All posts by Bowery Boys

Who Murdered Helen Jewett? A horrible crime exposes New York’s darkest secret

PODCAST The story of a brutal murder in a New York brothel and the prime suspect’s controversial trial which captivated Americans in the 1830s.

In the spring of 1836, a young woman named Helen Jewett was brutally murdered with a hatchet in a townhouse brothel on Thomas Street, just a few blocks northwest from New York City Hall. [Click here to see the exact location.]

This was not a normal crime. Helen was a prostitute of great beauty and considerable intelligence, making her living in a rapidly transforming city. Among her client list were presentable gentlemen and rowdy young men alike — their kind fueling the rise of illicit pleasures throughout New York City in the 1830s.

This was the era of the sporting man. Young single men with a little change in their pocket hit the streets of New York after dark, looking for a good time. For some single young women struggling to survive, the sex industry — from the ‘high end’ brothels to the grimy upper tiers of the theater — allowed them to live comfortable, if secretive, lives. But it placed many in great danger.

The prime suspect for Helen’s murder was a young Connecticut man named Richard P. Robinson who worked at a respectable New York firm. His trial would captivate New Yorkers and even interest newspaper readers around the country. But would justice be served?

ALSO: Find out how this incident helped shape the nature of American journalism itself.

PLUS: Meet more than one person named Ogden!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #222: WHO KILLED HELEN JEWETT?

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

New York City in 1830 — at Broadway and Bowling Green. The area just northeast of here would be ravaged by the Great Fire of 1835.

MCNY

New York City Hall has it looked in 1830. The events of this story take place just a couple blocks to the north west of here!

MCNY

The beautiful Helen Jewett (or Ellen Jewett), “from an original painting taken from life.”

From an original Painting taken from Life. Published May 1836, by H. R. Robinson, 48 Courtlandt St. N.

 

The prime suspect Richard Robinson, in his wig:

Taken from life as he appeared in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, on his arraignment, Tuesday, the 25th day of May, 1836. Entered according to Act of Congress in the Year 1836, by H.R. Robinson, in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the United States of the Southern District of N.Y

 

Much of the extant imagery produced following the trial was obviously highly critical of Robinson, mocking him as ‘an innocent boy’, a phrase which was used during the trial.

Courtesy MCNY; Alfred M. Hoffy (1790-1860)
John T. Bowen (ca. 1801-1856? )
DATE:1836
Designed & drawn on Stone by Hoffy. Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1836 by J. T. Bowen & A. Hoffy, in the Office of the Clerk of the District Court of the U.S. for the Southern District of New – York

 

MCNY

 

One of the oldest existing buildings in the Tribeca/upper WTC district is St. Peter’s Church — seen here in a 1916 photograph — which began construction (to replace an older building) in 1836, the year of Helen Jewett’s murder. It sits in the region of the old prostitution district known as ‘the Holy Ground’.

MCNY

 

Some images from the Life of Helen Jewett, one of several pamphlets which came out after the trial, dramatizing the lives of Jewett and Robinson. Most of the tale was fabricated for dramatic purposes.

 

 

A handy guide to the most loathsome saloons on the Bowery in 1903

Many of the bars and taverns found on the Bowery today are unfortunately clean, friendly and even trendy establishments, wonderful safe places to meet with friends and family. Not a ruffian or scoundrel in sight. Where’s the fun in that?!

Of course, for most of its history, the Bowery was one of the most notorious places in America, the location of great vice and debauchery — gambling dens, brothels, dance halls, dime museums, saloons full of soused drinkers hovering around a boxing ring. For many decades, an elevated train line turned the Bowery into a shadowy haven for illicit shenanigans of all sorts.

And so may I turn your attention to an article which ran in the New York Tribune, on April 12, 1903, that touted New York’s reform efforts along the Bowery. This report proudly lists the Bowery’s most “evil resorts” which were successfully wiped away thanks to efforts by Mayor Seth Low.

While these would surely be dangerous places to visit, you can’t deny that these lurid newspaper descriptions make even the most lowly of dives seem rather interesting.

With each address, I’ve put a link to Google Maps, revealing what stands on that spot today. In many cases, the building itself is still standing:

15 Bowery “Known to the criminal ‘under world’ as Spanish Mamie’s. Took its name from the presence of a Spanish girl, the associate of many crooks. This was a dive of the lowest sort.”

19 Bowery “A back room ‘ginmill,’ the headquarters of ‘Boston Charlie,’ a well known character, and his even more notorious woman pal ‘Boston Clara.’ Boston Charlie was known as a ‘first rate cane man’, that is, a beggar who pretended to be a cripple. He served many terms in the workhouse and gave this place a reputation in his now line. It was the resort of ‘panhandlers’.”

Below: An 1880 photograph of the Bowery at Canal Street

MCNY

25 Bowery The New-York Tavern.  Here was  planned a brutal robbery and assault on a Brooklyn jeweler. A low order of ‘crooks’ made this their ‘hang out.’”

101 Bowery “A common backroom resort, a place of assignation and the gathering place of ‘crooks’ of an inferior order.”

Below: The Bowery in 1915. The establishments listed below would have been on this block

Courtesy MCNY

114 Bowery “A resort of cheap pugilists, where obscene pictures were exhibited on a screen, best known as Steve Brodie’s” [Read more about Brodie’s dive bar here]

115 BoweryLittle Jumbo. This was a notorious resort and the scene of a brutal murder. Criminals and ‘panhandlers’ made it their headquarters, and sailors were the victims of all sorts of crime, from robbery to murder. It was run for the proprietor by an Italian who was discharged and replaced by an Irishman; soon after the Irishman and the Italian had a fight and the former was killed.”

MCNY

119 Bowery Flynn’s ‘Black Hole.’ This notorious resort is mentioned by Josiah Flynt as a resort of all sorts of crooks. It had a wide reputation, and went out of business soon after its proprietor, Flynn, was arrested for illegal registration in the last campaign.”

Also* — “‘Eat ’Em Up Jack’ McManus’s Rapid Transit House. This was a well known dive kept by McManus, who was formerly head bouncer for McGurk [most known for the morbid McGurk’s Suicide Hall, see below]. The assertion that no ‘touch’, that is, robbery, was ever made in McGurk’s and that such business was barred there, is somewhat justified by the fact that this place was started by a former employee of McGurk, and was famous for the ‘touches’ made there. McManus was known to his ‘pals’ as a ‘strong arm’ man, one who garrotes victims he is about to rob with his crooked arm.”

287 BoweryThe Tivoli — A concert hall where women in indecent costumes sang indecent songs on the stage; where assignation was carried on openly, and solders and sailors were dragged in and later taken to disorderly houses.”

The Bowery in 1905

MCNY

291 BoweryThe Volks Garden — The most notorious concert hall in the Bowery, and, like the Tivoli, a resort for prostitutes, a place of indecent stage exhibitions and the largest of its sort on the Bowery. As many as fifty women were attached to this place, and the business was carried on brazenly, numbers of ‘barkers’ and ‘pullers in’ being stationed at the door to drag people in by main force.”

295 BoweryMcGurk’s ‘Suicide Hall’ The most notorious resort in the Bowery, the ‘hangout’ of a large number of young girls. Solders and sailors frequented the place in large numbers. Carbolic acid suicies were the special of the place and gave it its name.” [Read more about it in my piece on Suicide Hall.]

*Address not specifically listed. May have shared the building with Flynn’s Black Hole

The above is an expanded excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

The Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Revolution: The Story of the First Bikini

THE FIRST PODCAST In 1907, the professional swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested on a Massachusetts beach for wearing a revealing bathing suit — a skin-tight black ensemble which covered most of her body.

Less than forty years later, in 1946, the owner of a Parisian lingerie shop named Louis Réard invented the bikini, perhaps the smallest amount of fabric to ever change the world, courtesy Micheline Bernardini, the young woman who debuted this scandalous outfit.

In this podcast, I’ll tell you what happened to change people’s perception of public decency in those forty years and explain how the bikini represents the best — and the worst — instincts of modern American culture.

To get this episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services.

Subscribe to The First here so that you don’t miss future episodes!

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio from your mobile device.

Or listen to it straight from here:
08 THE ITSY BITSY TEENY WEENY REVOLUTION: THE STORY OF THE FIRST BIKINI

Images from the show:

The bizarre contraption known as the bathing machine:

Courtesy Messy Nessy Chic

 

The glorious Annette Kellerman in one of her swimming outfits

Courtesy Library of Congress

 

Women in Chicago being arrested for indecent exposure in 1922

Jean Harlow in a stylish bathing suit from the 1930s.

 

Coco Chanel, with the Duke of Westminster, most certainly honing her suntan.

The world’s most famous pin-up — Betty Grable in a bathing suit

The song from this episode was Grable singing “You’re My Little Pin-Up Girl”:

The Parisian fashion designer Louis Reard who brought the world the bikini

 

Reard with women wearing his invention:

 

Video of the bikini’s first appearance — as well as the smashing debut of the Parisian beauty Micheline Bernardini:

 

Bernardini with her bikini — and her match box!

 

Ladies in beautiful bikinis on Coney Island 1965:

(Dan Farrell/New York Daily News

 

That picture and this one (also courtesy New York Daily News) are part of a terrific layout of vintage bathing suits. Check it out.

Where was Manhattan Square? The Gilded Age remaking of a neglected park

Theodore Roosevelt Park (77th and 81st Streets, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue), which contains the beloved American Museum of Natural History, is the oldest developed section of the Upper West Side, purchased by the city in 1839 as a possible strolling park to be called Manhattan Square.

Museum of the City of New York

Central Park was but a gleam in the eye back in 1839! The Grid Plan of 1811 had divvied up upper Manhattan into organized blocks but not much was properly developed in the early 19th century. There were few suitable transportation options and thus upper Manhattan was only sparsely populated.

Near this spot on the grid was the old African-American settlement of Seneca Village, which was later wiped away with the development of Central Park.

Below: A sketch by Egbert Viele from 1857 showing the remains of the small village of Seneca Village. Manhattan Square would have been off to the upper left portion of this image.

The original grid plan had no significant parks built into it so later city planners had to carve some out themselves. Unfortunately, the city almost literally forgot all about Manhattan Square — it’s even included in an 1860 New York Times article headlined NEWLY-DISCOVERED CITY PROPERTY

To be fair, the land had been granted to the Central Park Commission which was rather busy developing the park proper. As a result, Manhattan Square’s rugged and unpleasant terrain became an eye sore and rather dangerous for any actual visitors.

Samuel Ruggles, developer of both Union Square and Gramercy Park, once squawked, “It is a disgrace to the city. It is in some places forty feet below the grade and well characterized as ‘a pestilential hole of stagnant water.’”

Below: From the late 1870s, the solitary American Museum of Natural History building sits on the spot of Manhattan Square, now leveled out for public enjoyment, even if the lots surrounding it are quite barren.

In the early 1860s, the city proposed selling off this sorely underused area of land. At one point, during the Civil War, some suggested it be turned into a proper military parade ground. “Manhattan-square [has] been proposed for the parade-ground; over Manhattan-square the Commissioners have control and it is understood that they are willing to assign it, but, just now, they have not the funds which its preparation would require.” [source]

The next plan was to make a zoo! Animals had accumulated near the Central Park Arsenal as a make-shift ‘menagerie‘ — abandoned pets, former circus animals, far-flung beasts brought over on ships. At one point it was determined to move those animals to a more formal Zoological Garden, to be built on the much abused area of Manhattan Square.

From 1865: “The Zoological Gardens are about to be commenced at Manhattan-square, and the commissioners fully expect to have this valuable garden completed before the Summer wanes.”

Below: The chaos of the Central Park menagerie, depicted in an 1866 illustration

Harpers Weekly

Those planned fell through of course. Today the Central Park Zoo marks to location of that former menagerie.

By 1872, the Central Park Commission would utilize Manhattan Square for another mission, designating it the home for the American Museum of Natural History. The first structure would be completed in 1877. (For more information on the institution’s development, check out our podcast on the subject.)

Apartment developers later flocked to the park’s edges, drawn to its proximity to other fashionable apartment houses in the neighborhood like the Dakota Apartments (at 72nd Street, built in 1884). Luxury apartment living soon transformed the Upper West Side, and the fate of Manhattan Square — renamed Theodore Roosevelt Park in 1958 — changed with it.

Below: 44 West 77th Street. Manhattan Square Studio Apartment, photographed in 1910

MCNY

Of course, you may not know it by that name today either. From the New York Department of Parks and Recreation: “Neighborhood residents have traditionally referred to the parkland as Museum Park or Dinosaur Park.”

Below: The fully expanded museum as it looked in 1913

MCNY
The above is an expanded excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

NYC Urbanism: A spectacular snapshot dip into New York City history

The photo sharing service Instagram is a tricky site if you’re a history buff. By design, it’s meant to capture the immediate moment, often drenched in a filter to make things seem nostalgic or historic. The Bowery Boys have an Instagram account if you’d like to follow us along there, although we are mostly just documenting our journeys through the city, stopping to photograph places we are researching for upcoming shows or simply locating hidden spots of historical interest.

However I’d like to draw your attention to somebody else’s account which I think you’ll enjoy. Josh Vogel, a curator at the Skyscraper Museum (you can see his work at their latest show Ten & Taller), operates an independent Instagram account called NYC Urbanism, offering up old photographs, maps and drawings of Old New York for you to ogle in place of the usual selfies and photos of food.

The images, many of them rarely seen, provide a rich and interesting portal into the past via a photo app that seems initially unsuited for such fascinating discovery. NYC Urbanism has taken a tool meant to render superficial displays of nostalgia and turned it into something legitimate.

Vogel recently helped me out on the latest episode of The First podcast, focusing on the invention of the first electric chair. (Check out the episode if you haven’t; it’s a fascinating and bizarre tale set in upstate New York.) 

Below are a few of my favorite posts from his account. Head over to Instagram and follow NYC Urbanism for little daily doses of eye-popping New York history:

 

#MapMondays! 1930 plan to fill New York Harbor with landfill! The proposal by T. Kennard Thomson was originally published in 1911 in Popular Science and would have filled the entire east river with landfill in addition to creating new peninsulas off of Staten Island, Bayonne and Sandy Hook, totaling fifty square miles overall! With the East River gone, Thomson proposes connecting the Long Island Sound back to the harbor by digging a new channel from Flushing through #Brooklyn. Thomson revised the plan in 1930 (seen above), naming the new landfill City of New Manhattan, half of which would be in the state of New Jersey, separated by the extension of Broadway which would be a grand boulevard over railroad tracks and end in a tunnel to Staten Island – no need to keep the Staten Island Ferry around! This grand boulevard would be four miles long and three decks high, with levels for trains, automobiles and airplane landings! Tunnels would also go from Sunset Park to Bayonne, Red Hook to Jersey City and Cobble Hill to Jersey City. #MapMonday

A photo posted by NYC URBANISM (@nycurbanism) on

Building The Wall: How Wall Street got its name

One of the first facts you learn as a student of New York City history is that Wall Street, that canyon of tall buildings and center of the American financial world, is named for an actual wall that once stretched along this very spot during the days of the Dutch when New York was known as New Amsterdam.

A simplistic but colorful view of “Man Mados” or “New Amsterdam” in 1664 (click in to inspect the detail)

 

There was most definitely a walled fortification nearby on New Amsterdam’s northern boundary, and it certainly did stretch along about the same area as Wall Street does today.

But the present name seems to be a formation of mixed meanings that only a tangle of languages and hundreds of years of history can create. The Dutch themselves referred to an actual street alongside the waterfront that ran up to and alongside the wall as the ‘Cingel’ — according to an old history, meaning “exterior, or encircling, street.

But ‘De Waal Straat’, as it was also known, was also the center of a small Walloon community in New Amsterdam, and some believe the name comes from them. The Walloons were French-speaking Belgians who were among the first European settlers, arriving in the New World as part of a contingent hired by the Dutch West India Company.

A map of New Amsterdam, indicating the layout from about 1644, well before a wall was constructed.

MCNY

The real reasons for New Amsterdam building its famous wall are also up for grabs. It’s commonly held that an original wooden palisade was erected in 1644 in defense of Indian attacks, and certainly the residents of New Amsterdam did their part to rile the anger of the native landowners.

Below: A fanciful illustration from Harper’s Magazine, 1908, imagining New Amsterdam and the construction of the original ‘wall’.

But the Dutch had been living at the tip of Manhattan for over 25 years by the time the sturdier wall was built in 1653. In truth, it was commissioned to keep out a different sort of enemy.

You’ll be pleased to know that one-legged director-general Peter Stuyvesant was the man who ordered the construction of the wall — in his words, “to surround the greater part of the city with a high stockade and small breastwork” — to replace the inadequate wooden barrier that had previously marked the city’s northern border .

A model of New Amsterdam made in 1933, clearly showing how sudden the city borders stopped thanks to the wall.

MCNY

This was an incredibly important year for New Amsterdam in two respects. In February 1653, New Amsterdam was chartered as a official Dutch city. Although Stuyvesant was quite against the outpost receiving such official recognition, he eventually took advantage of it, appointing the first town council himself rather than putting it up to such trivial inconveniences as elections.

But in 1653 the tides of the motherland spilled onto their shores, as the war between England and the Netherlands threatened the remote and undefended new city. The Dutch intended to launch ships from New Amsterdam harbor in battle against the English.

As a result, the English colonies up north were sure to retaliate, either by sea or, feared Stuyvesant, over land, possibly teaming with hostile Indian forces, down through undefended Manhattan island.

Essentially, the wall that helped give us Wall Street was built because Stuyvesant feared attacks not just from Indian tribes, but from the European colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Haven!

Looking at this more well known map of New Amsterdam – the Costello Plan of 1660 — one can see the two gates very clearly.


Stuyvesant called upon the 43 richest residents of New Amsterdam to provide funding to fix up the ailing Fort Amsterdam and to construct a stockade across the island to prevent attacks from the north, while it took New Amsterdam’s most oppressed inhabitants — slave labor from the Dutch West India Company — to actually build the wall.

The barrier was constructed out of earth, rock, and 15 feet timber planks sold to the Dutch, ironically enough, by the notorious Englishman Thomas Baxter. In a turnabout that one would expect from hiring your enemy, Baxter later led a group of Rhode Island marauders and pirated Dutch fishing ships.

Early in the 1660s, the Dutch upgraded its wall to include brass cannons and two sturdy gates — one at today’s intersection of Wall and Broadway (for land), the other at Wall and Pearl Street (according to an early account, a water gate and access to a ‘river road’).

Below: A detail from a map of New Amsterdam’s eastern side, clearly showing the water gate, and a illustration from 1908 of that eastern gate:

Internet Archives Book Images

 

The British took over New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York, but the wall still remained, becoming more a relic than a serious defense.

By the turn of the century, the fear of land attacks had almost completely subsided and the city was beginning to feel crowded. So in 1699 the wall was torn down with some of the material salvaged to help construct a new City Hall at the corner of Nassau Street and the newly cristened Wall Street. In 1711 a slave market was built on Wall Street along the eastern shore, remaining there until 1762.

When the British were forced out in 1783 by the Americans, the City Hall building was finally renamed Federal Hall — the first official center of American government.

A plaque honoring the old wall sits today at the corner of Wall and Broadway, where the gate to the city once opened:

New York: The first federal capital and birthplace of the Bill of Rights

PODCAST Part Two of our two-part series on New York City in the years following the Revolutionary War.

During a handful of months in 1789 and 1790, representatives of the new nation of the United States came together in New York City to make decisions which would forever affect the lives of Americans.

In this second part of our two-part show on New York as the first federal capital of the United States, we roll up our sleeves and get down to business. (In the first part, he moved the capital to lower Manhattan and inaugurated ourselves a new president George Washington!)

The men of the first Continental Congress — which first met in the Spring of 1789 — had a lofty job in front of them that year. They needed to not only construct the tools and offices of a brand new government, they were also tasked with defining the basic rights of American citizens via a set of amendments to the U.S. Constitution — the Bill of Rights.

Now imagine doing this in your post-Colonial era garments during a hot summer, all crammed into a few rooms at Federal Hall, the former City Hall building on Wall Street.

It was here that the Bill of Rights was introduced, debated and voted upon. But those weren’t the only monumental decisions being made in the city.

When nobody could come to an agreement on two major issues — the assumption of state debt and the location of the permanent federal capital — it was up to Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to craft a deal, made during a legendary dinner party on Maiden Lane. We live today with the critical decisions made by these three men on that night over food and wine.

ALSO: The tale of James Hemings, an enslaved man who became an accomplished French chef and most likely the cook for that very dinner, witness to the events in “the room where it happened.”

 

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #221: NEW YORK: CAPITAL CITY OF THE UNITED STATES

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

The setting for much of our show today is Federal Hall, the former City Hall turned headquarters of burgeoning American government.

Peter Lacour delin. A Doolittle sculp. Printed & Sold by A Doolittle New Haven 1790. Re-engraved on copper by Sidney L. Smith. The Society of Iconophiles. New York. 1899.

 

It was demolished in the 1810s and replaced many years later with the U.S. Customs House (later the Sub Treasury Building).

Courtesy MCNY

Alexander Hamilton, the first head of the Department of Treasury and one of the architects of the Great Compromise of 1790.

Alexander Hamilton. Copy of Engraving, Published Sept. 1804.MCNY

 

James Madison (depicted here in a pose as the fourth President of the United States) was instrumental in crafting the Bill of Rights and was also involved in the compromise involving the assumption of state debts

MCNY

 

Thomas Jefferson (depicted here in a pose as the third President of the United States) was America’s first Secretary of State and was instrumental in pulling together the ingredients of the Great Compromise.

MCNY

 

It’s likely that James Hemings, the brother of Sally Hemings and an enslaved man owned by Jefferson, served the meal that evening in ‘the room that it happened’, aka the Great Compromise.

MCNY

An inventory of kitchen tools written out by Hemings that he used at Monticello. More details on Hemings here.

Library of Congress

A plaque marking the spot on Maiden Lane where Thomas Jefferson’s house once stood.

Courtesy Playbill

 

The sizable home of Alexander Macomb who rented half his house to George Washington in 1790. In addition to his offices and household, many of his enslaved people worked here as well.

 

Frederick Douglass and the life saver of Lispenard Street

In the early and mid-nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad secretly escorted tens of thousands of Southern slaves to Northern destinations, where slavery was illegal. The African American publisher David Ruggles was born a freeman in Connecticut and moved to New York to energize the emerging abolitionist move- meant via the New York Vigilance Committee, one of the city’s most influential abolitionist collectives.

And thank goodness David Ruggles was there.

Below: One of the few extant depictions of David Ruggles

At his home at 36 Lispenard Street (in today’s Tribeca neighborhood), Ruggles ran a printing press and reading room for abolitionist literature.  He also sheltered an estimated 600 fugitive slaves here over the years, including in 1838 a man named Frederick Washington Bailey, who had escaped a life of slavery in Maryland.

Under a new name, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass later wrote about how he felt arriving in New York. The following words are from the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882:

“My free life began on the third of September, 1838. On the morning of the fourth of that month, after an anxious and most perilous but safe journey, I found myself in the big city of New York, a free man – one more added to the mighty throng which, like the confused waves of the troubled sea, surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway.

Though dazzled with the wonders which met me on every hand, my thoughts could not be withdrawn from my strange situation.  

I have often been asked how I felt, when first I found myself on free soil; and my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me.  If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life.

In a letter written to a friend soon after reading New York, I said: “I felt as one might feel, upon escape from hungry lions.”

 Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.” 

While the building which sheltered Douglass on Lispenard Street is no longer there, a plaque is affixed to the current structure at that spot, marking Ruggles — and New York’s — contribution to the liberation of Southern slaves.

Columbia University

 

This is an excerpt from the Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available in bookstores everywhere.

 

 

Happy birthday Langston Hughes! A few stops in Harlem to celebrate

Since I was a teenager, I’ve had an affinity for writer Langston Hughes, the revolutionary jazz poet who was born 115 years ago today in 1902. I grew up in Springfield, Mo., about an hour away from Langston’s birthplace in Joplin. One of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance grew up here?, I frequently pondered in English class.  In fact, Hughes is considered Joplin’s most famous son.*

But you don’t need to follow Langston’s footprints back to the Ozarks. Celebrate his birthday with a mini-walking tour, four Manhattan addresses that were pivotal to Hughes’ development as an iconic African-American voice and a star of the Harlem literary scene–

 Young Langston in college, 1928

Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

181 W. 135th Street  — Langston’s first exposure to Harlem’s creative energy was as a Columbia University student in 1921, wandering the street, hoping to see “Duke Ellington on the corner of 135th Street, or Bessie Smith passing by, or Bojangles Bill Robinson in front of the Lincoln Theatre, or maybe Paul Robeson or Bert Williams walking down the avenue.” [source]

Before moving into Columbia’s Hartley Hall (1124 Amsterdam Avenue), however, Langston took a room here at the YMCA, known for its live drama productions and art shows. He didn’t need to stroll around to find Robeson; he got his start acting in productions at the YMCA.



Dapper gentlemen: At a 1924 celebration in Langston’s honor, at the home of Regina Andrews on 580 St. Nicholas Avenue. The author is to the far left, followed by future sociologists Charles S. Johnson and E. Franklin Frazier; novelist and future doctor Rudolph Fisher; and Hubert T. Delany, who would become a New York justice in 1942, appointed by Fiorello La Guardia.

634 St. Nicholas Avenue — Although Langston would rent out a studio in 1938 down the street at 66 St. Nicholas Avenue, he frequently stayed at this address in the Sugar Hill area of Harlem, the home of his friends Toy and Emerson Harper. (He referred to them as ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’.) Hughes later moved with the couple to another address…

20 East 127th Street  For 20 years, Hughes worked out of the top floor, by now an international phenomenon. He was residing here (his own ivory tower) when he died in 1967. The house was up for sale for awhile, but was finally sold in 2011 in a Sotheby’s auction.

 515 Malcolm X Boulevard (at W. 135th Street) — The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library, is Hughes’ final resting place. His ashes are contained underneath the foyer floor, beneath an inscription: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” But the library always had a long association with Hughes. His ‘poetry-play’ ‘Don’t You Want To Be Free‘ played to sold-out crowds in the basement of the library in 1938. The play co-starred Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones.

You can find a far more in-depth walking tour of 1920s Harlem here.

*Another African-American cultural icon, George Washington Carver, was born in the town of Diamond, Mo., fifteen minutes southeast of Joplin. If you’re ever swinging through that area of the world, the George Washington Carver National Monument, where his home was located, is worth a stop.

 

This Morbid Invention: The Terrible Story of the First Electric Chair

THE FIRST PODCAST The story of how electricity became a tool of death for the state of New York and the strange circumstances behind the invention of the electric chair.

The harnessing of electricity by the great inventors of the Gilded Age introduced the world to the miracle of light at all hours of the day. But exposure to electricity’s raw power was dangerous to man.  Awful deaths of men on electrical wires terrified New Yorkers. A few thought this might be useful in the employment of the state’s darkest responsibilities — capital punishment.

This is the story of the first electric chair, the peculiar rivalry which helped create it — an epic feud between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, between DC and AC — and its fateful effects upon the life and punishment upon a man named William Kemmler, the first to be killed in this morbid seat.

To get this episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services.

Subscribe to The First here so that you don’t miss future episodes!

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio from your mobile device.

Or listen to it straight from here:
07 THE MORBID INVENTION: THE STORY OF THE FIRST ELECTRIC CHAIR

 

The horrors of the modern world — New York electrician John Feeks is killed on the electrical wires as hundreds watched.

1891 book Physique Populaire by Emile Desbeaux, drawn by D. Dumon.

 

Harold Pitney Brown, who secretly assisted in diminishing the reputation of alternating current (AC) power on behalf of Edison, who was promoting direct current (DC).

 

Brown’s bizarre and cruel experiments — proving the dangers of AC — involved killing animals by electrocution. One such experiment at Edison’s lab in New Jersey slaughtered calves and horses to demonstrate his theories. 

The mechanism of the first electric chair at Auburn Prison. You can see some of these components in the photo below.

 

A picture of the notorious first electric chair, used in the execution of William Kemmler

 

An illustration from Scientific American, June 30 1888, showing an ‘ideal’ depiction of electric-chair functioning.

An illustration (not very accurate) of the execution of William Kemmler.