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When Carrie Nation comes to town, saloon owners brace for impact

The passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 — prohibiting the sale of alcohol in the United States — failed to sober up the country. It merely drove its unquenchable thirst underground.

Prohibition came about because of an extraordinary union of disparate groups — religious folks, racists, progressives, nativists — all possessing different motivations for banning booze.  It was a movement decades in the making.

One of the most radical superstars of the movement was Carrie Nation, that hatchet-wielding temperance terror whose unorthodox and non-peaceful displays of protest made her a national celebrity.

Library of Congress

Literally taking directives from God, Nation battle-axed her way through small Midwestern towns, protesting the sale of liquor with violent force, chopping at bartops, bottles and furniture with her signature hatchet, accompanied by a righteous choir of church ladies belting hymns while dodging splinters.

Nation was regularly arrested and fined, but under the cover of doing God’s duty — and riding a swell of anti-liquor sentiment — she managed to continue her vicious tirade across the country, becoming the temperance movement’s most colorful star by the turn of the century. She even sold minature replicas of her well-known weapon to fund her cross-country adventures.

Nation’s reputation had obviously preceded her when she arrived in New York on August 28, 1901.

Law enforcement and nervous saloon owners braced for the worst. After freshening up in a suite of rooms arranged for her at the Victoria Hotel on 27th Street and Broadway, Mrs. Nation headed down to police headquarters on Mulberry Street to address the general drunkenness conditions of the city directly with police commissioner Michael Murphy.

Their exchange was not pleasant. Nation, called ‘the feminine devastation’ in one press report, demanded to know why the city kept saloons open on Sunday. Murphy replied that it was legal to do so. She bitterly lectured back with a Bible verse; New York “is full of hell holes and murder shops,” she cried.

“Don’t quote scripture at me, Madame. Go back to Kansas and get that off on your husband,” the commissioner replied.

After a few more volatile exchanges, Nation was forcefully removed from police headquarters. (Certainly, this result was one she had intended. Her press agent was waiting outside with a throng of curious onlookers.) Nation next decided to harangue the mayor and prepared to visit City Hall. When message was sent that the mayor didn’t care to meet with the fiery reformer, Nation decided to do what came most naturally — she headed for a bar, hatchet in hand.

The unfortunate establishment in her crosshairs was that owned by famed boxer John L. Sullivan, himself a celebrity of some flamboyance. Having spent the 1880s as one of America’s most legendary bare-knuckle fighters, he was famously brought down (in a gloved match) by ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett in 1892. Like many boxing stars before him, Sullivan ended up in New York as a saloon owner, at 1177 Broadway, between 27th and 28th streets (at right). And right near the hotel hosting Carrie Nation!

In a bit of braggadocio, Sullivan had proclaimed to the press that if Nation ever bothered to stop by, he would “thrust her into a sewer hole.”

Nation accepted the invitation, arriving by carriage and demanding Sullivan meet her out front. The famed boxer, however, refused to come outside, the New York Times even mentioning, “a shutter in one of the blinds in the room usually occupied by Mr. Sullivan was seen to move.”

The mighty athlete was certainly fearful of his property being chopped to ribbons. This wasn’t some Bowery dive bar, after all. But while the authorities were certainly no friends of Nation, she was a very popular symbol among New York’s temperance supporters. Arresting such a known figure would have actually played into Nation’s intentions.

Best to wait out the storm, I suppose. By that afternoon, Nation has left town via Grand Central, off to more wily stunts in the Midwest. Drinkers and cops alike raised a toast in relief.

Police commissioner Murphy later said of Nation: “She is an old barge, a real old nag. She has a bad, vicious face. I guess there’s method in her madness,” implying her crusades were more for fame than Christian salvation.

BY THE WAY: A few summers ago I took a trip back to Ozarks (where I’m originally from) and spent an evening in marvelous Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Carrie Nation spent her final years here, appropriately opening a boardinghouse for widows and proper ladies called Hatchet Hall. The Hall is still preserved near the center of town (pictured below) and across from a boarded-up water spring that was also named in Nation’s honor. She collapsed during heated speech right up the road from Hatchet Hall in 1911 and died shortly thereafter in a Kansas hospital.

Picture of Sullivan’s courtesy Sepiatown. Picture of Hatchet Hall courtesy me.  Portions of this article originally ran in 2011

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, published 170 years ago today

“The Raven” was first published in the New York Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845, and would come to define the morbid brilliance of its author Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe and his sickly young wife Virginia arrived in New York in 1844, lodging at a dairy farm at today’s  West 84th Street, between Broadway and St. Nicolas Blvd. (While blocks would have been marked by the Commissioners Plan in the 1810s, there would have been little development here.)  It’s widely believed that Poe “composed, or at very least, perfected” the poem in New York.

Believed to the be the Brennan farm. Photo courtesy New York Public Library


Here’s another angle of the house in a fanciful illustration highlighting the very bucolic nature of the area then.

Courtesy Ephemeral New York
Courtesy Ephemeral New York

The blog Manhattan Past has an excellent post on the supposed whereabouts of the Brennan farm. Although he lived here for a short time, the street today is ceremonially referred to as Edgar Allan Poe Street.  The street was officially given that distinction in 1980 and for many years presented misspelled street signs — “Edgar Allen Poe Street.”

A few days later after the poem’s debut in the Evening Mirror, on February 4, the New York Daily Tribune also published “The Raven”.  Here’s how it first appeared in the Tribune:





It was then published in the Broadway Journal, a couple of weeks before Poe became editor of that publication.  The venture however was a financial failure.  In 1846, he and Virginia moved to a farm-house in the area of Fordham (in the Bronx) which is still preserved today.

Poe hoped living far from the bustle of New York would help his wife; but she died here in on January 30, 1847 — almost two years to the day after the publication of “The Raven.”

Poe's home in the Bronx, as it appeared in the 1910s. Courtesy Library of Congress
Poe’s home in the Bronx, as it appeared in the 1910s. Courtesy Library of Congress


At top: “The Raven” from the original illustrations of Edouard Manet

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The origin of snow removal for all New Yorkers, rich and poor

A snow plow at Union Square, circa 1901-1905 (LOC)

For some of New York City’s history, snowstorms have been completely paralyzing, and most residents had to clear their own streets, an impossibility in areas of a more rural character.  The notion that it was actually the city’s responsibility to remove snow is a product of the early-to-mid 19th century.  The notion that all residents — not just the wealthiest — should benefit from this difficult civic task is newer still.

There was no simple method for clearing thoroughfares.  The task was heavily labor intensive, with dozens of men shoveling down roads obscured with newly fallen snow.  As a result, only the most important streets were cleared — mostly around City Hall, Wall Street and Fifth Avenue — leaving the rest of the city to fend for itself.  Later on, snow plows were attached to horses, piercing through the snow-covered streets, while wagons would follow along to collect the snow.

The arduous task of clearing the streets with only horses, shovels and carts, 1867 (NYPL)

Civic snow removal was initially a responsibility of the police department up until 1881, when the Department of Street Cleaning became its own separate entity.  New York street-cleaners manned a broom during the spring and a shovel in the winter, working with horse-drawn carts in “piling and loading gangs” to clear gutters and intersections.  Most of the time, snow clearing was not even begun until it was believed the snowstorm was over.  As a result, mountainous piles were even more difficult to tackle.

Obviously, this was slow going and highly prone to the corruption of the era. (Need snow removed from your street, business owner? )  And due to the erratic nature of snowfall, there were hardly enough men on hand at any given moment.

A grim discovery in the snow during the Blizzard of 1888:

The Blizzard of 1888 changed everything in New York City.  The storm was so devastating that certain streets were blocked for days.  More horrifying still, due to the hurricane-force winds, many people had been knocked unconscious and were subsequently buried in the snow.  Not to mention the hundreds of dead animals also found underneath the massive snow drifts.

New York’s entire system of street cleaning — in sun or snow — radically changed when the Civil War veteran George E. Waring Jr. (pictured at right) became commissioner of the Department of Street Cleaning in 1894.  The brilliant and reform-minded engineer had guided healthy sewage and draining maintenance throughout the country, from the design of Central Park to the streets of Memphis, Tennessee.

Waring transformed his men into a small military unit, garbed in all-white uniforms who occasionally marched in parades with Commissioner Waring out front, on horseback.  This military mindset was a boon for New York; Waring referred to his employees as “soldiers of the public.”  Street cleaning was no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

Clearing snow in the Waring era, 1896, photos by Alice Austen (she was riding around in her bike in this weather?) Courtesy NYPL

Waring was part of a large progressive movement in the 1890s, one that would finally, with zeal, tackle the numerous health and livelihood issues associated with the city’s overcrowded tenement districts.

In the spring of 1897, the commissioner produced a lengthy treatise for Mayor William Strong on the thorny subject of clearing snow.  Its opening paragraph lays out the scope of Waring’s staunch, progressive vision:

“The question of snow removal has always been one of the most vexatious problems confronting the various administrations.  The removal of ‘new fallen snow from leading thoroughfares and such other streets and avenues as may be found practicable’ is a duty made obligatory upon the Commissioner by law, and with each year, the moral obligation to the vast traffic interests of congested Manhattan Island becomes more insistent.” [source]

Before Waring, never was it considered necessary to remove snow from the entire city, but only from “leading thoroughfares”.  However, thanks to the rise of sophisticated urban planning and progressive socialism, it soon became a “moral” responsibility on behalf of the health of the city and its citizens.

From the report:  “[A] delay in the removal of the almost knee deep snow and befouled slush is at the cost of much sickness and, probably, lives each winter.”

By the late 1890s, Waring hired private contractors specifically for snow clearance, leaving his regular crew of street cleaners to focus on their regular responsibilities.  With the 20th century came motorized plows and more sophisticated street-cleaning rules to better facilitate the headache of a bad winter.

But after Waring, it would no longer be acceptable in the public’s eye to pick and choose which neighborhoods receive the city’s attention. (Both our former and current mayors have certainly learned this lesson!)

And let’s have some more snow, shall we?

Here are some pictures of the Valentine’s Day Blizzard of 1914, one hundred years ago!  The bottom picture is of Union Square, with snow covering the construction site of the new subway station. (per comment at the Library of Congress, who also supplies these images)

I promise, this is my last snow-related post for at least nine months!

Pete Seeger 1919-2014

 Pete Seeger with Woody Guthrie, performing at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, 1950 (Photo courtesy NPR)

 “I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.” — Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger with the Weavers — Washington Square Blues


Pete Seeger had a television variety show in the 1960s called Rainbow Quest, filmed from studios in Newark, New Jersey.  Interestingly, the shows were broadcast on WNJU, better known as a Spanish-language station and today the flagship for Telemundo!

Luckily, many of these programs are available to watch on YouTube. Here’s a clip of Seeger with BJ Reagon (from Sweet Honey In the Rock) and Jean Ritchie (aka ‘the mother of folk):

In 1974, he recorded the first album for Sesame Street to feature new material not featured on the show. Here, he duets with Oscar the Grouch about, of course, ‘Garbage’:

The lights of Madison Square: A Christmas tree at night

I’m not sure if the Madison Square annual Christmas tree was really the biggest in the entire world — as the 1913 Evening World at right suggests — but it was most certainly the largest in New York City. Its closest competitor in size would have been the City Hall Christmas tree.

This unique tradition in Madison Square began just the year before, in 1912, and is often considered to be the first community Christmas tree in America.

From my 2010 article: “This ‘Tree of Light’, mounted in cement, was such a novelty that almost 25,000 people showed up that night to witness it and enjoy an evening-long slate of choral entertainment.”  [Read more about its history here.]

I’ve seen a few photographs of the Madison Square Christmas ceremony from this period, but rarely any at night.  I’m not sure whether the pictures at top and at bottom are from 1913, but they’re definitely from the early 1910s.

We’re so used to novelty lighting features now that it’s difficult to imagine the extraordinary effect of a single tree draped in electric illumination.

From the ad by the Fifth Avenue Coach Company:
“See the great Christmas Tree in Madison Square Park to-night.
See it while it is All Alight —
See it from a ‘bus
That is the best way —
You will be above the crowds.
You will get a good, clear view — and
You will be comfortable — for you will sure have a seat.”
(Choral Singing and Band Concert, too every night”

Here’s one view of a grand Fifth Avenue Coach omnibus of the type advertised (pictured here in 1906) that you might have been riding that particular evening.  I can’t imagine this was the most enjoyable ride on a chilly December evening, especially passed the famously windy Flatiron Building:

Pics courtesy the Library of Congress

A message from the Library of Congress

Due to the temporary shutdown of the federal government,
the Library of Congress is closed to the public and researchers beginning October 1, 2013 until further notice.


The Library of Congress is my number one source of information for the Bowery Boys, through their newspaper archive and their amazing collection of photographs.  Due to the government shutdown, they have closed down access and thus I will not able to use these valuable resources.

Hopefully they — and America — will be back online soon.

(For those who are interested, the ‘back door’ catalog to LOC is still open — thanks @ManhattanPast for the info — but I suspect that will be closed shortly.)