Recently, I wrote about Tom, the mascot of New York’s City Hall from 1891 to 1908. Tom may have acted as if he were the king cat of New York, but that’s probably because he didn’t know about his feline counterpart in Brooklyn.
Jerry Fox, an enormous tiger cat “of striking appearance” who performed heroic deeds during his 28-year reign as Brooklyn’s official cat, would have given Old Tom a run for his money.
Jerry Fox was actually the mascot of a well-known café in the vicinity of what was then Brooklyn City Hall. He was given to the proprietor in 1879 when he was thought to be two or three years old. On Sundays he attracted much attention by sitting in the café windows and watching passersby.
But during the rest of the week, when the café was open, he spent his days making scheduled rounds in the neighborhood – it is said that only once in his early years did he fail to show up in the places on his beat about the same time.
Jerry Fox, the Crime-Stopping Cat
Jerry took his job patrolling the City Hall neighborhood very seriously, and was often credited for preventing crimes or alerting humans to danger. While making the rounds of the café each day, for example, he would always alert the owner if he found a door or window ajar.
One time a thief reportedly tried to break into the back window of the café, and Jerry’s loud howls attracted a policeman, who chased the would-be thief away. Another time Jerry chased a mad dog out of another place on his regular beat — the undertaker’s shop next to the café.
Jerry’s Life at Brooklyn’s Civic Center
For more than a quarter of century, Jerry made his presence known at City Hall and the Municipal Building. He did not have any political principles — he simply gave his support to whichever party was in power.
He was a smart and dignified cat who made friends with the Brooklyn Bridge officials and played dominoes with Boss Hugh McLaughlin in the Exempt Firemen’s Rooms in City Hall on summer nights.
Sometime around 1903, Jerry started to lose his teeth. Then he lost much of his sight. Lucky for Jerry, he was a friend of Dr. Charles F. Hughes, who reportedly made a special pair of glasses for him.
According to The New York Times, the glasses gave Jerry “a certain quaint dignity” and friends would often give him a newspaper so he could sit on the steps of the Municipal Building and pretend he was reading like the “bums” all around him. Without the glasses, poor Jerry stumbled on the trolley tracks, but soon all the motormen got to know him and would stop their trolleys when he was in sight because they knew he couldn’t see the
Jerry Fox Saves Borough Hall
On the afternoon of May 22, 1904, nearly blind Jerry was wondering about the third floor of Borough Hall when he came upon the vacant office of Judge Almet F. Jenks of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.
Papers on the judge’s desk had caught fire by what was reported to be a “misplaced lit cigar.” Judge Jenks was across the street at the law library in the County Courthouse at the time.
Upon seeing (or perhaps smelling) the fire, Jerry rushed out into the chambers and started to howl. Policeman Harry Staton, who was stationed in Borough Hall, knew something had to be wrong, because Jerry was not known to complain.
He located the fire and alerted Policeman John Kessell, who was stationed in the office of Borough President Martin W. Littleton.
One news report says the policemen turned in an alarm and then attacked the flames with a fire extinguisher grenade.
Another report said the judge returned to his office and filled one of the officer’s hats with water to pour on the fire. In any event, if it hadn’t been for Jerry’s meows, the damage to Borough Hall may have been much more extensive and the city would have lost more than a desk and some papers.
Murphy Park and the Demise of Jerry Fox
By the time Jerry had saved City Hall, he was already on a downward spiral. The news reporters blamed Jerry’s decrepit condition on Murphy Park, a popular and dangerous hangout for “benchers” (homeless men) and teenage gangs. As reported in the Brooklyn Standard Union on August 17, 1899:
“Jerry Fox was decent and respectable and carried himself well until Murphy Park adjoining the Municipal Building was opened as a summer resort for the hobos and the Knights of Ease. Since then Jerry has become utterly disreputable, neglects his home, pays no attention to his master, stays out at nights, and acts generally in a way that is a shame and a disgrace to his former record. He now lounges on the benches, makes friends with unsavory looking [men], snoozes all day, neglects his baths, drinks [ale] like a fish, does not eat regularly, and is rapidly becoming a wreck of his old self.”
One night in December 1904 Jerry apparently wasn’t wearing his glasses when he strolled away from Borough Hall and fell down a subway shaft. The shaft, which was probably part of the Interborough Rapid Transit expansion project, had been shut down because of trouble with a water main. For five months, everyone assumed Jerry had run away. Unfortunately, when the shaft was reopened in April 1905, workers found his remains. They brought him out by dirt cart.
Jerry’s death was reported in The New York Times on April 7, 1905:
“Had each of the several hundred city officeholders, judges, lawyers, volunteer firemen, war veterans, and business men in Borough Hall Square lost an old college chum there could not have been sorrow more profound than that which greeted the death of Jerry.”
Several of Jerry’s old friends paid tribute to the cat upon learning of his death:
“He was a student as well as a great cat,” said Dr. Hughes.
“I had known him since I was a boy,” said an elderly Heights doctor, who had once extracted Jerry’s lower tusks because they were cutting his upper lip.
“Jerry was an epoch in himself,” said Assemblyman Patrick Burns.
“In an earlier day he would have been to Brooklyn as the codfish is to Boston.”
This concludes the story of Jerry Fox. However, if you enjoy New York history, you may want to read about the historic events surrounding Murphy Park and the Municipal Building, where Jerry spent much of his final years.
When Jerry was in his youth, the buildings in his beat included Brooklyn City Hall, the Municipal Building, Collegiate and Polytechnic Institution, the Court House, and the Reformed Dutch Church.
In 1805, the First Dutch Reformed Church purchased the 340 x 145 foot lot between Joralemon, Court, and Livingston Streets, and built its third church in 1807. This church was replaced in 1835 by the much larger building shown below, which faced Livingston Street.
In the 1880s, efforts were made to either move the church to the other end of the lot and use it as a lecture hall, or sell the site to the Federal Government for the new post office. Both ideas fell through and the lot was sold on March 1, 1886, to Charles L. Willoughby, a Chicago capitalist, for $250,000. The church was demolished in May 1886.
When Charles L. Willoughby purchased the lot from the church, his intention was to hop on the cyclorama bandwagon and build a cyclorama building in Brooklyn.
The octagonal cyclorama building was 139 feet in diameter, 400 feet in circumference, and 100 feet high with a glass roof.
The Gettysburg cyclorama painting was on display from October 15, 1886, to August 8, 1887. The exhibit moved to Fourth Avenue and 19th Street in Manhattan after that, and the Brooklyn building was demolished. The Manhattan cyclorama was replaced by the Parker Building in 1900.
After the Cyclorama Building came down, the lot sat empty for a while until George Murphy, a Department of Public Works employee, had the park created for only $650. (Some sources say the park was named after the Mayor of the City of Brooklyn, Henry C. Murphy, but newspaper articles claim the “honor” goes to George Murphy.)
Although the park was quite lovely in early years — the Board of Directors of the Brooklyn Free Library Association even considered purchasing land for its library headquarters in 1897 – by 1900 its benches were filled by men who could not afford a bed in one of the Fulton Street and Washington Street boarding houses. In 1906 insult was added to injury when the park was converted into a storage yard for subway contractors working on the Borough Hall subway station.
In 1915, citizens asked Borough President Pounds and Public Works Commissioner Voorhies to turn the lots once occupied by the old Municipal Building and Murphy Park into a parking lot for all the autos clogging the streets adjoining Borough Hall. (Oh, the horror, people were parking their cars in front of front of apartments, leaving no place for the residents to park!)
Three years after residents begged for a parking lot, the empty lots remained an eyesore. In September 1918, by orders of the United States War Department, the lots were put into use as an exercise and drill ground to prepare student soldiers for World War I.
In 1921 there was a proposal to turn the lots into a practice putting course for the judges whose office windows look out on Borough Hall and the lots. It was thought that some afternoon putting would clear their minds for better rendering of judgments.
Finally, on August 13, 1925, Borough President Edward Riegelmann broke ground for the erection of Brooklyn’s new Municipal Building.
The new Municipal Building, designed by McKenzie, Voorhees and Gmelin, was constructed on the former lots that were once Jerry’s old stomping grounds.