RomeowPillow

The following story is dedicated to my cat Romeow, who passed away after 16 years of life on July 21, 2014.

On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum caught fire and sank in the East River. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board the side-wheel passenger boat were killed — most of them German American women and children from the Lower East Side who were all dressed up and on their way to a picnic hosted by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Many of the victims had lived on East 4th Street, including Lina Giessmann, Minnie Cohn, Clara Erhardt, Eugene Hansel, Louisa and Alfred Ansel, Grace Iden, and Mrs. Katy Ambrust and her nine-year-old daughter, Florrie, of 166 East 4th Street.

General Slocum funeral procession

A funeral procession for unidentified victims of the General Slocum disaster on Avenue A and East 6th Street.

Five weeks after what was to be the worst maritime disaster in New York City’s history, the residents on East 4th Street had, at least, a little something to celebrate when their favorite cat was rescued after spending two years stuck between two tenement buildings.

A Brief History of the Neighborhood

Before I tell you about this special cat, a little background on this particular section of the Lower East Side is warranted.

The land that now comprises the Lower East Side was originally part of the Dutch West India Company’s Bowery No. 2, acquired by Petrus Stuyvesant, and Bowery No. 3, granted to Gerrit Hendricksen and later acquired by Phillip Minthorne around 1732. Both these large farms were bordered on the west by the Bowery Lane (today’s Bowery).

Following Phillip Minthorne’s death in 1756, much of the eastern half of the 110-acre bowery was sold to John Jacob Astor. The western half was divided into 27 individual lots, three for each of his nine children: Philip Minthorne, a farmer; John, a cooper; Henry, a tinman; Mangle, a cooper; Hannah, the wife of Viert Banta, a house carpenter; Hilah, the wife of Abraham Cock, a cooper; Margaret, the wife of Nicholas Romaine, a carpenter; Sarah, the wife of Samuel Hallet, a carpenter; and Frankie, the wife of Paulus Banta, also a carpenter.

Minthorne Farms

Bowery No. 3 was also called the Schout’s Bowery. The fanlike arrangements of the nine Minthorne family farms is clearly visible in this 1776 Ratzer map. Incredibly, even more 200 years later, the patterns of these early farms are still evident in the current New York City tax maps that show modern property lines.

Each of his heirs received a lot along the Bowery, an internal meadow lot, and a salt-marsh lot closer to the East River. Ownership of most of the Minthorne property was eventually consolidated under Mangle Minthorn, Philip’s most prominent son.

Development in this area picked up during the 1830s, with elegant single-family row houses turning once empty land into one of New York’s most prestigious neighborhoods. By the 1850s, many immigrants began to settle in the area as wealthier residents moved farther uptown. The lovely row houses were converted for multiple-family dwellings and boarding houses, and eventually replaced by tenements in the 1860s to accommodate the housing demand. These buildings were later called “pre-law” tenements because they predated the Tenement House Act of 1879, which required windows to face a source of fresh air and light (as opposed to an interior hallway, as was the case with the older railroad flats).

Old-Law Dumbbell Tenement

The Tenement House Act of 1879, which required windows to face a source of fresh air and light as opposed, led to the “Old-Law dumbbell tenements” with the narrow air shafts.

Had the buildings in the following story been constructed in the dumbbell shape adopted after 1879 by the “Old Law” tenements, our featured feline could have been rescued immediately from the air shaft rather than spending two years in a three-inch wide prison.

A Kitten Takes a Tumble

Like many tenements of the Lower East Side, Nos. 163 and 165 East 4th Street were five-story brick buildings with a commercial business and two rear apartments on the ground floor and four three-room flats on each of the upper floors. Only one of the rooms in each apartment had direct window access; the remaining interior rooms had no windows and no ventilation.

These two buildings occupied the same long and narrow footprint (about 25 x 50 feet) as the row houses of the previous decades. Thus, they were constructed extremely close together – perhaps as close as 3 inches toward the ground and 14 inches near their rooftops (the old walls of the buildings reportedly bulged out toward the ground floor).

On September 1, 1902, a striped kitten was living in the top rear apartment at No. 163 with John Poppenlauer, his wife, and family. With the arrival of a new baby boy, John decided to isolate the kitten on the roof to keep it away from the infant. Whether some mischievous boy pushed it, or it was just curious and clumsy, the poor little kitten fell into the crevice between the rooftops and landed at the bottom of the brick chasm. There was no escape; the crevice was closed off front and back, and even some tin roofing closed off part of the top, giving the kitten very little air and light.

Like many tenements of the Lower East Side, Nos. 163 and 165 East 4th Street were five-story brick buildings with a commercial business and two rear apartments on the ground floor and four three-room flats on each of the upper floors.

Like many tenements of the Lower East Side, Nos. 163 and 165 East 4th Street were five-story brick buildings with a commercial business and two rear apartments on the ground floor and four three-room flats on each of the upper floors.

During the early days of imprisonment, the neighbors watched from the roof with pity as the kitten tried to climb up these slippery walls, only to fall back down. The people soon became divided into two factions: those who thought the kitten should be killed and relieved of its misery, and those who believed that while there was life there was hope. George Betz and his wife, who lived on the top floor of No. 165, and Mrs. Rose Kolb, who lived at No. 163, sided with those who believed in miracles.

Although cats were plentiful in this neighborhood, Holey, as she was named, got everyone’s sympathy with her continuous howls and meows. Fishing for the kitten using fish hooks with meat, button hooks, nooses, miniature scaffolds, poles, and other devices became a common diversion for the residents. Men, women, and children would often sit on the roof and talk to her. Some neighbors, like George Betz and Mrs. Kolb, also lowered buckets of water and food down the shaft, including wienerwurst, chicken and fish. (Food-wise, Holey made out better than any of the other stray cats on the street.)

A Kitten Grows in the Lower East Side

Meanwhile the kitten continued to grow – the people fed her so well, in fact, that she got fat and could only turn around on the wider end of the shaft. George told Gustave Froelich, the owner of No. 163, that he was going to cut a hole in the cellar wall if the cat got any fatter. “Every time I looked down and saw the poor prisoner my heart was touched, and I made up my mind she would not spend another winter down there.”

For two winters, though, Holey survived in the narrow brick prison. Sometime the snow would pile up and no one could see her for days at a time. Although she could keep fairly dry under the end that was covered by the tin gutter, during heavy rain storms the shaft would fill up with a couple of inches of water. George reportedly made a raft for the cat, which he lowered down to her. When it rained, Holey could “sail” on the makeshift raft.

The cat’s predicament finally got the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The agent who came to investigate was in favor of killing the cat. First he suggested shooting it, but the cat’s advocates argued that this might jeopardize the safety of the human residents. He also tried to send down poisoned liver, but the cat had instinctive wisdom and ignored it. As the women of the neighborhood began mobbing him and shouting that he was being cruel to Holey, the agent finally gave up and left.

Mrs. Rose Kolb and Holey

Mrs. Rose Kolb holds her new pet cat, Holey, following the cat’s two-year ordeal.

A Cowboy to the Rescue

Finally, on July 22, 1904, a former cowboy who had learned how to use a lariat in the West came to the rescue with a clothesline noose. At 7 in the morning he went upon the roof of No. 163 and, as Holey sat amazingly still, he got the noose around her and freed her. Although Holey tried to escape, George was able to grab her and bring her to Mrs. Kolb, who had expressed an interest in adopting the cat. Once in the apartment, Holey drank some milk and ran under a bed.

It took Holey a while to adjust to daylight. It also took some time for her to learn to walk in directions other than back and forth along a straight line.

Another Cat Takes a Tumble

Three years after Holey’s rescue, a white cat moved into an apartment at No. 163 East 4th Street. The apartment was home to Louis Leichtman, his wife, and their three children, Aaron, Ruth, and Isaac. Louis named the cat Gittel, which means “good” in Yiddish.

Gittel brought much luck to Louis, and according to a story about the cat in The Sun, he would have done anything for her in return. Apparently so.

On July 21 1908, Gittel was on the rooftop of No. 163 when she fell into an unfinished chimney that ran down to the basement. Louis and his family could hear Gittel howling all night long. The next day, instead of going to work at the National Employment Agency, Louis made a rope ladder of cord and sticks and lowered it down. Of course, the cat would have none of it.

Next, he tried lowering liver skewered to the rope, pails of milk, and bits of fish. That didn’t work, so Louis asked the landlord if he could make a hole in the wall in the basement. The landlord refused.

Thomas F. Freel, superintendent of the SPCA

Thomas F. Freel, superintendent of the SPCA, came to Gittel’s rescue.

Desperate to free his beloved Gittel, Louis resorted to lowering his son Aaron down the chimney, but Aaron got stuck halfway down the shaft and some friends and neighbors had to help Louis pull him out.

Finally, four days after Gittel had fallen down the chimney, Louis sought help from the SPCA. Agent Thomas Freel responded and found a plumber in the neighborhood. Together, the men were able to create a hole in the wall. The cat, of course, was too frightened to come out, so Agent Freel went back up on the roof and tossed a few pieces of brick down to encourage the cat to run out the hole.

As Gittel emerged from the hole, all the neighbors shouted in joy.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Houses

In 1959, 1,738 families and 300 small businesses were evicted from the four-block area bounded by 2nd Street, Avenue A, 6th Street, and 1st Avenue. All of the tenements were demolished over the next two years, including Nos. 163 and 165 East 4th Street. In December 1960, the New York City Housing Authority broke ground for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Houses, a complex of seven buildings comprising 1,200 apartments. Today, the complex is called Village View.

FDR Houses

“Everywhere that Emmet went, that St. Bernard was sure to go.” – George Sneed, Chicago dog catcher, 1880s.

Plinlimmon, St. Bernard

Plinlimmon, bred by Thomas Hall, was born in Liverpool, England on June 29, 1883. He won numerous dog shows throughout Europe in 1884, and in 1885, he was named Best Saint Bernard.

During the 1800s and early 1900s, it was fairly common for theatrical performances to feature live animals. Specially trained horses, camels, and donkeys appeared in many plays on the big stages of old New York, as did several birds and dogs.

One of the most famous animal actors of this period was Plinlimmon, a champion St. Bernard and prized pet of Joseph Kline “Fritz” Emmet.


The Great American German Actor

J.K. Fritz Emmet

With his Nordic features and talent for yodeling and speaking broken English with a German accent, J.K. Emmet was often referred to as a German comedian.

Joseph Kline Emmet was born in St. Louis on March 12, 1841. He was the first son of Evelina and William Brown Emmet, poor Irish immigrants who struggled to care for their large family. When his father died in 1851, ten-year-old Joseph had to leave school to care for his mother, his two sisters, Alice and Eliza, and his two brothers, Saxon and Milton. He got a job delivering errands and, later, working in a mill for $1.50 a week.

J.K. broke into show business as a snare drummer in Jacob Esher’s orchestra when he was about 17. The young drummer was also a talented yodeler, which helped him earn a spot as a song and dance artist with a St. Louis minstrel troupe. While still living in St. Louis, he married Eleanor E. Webber and had one son, Joseph K. Emmet Jr.

Tammany Hall, New York

Dan Bryant’s Minstrels, a German blackface minstrel troupe, began performing in a large hall on the lower floor of Tammany Hall shortly after the building was completed in 1868. In 1874, the hall was known as the Germania Theatre, and later, Tony Pastor’s New Fourteenth Street Theatre and the Olympic Theatre. Tammany Hall was demolished in 1927 to make way for a new tower for Consolidated Edison.

In 1868, J.K. Emmet made his debut in New York City with Dan Bryant’s Minstrels, which were performing in the Tammany Hall building at 141 East 14th Street. In this first performance, he sang German songs in black face, “which proved a pleasing novelty.”

His first big breakout, however, was as the leading actor in the play “Fritz, Our Cousin German,” which opened in Buffalo, New York, in 1869, and at Wallack’s Theatre on Broadway in 1870. From that point on, his fans called him Fritz and assumed he was from Germany.

Old Wallacks Theatre, 844 Broadway

In 1861, James W. Wallack erected a theater at the corner of Broadway and 13th Street (844 Broadway). For 20 years, it was one of the most famous amusement houses in the U.S. In 1883, the building was called the Star Theatre. It retained this name until the building was demolished in 1901. Watch this historic time-lapse film of the Star Theatre’s destruction.

In addition to singing, dancing, and acting, Fritz loved working with his prized St. Bernards. He had several championship dogs during his lifetime, including Rector, who was worth about $4,000, and Bayard P., whom he purchased for $2,500 from E.R. Hearn of Passaic, New Jersey, following Rector’s accidental death in 1884.

And then there was Plinlimmon, who was born in Leeds, London in 1883, and known as the “Emperor of Saint Bernards.”

Kaiser William I, Emperor of Germany

Kaiser Wilhelm I, the Emperor of Germany, was an ardent admirer of Plinlimmon. Prior to his death in March 1888, he awarded him with three silver cups “for his superiority to all other dogs ever exhibited in Germany.”

Plin, as he was called, was a pure-bred St. Bernard of noble ancestry, named after the highest mountain in Wales. Kennel club books describe him having a beautiful rich orange color with perfect markings and a sweet disposition. In 1885 he was named “Best Saint Bernard,” and by 1888 he had won enough cups and medals to stock a silversmith’s shop.

In 1888, J.K. Emmet purchased Plinlimmon from Sidney W. Smith, a renowned Leeds breeder, for $5,000. J.K. had no intention of exhibiting Plin at any more shows — he simply wanted the magnificent dog to appear on stage with him in America. The actor and his dog arrived in New York aboard the White Star steamship SS Brittanic on September 21, 1888 (Plinlimmon reportedly traveled in a special kennel built for him on the deck of the ship).

Plinlimmon, champion dog of J.K. Emmet

During his first five years of life, Plinlimmon’s prize winnings amounted to at least $75,000. He also sired numerous champion dogs during that time. Once he came to America with J.K. Emmet, all the shows and breeding came to end so the champion dog could focus on his new acting career.

Two months later, in November 1888, J.K. appeared with Plinlimmon in the play “Our Fritz” at the Harlem Theatre Comique. Plinlimmon’s role was to lie down and allow a child to rest his head on him. He also had to play dead after being shot by the villain with a stage bullet.

According to reviews, Plin was the best part of the play: “A great feature about the present play is the dog, who is really a noble animal of undoubted intelligence. He pleases the youngsters, and not a few of the older folks as well.”

J.K. Emmet

Fritz appeared with many animals on stage, including dogs such as Bayard Jr., Conqueror the five-pound terrier, Victor the Blenheim spaniel, and even a donkey.

For the next two years, J.K. and Plin performed together in many variations of “Fritz.” In 1889, Plinlimmon was recognized as the best canine actor on stage. That year, he and J.K. Emmet performed in “Uncle Joe” — aka “Fritz in a Madhouse” – at Tony Pastor’s Fourteenth Street Theatre and at the Grand Opera House on 23rd Street. In a New York Times review that criticized the play and the performance, Plinlimmon was described as a splendid animal in a pathetic role. “As an actor his style is heavy and lacking in variety. But he is a good dog. He was greeted with cheers.”

Sweet Violets, J.K. Emmet

Fritz wrote the words and music for many of the songs that he performed in his plays. One of his most famous songs is “Sweet Violets,” which he performed in “Fritz Among the Gypsies.” Dorothy Collins made it a hit on “Your Hit Parade” on NBC in 1951.

While J.K. and Plin traveled throughout the country, J.K. carried “an iron-clad contract” that had to be signed by the proprietors of every hotel. The contract stipulated that the finest suite of rooms and the most comfortable arrangements possible be made for himself, his wife, and his dog. The contract also said that Plinlimmon was to have efficient care and attention, and included J.K. Emmet’s motto: “The best of everything is not too good.”

Grand Opera House

J.K. Emmet and Plinlimmon performed at the Grand Opera House in 1890. This theatre opened in 1868 on the property of Clement Clarke Moore at 8th Avenue and 23rd Street. The theater was renamed the Grand Opera House in 1869 and converted to the RKO 23rd Street Theater in 1938. In 1960, while closed for demolition, it was gutted by fire.

Plinlimmon was indeed very well cared for, and even had his very own attendant, who did nothing but look after his wants. He was exercised three times a day, and was kept in a large wicker crate whenever he and his master were working at the theater.

The Magnificent Fritz Villa

When he wasn’t touring on stage, Fritz lived with his wife, son, and dogs in what was described as “a beautiful brick castle” overlooking the Hudson River in Albany, New York. J.K. called his home “Fritz’ Villa.” He had purchased the property from the Van Rensselaer estate in 1882 for about $70,000, and erected a magnificent residence that he adorned with hundreds of “curiosities” that he had collected from all over the world.

Fritz Villa, Albany, NY

Fritz Villa was J.K. Emmet’s 16-acre estate in Albany, N.Y. The property featured an artificial lake with a Chinese junk and Venetian gondola and a Dutch windmill.

J.K. once told a reporter that the house had no halls and no corners, and that his bedroom had three ceilings (two circular and one triangular). He also told the press that it was his dream to grow old in this castle.

Fritz Says Goodbye to Eleanor and Plinlimmon

Throughout his career, critics were puzzled by J.K. Emmet’s great popularity. He was not an outstanding actor, singer, or dancer, and he had a bad drinking problem. He often appeared “undeniably drunk” in performances or had to cancel shows because of police court appearances for disorderly conduct. It was no doubt his excessive drinking and fast-paced lifestyle that led to J.K. Emmet’s divorce, and, ultimately, his death.

In the spring of 1890, while performing at Oscar Hammerstein’s new Harlem Opera House, J.K. got into a fight with his son, who was then working as his stage manager. Eleanor Emmet had accused her husband having an affair with Miss Maud White, his leading lady at Hammerstein’s, and her son tried to put an end to the affair by forcing Miss White to leave the company. Harsh words turned into hard blows. Plinlimmon, who was laying quietly back stage, tried to intervene and defend his master, but in the end the police were summoned and J.K. Emmet Sr. had to be taken to Manhattan Hospital for treatment.

Harlem Opera House

Harlem Opera House, constructed in 1889 at 207 West 125th St., showcased operas in the early years, but by the 1930s, it was hosting amateur nights — its most notable discovery was Ella Fitzgerald. Although the Opera House was torn down in 1959, you can still find it in mosaic form at the 125th subway station.

Eleanor Emmet filed for divorce in April 1890. A year later, on April 27, 1891, J.K. sold Plinlimmon to E.H. Moore of Boston for $5,000.

Shortly after selling Plinlimmon and divorcing his wife, J.K. had plans to marry another leading lady, Miss Helen Sedgwick. He also made up with his son, and the two arranged to spend the summer at the Storm King House, a boarding house at the base of Storm King Mountain in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.

About 10 days after their arrival at Storm King, J.K., who was already in poor health, developed pneumonia. He died from complications on June 15, 1891, with his son and Miss Sedgwick at his bedside. His body was taken by the West Shore train to Albany, where he was buried at Rural Cemetery.

J.K. Emmet II and Mary Ryan

J.K. Emmet Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps in the theatrical world. He married his leading lady, Mary E. Ryan (who was almost 30 years his junior), and lived in an apartment at 321 West 55th Street. J.K. and Mary also had a son, Joseph Kline Emmet III, who passed away in 2009.

Following his death, J.K. Emmet Jr. assumed all of his father’s contracts and continued to play the Fritz character on stage (he had experience, having filled in on several occasions when his father was inebriated). In 1892, New York State Senator David B. Hill purchased Fritz Villa. Hill, who would later become the state’s governor, renamed it Wolferts Roost, because the unusual home reminded him of the home of a favorite character named Wolfert Acker from the works of Washington Irving. Today, the property is the Wolferts Roost golf and country club.

Wolferts Roost

An aerial view of Wolferts Roost golf and country club on Van Rensselaer Blvd. in Albany — once the former “Fritz Villa.”

On December 19, 1891, the Buffalo Evening News reported that Plinlimmon had died that previous summer. I wonder if he died of a broken heart on June 15, 1891?

Part II: The Midnight Band of Mercy

“I suppose I am mad. For a woman to care nothing for her appearance or how she lives is a sure sign of madness. I have nothing in common with anything except animals, and them I love.”—Grace Georgia Devide, The New York World, December 31, 1893

Grace Devide

Grace Devide, a red-head from Virginia, was president of the Society to Befriend Domestic Animals and a prominent member of the Midnight Band of Mercy.

“The Midnight Band of Mercy: You Ever Hear of Such Crazy Lot of Cranks as These Deluded Women?”

So reads the front-page headline of the December 31, 1893, issue of the New York World. The story that follows – written by Nellie Bly, the famous investigative reporter and author of “Around the World in 72 Days” — gives readers a glimpse into the mad world of several Florence Nightingales turned Jack-the-Rippers who were going around the city streets murdering cats by the thousands.

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, a pioneer in investigative journalism. In 1893, she interviewed Grace Devide and other members of the Midnight Band of Mercy.

Sarah Edwards Is Arrested

In my last post, I wrote about Sarah J. Edwards, Grace G. Devide, and their organization called the Society to Befriend Domestic Animals (SBDA). The women formed the SBDA in 1890, and opened a home for friendless and homeless cats in an old farmhouse in Washington Heights. When they were forced to leave the farmhouse in 1893, they turned to another method to help “save” the feline population of New York City.

In the fall of 1893, a concerned citizen told Policeman Joseph Connelly of the West 125th police station that he saw Sarah Edwards using chloroform to kill a cat near 135th Street. At Policeman Connelly’s request, Sarah opened her basket – inside were five dead cats. Sarah said she was committing an act of mercy by luring the cats with catnip and killing all of those that would only starve or freeze to death or be tortured on the streets.

Sarah J. Edwards

Sarah Edwards appeared in court on charges of “cruel extermination of cats” in December 1893.

Sarah said she and her organization of about 20 women (and one man) had killed more than 3,000 street cats that had all been ignored by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). She even insisted that the SPCA gave the Midnight Band of Mercy permission to conduct such business.

Policeman Connelly arrested her, and told her that she had no right to kill cats. Furthermore, he said there was an ordinance against carrying dead animals through the streets. The SPCA denied giving her permission to kill cats, and noted that she was simply “gratifying a mania for slaughter.”

Harlem Court House

The Harlem Courthouse at 170 East 121st Street was designed by Arthur M. Thom and James W. Wilson and completed the year Sarah Edwards was arrested in 1893. Today the landmark building is occupied by the Harlem Community Justice Center.

Following her arrest, Sarah appeared in Harlem Police Court with the infamous basket (Exhibit A). Although the judge would not allow her to demonstrate her cat-killing technique, she was able to hold up a cat she had already killed. “See what a calm, peaceful look is on its little face,” she told the court in a methodical manner. “There was no pain there.”

Justice Charles Welde charged her with “cruel extermination of cats,” fined her $10, and ordered the Midnight Band of Mercy to cease and desist. The SPCA announced that the verdict was a warning to anyone who massacred cats, as cat killing “is against the laws of the State.”

After her court appearance, a reporter from The New York Times visited Sarah’s new apartment at 212 West 32nd Street. There, surrounded by many live cats and pictures of cats, she explained that she had been on her way to 262 West 136th Street to pick up a sick cat from Mrs. G. Smock when she saw a starving kitten running in an open lot across from the Shenandoah flats. “I stooped down and did what under the circumstances was the most humane thing to do. I chloroformed it and placed it in my basket. Then I was arrested and locked up in prison.”

In the late 1800s, the builder Mr. P.H. McManus erected eight first-class apartment buildings, with stores, on the east side of 8th Avenue between 135th and 136th Streets. They were named Shenandoah after the river in Virginia. It was near here that Sarah was caught in the act and arrested for killing cats.

In the late 1800s, the builder Mr. P.H. McManus erected eight first-class apartment buildings, with stores, on the east side of 8th Avenue between 135th and 136th Streets. They were named Shenandoah after the river in Virginia. It was near here that Sarah was caught in the act and arrested for killing cats.

Sarah also explained that she and the other women did not get pleasure from this “dirty” job, but they felt compelled to go into the slums and kill dozens of cats in all stages of disease because there was no other recourse. She said that while they would stop killing cats in the jurisdiction of the court, they would continue chloroforming cats in the suburbs and at summer watering places like Asbury Park and Ocean Grove. She also said she would advocate for a public pound for cats where kind women and girls would be appointed as cat catchers.

Stable for cats

Sarah Edward’s idea for establishing a public pound apparently found favor with the SPCA, which gave the women a stable next to its own stable on West 22nd Street soon after her court hearing.

Grace Devide Tells Her Story to Nellie Bly

In December 1893, Nellie Bly caught up with Grace Devide in a dark tenement after spending several days searching for the transient woman at various apartments. Bly asked Grace to tell her all about the Midnight Band of Mercy.

Grace, who was “living like a pauper and dressed like a beggar,” explained that the women would dress in old clothes and carry airtight baskets lined with oilcloth and sponges saturated in chloroform. They’d go to the slums and pour catnip on the ground to attract the cats, and then put the cats in the baskets and shut the lids. In this manner, the women would kill up to 50 cats a night. Sometimes, she said, they even killed the pet cats of their very own friends.

“The basket would shake, Kitty trying to escape, and then it would go ‘Meow!,’ she explained. ‘Hush Kitty,’ one of our members would say. ‘You are going to Jesus, Kitty! Hush, Kitty, your soul is going to the Lord. Kitty has gone to God, Amen.’

Grace also told Nellie that the women got their first bottle of chloroform from her good friend, Henry Bergh, founder the SPCA. After that, they bought their chloroform for $2.20 a bottle (one bottle could kill 60 cats) from a druggist in the Lower East Side. “One day the druggist said, ‘You buy so much chloroform, you must have a dyeing establishment.’” The midnight cat killer replied, ‘Yes, a dying establishment.’”

John Ewen estate

This 1916 photo shows the John Ewen estate, which was located on land overlooking Kingsbridge in the Bronx. Today the land is the site of Ewen Park.

According to Grace, the Midnight Band of Mercy was largely funded by Caroline Ewen, the wealthy daughter of Civil War Brigadier General John Ewen. Miss Ewen was very religious, and was a member of Albert Benjamin Simpson’s evangelical Gospel Tabernacle on 44th Street. Not only did Caroline provide financial assistance, she also joined the women on their midnight cat-killing sprees (and was perhaps the woman quoted above).

Gospel Tabernacle, New York

Caroline Ewen, a major benefactor of the Midnight Band of Mercy, attended evangelical services at the Gospel Tabernacle at the corner of 44th Street and 8th Avenue. Today the building is home to John’s Pizzeria of Times Square and Angus’ Café Bistro.

After speaking with Grace, Nellie went to the home of Miss Conklin, who was the matron of the cat home in 1890. Miss Conklin was now Mrs. Van Orden and living with her husband and numerous cats in a “very dark and dirty tenement” on First Avenue in Harlem.

Mrs. Van Orden told Nellie that Sarah and the other ladies would often kill the pet cats that were boarding at the home – and then continue collecting the boarding fees from the owners. She said she tried to save these cats by putting ribbons on them and keeping them in a separate room, but her efforts did not deter the cat killers.

The End of the Band of Mercy

I don’t know whatever became of Sarah Edwards, but I do know that in 1896 Grace Devide was a member of Mrs. Charlotte Smith’s Woman’s Rescue League at 24 Union Square. She had reportedly showed up at Mrs. Smith’s home for wayward women looking for shelter because “she was without means and didn’t know what to do.” Charlotte said she could stay in one of the rooms rent-free and do work for the WRL until she could get her life together. Hopefully that work did not involve any midnight raids of mercy.

In 1921, 162 lots in the Kingsbridge and Riverdale neighborhoods of the Bronx were sold at auction for the heirs of Caroline Ewen and her sister Louise. The land, which had been in the Ewen family for 78 years, adjoined a park (Ewen Park), which had been given to the city in 1916 by their other sister, Eliza M. Ewen. The proceeds of the sale were to go to all the homeless and suffering dogs, cats, and other animals of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, London, Rome, Naples, and Madeira.

Yeshivah University

Today, the former site of the Midnight Band of Mercy’s home for friendless cats in Washington Heights is occupied by the Wilf Campus of Yeshiva University, which opened in 1928 with an enrollment of 31 students.

Part I: The Society to Befriend Domestic Animals

Washington Heights home for cats

Over 100 stray cats and boarder cats lived at the Washington Heights cat home, including Jack, Daisy, and Minnie from Brooklyn; Mrs. Vele’s Spotter and Monsie from Rockland County; Minnie and Turtle Shell from 28th Street; and Cry Baby, Sad Face, and Ash Barrel Kate.

Like all crazy cat ladies or cat hoarders, Mrs. Sarah J. Edwards and Mrs. Grace Georgia Devide had good intentions when they opened a refuge for homeless cats in 1890. But something went terribly wrong, and a mission to provide shelter and food for friendless and maltreated cats turned into a midnight-hour killing spree. In the summer of 1890, five animal lovers declared that they would devote the rest of their lives to improving the lives of city cats. They formed the Society to Befriend Domestic Animals (SBDA), and set out to find the perfect house to rent in a remote part of the city so as to not disturb the neighbors. The society comprised Mrs. Grace Georgia Devide, Mrs. Sarah Jennie Edwards, Mrs. Emma Charlton, Mrs. Mary Hans, and Mrs. Mary Wilson. The mission of SBDA was “to provide shelter and food for the homeless and maltreated animals; to secure painless death for animals rendered decrepit by accident or incurable ailment; to secure through educative agencies the repression of all forms of cruelty to animals.”

125 West 28th Street

Sarah Edwards lived with her cook, chambermaid, and about 20 cats in a five-story loft-building flat at 125 West 28th Street (shown here in 1928). This address was the former site of the Smith & Crane church furniture factory, which burned down in 1880. Today it is the future site of a Cambria Suites hotel.

On August 30, 1890, a reporter from The New York World visited Sarah Edward’s apartment at 125 West 28th Street to discuss plans for the “cat asylum” with the women. Sarah was a widow (and reportedly a former working girl in the Tenderloin District), but she had plenty of feline company: On that day, her parlor was filled with about 20 cats – some were on the piano, some on the sofa, and one cat was on each of the women’s laps. Grace Devide, a southern belle from Virginia and the animated leader of the movement, lived with her husband in a four-story brownstone at 230 West 21st Street. She told the reporter that she had begun feeding stray cats in her neighborhood around 1875. She liked to feed the cats at midnight, because this was the time “when wicked boys are asleep and cruel men are too drunk to use their canes.” During the day, she’d tell the little boys who tortured the cats that it was a sin to kill them. The Home for Friendless Cats The women’s plans to establish a cat asylum generated a lot of attention in the New York newspapers. Some readers sent monetary donations in response to the articles. Many people brought lame and mangy animals to Sarah’s home, which she had a hard time turning away.

230 West 21st Street

Grace Devide gave up this four-story brownstone at 230 West 21st Street to dedicate her life to stray cats and other animals.

One day in October, a line of men and boys carrying cats and dogs stretched halfway down 28th Street. After stepping on numerous cat tails, Sarah’s cook reportedly packed her trunk and moved out. The chambermaid and a waitress also threatened to quit. The ladies, did, however, get an offer from Mr. Thomas W. Organ to rent a dilapidated frame shanty on the old Barney and Rosannah Bowers farm for $50 a month. The house was ideally situated on a large tract overlooking the Harlem River at the terminus of the new Tenth Avenue (Amsterdam Avenue) cable road near 185th Street in Washington Heights.

1891 George Bromley map

The ladies of the SBDA rented an old farmhouse and two stables, possibly the three structures in yellow between 185th Street and the yet undeveloped 186th Street. Click here for a more detailed look at Washington Heights in 1891.

Grace Devide described the home to the reporter:

“We’ve got the finest place in the world for the poor cats… It’s got a couple of barns upon it, which we’ll fix up for the cats to sleep in, you know. I’ll live in the house, and Mrs. Edwards’ niece, who loves cats just as much as I do, will be there with me, and help care for the poor maltreated things. Oh, we’re going to have a regular little heaven for the cats up there, you know. We’ll have the place all fenced in with wire, so they can’t get out, and they will have the run of the house during the day.”

When asked if she was willing to give up her lovely home and husband to move into the cat asylum, Mrs. Devide replied, “My husband refuses to follow me there. He is a professor of music, and he thinks this is craziness on my part. But never mind. I will give my life to help the friendless outcasts of the city, against whom every other human hand is turned.”

The Home for Friendless Cats, Washington Heights

As one New York paper reported, the old farmhouse was “on the verge of dissolution” and its surroundings were “of the most dismal description.” A signboard outside the door was painted in white letters: “We speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Home for friendless domestic animals. Compassion.” There were also holes cut in the door so the animals could come and go.

The Barney Bowers Tract Two hundred years before Grace and Sarah established their cat home at 185th Street on Washington Heights, the range of hills on ridge overlooking the Muscoota (Harlem River) was a hunting place of the Weckquaesgeek tribe, whose largest village was Nipinisicken on the Spuyten Duyvil hill. In 1673, the first road was cut through this woodland then known as Jochem Pieter’s Hill or the Long Hill, probably following an old hunting trail along the present line of Broadway (the locals called it Breakneck Hill).

Open Parlor E Car

The Tenth Avenue cable road from 125th to 187th opened on December 1, 1886. Passengers paid 25 cents to ride on the open parlor cars on this route, like the “E” car shown here. In 1890, Superintendent Edward Lyon made plans to allow passengers to take unwanted cats and dogs on the cable cars on designated days of the week, so that they could bring them to the cat home.

Sometime around the late 1690s, a magistrate by the name of Joost Van Oblinus acquired a large tract of cleared land called the Indian Field or Great Maize Land, which extended along the new road from about 165th to 181st Street. In 1769, his grandson Johannes sold about 100 acres of this land to Blazius Moore.

James Gordon Bennett estate

The Barney Bowers’ tract also abutted the residence of James Gordon Bennett, proprietor of the New York Herald and The Evening Telegram, who owned land north of 181st Street from Broadway to the Hudson River. This 1859 wood engraving shows Bennett’s estate on the Hudson River, which was later donated to the city for the development of Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters.

Blazius Moore was a well-known tobacco merchant who had a business at Broadway and John Street. Blazius Moore also had two sisters. His sister Catherine married Pierre Lorillard of the Lorillard Tobacco Company (their son founded the Tuxedo Club at Tuxedo Park, New York). His sister Rosannah married John Bernard Bauer (aka Barney Bowers), a preacher from Frankfort, Germany. Barney Bowers and his new bride purchased farm land from the Bussing family, which was adjacent to the Moore property.

1868 farms of Washington Heights

In 1874, David Dudley Field paid $80,000 for 18 acres of land from the Barney Bowers tract, which was once part of a much larger farm belonging to Barney and Rosannah Bowers. Click here for a more detailed look of the old farms in Washington Heights in 1868. New York Public Library

Sometime around 1780, Barney died of injuries sustained during the Revolutionary War while lifting guns at Fort Washington. Following Rosannah’s death, the property passed on to the Lorillard family. The next mention of the farm was in an in the New York Post in 1869 announcing the sale of 200 city lots on the old Bowers Farm. In 1874, David Dudley Field, a prominent New York attorney, paid $80,000 for 18 acres of the Bowers tract bounded by Eleventh Avenue, the Harlem River, 185th and 188th Street. It is quite probably that it was on this land that the Midnight Band of Mercy operated their home for friendless cats in the early 1890s.

Julia Marlowe

Julia Marlowe, a leading Broadway actress of Shakespeare and former resident of the River Mansion at 337 Riverside Drive, paid 50 cents a week for her cat Princeton to stay at the cat home in Washington Heights.

Open for Business The home for wayward animals in Washington Heights opened for business in October 1890 with 14 cats and seven dogs. Grace backed out of her plans to live at the house, so Sarah moved in and hired a paralyzed woman for $5 a month to watch after the cats at night when she went home to her apartment downtown. By April 1891, there were 125 cats and 10 dogs at the house, including a few boarders whose transient owners paid for their stay while they were out of town. The ladies encouraged people to adopt the stray cats, as long as they promised to treat them kindly and return them to the home if they got tired of caring for their pet.

Koch's Mount St Vincent Hotel

Each day, the cats and dogs would eat up to 25 pounds of meat and 10 quarts of milk. Luckily, a few hotels and restaurants, such as Koch’s New Mount St. Vincent Hotel at 178th Street (shown here), were willing to help out by providing a daily allowance of food. Museum of the City of New York

The Midnight Band of Mercy In addition to caring for all the cats in the home, the SBDA also organized a band of about 25 women to feed the stray cats at night. As the New York Herald reported on May 7, 1893:

“Several women compose the band, and three times a week they issue forth at the unearthly hour of two in the morning and prowl around until four looking for stray cats, in highways and byways, in alleyways and in cellars, on fences and under stoops and other haunts affected by the New York cat about town. They claim to feed two thousand cats a week in this manner, and they carry the food in tin pails and baskets. Meat the first night, catnip the second and fish on Friday nights.”

Amsterdam Avenue looking north at 176 Street?

This dilapidated home on Tenth Avenue (Amsterdam Avenue) looks like the perfect house for crazy cat ladies, but it was actually closer to 176th Street. New York Public Library

In 1893, the women had to abandon their home for cats in Washington Heights (apparently, too many young boys had found out about the home and were tossing poisoned meat to the cats). Determined to save all city cats from starvation and horrible lives, the ladies were now forced to take other measures to control the feline population. As more and more dead cats began appearing on the streets, the crazy plot of the Midnight Band of Mercy began to thicken.

To be continued in my next post.

Wang and His Pirate Crew

There were three little hearses before the door; all her children had been swept away.–New York City social worker, July 27, 1916

On June 6, 1916, 10-month-old John Pamaris of 53 Garfield Place and 2-year-old Armanda Schuccjio of 5014 7th Avenue — two children in the Italian community just east of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn — were reported to the New York City Health Department as having symptoms of polio (then called “infantile paralysis”). These two reported cases, along with four more cases reported on June 8, served as a warning of the impending epidemic.

53 Garfield Place, Brooklyn

The first reported case of polio in 1916 was 10-month-old John Pamaris, who lived in this 1901 apartment at 53 Garfield Place.

Within a few weeks, there were 24 cases in Brooklyn, most of them in the area bounded by 7th Avenue and Third, Degraw, and Nevins streets. By the end of June there were 646 reported cases of polio in that borough, plus about 150 cases throughout the other boroughs.

At the time, there was no good theory for how polio was spread. Since the outbreak began in the Italian community, some, including New York City’s health commissioner, Dr Haven Emerson (a great-nephew of Ralph Waldo Emerson), thought that the disease had been brought to America by Italian immigrants.

First reported cases of polio in Brooklyn, 1916

This map shows the locations of the first reported cases of polio in Brooklyn, just east of the Gowanus Canal, in 1916.

Others in the health community speculated that it was spread by insects, while some early reports suggested that domestic cats and dogs were to blame. For example, in an article in The New York Times on July 30, 1916, people were advised to wash their pet cats and dogs in a two percent solution of carbolic acid (that must have gone over well with the pets).

The 1916 epidemic caused widespread panic. Movie theaters and libraries were closed, meetings were canceled, public gatherings were almost nonexistent, and children were told to avoid water fountains, amusement parks, swimming pools, and beaches. Thousands of the well-to-do fled the city or sent their children to live with relatives in other states.

Polio in Brooklyn 1916

One of the first steps the city took was to publish the names and addresses of individuals with confirmed polio cases in the press on a daily basis. The city’s health department also placed placards on the houses identified, as shown in this picture of a Brooklyn apartment, and quarantined the families living there.

Many more people released their pets to the streets, where they were rounded up and put down. On July 26, the Times reported that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was sending up to 450 animals to the lethal chamber every day.

Despite all this killing of innocent animals, some domestic pets were able to dodge the bullet for an extended period.

Wang and His Gang

Although he had probably been a domestic cat, Wang was a street-smart feline who knew how to survive. Described as a “mauve cat” with pink eyes, white feet, and no tail, Wang was the leader of a pack of up to 100 stray cats that haunted West 80th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues during the brutal spring and summer of 1916.

For three months, Wang and his posse defied the police, the SPCA, and the stray dogs. According to a policeman, the stray cats made their lair in a cellar on West 81st Street, where they spent the daylight hours in hiding (they also had a second escape home in a cellar near Amsterdam and 79th Street). At night they kept all the residents awake with their howling as they moved from one janitors’ apartment to the other to steal food. The policeman suggested that the cats howled so loud because of a new law that required residents to place tight lids on garbage cans.

80th Street and Columbus Avenue. Orleans Apartment Hotel.

Wang and his gang of pirate cats terrorized the residents on West 80th Street near Columbus Avenue, shown here in 1915. Wurts Bros., Museum of the City of New York Collections

Piotr Besanovitch, a janitor near Amsterdam Avenue, said Wang and six other felines had entered his kitchen one night and stole a leg of mutton off the table. As the cats devoured the meat off the bone, Wang and a large black cat with yellow eyes and clipped ears stood guard outside the cellar door. Piotr said he tried using a few dogs to keep the cats away, but the dogs would only hide under the bed once the cats started howling.

A day after The New York Times did a story about Wang, the king of cats took his gang to Central Park West, where residents and guests at the Hotel Majestic reported that the cats were creating a nuisance in the area. Timothy Ebbitt, night house detective at the hotel, formed a search team of bell boys, night clerks, kitchen men, and a few scrub women with mops.

Near the 72nd entrance to Central Park, they saw Wang surrounded by about 30 other cats. Wang arched his back in attack mode and then scurried away when Ebbitt threw some rocks his way. They were last seen by a policeman heading toward Broadway. I have a bad feeling, though, that they were really last seen at the SPCA at 26th and Madison.

Hotel Majestic and Central Park West, New York

Built in 1894, the Hotel Majestic featured private bowling alleys and a rooftop garden, and was home to Dorothy Parker, Gustav Mahler, and other celebrities of the Gilded Age. It was replaced by the Majestic, a twin-towered housing complex, in 1930. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

According to Thomas F. Freel, superintendent of the SPCA, more than 80,000 cats and dogs were collected off the city streets and disposed of in the lethal chamber by the end of July. The epidemic also took a large toll on human life, with over 27,000 reported cases and more than 6,000 deaths in the United States — over 2,400 deaths were reported in New York City.

Thomas F. Freel, superintendent of the SPCA

Thomas F. Freel, superintendent of the SPCA, tried to convince people that cats and dogs were not spreading polio. He also insisted that it was the mice and rats that were carrying the germs that caused the disease.

The Monkeys at Rockefeller Institute

One modern-day theory is that the 1916 epidemic was caused by a “mixed virus” (MV strain) of polio that had escaped from the Rockefeller Institute, which was then located just three miles from the epicenter of the outbreak at 63rd Street and York Avenue in Manhattan. It was here that Dr. Simon Flexner, the first director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, was conducting studies by transferring spinal cord tissue containing the
poliovirus from one Rhesus monkey’s spinal cord to another.

Although Dr. Flexner’s research led him to conclude, falsely, that poliovirus entered the body through the nose, the “germicidal substances” that were present in the blood of the monkeys and which had survived polio were later discovered to be antibodies for the disease.

Dr. Simon Flexner

Dr. Simon Flexner, the first director of the Rockefeller Institute, didn’t find a cure for polio but he did develop a novel delivery system for an anti-meningitis serum.



The Rockefeller Institute

In the early 1800s, Peter Schermerhorn, a merchant and shipbuilder, bought property bounded by 63rd and 68th streets and Third Avenue and the East River. Following his death, the Schermerhorn farm was turned over to his son William, who lived there until 1860, when he bought his mansion at 49 West 23rd Street.

Schermerhorn Farm, 1800s

The Schermerhorn farm was already out of place in the late 1800s when this photo was taken.

Forty years later, in 1901, John D. Rockefeller’s first grandchild, John Rockefeller McCormick, died of scarlet fever. In reaction to his grandson’s death, the senior Rockefeller decided to found an institute devoted to research in medicine.

In 1903, when William Schermerhorn died, Rockefeller paid $700,000 for the old farm, which comprised three full lots of unimproved land. Here, in 1906, he opened the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, the first biomedical research center in the United States.

Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research

The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research opened in 1906 at York Avenue (then called Avenue A) and 66th Street.

In 1955, the Rockefeller Institute expanded its mission to include education. Ten years later, the institute changed its name to Rockefeller University. Today, the university is a world-renowned center for research and graduate education in the biomedical sciences, chemistry, bioinformatics, and physics.

On April 12, 1955, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., declared to the world that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was “safe and effective.” The announcement was made at the University of Michigan, exactly 10 years to the day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was diagnosed with polio in 1921 at the age of 39. Although the vaccine arrived 40 years too late for thousands of people, cats, and dogs, today naturally occurring polio is nonexistent in the United States and has been nearly eradicated from the world.

Newspaper headlines about the polio vaccine on April 13, 1955.

Newspaper headlines about the polio vaccine on April 13, 1955.