Archive for November, 2014

Trilby Cat Alley

Trilby, from The Battle With the Slum by Jacob A. Riis.

A slice of the block bounded by Mulberry, Houston, Crosby, and Bleecker Streets has been torn away for the Elm Street (Lafayette Street) lengthening. By rare good fortune this demolition took the course of the little slum… It razed every vestige of the slum, leaving only a broad street, with a semi square where Bleecker Street and Mulberry Street meet it, and Cat Alley, with all its turbulence, its crime, its police record, and, it must be confessed, its picturesqueness, is now only a name. — The New-York Tribune, July 30, 1899.

301 Mulberry Street, New York

Access to Cat Alley was between #301-303 Mulberry Street, at this very spot shown here (now a UPS store). Photo, P. Gavan

Trilby was just a scared little puppy when she first appeared on Mulberry Street in the winter of 1895. She had run down the street at top speed with a tin can tied to her stump of a tail and the nasty little boys of the Mott Street gang in pursuit. Seeing a narrow opening between two buildings on Mulberry Street, she darted through the gap and found herself in the confines of Cat Alley.

Cat Alley was not really an alley but rather a row of four or five eighteenth-century frame tenements in a back yard nestled between Mulberry and Crosby streets, midway between East Houston and Bleecker. Cat Alley was also not home to many cats, albeit quite a few strays did find their way into the yard.

Reporters at 301 Mulberry Street

Trilby spent a lot of time with the police reporters, shown here in their office at 301 Mulberry Street. Photo by Jacob A. Riis, Museum of the City of New York Collection

Access to the yard was via a three-foot-wide passageway between the front houses at 301 and 303 Mulberry Street, which were owned by New York City Comptroller Richard Alsop Storrs. Directly across the street from Cat Alley was the New York Police headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street.

The tenement houses of Cat Alley had once been rather stylish – in fact, one of them had been the parsonage of the church at 307 Mulberry (the San Salvatore Church at this time). In 1897, the front houses were occupied by newspaper offices for the reporters who covered the police and crime beat. The cramped and squalid back houses of Cat Alley were home to Irish and Italian immigrants.

Back lot shanty

This frame shanty on Bleecker Street, just northwest of Cat Alley, represents a typical back house of the late 1800s. Barney lived in the attic of a building like this, with a garret roof that made it impossible to stand up straight.

Many of the policemen and reporters stationed at headquarters — like the renowned author and photographer Jacob A. Riis of The New York Tribune — were friends with the residents of Cat Alley. On hot summer nights, they’d all sit around and drink beer or lemonade and listen to music from the accordion players. Most of the families got along okay, although like any impoverished neighborhood, Cat Alley certainly had its share of crime.

From the moment she entered Cat Alley, Trilby was the alpha dog — and the only dog — among all the alley cats who rummaged through the garbage cans and all the reporters who took their daily walks in the yard. She’d spend her time wandering from one newspaper office to the other, poking her head in each doorway looking for some attention. If the reporters were too busy, she’d head over to police headquarters, where she would ride on the elevator and get off at each floor to visit the police chief and all the commissioners.

Cat Alley Mulberry Street

The entrance to Cat Alley was this narrow gap located between the brick walls of 301 and 303 Mulberry Street. From The Battle With the Slum by Jacob A. Riis.

On slow news days, Trilby would hang out with the reporters or the kids on the stoop and sing. She could sing only one note, but what she lacked in range she made up in volume. Surrounded by her humans, she would point her nose toward the sky and howl “woe is me” until laughter would drive her away to some hiding spot in one of the newspaper offices, from which she’d refuse to come out.

One time, shortly after she arrived, Trilby ate about two pounds of meat and went running up and down the street barking and howling. She ran between the Gilligan homestead and John Sonntag’s liquor and cigar store at 40 East Houston Street and got stuck. After about two hours of trying to get her out, a reporter took off his coat and vest and dove between the two walls, emerging on the other side with Trilby in his arms.


It was her “singing” that inspired the dog’s name. Trilby, a novel by George du Maurier, was one of the most popular novels of its time, published serially in Harper’s Monthly in 1894 and in book form in 1895. In the novel, Trilby O’Ferrall, the novel’s tone-deaf heroine, goes under the spell of a hypnotist and becomes a talented singer.

Another time, Trilby was at risk of being killed by a gang called the Midnight Marauders of Mulberry Street. These young men, who made their headquarters in a cellar in Cat Alley, created an execution device out of a soap box covered with a piece of glass and attached to a gas jet with rubber tubing. They would put the alley cats and even people’s pets in the box and kill them.

The police started patrolling more heavily, which stopped the killing. Residents of Cat Alley also said they would execute the Marauders themselves if any more of their cats disappeared.

47 East Houston Street

Katie Gilligan, one of Trilby’s human playmates, lived at 47 East Houston Street with her grandmother and grandfather, Beesy and Matthew; her two uncles, Thomas and Edward; and her siblings Matthew, Mary, and Alice. The four-story apartment was built in 1800 and is today home to Estela restaurant. Photo, P. Gavan

About six months after she came to Mulberry Street, Trilby was run over by a horse-driven wagon while chasing little Katie Gilligan. Her two hind legs were badly injured by the wagon wheels. A good Samaritan brought Trilby to one of the newspaper offices, and the reporters summoned a vet. Some of the children offered to donate their pennies to help pay for her medicine.

Barney the Cranky Old Key Man

Barney the Key Man, born Michael Coleman, was a Civil War veteran who lived in a decrepit attic on the third floor of an old frame tenement house in Cat Alley. The neighborhood kids called him Barney Bluebeard because, like Bluebeard of the seventeenth-century French folktale, he supposedly detested women, was always crabby, and had lots of keys. They’d get in his face and shout “Barney Bluebeard!” and then run away and hide in trembling delight as he leered and shook his key ring at them.

Old Barney the Keyman

Barney told people he was a locksmith, but in fact, many of the keys he always carried with him were for the five or six bolts on the flimsy door of his attic home. From The Battle With the Slum by Jacob A. Riis.

Born in Ireland, Barney supposedly came to America with an older brother when he was 10 years old. He served three years as a private with Company H of the 23rd Regiment of Illinois Volunteers — the Irish Brigade — in the Civil War, and was wounded two times during the Battle of Lexington. Before moving to New York sometime around 1888, he lived at the National Home for Disabled Volunteers in Virginia.

Over the years, as cobwebs and dirt accumulated in his room, neighbors told tall tales of Barney’s fabulous wealth, which they said he had concealed in cracks in the walls. In truth, Barney was reportedly receiving a veteran’s pension of $8 a month, but he never showed any signs of spending it — save for the dollar he would always give at the early mass on Sundays. The alley residents, however, loved to think that they had their very own miser with a hoard of cash stuffed in the garret roof.

The End of Cat Alley

In July 1897, a man from the Department of Public Works handed a resident named Mrs. Finnegan an eviction notice. The notice said that everyone in Cat Alley had to move out by the last day of July. The city had approved a plan to improve Elm Street by extending it south from Lafayette Place (then one block south of Astor Place) and combining it with the roadbeds of the former Marion and Elm Streets. The plan necessitated the demolition of Cat Alley and the Church of San Salvatore.

By the end of July, almost every resident of Cat Alley had packed up and moved. Even Trilby moved out, apparently adopted by the Gilligans or another family from the neighborhood. The buildings were sold at auction for $30 and prepared to be torn down. Still, Barney refused to go, for fear that if he changed his address, his monthly pension would be lost forever.

Cat Alley demolition

Construction workers demolish buildings along Cat Alley to make room for the widening of Elm Street in 1898. Museum of the City of New York Collections

As workmen began tearing down Cat Alley for the Elm Street extension in November 1897, Barney continued to stand his ground. All around his attic home, he watched the structures come down. By March 1898, the only way he could get into his house was by going through the New York Herald’s office at 301 Mulberry Street and climbing over a mountain of loose bricks to an attic window.

By March 1898, there was nothing left of Cat Alley but bricks and dismantled frames — and old Barney. Although the contractor saved Barney’s building for last, he couldn’t hold out anymore. The first thing the workers removed was the attic roof. Then the workers moved inside, where they found a smoke-filled, dusty lair filled with cobwebs. The only furniture consisted of a broken stove, a bedstead, and two chairs.

On Barney’s last day in Cat Alley, a reporter from the New York Tribune climbed up the pile of bricks to visit him in his attic home. He found Barney removing about six locks and bolts from the door. “‘Tis a bad lot they have around here, and they always try to get in, thinking I’ve money,” Barney told the newsman.

Church of San Salvatore Mulberry Street

The plan necessitated the demolition of the Church of San Salvatore at 305 Mulberry Street. In the 1850s, the building was home to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, he oldest African-American Episcopal parish in New York. The structure also served as a barracks for militia and police during the Draft Riots in 1863.

As the reporter watched, Barney put all his possessions in a dilapidated iron padlocked trunk and climbed out onto the pile of bricks that covered the front of his house. He brought his trunk to the janitor of the front house and went out to seek new lodgings. “Sure, I don’t know where I’ll go, but I’ll find a place somewhere,” he said. “‘Tis a good place to get away from, after all.”

One Sunday afternoon in May 1898, Trilby came walking down Mulberry Street. She made the rounds of the newspaper offices, waiting patiently until everyone had spoken to her. From that point on, she started to appear every Sunday and holidays for another year or so.

I don’t know where Barney ended up, although it was reported that someone from the Grand Army of the Republic had come around to make arrangements to move him back to the home for disabled veterans in Virginia.

In 1905, the Board of Alderman adopted a resolution introduced by Alderman T.P. Sullivan changing the name of New Elm Street and Elm Street, to Lafayette Street. A small section of the original Elm Street near City Hall still exists today as Elk Street.

Cat Alley demolished

In March 1898, Cat Alley was no more than a memory. This view looking south at the intersection of Bleecker and Mulberry shows the empty lot at 305-307 Mulberry where the church once stood and the vacant land awaiting the extension of Elm Street to the right.

Mullberry and Crosby Street

Today, the old Cat Alley is a narrow strip of shops between Mulberry and Crosby streets. Photo, P. Gavan

Black cat Mets Cubs 1969

Quite a few cats have interrupted Major League ballgames. In September 1969, a black cat appeared on the field at Shea Stadium in New York while Ron Santo of the Chicago Cubs was standing in the on-deck circle. The Cubs would go on to lose the game and their spot atop the National League East. The Mets went on to win the World Series a month later.

Of all the athletes in the world, baseball players are no doubt the most superstitious of them all.

Dr. Stuart Vyse, an author and psychology professor at Connecticut College, says one reason baseball players are such a suspicious bunch is that the game involves a lot of waiting around. “And if they’re waiting, they have time to perform these rituals.”

In general, superstitious players and coaches will always go out of their way to avoid stepping on the foul line on trips to and from the dugout so as not to jinx their game or their game stats.

These same folks believe that if a black cat crosses their path they’ll have bad luck and bad stuff will happen during the game or series.

Derek Jeter Joe DiMaggio sign

Many New Yorkers know that Derek Jeter always made a point of touching a signed painted with the famous Joe DiMaggio quote –“I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee” – before every home game. That pre-game step may not have had anything to do with superstition, but it was a ritual.

The Black Cat at the Polo Grounds

On September 21, 1932, in a game between what were then the New York Giants and the Boston Braves (today’s San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves), superstition struck twice when a little black cat appeared on the field and began meddling with a ball that had just landed on the foul line. For Braves pitcher Tom Zachary, the bad luck signs were enough to shake him up so much it cost him the game (at least that’s what he said).

It was the bottom half of the final inning and the score was tied with Zachary on the mound. Giants slugger Carl Hubbell took a swing, sending the ball down the third-base line. Just as the ball rolled onto the foul line, a skinny black cat came out from under the left-field stands, made his way across the diamond, and walked up to give the ball a sniff. As the cat started to play with the ball, everyone on the field and in the stands froze in place.

Carl Hubbell New York Giants

Carl Owen Hubbell, nicknamed “The Meal Ticket” and “King Carl,” was a pitcher for the New York Giants from 1928 to 1943. Joe DiMaggio once called Hubbell the toughest pitcher he’d ever faced.

“It’s a black cat!” shouted Al Spohrer, Boston’s catcher, breaking the silence and sending the cat into a panic around the field. As the chaos ensued, Braves shortstop Walter “Rabbit” Maranville threw a handful of dirt over his left shoulder (he didn’t haven’t any salt to ward off the devil). The players, umpires, and over 54,000 fans in attendance continued to watch in amazement until a groundskeeper finally caught the cat and carried him back to the stands.

Still shaken by the appearance of a black cat on the field, Zachary was not on his game when he pitched the next ball to Hubbell. The Giants’ southpaw singled to left field, and although he was forced out by left-fielder Joseph “Jo-Jo” Moore, Jo-Jo was able to score – he even picked up some of the dirt with the cat’s paw prints as he ran to home plate — and the Giants won the game by a score of 2 to 1.

Jonathan Tom Zachary

Jonathan “Tom” Zachary is probably best known for giving up Babe Ruth’s record-setting 60th home run in 1927. Before joining the Boston Braves, he went 12–0 for the 1929 Yankees, which is still the major league record for most pitching wins without a loss in one season.

A Brief History of the Polo Grounds

In the late 1800s, the “polo grounds” was a name used for multiple New York City ballparks where the sport of polo was played. The first Polo Grounds for baseball was located on the northern edge of Central Park between 110th and 112th Street at 6th Avenue.

Here, in 1880, John Bailey Day rented land previously used for polo matches to construct a single-tier grandstand for his baseball team, the New York Metropolitans. In 1883, Day’s new National League Team, the New York Gothams, played their first game at the ballpark on May 1, 1883. A second deck was added to the ballpark that year, giving the first Polo Grounds a seating capacity of 12,000.

1888 New York Giants

In 1885, under manager Jim Mutrie, the New York Gothams were renamed the New York Giants. The 1888 team, shown here, played their last game at the first polo grounds on October 13, 1888 — city officials evicted the team and 111th street was constructed through the outfield.

In 1889, the Giants moved to Coogan’s Bluff, an elevated area extending from 155th to 160th Street and overlooking the Harlem River. The bluff, along with a grassy knoll called Coogan’s Hollow, was named in honor of James J. Coogan, a real estate merchant who owned much of the property in that area. The land remained in the Coogan estate, and the Giants rented one of the two ballparks in the hollow. They played their first game at the second Polo Grounds in Coogan’s Hollow on July 8, 1889.

After the Giants played their last game at the second “polo grounds” (Polo Grounds II) on September 30, 1890, they moved to the adjacent field to the north, called Brotherhood Park. (There were actually two New York Giants franchises for a short time during this era; the Players’ League team played at Brotherhood Park and the National League team stayed at Polo Grounds II.) The Players’ League folded in 1891, and the National League team moved into the bigger ballpark. Polo Grounds II was renamed Manhattan Field and converted for other sports such as football and track-and-field.

Coogan's Bluff Polo Grounds

Because of its elevation, fans frequently watched games from Coogan’s Bluff without buying tickets. Locals from Harlem and Washington Heights often referred to it as Deadhead Hill.

The National League Giants played their first game at Brotherhood Park – Polo Grounds III — on April 22, 1891. The third incarnation of the Polo Grounds had a seating capacity of 16,000 and featured a double-decked grandstand that arched around home plate and down the baselines. Bleachers were located in center field.

By 1911, the ballpark was the largest stadium in baseball with seating for 31,000 fans. Built of wood, the ballpark caught fire and burned while the Giants were out of town on April 14, 1911. Following the lead of other teams, the Giants constructed their fourth and final Polo Grounds of steel and concrete. The team played its first game at the partially completed stadium on June 28, 1911.

The Cat Colony of the Polo Grounds

For many years, a colony of cats lived under the dark and cool stands at the Polo Grounds. In 1932, when the little black cat stopped the ballgame, the space under the stands was also used as storage for circus seats, so there were lots of places to hide.

Sometimes the luckier cats that didn’t run and hide would go home with women who came to the ballgames or with the ballerinas from the opera companies that performed at the Polo Grounds when the Giants were out of town.

Polo Grounds 1905

This 1905 photo of the Polo Grounds shows Coogan’s Bluff in the background — the Morris-Jumel Mansion is to the right.

The dean of the cat colony was groundskeeper Henry Fabian’s big black tomcat, Tiger. Tiger kept to himself in Henry’s tool shed near the left-field boxes, and he was always ready to defend his master when other cats tried to move into their territory. Henry denied charges that Tiger was the jinx at this ballgame.

Jack, the long-time assistant foreman in charge of sweepers, also kept several cats in his little cubbyhole where he stored his brooms. The cats, which he named Blackie, Wildcat, Little Red, Mickey, Big Blackie, Nig and Brownie, would all gather around him and rub his legs when it was time for supper. Jack admitted that while first baseman Memphis Bill Terry was the best player on the Giants, the ballplayer couldn’t hold a candle to his cat Brownie. “Brownie’s the best rat catcher I’ve got,” Jack said.

Henry Fabian, New York Giants groundskeeper

Born in New Orleans in 1866, Henry Fabian spent nearly 60 years in professional baseball as a player, manager, owner, and groundskeeper. Henry joined the New York Giants as head groundskeeper in 1914; he was considered the premier groundskeeper in baseball for the next 25 years.

Jack told reporters that it cost him 30 cents a day to feed the cats – most of that budget went toward Wildcat, who always tore into the milk with gusto — but it was all worth it. “They’re more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” he said, while also denying that it was one of his cats that caused the ruckus during the Braves game.

The End of the Polo Grounds

With few fans, a stadium crumbling into disrepair, and a slew of tenement housing encroaching Coogan’s Bluff, Giants owner Horace Stoneham announced on August 19, 1957, that the team would move to San Francisco the following year (the Brooklyn Dodgers would also move to Los Angeles).

The Giants played their last game at the Polo Grounds on September 29, 1957. The ballpark sat mostly vacant for three years, until the newly formed Titans (present-day New York Jets) began to play there in 1960, followed by the newly formed New York Mets in 1962.

Demolition Polo Grounds

What remained of the Polo Grounds in July 1964.

Although the Mets upgraded the stadium and made it their interim home while Shea Stadium was being built, the Polo Grounds was demolished in April 1964 with the same wrecking ball (painted to look like a baseball) used to take down Ebbets Field in Brooklyn four years earlier. New York City had already decided to claim the land under eminent domain – the Coogan family fought this takeover but lost in 1967.

The John T. Brush Stairway

The John T. Brush Stairway, which runs down Coogan’s Bluff from Edgecombe Avenue to Harlem River Drive at about 157th Street, was named for the recently deceased owner of the Giants when it opened in 1913. The stairs led to a ticket booth overlooking the stadium and offered a clear view of the stadium for fans who did not purchase tickets.

Today, the site is home to the Polo Grounds Towers, a public housing project opened in 1968 and managed by the New York City Housing Authority. Inside the complex is a faded plaque — supposedly placed at the approximate location of home plate — that commemorates the Polo Grounds. The only other reminder of Polo Grounds is the John T. Brush Stairway which leads down Coogan’s Bluff from Edgecombe Avenue to Harlem River Drive.

And who knows, maybe a few descendents of the Polo Grounds cats still make their home in the area…

Polo Grounds plaque

A rusty plaque inside the Polo Grounds Towers commemorates the place where the New York Giants, Yankees, and Mets once made their home.