Tag Archives: Harlem

The New York Riots of 1964: Violent history with a haunting familiarity

One hot summer’s morning, in the neighborhood of Yorkville on the Upper East Side, high school student James Powell was shot and killed by police officer James Gilligan.

Powell either attempted to stab the officer or else the unarmed boy was brutally set upon by a man with violent tendencies. Gilligan, a war veteran, was either defending himself from a troubled delinquent or else he gunned down the teenager with little remorse.

There were few actual witnesses but dozens of bystanders. The incident took place across the street from a high school, and the students, incensed by rumors and the fear of blood running in the streets, began panicking.

The year was 1964.

It’s hard not to read the opening pages to Michael W. Flamm’s gripping In The Heat Of The Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime (University of Pennsylvania Press) and not see the parallels to modern police brutality cases.  So many different testimonies obscure the truth that it’s hard to know what really did happen in front of 215 East 76th Street that day. (Video footage might not have even cleared it up.)

Yet Flamm’s book isn’t specifically about the crime, but the chaos which ensued — the New York Riots of 1964 (with the most violent night often referred to as the Harlem Riot of 1964). For several evenings following the shooting, a host of speculations and false rumors — mixing with grief and despair on a series of hot summer evenings — led to roaming violence and looting in Harlem (with some also reported in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant).

The incidents which occurred that summer stem from hostilities which had built up within the black community for decades. A great distrust between the police and African-Americans played a part in the rising crime rate in poor neighborhoods like Harlem in the 1960s.

Courtesy the New York Daily News

Fearful residents felt powerless against increasing criminal behavior and drug abuse in their streets but didn’t risk involving law enforcement, who most considered corrupt and racist.

White residents avoided black neighborhoods — and vice versa — due to wildly dramatic reports in the press. Black power movements like the Nation of Islam escalated talk of violence while, in some neighborhoods, white vigilantes stopped and interrogated every black person found in the streets.

Writes Flamm: “New York sounded to the rest of the country like some frontier town helpless before the uncontrollable violence stalking its streets.”

Dick DeMarsico, New York World Telegraph & Sun

Flamm follows two parallel threads, both coming together in raw, unexpected ways. The first is a terrifying minute-by-minute account of the late-night street riots, the chaotic protests and the rallies organized by those who wished to funnel that rage into a mechanism of change. The second is the reactions of politicians and civil rights leaders to New York’s race and law enforcement problems.

The author’s meticulous research finds microcosms of hate and fear at nearly ever corner — of the kind which will make nobody particularly nostalgic for the period. “Central Harlem seemed like a war zone, with screams from people and cracks from bullets as they ricocheted off brick walls and cement sidewalks.”

New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Wolfson, Stanley, photographer.

At the center of the story is civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (pictured above) and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), often caught between keeping and promoting the peace and quelling the concerns of angry residents.

At one point, Rustin was literally disarming people. “The toll might have gone much higher if not for Rustin, who personally disposed of three cases of dynamite — enough to destroy a city block — after two young black men agreed to give it to him instead of using it.”

Few history books I’ve read in the past twelve months have felt as immediate as In the Heat of the Summer, with anecdotes that seem to speak pointedly to the events of today’s headlines.

For example, some police authorities applauded television coverage of the riots. Said one commissioner: “It’s the best answer we have to the cries of police brutality. The camera, after all, cannot distort or lie; the worst that can happen is that the film is edited. But what you see on the home screen is the actual occurrence.”

Hamilton Grange: New York’s Most Historic Mobile Home (NPS at 100)

This month America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the organization which protects the great natural and historical treasures of the United States. There are a number of NPS locations in the five borough areas. Throughout the next few weeks, we will focus on a few of our favorites.   For more information, you can visit National Parks Centennial for a complete list of parks and monuments throughout the country.  For more blog posts in this series, click here.




I’m going to write a musical about Hamilton Grange.

This three-hour musical epic will be a complete survey of this historic home, which was built by Alexander Hamilton in an area of Manhattan a good hour and a half from town.

It will be a story of struggle, evolution, change, spirituality, love and melodrama.

And here’s the catch — this imagined musical would begin with the death of Hamilton in his duel with Aaron Burr. (Far from giving this scoundrel a Tony-winning sized role, Burr would not even make an appearance!)  Because in most ways, that’s when the story of Hamilton Grange really begins.

It will be Hamilton’s home until the cows come home.

Last week I took a free tour of this charming  National Park Service location, newly energized by musical appreciations of Hamilton and his life. My tour of Hamilton’s home was completely booked, and at least two people in the tour wore Hamilton: The Musical shirts. (Two other musical fans were turned away to join a later tour. My advice: Call ahead. Get on the list.)

You will ultimately visit only a small number of decorated rooms and in fact may have a richer educational experience in the Grange’s excellent gallery about Hamilton’s life.  But while several historic homes in the New York City area are larger and more spectacular, few have such an extraordinary tale of survival as Hamilton’s pet project.


Hamilton purchased a set of upper Manhattan lots in 1800 in order construct a fine home for his family. Its name would be inspired by an ancestral Scottish mansion as well as his childhood home in St. Croix.  Designed by John Macomb Jr, (who was also commissioned for fellow NPS landmark Castle Clinton, as well as New York City Hall), the Hamilton Grange was completed in 1802, accompanied on the peaceful landscape by duck ponds, barns and an orchard.


The house feted an extraordinary roster of politicians and dignitaries who ate and drank to their hearts’ content in the Hamiltons’ mirrored dining room (which you get to peek in on during the tour). Indeed, a week before the duel, the Hamiltons threw a lavish dinner party with the likes of John Trumbull and Nicholas Fish.

And like every good piece of New York City real estate, the Grange plunged the family into deep debt.



After Hamilton died in the summer of 1804, Hamilton’s widow Eliza Schuyler Hamilton struggled to maintain the family finances.  Eventually a group of supporters (led by good ole Gouverneur Morris) bought the home and sold it back to her for half price. She managed to stay there until 1833, at which point she moved into her son’s new home on St. Mark’s Place.

Below: The Grange, left adrift as the city moved up around it. Date of picture unknown,  but most likely early 1880s.

Courtesy NPS
Courtesy NPS

With the new grid plan eventually stretching up into upper Manhattan, farmhouses that were situated at all angles to maximize their glorious views now proved impossible to accommodate. Most were torn down with a few exceptions (such as the Dyckman Farmhouse, the oldest house in Manhattan).

The battered old Grange would certainly have been erased from history if not for the congregation of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church who found use for the structure as an uptown chapel. The catch — it needed to move to their lot a block and a half away, conforming to Convent Avenue. By 1888 the house then became Hamilton Grange Reformed Church.

By the following year, the Grange was joined by a larger church structure which practically enfolded itself around the old house.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Sadly other nostalgic components of the property which still remained — Hamilton’s thirteen famous elm trees, pictured below — were unceremoniously torn out in 1900.

Courtesy New York Historical Society
Courtesy New York Historical Society

Further aesthetic travesties beset the house when an apartment complex was built onto the other side. Have you ever ridden a really, really packed subway? Now imagine riding that subway for almost a century. Thus was the fate of Hamilton Grange, a house-sized collectable artifact now shoved onto a tight shelf.


Almost immediately, concerned historians began discussing the rehabilitation of the house. “The Hamilton Grange is the oldest structure in this sector of the city, as it is assuredly the most historic,” observed the New York Times in a full-page spread in 1912. “In its present setting, hemmed in by rows of modern dwellings and apartments, its beautiful lines appear exceedingly incongruous.”  Daughters of the American Revolution beseeched the city to purchase the property.

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 11.46.43 AM

Curiously it was first proposed to move the Grange to St. Nicholas Park in 1915 as “it would not obstruct the landscape yet still stand on a portion of the Grange farm.” This prophesy would indeed come to pass almost 100 years later.

In the 1920s, plans were again picked up to transform the squished little house into a museum. Apparently there was some interest in moving the entire thing to Chicago when, in 1924, this glorious announcement was made:  “The rivalry of New York and Chicago to possess Alexander Hamilton’s historic home has been ended by preserving the stately old mansion as a public museum near its original position on Manhattan Island. Hamilton Grange, as it is generally known, has become the property of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, after some twenty-five years of unremitting effort.”  In 1933 it finally reopened as a museum.

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 12.06.18 PM

But even with the church congregation gone, even with the house filled with artifacts that were once owned by the Hamilton, the house’s placement robbed it of any context.

In 1936 a statue of Alexander Hamilton was mounted in front of the building. It was officially dedicated on the very same day that a statue of General Philip Sheridan was dedicated in a ceremony in Christopher Park.  Today — thanks to Stonewall National Monument — the Sheridan statue now too stands on property operated by the National Park Service.

The statue remains in front of the church even as the house is now gone.

IMG_4449 (1)

The NPS would finally get its hands on Hamilton Grange after it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and Congress declared it a National Monument in 1962.  The house was to be moved to another location and fully restored.

But unfortunately the city’s financial upheaval of the 1960s and 70s threw off any serious work on the house. Or to quote a historic preservation graduate student from a New York Times 1988 article:  ”’If the Grange were anywhere else, this would be a fait accompli,’ said Michael Adams, a Columbia University graduate student in historic preservation. ‘The only reason it has fallen into this deplorable condition is because it is in Harlem.’ ”


Finally in 2008, efforts were finally made to lift the house from its tucked-in spot near St. Luke’s to its new home in St. Nicholas Park. The newly revitalized house was opened to the public in 2011.

Here’s a dramatic video of its historic move:

Today the Hamilton Grange feels out of place — but in the right way. Another tall structure hovers over it to the east, but at least it doesn’t smother the house’s natural beauty, restored in a bright canary yellow.  Surrounded by the rocky terrain of the park, visitors can get a sense of the calm that Alexander and his family might have felt as they gazed out from the porches.

And almost 175 years after his family moved from the house, the Hamilton Grange has finally become a show-stopper.

WANT MORE INFORMATION? Visit the NPS Hamilton Grange National Memorial site for more information.

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST! We have a podcast on the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It’s Episode #168. You can find it on iTunes at our show page.  Or download it from here.


The tale of the Cotton Club: “The Aristocrat of Harlem”

PODCAST The musical story of the Cotton Club, the most famous (and infamous) nightclub of the Jazz Age.


The Cotton Club, Harlem’s most prominent nightclub during the Prohibiton era, delivered some of the greatest music legends of the Jazz Age — Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters, the Nicolas Brothers.  Some of the most iconic songs in the American songbook made their debut at the Cotton Club or were popularized in performances here.

But the story of gangster Owney Madden‘s notorious supper club is hardly one to be celebrated.

That the Cotton Club was owned by Prohibition’s most ruthless mob boss was just the beginning. The club enshrined the segregationist policies of the day, placing black talent on the stage for the pleasure of white patrons alone. Even the club’s flamboyant décor — by Ziegfeld’s scenic designer, no less — made sure to remind people of these ugly admission practices.

This is the tale of Harlem late night — of hot jazz and illegal booze, of great music and very bad mobsters. Featuring some of the greatest tunes of the day by Ellington, Calloway, King Oliver and more.

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

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

Or listen to it straight from here:


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The Cotton Club was spawned from an earlier nightspot called Club Deluxe, owned by boxer Jack Johnson. (Below: Johnson in 1910)

Courtesy Getty Images)
Courtesy Getty Images)

Club Deluxe was renamed The Cotton Club in 1923 by Owney Madden, the mob boss and supplier of illegal booze.


The original Cotton Club at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. The Douglas Theater, on the ground floor, is doing much better here, photo taken sometime in 1927:

Courtesy Getty Images


The entrance to the Harlem Cotton Club. Note the log decoration to make it appear like some old rugged shack.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A map from 1932 of the Harlem nightclub scene, featuring the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise, Connie’s Inn, the Savoy Ballroom and more….

Courtesy Open Culture
Courtesy Open Culture


The Broadway Cotton Club as it looked one evening in 1938.

Courtesy Getty Images/ Michael Ochs Archives
Courtesy Getty Images/ Michael Ochs Archives

A look at the interior of the Broadway Cotton Club circa, during an New Year’s celebration, 1937, with Cab Calloway conducting.

Courtesy the Hi De Ho Blog, devoted to Cab Calloway
Courtesy the Hi De Ho Blog, devoted to Cab Calloway


An advertisement or program for The Cotton Club. The year 1925 is penciled in at the top, but it has to be from a later date. Calloway had just graduated from high school in 1925!

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

Maude Russel and her Ebony Steppers, performing in the 1929 Cotton Club show called ‘Just A Minute’.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A shot of Jimmy Lunceford and His Orchestra in 1934.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library


An advertisement for the Nicolas Brothers, for a performance in 1938 at the Broadway Cotton Club.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library


Lena Horne started out in the Cotton Club chorus line but eventually became a headlining star in her own right.


The Dandridge Sisters were notable performers in the final years of the Cotton Club.


The young and dashing Duke Ellington became a superstar in the years following his Cotton Club residency.



Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Band, in a 1930 film appearance:

In 1934, Cab Calloway made this short film featuring his music:


Cab Calloway’s here too, in this clip from the film Stormy Weather, but the real stars are the Nicholas Brothers in a breathtaking dance number:



Black and Tan Fantasy – Duke Ellington

Drop Me Off In Harlem – Duke Ellington

Speak Easy Blues – King Oliver Jazz Band

Charleston – Paul Whiteman

Mood Indigo – Duke Ellington

Swing Session – Duke Ellington

If You Were In My Place – Duke Ellington

Minnie the Moocher – Cab Calloway

I’ve Got The World On A String – Duke Ellington

Stormy Weather – Ethel Waters

On The Sunny Side of the Street – Duke Ellington



— I made two amusing flubs in this show 1) Duke Ellington’s nickname is probably inspired by the Duke of Wellington, not (obviously) the Duke of Ellington, 2) the name of the movie with Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers is obviously named Stormy Weather, not  Stormy Weathers (which must be the name of a drag queen somewhere)

Jack Johnson‘s story is so much more complex and I wish I had more time to talk about him.  For more information, check out the incredible documentary (and the book it’s based on by Geoffrey C Ward) called Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

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.



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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.



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.



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.


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.



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 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.



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. 

Mr. Wonderful: A 90th birthday tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.

Frank Sinatra‘s 100th birthday is December 12 but you probably didn’t know that his fellow Rat Pack cool cat Sammy Davis Jr. was also born on the second week of December, 90 years ago today in Harlem.




Davis was born on December 8, 1925, at Harlem Hospital on Lenox Avenue and 135th Street and his fate would lean closely to the popular entertainment venues nearby. His mother was a chorus girl who worked for many years at the Apollo Theater.

My first birthday was celebrated in a specially-contoured crib made up of  suitcases in a dressing room at the old Hippodrome Theater in New York.” — Ebony Magazine interview, 1960

From his 1990 obit:  “The showman was born in a Harlem tenement, grew up in vaudeville from the age of 3 and never went to school. His talents as a mime, comedian, trumpet player, drummer, pianist and vibraphonist as well as singer and dancer were shaped from his childhood and made him one of the nation’s first black performers to gain mainstream acclaim.”

Courtesy Global Grind
Courtesy Global Grind


Photo by Bob East
Photo by Bob East

In performance in the early 1950s:


The above picture may be taken at the Copacabana. In my very old podcast on the history of the Copacabana, you may remember the tale of Davis’s performance that was heckled by a group of bigoted bowlers. Unfortunately for the bowlers, in the audience were Yankees legends Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford who gave them a good dusting up.

Sammy Davis Jr. on the 1960 Frank Sinatra Timex Show singing a song from Porgy and Bess:

Davis, 1966, on the Perry Como Show for NBC

Davis, 1966, on the Perry Como Show for NBC
Davis, 1966, on the Perry Como Show for NBC


Davis had his own NBC variety show in 1966 which ran 14 episodes. It filmed at Rockefeller Center.  The March 11th broadcast featured the Supremes:


Diahann Carroll appeared on Sammy Davis’ variety show in 1966, so he returned the favor ten years later for her own variety show. (I love that people had variety shows!)


Check out the Getty Images archives for a lot of amazing photos of Davis with other icons. Here’s one from 1989 with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Davis would die the following year of complications from throat cancer,

Getty Images. Credit: Kevin Winter

And finally, his rendition of ‘Music of the Night’ from The Phantom of the Opera from 1988,  one of last performances.


Billie Holiday’s New York: Here’s to Swing Street, Harlem’s 133rd Street and other landmarks of jazz

Courtesy Columbia Records


PODCAST Grab your fedora and take a trip with the Bowery Boys into the heart of New York City’s jazz scene — late nights, smoky bars, neon signs — through the eyes of one of the greatest American vocalists who ever lived here — Billie Holiday.

Eleanora Fagan walked out of Pennsylvania Station in 1929 and into the city that would help make her a superstar. Her early years were bleak, arrested for prostitution and thrown into the Welfare Island workhouse. But music would be her savior, breaking out in Harlem first in the nightclubs on 133rd Street, then in the basement clubs of ‘Swing Street’ on 52nd Street.

Her recordings make her an international star, but the venues of New York helped solidify her talents — from the Apollo Theater to Carnegie Hall. But one particular club in the West Village would provide her with a signature song, one that reflected the horrible realities of racism in the mid 20th century.

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

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #176: Billie Holiday’s New York

Billie Holiday at Club Downbeat, 1947


Locations featured in this episode:

1) Pennsylvania Station (circa 1930s-40s)

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

2) Jefferson Market Courthouse, pictured here in 1935

Photographed by Berenice Abbott, courtesy New York Public Library


3) Welfare Island, pictured here in 1931

Photographed by Samuel H Gottscho, courtesy Museum of City of New York


4) 133rd Street — “Jungle Alley” or The Street — outside Connie’s Inn

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


5) Apollo Theater, pictured here in the mid 1940s

Courtesy Library of Congress, photographer William Gottlieb
Courtesy Library of Congress, photographer William Gottlieb


6) Lincoln Hotel

Hotel Lincoln, 44th to 45th Street at 8th Avenue New York City
Hotel Lincoln, 44th to 45th Street at 8th Avenue New York City

7) Billie Holiday at Cafe Society 1939

Photo by Charles B. Nadell
Photo by Charles B. Nadell

8) 52nd Street aka Swing Street



Billie at Club Downbeat (with her dog Mister) — June 1946

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

9) Town Hall, sometime in the 1940s

Exterior view of The Town Hall, courtesy New York Public Library
Exterior view of The Town Hall, courtesy New York Public Library

10) Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall for her rave 1948 concert

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress


An extraordinary performance of ‘Strange Fruit’, performed in February 1959, months before she died. This was recorded for a British television show called ‘Chelsea At Nine’.


Billie Holiday — playing a maid — in the 1947 film New Orleans


And a live performance of one of her greatest songs — well, really, one of the greatest songs — “God Bless The Child”

On this Veteran’s Day, a salute to the Harlem Hellfighters!

The men of the 369th who were awarded France’s Criox de Guerre for distinguished acts of heroism:  Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor

New York’s 369th Infantry Regiment was America’s first African-American regiment engaged in World War I.  While many white American soldiers would have been happy to serve next to trained regiments of any color, intense racial prejudice in the United States forced many who signed up to fight for their country to instead be assigned to the French army.

Nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, the regiment served alongside the French during the summer and fall of 1918.  Perhaps the most famous soldier of the 369th was Private Henry Lincoln Johnson (at right) whose deadly efficiency on the battlefield earned him the grim nickname Black Death.  He became the first of dozens from the 369th to receive the prestigious Criox de Guerre, the equivalent of the American Medal of Honor.

They returned to New York in February 1919 and marched through the streets of Manhattan on February 17 — from Greenwich Village to Harlem, in triumph.

From the New York Times the following day:

New York’s negro soldiers, bringing with them from France one of the bravest records achieved by any organization in the war, marched amidst waving flags and cheering crowds yesterday from Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue.”

“At Thirty-Fourth Street the men marched under a shower of cigarettes and candy, and such tokens were pitched at them at other points in the line, but the files did not waver for an instant.

The men of the 369th photographed as they arrive back in New York City, 1919

From original caption (courtesy US National Archies):  “[The] 369th New York City Infantry (old 15th) [African American] troops and some of the 370th Infantry, Illinois [African American] troops, one of the most decorated regiments in the United States Army return to New York City. They saw [the] longest service of any American regiment as part of a foreign army, and had less training than any before going into action. They were never in an American division or brigade always being with the French.”

The 369th marching up Fifth Avenue.

The men are shown here in this assortment of newsreel footage from the war:

Pictures from the U.S. National Archives

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)

Get Rich Magic: The astral adventures of Madame La Viesta and the Occult School of Science on Lexington Avenue

Above: Famed spiritualists gather in Chicago, 1906. The names weren’t listed, but perhaps Mme. La Viesta is pictured here? (Courtesy Chicago Daily News/Library of Congress) 

The Gilded Age brought us human beings of impossibly vast wealth.  It also brought us a mainstream appreciation of spiritualism, an exploration of  magic and the afterlife as a way of understanding a quickly changing world.

And sometimes it brought us both.   Frank W.Woolworth, builder of a retail empire and a legendary skyscraper, was a proponent of Egyptian occult practices, so much so that his mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery is an ode to the Egyptian theories of the afterlife.  The Chicago meat mogul Philip Armour was a rumored spiritualist.  The wives of robber barons frequently attended seances and psychic readings.  Few were immune to the lure of the spiritualism and the possibilities of otherworldly assistance in becoming rich.

Do you want to be rich like Woolworth?  In 1913, the same year as the completion of the Woolworth Building, a series of curious advertisements ran in newspapers across the country:

The ad promoted a free book that revealed the secrets of a “great psychic force which learned men claim rules the destinies of man,” produced by the Occult School of Science, located at 2075 (or 2083) Lexington Avenue at 125th Street.**

At this unusual institution, a student could discover a gamut of psychic and magical practices in service of practical life, from finance to marriage.  Among its offerings included divination (“instructions for making a gold vibrator, for locating gold and silver ore”), fortune telling (course name: Methods of Successful Mediums) and the subconscious (“The Egyptian Interpretation of Dreams”).

The writer of these curious lectures was none other than Madame Vesta La Viesta (at right), a well-known mystic and traveler of the galaxy.

La Viesta was well known to spiritualism enthusiasts, as well as to those who mocked them.  In 1904, at a place called the Cosmological Center, La Viesta described her recent visit to Mars and Venus via a projection of  her astral self.

Her descriptions predate John Gray’s famous book by decades.  Inhabitants of Venus “are associated most happily in soul mated couples, for they have a flexible astral or psychological tubing which invisibly connects their bodies.” [source]

In 1907, she revealed to the world the secret of the ‘soul kiss’, a rapturous and strangely indescribable form of love — taught to her on a recent astral voyage to Neptune — involving an aroused nervous system, cellular breathing and ‘wireless’ transmission of love from miles away.  She was so passionate about this shimmering new form of love that she wrote a song about it called “Description of a Soul Kiss.”

Below: Frank Leslie’s American Magazine mocked an earlier lecture La Viesta in this 1902 article:

She was known for unusual lectures given from her Upper West Side apartment where she resided over a room of both corporeal and astral students. (Meaning that it looked like a fairly uncrowded room.)  She suggested that both disease and finance were mere “states of mind” that could be controlled using vibrational or astral techniques.  It was possible to let life’s many inconveniences “evaporate into the nowhere and melt into the astral ethers.” [source]

La Viesta was also a fan of the dew bath, involving women rubbing against morning grass which supposedly contained the secrets of age-defying beauty.

Said La Viesta:  “I have removed my clothing and have stood in the yard at the rear of my home in the darkness of the night and allowed the dew drops to collect over me until I was happy.” [You can read more on the curious dew-bath craze here.] At right: Illustration of a woman luxuriating in a dew bath, from 1902 NY Evening World

By 1912, at age 50, La Viesta became associated with the Occult School of Science, founded by Frederic Nugent.  Had she been clairvoyant, she might have known to stay away from Nugent, a notorious grifter.

Nugent, also known as Professor John D’Astro, seemed to approach spiritualism from a more cynical place; in short, he wanted to get rich himself.   Through his advertisements, he coerced people into ‘free’ spiritual guidance, then sent them catalogs full of useless and costly items.

The trickster specifically targeted poor people, placing hundreds of advertisements throughout the United States with trumped-up or falsified testimonials.  He also joined Madame La Viesta at the podium of the Occult School, offering courses of palmistry and phrenology that could cost up to $12.50 (or almost $300 today).

The Occult School wasn’t Nugent’s only scam.  He was apparently the mastermind behind at least six other mystical ruses, including the Iridescent Order of Iris, which purported to have over a thousand members, and a separate mail-order lodestone business, the Magnetic Mineral Company, which claimed to share the secrets of 18th century Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture.

Nugent’s lodestones granted good luck to their bearers, or so claimed his advertisements.  He bought the rocks from an unknown source at 12 cents a pound (today about $3), then re-sold the magic stones for up to $25 a pound (or about $570).

It was this scam that brought Nugent to the attention of U.S. Post Office inspectors who arrested him for using the mail system to defraud.  They seized “hundreds of pamphlets advertising Nugent’s schemes and thousands of testimonials.”  After spending a time in the Tombs, Nugent was indicted and sent to prison.

But whatever became of Vesta La Viesta, Nugent’s prized instructor?  Since that was not her real name (are you surprised?), it’s been difficult to track her later antics down.  It does appear she continued to share spiritual guidance, sometimes with people of some renown, such as the aviator Stanley Yale Beach.  In 1923, she wrote up her experiences in the book People Of Other Worlds.  Perhaps she finally left for the orbiting planets?

**They have several addresses listed, most of them on or around this intersection.  I also found 147 East 125th Street as a possible address.  Most likely, the mystics moved around!

Harlem on a high note: The grand Harlem Opera House

Proctor's Harlem Opera House.

A ton of people on-stage at the Harlem Opera House in 1907. During this period, it was owned by vaudeville impresario Keith Proctor and called Proctor’s Harlem Opera House. Pictures courtesy the Museum of the City of New York 

 The Hotel Theresa, subject of this week’s podcast, had a rather unusual neighbor in its early years.

Harlem is known for a rich musical heritage in a variety of genres, but did you know it also had very old ties to world of opera, from as far back as the 19th century?

Oscar Hammerstein was a wealthy New York cigar maker who decided to dip his toe into real estate ventures, and in a most surprising neighborhood.  Thanks to the construction of the elevated railroads in the 1880s, the once-distant Harlem was now linked to the heart of the city, and thousands began moving there, particularly European Jewish immigrants.

Theatre, Harlem Opera House 125th St. & 8th Ave.Hammerstein built dozens of rowhouses for prospective residents, but his real vision was the Harlem Opera House (at right), constructed in 1889 and located at 207 West 125th Street, on the other side of the street from the Hotel Winthrop (later the Hotel Theresa).

For a time, it really did just showcase operatic productions, of both the severe and light varieties.  According to author Jonathan Gill, “Hammerstein had a broad vision of what uptown theatergoers wanted, and he produced both popular and genteel drama and opera in English translation, an experiment that proved attractive to audiences who were willing to pay up to $2.50 a ticket.”

Famous stars were drawn here from the stages of Herald Square.  For instance, Edwin Booth performed Shakespeare here in 1889, a few years before his death.  Lillian Russell, a favorite of the New York pressperformed the show ‘An American Beauty’ here in March 1897.

The Opera House helped create a miniature theater district here along 125th Street.  Hammerstein himself built the Columbus Theatre the following year, bringing more popular fare — namely, vaudeville.  Soon the street would become one of New York’s great centers of burlesque entertainment.  Many years later, Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater would open a couple doors down from the opera house, later changing its name to the Apollo Theatre.

Hammerstein, however, could not make the Harlem Opera House a financial success, and he was soon lured downtown to build his most renown theaters (and places that would later inspire his grandson Oscar Hammerstein II.)  The Harlem Opera House was sold and transformed into a more traditional vaudeville house.  By the 1930s, to compete with the thriving amateur nights over at the Apollo, the Harlem Opera House had its own amateur nights.  Its most notable discovery is one of the greatest names in music — Ella Fitzgerald.

Below: Another view of the Opera House, here as Proctor’s Opera House, courtesy NYHS.  The balconies to the left belong to the Winthrop Hotel — compare this picture to the Winthrop photo here — to be replaced in a few years by the Theresa.

The Opera House was torn down in 1959.  Surprisingly, it appears there was the possibility of a new opera house in Harlem being built in the late 1960s, under the guidance of Gian Carlo Menotti, but that never panned out.  However, the operatic tradition lives on today with the Harlem Opera Theater, founded in 2001.

Below: You can still find the Harlem Opera House in Harlem — on the walls of the 125th subway station, in mosaic form!