Archive for June, 2014

Wang and His Pirate Crew

There were three little hearses before the door; all her children had been swept away.–New York City social worker, July 27, 1916

On June 6, 1916, 10-month-old John Pamaris of 53 Garfield Place and 2-year-old Armanda Schuccjio of 5014 7th Avenue — two children in the Italian community just east of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn — were reported to the New York City Health Department as having symptoms of polio (then called “infantile paralysis”). These two reported cases, along with four more cases reported on June 8, served as a warning of the impending epidemic.

53 Garfield Place, Brooklyn

The first reported case of polio in 1916 was 10-month-old John Pamaris, who lived in this 1901 apartment at 53 Garfield Place.

Within a few weeks, there were 24 cases in Brooklyn, most of them in the area bounded by 7th Avenue and Third, Degraw, and Nevins streets. By the end of June there were 646 reported cases of polio in that borough, plus about 150 cases throughout the other boroughs.

At the time, there was no good theory for how polio was spread. Since the outbreak began in the Italian community, some, including New York City’s health commissioner, Dr Haven Emerson (a great-nephew of Ralph Waldo Emerson), thought that the disease had been brought to America by Italian immigrants.

First reported cases of polio in Brooklyn, 1916

This map shows the locations of the first reported cases of polio in Brooklyn, just east of the Gowanus Canal, in 1916.

Others in the health community speculated that it was spread by insects, while some early reports suggested that domestic cats and dogs were to blame. For example, in an article in The New York Times on July 30, 1916, people were advised to wash their pet cats and dogs in a two percent solution of carbolic acid (that must have gone over well with the pets).

The 1916 epidemic caused widespread panic. Movie theaters and libraries were closed, meetings were canceled, public gatherings were almost nonexistent, and children were told to avoid water fountains, amusement parks, swimming pools, and beaches. Thousands of the well-to-do fled the city or sent their children to live with relatives in other states.

Polio in Brooklyn 1916

One of the first steps the city took was to publish the names and addresses of individuals with confirmed polio cases in the press on a daily basis. The city’s health department also placed placards on the houses identified, as shown in this picture of a Brooklyn apartment, and quarantined the families living there.

Many more people released their pets to the streets, where they were rounded up and put down. On July 26, the Times reported that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was sending up to 450 animals to the lethal chamber every day.

Despite all this killing of innocent animals, some domestic pets were able to dodge the bullet for an extended period.

Wang and His Gang

Although he had probably been a domestic cat, Wang was a street-smart feline who knew how to survive. Described as a “mauve cat” with pink eyes, white feet, and no tail, Wang was the leader of a pack of up to 100 stray cats that haunted West 80th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues during the brutal spring and summer of 1916.

For three months, Wang and his posse defied the police, the SPCA, and the stray dogs. According to a policeman, the stray cats made their lair in a cellar on West 81st Street, where they spent the daylight hours in hiding (they also had a second escape home in a cellar near Amsterdam and 79th Street). At night they kept all the residents awake with their howling as they moved from one janitors’ apartment to the other to steal food. The policeman suggested that the cats howled so loud because of a new law that required residents to place tight lids on garbage cans.

80th Street and Columbus Avenue. Orleans Apartment Hotel.

Wang and his gang of pirate cats terrorized the residents on West 80th Street near Columbus Avenue, shown here in 1915. Wurts Bros., Museum of the City of New York Collections

Piotr Besanovitch, a janitor near Amsterdam Avenue, said Wang and six other felines had entered his kitchen one night and stole a leg of mutton off the table. As the cats devoured the meat off the bone, Wang and a large black cat with yellow eyes and clipped ears stood guard outside the cellar door. Piotr said he tried using a few dogs to keep the cats away, but the dogs would only hide under the bed once the cats started howling.

A day after The New York Times did a story about Wang, the king of cats took his gang to Central Park West, where residents and guests at the Hotel Majestic reported that the cats were creating a nuisance in the area. Timothy Ebbitt, night house detective at the hotel, formed a search team of bell boys, night clerks, kitchen men, and a few scrub women with mops.

Near the 72nd entrance to Central Park, they saw Wang surrounded by about 30 other cats. Wang arched his back in attack mode and then scurried away when Ebbitt threw some rocks his way. They were last seen by a policeman heading toward Broadway. I have a bad feeling, though, that they were really last seen at the SPCA at 26th and Madison.

Hotel Majestic and Central Park West, New York

Built in 1894, the Hotel Majestic featured private bowling alleys and a rooftop garden, and was home to Dorothy Parker, Gustav Mahler, and other celebrities of the Gilded Age. It was replaced by the Majestic, a twin-towered housing complex, in 1930. Museum of the City of New York Collections.

According to Thomas F. Freel, superintendent of the SPCA, more than 80,000 cats and dogs were collected off the city streets and disposed of in the lethal chamber by the end of July. The epidemic also took a large toll on human life, with over 27,000 reported cases and more than 6,000 deaths in the United States — over 2,400 deaths were reported in New York City.

Thomas F. Freel, superintendent of the SPCA

Thomas F. Freel, superintendent of the SPCA, tried to convince people that cats and dogs were not spreading polio. He also insisted that it was the mice and rats that were carrying the germs that caused the disease.

The Monkeys at Rockefeller Institute

One modern-day theory is that the 1916 epidemic was caused by a “mixed virus” (MV strain) of polio that had escaped from the Rockefeller Institute, which was then located just three miles from the epicenter of the outbreak at 63rd Street and York Avenue in Manhattan. It was here that Dr. Simon Flexner, the first director of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, was conducting studies by transferring spinal cord tissue containing the
poliovirus from one Rhesus monkey’s spinal cord to another.

Although Dr. Flexner’s research led him to conclude, falsely, that poliovirus entered the body through the nose, the “germicidal substances” that were present in the blood of the monkeys and which had survived polio were later discovered to be antibodies for the disease.

Dr. Simon Flexner

Dr. Simon Flexner, the first director of the Rockefeller Institute, didn’t find a cure for polio but he did develop a novel delivery system for an anti-meningitis serum.

The Rockefeller Institute

In the early 1800s, Peter Schermerhorn, a merchant and shipbuilder, bought property bounded by 63rd and 68th streets and Third Avenue and the East River. Following his death, the Schermerhorn farm was turned over to his son William, who lived there until 1860, when he bought his mansion at 49 West 23rd Street.

Schermerhorn Farm, 1800s

The Schermerhorn farm was already out of place in the late 1800s when this photo was taken.

Forty years later, in 1901, John D. Rockefeller’s first grandchild, John Rockefeller McCormick, died of scarlet fever. In reaction to his grandson’s death, the senior Rockefeller decided to found an institute devoted to research in medicine.

In 1903, when William Schermerhorn died, Rockefeller paid $700,000 for the old farm, which comprised three full lots of unimproved land. Here, in 1906, he opened the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, the first biomedical research center in the United States.

Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research

The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research opened in 1906 at York Avenue (then called Avenue A) and 66th Street.

In 1955, the Rockefeller Institute expanded its mission to include education. Ten years later, the institute changed its name to Rockefeller University. Today, the university is a world-renowned center for research and graduate education in the biomedical sciences, chemistry, bioinformatics, and physics.

On April 12, 1955, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., declared to the world that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was “safe and effective.” The announcement was made at the University of Michigan, exactly 10 years to the day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was diagnosed with polio in 1921 at the age of 39. Although the vaccine arrived 40 years too late for thousands of people, cats, and dogs, today naturally occurring polio is nonexistent in the United States and has been nearly eradicated from the world.

Newspaper headlines about the polio vaccine on April 13, 1955.

Newspaper headlines about the polio vaccine on April 13, 1955.

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

Lady Eglantine, Hotel Imperial, Willard D. Rockefeller

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

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

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

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

Hotel Imperial

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

Lady Eglantine and Her Flock Come to New York

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

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

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

Kitty Gordon, 1913

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

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

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

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

Hotel Imperial Lobby

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

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

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

Lady Eglantine in her coop

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

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

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

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

Grand Central Palace

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

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

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

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

Lady Eglantine, Greensboro Historical Society

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

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

Sir Oliver was a handsome twentieth-century matinée idol who had a habit of going off script and speaking out of line. Perhaps this was because Sir Oliver was not a man of royalty, but a female cockatoo that had the gift of gab. Or maybe it was because Sir Oliver spent many of her down-time hours with the loquacious, merry pranksters of America’s first professional theatrical club, The Lambs.

Sir Oliver, Foxy Quiller, New York

Although Sir Oliver sometimes performed on an open perch, she was relegated to her cage for a few weeks after she snatched the hat of Jerome Sykes (right) and flew off with it. Even Adolph Zink (holding cage) couldn’t catch her as she made her way to the top of the highest scenery on the stage.

Sir Oliver was the pet of Jerome H. Sykes, a comic actor and opera singer. Sykes, who rose to fame with the Bostonians, was best known for his portrayal of Constable Foxy Quiller, a bumbling, overweight detective who first appeared in “The Highwayman” in 1897 (Sykes created the character for the comic opera). In 1900, Reginald De Koven (music) and Harry B. Smith (lyrics) wrote a new operetta based on the character called “Foxy Quiller.”

Broadway Theatre

The Broadway Theatre, designed by J.B. McElfatrick & Co., was constructed in 1887. “Foxy Quiller,” the comic opera in three acts, opened in New York City at the Broadway Theatre on November 5, 1900.

Sir Oliver was reportedly from Australia, and had beautiful blue and red feathers and green wings. Sykes bought the parrot from a street vendor, and carried her around with him while he was performing with the Klaw & Erlander Opera Company in “Foxy Quiller.” Not only was Sir Oliver a pet, however; she was also one of Sykes’ co-stars, appearing as Polly in the comic opera.

According to news reports, Sir Oliver was trained by a French animal and bird trainer in New York to follow cues and speak several lines in “Foxy Quiller.” In the operetta, Sykes has a conversation with Polly, who is supposedly the only witness to a crime. During the conversation, Polly gives him a clue to the whereabouts of a “Japanese dwarf” named Kimono who has just robbed a sailor.

Jerome Sykes, Foxy Quiller

Jerome Sykes as Foxy Quiller, the quintessence of all human intelligence, featured in de Koven and Smith’s opera “Foxy Quiller” at the Broadway Theatre in 1900. Museum of the City of New York Collection

Polly Want a Cracker?

One of the songs from the opera was called Polly Want a Cracker?, which you can hear (instrumental only) by clicking here.

Polly Want A Cracker? Pretty Polly, witty Polly, instinct with the critter was sublime. He was full of rhyme and reason, always had a word in season, coming in just at the proper time. Polly, Pretty Polly! Fond of youth and fond of folly, full of conversation all the day. He was up to snuff, that parrot, and his brain was eighteen carat, for he knew the thing to say? Knew the proper thing to say.

Two months after “Foxy Quiller” opened in New York, the Klaw & Erlander Opera Company took the show to Chicago. Sir Oliver was placed in a baggage compartment on the train and left there overnight. When Sykes went to get the bird the next day, his water bowl was frozen but the tropical bird was somehow still alive. As Sykes told the press, “Lor’ bless you, that bird had kept so much tropical warmth in his body and replenished it from the snow that we thawed him out without the slightest difficulty.”

When Sir Oliver wasn’t performing or traveling with the opera company, she spent time in a bird store on Broadway. There, she would sit in a window and attract much attention by repeating lines from her conversation with Foxy. One day an Irish laborer reportedly took offense when she spoke, “The red’s above the green. Streak of yellow, eh?”

Jerome Sykes

Jerome Sykes was born in Washington, DC, in 1867. He grew up in a house where the Library of Congress now stands.

When Jerome Sykes wasn’t performing, he spent time with his second wife, the actress Jessie Wood, at their city home at 200 West 80th Street (his first wife, Agnes Sherwood, was a light opera singer who died in 1896). During the off-season, they enjoyed spending time with their horses, dogs, and cats on their 65-acre country estate that overlooked the Stony Brook Harbor on Three Sisters Road in St. James, Long Island. There, despite his size (he weighed over 300 pounds) Sykes enjoyed playing baseball, swimming, rowing, fishing, and attending balls and social affairs with the many other New York actors that gathered at the actors’ colony in St. James.

The Silence of The Lambs

Jerome Sykes was also a member of the New York City’s Lambs’ Club, which bills itself as America’s first professional theatrical club. This club was formed during the Christmas week of 1874 at Delmonico’s restaurant on 14th Street by matinée star Henry Montague. The club was named after a London club–of which Montague was a member–that honored the essayist Charles Lamb. Its president was called the Shepherd and its members were the Flock.


Montague was the stage name used by Henry James Mann, a founding member of The Lambs of London and the first Shepherd of The Lambs in New York.

After Montague passed in 1878, the newly incorporated Lambs’ Club met every other week for dinner at the Union Square Hotel to glorify the late idol. They moved into a four-story brownstone at 34 West 26th Street in 1880, which served as their headquarters until about 1892. The brownstone had a large back yard with a marquee that was illuminated with Chinese lanterns, where some of the younger members would have boisterous parties in the summer months.

Apparently, the neighbors were not very fond of these late-night summer gatherings. Although the parties quieted down after Washington Irving Bishop, a mind reader, died at the club in 1888, the noise levels picked up within a year of his death. In 1890, several neighbors, including Dr. William R. Chichester at #36 West 26th Street and Miss M.L. Thomas at #32, complained that The Lambs were carrying “their bleatings so far into the early morning hours that they became intolerable.”

Miss Thomas and her 90-year-old mother told police of the Nineteenth Police Precinct that the bleating was more like bellowing. Another neighbor, Mr. J.L. Reed, who lived on the third floor of #34, threatened to turn a water hose on The Lambs when they were outside in the yard making noise. The neighbors were finally successful in silencing The Lambs when the club moved out and the New York Press Club moved in.

Sir Oliver Joins The Lambs

For the next few years, The Lambs moved around a bit, trying their luck at 8 West 29th Street until a neighbor complained about the bleating (apparently they made quite a ruckus playing pool), and later, at 26 West 31st Street. They finally settled in for a few years at 70 West 36th Street, which is where Sir Oliver joined the ranks.

Lambs Club, 70 West 36th Street

The Lambs moved to 70 West 36th Street in the Herald Square Theater District in 1897, and stayed there until 1905. It was here that Jerome Sykes and other members inducted Sir Oliver as its mascot.

The decision to make Sir Oliver a mascot was inspired by playwright Augustus Thomas sometime around 1900, during the tenure of Shepherd William DeWolf Hopper. According to the story, Thomas and Sykes were smoking and chatting one afternoon at the club when Sykes began talking about Sir Oliver.

“Do you know that that bird is a regular mischief-maker, and yet he brings me good luck,” Sykes said. “I don’t know what to make of him.”

“Why not a mascot of The Lambs?” Thomas asked. Sykes agreed it was a good idea, as long as the members approved. Sir Oliver was welcomed to The Lambs, and he spent the next few years “sitting in the window and making life interesting” for those who passed by whenever he wasn’t performing on stage.

Augustus Thomas

Augustus Thomas was a St. Louis playwright who joined The Lambs in 1889 and served as Shepherd from 1907-1910.

The Tragic Death of Jerome Sykes

In June 1902, The Lambs purchased a 37 x 100 foot lot at 128-130 West 44th Street from Minnie Lespinasse. They approached architects McKim, Mead and White, all of whom were members of the club, to design the new clubhouse. The six-story marble Georgian building was completed in 1905; unfortunately, that was two years too late for Jerome Sykes.

Lambs' Club, West 44th Street, 1905

The new clubhouse on 44th Street featured a lobby, billiard room, and grill room on the first floor; a banquet hall on the second floor; a private theater on the third floor; and offices and sleeping rooms for the members on the top floor.

On Christmas Eve, 1903, Jerome Sykes became overheated while performing “The Billionaire” in Chicago. He sat near a window to cool down, and the rest, as they say, is history. Jerome was simply not as strong as Sir Oliver, and the frigid air brought on a cold that lead to pneumonia. On December 29, at 4:30 p.m., he succumbed to his illness at the Hotel Stratford. Sadly, most of Jerome’s family members were trapped in St. James by a winter storm on the day of his funeral in New York City, and were unable to attend.

Lamb's Club, West 44th Street, 1918

In 1915, The Lambs’ clubhouse was doubled in size by architect George A. Freeman, who added a mirror-image addition. The building was designated a New York City Landmark in 1974 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Today it is home to The Chatwal, which operates a restaurant called the Lambs Club.

A few years after Jerome’s death, his family sold part of the estate in St. James to the sugar beet magnate James Guerreo Oxnard and his wife, Caroline Moss Thornton Oxnard. The Oxnard estate remained in the family until 1955, when it was demolished for construction of the Harbour Close housing development. As for Sir Oliver, I trust he had a good life in the company of The Lambs. (Then again, maybe he escaped to Madison Square Park…)

Oxnard Overlook Mansion

Overlook, the Oxnard summer mansion in St. James, in 1910.