Tag Archives: Classic Literature

The literary Coney Island

Everybody sees Coney Island a little differently. Most people know it for the amusements but not everybody has the same feeling about them. One person craves the beaches, the food. Another prefers a stroll along the boardwalk, fireworks, an evening Cyclones game. Others live nearby, too familiar with the swelling weekend crowds. And some people — and this seems like blasphemy — have had their fill of Nathan’s hot dogs.

1Coney Island has always been a Rorschach test of class, morals and taste, an escape from the city for more than 150 years. (In the 19th century, it was an escape from two cities, as Brooklyn was independent then and had not yet subsumed Coney Island within its borders.)

It’s never been considered a bastion high culture, although its degrees of middle- and low-brow have been vibrantly written about from the very beginning.  In The Coney Island Reader: Through The Dizzy Gates of Illusion, edited by Louis J. and John Parascandola, we get a time machine through its many iterations, thanks to the observations of dozens of writers.

I don’t think of Coney Island as a particularly literary destination, and yet here we have some of their greats chiming in to describe the lusty pleasures of Brooklyn’s beach-side getaway.

We begin with Brooklyn’s greatest voices — Walt Whitman.Yes: there was a clam-bake — and, of all the places in the world, a clam-bake at Coney-Island! Could moral ambition go higher, or mortal wishes go deeper?”  He’s writing in 1847 when the area is a barely developed destination.

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Jose Marti, the poet and Cuban revolutionary, is overtaken by its magic. “And this squandering, this uproar, these crowds, this astonishing swarm of people, lasts from June to October, from morning until late night, without pause without any change whatsoever.”

Today’s Coney Island amusement district is vastly smaller than the one which greeted Stephen Crane in 1894.  “We strolled the music hall district, where the sky lines of the rows of buildings are wondrously near to each other, and the crowded little thoroughfares resemble the eternal ‘Street Scene in Cairo’.”

As Coney Island grew larger in the early 20th century — with its three principal amusement parks Dreamland, Steeplechase and Luna Park — it pulled thousands more to its whimsical attractions.  It’s almost  hilarious to picture Russian writer and dramatist Maxim Gorky sitting inside the Dreamland ride Hellgate, with its hellish flames “constructed of paper mache and painted dark red. Everything in it is on fire — paper fire — and it is filled with the thick, dirty odor of grease. Hell is badly done.”

Surf Avenue 1910-15
Surf Avenue 1910-15

The Coney Island Reader combines literary observances with social commentary and documentary accounts featuring interviews with the impresarios themselves.  In a 1909 magazine article by Reginald Wright Kauffman, George C. Tilyou, the owner of Steeplechase Park, proclaims, “To sum up my opinion of the whole thing, we Americans want either to be thrilled or amused, and we are ready to pay well for either sensation.” (George’s brother Edward is represented here with a vivid essay called “Human Nature with the Brakes Off — Or: Why the Schoolma’am Walked Into the Sea.”)

More contemporary observations of the fictional kind are represented by Kevin Baker (who also contributes the forward), Josephine W. Johnson and Sol Yurick (from the novel which inspired the film The Warriors).

This is perhaps the only book in history that features the writing of e.e. cummings and Robert Moses. One saw saw “[t]he incredible temple of pity and terror,  mirth and amazement,” the other “overcrowding at the public beach, inadequete play areas and lack of parking space.”

Ah, Coney Island. It’s what you make of it.

 

The Coney Island Reader
Through Dizzy Gates of Illusion
edited by Louis J. Parascandola and John Parascandola
Columbia University Press

Top image: Luna Park at night, 1905 (polished up image courtesy Shorpy)

 

The Doomsman: an apocalyptic view of New York City in 2015, written in 1906 by America’s foremost golf expert

From the original illustrations of  The Doomsman: a look up Park Row in 2015, a decrepit row of deteriorating structures. You can clearly see the ruins of old Post Office at the foot of City Hall Park.  Compare this view to the photograph at the bottom of this post.

“Such is the world, or, rather, one infinitesimal portion of the cosmos, in the year 2015, according to the ancient calendar, or 90 since the Terror.”

The destruction of New York City is a literary pastime that began in the late 19th century, usually in the hands of moralist writers seeking a little comeuppance upon the great evil of modern life.

By the year 1900, Manhattan had already been destroyed by nitroglycerin bombs (Park Benjamin Jr‘s ‘The End of New York,” 1880), left to waste in a future dystopia (John Ames Mitchell‘s The Last American, 1889), and cleansed with poison gas in a ‘revolutionary holocaust’ (Caesar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century, written in 1890 by Congressman Ignatius Donnally).*

In 1906, the Episcopalian minister William Van Tassel Sutphen entered the fray with his own version of post-apocalyptic New York City in the novel The Doomsman, first serialized in Metropolitan Magazine.

What makes this book especially interesting today is that the breathless plot takes place in the year 2015.

Sutphen, an intellectual and New York literary sophisticate, is perhaps best known today as an early sports writer, best known for his observations on the sport of golf.

In 1898, he wrote the very Dr. Seuss-ian Golfers Alphabet. (“A is Arithmetic, handy to know/When the score figures up to a hundred or so.“) His most popular book remains 1901’s The Nineteenth Hole: Being Tales of the Fair Green, featuring humorous stories along the sporting course.

He was closely associated with Harper Brothers, writing and editing for the publishing house for most of his life. It was for Harpers that Sutphen wrote The Doomsman, his first non-golf book.

The Doomsman is Anglo-Saxon fantasy, Game of Thrones lite, turning the New York metropolitan era into a landscape of wild vales and stockades. But its most interesting element is the depiction of a future Manhattan neglected and overcome, its ruins lorded by the vicious remnants of mankind.

Keep in mind however this is 1906 Manhattan.  This is the futuristic version of an old landscape. The novel’s version of a dismantled America should be familiar to anyone whose watched a recent disaster film or enjoyed an episode of The Walking Dead.

“For miles and miles the ruined city stretched away, a wilderness of brick and mortar.  Here and there were areas of blackness and vacancy, where fire had worked its will. 

The business section, with its substantial shops and warehouses, and the central district, made up of the clubs, churches, theatres and the handsomer private homes, remained intact.  And yet, withal, the spectacle was a singularly mournful and depressing one, for nowhere were there any signs of life.”

It’s 2015, and New York City is now called Doom. At some point in the 1920s, a Great Change occurred, so instantly that few could prepare for the aftermath.  The wealthiest New Yorkers, “seiz[ing] upon the shipping in the harbors for their exclusive use,” fled via steamships.  The remaining population were ravaged by the Terror, a combination of panic and disease, and left only a handful of survivors.  Most fled to the countryside but died there.  All industry, “every form of thought and progress,” ceased to be.  “The relapse into barbarism was swift.”

People escaped into new walled encampments and quickly divided into medieval classes. Walled fortifications appeared over the ruins of the outer boroughs, Long Island and Westchester.  Our hero Clemens is raised at Greenwood Keep (pictured above), some kind of stockade presumably in the area of Greenwood Cemetery.

The area is constantly terrorized by The Doomsmen, inhabitants of the ruins of Doom.  When Clemens’ own home is savagely destroyed in an attack, Clemens vows to venture into Doom and seek his revenge on the nefarious warrior Quinton Edge.

In 1906, the year Doomsman was published, there was not yet a Woolworth Building, but downtown Manhattan was in the midst of a colossal building boom unlike any other. The author plays upon the fears of the day.  Unusual gases seeped from the broken sidewalks. Old stone adornments fall the sky, almost killing our hero.

New York’s skyscrapers still exist in 2015, but all were empty, hollowed out and falling apart; one skyscraper on Park Row “had settled and was leaning over at a terrifying divergence from the perpendicular.” (It’s pictured in the illustration at top.)

He eventually arrives at the main branch of the New York Public Library (at left) — lion-less and half-completed in 1906 — and meets the tempestuous young Esmay whom he will eventually fall in love with.

With a little detective work, you can figure out many of the real-life locations depicted here. For instance, the walled city Croye, “the principal city of this western hemisphere in the year 2015,” is actually Yonkers. Perhaps because it’s already so ancient looking, one landmark retains its name — the High Bridge.

But most of the action takes place in Citadel Square, alongside the Palace Road (Broadway).  That’s actually Madison Square, which has become the encampment of the Doomsmen, many of whom are holed up in the White Tower — most likely the medieval-looking tower upon old Madison Square Garden.

Our hero takes up a home on the fourth floor of the peculiar building to its southern side, a structure that would have been sparkling new in the mid 1900s. “The building had been constructed upon a narrow, triangular plot of land, and its ground-plan bore a fanciful resemblance to the shape of a flat-iron.”  From this vantage within the Flatiron Building, Clemens is able to launch arrows upon his enemy.

But perhaps its strangest detail comes from another obsession of the late 19th century — electricity. The Doomsmen worship The Shining One, an electric dynamo in an abandoned power plant. A crazed priest has been able to reconnect the power and turn — get this — an electric chair into the central relic of worship!

The Doomsman is hardly an unfairly forgotten masterpiece.  Its racial and ethnic politics are frankly repellent, its female characters mostly stock characters of helpless maidens and selfish harpies. The prose is occasionally cinematic — that’s cinema in 1906 —  perfect for a silent film adaptation that regrettably never happened.

At right: The original cover of the book featured the Flatiron Building

For a modern audience, it’s most interesting for its descriptions of Gilded Age ruin, of a city that never developed to embrace automobiles.  In a book that’s so conventionally swashbuckling, it’s startling to read passages like, “Hats and garments, cash-boxes and accountbooks, littered the hallways and were piled in little heaps at the entrances of elevators.”

The book is in the public domain if you would like to read it for yourself.

**If you’re looking for more Victorian era tales of future destruction, check out this paper by Mike Davis and other authors called ‘Dark Raptures’.

Below: A look at City Hall Post Office and Park Row before everything went to hell. Compare with the image at the top.

“Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells”: What a party! Courtesy Vanity Fair and the toasts of the Jazz Age


Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair
Various authors
Edited by Graydon Carter with David Friend
Penguin Press

BOOK REVIEW  Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair sounds like a soirée in book form, but it’s a lot more than that.  If anything, the book’s title is a bit constricting.  The bohemians, the bootleggers, the flappers, the swells — they’ve all brought guests along with them. Welcome!

One hundred years ago, Vanity Fair was a men’s fashion and style magazine that gradually became known for some of the best published writing in the world. It was a veritable sounding board for the wits of the Algonquin Round Table whose entire membership either wrote for it or were written about within it.

After the Great Depression, its publisher Conde Nast (the man) folded its contents into his more successful women’s magazine Vogue.

Its spirit was revived in 1983 by publisher Conde Nast (the corporation) and re-energized in the early 90s with the introduction of editor Graydon Carter, best known for the dearly lamented Spy Magazine, which is the closest anyone ever got in the ’90s to the droll swagger of the Algonquin crew.

For its one hundred anniversary, Carter has put together a collection of stories from the magazine’s first incarnation, from P.G. Wodehouse‘s take on the fitness craze of 1914 to Allene Talmey‘s survey of New York nighclubs in 1936.  The entirety of the Jazz age in contained between them — the fashion, the reverie, the amusement, the agony.

But most of all — the modernity.  If anything defines most of these spectacular entries, it’s the coy observations of change, how America left the Gilded Age to became something awkward but none the less brilliant. In one essay, Aldous Huxley tries to literally define the word: “Let us not abuse a very useful and significant word [modern] by applying it indiscriminately to everything that happens to be contemporary.”

Here are the world’s greatest authors of the early 20th century, attempting to define their era from the vantage of a barstool or a kitchen table.  D.H. Lawrence takes on the modern female, implying she’s merely an update on the ancient woman.  Music critic Samuel Chotzinoff zeroes in on the origin of jazz music in 1923, still in its infancy. Tremors in sports, world affairs, women’s fashion and the stage are all tackled by a rich embarrassment of talents.

We see here the birth of legends at the dawn of their careers, through a variety of writing samples, light fiction to poetry.  My favorite (no surprise) are the early poems by Dorothy Rothschild (Parker) who beautifully bemoans whole categories of miserable co-workers, in-laws and other species. “I hate actresses/They get on my nerves.”  Stroll past the entries from T. S Eliot and Gertrude Stein to find an introduction to readers from Carl Van Vechten of the young poet Langston Hughes.  “Hughes has crowded more adventure into his life than most of us will experience.”

Modern Vanity Fair is known for personality profiles, and there are many on display here.  Most of the subjects themselves are scarcely quoted themselves; instead their images are preened and paraded by imminent writers and colleagues.

Actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr writes about his wife Joan Crawford (at left) in a 1930 essay. “She is intolerant of people’s weakness.  If someone does her a wrong she is slow in forgetting it but when she does there is no doubt of her attitude. (Fairbanks and Crawford divorced three years later.)  Alexander Woollcott waxes poetically about the unpoetic Harpo Marx.  Paul Gallico turns Babe Ruth into a proto-Superman. “He rose from Rags to Riches. Sink or Swim. Do or Die.”

Moments of great foresight rise throughout the essays. Walter Lippman predicts the entire Internet age in his essay on publicity:  “It may even be that when men have lived for a few more generations … the race will no longer have any prejudices in favor of privacy.  They may enjoy living in glass houses.” David Cort‘s post-mortem on the stock market crash of 1929 reads like cynical analysis from 2008.  “Those who recanted, who sold out and are bankrupt, have already been forgotten.  Wall Street wants fresh money, fresh optimists.”

Also included here is Anne O’Hagan‘s defiant laundry-list of woman in 1915 who make more than $50,000.  “Consider the growing horde of decorators,” she says in one refrain.

Virtually every major name of the arts and letters makes a brief appearance in Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells.  The collection’s tremendous breadth in subject matter makes it sometimes difficult as a straight-through read, but I would encourage you try it anyway.  In total, this is as much a story about America between the Great Wars as any actual historical tome.

And a quick note about my two favorite stories.  If you only know E.E. Cummings (at right) from his poetry, then you have a treat in store here in a short humorous narrative from 1925 which begins with the sentence, “Calvin Coolidge laughed.”

And then there’s “An Afghan In America,” written in 1916 by Syyed Shaykh Achmed Abdullah, a brief and beautiful tale about old traditions as they play out in a New York ballroom.  “He danced with her for the rest of the evening.  He did several new steps.  He also drank forbidden spirits. Many of them.”

Vanity Fair covers courtesy Conde Nast Publications

Previous recommendations from the Bowery Boys Bookshelf:



Spectropia, or How to Make Ghosts in Your Home

Above: The cover of the New York edition of Brown’s optical illusion book

One of the hottest books in New York City in the fall of 1864 was an optical illusion collection that conjured ghosts through a simple trick of the eye.

Spectropia, or surprising spectral illusions showing ghosts everywhere and of any colour was both a parlor amusement and picture-filled chapbook written and illustrated by J. H. Brown, an early skeptic of the spiritualism movement.

From the books introduction: “It is a curious fact that, in this age of scientific research, the absurd follies of spiritualism should find an increase in supporters; but mental epidemics seem at certain seasons to affect our minds, and one of the oldest of these mental afflictions — witchcraft — is once more prevalent in this nineteenth century, under the contemptible forms of spirit-rapping and table-turning.”

To counter the phonies, Brown presents readers with a nifty optical illusion that will allow its readers to create their own ghosts at home.

According to advertisements for the book:

The directions are very simple.  You have merely to hold the volume so that the strongest possible light will fall upon the engraved plate; look at it steadily without blinking for nearly a minute; then turn and look steadily for the same length of time at any white surface which is in part shadow, and the object or specter will presently appear.”

“The effect is best by gaslight.” My goodness, what isn’t?

Here’s a sampling of the illustrations.  See if they work for you! And yes, definitely try these out if your home is equipped with gaslight….

The book was produced in New York by publisher James Gregory at 540 Broadway in today’s SoHo area. (It’s the building where the Steve Madden shoe store is today.).

Believe it or not, Spectropia was a hot gift under the tree that Christmas. The New York Times lists it that year in their recommended holiday gift list. “The publications of Mr. JAS. G. GREGORY, of No. 540 Broadway, are characterized by good taste and fine execution.”  Mr. Gregory kept the book in publication for several years afterwards or at least until the novelty wore off.

You can read the book here.  And here’s a PDF.

Below from the New York Daily Tribune, September 13, 1864

Happy birthday Herman Melville! Some New York City trivia Plus: News on our upcoming podcasts

“Of a Sunday, Wall-Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness.” — Herman Melville, Bartelby the Scrivener.  The lithograph above is what Wall Street would have looked like in Melville’s day. (NYPL)

Herman Melville, one of America’s greatest writers of the 19th century, was born 195 years ago today.  Here are five New York-centric facts about Melville that you may not have known:

1)  Melville was born at 11:30 pm on August 1, 1819, at 6 Pearl Street. Today, across the street from that approximate location of the address sits a Starbucks, the coffee franchise named after a character in Melville’s Moby Dick.

2)  His grandfather Peter Gansevoort, a colonel in the Continental Army, had a fort named after him on the west side of Manhattan, in the area of today’s Meatpacking District.  Gansevoort Street is a lasting tribute to both the colonel and his fort.

Melville worked on whalers and merchant ships as a young man, acquiring the rich experiences he would immortalize in his writing. For a time, he also worked in a customs office at West Street and Gansevoort Street, almost exactly where the old fort once stood.

3)  His family’s wealth widely fluctuated, and Herman’s father was at one point thrown in debtor’s prison.  But at the height of the Melville’s prosperity, they managed to live in a luxurious townhouse at 675 Broadway, between Bond and Jones Street. (Click the address to see what’s there today.)   In the 1820s, that would have put them in the lap of wealthy New York.

4)  Melville was very familiar with all of downtown New York’s seaport culture but made special note to mention those places along the East River — WhitehallCorlear’s Hook and Coenties Slip — in his book Moby Dick.  These locations along the east side would have been his landscape as a youth, the places where his mind began crafting tales of adventure. From Moby Dick:

“Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?- Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep.” 

5)  For much of his later career, Melville lived at 104 East 26th Street.  Most of his greatest works had already been written, but it was from this house that he started a novella called Billy Budd. Uncompleted at the time of his death in 1891, it was later published and is today considered one of his greatest works.  There’s a plaque nearby where this building once stood, making note of this important literary spot.
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Above: Boys in fancy dress marvel over baby bears at the Bronx Zoo (NYPL)

Bonjour and hey! I’ve just returned from Europe where I saw Tom Meyers get married to his partner amid the bucolic beauty of southern France.  This may shock you but there was not a single pun made the entire ceremony.

This was also the longest vacation I’ve taken since starting the Bowery Boys so I thank you for your patience in the general silence around these parts.  I’ll have a Parisian flavored posting on Monday or Tuesday.

The podcast release schedule has been very erratic this summer so we’ve tried to give you a little extra doses wherever possible.  Sohis month you’ll be getting TWO new shows.  Here’s the layout:

August 8 — A new solo podcast
August 22 — Tom returns with a new duo show

At that point we’ll return to our monthly schedule with the next show on September 19.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr, released 20 years ago this week: Retracing the steps of this Gilded Age murder mystery

NOTE: This article has a few plot spoilers but no major twists are revealed or discussed.  I’ve tried to write the descriptions within the interactive map as vaguely as possible.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr was published 20 years ago this week, an instant best-seller in 1994 that has become a cult classic among history buffs.  Despite some creakiness uniquely inherent to early ’90s fiction thrillers, it remains today a page-turning and utterly spellbinding adventure.

Although the Jack the Ripper murders were an obvious inspiration for Carr, perhaps The Alienist‘s biggest influence is The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.  Carr completed his tale of serial murders in the Gilded Age just as a slew of Silence knockoffs began hitting the bookshelves.  The Alienist stands far above the pack, of course, but you can’t deny its success in 1994 was partially inspired by reader’s cravings for murderers with perverted tastes and body parts in formaldehyde jars.

The Alienist follows a quirky team of investigators in 1896 as they follow the bloody trail of a killer with a peculiar penchant for boy prostitutes, often dressed as girls to the delight of their clientele.  Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is the alienist (or psychologist) in charge of the case, stitching together a profile of the loathsome figure, conveniently using soon-to-be standard analytic techniques.

At right: Alternate artwork for The Alienist (Courtesy Nerd Blerp)

As protagonist John Schuyler Moore, a reporter for the New York Times, explains it “[W]e start with the prominent features of the killings themselves, as well as the personality traits of the victims, and from those we determine what kind of man might be at work. Then, using evidence that would otherwise have seemed meaningless, we begin to close in.”

Carr’s book is finely detailed, perhaps overly detailed, which won’t be a problem if you love New York City history.  There are over two dozen scenes at various notable landmarks throughout Manhattan, some in various states of construction.  Several real-life figures make appearances, although the most entertaining characters are Carr’s own, including the intrepid proto-policewoman Sara Howard and scrappy errand boy Stevie ‘Stovepipe’ Taggart.

When I first read The Alienist back in 1994, I was struck by its preciseness, an expertly placed breadcrumb trail through old Gotham.  There is no romantic gloss, as in another history classic Time and Again. He makes it seem possible to retrace almost every step of our heroes. (In researching this article, I tried to do so.)  The original New York Times review noted that “[y]ou can practically hear the clip-clop of horses’ hooves echoing down old Broadway.”  They’re still echoing.

The story begins in the early months of 1896 during a robust winter. Below, from the Illustrated American, a depiction of a snowy Madison Square that year (NYPL):

His depiction of old New York is still glorious.  The book’s polite take on certain social issues, however, read a bit wobbly today.  To his credit, Carr tackles police corruption, gender discrimination, racial prejudice and the plight of homosexuals, all while elaborating on complicated psychological theories in service of an entertaining story.  He has stuffed a hidden epic of New York into the framework of a modern murder mystery.  That he chooses to handle hot-button social issues with kid gloves is not a misstep, but merely a symptom of its genre and day.

The Alienist is still greatly enjoyable, perhaps slightly more so now.  Thanks to renewed interest in New York City history, the details here are even more shimmering and vital.  This is not an old New York emerging from a mysterious fog, but a world that seems to exist alongside our own.

And to prove that — below you will find a detailed, interactive map of the pivotal locations used in the book.  You can click into various points for further details.  A few of these pins have pictures and other links. Just zoom in and choose a location!  (NOTE: Some locations are approximate and a couple are speculation.)

 

A little elaboration on certain elements of the book’s bigger places and themes:

Paresis Hall 
Most of the murder victims are boy prostitutes employed as several houses of ill repute throughout the city.  Paresis Hall, located steps from Cooper Union, sounds like it was both a place where gay men could congregate in private clubs and a place of sexual transaction, often (as in the book) with underage boys dressed up as girls.  This boy, Nathaniel ‘ The Kid’ Cullen, may have worked there, or may have just a habitue of the club. (He appears in this collection of photographs from Paresis Hill.)

Madison Square 
This was still a thriving center for culture and dignified entertainments in 1896. Many theaters clustered around the park, although newer stages were making their way up Broadway to Herald Square.  If Delmonico’s (on the northwest corner) is too crowded for you, head over to the tea room at Madison Square Garden on the northeast side.  Pictured here in 1893, three years before the events of the Alienist. (NYPL)

Murray Hill Distributing Reservoir
In 1896, New York still relied on this reservoir to provide most people with water.  But it was also a tourist destination in itself, with walking paths along the top.  Shortly after its appearance it the book, the Egyptian-inspired reservoir was torn down to make way for New York’s new public library. (NYPL)

Bellevue Hospital and Morgue
Check out our podcast and blog posting on the history of Bellevue Hospital, as many of the details mentioned there appear in this book.  Below: Bellevue in 1879.

Isabella Goodwin
Sara Howard seems to be a little bit Nellie Bly, and a lot Isabella Goodwin, the first female office promoted to detective in 1896 (the year the book is set).  Below: A front-page case cracked by Goodwin from February 1912.

New York Aquarium
Carr’s narrative features several New York landmarks in construction.  Two of those places take a morbid center stage in the book — the Williamsburg Bridge and the nearly completed New York Aquarium (the former Castle Garden) (NYPL)

Theodore Roosevelt
Carr weaves several real life figures into the storyline, from J.P. Morgan (who comes off quite ominous) to Jacob Riis (not a flattering portrait of him either).  But future president Roosevelt gets a glowing supporting role as New York’s police commissioner who directs Dr. Kreizler, Moore and Howard to investigate the murders using powers of psychological deduction.

In fact, the book is actually a flashback by our hero Moore, recalled when he visits the Oyster Bay funeral of his dear friend in 1919 (pictured below). (LOC)

True Crime
And there are a great many real-life figures from New York’s criminal underworld as well.  In fact, most of the lecherous and notorious figures depicted in the book are real folks, from early gangsters like Paul Kelly to brothel owners such as Biff Ellison.  Carr also finds a few disturbing mental cases to bring into the story, including the young killer Jesse Pomeroy (pictured below), considered one of the most brutal of murderers at a ripe age of 14.

Grand Central Depot
The characters do venture to places outside the city for further clues, but they always come through Grand Central Depot, the most hectic place in New York.  (Pennsylvania Station had not yet been built.)  Within a few years, this too would be ripped down and replaced with the present Grand Central Terminal. (LOC)

And finally, there are three central locations from the book that are still around today:

Dr. Laszlo’s residence at Stuyvesant Park. Actually the address in the book doesn’t really exist.  But based on a couple descriptions — and its proximity to St. George’s Church, which is mentioned as close by — this building at 237 East 17th Street may be what Carr had in mind:

Murder headquarters at 808 Broadway — This exceptionally handsome building was constructed by James Renwick, playing nicely off its neighbor Grace Church.  It’s actually called the Renwick!  The team was located on the sixth floor.  Today, on the first floor, is one of New York’s most popular costume shops.

John Schuyler Moore’s home at Washington Square Park North, facing the park:


(My thanks to Dixie Roberts for the story idea!)

Solomon Northup’s ominous journey to New York City, 1841

An engraving featured in Solomon Northup’s narrative Twelve Years A Slave, published in 1853.

The New York farmer and musician Solomon Northup was sold into slavery in 1841, tricked by two supposed members of a circus troupe, promising Northrup work in their traveling show.  Instead, Northrup awoke in bondage, eventually smuggled to New Orleans where he faced years of cruel servitude under a variety of plantation owners.   After regaining his freedom in 1853, he wrote the narrative Twelve Years A Slave, his harrowing account of his years in the South.

The book became a best-seller within Republican abolitionist circles, released a year after Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It was certainly in the possession of Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet’s younger brother, who turned his Brooklyn pulpit at Plymouth Church into a sounding board for abolitionist ideas.  (One hundred and sixty years later, the Oscar-nominated film version of Twelve Years A Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, played at Brooklyn Heights Cinema, located one block away from Beecher’s church.)

Northup and his family lived in upstate New York, but New York City proper plays a small but ominous role in his narrative.  Lured by the promise of employment by two men named Brown and Hamilton, Northup travels from home in Saratoga, first to Albany, then to New York itself:

“They hurried forward, without again stopping to exhibit, and in due course of time, we reached New-York, taking lodgings at a house on the west side of the city, in a street running from Broadway to the river.”

Below: A view of Broadway (between Howard and Grand Streets) in 1840.  To the south of this view was Canal Street and Five Points.


“I supposed my journey was at an end, and expected in a day or two at least, to return to my friends and family at Saratoga.   Brown and Hamilton, however, began to importune me to continue with them to Washington.  They alleged that immediately on their arrival, now that the summer season was approaching, the circus would set out for the north.   They promised me a situation and high wages if I would accompany them.  

Largely did they expatiate on the advantages that would result to me, and such were the flattering representations they made, that I finally concluded the offer.”

Northup agrees to accompany them further north to Washington DC.  It would be there that Northup would be drugged and sold into bondage by his two nefarious companions.  But before they leave New York, they suggest that Solomon perform a certain task, curious given the subsequent events which occurred:

“The next morning they suggested that, inasmuch as we were about entering a slave State, it would be well, before leaving New-York, to procure free papers.  The idea struck me as a prudent one, though I think it would scarcely have occurred to me, had they not proposed it. 

We proceeded at once to what I understood to be the Custom House. They made oath to certain facts showing I was a free man.” 

Why is there a little confusion in Northrup’s statement regarding the Custom House?  Perhaps because the building he would have visited — at 22-24 Wall Street — was in its final days as New York’s Custom House, an office which had grown far too small for the task.  The following year, New York’s new Custom House would have at last been opened at the other end of the block — the building that is today’s Federal Hall.

Below: Northrup and his associates would have entered the building at the far right of this illustration (which depicts Wall Street in 1825)

“Some further formalities were gone through with before it was completed, when, paying the officer two dollars, I placed the papers in my pocket, and started with my two friends to our hotel.  I thought at the time, I must confess, that the papers were scarcely worth the cost of obtaining them – the apprehension of danger to my personal safety never having suggested itself to me in the remotest manner.”

Below: The interior of the New York Custom House, 1853

All images courtesy New York Public Library

After its publication in 1853, Northup’s account would be available for sale in certain New York bookstores for several years.  But keep in mind New York’s divided loyalties to the South; it would not have been a universally popular read here in the city.

Below: the book for sale in 1854 at a bookstore at 308 Broadway, and in 1856, at a Park Row bookseller, both ads from the New York Daily Tribune



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real Sleepy Hollow didn’t have a Starbucks

An 1864 wood engraving of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ for Harper’s Magazine (NYPL)

The new Fox television show Sleepy Hollow debuted last night.  The storyline involves Continental Army soldier Ichabod Crane who confronts a masked Hessian soldier on the battlefields of Westchester County in 1781.  He chops off the Hessian’s head but is knocked unconscious. Next thing you know, Crane has woken up in 2013 and so too has the Hessian, aka the Headless Horseman.

The Headless Horseman is looking for his head and has a masterful grasp on modern weaponry.   There are also witches who were burned at the stake — in the early 19th century — and whispers of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse returning to earth.  What follows is certainly New York’s very own version Grimm, the crime procedural set amid the fairy tale traditions of the Brothers Grimm.

Below: From Disney’s 1949 ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad’, still one of the best versions of ‘Sleepy Hollow’ put to film, at least atmospherically


I’m sure this will be light and fun to watch, a la ABC’s contribution to the modern fairy tale genre Once Upon A Time.  But it is shocking how much of Washington Irving’s original tale they’ve simply eliminated.  Irving’s Ichabod Crane was a school teacher.  The character’s name was probably inspired on an actual soldier named Ichabod Crane;  he distinguished himself with valor in the War of 1812 but would have been four years old in 1781.

In Irving’s tale, the Horseman “is said by some to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper, whose head had been carried away by a cannon-ball, in some nameless battle during  the Revolutionary War, and who is ever and anon seen by the country folk hurrying along in the gloom of night, as if on the wings of the wind.”

Also, the show is filmed in North Carolina.

If you wanna get in the autumn mood with the real story of Washington Irving and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, check out my back catalog podcast (Episode #19) on the life of the writer, his beginnings as a publisher in colonial New York and his tenuous connection to Irving Place below Gramercy Park.

Download it on iTunes, directly from our satellite site, or listen to it here via SoundCloud:

Here’s 25 essential historical novels set in New York City. Help me expand the list to 50 titles!

As a follow-up to last month’s list of essential non-fiction books about New York City, here’s my list of 25 favorite historical fiction novels written in the past one hundred years, using the history of the city as a backdrop for drama, mystery, fantasy and romance.

There are really two types of historical fiction — recollection and period.  Books like Edith Wharton and Betty Smith hearken back several decades in the past using the authors’ own experiences to create lasting, classic narratives. Well-researched American period fictions (once the domain of European swashbucklers) came into popularity in the 20th century thanks to authors like James Michener and Margaret Mitchell, telling big, far-flung stories using the past as both a driving engine and a form of decoration.

Historical fiction novels set in New York City are more popular today than ever before.  My list below reflects both old classics and newer releases, literary fiction and genre.  To make the list, the book had to be written in the past 100 hundred years and reflect on an era of New York City 20-30 years before the book’s publication.

There’s even a couple pure fantasy books on this list; after all, aren’t they all somewhat fantasy to some extent?

But I know this is an imperfect list.  All of the books in the list above are fantastic, but this is far from comprehensive.  I need your help to make it better!  I’d like to expand this to an Essential 50 list, using your suggestions.

Is there a glaring omission? Any recent historical fictions that are begging for inclusion?  Please give me your suggestions in the notes below, on the Bowery Boys Facebook page, or via email (boweryboysnyc@earthlink.net).

Note I’m distinguishing between regular novels (written from the perspective of the present or recent past) and New York City historical novels (which specifically use the past as a plot element and are set back at least 20-25 years).  For instance, The Great Gatsby and Catcher In The Rye are classic New York books, but I don’t consider them historical fiction, as they are set in or near the period in which they were written.   There will be other lists in coming months to include any books this parameter might leave out.

I’ll take all the suggestions, narrow them down to 25 and add them to this list to make a definitive recommended reading list next week.  (For an idea of what this will look like, check out 50 Favorite New York City History Books Chosen By Bowery Boys and Readers from last month.)

Thanks for your help and happy reading!