Archive for March, 2016

Van Amburgh is the man, who goes to all the shows
He goes into the lion’s cage, and tells you all he knows;
He sticks his head in the lion’s mouth, and keeps it there a-while,
And when he pulls it out again, he greets you with a smile.–
“The Menagerie,” song by Dr. W.J. Wetmore, 1865


Isaac Van Amburgh, aka the Lion King, with his lions, tigers, and lamb at the London Theatre. Oil painting on canvas by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1839. 

Part 1 of a 3-part story about Isaac Van Amburgh, the Richmond Hill estate in Greenwich Village, and New York’s Zoological Institute in the Bowery

After years of pressure from its many critics, SeaWorld recently announced that it was no longer breeding killer whales in captivity. The announcement follows on the heels of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ decision to retire all of its performing elephants by May 2016. Although news reports suggest these announcements reflect a shift in society’s attitude toward the treatment of wild animals, one could argue that the criticism has existed for at least 200 years, going back to 1833, when a 22-year-old lion tamer from Fishkill, New York, introduced his wild animal act to New York City audiences in Greenwich Village and the Bowery.

Much has been written about the lion tamer Isaac A. Van Amburgh, and I’d prefer to focus on the New York City ties to this story, but a quick introduction to the man who came to be known as the Lion King is warranted to paint the full picture.

In 1830, at the age of 19, Isaac Van Amburgh was hired as a cage cleaner for June, Titus, Angevine & Co., a large menagerie in North Salem, New York (later to become part of the New York Zoological Institute, founded in Somerstown Plains, New York in 1835 at the Elephant Hotel). Legend has it that Isaac was fascinated by the Biblical tale of Daniel in the lion’s den, and had always dreamed of being a lion tamer. He was a natural for the job.

That year, Isaac spent the warm months cleaning animal cages and the winter months training wild animals in various barns throughout upper Westchester and lower Putnam counties. By 1831, he was ready to take his traveling Van Amburgh Menagerie on the road. For the next forty years, Van Amburgh’s name would be synonymous with menageries, the circus, and daring wild animal acts.


Isaac Van Amburgh’s menagerie bandwagon was billed as the largest ever seen in America. It was more than 20 feet long and 17 feet tall, and its canopy could be lowered for passing under low bridges. The horse-drawn bandwagon was followed in grand procession by about 30 carriages, cages, and performer caravans. In this illustration, Van Amburgh is reportedly leading his menagerie past the Astor House hotel on Broadway at Vesey Street in 1846.

The Lion King Takes His Act to Greenwich Village

In the fall of 1833, Isaac Van Amburgh announced his plans to step into a cage occupied by a lion, a tiger, a leopard, and a panther at the Richmond Hill Theatre, located at the southeast corner of Varick and Charlton streets in Greenwich Village. Strong appeals were made for him to cancel this performance, but he would not back down. He reportedly even offered to drive down Broadway and other main streets in a chariot drawn by lions and tigers, but the authorities interfered.

VanAmburghBio_HatchingCatO.J. Ferguson wrote of the performance in Greenwich Village in his biographical sketch of Van Amburgh published in 1862:

The daring pioneer approached the door of the den with a firm step and unaverted eye. A murmur of alarm and horror involuntarily escaped the audience…The effect of his power was instantaneous. The Lion halted and stood transfixed. The Tiger crouched. The Panther with a suppressed growl of rage sprang back, while the Leopard receded gradually from its master. The spectators were overwhelmed with wonder…. Then came the most effective tableaux of all. Van Amburgh with his strong will bade them come to him while he reclined in the back of the cage – the proud King of animal creation.” 

Dressed like a Roman gladiator in toga and sandals, Van Amburgh emphasized his domination of the animals by beating them into compliance with a crowbar. Oftentimes he’d thrust his arm into their mouths, daring them to attack. It’s no wonder that he had his share of critics, even in an era when four-legged creatures were called “dumb animals” and more often than not treated inhumanely.

When he came under attack for spreading cruelty and moral devastation, Van Amburgh responded to his critics by quoting the Bible: “Didn’t God say in Genesis 1:26 that men should have dominion over every animal on the earth?” To further make his case, Van Amburgh would act out scenes from the Bible, forcing a lion to lie down with a lamb or bringing a child from the audience to join them in the ring.

Does anyone else secretly wish these poor creatures would have attacked back?

The Richmond Hill Theatre of Greenwich Village

I recently took a walk along Charlton, Vandam, King, Macdougal, and Varick streets in Greenwich Village, to visit the former site of the old Richmond Hill Theatre, where the Lion King once performed. I first closed my eyes briefly and tried to imagine the scene 400 years ago, when the area was a favorite hunting ground for the Lenape, who came there to fish in the creeks and hunt deer, flying squirrels, and other wildlife.

That proving a challenge, what with traffic police and taxis and buses and bicyclists, I next tried to go back 250 years, when the area comprised the 26-acre Richmond Hill estate, one of the finest and most famous in colonial New York. The Richmond Hill mansion was built in 1767 by Abraham Mortier on grounds the British army’s paymaster general leased from the Trinity Church (99-year lease). The home of timber construction stood on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, just west of today’s intersection of Charlton and Varick streets. (At that time, before the land was filled in, the property was very close to the Hudson River shore.)
richmond hill4_HatchingCat.jpg

In his book “A Tour Around New York and My Summer Acre” (1892), John Flavel Mines writes of the old Richmond Hill estate:

It was a beautiful spot then. In front there was nothing to obstruct the view of the Hudson. To the right fertile meadows stretched up towards the little hamlet of Greenwich Village, and on the left the view of the little city in the distance was half hidden by clumps of trees and rising hills. There was a broad entrance to the house, under a porch of imposing height, supported by high columns, with balconies fronting the rooms of the second story. The premises were entered by a spacious gateway, flanked by ornamental columns, at what is now the termination of Macdougal Street. Within the gate and to the north was a beautiful sheet of water, known to men who are still living and who skated on its frozen surface when they were urchins of tender years, as Burr’s Pond.

richmond hill2_HatchingCat.jpg

In 1776, George Washington seized Richmond Hill and used it as his Revolutionary War headquarters (he was living here when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed on July 4). Following the war, the estate was home to John and Abigail Adams (1789-1790). Aaron Burr acquired the mansion and church lease on the land in 1794, and he lived here until his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804.

During her brief stay there, Abigail Adams wrote about Richmond Hill in a letter to a friend:

On one side we see a view of the city and of Long Island. The river [is] in front, [New] Jersey and the adjacent country on the other side. You turn a little from the road and enter a gate. A winding road with trees in clumps leads to the house, and all around the house it looks wild and rural as uncultivated nature. . . . You enter under a piazza into a hall and turning to the right hand ascend a staircase which lands you in another [hall] of equal dimensions of which I make a drawing room. It has a glass door which opens into a gallery the whole front of the house which is exceedingly pleasant. . . .There is upon the back of the house a garden of much greater extent than our [Massachusetts] garden, but it is wholly for a walk and flowers. It has a hawthorne hedge and rows of trees with a broad gravel walk.

Traveling back in my mind to the 1700s also proved difficult, as you can imagine, so as I tried to take photos in between bouts of traffic, I decided to ponder on the demise of Richmond Hill and the events that led to present-day Charlton and Varick streets. Stay tuned for Part II, in which I’ll share what I’ve discovered about the final years of the old Richmond Hill mansion/theater where the Lion King once dominated a lion, tiger, leopard, and panther. And then in Part III, I’ll explore the old theater and Zoological Institute on the Bowery, where Van Amburgh developed his career as a formidable lion tamer and circus man.




Children attend a pet burial a pet cemetery sometime around 1900.

“Pax vobiscum,” chanted the dog burier, and Dane, the Irish setter, was laid to his final rest.”–The New York Evening World, September 19, 1903

One day in September 1903, William and Ada Larson took a trip to Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn. The weather was obviously pleasant, because they left a window open in their new apartment at 246 West 114th Street in Harlem. This particular window led to a fire escape, which was a favorite sleeping spot for their seven-year-old Irish setter, Dane.

Dane had been living with the Larsons since 1896, when the young couple was living in St. Paul, Minnesota. William C. Larson, a broker, had been born in Wisconsin in 1868, and Ada M. Larson was born in Minnesota in 1865. The couple never had children, and so they treated Dane like their baby.

When the Larsons and Dane moved from Minnesota to 246 West 114th Street, the five-story brick, brownstone, limestone, and terracotta “Old Law” tenement was brand new. Designed by architect John P. Leo and constructed in 1899, No. 246 was one of 36 Renaissance Revival-style buildings constructed between 1896 and 1900 on West 114th Street between today’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.


The Larsons and their Irish Setter, Dane, lived at 246 West 114th Street in Harlem, which was one of 36 five-story “Old Law” tenements on the block (pictured here in 1928). The Larson’s building was on the south side of the street, near what was then still called Eighth Avenue (Frederick Douglas Boulevard). The fire escape was a favorite spot for Dane on warm nights. New York Public Library Digital Collections

A Brief History of West 114th Street

The section of Harlem in which the Larsons and Dane lived has an interesting post-Native history going back to March 1637, when Dr. Jean Mousnier de la Montagne, a Protestant in exile from France, arrived in America following a six-month journey on the ship Rensselaerswyck. This ship was owned by the Dutch patroon Kiliaen Van Rensselaer and by Gerard DeForest, the uncle of Montagne’s wife, Rachel.

Immediately upon arrival, the well educated Dr. Montagne set up shop as a physician and ship chandler, while the DeForests, including sons Henry and Isaac, established a 200-acre tobacco farm called Vredendahl (or Quiet Dale) on land known to the Indians as “Muscoota” (flat place, as it lied just east of the rugged cliffs of Manhattan schist (now Morningside Park).

The DeForest farm was divided by Harlem Lane (sometimes called the Kingsbridge Road; today called St. Nicholas Avenue), and ran from about present-day 109th Street (northern part of Central Park) to 124th Street.


The old Harlem Lane — once a Native American path called Weekquaeskeek and now called St. Nicholas Avenue — served as the dividing line of the DeForest farm, which was established around 1637. This area, later known as Montagne’s Land or Montagne’s Flat, remained farmland through the early nineteenth century. 

Shortly after arriving in the New World, Henry DeForest died, leaving Dr. Montagne in charge of the tobacco farm. Dr. Montagne built a small bark cabin for his family at the present intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue, Seventh Avenue, and West 116th Street. For the next 200 years, the land remained undeveloped farmland.

Sometime around 1812, David Wood purchased the land and built his own farmhouse on present-day West 114th Street near 7th Avenue (the site of the Wadleigh High School for Girls, built in 1901-02). Following Wood’s death on May I2, I842, the land reverted to his widow and children.

By this time, the New York and Harlem Railroad had already begun providing access to Harlem’s farmland north of 110th Street. However, with options for commuters still limited, small shantytowns began to pop up as many of the old farms that were not sold for development were abandoned.


The 9th Avenue elevated train dramatically changed Harlem by providing an option for Manhattan commuters who moved north in the late 1800s. The famous S-curve shown here — often called Suicide Curve — allowed the tracks of the 9th Avenue El to switch over to 8th Avenue at 110th Street. 

The face of Harlem changed dramatically between 1878 and 1881, when the elevated train lines were extended into the area. The Ninth Avenue elevated train, in particular, had a huge impact on Harlem as it paved the way for a surge of speculative construction on the west side — such as the Old Law tenements on West 114th Street where Dane lived with his human mother and father.


Dane’s enclosed grave site and monument at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery archives. 

Dane’s Final Nap

On that fateful day in September, Dane chose to take a nap on the fire escape while his human parents were away. He somehow rolled off in his sleep and fell to his death (one report said he jumped out the window). When the Larsons returned home and saw all their neighbors surrounding Dane’s body, Mrs. Larson fainted on the street.


The following day, the Larsons set out to find an undertaker who would embalm their dog and conduct a proper burial. An undertaker named Christian F. Greenwald at 2134 Eighth Avenue, just north of 115th Street, agreed to embalm the Irish setter and make arrangements to have him buried in the dog and cat cemetery at Hartsdale.

Reportedly, C.F. Greenwald specialized in embalming dogs, cats, and other small animals, and he had a working relationship with Dr. Johnson, a prominent New York veterinarian who helped establish the pet cemetery on his apple orchard in Westchester County.

After taking Dane’s body to his shop, Christian Greenwald embalmed the dog and prepared a small oak casket (engraved with “Dane” in silver lettering and lined with white satin). Dane was placed on his side with his head on a bed of lilies of the valley; roses and other flowers were placed over his body. After the casket was placed on a pedestal, a photographer reportedly took a “flashlight” photograph of Dane.

2134EighthAve_HatchingCatChristian F. Greenwald embalmed Dane and other pets at his shop at 2134 8th Avenue. In 1927, when this photo was taken, No. 2134 (2-story building at right) was occupied by a fruit and vegetable market. Next door, in the same building, were a billiards parlor and a meat market. Museum of the City of New York Collections

“Thousands of people came to see Dane when he was in his coffin. He was a beautiful animal and looked exactly as if he were asleep. People came in crowds and we had to make them come in line, and we kept open all night, for one person telling another they came from all parts of the city to see him.”–C. F. Greenwald, Newport News Daily Press, October 7, 1907 

On the morning of his burial, Mrs. Larson — heavily veiled — and several neighbors came to say goodbye to Dane before taking the train to the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. When Greenwald closed the casket, Mrs. Larson said, “Don’t lock it. I want to put inside Dane’s collar and leash and whip and plate. I could not bear to have those remainders of the dear dog about the house.” (I can’t bear that she used a whip on him!)


When Dane was buried at Hartsdale, his enclosed grave site, pictured here, featured a large monument and a rustic seat for visitors. Photo by  Mr. William H. Secord, Hartsdale postmaster, from Hartsdale Pet Cemetery archives. 

At the solemn cemetery, Ada Larson and a little girl tossed flowers onto the grave. Ada sobbed violently and was led away by her friends. One woman told a reporter that she was only a neighbor, but she loved Dane as if he had been her own dog.

In the 1970s, the New York Housing Authority acquired what are now called the A. Phillip Randolph Houses on West 114th Street. Over the years the buildings have greatly deteriorated, but renovation plans are underway. A screen capture from Google Streets shows that work is in progress at No. 246, pictured here, and along the rest of the block.


2134 Eighth Avenue, where Christian F. Greenwald prepared Dane for his final resting place, has had a troubled history, including a chain of mortgage foreclosures and repossessions. In 1980, the property was seized by the federal government as part of a major narcotics trafficking case. In more recent years, part of the building was occupied by the Masjid Aqsa mosque, which was evicted in 2013 following a rent dispute


The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester County remains a wonderful resting place for treasured pets of all kinds. Photo, P. Gavan