“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.

Today, we have ticker-tape parades to honor our favorite sports teams when they win the World Series or the Super Bowl. In 1915, New Yorkers had a welcoming parade to honor a chicken. A white single-comb leghorn hen, to be exact.

Lady Eglantine, Hotel Imperial, Willard D. Rockefeller

Lady Eglantine “signs” the register at the Hotel Imperial with some help from head manager Willard D. Rockefeller.

Mind you, this was not an ordinary hen. This was Addison A. Christian’s $100,000 hen, aka, “The Wonder of the 20th Century.” This was the hen that laid 314 eggs in 365 days as part of an egg-laying competition at the Delaware Agricultural Experiment Station – no ordinary feat, considering the average hen at the time laid about 70 eggs a year.

Lady Eglantine was hatched on April 15, 1914, at Eglantine Farms in Greensboro, Maryland. She was the chick prodigy of the son of a 218-egg hen, who was mated with a 260-egg hen. Her eggs sold for up to $50 each, which was a fairly good price, considering the good odds of her offspring being good egg layers.

The champion hen was a small bird, only 14 inches high and just under 4 pounds. But unlike normal hens, which took about 100 days off from the job to rest and molt, Lady Eglantine was a team player and took only 51 days. Perhaps her special diet of whole and cracked grains, ground grain mash, beef, oyster shells, grit, charcoal, and greens provided the extra stamina.

Hotel Imperial

The Hotel Imperial, designed by the renowned McKim, Mead & White, was the first of the big hotels in the upper Broadway section – and one of the first fireproof buildings in New York — when it opened in 1891. The buildings and land were owned by real estate mogul Robert Goelet, and later, by his heirs. Ironically, in 1947 the 500-room hotel was marked for demolition because it was a fire trap.

Lady Eglantine and Her Flock Come to New York

In December 1915, Lady Eglantine appeared at the eighth annual show of the Empire Poultry Association, which was taking place in conjunction with the Empire Cat Club and Empire Cage-Bird Association shows at Grand Central Plaza in New York. (I wonder who thought it was a good idea to show cats and birds in the same place at the same time?)

The night before the show began, Mr. Christian treated his prize hen to a going-away party at the Hotel Walton in Philadelphia. He then traveled with her and her entourage (reportedly 21 various and sundry men, including some security guards and her very own “chef”) in their own special sleeper Pullman parlor car to New York’s Pennsylvania Station.

Upon their arrival at Pennsylvania Station that morning, there was a large crowd waiting for Lady Gaga (oops, I mean Lady Eglantine) in the waiting room, including poultry fanciers, Mr. Willard D. Rockefeller of the Hotel Imperial, and her New York press agent, Cromwell Childe. Mayor John Purroy Mitchel, who was recovering from a recent operation, sent his regrets.

Kitty Gordon, 1913

Kitty Gordon often posed with animals for publicity. Here she is holding a Pekingese dog in her lap in a publicity shot for her April 1913 vaudeville appearance at B.F. Keith’s Colonial Theatre in New York.

During this welcome reception, some of the men in her traveling party blew bugles and worked to protect Lady Eglantine from everyone’s clutches. Apparently one of the hen’s feathers dropped to the floor during the commotion (she was finally taking a break for molting), and the crowd made a mad rush it. A man grabbed it and tucked the valuable memento into his hat.

From Pennsylvania Station, Lady Eglantine was driven to the Hotel Imperial, just one block away on Broadway. She rode in a fancy car belonging to vaudeville actress Kitty Gordon, which was followed by a second car for the welcoming committee as well as a sightseeing bus for the men who traveled with her from Philadelphia. A few “moving picture operators” filmed the small parade from the railroad station to the hotel.

The whole flock arrived at the Hotel Imperial at 11 a.m., where they were greeted by a large sign in the lobby that read: Welcome Lady Eglantine, the Wonder of the 20th Century. 314 Eggs in 365 Days, the World’s Record.

Hotel Imperial Lobby

To celebrate Lady Eglantine’s arrival, the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, shown here in 1904, featured a dozen show cages with a barnyard rooster and four hens in each. The birds were put on display for a week – I wonder how the guests enjoyed the morning wake-up calls? Museum of the City of New York

Mr. Rockefeller, the head manager of the Imperial Hotel (no relation to the Rockefellers) attached a pen to one of her claws and had her “sign” the register. She also posed for photos with Miss Gordon, who was appearing in “A World of Pleasure” at the Winter Garden and apparently looking for some extra publicity. (Miss Gordon insisted that this was not the case; she said she grew up on a farm and just loved chickens.)

After taking a brief rest in the “Imperial Suite” (where she was to spend each night), Lady Eglantine was transferred to the Grand Central Palace in a flag-bedecked automobile with, as The New York Times reported, “more factitious fuss than is customarily accorded the prima donna of a royal opera company traveling in state.” At the Palace, she was placed in a pen in a position of honor on the mezzanine floor, surrounded by a dozen of her brothers and sisters in another coop.

Lady Eglantine in her coop

Lady Eglantine had her own coop, complete with flowers and American flags, at the Grand Central Plaza.

Rumors quickly spread that her champion eggs were worth $50 a piece, to which one attendant remarked, “That’s more than they charge for a soft-boiled one at the Ritz-Carlton, so there ain’t no such thing.” Some people were willing, though, to pay up to $100 for a clutch of eggs, while others paid $50 for each of her siblings.

As the Syracuse Herald noted: “New York, like every other large city, wants plenty of fresh eggs for breakfast, at a reasonable price, and since a hen that lays 314 eggs in a year is a mighty step in that direction, New York has taken Lady Eglantine into its arms.

Lady Eglantine and her entourage returned to Maryland on December 11 in an ordinary freight car. According to news reports, her egg-laying was going to be put on hold, as she was scheduled to appear in several other poultry shows across the country.

Grand Central Palace

Lady Eglantine was just one of the 6,000 fowls, pets, birds, and other beasts appearing at the Grand Central Palace show in December 1915. The 13-story Palace was erected in 1911, and occupied the air rights over the railroad tracks leading into Grand Central Terminal. It was demolished in 1964 to make way for the 48-story office building at 245 Park Avenue.

On Valentine’s Day 1916, Lady Eglantine was married to a rooster “of the highest lineage,” whose mother also had a record of 272 eggs in one year. The Washington Post reported that Lady Eglantine was presented a diamond studded gold anklet from the Philadelphia Poultry Association, which they used as the wedding ring at the marriage ceremony.

I’m not sure if all the previous egg-laying finally got to her, or if it was too much excitement for such a small hen, but poor Lady Eglantine did not live much longer after she wed. She passed in September 1916, as reported in The New York Times and other newspapers. An autopsy report attributed her early death to an enlarged and overworked heart.

According to the Greensboro Historical Society, Mr. Christian took her body to a Philadelphia taxidermist, where was “restored to nearly life-like appearance.” He then gave her a resting place on his library table, which is where she stayed until he died in 1926. It is believed the diamonds were removed from the anklet and set in custom-made rings for Christian’s two daughters.

Lady Eglantine, Greensboro Historical Society

Lady Eglantine remains on permanent display at the museum of the Greensboro Historical Society.

Lady Eglantine’s stuffed form remained at the Christian house, although she was reportedly relegated to a cardboard box under a desk in the farm office. Over the years, several of the children who lived at the farm played with her, and a few brought her to school for special projects. Today, she makes her final roost at the museum of the Greensboro Historical Society in Maryland.