Archive for September, 2013

Bum of Mulberry Street

When Patrolman Cornelius O’Neil found the yellow dog he named Bum on the streets of Little Italy, the mangy mutt was half-starved and trailing remnants of a pack of firecrackers by his tail. Patrolman O’Neil decided to rescue the dog and make him the mascot of the newly designated 12th Precinct of the New York City Police Department. Little did he know it on that day in July 1908, but over the next eight years, Bum would earn his weight in gold many times.

205 Mulberry Street, 12th Precinct

In 1908, the newly designated 12th Precinct station house was located at 205 Mulberry Street in the East Village, shown here. The multi-story brick building and adjoining cells in back were built in 1871 for what was then the 14th Precinct (and then later the 11th Precinct).

During the early 1900s, the Little Italy neighborhood was a breeding ground for gangster violence. In the heart of this neighborhood was the notorious Mulberry Street of Five Points (Gangs of New York) fame. This avenue of pool halls, saloons, and back-alley gambling spots was also home to some of the most famous and influential Italian American gangsters in history.

247 Mulberry Street, former Ravenite Social Club, Gotti

The most recent and famous address is 247 Mulberry Street, which was the former Ravenite Social Club, the headquarters for John Gotti and the Gambino Crime Family in the 1970s and 1980s. Today it is the address of a trendy shoe boutique.

It was on Mulberry Street that the first Italian immigrants made their homes in America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These poor people lived in crowded, filthy, rat-infested Old Law dumbbell tenement buildings that were literally airless firetraps. Lucky for some of them, Bum was attracted to fire more than the firemen of what was then Engine 13 at 253 Lafayette Street and Ladder 9 at 209 Elizabeth Street. He loved nothing more than responding to the big fires with his “pack” and often assisted the police and firefighters in making rescues by leading them through smoke to window-less rooms where frightened children and their mothers were huddled together.

290 Elizabeth Street Ladder 9

Bum loved responding to fires with the men of Ladder 9, which was stationed at 209 Elizabeth Street, shown here. Ladder 9 was relocated to 42 Great Jones Street in 1948, and sometime after that the Elizabeth Street building was occupied by Giacchino LaRosa & Son Bread Co. Today it is the home of Holland & Sherry, a high-end accessories and apparel shop.

One day in the spring of 1912, Bum was on patrol with his human partner when he saw a cat run into an open door of a tenement building on Mulberry Street. Being a dog, Bum was naturally inclined to break free from his partner and chase the cat into the building. I like to think that the cat was also a hero in this story, because she led Bum into a tenement that was on fire.

Mulberry Street 1900

This famous photo of Mulberry Street taken around 1900 (recently colorized) depicts what Harlan Logan described in The Bowery and Bohemia as “a tortuous ravine of tall tenement-houses…”

Bum emerged from the tenement, grabbed O’Neil by his coat, and dragged him into the hallway. O’Neil followed obediently and found smoke coming from the basement. As the partners ran up stairs and down hallways, Bum barked furiously the whole time to alert people of the danger so they could safely evacuate the building.

Bum Receives a Medal

Laura Gardin Fraser's Bide-A-Wee dog medal

American sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser designed this medal for Bide-A-Wee sometime before she wed sculptor James Earle Fraser.

Bum’s heroic deed came to the attention of Mrs. Knox Bull of the Bide-a-Wee Home, a nonprofit humane group that rescued and provided care for stray and unwanted cats and dogs. The organization presented Bum with a bronze medal in July 1912 that was inscribed “Bum, Twelfth Precinct” on one side, and featured a female figure and a dog on the other. Bum would rescue many people and receive other awards during his tour with the 12th Precinct, but I’ll save those stories for a future post.

A Brief History of Bide-A-Wee
Bide-a-Wee, which means “stay awhile” in Scottish, is one of the oldest humane organizations in the United States (today it’s spelled Bideawee). The organization was founded in 1903 by Mrs. Flora D’Auby Jenkins Kibbe of New York City, who based her organization on the Barrone d’Herpents Dog Refuge in Paris. This humane group sent an ambulance all over Paris to pick up stray and unwanted dogs. Instead of being destroyed, they were cared for until they could be placed in new homes.

Bide-A-Wee Ambulance

Bide-A-Wee used ambulances to pick up stray and unwanted animals. Volunteers with the organization cared for the animals and worked to find them all permanent homes.

Mrs. Kibbe called her new organization the Bide-A-Wee Home Association, which operated out of a small building near her home in Manhattan. With the help of friends, Bide-A-Wee was officially incorporated as a not-for-profit in 1906. Its main mission was to alleviate the sufferings of homeless and abandoned animals, and to spread the gospel of humanity toward dumb creatures by practical example. In addition to helping strays, during its early years the group also placed and maintained troughs filled with fresh drinking water for carriage horses on the streets.

By 1909, the building near Mrs. Kibbe’s home housed 200 dogs. The neighbors weren’t too keen about the constant barking, so Mrs. Kibbe was forced to find a new home for the animals. For the next several years, as she looked for a permanent new home, the animals were kept in a series of temporary shelters.

Mrs. Flora D'Auby Jenkins Kibbe

Flora D’Auby Jenkins Kibbe

The organization finally moved to 410 East 38th Street, which is the current headquarters. They also began operating a country home and pet cemetery in Wantagh, Long Island. Since that time, Bideawee has expanded to include two pet memorial parks in Wantagh and Westhampton, where thousands of pets from the New York metropolitan area have been buried over the years.

Murder and Mayhem on Mulberry
In May 1913, just a year after Bum received his medal for saving lives at the tenement fire, the 12th Precinct found itself in the middle of a national manhunt for a notorious gangster and cop killer. This is one of those stories you just can’t make up.

Crime on Mulberry Street

On Mulberry Street, it was not uncommon for the patrolmen of the 12th Precinct to come upon dead men on the sidewalk.

On the night of May 3, Patrolman William B. Heaney, a rookie with only two months on the job, was at his post on Mulberry Street between Spring and Bleecker. He had just 30 minutes to go before his shift ended at midnight.

At about 11:30 p.m., a shot rang out in the street nearby. Patrolman Heaney ran toward 235 Mulberry Street, a new (1910) five-story apartment building with a combination pool hall and café on the ground floor. As he approached, he saw two men dragging what appeared to be a dead man into the building. The dead man was a 33-year-old bookkeeper named John “Kid Morgan” Rizzo of 41 Spring Street. The men dragging him were James Morelli and 21-year-old Oresto Shillitani, aka “Harry Shields” and “The Paper Box Kid.”

“You’re under arrest!” Heaney shouted while running toward the men from across the street. He pulled out his nightstick and struck Shillitani on his head above the ear. Shillitani responded by shooting Heaney three times: once in the mouth, once in the right lung, and once in the hand. Heaney died instantly. The 25-year-old rookie and newlywed dropped onto the sidewalk and rolled into the gutter in front of 241 Mulberry Street.

Patrolman William B. Heaney (badge #2761)

Patrolman William B. Heaney (badge #2761), the son of Patrick Heaney and Mary Amelia Howard, was born on July 23, 1887. He married Mary Josephine Brennan in 1912 and lived with his new bride at 717 Prospect Place, Brooklyn. He had been on the job only two months when Oresto Shillitani shot him three times, killing him almost instantly.

Patrolman Charles J. Teare, who was on the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. tour, heard the shots from his post, which was just one half block away. He ran south down Mulberry Street and fired his revolver twice. Unfortunately, both shots missed Shillitani. The Paper Box Kid fired back, hitting Patrolman Teare twice in the neck.

All hell broke loose at the Mulberry Street station, which was just a block away. Officers rushed to the scene to care for their fallen brothers, cordon off the crowds, and question onlookers. Back at the station, someone called Saint Vincent’s Hospital to summon an ambulance. While all this commotion was going on, Patrolman Teare used some of his last breaths to tell the other officers what had just transpired.

St. Vincent Hospital motorized ambulance

Saint Vincent’s Hospital was one of the first hospitals in New York City to operate an ambulance service. In 1870, its first horse-drawn ambulance hit the cobblestones, followed by the first motorized ambulance in 1900. In 1911, Saint Vincent’s Ambulance, manned by hospital interns, responded to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The hospital also treated victims after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

The first ambulance surgeon on the scene was Robert John McGuire. All three men were admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital, although Patrolman Heaney was pronounced dead on arrival. The Rev. Dr. Gill of St. Patrick’s Church performed last rites for Rizzo and Teare. Patrolman Teare (badge #10009), a twelve-year veteran with the NYCPD, died the next day from his wounds. The 36-year-old officer was survived by his mother, who had lived with him at 683 Greenwich Street.

235 Mulberry Street

Today the scene of the crime – the pool hall at 235 Mulberry — is Rubirosa Pizza, a family run Italian-American restaurant that serves Staten Island-style pizza and gets great reviews on social media sites.

Nationwide Manhunt
The triple murder set off a nationwide manhunt. The New York Tribune and Middletown Daily Times-Press printed a description of the murderer as follows:

Italian-American, Age Twenty-One years, 5′ 1 3/4″, weight 125 pounds, slender build, thick black hair cut high up on the back of the neck, blue eyes, dark yellow sallow complexion, skin quite rough, smooth-shaven, slightly pockmarked. Associates with prizefighters and is a frequenter of cheap grade pool and billiard rooms. He was last seen wearing a grey striped suit, black derby hat, coat cut square, black shoes with bulldog toe, and a diamond horseshoe tie pin.

nytribune-nationwide-manhun

The manhunt finally ended when Oresto’s brother, Johnny, made arrangements for him to surrender to police on June 13. The court convicted him of murder in the first degree and sentenced him to death following solitary confinement in the Death House at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York.

One June 21, 1916, only eight days before his execution date, someone – possibly a sister-in-law — smuggled a gun into him during a visit. Early the next morning, Shillitani asked Guard Daniel McCarthy to bring a slop bucket to his cell so he could relieve himself. When McCarthy opened the cell door, he shot the guard to death, grabbed his keys, and escaped from the prison.

Oresto Shilitano, aka "Harry Shields" "The Paper Box Kid"

On June 30, 1916, 25-year-old Oresto Shillitani was executed by electric chair in The Death House at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. This was probably the last photo taken of the gangster – his prison mug shot.

As the prison’s siren, “Big Ben,” began to blast, Shillitani was able to scale the twelve-foot fence and make it to the rocky shores of the Hudson River. Following a cold and disorienting swim, he emerged at the south end of the prison, took off his wet clothes, and walked toward the only building with a light – the Ossining Hospital. There, he startled the night attendant, Ms. Elaine, by brandishing a revolver and asking her for some clothes and a room for the night. Luckily the attendant kept her wits and was able to stall him while waiting for armed guards from the prison and local police to arrive.

Shillitani was returned to Sing Sing, where he was kept sedated until the day of his execution. He died by electric chair at 6:01 a.m. on June 30, 1916.

205 Mulberry Street

On December 1, 1916, just five months after Shillitani’s execution, the 12th Precinct was abolished and the station house closed. After the precinct was abolished the police department used the building as a storehouse. Around 1923 it was taken over by the NYPD Building and Maintenance Section and used as workshops and the storage of building supplies. Today the building is home to expensive co-op apartments and the Creatures of Comfort clothing boutique.

For a much more detailed account of this fascinating true crime story, read John Scillitani’s “Gangster Original.”

New York Academy of Music

On September 8, 1902, the operetta “Robin Hood” opened at New York’s Academy of Music. The opera was produced by The Bostonians, a touring theater troupe that performed operettas written by America’s foremost composers.

“Robin Hood” was the first successful operetta written by Americans—librettist Harry B. Smith and composer Reginald De Koven.

The Bostonians

The Bostonians, including Jessie Bartlett Davis, W.H. MacDonald, George B. Frothingham, Eugene Cowles, Tom Karl and Alice Nielsen, lived on the road from September to May, premiering operettas written by some of America’s foremost composers.

On the third night of the show, W.H. MacDonald, who was playing the part of Little John, was spooked by what he thought was a ghost horse. According to news reports, MacDonald was getting prepared in his dressing room when he saw a horse’s head in the mirror. MacDonald was startled at first, and wondered whether the Academy was haunted by a ghost horse or if he was simply going insane.

Henry Clay Barnabee

Henry Clay Barnabee graced the American musical stage for close to 50 years, earning the title, “the Dean of Comic Opera.” His signature role was the Sheriff of Nottingham in “Robin Hood.”

MacDonald closed his eyes and looked again. Yep, he still saw a horse in the mirror. Maybe, he thought, the Academy was in fact haunted.

The Bostonians

W.H. MacDonald (far right) and Henry Clay Barnabee were the proprietors of The Bostonians.

A Brief History of the Academy of Music

The Academy of Music was constructed in 1854 at 125 East 14th Street, on the corner of Irving Place. Construction costs of close to $400,000 were funded by a corporation headed by Moses H. Grinnell, a former New York congressman who sold one-thousand-dollar shares to wealthy New Yorkers living near Union Square who wanted a nearby venue for the grand opera.

One of those wealthy residents was James Phalen, who had earned his fortune in real estate. Phalen owned the land on which the Academy was built, and thus, assumed the position of president on the Academy’s board of directors. Phalen and the other stockholders had very lavish privileges–including exclusive possession of a large number of the best seats—which caused numerous rifts between the board and the management.

Designed by architect Alexander Saeltzer in the German Rundbogenstil design, the Academy was lavishly embellished and grand in size, with five seating levels, numerous private and stage boxes, and about 4,000 seats upholstered in crimson velvet. The interior was white and gold and illuminated by thousands of gaslights.

The Academy of Music opened its doors on October 2, 1854, with the performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma.” For the next 12 years, it was the center of musical and social life in New York.

Then tragedy struck on May 21, 1866.

Academy of Music fire 1866

On May 21, 1866, a three-alarm blaze destroyed the Academy of Music and many other buildings along the entire block from Irving Place to Third Avenue between 14th and 15th Street.

DISASTROUS CONFLAGRATION; The Academy of Music and College of Surgeons Destroyed. Several Other Buildings Partially Burned. Two Firemen Killed and One Very Badly Injured.
The New York Times, May 22, 1866

Following the devastating fire–which I’ll detail at the end of this story for those who, like me, are interested in firefighting and the history of the Fire Department–plans were made to immediately rebuild the Academy on the same site. It was in this new building that actor MacDonald was spooked by the ghost horse—

According to the story, MacDonald tried to get his wits together and make a run for it, but he collided with an actual horse. What was a horse doing in his dressing room? MacDonald wondered while yelling for help.

New York Academy of Music

Construction of the second Academy was completed just two years after the fire, in 1868. Movies were shown in this new building as early as 1897, when films of boxing matches were projected via the Veriscope system.

Within minutes, the door keeper and two policemen arrived on the scene. The policemen said they had seen the horse galloping down 14th Street, and, thinking it had escaped from its stable, started running after it.

They followed as the horse disappeared into the side entrance of the Academy, and watched as it trotted across the stage toward MacDonald’s dressing room.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Academy of Music 1901

A scene from William A. Brady’s production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” presented at the Academy of Music in 1901. The show featured Wilton Lackaye as Uncle Tom, Theodore Roberts as Simon Legree, and at a horse that loved sugar.

The doorkeeper said he remembered the horse as one that had been used in the previous spring’s performance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

One of the members of the company, who had formerly occupied MacDonald’s dressing room, had a habit of feeding sugar to the horse. The horse meant no harm — he had simply returned to the Academy to get a sugar treat from the new occupant.

The Final Demise of the Academy
When the Metropolitan Opera House was built in 1883, the Academy couldn’t compete, and so it began to offer vaudeville; the venue was also rented by labor organizations in the early 1900s for stage rallies.

In 1910, movie mogul William Fox, founder of the Fox Film Corporation, took over the Academy’s lease. Fox presented stage plays with a resident stock company and then switched to vaudeville and later films when feature-length movies became the vogue.

Dewey Theater 14th Street New York

In 1896, the old Grace Chapel was purchased by “Big” Tim Sullivan of Tammany Hall and converted into a music hall called Volks Garden. It was renamed Dewey Theater in 1897 and torn down in 1926 to make way for Fox’s new Academy.

On August 21, 1925, the Academy of Music was sold by the Gilmore and Tompkins estates to the Consolidated Edison Gas Company. The original Academy of Music closed forever with a gala “farewell” performance on May 17, 1926. Later that year, the Academy and several other buildings were demolished to make way for Consolidated Edison’s skyscraper.

Theatre Unique New York

In 1907, John Henry Theiss’ music hall at 136 East 14th Street was renovated as the Theatre Unique, an ornate theater that featured silent films. The 1884 structure was demolished to make way for Fox’s new movie palace in 1926.

In 1926, Fox built a new mammoth theater on the former site of the Dewey Theater, the Theatre Unique, and several other buildings between 126 and 138 East 14th Street. He named the new 3,600-seat theater in honor of the demolished grand opera hall.

Academy of Music New York

The Academy attracted big names in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Blue Oyster Cult, Lou Reed, and many other top rock groups.

The new Academy of Music, designed by Thomas W. Lamb, operated for decades as an increasingly shabby movie house until 1964, when the venue began showing rock acts at night, while still showing movies during the day.

The Palladium New York

The theater was rechristened The Palladium with a show by The Band in 1976. Numerous bands appeared “Live at the Palladium,” including Springsteen, David Bowie, and Blondie. In 1985, the Palladium was converted into a nightclub by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager of Studio 54 fame.

It was all downhill from there (or uphill if you prefer progress over history):

• 1976: Renamed the Palladium
• 1985: Turned into a multi-level disco
• Demolished in 1997
• Rebuilt as a 12-story residence hall for NYU in 2001; Trader Joe’s moved into the main level in 2006

The Great Fire of 1866

Elisha Kingsland, Chief Engineer, New York Fire Department

Elisha Kingsland began his career in 1840 with Johnson Hose 32 of the volunteer department, which became Engine Company No. 26 in 1851. He worked as an Assistant Engineer from 1854 until the disbandment of the volunteer department, and was appointed first Chief Engineer of the paid Metropolitan Fire Department on July 28, 1865. The Academy fire in 1866 was the first real test of the newly created paid department. Following the disaster, embittered volunteers and Tammany Hall politicians argued that the new paid firemen were incompetent, and demanded an investigation of the Chief Engineer. Kingsland resigned in 1869.

On the evening of May 21, 1866, an Italian opera company hired by Academy manager J. Grau to perform Fromental Halevy’s “La Juive.” This was to be their last performance at the Academy of Music; ballet promoters Henry C. Jarrett and Harry Palmer had just brought in a Parisian ballet troupe, which was scheduled to begin production of “La biche au Bois.”

Just before midnight, shortly after the audience had departed and the artistes had left their dressing rooms, Emil Ruhlman, the janitor, and a gasman discovered wisps of smoke coming from under the left side of the parquette as they were making the evening rounds. A huge volume of smoke drove them out of the building, and upon exiting, they saw flames in the windows on 14th Street.

Emil rushed back inside to save his family, who lived in the building. He was able to get everyone out safely, including his wife, two children, and his 89-year-old mother.

One of the first arriving fire companies was Metropolitan Steam Engine Company No. 5, which was stationed at 186 East 14th Street and had been alerted to the fire by Officer O’Brien of the 17th Precinct.

The company was led by Foreman David B. Waters and Assistant Foreman P. McKeever, and was manned by Engineer W. Hamilton, Stoker C.H. Riley, Driver Alonzo Smith, and Privates (firemen) J.F. Butler, P.H. Walsh, J. Corley, Michael Stapleton, F. Rielley, P.J. Burns, and W.H. Farrell.

Metropolitan Hook and Ladder Company No. 3, led by Foreman James Timmoney and stationed just around the block at 78 East 13th Street, also arrived within minutes of the first alarm.

When firefighters arrived, they could see smoke coming from the upper windows under the roof. They also noticed that the gas used for lighting the theater had not been extinguished. Numerous companies responded to the three-alarm blaze, including Engine Companies 3, 13, 14, and 16, and a few companies from the Brooklyn Fire Department.

Even Engine Company No. 36 of Harlem came down to help out—these men worked for more than two hours protecting Horatio Worcester’s piano factory at 117-121 Third Avenue. The men didn’t know it at the time, but the three-alarm blaze would go down in history as the first true test of the newly created paid fire department.

By 12:30 a.m. the flames had gained such headway that, according to The New York Times, “all of the windows of Academy fronting on Fourteenth Street vomited great tongues of living fire…” The smoke was so dense and suffocating that District Engineer Eli Bates gave the order for all firemen inside to leave. His orders came just in time for all but two of the men: Half an hour later, the entire roof had collapsed “beneath the force of the devouring element.”

Eli Bates, New York Fire Department

Eli Bates, a former bricklayer, began his long career with the fire department as a runner with a volunteer company when he was 15. In 1846 he joined Guardian Engine 29, stationed at the supposedly haunted 14 West 10th Street (then Amos Street), where he continued to move up the ranks. When the department converted to a paid force in 1865, he was hired as a District Engineer – what now would be a Battalion Chief. In 1871 he was promoted to Assistant Chief and on May 1, 1873, he was appointed Chief of Department by Commissioner Joseph L. Perley. When he died of heart disease in 1912, Bates was the oldest ex-chief of the department.

As the fire intensified, Chief Engineer Elisha B. Kingsland shifted all of the firefighting resources from the Academy to adjoining buildings. Sparks from the inferno ignited numerous structures along the entire block from Irving Place to Third Avenue between 14th and 15th Street, and many buildings were damaged by smoke and water:

• The College of Physicians and Surgeons, 107 East 14th Street
• Grace Chapel, 132 East 14th Street
• The Dutch Reformed Church
• The St. James English Evangelical Church, 107 East 15th Street
• The Hippotheatron
• Col. James L. Frazer’s restaurant
• The residence of Mrs. Gleeson
• Ihne & Son’s 4-story piano factory, 109 East 14th Street
• Irving Hall
• The Arsenal bar room and Mrs. Romaine’s boarding house at 6 Irving Place
Third Avenue:
• No. 122, occupied by James Hundt (pork butcher)
• No. 122 ½, occupied by Charles Kreitz (a beer saloon)
• No. 124, occupied by Edward Holmes (butcher), and the McKerma, Luckenback, and Glynn families
• Rear of 124, occupied by Brander Robertson, Michael Dalton, Mrs. Fogarty, Mrs. Kennedy, and Mrs. Mack
• No. 124 1/2, occupied by J.H. Green (upholsterer), James Boyle, and Mr. Burns
• No. 126, occupied by Seaman Jones (wall paper and paint store), Mrs. Rooney
• No. 129, occupied by Mr. Mish (clothing store)

Lives Lost
When firefighters first arrived on the scene, the fire appeared to be fierce, but not spectacular. While the steam engines were working up enough pressure to start getting water on the building—this took about 10 minutes–Foreman James Timmoney of Ladder Company No. 3 entered the building and spotted flames shooting up from the basement near the stage.

John Dennin and Hugh Kitson of Engine Company No. 13 took a hose inside and were working the pipe, or nozzle, when they were relieved by Foreman Waters and firemen Walsh and Stapleton, all of Engine Company No. 5. Walsh, only 23 years old, was a rookie and had no volunteer experience, but Waters, 26, had been a volunteer for several years before quitting his job as an engraver to join the paid department.

Meanwhile, as other firemen and theater staff were hauling out furniture and other property, the gas that had been accumulating in the theater exploded, turning the building into an inferno. Kitson and Dennin were knocked down by the blast and burned; Kitson got out, but Dennin became trapped between the flames and the front entrance. He was severely burned but managed to escape by leaping through the flames.

Unfortunately, there was no escape for Waters and Walsh. The bodies of the two men were not discovered until 10 a.m., after hours of frantic searching. A team of firemen from Engine Company No. 5 and No. 3 Truck found Waters near the center of the stage. His arms and legs had burned away, but he was identified by a knife and a key in his pockets. Walsh’s remains were found near the 15th Street side of the stage, just a few feet from the wall that separated the theater from the dressing rooms. His upper torso had burned, and only his trunk could be recovered.

Both men were single; Waters lived with his parents on the corner of 10th Street and First Avenue and Walsh lived with his mother at 82 7th Street. Their families each received $1,000 in insurance from the fire department. Dennin, who was badly burned, received $5 a week while on disability.

Lent's New York Theater

Horses Were Saved
Directly across the street from the Academy was a large entertainment venue called the Hippotheatron, a domed building that opened in 1864 and was home to L.B. Lent’s New York Circus. This building was in imminent danger during the fire, and firefighters worked hard to prevent sparks from igniting the building.

While the firemen directed streams of water on the structure, the employees of the Hippotheatron worked quickly to get all of the trained horses, performing ponies, and mules out of the building. The horses were led to Union Square, where they remained until it was determined the Hippotheatron was out of danger.

Unfortunately the animals would not be so lucky the next time fire struck, but that’s another story for a future post.

Daniel D. Tompkins, Mayor of New York

According to maps of city farms from the 1815 Blue Book, a majority of the land near Irving Place and 14th Street and referenced in this story was owned by Daniel D. Tompkins and David Dunham in the early 1800s. This large plot was adjacent to Peter G. Stuyvesant’s 116-acre farm to the east, and in fact, the men once argued in court over a crooked fence that separated their lands. Tompkins was the fourth governor of New York (1807-1817) and the sixth Vice President of the United States under James Monroe (1817–1825). Tompkinsville, a neighborhood on Staten Island, is named for him.

Susie rescued from pier

Gaunt, soggy, and covered in grease, Susie barely had enough energy to eat following her five-day ordeal under a pier at the foot of 57th Street in Bay Ridge (now part of Sunset Park), Brooklyn. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Weighing 20 pounds and standing about one foot tall, Susie was a jumbo cat. She was also the terror of the rats on the Kerr Steamship Company pier at the foot of 57th Street in the Bay Ridge section (now called Sunset Park) of Brooklyn. Susie would often kill up to 10 rats in a week; her record was eight rats in four hours.

It was rat hunting that got Susie into deep trouble on July 14, 1946. According to news articles from Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, and even Toledo, Susie was chasing a rat that tried to escape the menacing feline by diving from the pier into the New York Bay. Susie dove in right after the drowning rat, determined to make the kill. When she surfaced, she came up under the pier and had to scramble onto a crossbeam just above the high tide water level to await rescue. The fate of the rat is unknown, although my bet is on Susie.

For five days, workmen on the piers tried to rescue Susie, but to no avail. In desperation, the men called the New York Harbor Police, who thought it best to wait for low tide before attempting a rescue. Two workmen–Vincent Caramico, a dock handyman, and Peter Arnao, a tractor boss—sensed that Susie was getting hungry, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. Using a crane and three 20-foot planks, they were able to reach up under the pier and rescue the cat.

NYPD Harbor Police Boat 1940s

Many kind men were involved in Susie’s rescue, including the New York Harbor Police, who responded to the scene. Photo ca. 1940s.

Gaunt, soggy, and covered in grease, Susie was too exhausted at first to eat the milk and fish the workmen provided. “Let her eat and in a couple of days she’ll be back to her normal pounds,” Caramico told reporters. The men said they named Susie the “King of the Wharf” when she first arrived in Brooklyn, and decided to continue calling her “King” even after discovering that the feline was female.

M/S Høegh Silverstar

The M/S Høegh was a general cargo motor ship that sailed out of Bombay, Calcutta, and other South Asian ports in the 1930s and post WWII. Photo: Historical Department, MAN B&W Diesel, Copenhagen

The M/S Høegh Silverstar

According to the workmen, Susie arrived at the Kerr Steamship pier in November 1945 on a ship that had originated in India. Based on my research, including voyage records from the Norwegian National Archives, it is most likely that Susie arrived in Brooklyn on November 12, 1945, on the M/S Høegh Silverstar. Kerr Steamships Limited was the general agent for the Silver-Høegh Line, which operated freight services and accepted cargo for ports in Egypt, India, Pakistan, and the Persian Gulf. The Høegh Silverstar departed from Bombay, India, on October 15: I have a very strong feeling that Susie the king rat killer was onboard doing rat duty for Captain Alf Slaatten as the ship made its way to Brooklyn.

1936: The Year of the New York City Swimming Pool

Exactly ten years before Susie took her unexpected swim in the New York Bay, more than 3,000 children and adults attended the opening events for the Sunset Play Center and outdoor swimming pool at Sunset Park. The Sunset Play Center featured an Olympic-size swimming pool that had diving and wading pools and a one-story brick bath house, and could accommodate 4,850 swimmers. Following on the heels of an oppressive heat wave, the grand-opening of the public pool was a refreshing event for Brooklyn’s residents.

The opening of the Sunset Play Center Pool Brooklyn

An estimated 3,500 people attended the opening of the Sunset Play Center on July 20, 1936. After Mayor LaGuardia turned on the pool’s lights, shown here, Julia Peters of the Metropolitan Opera Company concluded the ceremony by singing the Star Spangled Banner.

The Sunset Play Center pool was one of 11 immense outdoor pools opened in the summer of 1936 in a series of grand ceremonies presided over by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Park Commissioner Robert Moses. All of the pools were funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of many New Deal agencies created in the 1930s to address the Great Depression. The day-long opening events featured parades, blessings of the waters, swimming races, diving competitions, appearances by Olympic stars, and performances by swimming clowns. These festivities continued well after dusk, with Hizzoner pulling the switch to turn on each pool’s spectacular underwater lighting as a grand finale.

I came across the following account in The New York Times archives, which was written by Robert Moses, an avid swimmer, after becoming Parks Commissioner in 1934. I think his words neatly summarize the tragic history of Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhoods, which, like those of Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, were transformed from sandy beaches, rural farms, and majestic resorts to unsightly shipping and manufacturing districts:

It is no exaggeration to say that the health, happiness, efficiency and orderliness of a large number of the city’s residents, especially in the summer months, are tremendously affected by the presence or absence of adequate swimming and bathing facilities. We are providing additional wading pools for children as fast as we can…This, however, does not meet the problem of any but small children…It is one of the tragedies of New York life, and a monument to past indifference, waste, selfishness and stupid planning, that the magnificent natural boundary waters of the city have been in large measure destroyed for recreational purposes by haphazard industrial and commercial developments, and by pollution through sewage, trade and other waste…We must frankly recognize the conditions as they are and make our plans accordingly…

1880s-1910s: Yacht Clubs and Beaches

About 60 years before Susie the cat found herself in a jam under the Kerr Steamship pier at 57th Street, yacht clubs and bath houses dominated the South Brooklyn waterfront from about 55th to 60th Street (which, prior to 1894, was the boundary between the City of Brooklyn and New Utrecht). The New York Canoe Club had a club house at the foot of 57th Street, as did the Varuna Yacht Club. The Excelsior Yacht Club was at the foot of 60th Street and the Atlantic Yacht Club owned the property between 55th and 57th. These clubs held numerous regattas in the summers, featuring ¾-mile races that were often followed by swimming matches and silly events like tub races and duck chases.

Atlantic Yacht Club, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

In 1890, the Atlantic Yacht Club built a clubhouse at the foot of 55th Street, shown here. The two-story frame building had dining, billiard and reception rooms, plus a kitchen, buffet and lavatories on the lower level, and eight sleeping rooms on the second floor.
Photo ca 1890s.

For those who preferred sunbathing and swimming, John P. Stein’s Brooklyn Beach Park Hotel and Bathing Pavilion at the foot of 58th-59th streets offered 1,000 feet of sandy bathing beach “free from rocks and small stones” and “illuminated by electric light,” 1,000 bath houses, springboards, floats, shower baths, excursions in “fast Naphtha launches” (a type of pleasure craft powered by an external combustion engine) from Stein’s South Pier, and bathing at night (up to 9 p.m.). The former Henry A. Kent mansion, a castle-like estate built for the wealthy merchant in 1855 and located between 59th and 60th streets (formerly Winant J. Bennett’s farm and today the site P.S. 314 Luis Munoz Marin School), was also on the site and known as the Brooklyn Beach Park Hotel. The Congress Park Hotel, which featured 1,000 new bath houses in 1899, also fronted New York Bay from 59th to 61st streets.

The End of an Era

By the early 1900s, the Southern Brooklyn waterfront had begun a rapid transformation. In August 1900, the Morse Iron Works and Dry Dock and Repair Company purchased the property at the foot of 57th and 58th Streets, formally occupied by the Atlantic Yacht Club, for $300,000. In June 1902, John P. Stein died following a two-year illness and the Kent mansion was purchased by developers, bringing an end to the Brooklyn Beach Park Hotel and bath houses.

Sunset Park Brooklyn

Sunset Park, located between 41st and 44th Street and 5th and 7th Avenue, was once rural farmland owned by John G. Bergen. The City of Brooklyn acquired the land in 1891, when councilmen recognized that rapid transit would bring large-scale development to the area. The park preserves some of the beauty that the neighborhood lost when development accelerated in the late 19th century.

On April 10, 1910, the Commissioners of the Sinking Fund approved a plan for the “improvement” of the Brooklyn waterfront from 53rd to 63rd Street. The plan included the establishment of a wharf and seven new piers. Eight years later, blocks of houses, boat houses, and piers along the water’s edge were demolished to make way for the U.S. Army Military Ocean Terminal, which extends from 58th to 65th Street between the water’s edge to Second Avenue.

Brooklyn Army Terminal and Pier

This aerial view shows the massive Brooklyn Army Terminal and pier. The Kerr Steamship pier, which would have been to the right of the BAT pier, is only a distant memory today.

Today, one can only sit on the grassy knolls of Sunset Park, close his or her eyes, and imagine what life was like before there ever was a passenger ship pier at the foot of 57th Street, when the waterfront along the New York Bay was lined with sandy beaches, yacht clubs, turreted mansions, and rural farms.

Shore Road Bay Ridge Bennett

Numerous mansions lined the Bay Ridge waterfront in the 1800s, including those of Henry A. Kent, Henry C. Murphy, J.A. Perry, Horace Holden, R. Van Brunt, and William C. Langley. After 1940, most of Shore Road’s mansions, like the Bennett estates shown here, were torn down and replaced by high-rise apartment buildings.