Archive for April, 2014

“Horses galloping from nowhere to nowhere on sliding platforms in front of a quickly rolling panorama; Ben-Hur on the stage is panoramic, pictorial, musical, terpsichorean, religious.” — Edward A. Dithmar, The New York Times, Dec. 3, 1899.

Dr. Martin J. Potter (in circle) and Dr. Samuel S. Field

Dr. Martin J. Potter (in circle) and Dr. Samuel S. Field (top hat). New York Morning Telegraph, March 17, 1901.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the use of live horses and other animals in grand productions on the big stage was all the rage, a thespian college for quadruped actors was just what the doctors ordered. Drs. Martin J. Potter and Samuel S. Field, to be specific.

Dr. Martin Potter, better known as Doc Potter, was a veterinary surgeon and renowned animal trainer who supplied animals to practically all the theatrical companies in America. Able to procure almost any kind of trained animal for a dramatic production, he was known as the “Noah of the Theater.”

Martin began collecting fine horses as a teenager, and over the years his collection expanded to include camels, lions, elephants, tigers, dogs, and scores of smaller animals. At one point he owned more than 50,000 horses and 10,000 other varieties of animals, many of which lived in the stalls, cages, lakes, and fields at his stock farm in Stamford, Connecticut.

College of the City of New York

The Ben-Hur stables were directly across the street from the College of the City of New York, which opened in January 1849 (it was then called The Free Academy). This building was demolished in 1927 to be replaced by a new 17-story building in 1929 (today the Lawrence and Eris Field Building of Baruch College). New York Public Library

Dr. S.S. Field was also a veterinary surgeon and horse trainer who owned a stock farm at his estate on Fulton Avenue in Hempstead, Long Island. Although he was born on a farm in Amsterdam, New York, Samuel didn’t like farming, so he worked making springs for wagon wheels.

He entered the animal business later in life, after serving in the Civil War and spending a few years as a keeper at Clinton Prison in Dannemora, New York (then considered America’s most brutal, repressive prison institution). Sometime during the 1870s, Samuel took up veterinary practice and opened an office at 29 Lexington Avenue near 23rd Street.

One day in 1887 a friend reportedly asked Martin if he could provide a trained horse for the stage. This request inspired Martin and Samuel to start a business training and supplying animals for theater productions. The pair opened their “horse college” in a large, five-story brick livery stable at 141 East 23rd Street sometime around 1900. The press called it “The Quadrupedal Academy of the Drama.”

Uncle Tom's Cabin

A scene from William A. Brady’s production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, presented at the Academy of Music in 1901, and featuring Wilton Lackaye as Uncle Tom, Theodore Roberts as Simon Legree, and a few horses from the equine college of Gramercy Park. Museum of the City of New York Collection

On March 17, 1901, a reporter from the New York Morning Telegraph visited the stables to check on the equine undergraduates, as well as a number of graduates actively involved in metropolitan theater engagements.

On that date, seven graduates were performing in Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Academy of Music in New York. These horses were all trained to dash onto the stage and then immediately slow up to allow for the dialogue. The swift galloping entrance gave the audience the impression that the horses had traveled long and hard.

Plays, "Way Down East". Date: ca. 1898

A scene from the production of Way Down East by Lottie Blair Parker, presented at the Academy of Music in 1898 or 1900, featured Norma, who earned her thespian degree at the Ben-Hur Stables. Museum of the City of New York Collection

Some of the other horses trained at the equine college included Norma, who performed in Way Down East and Teddy, Tim, Andrew, Joe, and Dutch, who were touring with Hearts Are Trumps. The academy also supplied 237 horses for the production of Joan of Arc as well as numerous trained goats and camels (and sometimes elephants) for other dramatic performances. More often than not, the animals had an opportunity to train with their human counterparts at the stables prior to the actual stage performance.

The Equine Stars of Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur at the Broadway Theatre

Ben-Hur, a six-act extravaganza, opened on November 29, 1899, at the Broadway Theater. It starred Edward Morgan as Ben Hur, W.S. Hart as Massala, Henry Lee as Simonides, and 32 trained horses from New York’s equine college.

One of the most difficult theater productions for the horses was Ben-Hur, which opened at New York City’s Broadway Theater on November 29, 1899. Based on the best-selling 19th-century novel by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur featured 120,000 square feet of scenery, a live camel trained by Doc Potter (and two fake ones), and what the writer William W. Ellsworth called ”one of the greatest stage contrivances of our day” — a chariot race complete with a rolling panorama of a Roman stadium to simulate Ben-Hur’s victory over Messala.

The thrilling scene featured four chariots, each drawn by four live horses and hooked up to an electric motor built into the bed that turned the wheels while the horses ran on a treadmill. The arrangement for each chariot was built into a separate platform that could be moved individually across the stage so that the chariots might alternate the lead in the race.

Ben-Hur chariot scene

For this theatrical extravaganza, Drs. Potter and Field had to train 32 horses to rise up on their haunches and to run on an eight-part treadmill to create the amazing chariot race scene. In 1899, the chariot scene was the most spectacular and intricate illusion ever seen on a theater stage.

According to Bernard Hewitt’s “Theater U.S.A.: 1668 to 1957,” the way it worked was that each of the horses was led onto a separate treadmill activated by the animal’s running. Equipped with whips and racing skirts, the actors playing Ben-Hur and Messala climbed into actual chariots and the horses began running behind a darkened scrim.

When the sound built to a fever pitch, the scrim flew up, exposing a chariot race in full stride. As the panoramas rolled, Messala’s treadmills were slowly shifted upstage so that the Ben-Hur chariot would appear to be gaining. In the finale, the wheels were pulled off Messala’s chariot, the horses reared, and the lights fell.

Not only did the horses seem to hurdle toward the spectators, but a continuous panoramic backcloth was wound around upright rollers so that it could be made to travel rapidly in the opposite direction to the horses, and thus, create an illusion of moving scenery. Even the dust was reproduced by a narrow slot in the stage under each chariot wheel — as the wheels span, the dust was flung out behind the chariots.

Ben-Hur at the Broadway Theatre

To prepare for Ben-Hur, carpenters began constructing the stage set in October 1899. They first tore open the entire stage to put in place eight of the racing machines required for the chariot race. Steel girders were also placed under the stage to make it strong enough for the horses, chariots and drivers – about 85 tons. Additional timbers were also added to the sub-cellar of the theater.

The mega-hit ran for 6,000 performances over 21 years, and was estimated to have been seen by more than 20 million people. Almost as soon as the curtain fell on the final stage performance in the spring of 1921, a cinematic production from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in the works. Billed as “the triumphant return of Ben-Hur in sound,” the silent film premiered in 1925 and featured synchronized sound effects and live music. In 1959, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the feature-length film starring Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur.

The Broadway Theatre and old Cosmopolitan Hall

Constructed in 1887, the Broadway Theatre at 41st Street was the first major playhouse built in what has become today’s Times Square Theater District. Its first proprietors were James A. Bailey (yes, the circus Bailey), T. Henry French, and Frank W. Sanger. The first production was Sardou’s La Tosca, which opened on March 3, 1888.

The building was formerly the old Cosmopolitan Hall, which was erected for use as a great concert hall by the Metropolitan Concert Hall Company and opened on May 26, 1890. The Metropolitan Concert Hall was renamed the Metropolitan Casino by Henry E. Abbey and Edward G. Gilmore, to showcase light opera, but theatrical managers called it The Morgue.

Broadway Theatre

The Broadway Theatre, designed by J.B. McElfatrick & Co., was constructed in 1887.

In 1882, J. Fred Zimmerman reopened it as the Metropolitan Alcazar, but that also failed. Next came S.M. Hickey, who called it Cosmopolitan Theatre and soon thereafter walked away. Captain Samuels of Brooklyn converted it into a skating rink during the roller-skating craze, and later it was used for fairs, flower shows, lectures, and billiards.

The Broadway Theatre was three stories with a roof of colored glass, which could be opened for ventilation. About the framework of the roof was a garden, where people could sit and listen to music coming from the stage below in summer.

Broadway Theatre

A queue of people for the box office on the sidewalk outside of the Broadway Theatre in 1901. Museum of the City of New York Collections

According to building plans published in The New York Times, the theater was to be as fireproof as possible, and it had electric knobs that, when pushed, would open every single stage door outward so people could get out quickly. There were three stores on the Broadway side of the building, and the two upper stories above the stores had offices. The stage was 44 x 100 feet and had seating for about 2,000 people.

A Tragic Death

By 1906, it appears that the two vets had gone their separate ways. Doc Potter got a job as the vet for the Hippodrome Theatre shortly after it opened in 1905; he was also hired as the veterinarian for the Fox Film Corporation at 130 West 46th Street. In addition to these jobs, he continued collecting and selling animals for stage and screen.

Hippodrome Theatre

In 1905, Doc Potter started working as the veterinarian at the new Hippodrome Theatre on 6th Avenue and 43rd Street.

At some point prior to December 1920, Doc Potter had moved his Ben-Hur Stables to 156 East 30th Street, where he ran an animal pawn shop for hard-luck circus men and animal trainers who needed loans. The animals were used as collateral, for which Doc Potter charged “room and board” in lieu of interest payments on the loans.

Tragically, in the early morning hours of December 2, 1920, a fire broke out at his home at 27-29 West 57th Street. Five residents, including Doc Potter, were trapped in the buildings and burned to death.

27-29 East 57th Street

Firemen and their ladders were still visible following the fatal fire at 27-29 East 57th Street.

The residents’ deaths could probably have been prevented had the joined buildings not undergone extensive renovations a year earlier, in which the staircases were removed between the first and second floor of each building to create – ironically– more living space.

156 East 30th Street

Following Doc Potter’s untimely death at the age of 49, his widow, Frances, decided to hold onto the stables at 156 E. 30th Street for 18 months until the lease expired. The building shown here was built in 1920, but I wonder if the lower floor is part of the original stables?

Four years later, the site of Doc Potter’s death was occupied by the 13-story Chickering building, which you may recall from my last post about a high-flying peacock.

Dr. Field lived a much longer life, and in fact, was named Hempstead’s oldest male resident on his 90th birthday on September 13, 1933. He had sold his farm in 1907 — it was cut into lots by developers — and he was living alone at 22 Columbia Street in the village by this time (his wife, Margaret, passed away in 1915). Dr. Field passed away on October 28, 1936.

Abraham Lincoln Erlanger

After Doc Potter died, theater owner and director Abraham Lincoln Erlanger purchased 24 of Potter’s Ben-Hur horses for his production of the show.

On November 11, 1935, a blue peacock decided to make his escape from who knows where and lead numerous grown men on a four-hour chase through the streets of New York.

Peacock New York City

In August 2011, a peacock flew the coop from the Central Park Zoo and spent the night on a fifth-floor ledge at 858 Fifth Ave. The peacock in this story made the reverse trip.

It’s a plane! It’s a bird! It’s a peacock!

Imagine walking down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on a Monday morning and seeing a peacock flying overhead. Nowadays, you might just shrug it off and continue walking to keep up with the crowd. Or maybe you’d stop briefly to take a selfie with your smart phone and share it on Twitter. A few of you might capture the incident on video, like they did in 2012 when a peacock escaped from the John Browne High School in Queens.

Unfortunately, there were no personal cameras and video recorders when this event actually took place almost 80 years ago, but news reports from The New York Times and Cortland Standard tell a colorful story.

At 9:10 a.m. on that Monday morning, a woman on West 58th Street called the West 47th Street police station to report a large buzzard on her windowsill. Patrolmen William Burke, John Duffy, and John Leonhardt were dispatched to the building with orders to make the buzzard go away…

47th Street Police Station

The old 47th Street Police Station in 1939.

The three leading policemen in this story were assigned to what was then the 18th Precinct on West 47th Street in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. This station house was built in 1860, and over the course of a century, was known as the 26th, 9th, 18th, and 16th precincts as well as Traffic Station D.

Due to its proximity to the theater district, the station house was quite busy making arrests and headlines. According to national news reports, Mae West was a frequent customer – she was reportedly arrested in 1926 for appearing in her play “Sex,” and in 1928, she and four cast members of the play “Pleasure Man” were arrested when detectives and uniformed policemen from the station raided the show on opening night. A large crowd followed the police as they drove Miss West and her cast to the station for questioning. They were reportedly each released on $500 bail and were to be arraigned on charges of performing in an indecent play.

After the police station was demolished in 1962, the city transferred the property to the Fire Department as a potential site for a firehouse, but nothing ever materialized. In the 1970s, Ramon Aponte, a native of Puerto Rico who had lived nearby since 1950, organized a group of concerned citizens that helped transform the lot into a playground. Today it is called the Ramon Aponte Park.

40 West 58th Street

40 West 58th Street, 1916

“The Buzzard”

By the time the patrolmen got to 58th Street, the buzzard had miraculously turned into a peacock and flown away. They looked up and saw that it was perched on the roof of the Plaza Funeral Home at 40 West 58th Street. The men made their way to the roof and tried to approach the bird, but the peacock kept its distance…

The five-story building at 40 West 58th Street was known as the Plaza Funeral Home from about 1930 to 1968. Prior to that, the building served as a showroom for the New York and Brooklyn Casket Company, and earlier, as a luxury clubhouse for New York’s Coterie Club. The building had elevator service to all floors.

Coterie Club ballroom

The ballroom of the Coterie Club.

The Coterie Club was organized in 1916 by several prominent Daughters of the American Revolution. Its mission was to provide superior accommodations and service for single, well-to-do women who were visiting the city and needed assistance procuring hotel rooms, theater tickets, taxi services, and more. The club provided a ballroom, dining room and lounging rooms for afternoon or evening entertainment, and services such as social secretaries, chaperones, and personal shoppers. This club was very active from 1916-1918.

Starting in 1965, builder Sheldon H. Solow began to secretly purchase 14 buildings on 57th and 58th Street, including the Plaza Funeral Home (he recorded the buyers under different names in order to fly below the real estate development radar). These buildings were demolished in the fall of 1968 to make room for the luxury 50-story Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street.

Solow Building

The Solow Building at 9 W. 37th St.

From the roof of the Plaza Funeral Home, the peacock flew to the roof of the Wyndham Hotel at 42 West 58th Street. The three policemen headed to that roof also, but again the peacock flew the coop.

By this time, the policemen were just hoping the large bird would fly over to the Savoy Hotel on the east side Fifth Avenue so that they could turn the job over to the East 51st Street police station.

After departing the Wyndham roof, the peacock flew around the nine-story Bergdorf-Goodman building on Fifth Avenue. Down on the street, a large crowd of people stood gaping and cheering on the feathered fugitive as it circled a few times around the gilded rooster weather vane on top of the Heckscher Building.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion

Before Edwin Goodman and Herman Bergdorf moved their department store to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in 1928, the site was occupied by the huge Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion, designed in 1893 by George B. Post and his teacher, Richard Morris Hunt. The Gilded Age Era website has some great interior photos and information about the mansion.

The Heckscher Building

Augustus Heckscher Sr. came to the United States from Germany in 1867 and began making a fortune in various mining operations. In 1913, he bought the old Frederick Stevens and William Whitney mansion at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street and constructed a three-story building of offices and shops.

Stevens and Whitney mansion

In 1875 Frederick W. Stevens commissioned architect George Harney to design a mansion for him and his family at 2 West 57th Street. After Frederick died, his widow sold the property to Oliver Payne who in turn gave it to his sister Flora and her husband, William C. Whitney.

A few years later he announced plans for a tall office building in the form of a simple slab on a plain base, but with some French Renaissance detailing. By the time construction began in 1920, the design had changed to conform to a new zoning law requiring setbacks with skyscrapers.

In the 1930’s Heckscher lost the building through foreclosure. Then in 1942, the weather vane was removed, apparently as scrap for the war effort. Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos secretly bought the building in 1981, and in 1983, management renamed it the Crown Building.

Back to our illustrious peacock…

Apparently realizing that the rooster was not going to pay him any attention, the peacock soared over to Chickering Hall at 29 West 57th Street, where he perched for a brief time on a window sill on the 13th floor.

Alas, there were no chicks to be found at Chickering Hall, so it was time for the peacock to move on again.

Crown Building Heckscher Building

The 25-story Crown Building rises in a series of setbacks culminating in a fancy copper pyramidal roof.

By now, the streets were thronged with spectators. There were also 12 photographers, 10 reporters, three agents from the ASPCA, and two keepers from the Central Park Zoo on hand to witness the flying spectacle. The peacock did not disappoint. Spotting a nice cornice on the 15th floor of the Plaza Hotel, he took flight again.

The peacock obviously enjoyed the view from the Plaza Hotel, because he stayed up there for about an hour. The officers tried to reach him by entering Room 1571 (the peacock hunters interrupted the occupant, who was eating a late breakfast) and opening the window. They slowly made their way along the narrow edge (I find this hard to believe, but it was reported in the news) and tossed pellets at the bird to scare it off, but that also failed.

Chickering Hall

Chickering Hall was built in 1924, just four years after a fire destroyed two houses on the site and killed five people, including the famous animal trainer, Dr. Martin Potter. In its early years, the building was home to the American Piano Company. By the time the high-flying peacock paid a visit, the building was, quite appropriately, being leased by The Curtiss Flying Service.

Finally around noon, there came a raucous cry from the new bird sanctuary in the southeast corner of Central Park (the Hallett Nature Sanctuary). The peacock spread his magnificent wings and swooped down across the pond toward four peahens in waiting.

Captain Ronald Cheyne-Stout, director of menageries for the New York City Park Department, said he was delighted that the peacock had landed there. Ironically, the only other peacock at the sanctuary had died two weeks before, so the new male would fit in very well. As long as his wings were clipped twice a year, he wouldn’t be able to fly away.

Plaza Hotel, New York

The 18-story Plaza Hotel at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South opened its doors on October 1, 1907. Although numerous birds, including owls, falcons, and pelicans, once lived at the Plaza with a princess, this was the first time a peacock visited the grand hotel.

The director said they would certainly return the bird if anyone could prove ownership, and added, “The ASPCA can’t take him because there is nothing cruel about where he is now.”

Peacock

Post Office Cats

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States government allocated funds to feed hundreds of cats that were “hired” to catch rats at post offices and other federal buildings.

On November 5, 1904, New York City postal clerk George W. Cook celebrated his 54th anniversary working for the U.S. Post Office Department with a special dinner. The banquet took place at 2 p.m. in the basement of the General Post Office building, also known as the Mullet Post Office, which was then located at the intersection of Broadway and Park Row in New York’s City Hall Park.

The menu was simple, and included raw calves’ liver and lambs’ kidney heaped high in four piles and served on clean white paper. In attendance were George, two “boss” sergeant cats named Bill and Richard, one bow-legged, brindled Roundsman cat, and 57 patrol cats. The entire dinner was funded by the United States government.

PoPostmaster Edward M Morgan

George Cook’s 54 years of service topped that of Acting Postmaster Edward M. Morgan, shown here, who had 45 years with the Post Office in 1904.

Superintendent of Federal Cats

When he wasn’t sorting letters in the Mailing Department, 81-year-old George Cook was also (unofficially) the Superintendent of Federal Cats. Under Postmaster Edward Morgan, it was George’s responsibility to feed the almost 100 New York mousers who were “employed” by the U.S. Post Office Department to kill the rats that were attracted to the glue used on envelopes and packages.

Cats-of-the-New-York-Post-Office_HatchingCatNYC

George was provided a budget of about $5 a month — allocated through the department’s Salaries and Allowance Division — which he used to purchase cat’s meat from a restaurant on Ann Street. The budget allowed for one meal a day. (George told reporters he thought the budget should have been at least $10 a month in order to accommodate his growing feline police force.) The budget was reportedly necessary: Many of the cats had become lazy and started nibbling on leather mail bags and stealing postal clerks’ lunches, so the meat kept those bad habits at bay.

The Mother of New York Postal Cats

Moving from old post office on Nassau Street

On the evening of August 28, 1875, the transfer from the old post office building on Nassau Street to the new building in City Hall Park commenced. One of the items included in the transfer of property and effects was a female tabby mouser. New York Public Library Digital Collections

George Cook, a father of five daughters (Carrie, Jennie, Lilly, Laura, and Annie) and a resident of Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side, began working for the Post Office Department in 1850, when New York’s general post office was located in the former Middle Dutch Reformed Church on the corner of Liberty and Nassau streets. When the new General Post Office at City Hall Park opened in August 1875, George brought one postal tabby with him and put her to work as the new building’s first rat catcher.

“That darned low critter would never stay on post,” George told several New York reporters during his grand anniversary dinner. “She used to go a stravagin’ all over town. I tell you, mister, in a few months there were more cats in this office than letters. Every corner I turned it seemed as if I stumbled on a nest o’ kittens.”

According to George, one day the Superintendent of Mails asked him to get six strong mail bags. “He just stuffed them bags full o’ big and little cats and registered them, yes, mister, an’ sent ‘em to a little post office in New Jersey. Gosh! I wonder what the feller said when he got ‘em.”

The Old Post Office, Dutch Reformed Church

Built in 1729, the Dutch Church on Nassau Street was used as a house of worship until 1776, when British troops converted the 100 x 70 foot building into a military prison and riding school. Worship services resumed in 1790 until the United States government stepped in to lease the property for a post office in 1844. Incidentally, Benjamin Franklin conducted experiments with lightning from the belfry in 1750.

As you can guess, transferring a few cats across the river did not solve the problem. By 1897, there were about 60 cats in the New York Post Office (I’m sure it was one of these cats that took a ride through the pneumatic mail tubes in October 1897). Most of them were born in the building, but others came from the restaurants on Park Row or gave up catching sparrows in City Hall Park for a more secure job on the feline police force.

That year, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was called in to remove about 30 of the 60 cats and have them “humanely” destroyed. Some of the cats taken away included Fitzsimmons, a long-legged cat who could stand on his hind legs, and Tim McCarthy, a big grey cat who was a known lady-killer. Those cats spared from the SPCA’s wagon included Nellie, a champion mouser and Jim Corbett, a large black and white cat.

Of course, the surviving cats continued to breed, so every so often the post office allowed human employees to take their favorite cats home when the ranks were full. Unfortunately, the SPCA also continued to raid the cat colony when things got out of hand. The old cats that were born in the building knew to stay away from the cat catchers. But the kittens and the cats from the restaurants, which were used to being petted, were often captured and taken away to the death chamber.

If the population really got out of control, the postal clerks would “mail” some cats in the newspaper mail sacks. The sacks would then be carefully placed on the wagon with the other mail and quietly deposited at some other sub-station. (Occasionally, a cat would accidentally get into a mail bag and be delivered to a distant city if the railway post office clerks didn’t intercept.)

The Newspaper and Registry Cats

First-class stamps

Second-class cats that worked in the newspaper department could be promoted to first-class cats in the Registry Division on the top floor.

At the General Post Office building in New York, most of the cats started their policing careers at the ground level, or more specifically, the newspaper department. This department, which was responsible for sorting and distributing newspaper mail (second class) and mail from the ocean steamships, took up the entire basement of the enormous building.

The basement offered numerous patrol and napping posts for the cats, including 700 closets where the employees stored their street clothes and a large storage area for all the U.S. mail bags not in use. Each patrol cat had a favorite spot to sit for hours and wait for a rat to pass by.

Hard-working cats that went above and beyond the call of duty could be promoted to the Registry Division on the top floor of the building. Registered mail required extra care to safeguard it, and all persons handling this mail had to account for it as it passed through their hands along its route. The postal cats had to be extra diligent in their rat-catching efforts to protect this valuable class of mail.

New York Public Library, Image ID: 809396

This 1890 engraving from Scientific American depicts the many departments of the General Post Office, including the large area in the basement dedicated to the distribution of newspapers (circular image) and the newspaper and bulk mail chutes (bottom left). I wonder how many curious cats went down those chutes? New York Public Library Digital Collections

George said he used what he called “a two-platoon system” in order to ensure there were always enough cats on duty at one time to catch the rats and mice. He said he set up this system one day when he didn’t have enough cats on reserve to handle a massive rat attack. Apparently a cheese house had mailed samples of its most powerful Limburger cheese, and the mail bags were attacked by the rats. A riot ensued, and there were not enough cats on duty to arrest all of the perpetrators.

The Daily Lunch Hour and Furlough

Every day at around 2 p.m., George, like the Pied Piper, would blow a whistle to summon the second-class cats to their lunch. Cats would come running to the feeding area near the lockers from every corner where they were mousing (or sleeping on the job). They’d scramble under and over hand trucks, through people’s legs, over counters, or whatever they had to do to get to the food the fastest.

The cats ate in “assigned” groups of six, and if a cat from another table went to the wrong place by mistake, the boss of the group would box his ears and chase him back to where he belonged. In addition to strips of meat (usually lamb, beef, or calf livers and hearts), sometimes the cats would get fresh catnip for desert or some green grass from outdoors.

William W. Dixon feeds Post Office cats

Postal laborer William Dixon helps feed the cats, most of whom ran away when the flash fired on the camera. The New York Press, September 11, 1910

In order to keep the second-class and first-class cats separate so they wouldn’t fight, George would serve the top-floor cats separately. All those cats detailed for duty in the Registry Department would gather around the elevator door at the designated hour and take it down to the basement. When they were done eating, they’d take the elevator back up to work. (I am not making this up.)

In the summer months, the newspaper department cats were allowed to take an afternoon break outdoors in City Hall Park. They’d catch some sparrows, or maybe swap stories while soaking up the sun with the park cats or with Old Tom, the official cat mascot of City Hall. (Naturally, the park cats wanted to win a job at the post office, so they were on their best behavior with the postal cats.) After sunning themselves, the post office cats would stroll back to the basement and resume their duties.

City Hall Park, New York

A view of City Hall, Park Row and City Hall Park in 1911. The General Post Office is on the left.

“Please Adopt Our First-Class Cats”

On December 10, 1906, an article in the New York Herald reported that due to overpopulation, the post office was going to have to lay off some employees in the “Department of Mouse Catching.” The public was invited to come to the post office to adopt some first-class cats. According to the article, some of the cats were descendants of the original tabby from the Nassau Street post office. “Never was a greater variety of breeds under one roof than that which may be found in the basement of the Post Office,” it stated.

The New King of the Cats

New York City Hall Policeman John Foley, 1910

In the spring of 1910, Policeman John Foley, shown here, told a reporter for the New York Press that a black and white cat named Mollie (also shown here) was at the head of the Civil Service list. Her specialty was hunting sparrows by hiding under newspapers, and she held the record with two in an hour and 12 in a week.

By 1910, there were about 200 cats on Uncle Sam’s payroll in New York City. Most of these felines worked for the Post Office Department — nearly 100 in the General Post Office building and the rest at the various sub-stations.

177 Rogers Street, Brooklyn, NY

In 1910, 87-year-old George Cook was living with his daughter, Carrie, her husband, James E. Walker, and their son, Fred, in a brand-new townhouse at 177 Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn, shown here.

Although George Cook was still working as a clerk, a much younger man named William W. Dixon was now in charge of the cat police force. Dixon was making $700 a year as a laborer, but one of his primary duties was caring for the mousers. His fellow employees called him “King of the Cats.”

One of the people who kept in contact with William was Policeman John Foley of the City Hall Park police. Policeman Foley looked out for the park cats, and he would always try to persuade William to take one of them whenever there was an opening on the United States postal force.

By 1910, construction of a new General Post Office on 8th Avenue (31st to 33rd Street) had already begun. In that year, 87-year-old George Cook was a widower, but he still listed his occupation as “postal clerk” on the 1910 Census report.

Postal services continued on the first floor of the Mullet Post Office through the 1920s, but the building was demolished in 1938 as part of the city’s efforts to beautify the city for the 1939 World’s Fair. I could find no mention of New York’s post office cats after 1924, so one might assume their skills were no longer required in the brand-new building.