Archive for October, 2016


Major Van Buren Stephens in his custom-made casket on the day of his funeral in July 1900.

“I am heartbroken. I loved him as much as a human being, and he had more intelligence than a good many human beings and was far more faithful.”–Mrs. John T. Stephens, July 12, 1900

In July 1900, Mrs. John T. Stephens lost the canine love of her life. Having lost her young son just two years before, the death of her dog Major was more than she could bear.

Major, an eleven-year-old brown and white collie, entered Myra Stephens’ life when he was only three weeks old and she still went by the maiden name of Myra Van Buren. The aspiring actress from Louisiana (her stage name was Myra St. Maur) raised Major and his brother on her own until her marriage to John Stephens, a wealthy produce merchant, in 1891.

During their early married years, the Stephens traveled extensively throughout Europe, the United States, and Mexico. On every trip, Major was at their side (I don’t know if his brother also traveled with them).

The childless couple doted on Major, teaching him over 50 tricks (according to Myra he could “talk in a way” and sing in three languages) and letting him dine with them at the table. Major was especially fond of coffee — every morning a servant brought him coffee in his bedroom, but he would not drink it until a napkin was tied under his chin. After he finished, he’d hold up his mouth for someone to wipe it.

Major was also a big hit with the residents of London Terrace, a set of 36 grand brownstone row houses on West 23rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue, where Myra and John Stephens made their home.


Major lived with the Stephens at 427 West 23rd Street, which was one of 36 Greek revival brownstone townhouses designed by Alexander Jackson Davis and constructed in 1845 on the former “Chelsea” estate of Clement C. Moore. The old 9th Avenue elevated train tracks are visible at the end of the street. NYPL digital collections 

Sometime around 1895, Myra gave birth to a baby boy. Major instantly bonded with the child, and they became best friends.

According to Myra, in 1897 Major saved a young boy from drowning in Atlanta, Georgia. For his heroics, the father of the boy presented the dog with a gold medal. A year later, Major saved two other little boys from drowning at Rockaway Beach in New York.

That same year, in 1898, the Stephens lost their young son, leaving a huge void in their lives.

Major’s Passing

In July 1900, Myra Stephens took Major to the New York Veterinary Hospital, located just a few blocks away at 117 West 25th Street. Major was not treated by chief surgeon Dr. S. K. Johnson, but Dr. Edward M. Leavy — also a very experienced surgeon — did his very best to treat the collie in his final days.

Dr Samuel Johnson

Dr. Samuel King Johnson in an early photo of the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery, where Major was reportedly buried. Photo courtesy of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.

The Stephens chose to bury their cherished dog in a small pet cemetery that had once been Dr. Johnson’s apple orchard in Hartsdale, New York. On the day of his funeral, Major was washed, combed, and placed in a satin-lined rosewood casket. The casket featured four silver handles and an oval glass plate at the top for viewing.

A gold collar adorned his neck, and flowers covered his body. As the Stephens’ many friends came to call and place more flowers on the casket, Major’s surviving brother collie stood by and howled.

Major was taken by an animal ambulance to Grand Central Station, where the casket was placed on a Harlem Line train bound for Hartsdale in Westchester County.

The Clement C. Moore Estate at Chelsea


The Clement C. Moore property — formerly the Bishop Benjamin Moore property and the old Jacob and Teunis Somerindyke farm — was bounded by the Hudson River and present-day Eighth Ave., 19th St., and 24th St.

For several years, Major and his brother collie lived with the Stephens at 427 West 23rd Street, which was then one of a group of brownstone townhouses called London Terrace. The property has a very interesting history, dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan was all hilly forest and farmland owned by Jacob and Teunis Somerindyke.

This large farm of several hundred acres was bounded by what was then called the North River (Hudson) and 8th Avenue (then called Fitzroy Road) from 14th to 24th Street. The land featured a river that flowed near present-day 10th Avenue and a small creek by the shoreline at 22nd Street.

In 1750, Captain Thomas Clarke, a retired British military man, bought a large piece (about 100 acres) of the old farm and named it Chelsea, after his native London’s Royal Hospital at Chelsea, where old soldiers lived out their final days. There, near the intersection of today’s 8th Avenue and 24th Street, he built a “snug harbor” that he called the Chelsea House.

In 1776, the year Captain Clarke died, a fire destroyed the three-story frame house. His widow, Mary Stillwell Clarke, replaced it with a larger brick Chelsea House near what would now be lots 422 and 424 on West 23rd Street. Mary defended the house against the British troops during the Revolutionary War, and remained there until her death in 1802.

The house and much of the property stayed in the family, passing to Mary’s daughter, Charity, and her husband, Benjamin Moore, the Episcopal bishop of New York and president of Columbia College.

chelseahouse2Chelsea House was on a high bluff overlooking the Hudson River, near today’s West 23rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue. 

In 1779, Clement Clarke Moore was born in Chelsea House. Here, in 1822, he first recited the poem he wrote for his two daughters — “A Visit from St. Nicholas” — the classic holiday poem that begins, “T’was the night before Christmas, when all through the house…”

Legend has it that Moore based his Santa Claus on the family’s jovial and plump Dutch handyman, and that he was inspired to write the poem while being driven home one snowy night in a sleigh pulled by a horse with jingling bells.


From Clement C. Moore’s A Visit From Saint Nicholas, illustrated by F.O.C. Darley and published by James G. Gregory in 1862.

Sometime around the 1830s, Moore began dividing his land into lots and selling them for fine residences.

In 1845, working with William Torrey (who leased the land), Moore erected a large housing development called London Terrace and Chelsea Gardens, which encompassed West 23rd and 24th streets between 9th and 10th Avenue.

Then in 1853 he razed the family seat (Chelsea House) across from London Terrace and sold the land. On that site, elaborate row houses later called Millionaires’ Row were constructed.

Moore moved into a new townhouse on West 22nd Street, where he lived until his death in 1863. This house is still standing today.


On West 24th Street, Moore built the Chelsea Cottages, which were wood-framed, two-and three-story houses occupied by writers and artists who painted them and added sleeping porches. Behind these, facing West 23rd Street, were the London Terrace townhouses, where Major and the Stephens lived. NYPL digital collections

In 1907, a financial panic marked the beginning of the downfall for the 1845 London Terrace. The once pricey one-family homes were subdivided into rooming houses and apartments. Extra floors were added to several of the buildings, and some were converted to institutions (for example, in 1930 the townhouse where the Stephens once lived was the Florence Crittenden Home for Girls; three London Terrace homes near 10th Avenue were combined with three of the Chelsea Cottages to form the School for Social Research campus.)


London Terrace in 1925, just four years before its demise. NYPL digital collections

 By 1929, developer Henry Mandel had acquired control of the block — well, all of the buildings except the house at 429 West 23rd Street. As Mandel began demolishing all of the buildings, Tillie Hart, once the next-door neighbor of the Stephens, held her ground, barricading herself in and refusing to leave until the sheriffs forced her out in October of that year.

Mandel replaced the old townhouses with ten apartment buildings and four taller tower-like structures at each corner. The buildings contained 1,665 apartments, plus an abundance of amenities such as an indoor swimming pool, supervised rooftop play area, gymnasium, penthouse recreational club, sun deck for infants, courtyard garden, and a rooftop marine deck furnished to look like an ocean liner.


The new London Terrace in 1930. NYPL digital collections

The Passing of Myra Van Buren Stephens

In the years following Major’s death, Myra Stephens became more attached to dogs and less attached to the real world.

In February 1904, she headed up an enterprise called the Idlewild Canine Cemetery Association. The association reportedly purchased five acres of land just north of the train depot in Central Islip for use as a cemetery for poodles. There are no further reports of this dog cemetery (although I did find this recent story about a woman charged with having a pet cemetery in her Central Islip yard. Hmm…)

In 1920, while living in a friend’s 17-room house at 1155 Guion Avenue (108th Street) in Richmond Hill, Queens, Myra was charged with keeping numerous dogs in a boarding kennel without a kennel permit. By this time her life had taken a turn for the worse, and she was often seen knocking on theater stage doors and begging for assistance from the actors and actresses.

On November 12, 1931, the sound of whimpering dogs got the attention of a policeman, who broke into Myra’s squalid, six-room tenement apartment at 1250 Second Avenue. There, Myra was found dead on the floor surrounded by her 11 dogs. Myra was taken to the city morgue and the dogs were taken to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

427west23rd_hatchingcatMajor’s old home at 427 West 23rd Street is now part of London Terrace Gardens. 



Margaret Owen and Lilly in 1922

When we left Part I of this curious cat tale of Old New York, young Margaret Owen was just about to dunk her two Angora cats into a basin of blue dye. The blue cats, she thought, would match her blue suit and look great parading down the boardwalk at Atlantic City. They’d also make a great gift for Otto Harbach and Arthur Hammerstein, the writer and director of “The Blue Kitten.” 

Margaret Owen was obsessed with the color blue. Everything in her apartment was blue, as were all her clothes and accessories. The petite singer had also recently auditioned for a chorus role in “The Blue Kitten,” which was appearing at the Selwyn Theatre (today, the American Airlines Theatre) on West 42nd Street.

So one day, while dying some old woolen stockings in a basin of blue dye, she got a wicked idea when her cat Lilly dipped her paw into the basin. She picked up the cat and dunked her right into the bowl of blue water. Then it was her cat Otto’s turn (I don’t know if this was his name, but several newspaper articles refer to him as Otto).


“The Blue Kitten” was a musical comedy that ran from January to May 1922 at the Selwyn Theatre.

Despite the cats’ howls, Lilly held them down in the water for about five minutes until she was sure the dye had taken. (She took care not to immerse their heads – she used a piece of cotton dipped in the dye to swab their faces.) When she was all done, she wrapped the cats in an old blue towel and placed them on a blue cushion to dry.

Now, Margaret Owen was not the only person who rented an apartment from building owner Clarice Carleton Holland at 75 West 50th Street. Hearing the cats’ howls and thinking that Margaret was killing them, several neighbors called the Humane Society.

Over the next few days, things did not go well for poor Otto. Sensing something was wrong with the lackadaisical cat, Margaret took Otto to Dr. Harry K. Miller’s dog and cat hospital (aka, The New York Canine Infirmary), which was then located at 146 West 53rd Street. There, the blue Angora succumbed to an apparent poison in the dye.

Enter stage left, Harry Moran, Superintendent of New York’s Humane Society. Harry Moran told Margaret he was taking her and Lilly to the West Side Magistrates Court, where she would appear before Magistrate Peter A. Hatting on charges of animal cruelty.

Midtown Community Court New York

The old West Side Magistrates Court at 314 West 54th Street was built in 1894. Today it’s home to the Midtown Community Court. The building still bears its terra cotta visions of justice.

Margaret put the blue cat in a blue silk bag and brought her to the court, where she was met by her attorney, Benedict A. Leerburger of the firm of House, Grossman & Vorhaus.

Magistrate Hatting ordered Margaret, Superintendent Moran, Mr. Leerburburger, and the cat to go to the Humane Society headquarters to have Lilly’s fur analysed by a chemist.

Pending the test results and Lilly’s status, the judge said, he would make his decision.

“If Miss Owens and Mr. Leerburger want any lunch, the Humane Society will supply them with it,” the judge reportedly said as he sent them on their way to have Lilly examined.

“What kind of lunch?” Mr. Leerburger asked the magistrate. “I can’t get along on a cat’s diet,” the attorney said. “I need more than milk for sustenance.”


Margaret at court with Lilly, who was then still dyed blue (you can just barely make out the cat on her shoulders).


Two veterinarians and a specialist on poison were called to assist with Lilly at the Humane Society. They washed the cat and had the water analyzed. It turned out that the blue dye contained 5% arsenic.

Because Lilly had licked a lot of the dye off and become very sick, the magistrate said it was almost a case of fatal poisoning. (Margaret denied knowing anything about Otto, claiming that he was a friend’s cat that she had taken to the animal hospital as a favor for her.)

Mrs. Anna Doyle, Margaret Owen’s probation officer, was convinced that Margaret had not intended to harm the cats. Lilly had survived the ordeal, so Mrs. Doyle asked the judge to go easy on Miss Owen.

“You’re a spoiled child,” the magistrate admonished Margaret during her sentencing. “What you need is a guardian. Are you married? No? Then I’ll send you back to your father until you get another guardian.”

In addition to remanding Margaret to her parents in Florida, Judge Hatting told her that the Humane Society would have custody of Lilly until her blue color had vanished.

Margaret’s Story Goes Viral

Within days after Margaret appeared in court with Lilly, the story of the blue-dyed cat that had died from dyeing (referring to Otto) made all the major newspapers across the United States. Her story was also cabled to the Paris newspapers, where the idea of dying your pets to match your wardrobe was much appreciated by the high-society Parisian women.


The Paris women were a little more intelligent, though. First, they thought it would be better to dye their dogs, since cats aren’t fond of parading about with their mistresses. They also found that coffee, caramel, or tea, mixed with cream (and a little bit of quinine to discourage licking), made a great safe dye.

Superintendent Moran was completely against this fad, and had a reputation for prosecuting those who tried it in New York City. Even if coffee, tea, and caramel was used, he said, these were poisonous for animals, and thus, punishable under the law as a misdemeanor crime against animals.

10 Years Later…

I do not know what happened to Margaret Owen and Lilly. Hopefully they lived happily ever after in Florida, but for some reason I don’t think Margaret kept herself out of trouble for the rest of her life.

What I do know is that in 1930, Clarice Carleton Holland, the widow of Dr. Bukk G. Carleton, sold the building at 75 West 50th Street to William F. Beach, who in turn sold it the Underel Holding Corporation on behalf of John D. Rockefeller. By 1931 the holding corporation had acquired all the lots on the street, giving them the entire 50th Street frontage on which to construct Radio City Music Hall.

Once upon a time, a young woman dyed her cats blue in an old brownstone and brick apartment on this very site at the northeast corner of W. 50th Street and Sixth Ave. Radio City Music Hall opened on December 27, 1932. Photo by P. Gavan

Incidentally, the animal hospital where Margaret Owen brought Otto and Lilly is still in operation as the Miller-Clark Animal Hospital in Mamaroneck, New York. Established in 1902 at 118 West 188th Street (according to old newspaper ads), it is one of the longest running veterinary practices in New York.


Here is Lilly, Margaret Owen’s once pure white Angora cat, in February 1922.

Every once and a while I come across an old animal story that goes into my special folder called “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.” The following Old New York City cat tale is somewhat funny, very bizarre, and a bit tragic. It most certainly belongs in my special folder.

Once upon a time, a young woman was obsessed with blue…

Blue eyes, check. Blue clothes, check. Blue rugs and draperies, check. Blue walls and electric lamp shades, check. Blue china and blue satin chairs, check. Blue cats…hmmm

Miss Margaret Owen was a wealthy and temperamental petite young lady who just loved the color blue. Everything she owned was blue – well, almost everything. The blue-eyed singer had even tried out for the chorus in “The Blue Kitten,” a musical comedy based on the book by Otto Harbach and William Gary Duncan, and directed by Arthur Hammerstein.


Margaret Owen with Lilly in 1922

She said blue soothed her and calmed her sometimes overwrought nerves.

Although she was only 22 years old, Margaret had her own spacious apartment in a five-story brownstone and brick apartment building in midtown Manhattan. She also had a maid to do all her washing and cleaning. (All courtesy of her wealthy father, H.W. Owen, a former stock broker who had retired to Florida.)

One day in January 1922, Margaret’s maid took the day off. That left Margaret alone with a pair of yellowing wool stockings that were driving her mad. She simply could have no peace until she did something with those stockings.

So Margaret rolled up the sleeves of her blue smock and turned on the hot water faucet for the marble basin in her blue dressing room. She poured in a bottle of indigo and a few packets of Diamond–brand blue dye. Her new blue stockings were going to look so perfect with her pretty blue suit…

Well, everything was going fine until Lilly, one of Margaret’s two white Angora cats, came bounding into the room. When the curious, eight-month-old kitty dipped a white paw into the blue basin, Margaret clapped her hands in delight!

As it turns out, Margaret had recently bought a blue leash for her kittens, because she had heard that women were walking their cats on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. She thought, wouldn’t it be romantic to be the mistress of a very beautiful blue cat that she could parade down the boardwalk? And wouldn’t a blue cat make a great gift for Arthur Hammerstein?

Oh heck, wouldn’t it be great to also give Otto Harbach a blue cat while she was at it? All she had to do was dunk her kitties in the blue water, just like her stockings…

A Brief History of Margaret Owen’s Neighborhood


Margaret Owen lived with Lilly and Otto at 75 West 50th Street, which would have been just to the left out of sight (this 1931 photo shows #1 to #71, right to left). All of these brownstone and brick apartments on the north side of West 50th Street were purchased and torn down in the year this photo was taken. In the background is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. New York Public Library digital collections 

This story takes place in Margaret’s apartment building at the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street. This part of Manhattan was the site of the 18th-century Hopper Farm, aka, The Great Kill Farm, a large 300-acre estate that extended from about Sixth Avenue to the Hudson River between 48th and 55th streets. (The Great Kill was a small stream that emptied into the Hudson River at the foot of what is now 42nd Street.)

Hopper Homestead

The Hopper homestead, located near Hopper’s Lane (a diagonal road that ran just west of present-day Broadway between 51st and 53rd Street), was still standing in 1872 when The New York Times wrote about the quaint old house. Museum of the City of New York Collections

Over the years, two large lots of the Hopper estate on the east side of the Bloomingdale Road (Broadway) were conveyed to numerous people, starting with John Horn in 1782, followed by his daughter Jemima and her husband Matthew Dikeman (1815), James Meinell (1822), and the New York Dry Dock Company (1843).

In 1859, all of the old Hopper land along Sixth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets was still vacant, save for a few shanties once occupied by the piggeries of Hogtown (the pigs had all been cleared out that year, in what The New York Times called “The Great War on the New York Piggeries”). One such shanty still standing on the very site of Margaret’s apartment was occupied by an Irish hermit named Billy who killed himself in 1860.

hogtownnewyorkThe district of Hogtown extended from 50th Street to 58th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenue. This illustration is a view of Sixth Avenue at 56th and 57th streets sometime prior to 1859. Today this is the site of Carnegie Hall, constructed in 1889.  

That year (1859), Joseph D. Beers, who now owned the land on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street, signed a covenant with the Trustees of Columbia College, who owned the adjacent property (what would later be the apartment buildings shown above at #1 to #69).

Under the covenant, the land could only be used for first-class dwelling houses and never for any business purposes. The covenant was supposed to be binding to all persons who owned the land from that day forward.


The land between Sixth and Fifth Avenue and 50th and 51st Street was still vacant — save for one building near Fifth Avenue — when the Dripps map was created in 1867. 

In February 1871, Joseph Beers conveyed his land to Anna M. Lynch, who built a brownstone with a basement office that was used for a real estate business. The trustees of the college took Mrs. Lynch to court for breaking the covenant, but she ended up selling the property to Thomas Thatcher during the trial.

By this time, the Metropolitan Elevated Railroad had been erected along Sixth Avenue and many businesses were in the area, so the case was dismissed. Shortly thereafter, the block was filled with four- and five-story brownstone and brick apartment buildings like the one where Margaret lived with her Angora cats.

Back to Lilly and Otto…

I know you’re dying to know what happened to the blue-dyed cats, so stay tuned for Part II of this crazy cat story. Meow.