Archive for December, 2015

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.

CherryStreet1891_HatchingCatNYCMorgan 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.

MonroeStreet1891_HatchingCatNYCThe 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).

MonroeStreet2_HatchingCatNYC.jpgIn 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.

33CherryStreet_HatchingCatNYC.jpgClarissa 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.

In my last post, I wrote about Donald Burns, an animal dealer who lived and sold wild animals on Roosevelt Street in New York City’s deep Lower East Side. While doing research for this story, I came across an article in The New York Times about Morgan L. Phillips, the Gypsy of Cherry Street.

According to the article, Morgan Phillips was an old circus man who lived in a canvas tent in an empty lot at 40 Cherry Street, just south of Roosevelt Street. For over a year, he had been living there with his wife, their grandson, a horse, and some dogs. Given the interesting history of 40 Cherry Street (and the street in general), I couldn’t resist learning more about this man and telling his story.

Although he has short hair and looks well dressed in this illustration, according to an article in The New York Herald on March 5, 1894, Morgan L. Phillips was clean shaven with a grey goatee. His clothes were rough and shabby and covered with patches, and his hair was long and badly tangled.

In June 1893, Morgan L. Phillips and his wife, Clarissa, pitched a tent in an empty lot at 40 Cherry Street, adjacent to the large Gotham Court tenement complex. Here they lived for about eight months with their grandson, a horse, and a few dogs. On February 14, 1894, Morgan Phillips told his life story to a newspaper reporter and Policeman O’Connor of the Fourth Precinct police station on Oak Street.

Oak Street station house of the 4th Police Precinct

In 1870, the Fourth Precinct station house, which was one of the oldest in New York City, was replaced by a new station house at 9–11 Oak Street, near Roosevelt Street. The complex included a four-story main building and two-story rear building for housing prisoners and vagrants. The station house, seen standing alone around 1949, was among the last structures to be demolished when the neighborhood was demolished to make way for the Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses. (Museum of the City of New York Collections)

Captain Morgan L. Phillips and the Erie Canal

Born in New York City around 1817, Morgan L. Phillips reportedly spent much of his young adulthood on the road. During the 1840s, he owned a fleet of Erie Canal packet boats and was captain of the Jesse Hawley. He was very successful in this business before the railroads took over, carrying as many as 100 passengers between Buffalo and Albany on a regular basis and charging $7 per trip.

“I could have been mayor of Buffalo if I’d wanted,” Morgan told a reporter for the New York World in June 1893.



I cannot confirm that Morgan Phillips was captain of a packet boat called the Jesse Hawley, but Hawley, a flour merchant from Canandaigua, New York, was the first to propose the construction of a canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The Erie Canal, running 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo, opened in 1825. Hawley died in 1842, so it’s very possible that a canal boat was named in his honor. And it’s just as probable that Morgan Phillips was the captain of this boat.


After the railroads were completed, Morgan invested his earnings in a traveling circus, which is how he met his Canadian wife, Clarissa (a circus equestrian rider), and adapted to living in tents. During this time – the late 1840s and early 1850s—his brother supposedly made a fortune as a 49er in the California Gold Rush.

In 1852, give or take a year, Morgan settled back down in New York City and resumed working with horses. According to an article in the New York Herald in March 1894, Morgan once owned the New York Bazaar, a stable at 40 New Bowery (present-day St. James Place), from which he operated a livery business.


In the 1850s, Morgan Phillips reportedly owned a stable at 40 New Bowery called the New York Bazaar. The stable was replaced by the Howard Mission and Home for Little Wanderers in 1867 (the cornerstone was laid on May 15, 1867). The mission, a successor to the Fourth Ward Mission, cared for destitute children by providing clothing, food, and lessons in reading and singing. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

According to the 1855 Census, Morgan and Clarissa lived in an apartment on or near Canal Street with their one-year-old son, Albert. Morgan’s occupation was listed as “coachman.” Then in 1857, according to a news article about a hack driver who had assaulted Morgan Phillips, the family was living at 116 Mercer Street.

M.L. Phillips and the New York Olympic Circus


In the 1860s, Morgan L. Phillips was manager of Tom King’s Olympic Circus. According to advertisements in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in October 1863 and August 1867, the circus had afternoon and evening performances at the “Old Circus Lot” in Macomber Square at the corner of Fulton Avenue and DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn. Equestrian acts, clowns, gymnasts, and a performing dog named Jeff were some of the highlights of the Olympic Circus.


In the 1850s and 1860s, Macomber Square, at the junction of Fulton Street and DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, was the site of a circus lot and pavilion, where circus men like Dan Rice, Tom King, and Morgan Phillips would pitch their tents for a week or two as they made their way across America with their traveling circuses. Pictured here is John Vandergaw’s wagon and carriage business (22 DeKalb Avenue), on land that is now occupied by the old Dime Savings Bank, and the old Fleet Street Methodist Church, constructed in 1852-53.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Morgan returned to the livery business. According to the 1880 Census, he and his wife lived at 90 Doyers Street with their son Albert, his wife, Emma, and their two young sons, Albert and Freddy. Morgan listed his occupation as a “stableman” and Albert as “hack driver” (he probably worked for his father’s livery business). Morgan stored his old circus paraphernalia on the property and entertained the neighbors – who called him Buffalo Jack — with his two trick horses.


At some point during the 1880s, Morgan and Clarissa moved into an apartment at 11 Doyers Street in New York’s Chinatown, pictured here at the bend in the road (the Mandarin Garden). The lower two floors of this building are still standing and are today occupied by a hair salon and the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum parlor in New York City. The top two floors were demolished following a deadly fire that killed seven people at 11-17 Doyer Street in 1939.

The Gypsy of Cherry Street

In June 1893, Morgan Phillips got permission from former New York City Mayor Smith Ely (1887-1888) to occupy the fenced-in lot at 40 Cherry Street. (Smith Ely had purchased the lot in 1890.) There, he set up a half tent/half shanty with a separate stall for his horse and dogs. All around him were brick tenement buildings, like the massive Gotham Court.

Morgan’s neighbors included everyone who lived on Cherry Hill in the Gotham Court tenement complex. This “model tenement” developed in 1850 by Quaker philanthropist Silas Wood comprised two rows of six, five-story tenements standing back to back and extending 234 feet back from Cherry Street. This photo of Gotham Court at 38 Cherry Street was taken by Richard Hoe Lawrence around 1885. (New York Public Library Digital Collections)

According to neighbors, every night around midnight Morgan would harness his horse to an old hack cab and drive to Union Square, where he worked as a cab man. He’d return in early morning and retire to the tent with his horse until noon. In the afternoon, he’d tinker in the lot, mending pushcarts and carriages or watching over the paraphernalia that he stored for other circus men and showmen.



For many months, the neighborhood ruffians — like these pictured in Blind Man’s Alley at 26 Cherry Street in 1890 — taunted Morgan Phillips by throwing rocks at his tent and his dogs. The boys called him the Gypsy of Cherry Hill. The mothers were all afraid of him, and often accused him of kidnapping their children. Policeman O’Connor came to his rescue on several occasions, until it all came to a sudden end in the winter of 1894. 


Next: Part II, the Final Straw on Cherry Street

In Part II of this old New York tale, I’ll share the sad conclusion to this story and explore the fascinating history of 40 Cherry Street.




RooseveltStreet-1891Roosevelt Street ran east-west between Park Row and South Street. The street was named after either Nicolas or Jacobus Rosenvelt, the son and grandson, respectively, of the first Roosevelt in North America–Claes Maartenszane van Rosenvelt–who arrived in New Amsterdam around 1649. Today this land is occupied by the Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses.

Once upon a time, before all the streets and buildings of New York City’s “deep East Side” were razed to make way for new public housing projects, there was a little colonial-era street just north of the Brooklyn Bridge called Roosevelt Street. In 1875, Donald Burns, a veteran circus man and dealer in birds and wild animals, established his business at 115 Roosevelt Street, on the southwest corner of Water Street. Over the next 20 years, this little two-story red-brick building would serve as a temporary home for all kinds of birds, reptiles, and mammals, including panthers, parrots, pythons, swans, and a manatee.

The son of Scottish immigrants John Burns and Annie McGilrey, Donald Burns was born in Canada around 1840. He honed his skills as a trapper and survivalist in the Ontario wilderness at a very young age, and by the time he was in his late teens, he was trading furs in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and selling bob cats, raccoons, and other animals to traveling circuses and menageries throughout Canada.

Donald Burns was long gone when this photo was taken on Roosevelt Street in 1927. The three-story frame building on the corner is 318 Water Street. Just to the right is 115 Roosevelt Street, where Rosy the Manatee, 90 swans, several panthers, 11 wolves, and numerous birds and snakes made their home from about 1875 to 1895.  Previously, this old building housed a jewelry store owned by Henry R. Winstanley (1840s.) New York Public Library Digital Collections

Donald Burns moved to New York City just after the Civil War ended. He opened his first retail business in 1866 at 428 Broadway, where he sold small birds, chickens, dogs, and other small animals to the general public. About a year later, Donald moved his bird and animal shop to 612 Broadway, on the corner of West Houston Street (today the site of a six-story glass office building constructed in 2003).

Sometime around 1868, Donald expanded his business by joining forces with J.B. Gaylord at 280 Front Street near Roosevelt Street. It was here that he began his wholesale animal trade.

Located just one block from the East River and the shipping piers, Donald could easily commission sea captains who were going to Africa, South America, and India to bring back exotic birds and animals, which he would in turn sell to more established New York animal dealers such as Henry Reiche and Archibald and John Reeves. The location also allowed him to export American deer, moose, and caribou to private zoological parks in Europe.

Donald Burns moved his animal emporium to 280 Front Street (the two-story building pictured here in 1936) around 1868. It was here, under the Brooklyn Bridge, that he began and established his wholesale animal-trade business.
New York Public Library Digital Collections

By the early 1870s, Donald Burns had become very well established as the go-to animal dealer for circuses, museums, menageries, and organ grinders (who purchased monkeys). In addition to the large place on Front Street, Donald also operated out of 115 Roosevelt Street, where he also lived for some time. During these early years, Donald also exhibited at a seasonal menagerie at Bergen Beach in Coney Island and traveled with P.T. Barnum’s circus, Joe Pentland’s (Pendleton) circus, and Andrew Haight’s Great Eastern Circus.

Although he specialized in birds and snakes, it was not uncommon for Donald Burns to serve as the middle-man in deals involving much larger animals, including gorillas, elephants, panthers, tigers, and more. One of his oddest deals, however, involved an Amazonian manatee that he named Rosy (perhaps for Roosevelt Street).

Rosy was only six months old and five feet long when she arrived at 115 Roosevelt Street in August 1891. Taken from the Amazon River Basin of northern South America, she came to America by way of Captain Robert Oliphant of the Booth Line Royal Mail Steamer Cyril. The long journey across the sea was arduous, as it was necessary for the crew to constantly fill her tank with the fresh water she needed to stay alive.

Rosy the manatee sailed from the Amazon River to New York City onboard the RMS Cyril. This ship was sunk in a collision with the Anselm 2, another Booth ship, on the Amazon River in 1905, while hauling rubber from Brazil to England.

Rosy had been purchased by another dealer named John Robinson, and was scheduled to go on exhibit in one of the city’s dime museums — perhaps P.T. Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway. As she awaited her transfer, Rosy was temporarily housed in a large tank at Donald Burns’ animal emporium, which, at the time, was also serving as a temporary home for 11 wolves that were starring in a play at the Globe Dime Museum (one of which escaped on August 25 of that year.)

90 Royal Swans-a-Swimming

One year after Rosy’s arrival, Donald Burns received about 90 swans from Hollywood – the Hollywood Station on the New York and Long Branch Railroad in New Jersey, that is. The swans had all belonged to the late John Hoey, the former director of the Adams Express Company who developed The Hollywood Hotel and Cottages on Cedar Avenue in Long Branch, New Jersey in the 1880s. (President Chester A. Arthur stayed in one of Hoey’s cottages – more like mansions — in the summer of 1882.) You really should see his enormous ocean-front estate, “Hollywood,” and his elaborate gardens on the Historic Long Branch website – just search “Hoey.”

The flock consisted of about 90 swans of different varieties and of all ages, from nearly 100 years old to cygnets. Some of the swans had the Queen’s mark (five long ovals pointed at each end), which had been placed on their bills in England by royal order. Several of the swans had been marked before Queen Victoria had ascended the throne in 1837. (The privilege of keeping a game of swans in England was at one time manifested by the grant of a mark, which was cut into the skin or beak with a sharp knife. The process of marking the birds was called swan-hopping or swan-upping, and was conducted with ceremony on the first Monday of August.)

In this early 20th-century postcard, you can see a few swans inside the caged-in aviary at the Central Park Menagerie. Today, swans swim freely on the lake and many of the birds fly freely in the Central Park Zoo rain forest exhibit. A newer bird house, which was constructed in 1934 when the menagerie was refurbished to create the new zoo, is still standing today and now serves as a gift shop.

Upon their arrival at 115 Roosevelt Street on December 30, 1892, Donald Burns called on William A. Conklin, the Superintendent of the Central Park Menagerie, to see if he would be interested in taking the swans. Conklin said he’d have to make a formal application in writing to the Commissioners of Parks to have the swans admitted to the menagerie.

I cannot confirm whether these 90 British swans found a home at Central Park, but it would seem only natural, considering the fact that it was the gift of 12 swans from Hamburg, Germany, that started the menagerie at Central Park in 1860.

According to a letter dated May 9, 1860, from George K. Kunhardt, German Consulate, to R.M. Blatchford, president of the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park, the swans arrived in New York City on May 26, 1860, via the Hamburg America Line’s steamer Bavaria. As part of the gift, the Hamburg America Line had offered to take back the swan’s caretaker for free after he instructed the Commissioners of the Central Park on how to care for them.

CentralParkSwans-HatchingCatShortly after the 12 swans arrived from Hamburg, nine of them died. No poison was detected; it was believed that they died of cake, which had been fed to them by the children and women who came to watch them inside the enclosed aviary. The city of Hamburg immediately donated another 10 swans. Eventually, the swans were moved to the Central Park Lake.

The Last Hurrah on South Street

Sometime around 1895, Donald Burns and his assistant, Henry Kimm, moved one block east to 168 South Street, just north of Dover Street and directly under the ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge.

SouthStreet_DonaldBurns_HatchingCatDonald Burns moved his animal emporium one last time to a large brick warehouse at 168 South Street, shown here (left) in this photo taken in 1927. Today this area is a vacant lot under the ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge.
New York Public Library Digital Collections

A few bird cages in the front windows were the only signs of what was inside the building. Inside, there was a small foyer separated from the rest of the building by iron bars (to protect the public in case any animals escaped their cages). One wall was lined with cages of parrots and other birds, and along the other walls were cages and boxes filled with all sorts of wild animals. On March 18, 1898, when this illustration below appeared in the Rome Semi-Weekly Citizen, a few elephants also occupied the back of the room.


Reportedly, the animal business started to fail when a few of Donald’s circus clients went under. In 1900, city records reported him as being delinquent for failing to pay his annual rent of $916.63. Donald landed on his feet, however; he moved into a flat at 6 Dover Street, his wife gave birth to another son (perhaps Francis), and he took a job as the head keeper in charge of the aviary at the Central Park menagerie under the direction of John W. Smith. (His trapping skills came in handy in the job, as he often trapped birds on Fifth Avenue to replenish the aviary.)

In his later years, Donald Burns lived in an apartment in a brick tenement at
90 Roosevelt Street, seen here (far left). This photo was taken around 1930 to document the gentrification process that eventually obliterated the entire neighborhood to pave way for the New York City Housing Authority’s Alfred E. Smith Houses. New York Public Library Digital Collections

 On December 14, 1915, at the age of 75, Donald Burns was placed in the New York City Home for the Aged and Infirm, Manhattan Division, on Blackwell’s Island. According to his admission papers, he was in poor physical condition and unable to work. His wife, Johanna, was also residing at the home on Blackwell’s Island.


I do not know when Donald Burns passed on, but I don’t imagine he lived long in “captivity” on Blackwell’s Island, in what looks to me like a prison for people. Photo: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection