a posh section. Harlem has been no
exception. They have the affluent Sugar Hill - where life was
Sugar Hill is located in the Northwest highland area of Harlem.
It extends from Edgecomb Avenue over to Amsterdam, and from
145th Street north to 155th. It was here in Sugar Hill that
the residents enjoyed comfortable and prosperous lives.
As African-Americans moved into Harlem in the early 20th century,
the white middle and upper classes fled. But as they moved out,
another well-to-do class took their place -- affluent African-Americans,
who began settling north of Edgecomb Avenue.
The homes in Sugar Hill were expensive. In the 1930s, residents
down along Edgecomb Avenue were paying anywhere from $50 per
month for a small one-bedroom apartment, to $66 for two-and-a-half
rooms up to $98 for five rooms. In the 1940s, the average
yearly income in Sugar Hill ranged from $3000 to $7000 -- twice
the average income of the residents in the rest of Harlem! An
African-American family who moved to Sugar Hill showed the world
that they had 'arrived' on the social, economic and cultural
Sugar Hill society was exclusive. These were the movers,
shakers and intellectuals of African-American society. While
Sugar Hill was the center of African-American society, in the
1920s the house at 409 Edgecomb Avenue was the center of the
center. NAACP Chief Executive Officer Walter Francis White
resided at 409 Edgecomb, and opened his doors to the best and
brightest of society, regardless of race.
Novelist Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man while living in
Sugar Hill. Other famous residents included W.E.B. DuBois and
Thurgood Marshall (the first African-American to serve on the US
Supreme Court). There were some gamblers and junkies in Sugar
Hill, living side-by-side with their famous neighbors. But they
were few and far between. Though the families in Sugar Hill
were affluent, there were a few cases where families would have
to take in borders to meet expenses. These were cases of
families who 'tightened their belts', rather than those who
lived in poverty.
Sugar Hill became so famous from the 1920s through the 1940s,
that Duke Ellington advised us to go there in his famous song
Take the A Train:
Take the A train and go to Sugar Hill.
Sugar Hill remained a prominent area for those who were on the
leading edge of African-American culture, though the affluence
would dissipate after the 1940s. In 1965, the late Malcolm X's
funeral was held in Sugar Hill.
The Harlem Renaissance had a profound influence on, not only the
United States, but the whole world. Famous alumni of this era
in Harlem include writer Langston Hughes, painter Aaron Douglass,
sculptor Augusta Savage, dancer Josephine Baker, and actor and
singer Paul Robeson, just to name a few.
Hand-in-hand with this Harlem literary movement, came a
phenomenal change in music and dance.
The Harlem Hop
If you were growing up in the 1930s or 1940s, then you've most
likely danced the Harlem Hop. It was trendy and cutting edge.
It was enough to make your parents gasp, and what young person
doesn't like to do that? You may have even entered Harlem Hop
dance contests and won a few trophies. The name 'Harlem Hop'
isn't familiar to you? Maybe you know the dance by the other
name it was eventually called -- the Lindy Hop.
The dance that we now know as the Lindy Hop began up in Harlem
in the early 1920s. But it was a Harlem dancer by the name of
Shorty Snowden who brought the dance to the rest of the world
and made it the most famous dance of the early 20th century.
At the time, white America was learning the Charleston, a much
more refined dance.
In September 1927, Shorty Snowden renamed the Harlem Hop, the
Lindy Hop, after pilot Charles Lindbergh's famous 33 hour flight
across the Atlantic that year.
A reporter who had never seen any kind of swing-type dance, was
sent to Central Park by his newspaper to cover a dance contest.
Contestants danced the usual dances, except for Shorty Snowden,
who awed the crowd with his frenzied and swinging steps. After
Snowden won the contest, the reporter, completely floored by
what he had seen, approached Snowden and asked the name of the
dance. Shorty replied, The Lindy Hop, because we flyin' like
The Lindy Hop spread like wildfire across the US. In the 1930s,
another famous Harlem Hopper named Frankie Manning added the now
famous air steps, or the overhead lifts and flips. Older
Americans at the time were aghast by the sight of a young woman
being flipped up in the air with her skirt flying over her head.
This was certainly no Victorian-era waltz.
The Harlem Hop has undergone a few name changes and variations
over the years. In addition to the Lindy Hop, there's the Big
Apple, the West Coast Lindy, the East Coast Lindy and even the
Harlem Lindy. When the 'King of Swing' Benny Goodman released
his masterpiece Sing, Sing, Sing his young fans were quick
to jump into the aisles and dance the Harlem Hop. But by this
time, the Harlem Hop had undergone another name change -- the
What did the original Harlem Hop look like? There are old reels
of film of dance contests at the Savoy and other Harlem nightclubs
that give us a splendid idea. Another place to look, believe it or not,
is an old episode of I Love Lucy. In it, Lucy learns to
Jitterbug and performs a decent version of the Harlem Hop.
If you were never quite sure how the Harlem Hop/Lindy Hop/Jitterbug
was cemented into American cultural history, then you had no further
to look than the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
Military bands from the WWII allied powers performed before Queen Elizabeth II,
each exhibiting awe-inspiring patriotism and pathos. Then the military
band representing the United States came forward -- from the Air Force.
To the right of the bandleader stood a young man and young woman, each
in uniform and holding hands. As the band broke into Glenn Miller's
In the Mood, the couple began to Jitterbug. The crowd roared its
To many watching, the dance was the Jitterbug. But if you're
hep to the jive, then you knew it was the Harlem Hop.
Stompin' at the Savoy
The Harlem Renaissance had a profound impact when it introduced
the world to new artists, writers, thinkers and dances. It's
impossible to discuss the Harlem or Lindy Hop without also
discussing the nightclub that made it famous -- the Savoy.
By the 1920s, Harlem had distinguished itself as the center of
New York City nightlife for those of all races. Harlem was
referred to as a 'city within a city.' It was New York City's
major entertainment center, showcasing up-and-coming
African-American talent. However, there was a problem.
While most of the entertainers, waiters and bartenders were
African-American, African-Americans were not allowed to
patronize the nightclubs. The clientele was soley white.
Harlem, by this time, was primarily African-American.
African-Americans who were employed at these clubs were required
to enter and exit through the backdoor. This included such
now famous entertainers like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
On March 12, 1926, Moe Gale and Charles Buchanan (a Jewish man
and an African-American man) opened the doors of the Savoy
Ballroom with their own unique vision. Located in Central Harlem,
on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets, the Savoy was
Harlem's first racially integrated nightclub. Within its doors,
people of all races could come together, dance, drink, listen to
some bands and just have a great time. Harlem nightclub owners
thought Gale and Buchanan were crazy and expected the Savoy to
fold. They reasoned that the last thing people of different
races wanted to do was to spend time together. They couldn't
have been more wrong. The Savoy would become one of Harlem's
most famous and popular nightclubs -- at times even besting
Harlem's grande dame -- the Cotton Club.
The Savoy was located in a two-story building. It was billed as
the finest ballroom in the world, housing up to 5000 people per
night. The spring-loaded wooden dance floor occupied the entire
second floor, and stretched down the entire block! At each end
of the dance floor was a huge bandstand that allowed for
continuous live music all night long. Colored lights dangled
from the ceiling.
The Savoy's staff of 90 included bouncers dressed in tuxedos
and dance teachers who would show you the latest steps for as
little as ten cents. It was dancing and music that put the
Savoy on the map. This was the official home of the Harlem or
Lindy Hop. It is believed that it was in the Savoy that dancer
Shorty Snowden told the reporter that he was dancing the Lindy
The Savoy offered Lindy competitions every Saturday night,
and Harlem's best came out. It was at the Savoy that the Lindy
became more difficult and more flamboyant, eventually becoming
an art form. On almost any given night, informal Lindy
dance-offs would break out in a section of the Savoy known as
Kat's Korner. After some time, Gale and Buchanan
allowed the dancers to come to the Savoy during the day to
rehearse alongside the bands. The Savoy became so synonymous
with the Lindy Hop that if you were dancing the original Harlem
Hop, then you were doing the 'Savoy style' of the Lindy. The
dance patrons at the club became so famous in New York City
through word-of-mouth, that in 1935 they formed a professional
troup known as 'Whitey's Lindy Hoppers' under the direction of
The Savoy gave birth to several dance styles besides the Harlem
or Lindy Hop. The Big Apple, the Stomp and even the Boogie
Woogie were born on her impressive dance floor. The Savoy
earned the nickname, the home of happy feet.
But dance wasn't the only thing the Savoy gave the world. She
introduced us to some of the most famous musicians of the Jazz
Age. In the process, she hosted the most famous battle of the
bands in music history.
The King of the Savoy
While the Savoy Ballroom became famous for its dancers and
dances, it would also become famous for its music. It was from
the bandstands of the Savoy that some of the hottest music of
the time was first heard. Guest musicians appearing at the
Savoy included Theolonius Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy
Gillespie. There was one feature tied to the music of the
Savoy that distinguished itself from other Harlem nightclubs:
Cutting or carving contests were a normal part of jazz music.
This informal 'competition' resembled a modern-day battle of
the bands. Each band or musician would step up and play their
best, to show who was the superior musician. Cutting contests
were simply considered part of paying your dues in jazz. While
cutting contests occurred in jazz clubs all over the United
States, the ones at the Savoy were the most prestigious. This
was due to one superiorly talented man - Chick Webb, the King
of the Savoy.
William Henry 'Chick' Webb was born in Baltimore, Maryland. At
birth, he was stricken with spinal tuberculosis which left him
short, hunchbacked and in frail health. While it would seem to
most that Webb's tuberculosis was a cruel twist of fate, it
inadvertently sealed his destiny. His doctor recommended that
he take up playing the drums as a way to help stretch the
muscles in his arms and back. Chick Webb grew up to become the
greatest drummer in jazz history.
He moved to New York in 1925 and formed his own jazz band. In
January 1927, he was signed to be one of the featured bands at
the Savoy. Webb was unable to read music, so he committed all
musical arrangements to memory. He was the first drummer to use
rim-shots, temple-blocks and cymbal crashes. Jazz musicians
have revered Webb as the ultimate drummer for his sense of swing,
technique, control and imaginative breaks.
Webb's band was became the Savoy house band in 1931, and would
hold this honor until 1935, earning Webb the nickname King of
the Savoy. After that date, the band would play the Savoy
for intermittent periods when not touring. Word of Webb's
talent spread like wildfire through New York City. In 1934, an
up and coming musician named Benny Goodman came by the Savoy
with his new band. He had hoped that his musicians could learn
to play great swing from Webb's band. It was this same year
that Webb's orchestra would first perform their arrangement,
Stompin' at the Savoy.
Benny Goodman was christened the King of Swing, and by
1937, was the most popular musician in America. He had a
national hit with Webb's Stompin' at the Savoy -- a fact
that didn't sit too well with Webb. In May 1937, Goodman,
riding on high on the success of Sing, Sing, Sing, was
in New York City to perform a series of sold-out shows at the
Paramount. Though the public had named him the King of Swing,
Goodman wanted to prove it. He headed up to Harlem for a
cutting contest with the King of the Savoy, Chick Webb.
Webb's cutting contests could make or break a musician. Count
Basie and Fletcher Henderson had both fallen before Webb, as
well as numerous local Harlem talents. But Goodman was sure
that he and his legendary drummer, Gene Krupa, could take him.
Four thousand people jammed the dance floor of the Savoy while
the bands faced off against each other from the opposing
bandstands in the Music Battle of the Century. Another
thousand people were outside, while the mounted police rode up
and down the block to keep order. The rules of this cutting
contest were simple. Each band would play the same arrangements.
The winner would be the undisputed King of Swing.
The performances went back and forth all night long. First
Goodman would win over the crowd to thunderous applause. Then
Webb would perform his set at the bandstand on the opposite end
of the dance floor and win the crowd over to his side. The
audience was trapped in the middle on the dance floor - drinking,
singing and dancing all night long. Goodman thought he had
Webb when he unleashed his ultimate weapon, his hit Sing, Sing, Sing
featuring the breathtaking drum solo by Gene Krupa. But Webb
struck back with his own version of the arrangement, and he
himself, did the drum solo. Goodman had been outdone on his
At the end of the night, it all came down to one song. Goodman
had had an early national hit with Stompin' at the Savoy,
and on this night, his band gave it everything they had. As
the first strains of the song began, the audience erupted in
earsplitting cheers. Dancers flew everywhere. When they
finished, the Benny Goodman Orchestra was drenched in sweat
and out of breath. The audience roared their approval. Benny
Goodman had won the Chick Webb cutting contest. Or so he thought.
From the opposite bandstand, Chick Webb and his orchestra watched
in amused silence. They too applauded Goodman's efforts. But the
Savoy, and the song, belonged to Chick Webb. The Chick Webb Orchestra
broke into their original arrangement of Stompin' at the Savoy
with Webb taking the drums to mesmerizing heights. Glistening with
sweat under the colored lights, Webb's performance moved the audience
to stunned silence. When it was over, the crowd's reaction was deafening.
Goodman had been routed. He simply shook his head in amazement. The
gracious Gene Krupa literally bowed down in respect. Chick Webb was
the undisputed King of the Swing.
Without a doubt, the big winners that night was the Savoy
audience. For a mere fifty-cent cover charge, they heard two
of the best bands in jazz perform all night long.
In later years, Benny Goodman referred to the cutting contest
as the time Chick Webb left his band cut and bleeding.
Gene Krupa said that he was shell-shocked by Webb's
performance. He referred to Webb as the little giant of drummers
whose drum solos cut me to ribbons.
The Harlem Riots
We've seen, while discussing other neighborhoods, that civil
riots were not an uncommon occurrence in New York City. Harlem
is no exception.
There have been no civil riots in the United States that have
equaled the devastation or intensity of the 1863 NYC Draft
Riots. The riots had touched virtually every neighborhood
in Manhattan. On the first day of the riots, mobs cut down
the telegraph poles along Third Avenue. This not only disrupted
communication with the northern parts of the city, but
effectively isolated the northern neighborhoods, Harlem
included, from police headquarters. Harlem's 19th police
precinct was then left to fend for itself, as mobs patrolled
the streets and attempted to burn the Harlem Railroad.
The 20th century brought its own scourges to the world. The
Great Depression devastated families and communities across the
globe. However, no neighborhood in New York City was hit as
hard as Harlem was. The Depression left 50% of Harlem
residents unemployed. Construction of new buildings halted.
Landlords, in sheer panic, began to sell their buildings for
whatever they could get.
As is usually the case, as unemployment rose, crime rose.
Harlem had gone from a leading African-American metropolis to a
crime-ridden ghetto slum. The police responded in heavy
On March 19, 1935, a young boy was caught shoplifting at
Kresge's Department Store in Harlem. Sources differ as to the
race of the boy -- some claimed he was African-American, others
claimed Hispanic. In front of many customers, the store manager
escorted the youth out the back door to question him in the
alley. After issuing a stiff warning to the boy, the manager
sent him home to his parents. The police were never called.
Witnesses in the store began to whisper that the boy was taken
out back and beaten.
Meanwhile, a funeral home around the corner was having a
showing. When one of the hearses returned to the funeral home,
the driver found no parking space available. So he pulled
around the corner, parked in front of Kresge's and walked back
to the funeral home.
Harlem residents had a long-standing animosity towards
Kresge's. The store owners had been reluctant to hire any
African-Americans until the neighborhood picketed outside the
store. Then Kresge's hired a few residents for menial tasks,
at lowered salaries. This animosity and distrust, combined
with the young boy and the sight of the hearse, set Harlem
ablaze. People began saying the boy was taken out back and
beaten to death by police, (who weren't even on the scene),
hence the appearance of the hearse.
An angry mob formed outside Kresge's, making violent threats.
Kresge's store manager became aware of the situation outside,
quickly closed the store and sent the employees home. About
an hour after Kresge's closed, the mob began smashing the
windows and looting.
The police soon arrived, and attempted to disperse the crowd.
When no one left, an officer drew his gun as a warning. The
crowd began to scatter. What exactly happened next is hazy.
At some point, the officer who had drawn his gun then fired
into the crowd, hitting one person. (This person died a few
days later at Harlem Hospital.)
News of the shooting spread quickly and Harlem erupted into
riots. Angry residents took to the streets, chanting, throwing
stones and vandalizing property for two days. Even though the
press had reported that the boy was home safe with his parents,
the residents screamed that it was all lies. Police were
finally able to restore order in Harlem late in the day on
During the 1935 riot, 2 Harlem residents were killed. Thirty
were injured and over 100 people were arrested. Scores of
white-owned buildings were vandalized and/or damaged, to the
tune of $2 million. (Or $25.8 million today.)
The police would completely crack down on Harlem residents
following the riot. Stories of police brutality and unlawful
arrests became common. This would lead to Harlem rioting
On August 1, 1943, the police set up a sting operation at the
Hotel Braddock, in hopes of catching a sufficient number of
people for solicitation. While the hotel was under
surveillance, an African-American woman became embroiled in
an argument with one of the hotel employees. Over what, is
not known. The police sent in Officer James Collins to arrest
her. (Whether she was being arrested for solicitation or
creating a public disturbance is not known.) While arresting
the woman, a young African-American soldier on leave from the
Army (and in full uniform) happened upon the scene.
The soldier approached Officer Collins to inquire as to what
was going on and to offer his services if needed. Officer
Collins sternly advised the young soldier several times to
leave, but he paid no heed to the warning. Witnesses say that
after a few minutes, Collins and the soldier began arguing
loudly. Then the soldier grabbed the officer's nightstick,
struck Collins and ran off. Collins drew his gun and fired at
the soldier, striking him the arm. The soldier was caught,
arrested and treated at Harlem Hospital.
The account of the shooting flew through Harlem and the
residents were again enraged. A large crowd gathered outside
Harlem Hospital, chanting antipolice slogans. After some time,
they left the hospital grounds and prowled through the
neighborhood, wreaking havoc. Cars were overturned and
torched, white-owned businesses were vandalized, looted and in
some cases, burned to the ground.
It was now the police's turn to be angry, and they set upon
Harlem in full force. More stories of police brutality came
out of the neighborhood. Harlem residents and the NYPD would
battle back-and-forth for four days before the police could
restore order on Monday, August 5.
The 1943 riots were more devastating than the 1935 riot. When
it was all over, 6 Harlem residents had been killed.
One-hundred-eighty people were injured and over 550 people were
arrested. Over 1500 buildings were damaged or completely
destroyed. The total damage at the time was an estimated $5
million or $53 million today.
The Irish and Germans were the two most numerous ethnic groups in Harlem in the mid-to-late 1800s. They mostly worked as servant help to the area's elite, and heavily populated East Harlem. The dawn of the 20th century brought Italians to Harlem. Following on their heels were African-Americans. For the most part, the white population of Harlem fled. Except for the Irish, who would continue to hold out in the eastern sections of the neighborhood until the 1960s. Joining the Irish in East Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s, were new immigrants from Puerto Rico. There was such an influx of Puerto Rican immigrants to the area, that East Harlem was nicknamed Spanish Harlem.
Following on the crippling blows of the Great Depression, the 1940s brought some changes to Harlem. In 1944, building of one of the largest housing projects began. The project stretched from 112th to 115th Street, and sprawled from Lenox Avenue all the way to the Harlem River. Any houses that lay in its path, were simply demolished.
The 1949 Urban Renewal Act stated that decent housing must be provided for all families. While the Act was desperately needed, it did lay the groundwork for some problems in the 1950s. Under the auspices of this Act, the city practiced 'slum clearance' throughout Harlem. Many tenements were demolished and its residents simply uprooted and relocated -- whether they wanted to go or not. Many Harlem residents were left suspicious of all city policies. But one good thing did come from it all. Some Harlem residents formed grassroots efforts to clean up their neighborhood.
The 1960s and 1970s brought high unemployment back to Harlem, again crippling its development. As was seen during the Great Depression, as unemployment rose, crime rose. Even the civil rights movements of the 1960s had an adverse effect on the neighborhood. The more well-do-to African-Americans moved elsewhere, to areas with lower crime rates.
From 1960 until 1990, Harlem lost one-half of its population to migration, and over one-third of its buildings to urban renewal. Drugs and gangs became a major problem. But it was the neighborhood watch programs of the 1980s that began to turn Harlem around. Residents, tired of raising their families amid crime, fought to reclaim their neighborhood for their children. Neighbors took turns keeping an eye on the goings-on in the streets. After-school programs were created, offering sports and educational assistance. In the 1990s, crime began to lessen in Harlem. Street gangs began to move elsewhere. Businesses, seeing the change, began to reinvest in the neighborhood.
Some of the famous people born in Harlem have included author James Baldwin, percussionist Tito Puente, jazz composer James 'Fletcher' Henderson, and Sean 'Puffy/P. Diddy' Combs. We simply can't forget to mention that world-famous choreographer Agnes de Mille was born in Harlem. As was Colin Powell, the highest ranking African-American in US military history. (Note: Powell was born in Harlem, but raised in the South Bronx.)
There's much to see in Harlem, especially if you're a history buff. The Morris-Jumel Mansion dates back to the colonial era. Located at 160th and Edgecomb Avenue, this two-story, 12 room mansion was once the summer retreat for British Colonel Roger Morris. Morris and his family abandoned the house at the beginning of the Revolution. George Washington later used the house as his headquarters.
Hamilton Grange is located on Convent Avenue, off Amsterdam. The former home of Alexander Hamilton was originally built on 32 acres by architect John McComb, Jr. It was completed in 1802, and named the 'Grange' after Hamilton's ancestral home in Scotland. Hamilton only lived there for two years, until his death at the hands of Aaron Burr in 1804.
Striver's Row is a symbol of Harlem's once rich past. Also known as the King Model Houses, it consists of 146 rowhouses and 3 apartment buildings stretching from West 138th to West 139th Streets, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. These beautiful tan-brick buildings on a tree-lined street, were once exclusively for whites. Gated alleys allowed entrance for horse-drawn delivery carriages. In the late 19th century, financier David King commissioned three architects to build in Harlem, giving them full artistic control. Building began in 1880. Once on the market, the houses were so expensive that few of the elite could afford to live in them. King eventually went bankrupt and the bank foreclosed on the buildings. But Striver's Row is still there, basically untouched except by time. Where did the name 'Striver's Row' come from? That was the nickname given to the street because those who lived there, had to strive to afford to pay the rents.
Aster Row lies on West 130th, between Fifth and Lenox Avenues, on land once owned by William Astor. Built between 1880 and 1883, the 28 red-brick buildings here present a strange sight for Manhattan. These houses have porches! The buildings have been declared landmarks and preservation is currently underway.
Harlem simply wouldn't be Harlem without Owney Madden's Cotton Club. It's still there, but under new ownership. Now located on 125th Street, the club reopened in the late 1970s. On the night of its grand reopening, the headliner was the man who put the Cotton Club on the map: Cab Calloway.
Then of course, there's the Apollo Theater, also on 125th. The Apollo has become famous for its amateur night. Many of the jazz's most famous got started at the Apollo. Ella Fitzgerald won amateur night, and the attention of Chick Webb. While the Apollo's amateur night is famous, its audiences are infamous. Lena Horne was booed off the stage at her debut on amateur night.
The world famous Harlem Globetrotters are not actually from Harlem. They were formed in Chicago. The owners thought that by attaching the name 'Harlem' to the team, it would increase their 'ethnicity.'
Mid-19th century fire watchtower, Marcus Garvey Park, 1970s
The most interesting and charming site in Harlem is the Marcus Garvey Park fire watchtower. Built in 1856 in what was originally called Mount Morris Park, the cast iron tower was used by volunteer firefighters to alert the neighborhood to any fires. This was done by ringing the huge cast iron bell. In 1874, the telegraph utilized instead. Volunteer firefighters were positioned in the tower's observatory, and would telegraph notice of a fire to the surrounding firehouses.
The fire watchtower may be the most interesting site to see, but the most famous is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Located at 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, this gothic cathedral is the largest in the world. The former home of the Leake & Watts orphanage, building began in December 1892. Many delays were encountered, including the failure to hit bedrock after two years of digging, the death of the architect, World War I and the Great Depression. St. John the Divine is the central church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the seat of its bishop.
Harlem is New York City's largest neighborhood. It covers a total of 50 city blocks. Most of its residents are the working-class poor. It is a neighborhood that has earned the reputation as a crime-ridden, drug-infested, poverty-stricken sewer. But Harlem is a neighborhood of rich history and much charm. In many ways, Harlem is much like the old Irish neighborhood Five Points. The people were poor, uneducated or undereducated, crime was high, riots were common, unemployment was the norm and gangs ruled the streets. It would take outside forces to turn Five Points around. Harlemites are doing it themselves.
If you should visit New York City, don't be afraid to go to Harlem. The people are proud of their neighborhood and its history. They're happy to share it with you. Knowing the fear and apprehension that many tourists have regarding a trip to Harlem, the residents are actively trying to turn that around. Probably the best symbol of this change in Harlem is a sign for the tourists that says: Welcome to Harlem. We love you and there's nothing you can do about it.