Category Archives: The Knick

The Knick Season 2: A History Recap from the brothel to the freak show

Pictured above: Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) explore several experimental procedures in the second season of The Knick, some more successful than others.

This post contains light spoilers of general themes from this season of The Knick although there are no specific plot twists discussed. You can use this as a primer for the second season before you begin, or review this list of historical moments before watching this evening’s finale.

Cinemax’s period hospital drama The Knick, now finishing its second season, spends a serious amount of time hunched over an operating table. The able and ambitious surgeons of Knickerbocker Hospital cut open flesh, severed body parts, injected experimental serums and performed delicate incisions on brains, faces, throats and abdomens.  The special effects teams should be applauded for making me want to throw up on at least five occasions this year.

But The Knick is more than a procedural about a turn-of-the-century hospital although those watching for medical drama (or horror) will come away satisfied.  With Season Two (set in 1901) this hospital drama rose to become a detective story about New York City itself. In Season One historic figures populated a story about a growing hospital. In Season Two the show finally found its footing within the messy patchwork of the Gilded Age.

Below are some historical highlights from the season, taken from some of my Tweets from the show’s original broadcast over the past several weeks.  There are no plot spoilers here — in fact, I’ve chosen to not even mention any characters’ names — and some of you might even find this helpful before you watch.

 

ELECTRIC AUTOMOBILES

New Yorkers raced to find faster, more efficient solutions to horse-drawn vehicles. In the early years of automotive conveyance, it appeared the electric variety would lead the charge; however the earliest models were expensive and entirely inefficient. Meanwhile oil refiners like the ones in Lima, Ohio, concerned that Edison’s electric light bulb was killing the kerosene market, began looking for other uses for their product.

THE CENTRAL PARK APARTMENT BOOM

Apartment living was all the rage with the upper middle class in the 1880s, and developers around Central Park monopolized on the craze with lavish apartment complexes, bringing the amenities of upper crust life to those who couldn’t afford the upkeep of a mansion. In particular, the Upper West Side was rapidly developed, becoming one of New York’s trendiest residential neighborhoods by 1900.

FEARS OF THE NEW SUBWAY

The ground was broken on New York’s ambitious new subway system on March 25th, 1900, but not everybody considered it progress. Miles of underground tunnel required unprecedented investment which tore into busy streets, creating nuisance and danger.  Those of the more sheltered class flinched at the idea of immigrant workers ripping into their streets. Most New Yorkers were certainly unsettled at the sound of dynamite explosions and feared that whole city blocks might blow up.

 

ADDICTION

Medical practice and scientific thought were expanding in the 1900s, but new modes of treating complicated conditions like drug and alcohol addiction were having a difficult time in the morality based institutions of the day.  Most physicians still believed that addictions exposed flaws of the human character and had little connection to the processes of the brain.

EUGENICS

Deteriorated or stunted moral character was also seen as endemic of new arriving immigrants especially those from southern Italy.  The study of eugenics — belief in the improvement of the human race through selective reproduction — rapidly grow in colleges and universities in the 1900s. Naturally the eugenics argument was also used against African-Americans and wielded as a threat against any who attempted to upend the status quo.

“DOING BUSINESS IN NEW YORK”

Although the scandals of Boss Tweed were almost 30 years old by 1901, Tammany Hall still held a viper’s grasp upon New York City infrastructure — from the ports to the construction projects.  A standard building project would often require many layers of ‘greased palms’, and expensive materials were often used because a corrupt middle-man could hide more layers of kickbacks there.

 

THE WORLD OF DRUGS

While the dangerous qualities of many common drugs were well known, few were actually banned in 1901. Cocaine and heroin were still used in the operating room, and even substances we consider deadly poisons today were available over the counter.

 

THE REALITIES OF ‘THE FREAK SHOW’

Inspired by P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and the popular cabinet of curiosities of Europe, ‘dime’ museums became a popular pastime for New Yorkers in the late 19th century. They were a hodgepodges of exhibits, from people with extraordinary abilities to exotic foreigners.  In places like Huber’s Museum in Union Square, some of the most popular attractions were humans with various deformities, the individuals who would make up the freak shows of Coney Island. Few considered these people in need of care, and they were often harshly abused by their handlers.

ABORTION AND SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES

In a society so clearly judgmental of non-reproductive sexual behavior, STDs were poorly understood.  Syphilis remained a deadly illness running rampant through hundreds of New York brothels. Some protection, like condoms, did exist at the time, but they were terribly uncomfortable and not consistently made. Pregnant girls were forced into the treacherous world of back-alley abortions. Many died during procedures — or afterwards due to unregulated and filthy conditions — and their bodies dumped into the river.

 

THE BIRTH OF HARLEM

Violent racial tensions in neighborhoods like Five Points and the Tenderloin forced many black New Yorkers to move north — to the largely Jewish neighborhood of Harlem. By the year 1900 thousands of African-American lived here, creating a foundation for the huge wave of new residents who would arrive a couple decades later, turning Harlem into the center of American black culture.

 

THE SICILIAN BOOM

The greatest waves of immigration into America came in the early 1900s, and the largest group among them were southern Italians. Unlike the earlier wave of Italians, Sicilians were poorer and less educated. Difficulties in understanding led many New Yorkers to consider them a vastly inferior class and even dangerous.

 

THE GILDED AGE DELIGHTS

While the modern restaurant was essentially invented by Delmonico’s in the early 19th century, it wasn’t until the Gilded Age that the delights of public dining were properly indulged. With the influx of opulent life came the finest hotels and eateries, all equipped with modern conveniences. Most were situated on Broadway, from Union Square to Herald Square. Longacre Square (not yet Times Square) was a few years away from becoming the center of New York nightlife.

 

For more historical Tweets of The Knick and other television shows, just follow me on Twitter at @boweryboys. 

Checked In: On the set of ‘The Knick’

A couple weeks ago I was fortunate to be given a tour of the set of The Knick, the Cinemax’s historical drama set within the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital (which shares some traits with the actual Knickerbocker Hospital). Now, touring a TV or film set is pretty great in a normal situation. But touring a historical set is a bit like drifting through an old photograph.

Below: Production designer Howard Cummings introduces us to the room where all the lovely, gory magic happens — the operating theater.

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The first season of The Knick filmed a few scenes on Broome Street. (Tom took some pictures of that experience which we posted here.) And now I got my turn to wander through a bit of dreamlike historical recreation, passing through ornate hospital and laboratory sets.

A few impressions:

1) My pictures aren’t that good because, well, I’m not really a great photographer. But also because everything is lit with those Edison-style lightbulbs, creating a warm and sometimes ominous glow. The show films using only these light sources. I’m pretty sure I ate at a restaurant on the Bowery last week that had a similar lighting scheme.

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2) As there are no huge pieces of equipment following Steven Soderbergh with his camera around the sets, they’re designed with more realistic dimensions. The production designer Howard Cummings walked us through the labyrinth of darkened set pieces that at times felt like the cleanest haunted house in the world.  The various hospital rooms actually look like they could admit patients.  The notorious operating theater really felt like a small classroom.

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3) I’m certain that Cinemax could turn the sets into a popular nightclub during the off-season. Since it films in Brooklyn, this might not be a bad investment idea.

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4) The show’s medical adviser is Dr. Stanley Burns who has an almost frightful depth of knowledge and an amazing trove of materials from  which to draw inspiration.  Check out the Burns Archives (which has some digital assets available) to peer into the plot possibilities.

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5) When the show returns, be sure to pay extra-special attention to the wardrobe. We met the costume designer Ellen Mirojnick who walked us through a literal warehouse of historical pieces. My first thought was that I want her to design all the outfits for my wedding one day. Her domain was like the world’s best thrift store, occupied only by garments from the Gilded Age. Corsets, boiler hats, ball gowns, medical robes. The show’s unsettling feel (transmitted through music, tone and set color schemes) is subtly interpreted through each character’s dress. Probably an obvious point to make, but again, startling to see in period costumes.

Below: Racks and racks of coats, suits and hats that could literally clothe thousands of hipsters.

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6) Finally I could have talked for hours to the writers who we met at the end of our tour — Jack Amiel, Michael Begler and Steven Katz. The show has a pretty high degree of difficulty (set in the past and in a hospital) so it was interesting to explore how they craft a plot around historical events and unusual medical practices.

And, no, I didn’t get to see Clive Owen, but I did get to see all of his hats!

The show returns to Cinemax later this fall. As usual I’ll be Tweeting along with the show during its initial broadcast, even through those portions of blood-soaked medical surgeries that make me feel like I’m going to vomit.

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The tale of two hospitals: Enjoy the “inexpressibly nauseating” aromas of Brooklyn’s oldest operating theater

Hospitals, Roosevelt Hospital, Operating Theatre.

Syms operating theater at Roosevelt Hospital in 1900, perhaps one of the cleanest places in Manhattan! (Picture courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

It was not a fair fight.

In 1895, in celebrating the innovative new surgery building at Roosevelt Hospital, the New York Times decided to compare its revolutionary new features to an antiquated hospital, one that had been serving patients for decades in that metropolis right across the water — Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn.

Upon its opening in 1892, William J. Syms Operating Theater, west of Columbus Circle, was a jewel in the crown of the Roosevelt Hospital complex, employing the latest antiseptic techniques, even using materials in its construction that were believed to be less germ prone — glass operating tables, a mosaic floor, iron chairs.

New rules of cleanliness were employed within its surgical theater.  “[The visitor] will see everywhere signs of the most exquisite cleanliness.  [He] will see no sign of haste or confusion, of dirt or litter, of human pain or suffering.”

Its appearance may be familiar to you if you’re watching the medical drama The Knick on Cinemax which depicts a medical theater of similar design.

Below: The inside of the Syms operating room from 1893: (Scouting NY)

In heralding this sparkly new institution, the newspaper decided to throw a vaunted, albeit older, one under the bus.

“In the operating theater of the Long Island College Hospital the conditions obtain [sic] today are more in keeping with the practices of half a century ago.  The large and ugly theatre is fitted with wooden benches, upon which generations of students have done their whittling. The floor beneath the benches acts as a convenient and frequent receptacle for tobacco juice.  The walls are tinted with a dirty, bluish color, and on the side nearest the operating table there is an ominous stain of seepage from the floor above.”

The description continues rather grotesquely — I’ll get to more of it in a second — but is it a fair characterization?  While disquieting to our modern understanding of cleanliness, in fact, the Brooklyn institution was certainly deteriorating, but probably in better shape than most places of this type in America in the 1890s.

The Tale of Long Island College Hospital
The story of Long Island College Hospital is the tale of the neighborhood of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

Well before south Brooklyn was urban-planned into a grid of respectable blocks, the area that is today’s Cobble Hill was called Ponkiesberg, much of it the farmland of a man named Ralph Patchen.  Near the eastern edge of his property sat the ruins of the old Revolutionary War fort .  [You may remember this fort from our ghost stories podcast from last year.]

Patchen’s farm was purchased by Joseph A. Perry, later known for his contributions for planning Green-Wood Cemetery.  On this former lot he built a sumptuous mansion which stood at Henry Street, between Amity and Pacific (pictured below).

Meanwhile, on the edge of his property, two doctors recently arrived from Germany opened a clinic exclusively for Brooklyn’s small, but emerging German population. In the late 1850s, they and other prominent doctors sought to found a college hospital and purchased the Perry mansion in 1858.

From this old house sprang the roots of Long Island College Hospital.  While the United States already had a few medical schools, this was America’s first college hospital — on-the-job training as it were, with students interacting directly with patients.

Below: Faculty and students of the medical school pose on the steps of the Perry Mansion, LICH’s principal structure in the mid-19th century

 

It was an institution quite well known for innovations in the late 19th century.  Many of America’s finest physicians passed through here at some point in their storied careers.  The clinician Austin Flint brought many European techniques to the school, including the stethoscope, a variant of which making its debut here. (Flint actually has a heart murmur named after him, too.)  In 1888 the Hoagland Laboratory opened on campus, providing facilities for both research and education that kept Long Island College Hospital at the forefront of medicine.

In many ways, it was still a respected institution in 1895, but they were often in debt and in desperate need of an upgrade.  Its conditions were probably not unlike most medical institutions of the day, but it paled in comparison to the spectacular new operating theater built for Roosevelt Hospital as a gift.

The Tale of Syms Operating Theater
Roosevelt Hospital (pictured above) was born out of the generosity of James H. Roosevelt, a wealthy philanthropist confined to his manor for most of his life by illness. When he died, he bequeathed his entire fortune to the creation of a new hospital in his name.  Roosevelt Hospital’s first building opened in 1871, over ten years after the opening of Long Island College Hospital.

Many years later, another wealthy benefactor — gun merchant William Syms — benefited from a successful operation at Roosevelt Hospital and donated most of his fortune to the hospital, with the specific intent of building a new operating center.  When Syms Operating Theater opened in 1892, the press trumpeted its sleek innovations in sanitation, creating a brightly lit, aseptic environment previously unseen except in a few places in New York.

It was perhaps the cleanest place in Manhattan or, at least, it was touted as such.  From a citation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission:  “Aseptic operating rooms were bright, clean, hard, undecorated spaces; they were the ‘high tech’ spaces of their day.”

Below: The sleek interior of the Syms Operating Theater, 1925. (Picture courtesy Museum of City of New York) 

[Roosevelt Hospital, Sym's Operating Room.]

This was not simply for the health of patients and staff.  A building of such profound innovations — such as a moat around the basement for thorough drainage — was meant to ease the tensions of New Yorkers who considered operating rooms barbaric and even obscene.

Disturbing descriptions
The administrators at Long Island College Hospital could not have been thrilled when they picked up the New York Times on April 27, 1895.  Right there on the front page was a horror story with their historic institution as a backdrop.

“It is from this upper floor that foul and inexpressibly nauseating odors are wafted through the operating theater at all times, because it is there that the students of the college and hospital practice anatomy on eighteen or twenty decomposing cadavers.”

The reporter noted the routine delivery of dead bodies from room to room and the grim procedures of dissection witnessed by dozens of disinterested students.

“In spite of the rising temperature, which should render dissection almost impossible in a building exclusively devoted to the purpose, it is plain from the stench that the hot weather had not stopped the students of Long Island College Hospital.”

Due to the proximity of the autopsy theater to regular patients, “whatever ills result from breathing such a tainted atmosphere must be shared to a lesser extent by the surgical patients of the hospital.”  Sepsis was an omnipresent and growing.danger. As if to confirm this, the hospital refused to provide its mortality records.

The renown doctor Alexander Skene, perhaps the best known physician at the hospital, blamed a lack of funding for the institution’s woes.  “The people of Brooklyn are to blame in some measure because they do not give the hospital the financial support it needs and merits,” said Skene. “The school is very prosperous, while the hospital is very much the reverse.”

(Skene, a leader in the field of gynecology, died just a few years later.  Today you can find him in bust form in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza.)

Aftermath
The regents of Long Island College Hospital responded with disbelief, even outrage.  “I am there everyday, and I never feel any smell,” said a chairman. “We have the plans all ready for a new operating room … but we have no money.”

Fortunately, the hospital and its patients were rescued from further embarrassment by Caroline Polhemus, the wife of one of the hospital’s regents Henry Ditmas Polhemus.  When her husband died that  year in 1895, a society matron donated a sizable chunk of her fortune to create the Polhemus Memorial Clinic (pictured at right) in her husband’s honor.

All autopsies for educational purposes were moved to the top floor of the clinic, across the street and far away from the hallways regular hospital.  The building is still around — you can see it here — although it is no longer associated with the hospital.

The Syms Operating Theater served Roosevelt Hospital for several decades before it, too, was declared inadequate.  That building is also still around however;  Scouting New York has a nice feature on its current whereabouts, a must-see stop on any New York medical-inspired walking tour.

It’s safe to say that both hospitals are held in high regard in the annals of medical history.

But while Roosevelt Hospital is still going strong.– it’s now an affiliate of Mount Sinai — the end is near for Long Island College Hospital, as the community and staff fight to keep it open after years of battles with its owner the State University of New York.

Follow along at Curbed for the latest developments on the LICH front.

The cocaine fiends of the Gilded Age: New York stages an intervention for its over-the-counter drug problem

We once lived in a world when cocaine was in nearly everything — pain relievers, muscle relaxers, wine, fountain drinks, cigarettes, hair tonics, feminine products.  It was therapeutic, a “nerve stimulant,” a natural remedy and an over-the-counter drug sold in a variety of forms and doses. The coca plant, to many, was “the most tonic plant of the vegetable world.” [source]

The coca byproduct popped up in a variety of medicinal and recreational forms in the 1880s.  In particular, New Yorkers were wild about cocaine, especially those in the medical community.

“The therapeutic uses of cocaine are so numerous that the value of this wonderful remedy seems only beginning to be appreciated,” said the New York Times in 1885.   “The new uses to which cocaine has been applied with success in New York include hay fever, catarrh and toothache and it is now being experimented with in cases of seasickness.” They later report that even asthma could be eradicated by it.

Cocaine was the wonder drug of the early 1880s.  Not only could it cure disease; it could also dampen the senses.  In 1884, a doctor presented his findings at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (23rd/Park Avenue), heralding the successes of “anesthetic cocaine” in numbing patients during ear and eye surgeries.  It was even given as a pain reliever to horses.

A cocaine ad touting its use for “female complaints, rectal diseases”:

By the 1890s, cocaine would be used as an anesthetic in a variety of cases, even injected directly into the spine.  As a miracle solution, “[t]hen came cocaine to claim her crown.” [source]

There was even a cocaine district in lower Manhattan — around the cross streets of William and Fulton — where more of the drug was produced than perhaps any other place in the United States, by such manufacturers as McKesson & Robbins (95-97 Fulton Street) and New York Quinine & Chemical Works (114 William Street).

Below: Helmbold’s Drug Store on Broadway and 17th Street, in Ladies Mile, would have sold a host of cocaine-related products in the 1880s. (NYPL)

“Cocaine looked to be the saviour of doctors the world over,” wrote author Dominic Streatfeild in his book Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography,  “but, apart from its use as an anesthetic in surgical procedures, it was not really curing anything; it was just making people feel great for awhile.”

By the mid-1880s, there seemed to be little doubt of cocaine’s habit-forming qualities, but there were some notable holdouts.  William A. Hammond, the Surgeon General for the United States during the Civil War, didn’t think so, frequently experimenting upon himself and later batting away concerns from some notable Brooklyn doctors.

“At first I injected one grain and experienced an exhilaration of spirits similar to that produced by two or three glasses of champagne,” he told a newspaper in 1886.

But medical professionals soon grew weary as their hospitals and asylums soon filled with cocaine addicts, many who supplemented their habits with opium or morphine.

“No medical technique with such a short history  has claimed so many victims as cocaine,” reported the New York Medical Record in 1887.

Sometimes it would be the doctors and nurses themselves that were trapped “in the clutches of cocaine.” (The Cinemax show The Knick depicts this disturbing conflict within its main character, Dr. John Thackery, who at a certain point injects the drug straight into his penis and between his toes.)

At right: A 1900 ad for an at-home drug therapy program provided by the St. James Society.  Interestingly, this was located on Tin Pan Alley and near the heart of the pre-Times Square theater district!

From a cursory perusal of newspaper from the late 1890s, one can find a notable doctor or two succumbing to drug addiction almost once a month. “COCAINE KILLS A DOCTOR,” blared a headline from January 2, 1898.  Another physician “WAS CRAZED BY COCAINE.” went another in 1895.

The euphoria over cocaine was over.  The number of cocaine addiction cases blossomed through the 1890s, just as moralists and social reformers were looking to eliminate vice from city streets.  In 1893, the first law aimed at cocaine (along with morphine, opium and chloral) made it available only by prescription which, like so many later pharmaceuticals, was merely a speed bump for the serious user.

Hysteria soon followed. Cocaine was associated with crime, with occultists, with loose women, with poor people, with African-American, Asians and Jews.  Here’s a rather startling quote from a druggist in 1895: “[W]ith the exception of a few abandoned white women, its use is confined almost exclusively to the colored folk.” (Several years later, the New York Times took this assertion to the next level.)

Meanwhile, newspapers seemed only concerned with the numerous rich, white addicts. And, of course, the many innocents who were lured by dealers on the streets and playgrounds.

Below: An illustration from the New York Tribune, 1912.  A 1907 law prohibited most sales of cocaine over the counter, creating an illicit ‘street market’.  The Tribune dramatically displays the ways in which cocaine and other drugs were sold.  Note the headline underneath it!

Although still a legal substance, most products began advertising themselves as an alternative to cocaine. In 1895, you might find products that touted cocaine as a pain reliever;  ten years later, medicines were now proclaiming they were cocaine-free.

Below: A 1904 ad for “goat lymph tablets” reminds its readers that its free of “injurious drugs.”

It would take several years to make cocaine entirely illegal.  During the 1910s, those who wanted it could make arrangements with a pharmacist, forge a prescription or, when all else failed, just rob the warehouses which stored cocaine.

In 1911, the drug was now a “poisonous snake,” “the perfect intoxicant of the devil,” its original uses in the United States now entirely forgotten and replaced with safer, less addictive alternatives.  (Dentists, for instance, would discover Novocaine.)

A series of local and federal laws in the mid-1900s assured that cocaine and other habit-forming drugs would be ushered off the market within the decade.

The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, passed in 1914, imposed stiff taxes on coca and opiate products, virtually eliminating any legal market for the drugs and insuring its manufacture and distribution be driven underground.

And just in time, too, for Prohibition was just around the corner!

Knickerbocker Hospital: An inspiration for Cinemax’s The Knick

Photographed dated 1886, the institution was called Manhattan Hospital then, changing its name to J. Hood Wright Memorial Hospital, then to Knickerbocker Hospital in 1913 (Picture courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

On Friday begins The Knick on Cinemax, a historical drama set in the turn-of-the-century Knickerbocker Hospital. . Last year, Tom wandered around the Broome Street set of The Knick. (Check out his pictures here.)  Are you checking this out live this Friday night (August 8, 10pm)?  Follow along with me on Twitter where I’ll try and keep up with historical tidbits about the era and the events that are depicted.

Although the hospital depicted in the show is technically fictional, there was a Knickerbocker Hospital in New York during this time period. It will be interesting to see if the show’s institution bears any resemblance to the real Knickerbocker:

Knickerbocker Hospital
Location: Covent Avenue and 131st Street
The hospital depicted in The Knick is much, much further downtown.  However, with the arrival of elevated trains and, later, the subway, some new immigrants would have settled in upper Manhattan to escape the crowded tenements. So the types of patients treated at these institutions would have been similar.

Purpose:  According to the 1914 Directory of Social and Health Agencies, “Gives free surgical and medical treatment to the worthy sick poor of New York City.  Incurable and contagious diseases and alcoholic, maternity and insane patients not admitted.  Emergency cases received at any hour.”
Statistics:  In 1914, they had 57 beds, 1,096 cases treated in a year
Funding: Care is free to “the worthy poor” and the hospital is supported by charitable contribution

History:  The hospital began its existence as the Manhattan Dispensary in 1862, located in upper Manhattan when it pretty much looked like this:  (Image courtesy the US National Library of Medicine)

The hospital treated injured Civil War soldiers.  It was founded by a Philadelphia railroad man named James Hood Wright who worked for banker J.P. Morgan.  

Mr. Wright died suddenly on November 12, 1894, collapsing at an elevated train station on Rector Street and never regained consciousness.  In honor of his contributions, the hospital was renamed the J. Hood Wright Memorial Hospital, although, from reading the news clipping below, it seems that was not a great idea.

The name change was facilitated by a lack of funding for the hospital.  In 1910, hospital executives blatantly proclaimed “the hospital was inadequate to serve the needs of the west side of Harlem.”

From a notice in the New York Sun, June 23, 1913:

“The J. Hood Wright Memorial Hospital, which was incorporated in 1868 as the Manhattan Dispensary, has got permission from Supreme Court Justice Page to change its name to the Knickerbocker Hospital.

The petition says that since Mr. Wright’s death the population of the district served by the hospital has increased greatly and the necessity of more funds for the hospital has increased proportionately.


The hospital managers and Mr. Wright’s heirs believe that the present name of the hospital leads to the belief that it is so liberally endowed it does not require outside assistance and for this reason, none have been forthcoming.  They say Mr. Wright desired outsiders to contribute.”

J. Hood Wright is memorialized in a public park just off the Manhattan approach to the George Washington Bridge. located on the land where Mr. Wright’s mansion once stood.

At right: A photo of the old Wright house. You can see the George Washington Bridge in the background. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

The Knickerbocker’s neighborhood of Harlem became the heart of New York’s African-American culture, but hospital staffing did not reflect this change.

There were many reported incidents of black patients being poorly treated here during the 1920s and 30s.  According to author Nat Brandt, the wife of W.C. Handy “lay critically ill in an ambulance for more than an hour while officials of Knickerbocker Hospital discussed whether to admit her.” [source]

In May 1959, Billie Holiday was admitted here after collapsing in her apartment, but her liver and heart disease were so advanced that she was transferred to a hospital better suited for treatment. (She died a few weeks later.)

Knickerbocker Hospital remained open until the early 1970s when mounting debts almost forced it to close.  The state of New York took it over and renamed it Arthur C. Logan Memorial Hospital after a prominent black physician.  That hospital seemed to suffer from the same financial woes as the others and eventually closed for good in 1979.

I’m looking forward to doing more research New York’s medical institutions in the coming weeks, and I hope the show does it justice!

A scene from The Knick. There will be blood, I believe….

(Photograph courtesy Cinemax)

The Lower East Side went back in time this week

Was this photograph taken yesterday on the set of Steven Soderbergh’s new mini-series The Knick, or was it taken back in the 1910s?  The answer is at the bottom of this blog post!

This week, a little stage magic is manifesting in the Lower East Side. The Broome Street of 2013 has been turned briefly into the Broome Street of 1910!  Steven Soderbergh has been shooting his new mini-series The Knick in New York this week, a tale of old Knickerbocker Hospital set over a century ago.  This required the boutique-and-lounge strewn Broome be reverted to its days of immigrants, wagons and pushcarts.

Tom wandered through the set last night and took these photographs:

Hay, it’s one of the Bowery Boys!

Interestingly,. there’s an actual Stag’s Head up on 51st Street!

Gothamist also has a fine set of pictures from the set, featuring some extras in costumes.  The Soderbergh mini-series will debut on Cinemax in 2014. 
Compare these with some actual pictures and illustrations of the Lower East Side in the early 1910s:
Mulberry Street clam seller (circa 1900-1905), cleaned-up image courtesy Shorpy.
Street scene from 1915,” actual street unknown (NYPL)
A Lower East Side hot-potato merchant (NYPL):
Essex and Hester Street, photo-mechanical postcard, date unknown (NYPL)
Illustration from Ladies Home Journal, Sept 1910, of a typical LES ‘street scene’ (NYPL):
As for this photograph — this is not a picture of a hipster film extra from 2013, but a man taking a brief nap in a park in the Lower East Side, photo dated 1912. ( LOC)