Archive for April, 2013

Clowder of cats

During World War I and World War II, hundreds of cats from all over the world were left stranded on the Chelsea Piers when the ships they had stowed away on left without them.

Everyone knows that despite its nine lives, curiosity kills the cat. For the sea-faring cats in this story, it was curiosity and a war-time ban on ship whistles that left them stranded on the Chelsea Piers ship terminal during WWI and WWII.

WWI: Fierce Marine Cats Haunt the Chelsea Piers

RMS Lusitania at Chelsea Piers

Chelsea Piers, a series of piers on the West Side of Manhattan, was designed by the architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore, which also designed Grand Central Terminal at the same time. The piers replaced several run-down structures with a row of grand buildings featuring pink granite facades. Here, the R.M.S. Lusitania is docked at Pier 54.
(Photo: Theodore W. Scull Collection.)

On January 21, 1917, a New York Times reporter stopped by Pier 58 to interview veteran night watchman Sam Smithers about a reported clowder of cats that had taken over the piers. Cats of all nations had been gathering on the piers since the beginning of World War I, most of them were refugees who had escaped from various steamships that were taking part in the war effort.

The cats prowled in bands of 15 or 20, and were living on bones, dried prunes, and raw rubber (which the sailors said enabled them to spring from pier to pier at night in search of prey). Their wild meows and baleful looks kept many a watchman awake at night.

According to Smithers, the leader of this pack was a large, rough-looking cat with red fur and large yellow eyes with red pupils that glared like port lights at sea. The tom cat was known as Tai-Wan, because he had apparently arrived at Pier 59 by the Jumpsejee Jeegeeboy from Wu-Wu-Wu on the Yangtze.

“Look at them waiting to see where I hide my bit of supper so that one of them can pinch it when my back is turned,” Smithers said as about 20 cats sat watching his every move. The watchman said he regretted saving Tai-Wan’s life with a pole when the feline fell into the water while getting off his ship. “Since then he haunts me at night, and if I have to drop off to have a snooze in the corner, he sticks his claws into my legs or rubs his wiry whiskers against my face.”

WWII: War Ban on Ship’s Horns Strands Cats on Chelsea Piers

During World War II, New York Harbor was the busiest port in the world, with 39 active shipyards and750 of 1,800 existing docks, piers, and wharves classified as active. According to the New York Historical Society, at the height of the war, a ship left the New York Harbor every 15 minutes. The Chelsea Piers (Piers 53 to 62, located between 17th and 22nd streets) served as a major embarkation point for troop carriers that took American servicemen overseas.

Cats stranded at Chelsea Piers, New York Harbor

According to The New York Times, a war-time ban on ship whistles stranded about 50 international maritime mascots on the Chelsea Piers.

It’s important to know that many of these troop carriers, or troopships, were originally passenger liners that were forced out of service and turned over to the Army and Navy. Prior to the war, the passenger ship horns would blast thirty minutes before the gangplank was lowered, 15 minutes later, and then five minutes before the lines were cast off and the ship headed out into the river. These blasts would give stowaway cats that were perhaps checking out the restaurants opposite the piers on 11th Avenue enough time to return to the pier and sneak back on board their ship via the lower gangplank.

During the war, however, the horn blasts were banned, probably so city residents would not confuse them with air-raid sirens. Without the warning blasts, the cats missed their passage. Hence, on March 13, 1942, when another Times reporter visited the piers, about 50 refugee cats had been left to roam the piers, just as their ancestors had done 25 years before.

On this particular day, Lewis J. Gavan (no relation of mine) said he was taking care of a litter of kittens that had been born at the piers. The mother cat, a black and white short-haired cat, had been carried off by a Norwegian sailor who said he was taking her to be a mascot for a ship sailing for the South Seas.

Sailor with cat, 1940

Sailors and cats have a special relationship that dates back thousands of years. It was common for crews to adopt cats from foreign lands to serve as souvenirs as well as reminders of their pets at home. Here, a sailor from the HMS Exeter of the Royal Navy holds Pincher, the ship’s cat and mascot. Photograph by Harold Tomlin, Daily Herald (London), February 15, 1940.

Gavan told the reporter he bought milk for the kittens in the daytime, and at night, Peter Hoey, a roundsman, chopped up chicken liver for them. Hoey also gathered bits of food from the galleys of the freighters for the other hungry cats on the prowl.

Ben Fidd, a retired veteran pier watchman, told the Times reporter that the cats had come from all over the world, including China, Persia, Malta, and Australia. Fidd had some fun with the reporter, and told him that two or three of the cats were from Egypt and meowed in Arabic, and two other felines from Ireland had a Gaelic accent.

Hoey said it was a big job at night keeping the peace between the refugee cats and the freighter mascot cats. Any time one of the marooned cats would sneak on board a freighter, the fighting would start and the fur would fly.

Gavan predicted that by the end of the war, there would be at least 100 cats stranded on Chelsea Piers.

I have a feeling this story does not have a happy ending, so I’ll let the reader come to his or her own conclusion regarding the fate of these seafaring orphan cats.

Merchant ships on New York Harbor

At the peak of WWII, on March 1943, there were 543 merchant ships at anchor in New York harbor, a figure very close to maximum capacity. Pictured are some of the nearly 100 British, Dutch, and Norwegian merchant ships passing through New York harbor toward the Narrows on Sept. 9, 1941. Fort Lafayette is off the Brooklyn peninsula, with Gravesend Bay just behind it (top of photo). The old Stapleton Piers, off Staten Island, are in the foreground, right. (Photo: New York Historical Society)

Chelsea Sports Complex

Chelsea Piers served as a passenger ship terminal in the early 1900s for several passenger lines, including the U.S. Lines, Grace Lines, French Lines, Cunard Line, and White Star Line. Today the piers are used by the Chelsea Piers Sports & Entertainment Complex.

Wallace the Untamable Lion

Wallace, “the fiercest lion in America,” was billed as the “Untamable monster of the Libyan Desert” and “Man-eating Monster of the Carnivora.” According to Francis Metcalfe, author of Side Show Studies (1906), several hundred “Wallace the Untamables” were touring the country in the early 20th century.

On October 27, 1893, thousands of people gathered on East 18th Street near Gramercy Park for what may – or may not – have been a well-orchestrated publicity stunt for a traveling menagerie. Apparently, a giant circus lion named Wallace had escaped his cage inside the small, 12×20 stable at 129 East 18th Street and was eating a prized trotter horse that he had killed.

Pete's Tavern New York

Today, 129 East 18th Street is the site of Pete’s Tavern, the oldest continuously operating restaurant and bar in New York City. The circa 1829 building was originally called the Portman Hotel, which featured rooms for the night and stables in the back for horses.
Tom and John Healy bought the building in 1899 and called it Healy’s Café. Healy’s was a favorite hangout of O. Henry, who reportedly wrote “The Gift of the Magi” there in 1905.

According to news reports, crowds packed the street from Third Avenue to Irving Place all day long, hoping to get a glimpse of the beast that could be heard roaring behind the stable walls. Police Captain Gallagher and his large squad of men from the Metropolitan police force were kept busy trying to keep people from closing in on the stable.

During the morning hours, several attempts were made to lure Wallace back into his cage. Broncho Bocaccio, the Great Lion Tamer from Latin America, appeared on the scene and was an instant hit with the crowd, wearing patent-leather boots and riding breeches and donning wild black hair which fell down to his shoulders.

Bocaccio and the menagerie proprietor climbed a ladder into the stable loft, only to exit a half hour to report “bloodcurdling stories of their narrow escape.”

Pete's Tavern stable converted to restaurant

The stable in the back of Pete’s Tavern, where Wallace the lion once stayed, has been converted into a restaurant.

Sometime around 10 a.m., Felix McDonald and George Conklin, who were under the command of R.F. “Tody” Hamilton of Barnum & Bailey Circus, arrived on the scene with pulley blocks, ropes, and hooks. They used these tools to haul out the remains of the trotter horse, which had indeed been killed and mauled by Wallace. Police Inspector Alex Williams then ordered the men to return the lion to his den, and suggested Wallace would be shot if not back in his cage by midday.

New York Police Inspector Alexander S. Williams

Inspector Alexander S. Williams was one of the more colorful yet controversial figures of New York’s police force. Popularly known as “Clubber Williams” or “Czar of the Tenderloin,” he oversaw the Tenderloin and Gas House districts (now Stuyvesant Town – Peter Cooper Village and Gramercy Park).

Armed with pitchforks and revolvers with blank cartridges, McDonald, Conklin, Bocaccio, and the proprietor went back into the stable to trap the man-eater. As Wallace continued to roar, a child in the crowd was reported to be overheard saying, “Hully gee! Mike! I wonder if he’s a eatin’ of der bloke wid der boots and der hair.”

By 4 p.m., the escape, or should I say escapade, had ended, and Wallace was sound asleep on a wagon bound for public display at Central Park.

Was the Escape a Hoax – or Not?

Some newspaper accounts of the incident claimed that Wallace weighed over 900 pounds and had previously killed three men in England. However, reporters from The New York Times and The Sun did not fall prey to what they claimed was a publicity stunt staged by the proprietor and his friend Tody Hamilton, who was not only a long-time Barnum associate, but one of the best press agents in the business.

The reporters refused to publish the proprietor’s real name – they called him Mr. Stokob, the proprietor of a dime museum — and wrote that the rheumatic lion could use a few false teeth to enhance his value as a man-eater.

But the proprietor, who was in fact Frank Charles Bostock, a renowned animal trainer and showman in England, claims the escape was not a hoax. “I suppose that ninety percent of the people who remember it think that it was all a fake,” Bostock told Francis Metcalfe, author of Side Show Studies (The Outing Publishing Company, 1906). “But I can assure you that I put in the most strenuous forty-eight hours of my career while he was loose, and it pretty nearly decided me to give up the show business.”

Frank Bostock, the Animal King

Frank C. Bostock

Frank Charles Bostock, the Animal King

Frank Bostock was born in Darlington, England, in 1866. His parents, James Bostock and Emma Wombwell Bostock, were part of the Bostock and Wombwell dynasty, famed for travelling menageries throughout the 19th century and early 20th century. Frank joined his family’s menagerie when he was 12 years old and immediately stepped in to replace an injured trainer. Frank married Susannah Ethel Bailey, the daughter of England circus man Francis Bailey, and launched Bostock, Wombwell, and Bailey Circus in 1887. Six years later he sold out to his brother and went to America.

In the summer of 1893, at the age of 27, Bostock and a portion of his menagerie – including some boxing kangaroos and three lions — came to New York via Liverpool aboard the steamship Bovic. The Bovic was one of several twin screw steamers of the White Star Line that specialized in the shipment of livestock.

Frank and Broncho arrived in New York about six weeks earlier than the rest of the troupe in order to find living quarters for the humans and animals. As Bostock describes the stables on 18th Street in Side Show Studies:

“The stable was arranged in this way: here in the front was the carriage house with these narrow stairs at the side leading up to the loft. On each side of the door was a window facing on the street, and back of the carriage room was the stable proper–two stalls and a loose-box. On one side of the stable was a saloon and on the other a carpenter shop, so I didn’t expect much complaint from my neighbors, as my men patronized one, while I ordered the carpenter to build a traveling cage for Wallace which would slide on wheels, as our English cages were too heavy to handle in a country where labor is as high as it is here. I moved the lions up to the stable to let them rest a bit after the voyage and started to look for an engagement.”

Bostock set up his first exhibition stand near 5th and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn. A showman who had seen Bostock’s show described it this way: “The Bostock family lived in one wagon and the other two wagons housed four monkeys, five parrots, three lions, a sheep, and a boxing kangaroo.”

Flatbush and 5th avenues Brooklun

Bostock set up his first exhibition stand near 5th and Flatbush avenues in Brooklyn, shown here in this circa 1896 photo. Source: Brooklyn Museum.

In the spring of 1894, Bostock’s Animal Show moved to Balmer’s Bathing Pavilion near the New Iron Pier at Coney Island. About a year later, Bostock and his new partners, Francis and James Ferari, set up Ye Olde English Faire, a touring American carnival which featured animal acts, sideshow curiosities, concession games, and early amusement rides such as an English gondola and a carousel.

New Iron Pier Coney Island

In 1894, Bostock moved his animal show to Balmer’s Bathing Pavilion near the New Iron Pier. The pier was built in 1880 to serve paddle-wheel steam boats that brought tourists from Manhattan. ca. 1895

Bostock Arena at Dreamland, Coney Island

In 1904, Bostock opened the Bostock Arena at the brand-new Dreamland amusement park at Coney Island. Seven years later, he sold his entire Dreamland animal acts to Francis “Colonel” Ferari. Unfortunately, Ferari’s investment was short lived.

On May 27, the night before opening day for the 1911 season, a concession called Hell Gate, in which visitors took a boat ride on rushing waters through dim caverns, was undergoing last-minute repairs to a leak by a roofing company. During these repairs, the light bulbs that illuminated the operations began to explode. In the darkness, a worker kicked over a bucket of hot pitch, setting Hell Gate and all of Dreamland in flames. About 60 of the 150 animals – including a lion that actually did escape through barriers and into the street — perished in the inferno.

Bostock Arena tag 1904

A circa 1904 tag for the 25-cent show at the Bostock Arena. The back touts the show as “Positively the Most Wonderful Wild Animal Exhibition in the World” and notes that “All Bostock’s Patrons Enter Dreamland Free.”

Bostock Arena Dreamland

Bostock Arena at the Dreamland amusement park at Coney Island. Note all the carved animals on the building.

Bostock died of the flu in England in 1912, about a year after the fire. For many years the site of the old Dreamland served as a municipal parking lot. On June 6, 1957, the New York Aquarium opened its doors on the site.

Below is a great video about Dreamland and the Hell Gate fire:

Jeff and Major, Irish Terriers, came to the rescue of Mrs. Donnet

Jeff and Major came to the rescue of Mary Elizabeth Donnet after she found herself in trouble while trying to save them when they fell into the icy waters of Woodlands Lake.

Jeff and Major were two very large police dogs owned by Frederick Trevor Hill, a well-to-do attorney on Wall Street and a prolific author of novels about politics and the law. On February 20, 1925, the two Irish terriers came to the rescue of Mary Elizabeth Donnet, a 62-year-old grandmother and a member of the prominent Whitehouse family of New York City and Irvington-on-the-Hudson.

Mary Elizabeth was the only daughter of John Henry Whitehouse and Mary Schenck. J.H. Whitehouse was a senior partner at Whitehouse & Co., one of New York City’s oldest banking and brokerage firms. At the time of his death in 1924, the 90-year-old Whitehouse was the oldest member of the New York Stock Exchange.

Mary Schenck was a distant relative of Sarah Rapelje, one of the first white European Christian girls to live in the Dutch colony of New Netherland. Sarah, the daughter of Joris Jansen Rapelje and Catalina Trico, was born June 9, 1625, at Fort Orange (Albany). She grew up in the area of Brooklyn known by the Lenape Indians as “Rennegachonk” — today the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

J.H. Whitehouse and Mary Schenck had five children, including Mary Elizabeth and four sons: John Schenck, Edward Julius, James Norman de Rapelje, and Henry Remsen. In 1888, the couple bought a private school owned by a Miss Halpine – originally the 1860s estate of James L. Adams – at 35 South Broadway in Irvington. They restored it as a country home and named it The Larches. The Larches included 16 acres of land on the corner of Broadway and Harriman Avenue.

Cedar Hill Garden Apartments replaced The Larches

Following the death of Mary Schenck Whitehouse in 1928, the family’s estate was auctioned. In 1951 the Cedar Hill Garden Apartments were built at 35 South Brodway, where The Larches once stood.

Two years later, on August 5, 1890, Mary married James John Conway Donnet. Lt. Col. Donnet was a surgeon with the Royal Army Medical Corps of the British Army. Although Mr. and Mrs. Donnet spent many years living abroad, including 15 years in India, they frequently visited Mary’s parents at The Larches in Irvington.

The Walk to Woodlands Lake

It was about noon on Friday, the 20th of February, when Mary decided to take her three dogs, including Jappy, her Japanese spaniel, on a 2½-mile walk from The Larches to Woodlands Lake in Ardsley. Along the way, four other dogs joined them: a dachshund, an Irish terrier belonging to architect Arthur Loomis Harmon (whose firm designed the Empire State Building), and the two police dogs, Major and Jeff. Mary loved dogs, and they knew it — she was like a Pied-Piper to the neighborhood canines.

As Mary was walking with the dogs along the west shore of the frozen lake, the dogs apparently spotted a rabbit and took after it across the ice. About halfway across, where the current of the Saw Mill River runs, the ice gave way and all seven dogs submerged into the freezing water.

Ice Skating Woodlands Lake

Ice skating was a popular sport at Woodlands Lake in the 1800s and 1900s. This photo was taken only a few years after the ice rescue involving Mary Donnet and seven dogs. (Ardsley Historical Society)

The Heroic Rescue

Mary removed her jacket and skirt, and clad only in knickers, crawled across the lake to the hole, shoving a short wooden bench in front of her. Her intention was to push the bench into the hole so the dogs could make purchase and leap onto the solid ice. Unfortunately, the ice cracked and Mary fell into the lake with the dogs.

The dogs immediately started clawing at her, expecting her to save them. So she slid the seat of the bench out on the ice, put one arm around the bench, and grabbed the dogs one by one with her other arm. The dogs clamored over her back and onto the bench, and then stepped onto the solid ice. Cold and whimpering with fright, all except the two police dogs scampered to shore.

Although all but one of the dogs had gotten out of the water safely — the little dachshund was swept under and was probably pulled over the dam – Mary was still struggling in the water. As reported in The Hastings Echo of Dobbs Ferry, NY, Jeff and Major, “with true canine-human instincts” and being the stronger of the dogs, tried to save her by getting close enough to the hole and tugging at her sweater.

Jeff, who was 120 pounds, actually got a piece of her sweater in his mouth from tugging so hard, but then he fell into the water again. Mary grabbed Jeff’s collar and kept his head above water while shouting as loud as she could. Meanwhile, Major stood by, sending out SOS barks.

Charles and Jessie Oakes

The rescuers, Charles and Jessie Oakes, in 1930. Courtesy of Bob Cook, the couple’s great-grandson.

Luckily for Mary and Jeff, Charles W. Oakes, superintendent of an ice storage house, lived with his wife, Jessie, in a cottage on a hill above the lake. Mrs. Oakes heard the barks and alerted her husband, who ran to the lake with another neighbor. They got a long rope from the ice house and tied it to a tree. Mr. Oakes then crawled out and tossed the rope until Mary caught it. Grasping the half-conscious police dog, she got to more solid ice and was pulled from the water.

Mary, who had been in the icy water for about 20 minutes, was taken to the nearby Woodlands Hotel, where the caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Rhinehart, ministered to her. She was unconscious for about four hours, but was treated by Dr. Eben Smith of Irvington for frostbitten fingers and bruises to her chest and arms.

A week later, Mr. Hill convinced Mary to give consent to the publication of the story. He told her that such a story of heroism “and the romantic conduct of the dogs would be a wholesome relief from the depressing routine of crime and misfortune in the day’s news.” Mary related her story to reporters, and told them her next plans included getting her snow-white hair, which she wore in a bob, fixed up in town.

The news of the heroic rescues caught the eye of Nathalie Morris (nee, Alletta Nathalie Lorillard Bailey), the wife of Lewis Gouveneur Morris, a distant descendant of Lewis Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. An avid dog lover, Nathalie was vice president of the New York League for Animals. She called a meeting in her home and arranged that a medal for heroism be awarded to Mary Donnet.

Woodlands Lake ice house dinner, 1912

Charles Oakes and his daughter Elizabeth Dorothy (third from right) at the ice house annual dinner on Woodlands Lake in 1912. Courtesy of Bob Cook, the Oakes’ great-grandson.

In addition to the League’s medal, Mary was also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She received a loving cup engraved with the names of the dogs she saved and was made an honory member of the A.S.P.C.A.

A letter published in The Hastings Echo stated, “If ever a Humane Society’s medal was nobly earned it’s in this particular case. All well wishers of ‘Man’s Faithful Friend’—members of the canine world—trust that this heroic Mem-Sahib…has gotten over her wintry hike in the woods surrounding her home, and her immersion in the icy water of Woodlands lake in rescuing her hiking companions…from meeting the fate of the handicapped short legged dachshund.”

Here is the actual loving cup awarded to Charles and Jessie Oakes following their heroic rescue. Courtesy of Bob Cook, the couple’s great-grandson.

Here is the actual loving cup awarded to Charles and Jessie Oakes following their heroic rescue of Mary Elizabeth Donnet. Courtesy of Bob Cook, the couple’s great-grandson.

Frecerick Philipse III

Frederick Philipse III, Lord of the vast Manor of Philipsburg and resident of the mansion known as Philipse Manor Hall.

Dog Lover Was a Big-Game Hunter

I have to wonder if the League knew about Mary’s previous life as a big-game hunter in India. According to a 1909 issue of the New York Herald, during her 15 years in India, Mary shot four tigers, six bears, four panthers, 70 blue bulls, and 60 hyenas. In a 1903 issue of the Waterville Times, it was reported that Mary wrote a letter to her parents about one such hunting trip India: “I am the proud slayer of the largest tiger ever shot in India, and he fell at my first shot…I had already shot three bears, two panthers and a tiger, besides all sorts of other smaller beasts…”

Woodlands Lake in the Early Years

The land where Woodlands Lake is located was originally owned by Loyalist Fredrick Philipse III (he controlled 52,000 acres of what is now Westchester County) and was part of Philipsburg (Philipse) Manor in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the American Revolution, the land was confiscated by the New York State Legislature and sold at public auction to Jonathan Odell, a patriot. For several decades in the nineteenth century, grain and lumber mills powered by water from the Nepperhan Creek (Saw Mill River) were operated near this site.

Woodlands Lake and Motel Ardsley

This postcard of Woodlands Lake and the Woodlands Motel was mailed from Ardsley on May 31, 1910.

Woodlands Lake was created by damming the Saw Mill River, which is a tributary of the Hudson River. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the lake was used for boating and swimming in the summer, and for ice skating and an annual winter carnival in the colder months. The area also featured the Woodlands Lake Hotel, which was a popular resort for New York City residents. The hotel was located by the Woodlands Lake dam and waterfalls, on the state road between Ardsley and Elmsford.

The Woodlands Hotel in 1900

Woodlands Lake Tavern Irvington NY

The Woodlands Hotel was eventually torn down and a number of restaurants occupied the area, including Leighton’s Woodlands Lake Tavern, shown here, and La Cantina, which is still standing but vacant.

In March 1900, The New York Times reported that many men were taking the train to Woodlands to visit the Woodlands Hotel for treatment of nervous disorders. It turned out the hotel was operating an illegal poolroom started by Harlem bookmakers. A reporter visited the hotel, where he found a room with many men sitting at a bar and drinking red liquid from small glasses. The reporter said none of the men looked like invalids.

According to the report, a man named Mr. Fleming came out and told the reporter that the place was a sanitarium for the treatment of general disability, and was run by a private athletic club. A big bloodhound escorted the reporter back to the train tracks. Sheriff William V. Malloy was reportedly looking into the institution when the article was published.

Woodlands Station Old Put 1940

New York City visitors arrived at Woodlands Lake via the New York, Westchester and Putnam Railway (the Old Put), shown here in 1940. A small open pavilion about 100 feet from the Woodlands Hotel served as the Woodlands station. Early in the 21st century, the Old Put became the South County and North County Trailways, a network of bicycle/pedestrian trails. Photo by Frank Schlegel, Collection Glenn L. Rowe; Forgotten Railroads Through Westchester County

V.E. Macy Park

The following year after Mary Donnet’s ice rescue, 172 acres of land belonging to the J.P. Morgan estate and including Woodlands Lake was acquired by Westchester County for $157,000 and turned into a park. Today the park is known as V.E. Macy Park, after V. Everit Macy, who was Westchester’s first Commissioner of Public Welfare. Dogs are allowed in the park, but they must be on a leash.

If you enjoyed this story, you may want to click here to read about a BMT motorman on the Astoria Line who also received an award for humane service from the New York Women’s League for Animals for saving a Pomeranian.

Woodlands Lake with La Cantina Irvington NY

This current-day photo of Woodlands Lake shows the former La Cantina restaurant in the background.)