Archive for October, 2014


To the Coroner or First Police Officer that Finds My Body Here: I beg of you to telephone to President Theodore Roosevelt. He will have my body cremated. I have written to him, have made my will, and all I have is his. He will have everything attended to just as I wish it to be, and all will be right. He knows where to find everything. Please find inclosed $5, and a thousand thanks for your kindness.

Please do not let my poor kittens be frightened or annoyed. President Roosevelt will take them as soon as he receives my letter I mailed to-night to him. Please let them stay here until then. My heart is broken, so I take my own life in the familiar way I know by drinking chloroform. No one is to blame but myself. I trust my spirit and future life to a merciful and loving God, who knows and judges our sorrow. —Lulu B. Grover, December 8, 1906

White Angora Cats

Lulu B. Grover loved her two Angora cats almost as much as she adored President Theodore Roosevelt. So when she decided to end her life on December 8, 1906, she first made sure that all the necessary preparations were in place to ensure her cats went to a good home after her death – in other words, the White House.

Lulu was reportedly the daughter of a rancher named Smith, who supposedly owned the ranch adjacent to Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch near Medora, North Dakota. Lulu allegedly married sometime around 1880 when she was 17, but by 18 she was a widow. I say “reportedly” and “supposedly” because when Lulu told stories about her earlier life to her middle-age women friends in East Harlem, she was not quite of sound mind.

Elkhorn Ranch, Theodore Roosevelt

Lulu Grover told friends she met Teddy Roosevelt in North Dakota, where he had built his Elkhorn Ranch in 1884.

Lulu, who was described in the newspapers as a comely woman about 45 years old at the time of her death, often claimed to be a distant relative or good friend of Roosevelt. She loved to tell people how, as a young woman in Medora, she would take long horse rides with Theodore across the North Dakota prairies. She also claimed to have met him in New York on several occasions, including the time she bumped into him at a bookseller’s shop.

Mrs. Grover was also quite fond of the president’s eldest son, Theodore Junior, for whom she purchased several Christmas gifts when Roosevelt was the governor of New York. According to news reports, she sent the boy a shotgun, compass and watch. Roosevelt wrote back to the mysterious gift-giver, “Dear Sir or Madam,” requesting that no more presents be sent to his son as he didn’t want the boy to be spoiled by strangers.

According to Mrs. Marie Hunter, who was caretaker of the house at 2089 Lexington Avenue where Lulu lived, Lulu was a magazine writer and artist who was always well dressed, and seemed to have a generous income from an unknown source. Although she loved to paint and do needlecraft, her chief concerns in life were her two cats, Magistrate Joseph Pool and Queen Fairy Snowdrop. Every day she would have meat cut up into fine pieces for them and she was always concerned about their welfare.

Theodore Roosevelt house, 28 E. 20th Street, New York

Theodore Roosevelt, the only U.S. president born in New York City, was raised in a four-story brownstone townhouse at 28 E. 20th Street. The family moved from the home in 1873, and it was immediately converted to a rooming house. The building underwent several structural changes and uses over the years, and was demolished in 1916. In 1919 the property was purchased to erect a replica of Roosevelt’s birthplace, shown here in 1923. Click here for a look inside the home. From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

In December 1906, Lulu Grover was renting the parlor floor of the house on Lexington, which comprised two large rooms and a bath. Lulu had found the apartment through Mrs. Hunter, who had previously rented rooms to her in a house at 2 East 119th Street near Fifth Avenue.

It was while she was living on 119th Street that Lulu began calling her cat Magistrate Joseph Pool. According to news reports, in January 1906 Lulu Grover had charged another tenant, Mrs. Emily Wishauser, of throwing water on her whenever she complained of the woman’s dog, which frightened her cat Flossie. Appearing in Harlem Court before Magistrate Pool, Emily said she threw the water in self defense when Lulu came after her with a poker and a revolver. For some reason, Magistrate Pool took Lulu’s side – hence, she named one of her cats in his honor.

On November 23, 1906, Lulu wrote her last will and testament in which she bequeathed her entire estate – including about $800, some jewels, and the two Angora cats — to President Roosevelt. In the will, Lulu noted that Roosevelt was “her only true friend in trouble.” Her neighbors, Edwin and Rosetta Taft, signed the will as her witnesses.

Harlem Court House

Lulu Grover appeared before Magistrate Pool at the Harlem Courthouse in 1906. The courthouse, at 170 East 121st Street and Sylvan Place, was designed by Arthur M. Thom and James W. Wilson and completed in 1893. The brick, brownstone, bluestone, granite and terra-cotta building was built for the Municipal and Magistrate’s Courts, and included the Fifth District Prison. Today the landmark building is occupied by the Harlem Community Justice Center.

Three weeks after preparing her will, on a Saturday night, Lulu wrote a letter to President Roosevelt. In the letter, she told him he would find her will and a bank book sewed into the lining of the cat basket, and the jewels in a hiding place under the hearth. Then she went into the bathroom and swallowed a vial of chloroform.

Lulu may have gotten the idea to commit suicide by ingesting a chemical poison from a previous neighbor, Adelene L. Callender, who lived in the flat above Lulu at 58 East 84th Street in 1898. At that time, Lulu had accused Police Captain Henry Frers and Policeman Joseph A. Wasserman of the East 88th Street station of hounding her and threatening with her arrest because they said she had a bad character.

She supposedly contacted then Governor-Elect Theodore Roosevelt – who had served as New York City’s Police Commissioner from 1885-1887 — and told him that the constant police harassment had caused her neighbor Adelene, to kill herself by taking carbolic acid. Roosevelt apparently wrote back saying he would have the matter fully investigated.

On Sunday, December 9, Rosetta Taft (a niece of then Secretary of War William Howard Taft) heard groans coming from Lulu’s apartment. She found Lulu lying on the bathroom floor in a house gown and losing consciousness. The place smelled of chloroform and there was an empty vial on the floor. Rosetta called for the police at the East 126th station and for Doctor E.G. Maupin of 151 East 127th Street.

Original Harlem Hospital in 1887

The first Harlem Hospital was a 20-bed municipal institution that opened in 1887 in a Victorian mansion at 120th Street and the East River. Construction of a larger, 150-bed facility on the east side of Lenox Avenue between 136th and 137th streets began in 1903. By 1909, when Lulu died, the new hospital was already overcrowded and extra patient beds clogged the aisles.

Lying on her hospital bed at Harlem Hospital later that day (many newspapers reported that she “would probably die” there), Lulu was questioned about an incident that took place during the wedding of Theodore’s daughter, Alice, and Representative Nicholas Longworth II. Apparently, a “woman in blue” tried to break into the White House, claiming she was a magazine writer. Lulu denied the charge.

A Shrine to Teddy Roosevelt

As Lulu lay dying in the hospital, Detective Sergeants O’Rourke and Charles J. Kammer searched her rooms. In one room, possible a study, the walls were covered with pictures of the president at almost every stage of his career. The room also contained many pictures cut from newspapers and magazines, three oil paintings of him that Lulu had painted (one in uniform on horseback, one standing in his Rough Rider’s uniform, and one in civilian clothes), a few poems she had written about him, and several tapestries in his likeness. On the book shelves was a complete collection of his writings.

29th Police Station House

The 1870 “Nathanial Bush” police station at 146-148 East 126th Street was home to the 12th Precinct. In 1887 it became the 29th Precinct. The station house was located just diagonally across the street from Lulu Grover’s home on Lexington. From the collection of the author.

The detectives also found two letters on standard writing paper — the one to the coroner transcribed above, and another to her neighbors, Mrs. Taft and Mrs. Lyons, in which she spoke of the pleasure she had in knowing them and apologized for any shock she caused them by taking her own life. Finally, the detectives found a cat basket and two Angora cats.

Lulu Grover died at Harlem Hospital on Sunday, December 10 — the very same day Theodore Roosevelt became the first American to win a Nobel Prize. Her body was taken to the undertaking shop of W.P. St. Germain at 1984 Lexington Avenue. He held the body there for three days waiting for someone to claim it. During this time, all of her property was turned over Public Administrator William M. Hoes. This included a wicker cat basket that was lined with silk inside and out (the bank book and will were located under the inside lining) and several small diamond pieces and other jewels, which were found inside a leather bag tucked into the smoke vent of the fireplace chimney.

Hoes knew that he could sell the jewelry at an auction, but he was in a quandary as to what he should do with the Angora cats. He could not give them away, he told the press, because they had been willed to President Roosevelt. The care of the two cats worried him greatly, in fact, and he appealed to Mrs. Hunter to relieve him of the burden. Mrs. Hunter wrote to President Roosevelt about the cats; he told her to send them on to Washington and he and his family would take care of them.

Henry Lewis Stimson

District Attorney Henry Lewis Stimson, who later served as Secretary of War under President William Howard Taft and as Secretary of State under Herbert Hoover, handled all the arrangements for Lulu’s cremation and for the cats’ transportation to the White House.

Even though he vehemently denied knowing Lulu, Theodore Roosevelt saw to it that her last wishes were carried out. Under his orders, U.S. District Attorney Henry L. Stimson supervised the cremation of her body in the Bronx and burial of her ashes at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (the president was adamant that she not be buried in a pauper’s grave). Only four people — her friend Mrs. Richard H. Connor of 72 East 120th Street, Secret Service Agent Tate, and the undertaker and his daughter — attended the funeral.

Following Roosevelt’s request, Stimson also made arrangements to have the two cats sent to the White House. A carriage arrived at Lulu’s former apartment house on Lexington Avenue, and the two cats reportedly traveled with Douglass Robinson, the president’s brother-in-law, to Washington DC.

At the time, the Roosevelts had several pets at the White House, including a few guinea pigs, dogs, ponies, a cat with six toes, a parrot, and two Kansas jackrabbits. The grounds of the White House were also covered with very tame squirrels – one was even so bold to walk into the White House (guess the Secret Service were not doing their jobs). I’m sure the large house and lawns must have seemed like paradise for two Angora cats who grew up in a small apartment Harlem.

Theodore Roosevelt Jr. with Slippers

The Roosevelts had a six-toed cat, Slippers, who had a habit of falling asleep while sprawled out in hallways. At one state banquet, guests even had to walk around her as they made their way to the dining room. Here’s Theodore Jr. with Slippers sometime around 1893.

At an auction of Lulu Grover’s estate in September 1907, one of the items was an 18-carat gold ring in which was set two small diamonds and a tooth that the auctioneer said formerly belonged to Teddy Roosevelt. Robert R. Jordan, who had an antique shop at 762 Lexington Avenue, bought the ring and exhibited it on a royal purple velvet cushion in the shop window. A friend of Lulu’s said Theodore reportedly gave the tooth to Mrs. Grover in North Dakota when she asked him for a keepsake. Robert thought he could get about $25 for the ring.

In June 1907, New York State Attorney General William S. Jackson notified the president that some distant relatives from New York City, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and Fresno, California, were seeking the estate. There was no further mention of the final outcome of her estate in the newspapers.

October 16 is National Feral Cat Day. The following story is dedicated to all the feral cats in the world, and to all the nonprofit groups, like Neighborhood Cats, New York City Feral Cat, Alley Cat Allies, and the more than 60 incorporated animal shelters and rescue groups in New York City doing their best to help them.

Not every cat born at the Brooklyn Navy Yard went off to sea. Some landlubber cats stayed back to control the rat population.

Not every cat born at the Brooklyn Navy Yard went off to sea. Some landlubber cats stayed back to control the rat population.

In the early 1890s, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was overrun with rodents. Almost all the docks in the yard were in need of repair where they had been gnawed by the rats, and the losses in rigging, spare sails, and other wares were also great.

Unfortunately, there was not one cat to be found during this time period. To be sure, plenty of kittens had been born at the yard over the years, but kittens and their mama cats were all quickly scooped up by sailors who thought cats brought good luck to ships at sea (in fact, Tom, the famous cat of the U.S.S. Maine, was born at the Brooklyn Navy Yard around 1885).

Officials tried traps and poisons, but the rats simply made a sport of the traps and got fat on the poisoned food. They even brought in some dogs, but the canines were no match for the clever and ferocious rats – more often then not, the dogs would tear of out the yard in terror whenever they encountered the rodents.

Rear Admiral Francis T. Bowles

At 42, Francis T. Bowles was the youngest officer to ever hold the title of Rear Admiral, Chief Constructor of the Navy, when he took office in 1901. Bowles was also the first member of the construction corps to graduate from the Naval Academy, and was in charge of designing the Virginia-class battleships.

But sometime around 1893, a few landlubber cats entered the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and, discovering the large rodent population, decided to hide from the sailors and stay in place rather than go out to sea. Soon the rats and mice began to disappear. By 1900, there were more cats than rodents.

The Rear Admiral’s Cat Orders

In November 1900, President William McKinley announced his decision to appoint Francis Tiffany Bowles to the position of Rear Admiral, Chief Constructor of the Navy. One month later, Bowles, who had previously been in charge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, told the men under him that they were not to hurt or interfere with any of the cats that prowled in the yard.

After all, the cats did not cost the government a penny — they were fed scraps of food saved for them at the various shops as soon as the bell rang at noon – and in return, they saved the United States government thousands of dollars a year by keeping the rats and mice away from the sheds and shops.

Wallabout Bay pre Brooklyn Navy Yard

At the time of the American Revolution, Wallabout was a quiet farming community of about a dozen inter-related families living in houses extending along an old road near the shore of Wallabout Bay, just north of present-day Flushing Avenue. The old Remsen’s Mill is also visible on the western edge of the bay in this 1776 map. Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection.

A Brief History of the Brooklyn Navy Yard

The New York Naval Shipyard, more popularly known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is located on the Wallabout Bay, which takes its name from a group of French-speaking Walloons from Belgium who settled on the waterfront in the mid-17th century. One of the first settlers was Joris Jansen Rapalje, a Walloon tavern-keeper, who, in 1637, purchased about 335 acres of land and established a farm in the vicinity of the inlet called Waal-bogt Bay.

Following the American Revolution, around 1791, shipbuilder John Jackson and his brothers acquired a 100-acre crescent-shaped tract from the Commissioners of Forfeiture. The land included mud flats and the Remsen Mill property, where the bodies of dead American soldiers had been hastily interred during the war.

Interior of HMS Jersey prison ship

After New York fell to the British during the Revolutionary War, many Continental soldiers who had been taken prisoner were transferred to ships anchored in Wallabout Bay, like the HMS Jersey, depicted here. The over-crowding and squalid conditions on these ships led to about 11,000 deaths — many bodies were thrown overboard or buried in mass graves near Remsen’s Mill and in the mud flats along the bay. Dead bodies were often washed out of these graves by the tides.

Taking advantage of the existing dock on the property, the Jacksons built their own small shipyard and about ten houses for their workers. In 1801, the Jacksons sold the 42-acre shipyard to the United States government for forty thousand dollars. Five years later, the property became an active U.S. Navy shipyard. The yard expanded in 1824, when the government purchased an additional 35 acres along Flushing Avenue for a naval hospital and cemetery (I guess they didn’t have much faith in their hospital?), which was completed in 1838.

Within the western half of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the government constructed the Commandant’s Quarters (Quarters A) and several brick storehouses, shops, foundries, and offices. Later, near the time of the Civil War, residences for naval officers were built at the corner of Flushing Avenue at Navy Street (Admiral’s Row). Check out this 3-minute video from the Municipal Art Society of New York on Admiral’s Row or take a photographic tour of the abandoned homes.

By 1900, when this tale of the black cats takes place, the yard comprised just over 112 acres.

Brooklyn Navy Yard

Farmland and cows were still part of the scene when the Brooklyn Navy Yard first opened in 1806.

The Veteran Ratters of the Brooklyn Navy Yard

In 1900, the two veteran cats of the Brooklyn Navy Yard were Tom and Minnie. These two black cats did their policing in the electrical building, where large quantities of oiled silk and other insulating materials were stored. The rats were quite attracted to these materials and would often gnaw on them before Tom and Minnie came to town.

Tom was a very large cat, while Minnie was not much bigger than a kitten and the smallest working cat in the yard. Despite her size, Minnie was the best ratter in yard – in fact, one workman said she was probably the best ratter in the world.

Minnie had full run of the machine rooms, and knew how to protect every wheel and strap. She’d dodge among the whirling belts and wheels in hot pursuit, and could tackle rats as big as herself. She could jump up to eight feet, and once jumped down an entire flight of stairs and landed right on a rat’s back. As one workman noted, “She deserves a gold medal for preserving the property of the United States government.”

1894 plan of Brooklyn Navy Yard

This plan provides a great overview of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1894, when the great rat-catching cats first arrived.

The Ratters of the Rigging Loft

Jerry, the oldest cat in the yard, arrived soon after Tom and Minnie in 1893. He was partners with George Dewey, who came to the yards in 1897. The two felines were responsible for patrolling the rigging loft in Building 8 on Chauncey Avenue, which had at one time been infested with rats and mice who did tremendous damage to the rigging.

George and Jerry worked alongside master sail maker William L. Cowan, a veteran of the Navy who served with the Potomac Squadron during the Civil War. William Cowan was a personal friend of four U.S. Presidents — Lincoln, Grant, Arthur, and Cleveland — and a member of the Paraguay Expedition of 1858. He took charge of the sail-making department at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1889 after Commodore George Dewey (no relation to the cat!) ordered that every ship repaired at Brooklyn have her sails made there also.

According to William, once George and Jerry went on the job, the loft was free of rodents, and he no longer had to worry about them running over his feet or trying to run up his pants. “You have no idea of the change that has taken place there,” Cowan told a reporter from The New York Times. “The mice used to be awful. They were so bold and fearless that they would come scampering over our hands while we were working at the rigging here.”


Jerry was the most unusual of the landlubber cats in the yard, as he was the only one to have gone to sea and come back. He took two trips on United State fleets, and also sailed on the Monongahela , shown here, with the Asiatic Squadron.

Jerry had a habit of taking long trips away from the Navy Yard on his own about once a month, but he always returned and worked overtime when the mice started to show up again in the rigging loft (I guess George couldn’t handle them all on his own.)

One time the cat was taken against his will by one of the workman who wanted to domesticate him at his home – he wasn’t about to be a house cat, and returned to the Navy Yard the next day. (Some feel he must have followed the sound of the bell tolling.)

Blacksmith shop, Brooklyn Navy Yard

Another larger black cat of the female persuasion presided over the blacksmith’s shop, shown here, in Building No. 11 on Warrington Avenue. She only freelanced at the yard, appearing about once a month to kill off any rats or mice that had tried to move in during her absence, and then disappearing for weeks at a time.

The Republican Cat of Carpentry

J.A. Cook, a workman in the ship carpenters’ department, also had a cat which he named Joan of Arc. According to Cook, Joan of Arc was a Republican feline who came from Omaha – but she could smell a rat just as quick as a Democrat. The workmen in this shop said they could set their watches by her, as she showed up every day at 11:55 a.m. to get some scraps of food and milk.

Lessons in Rat Catching

Jennie was a tortoise-shell cat who was employed in Building No. 20, the iron plating shop, where she worked with her owner, Bob Duke, in the construction and repairs department. She was the expert ratter in residence, who taught all her kittens the skills they needed to get their mouse. Jennie had kittens about every three months, and most of them were taken all over the world by the sailors that had adopted them as ship mascots.

Before they headed to sea, Jennie would give each kitten lessons in rat catching. She would do this by depositing a dead mouse on the floor and then carrying one of the kittens to the dead rodent. She get into a crouching position at some distance from the mouse, pounce upon it with a sudden spring, and growl fiercely. After repeating these steps several times, she would step aside and let the kitten mimic her actions.

Brooklyn Navy Yard 1956

At the height of its production of warships, the Brooklyn Navy Yard covered more than 200 acres. During World War II, the yard employed 70,000 people, 24 hours a day.

1,500 Cats Too Many

During the war years, many of the Brooklyn Navy Yard cats once again headed out to sea as mascots of the warships, which helped keep the land-based population in check. But ten years after World War II ended, the cat colonies started getting out of hand, forcing the Navy to override the old rules established by Rear Admiral Bowles and set traps.

Bill Wade, a former sailor and journeyman at the yard, would go around springing the traps in order to help save the cats. Twice, he was suspended for disabling the cat traps. He must have done a pretty good job saving them though: By the time he retired in 1965, there were about 1,500 cats on the property.

Bill Wade Brooklyn Navy Yard

Bill Wade, a former sailor and journeyman, would go around springing the traps in order to help save the cats. Twice, he was suspended for disabling the cat traps. He must have done a pretty good job saving them though: By the time he retired in 1965, there were about 1,500 cats on the property.

In June 1966, one week after the government officially closed the Brooklyn Navy Yard, former journeyman Bill Wade reached out to Judith Scofield, who had founded the Save A Cat League in 1957. The two met with representatives of the Navy and other departments – including Rear Admiral William Francis Petrovic, several enlisted men, representatives from the city health department, and representatives from the Brooklyn branch of the ASPCA — to discuss the fate of the abandoned cats. The Save A Cat League was given three months to find homes for any cats the Navy was able to safely trap.

Just a few hours before the meeting, however, three men reportedly came to the yard and took away many of the cats. Judith and Bill were furious. “What happened to those cats who were taken away just hours before we came and who were those men?” Judith asked. “Are those cats covered by the agreement the Navy made with us…? According to Judith, many people had expressed a desire to have a Navy Yard cat, and her organization would have had a good chance of getting homes for all of them.

Modern Navy Yard Cats

In 1967, New York City purchased most of the old Navy Yard property. In recent years, the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation has worked to gentrify the old yard into a light-manufacturing industrial-park with stores, museums and the 580,000 square-foot Steiner Studios. Check out this post on The Weekly Nabe for a quick tour of the BNYDC.

Jeffy Kings County Distillery

One of the new businesses is the Kings County Distillery, which occupies the 115-year-old Paymaster Building. After the building was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, the mouse population exploded. Distillery co-founder and master distiller Colin Spoelman brought in two cats — Carlos and Jeffy – to take command of the situation. Although Carlos has since gone over the Rainbow Bridge, Jeffy, pictured here, is still on the job (when not wearing the cone of shame).

Unfortunately, the former Naval Hospital and campus, abandoned in 1948, and the homes on Admiral’s Row were not part of the deal with the city. Over the years, these areas have become overgrown with creeping vines and downright spooky with their crumbling walls and peeling paint (The Kingston Lounge has some fabulous but eerie interior pictures of the Naval Hospital).

Feral cats, many descendants of the 20th-century ratters, roam the property and make their homes inside the old hospital and Civil War-era buildings, and within the fenced-in cemetery (which, by the way, still has a few hundred bodies that were left behind when most of the grave sites were moved to Cypress Hills Cemetery – click here to take a peek at the old burial grounds).

Today, a small group of women spend their own time and money taking care of the cats by setting up food stations, building shelters, getting them neutered, and taking them to the vet when they get sick. Wouldn’t it be nice if Steiner Studios or some of the other businesses and corporations stepped in to help care for the historical cats at the Brooklyn Navy Yard?

With Halloween only a few weeks away, my next few posts will feature black cats (cliche, I know) or any spooky animal tales that I uncover during my research. The following story combines a black cat with murder, a creepy old prison, and of course, New York City history.

Tombs prison cat

This is not the Tombs prison cat, but I thought this vintage cat looks like he would have fit right in with the crooked men of Tammany Hall and Murderers’ Row.

“Old Nig,” my friend, comes every day—
A silent friend and leal;
No confidence does he betray,
He is as true as steel.

“When I have shrunk from baser man,
And would my woe impart;
I’ve turned to Nig for no more than
a sympathetic heart.”

—Carlyle Wentworth Harris, Murderers’ Row, the Tombs, New York City, 1893

On March 23, 1891, Carlyle W. Harris, a 22-year-old medical student at the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, was arrested for the death of his young wife, Helen Potts. District Attorney Charles E. Simms Jr. charged him with first-degree murder for poisoning his bride with an overdose of morphine in the form of sleeping pills.

Carlyle W. Harris

Carlyle Harris was only 22 when he was charged with killing his young bride. His first response upon seeing his dead wife was, “My God, what can they do to me?” When asked why they would do anything to him, Harris said that he had made out a prescription for her but he was not yet a physician.

The Helen Potts murder was one of the most notorious crimes of the 19th century. It was loaded with scandal, and had everything the public could want in a news story: sex, murder, drugs, and an attractive, well-to-do young couple.

First there was the secret marriage ceremony at Civil Hall under alias names that neither family knew about until Carlyle’s botched abortion on Helen forced them to reveal the marriage (he reportedly killed the fetus but did not remove it from her uterus). Then there was the medical class in which Carlyle learned all about the effects of morphine. And finally, there was the fact that Carlyle had admitted to a friend that he would often lace a girl’s ginger ale with whiskey to break down her inhibitions – and had even gone as far as marrying some girls by using a different name to get them into bed.

Helen Potts

Helen Neilson Potts was an 18-year-old student at The Comstock School, an elite finishing school for girls at 32 W. 40th Street, when she secretly married Carlyle Harris at City Hall in February 1890. She died just before dawn on January 31, 1891, at the age of 19.

Yes, Carlyle Harris was the Robert Chambers (aka Preppie Killer) of the 1890s, and the New York press couldn’t get enough of him in the months and days leading to his trial and execution.

Following a trial in the Court of General Sessions in January 1892, the jury found Carlyle guilty of murder in the first degree. Despite defense attorney William F. Howe’s request for an appeal, he was sentenced to death. Carlyle spent the last 15 months of his life in cell #8 on Murderers’ Row at New York City’s Halls of Justice – better known as The Tombs.

The Rotunda 32 Chambers Street

On the site of the Court of General Sessions at 23 Chambers Street — where Carlyle Harris’ trial took place — was once a circular building known as The Rotunda. This unique building was constructed around 1820 and used for the exhibition of large panoramic paintings, statuary, and other displays. The Common Council leased the Rotunda to artist John Vanderlyn for 10 years, with the condition that the building become the property of the city at the termination of the grant.

There are hundreds of old news articles, books, and websites about the Carlyle Harris case, so I’m not going to get into further details. However, there appears to be only one publication that made mention of Carlyle’s four-footed friend who visited him every day on Murderers’ Row at the Tombs. In a story titled “The Tombs Cat Is Dead” on June 1, 1901, the Syracuse Evening Telegram noted that Carlyle had written a short poem about Old Nig, the large black cat that worked for 18 years catching mice in New York City’s prison (although certainly not proper today, Nig was a very popular name for black-haired cats, dogs, and horses in the 1800s).

Court of General Sessions

The trial of Carlyle Harris took place at the New York City Court of General Sessions of the Peace at 32 Chambers Street. This brownstone building replaced the Rotunda, and was also known as the Marine Court and City Court.

A Kitten Arrives at the Tombs

Old Nig arrived at the New York City prison in 1893, when Tombs prison keeper Connelly brought the young kitten into the gloomy old building to help control the mice and rat population. His arrival came during the regime of Warden James Finn, Deputy Warden Mark Finley, and Night Deputy Warden Orr. Over the next 18 years, the black cat served under eight administrations and reported to numerous wardens, including the much disliked Tammany Warden Thomas P. Walsh (aka, Fatty Walsh), Charles Osborne, John J. Fallon, and John E. Van de Carr.

When Old Nig first came to the Tombs, the prison was only about 45 years old, but it was already in deplorable condition. Constructed on the site of the old Collect Pond in 1838, the structure quickly began sinking into the soft, swampy ground, creating awful living conditions for the 300 prisoners crowded into the 143 cells. An 1846 New York Herald article described the perpetual dreariness brought on by the overflowing cells:

“[The prisoners are] here entombed to fester and offend until the moral atmosphere of the entire vicinage is impregnated with their odious exhalations, and the very soil seems to send forth in foul luxuriance the noxious shoots of crime and hardy guilt.”

The Tombs

Constructed of grey Maine granite over a period of five years from 1835 to 1840, the Tombs prison was 253 feet long by 200 feet deep, taking up the entire block bounded by Centre, Elm, Franklin and Leonard Streets.

The Collect Pond

A few hundred years ago, the area that would become known as the notorious Five Points was a 48-acre freshwater lake called Collect Pond. Once the principal water source for colonial residents, the 60-foot-deep pond was also a favorite place for picnics, row boating and ice skating. Over the years, as tanneries, slaughterhouses, and other businesses dumped their garbage in the pond, it became highly polluted and odorous.

The Collect Pond was condemned, drained into the Hudson River and filled in by about 1813. In 1816, the Corporation Yards occupied the block of Elm, Centre, Leonard and Franklin Streets, on the ground which had filled in the pond.

The landfill job – a project designed to give work to the poor — was poorly done. In a span of less than ten years the ground began to subside. Unfortunately, the Common Council had already chosen the site for a new jail that would replace prisons the British had erected before the American Revolution.

Bridewell Prison New York

Some of the granite used to construct the Tombs came from the colonial-era Bridewell Prison in City Hall Park, which was constructed in 1735 and torn down in 1838.

When excavation for the foundation began in 1835, the builders knew they were in for a great challenge. Quicksand and water rose and fell with the tides, and threatened to derail the project.

Engineers were called in to devise a system of pilings using large hemlock trees lashed together. As The New York Times explained, the Tombs prison “was built upon a raft, inasmuch as the underlying foundation consisted of ranging planks imbedded or floated in the quicksand mud.”

Collect Pond, New York

The city block bound by Walker, Centre, Leonard, and Lafayette Street was once known as the Collect Pond, a body of fresh water that was connected to the Hudson River and to the East River via a stream called the Wreck Brook. To the north was Bayard’s Mount, the highest point on the island, and to the south was a Native American settlement.

Five months after the Tombs opened, the building began to sink, warping the prison cells and causing cracks in the foundation through which water trickled in and created pools on the stone flooring. By the end of the Civil War the prison was considered one of the worst in the country.

Not only was the prison damp and moldy, it was also dangerously overcrowded. Originally designed for about 200 inmates, close to 400 inmates were being housed by the time Old Nig was making the rounds. Although there were about six “comfortable cells” with a view of the street for richer men who could afford to live in style, most of the men were vagrants who were assigned to the small and damp cells with cement floors.

Two prisoners sharing the single cot in each cell would sleep feet-to-head. If there were a third inmate, he would have to sleep on the cold stone floor. There was no exercise area so prisoners were confined to their cramped cells for 22 hours a day, and only let out to walk around the cast-iron walkway one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Interior view of the NYC prison -- The Tombs -- through the corridor of "murderers row"

Carlyle Harris spent his last days on earth in cell #8 on Murderers’ Row. It was here that Old Nig the prison cat would visit him daily (perhaps the cat came for the warmth from the large stove). Museum of the City of New York Collections

The male prison, where Old Nig spent his days, had a high ceiling and a dark and narrow hall with four tiers of cells. On the ground floor were the mentally ill, and one floor above was Murderers’ Row, as well as a few cells for burglars and robbers. The third tier was devoted to those charged with grand larceny and similar felonies, while the fourth tier was assigned to those charged with minor offenses.

The Death of the Tombs, Carlye, and Old Nig

Electric Chair Sing Sing

Before the electric chair, prisoners on Murderers’ Row were hanged at the gallows, which were set up in a courtyard near the prison’s Bridge of Sighs. On June 4, 1888, New York Governor Daniel B. Hill signed a bill authorizing the use of the electric chair. The first execution at Sing Sing in the electric chair pictured here took place on July 17, 1891.

On May 7, 1893, Carlyle Harris died in the electric chair in the Death House at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. More than 1,000 people came to watch the black flag be raised, signaling his death. Carlyle’s mother, still convinced of her son’s innocence, placed an ad in a New York newspaper stating:

Harris, Carlyle Wentworth, eldest son of Charles L. and Frances McCready Harris. Judicially murdered May 8, 1893.

On his tombstone at the Albany Rural Cemetery she had engraved:
Murdered by Twelve Men; If the Jury had Only Known.

Two years after Carlyle’s death, in 1895, the New York State Senate launched an investigation into the conditions at the Tombs and concluded that “its design and arrangement is radically and irremediably bad.” Finally, in 1902, after decades of planning, the prison was demolished and replaced. The second Tombs building was constructed on a deeper foundation and at a higher grade than the first one to avoid sinking.

The Tombs 1902

The original building was replaced in 1902 with a new one on the same site connected by a new “Bridge of Sighs” to the 1894 Criminal Courts Building on Franklin Street. Old Nig died one year short of the grand opening of the new prison.

The second Tombs was replaced in 1941 by a new prison across the street on the east side of Centre Street. Although officially named the Manhattan House of Detention, it is still referred to as The Tombs.

Eight years after Carlyle’s death, on May 31, 1901, Old Nig died in the arms of Keeper Connelly. It was reported that the cat’s skin was going to be stuffed, and his lifeless form was going to be placed in the office of Warden John E. Van de Carr. Whether Old Nig’s taxidermied form survived the move to the new prison building in 1902 is not known.

The Tombs, New York

In August 2012, while completing construction of the Collect Pond Park, New York City Parks Department workers stumbled upon a strange series of stone walls buried beneath the site. It was the foundation and perimeter wall of the second Tombs prison built in 1902.