In my last post, I introduced you to Morgan L. Phillips, an old circus man who lived in a tent at 40 Cherry Street in New York City with his wife, their grandson, a horse, and some dogs. In this post, I’ll tell you the beginning and the end of Morgan’s story, and explore the history of 40 Cherry Street.
Morgan and Clarissa S. Phillips lived at 40 Cherry Street — the white rectangular lot south of Roosevelt Street in this 1891 atlas of Manhattan. Just to the left is the massive Gotham Court Tenement, constructed in 1850. The long, narrow alleyways West Gotham Place and East Gotham Place are on either side.
The Beginning of the End
On August 22, 1892, a young man was found lying in the street at the corner of Market Street and East Broadway. According to news reports, he was taken to Gouverneur Hospital, where, just before he died, he said his name was Albert and that he lived at 30 Monroe Street. Shortly thereafter, an unidentified elderly man called at the hospital and said the young man was his son, Albert Phillips.
This elderly man was no doubt Morgan L. Phillips.
On Wednesday, June 7, 1893, less than a year after their son’s death, Morgan and Clarissa moved their small red-striped canvas tent from the vacant lot at 30 Monroe Street to the fenced-in lot at 40 Cherry Street.
The Phillips were living in a tent in a vacant lot at 30 Monroe Street (the white lot just above the bend in Hamilton Street) when Albert died in August 1892. Today, this square block between Cherry, Market, Catherine, and Monroe streets is the site of the Knickerbocker Village housing development, erected in 1933-34.
According to an article in the New York Herald on June 12, 1893, the family had been living rent-free at 30 Monroe Street for quite a few years when they were forced to find a new home. Apparently, one of the heirs of the estate passed away, and the surviving property owners wanted to erect a four-story tenement on the small lot.
Although they reportedly had several grown children who begged them to find a real home, Morgan and Clarissa moved to 40 Cherry Street, where their tent served as a parlor and dining room, and an old Tally-Ho stagecoach served as their bedroom. Two “large, fierce dogs” and a big bay horse shared the lot with the couple and their grandson (possibly one of Albert’s two sons).
In 1934, when this photograph was taken, 30 Monroe Street was once again an empty lot, so to speak; the four-story tenement built in 1893 had already been demolished to make way for the new Knickerbocker Village under construction. NYPL Digital Collections
The Passing of Clarissa
In the fall of 1893, 76-year-old Clarissa visited a daughter who lived in Seneca Falls, New York. Shortly after returning to New York City in January, she developed pneumonia. Since she was not fit to sleep outdoors, the couple rented two squalid back rooms on the third floor of a four-story pre-Old Law tenement building at 33 Cherry Street.
On February 13, 1894, Morgan Phillips said goodbye to his wife of over 40 years. Heartbroken and confused, Morgan failed to call for an undertaker. Neighbors who had heard Clarissa groaning, and who had seen Morgan kneeling next to her motionless body in the bedroom through a common hallway window, thought he had killed her and called for the police.
Clarissa Phillips died at 33 Cherry Street, seen from the back in this photo taken from Water Street in 1936 (farthest windows on right). When the block was demolished as part of a slum clearance project, it was discovered that No. 29-29½, the squat, 2-story building in the shadows, was an old Dutch-style townhouse that once housed the officers of George Washington’s staff. Efforts to save “the oldest house left in Manhattan” were unsuccessful. NYPL Digital Collections
When Policeman O’Connor, Roundsman Wilbur, and Officer Bowen of the Oak Street police station arrived at the apartment, they had to force open the door. Morgan told them he did not answer the door because he was frightened and thought he might be harmed. He explained what had happened to his wife and then told them the story of his life.
On February 14, Morgan got a burial permit from the Board of Health. Many neighbors attended her funeral services the next day.
When Policeman O’Connor came to check on Morgan’s welfare after the funeral – to make sure that he hadn’t froze to death – Morgan was wrapped in blankets and surrounded by straw. He said he could not bear going back to the apartment where his wife had died. Policeman O’Connor said there was no law against sleeping in the open air, so he let him be.
Officer Alonzo S. Evans of the SPCA also came out to check on him and found that the horse and dogs were fine. Officer Evans reported that the tent afforded good protection from the weather for both man and beast, although the roof leaked a little.
The Final Straw on Cherry Street
For weeks after Clarissa’s death, the young hoodlums of Cherry Street tormented Morgan by throwing stones at his property and tearing up his tent. On March 4, 1894, they hung an effigy made of straw-stuffed corduroy pants, coat, and hat from a telegraph pole on the lot. Morgan discovered the effigy upon returning home from a visit with his daughter-in-law, who was living at 6 Clarkson Street.
On March 7, 1894, three days after the Cherry Hill boys hung an effigy from a telepgraph pole on his lot, Morgan Phillips died at Bellvue Hospital at the age of 76 (give or take a year). The New York press said he died from pneumonia. We all know that he died of a broken heart.
A Brief History of 40 Cherry Street
This concludes the story of Morgan L. Phillips. (I regret that I do not know what became of the grandson, the horse, or the dogs.) If you like to explore New York City history, you may enjoy the following about Cherry Street.