Archive for the ‘Animal Stories’ Category


Popular in England during the 17th and 18th centuries, illegal bear-baiting took place occasionally in New York City in the mid-1800s, most notably at James McLaughlin’s dog pit at 155 First Avenue (corner of East 10th Street). In bear-baiting, the bear would be chained by the neck or leg to a stake and harassed by dogs.

The following story is not for the squeamish — it was not an easy story for me to write, but I think it’s an important story to tell as it says a lot about society in New York City just before and during the Civil War. Plus, there seems to be a lot of talk about Russian bears in the political news these days, so it’s a timely tale to tell.

Hell in New York City

Three hundred beings human only in shape were crowded together in a close, noise some cellar only about 20 feet square, and a great part of that space was taken up by the pit Saturday night. The animals were tortured merely for the amusement of the spectators. The programme advertised three days beforehand: The sports of the evening would commence with bear baiting, badger and coon drawing, wolf hunting and rat killing.

The bear was baited by five dogs until he caught them in his paws and crunched them half to death, amid the yells and cheers of the assembled fancy. More than a dozen dogs baited the badger. There was also a match between two dogs who fought with such fury that in five minutes their passing could be heard above the shouts of their masters: and when they were stopped for a moment in one place, they marked it with a pool of blood.

The dogs fought for 20 minutes until they were helpless. The men kept cheering them on even though they were exhausted. Then a bag of rats was dropped into the pit, and men and dogs jumped in kicking. When all the rats were killed, a dog and raccoon were pitted against each other. This went on until early on Monday morning by a raffle for dogs still bleeding from the fights.– New York Tribune, January 29, 1855, “Hell in New York”


A scene at Kit Burn’s Sportsmen’s Hall at 273 Water Street, one of several “sporting” establishments that featured rat-baiting in New York City in the 1800s.

The Dog Pits of New York City

In the 1850s and 1860s a brutal pastime called rat-baiting reached new heights in popularity in New York City. Basically, rat-baiting involved pitting a dog against a rat until they fought to the death. When the rats did not provide enough excitement for the mostly young sporting men and male tourists who came to these events, other animals including raccoons, badgers, pigs, and sometimes a bear would take the place of the rats.

Oftentimes, champion dogs were pitted against other dogs. And later in the century it became popular to pit rats against men wearing heavy boots.

Rat-baiting events were not legal, but they were openly patronized and often advertised in publications like The New York Clipper, a weekly entertainment newspaper published in New York City from 1853 to 1924.


A typical scene at a rat-baiting event.

The dogs at these “sporting” events were, for the most part, terrier breeds who were trained for about six months and sent into the pit when they were about a year old. The rats were provided for free — neighborhood boys were paid to catch them, at a rate of 5 to 12 cents each.

The dog pits, at places like McLaughlin’s on First Avenue, Kit Burns’s Sportsmen’s Hall at 273 Water Street, and Jacob Roome’s pit at 140 Church Street, were basically open wooden boxes with walls about 8 feet long and about 4 feet high.

James McLaughlin and His Champion Rat-Baiting Dogs

James McLaughlin was one of the most famous breeders of champion rat-baiting dogs. From about 1854 to 1859, he held “canine exhibitions” at his dog pit at 155 First Avenue. Oftentimes his own terriers, including Whiskey and Princey, participated in the events.

These events were usually advertised in The New York Clipper, such as this announcement that appeared in April 1859:

 April 25, 1859 – A great canine exhibition on Easter Monday…Muzzles and silver collars, and prize for the dog who kills his five rats in the shortest amount of time. Princey, the champion at 24 pounds, open to fight any dog in the world for $100 or $200.  Crib, 44 pounds, Billy, 18 pounds, Mr. O’Brien’s dog, Blinker, 15 pounds, Nelson and Fan of Staten Island, Dick of Newark, Sailor of Brooklyn, the slut Lady, the slut Rosy of Brooklyn, the Yorkville slut. Weighing to commence at 7 p.m., the show started at 8 p.m. Tickets 25 cents. Collars and rats free of charge.

Another announcement read:

A Grand Ratting Exhibition will be given at James McLaughlin’s Sportsman’s Retreat, 155 First Avenue, on Friday Evening, May 26, 1854. There is 4 handsome collars to be run for; 200 Rats to be killed, this is a real chance for gentlemen wishing to try their Dogs, as Collars and Rats will be given free. On that night there will be 10 Rats for large Dogs, and 8 Rats for small dogs; the Dogs making the best time to receive the Collars. The Badger Sport will be beated for a handsome Collar; the Bear and Coon will be on hand. Doors open at eight o’clock.

Sometime in January 1855, a Russian bear named Dennis was reportedly baited at McLaughlin’s. I don’t know the fate of the bear or the dogs that attacked it. But I do know that shortly thereafter, James McLaughlin and 30 spectators were arrested by the police of the 17th Ward. McLaughlin was charged with keeping a disorderly place and was held on $300 bail.

I don’t know if it was this arrest that changed his career path, but I do know that in the 1860s McLaughlin renamed his place Union Hall, which featured sparring events with men only. In later years, McLaughlin continued breeding terriers, but for the dog show circuit at Madison Square Garden as opposed to the rat-baiting circuit.

A Brief History of First Avenue

When Petrus Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Director-General of New Netherland, surrendered to the British in 1664, the King offered him a 62-acre tract of land on the lower east side of New York. Stuyvesant established his country seat on his Bouwerie (or Bouwerij, the Dutch word for farm), which covered what we call today the East Village and Stuyvesant Town (from about 6th Street to 23rd Street, between Fourth Avenue and Avenue C). He named his home Petersfield.

Stuyvesant built his home on a high slope facing the East River, right about where today’s First Avenue intersects with 15th and 16th streets. He lived in the home until his death in 1672.


Peter Stuyvesant’s country seat near present-day First Avenue and 15th Street. 

More than 100 years after Stuyvesant’s death, First Avenue was one of the 12 north-south avenues proposed as part of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 for Manhattan. The southern portions of the Avenue, where Stuyvesant’s old home was located, were cut and laid out shortly after the plan was adopted.

In 1831, an article in the New York Mirror reported that the Stuyvesant house was still standing, albeit, “it appeared to be tottering on its ancient base” as all the earth around it was being removed to use as landfill in other areas. According to the article, the two-story house with gambled roof was constructed of brick painted yellow. Part of the building on the northeast corner had fallen down, and its demise was imminent.

Stuyvesant Mansion 1831.jpg

In this engraving from the December 31, 1831 issue of the New York Mirror, the old Peter Stuyvesant house near First Avenue and 15th Street does appear to be tottering. NYPL digital collections

For almost three centuries, the Stuyvesant farm remained in the family, although little by little, parcels were sold off for development.

In 1820, Peter Gerard Stuyvesant sold 60 lots adjoining First, Second, and Third avenues from 10th through 13th streets. Based on this account in The Evening Post (November 18, 1820), the five-story with basement tenement at 155 First Avenue was probably constructed around this time.

155-157 First Avenue

In the early 1900s, First Avenue from about 1st to 14th streets was filled with peddlers and their pushcarts. Mayor Fiorello Henry LaGuardia, elected to office in 1934, removed the pushcarts from city streets and abolished the city’s filthy, crowded open-air markets.

In place of the open-air markets and pushcarts, LaGuardia used federal Works Progress Administration funds to build several indoor markets that had running water and loading platforms.  In 1937, architects Albert W. Lewis and John D. Churchill were commissioned by the Department of Markets to design several of these markets, including the First Avenue Retail Market.


Mayor LaGuardia addresses the crowd at the grand opening of the First Avenue Retail Market in 1938. The market closed in 1965. Museum of the City of New York Collections

Constructed in 1938, the indoor market occupied an L-shaped building that spanned 155-157 First Avenue and 230-240 East 10th Street.  Where once terrier dogs fought rats and bears, there was now a bustling neighborhood market where merchants sold cheese (the rats would have loved that), vegetables, and other grocery products.

When the market closed in 1965,  the city’s Sanitation Department took over the 30,000 square foot building for use as a storage warehouse for paperwork and small equipment. The Sanitation Department was the sole occupant of the building until 1987, which is when Crystal Field and her husband, George Bartenieff, moved in with their small theater group, the Theater for the New City.


Inside the First Avenue Retail Market in 1938. 

Founded in 1970, the Theater for the New City is, according to The New York Times, “Off Off Broadway’s answer to the mom and pop grocery.” According to the theater’s website, each year TNC produces about 35 new American plays by emerging and established writers and theater companies that have no permanent home.


The old First Avenue Retail Market as it looks today. Google Streets


Margaret Wise Brown and Crispin’s Crispian

“Crispin’s Crispian lived in a two-story doghouse in a garden…”

The charming story of Crispin’s Crispian — and the old New York farmhouse where his famous pet mom wrote her final children’s book — takes place on what was once known as the Louvre Farm. The 90-acre farm extended from the Old Boston Post Road (near today’s Third Avenue) to the East River between present-day East 66th Street and East 75th Street. Today we call the neighborhood Lenox Hill.

In Part I of Crispin’s Crispian, we left off in 1894. In Part II, we go back just a bit to the 1860s, which is when William and Margaret Glass purchased a few vacant lots on what was labeled Subdivision 4 of the old Louvre Farm. The lots were located on the west side of Avenue A (today’s York Avenue), between East 71st and East 72nd Street.


Margaret Wise Brown and Crispin’s Crispian at her writing studio in the little frame house.

It was here in the late 1940s and early 1950s that children’s picture book author Margaret Wise Brown rented what was reported to be a tiny, 18th-century frame house, where she wrote Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself.

Margaret’s pet Kerry blue terrier, Crispin’s Crispian, was the inspiration for this book. The house was no doubt the inspiration for the setting of the story and the illustrations.

The Mysterious Frame House on East 71st Street

Sometime in the 1860s, Irish immigrants William and Margaret Glass moved from Greenwich Village to a little frame farmhouse — more like a cottage — on the northwest corner of East 71st Street and Avenue A. The Glasses reportedly lived in this cottage and operated a small dairy on the site (according to the 1870 census, the Glasses had two sons, John and Charles, and William’s occupation was “milk business.”)

Around 1868-1869, the Glasses constructed a two-story brick dwelling in front of the cottage, thus hiding the tiny house away from street view. They continued to live in the cottage, which was accessible via a narrow path on 71st Street, until William passed away in the early 1880s.


This 1879 illustration of Second Avenue at 72nd Street — the “hill” of Lenox Hill — gives you a good idea of what the Upper East Side of New York City looked like about 140 years ago.

Here’s the mystery: Just when was the frame cottage built? In his book “New York–Oddly Enough,” published in 1938, Charles G. Shaw describes the “hidden house” as an 18th-century clapboard farmhouse with small, paned windows and an open, outside staircase connecting two floors.

News reports from the 1960s also suggest that the house was at least 200 years old, which means it was built in the 1760s, when wealthy privateer David Provost owned the Louvre Farm. But for some reason, the tiny house does not appear on any maps until 1891.

Perhaps the cottage was a small outbuilding on the Provost farm and simply not labeled on any map? Or could it have been moved from another location before the Glass family arrived in the 1860s?


In this 1855 map of Subdivision No. 4 of the Louvre Farm, no construction appears to have taken place yet, and no building lots have been created along Avenue A between 71st and 72nd Street. There’s no sign of a tiny frame house or any other structure.


In 1868, when this map was drawn, the building lots have been created and there appear to be quite a few buildings on Subdivision No. 4, including what is probably the Glass family’s new two-story brick house. Still, I don’t see a tiny frame house. 


The little frame house finally shows up in 1891 (see the little yellow square just above the “V” in “Avenue.”)  The two-story brick building constructed around 1868 is in front, and there was a small cobble court between the two buildings. A narrow path on 71st St. provided access. 

Following William’s passing, Margaret Glass moved into the two-story brick building with her two sons.  She apparently rented part of this building along with the tiny cottage: The 1890 census records three families at the address, including Margaret and her sons.

Cobble Court: 1930s-1940s

In 1928, when Avenue A north of 59th Street was renamed York Avenue, the Glass family’s brick building was designated 1335 York Avenue. I assume the cottage in back shared the same address.

During the Great Depression, the Glass family rented a portion of 1335 York Avenue for use as a tea room called Cobble Court (named for the cobblestone court that separated the brick building from the cottage). The tea room was run by Alta E. Dines and other members of the Cobble Court committee — mostly trained nurses and doctors’ wives who volunteered their time to help nurses who were out of work and in need of assistance.

In addition to the tea room, where, according to the New York Sun, “the chicken salad was marvelous,” Cobble Court had a gift shop and library (possibly in the cottage) as well as a mending service and a theater ticket service for the out-of-work nurses.


In this 1935 photo, 1335 York Avenue is the little two-story brick building to the left of the  Redemptionist Fathers of New York Church. The cottage was behind this building, hidden between the five- and six-story tenements. Museum of the City of New York 

In the 1940s, the Glass’s granddaughter — also named Margaret Glass — occupied the second floor of 1335 York Avenue with her husband, Owen Healy, and their two daughters, Margaret (Margaret “Peggy” Peters) and Charlotte (Charlotte Whalen).  On the first floor, the family operated a restaurant called Healy’s Dining Room.

It was during this time that Margaret Wise Brown rented the back cottage as a writing studio.

In Part III, I’ll tell you about Margaret’s final years in the cottage, and show you some pictures of what this little house looks like today (no, it’s not on East 71st Street anymore, but it’s still standing, and it’s still somebody’s cherished home.)


Another view of 1335 York Avenue (behind the bus) in 1935. Museum of the City of New York 


The 65-acre Cortelyou farm and homestead where part of this story takes place was located on the Fresh Kills Road (now Arthur Kill Road) near the intersection of present-day Cortelyou Avenue. This oil painting was painted in 1843 by Jasper F. Cropsey, a relative of the Cortelyou family. Cropsey was born on a farm in Rossville, Staten Island. He worked as an architect, and also owned 100 acres of land in my hometown of Warwick, New York, where he became a well-known Hudson River School painter. 

In January 1896, the tiny hamlet of Greenridge, Staten Island, was all a buzz over the reported sighting of a large, ferocious black bear. Doors were closed and barred at dusk, and guns and pistols were cleaned and loaded.

All those men who loved to tell their tall tales of bravery were oddly reluctant to venture alone over the country roads from Rossville to Richmond — even during daylight hours.

The story of the bear sighting originated with Greenridge resident David H. Cortelyou, a former Civil War veteran and army captain who owned a large farm and homestead on the Fresh Kills Road (today’s Arthur Kill Road). Many people had heard his war stories of valor, so they didn’t bother to question his tall tale about the large black bear.


The hamlet of Greenridge and the small fishing village of Giffords-by-Sea (now Great Kills), is shown here (top and bottom center) on this 1907 map be E. Robinson. NYPL digital collections

As the story goes, it was David’s 18-year-old son, Stephen, who first came upon the bear while walking along the road one night near the house. Stephen told his father that he had heard a strange noise in the woods; a moment later, a large dark animal emerged and ran after him, making a sound between a grunt and a bark. Maybe that was the first clue…

Grabbing their loaded shotguns and revolvers, David and his son went back outside and fired a few shots into the bushes. No animal appeared, so they went back indoors.

The next night, John Mahoney, the Cortelyou’s hired man, fired two shots at what he also thought was a bear. Again, no bear — or any other animal, for that matter — emerged from the woods.


The Cortelyou family owned land on either side of Fresh Kills Road, as shown on this 1874 map. In 1880, George W. White purchased the 240-acre Underhill farm adjacent to the Cortelyou farm. This farm was at one time the home of Judge Benjamin Seaman (1719-1785), a Loyalist and the last Colonial judge of Staten Island. J.S. Underhill was probably a descendant of Benjamin’s sister Elizabeth and her husband, Amos Underhill. (Seaside Avenue, center, is today’s Richmond Avenue.)

During the course of the week, rumors quickly spread of people having seen the bear in their barns or near their houses. For several days, hunting parties scoured the woods for miles around in search of the elusive wild creature.

Over at James Carroll’s hotel for fishermen at Giffords-by-the-Sea, the bear was also a hot topic. On January 15, a band of men gathered at the hotel and pledged to catch it. In the party were Carroll; David Cortelyou; Tom Williams (aka The Cat); Eden Nolan, the sporting blacksmith of Greenridge; Tom Hogan; Tom Monaghan Tom Kenney; Gabe Gile; Bill King, the noted fox hunter of Richmond; and several other sporting men.

The brave men spent an hour loading their guns and revolvers, and discussing plans for the hunt. Reaching the Cortelyou’s house just before dark, the party made their way through the snow in the bushes where the bear had last been seen.

Just a few minutes into the hunt, the men heard a muffled growl coming from the vicinity of George White’s farm. Williams climbed up a tree and another man fell onto his back and started kicking and screaming. Monaghan barricade himself against the fence and covered his head with his coat.

The other men ran down the road, leaving Cortelyou, Carroll, and King alone to face the ferocious creature…


Here’s the Cortelyou homestead sometime around 1900. If you look at the Cropsey painting above, you’ll see the house on the far left. The property remained in the family until about 1906, when it was purchased by the South New York Villa Site Co. for a prospective housing subdivision. Today, much of the site is occupied by a shopping center. 

The Cortelyou Family

The Cortelyou family of Staten Island and Long Island (also spelled Corteleau) have a long history in New York, dating back to 1652, when Jacques Cortelyou, a French Huguenot surveyor, arrived in America. In 1657, Jacques laid out the town of New Utrecht (Brooklyn) into 20 lots of 50 acres each, one of which he made his home, where he lived with his wife and four sons.

The first Staten Island Cortelyou of record was Jacques’s son Jacques Jr. He and his wife Jaccmynytie (Jemima) VanPelt had two children: a daughter, Deborah, born in 1720, and a son, Aaron, born in 1726. Aaron’s son Peter, born in 1768, and his wife, Emma Hillier, were the parents of Lawrence Hillier Cortelyou, who was born in 1802 in the house pictured above.

Lawrence Cortelyou was a grocer, farmer, and a county judge in New York, and one of the founders of the Richmond County Mutual Insurance Company. In addition to the farm at Greenridge, Lawrence owned the old Henry Seaman cottage at 218 Center Street in Richmondtown, now preserved and on display in Historic Richmond Town.

Lawrence Cortelyou died in the farmhouse in September 1884. His son David Heckle Cortelyou, born in 1849, took over the farm while still maintaining a residence on Manor Road in West New Brighton.

David Cortelyou was a Civil War veteran, having enlisted in the New York 6th Calvary (Company E) in 1861 and reaching the rank of major. He also served as a second lieutenant in the regular army at Kinney, Texas, where he was involved in several battles with the Native Americans. David retired from the army with honors in 1873 and returned to Staten Island, where he worked as a county clerk, the secretary of the Richmond County Mutual Insurance Company, and a part-time bear hunter.

Back to the Bear Hunt at the White Farm…


Here’s a photo of George White’s farm at 814 Arthur Kill Road in 1924. The French Church, established between 1683 and 1698, once stood on this property in front of the large dairy building (there are reportedly still a few dilapidated gravestones on the spot).   

With guns in hand, Cortelyou, Carroll, and King pushed through the bushes and made their way toward the White farm. There, at the base of rock, they found one of George’s St. Bernard dogs. Apparently the dog had trailed some small animal to its nest under the rock and had been digging at the dirt to get at it.

The strange muffled growl the men had heard was not a bear, but the dog with its head in the hole.

newdorpmoravianchurchDavid Cortelyou died on June 8, 1912, and is buried with his family in the Moravian Church cemetery in New Dorp. Organized in 1763, the Moravian Church is the second-oldest church on Staten Island, preceded by St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Richmondtown.  The present church, built in 1837, was designed by Jasper Cropsey. The building was modified in the 1950s, which is when the bell tower was replaced with the present steeple. 

Here’s an aerial “Google Earth” view of the site of the old White and Cortelyou farms on Arthur Kill Road. Amazingly, much of the land on the north side of the road still remains vacant, and is probably very close to what it looked like 150 years ago during the great Greenridge bear hunt.

CortelyouSite.jpgThis old structure at the intersection of Arthur Kill Road and Cortelyou Avenue is right about on the spot of the old Cortelyou farmhouse. A housing development and strip mall occupy the rest of the old farm on the south side of the road (as seen above).