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“Remember when the Norton’s Point Lighthouse was built? Several times I was down there and climbed to the top of the unfinished structure. What a wilderness of sand dunes the point was at that time. With a friend I used to go often to the Coney Island beach in winter and dig clams, which were large ln size but made good chowder.” –P. B. STOUT, You Must Remember This, 1941.

Tommy Mulligan Norton Point Light Cat

Tommy Mulligan looks out the window of the Norton’s Point Light on Coney Island in 1936. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library

In the late 1920s, Tommy Mulligan was a famous U.K. boxer best known for being brutally knocked out by world middleweight champion Mickey Walker of Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Tommy Mulligan was also the name given to a seafaring cat that was washed ashore on the western beach of Coney Island in 1933. Although banged up and bruised, this Tommy was a real fighter who didn’t get knocked down.

Tommy Adopts the Lighthouse Keeper

Tommy was a feline sailor’s mascot who apparently fell from the deck of a passing ship sometime around 1993. Herbert Greenwood, the resident lighthouse keeper on the western point of Coney Island, found the cat almost drowned on the beach at Norton’s Point. He dried him out with towels and fed him a saucer of warm milk.

As the old saying goes, the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach — the same applies to cats.

Warm and dry, with a belly full of milk, Tommy knew he had found his forever land-based home. The handsome but sober cat adopted the 50-year-old Herbert and his wife, Agnes, and settled in for good at the lighthouse.

Norton's Point Light, Coney Island

The Coney Island (Norton’s Point) Lighthouse, fog bell tower, and keeper’s house in 1896. Thomas Higginbotham, the first keeper of the lighthouse, lit the beacon for the first time on August 1, 1890. The light was a fourth-order Fresnel lens powered by kerosene that flashed red every 10 seconds. Sailors said they could see the powerful light 17 miles from shore, while they couldn’t see the other lights of Coney Island until they were 11 miles from shore.

A Brief History of Norton’s Point

Before I tell you more about Tommy and the lighthouse, I want to provide some background on Norton’s Point, which is today occupied by the gated community of Sea Gate. Although a lot has been written on the history of Coney Island, I came across some erroneous information about Norton’s Point in numerous books and articles that I want to clarify.

Coney Island Pavilion, 1845

Many history books report that Mr. Eddy and Mr. Hart, two New York speculators, built the first pavilion on the western end of Coney Island in 1844. However, a first-hand report of the grand opening of this pavilion in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (July 28, 1845) states otherwise.

Until about 1874, Coney Island was mostly described as “a barren and repulsive waste of sand.” Save for the Coney Island House on the eastern end of the island, which was constructed by the Coney Island Road and Bridge Company to generate toll revenue on their Shell Road, the majority of the island was seldom visited other than by fishermen and clam diggers, and its sand and surf were little enjoyed.

Tourist development in the western part of the island began in the summer of 1845 when Alonzo Reed, the proprietor of the Fort Hamilton House, and Captain Thomas Bielby, the proprietor of the Coney Island and Fort Hamilton Ferry Company, opened a dance pavilion on what was then called Coney Island Point.

Fort Hamilton House, Brooklyn

Alfonzo Reed was the proprietor of the Fort Hamilton House, an elegant summer retreat at the foot of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. The establishment burned down in October 1853.

The Coney Island Pavilion was simply a circular wooden dance platform topped with a tent of sails and perched on a tall sand dune. A long platform connected the pavilion to a pier in the Gravesend Bay. When it opened in July 1845, the only other major structures on the entire island were the Coney Island House and Wyckoff’s Hotel, and the Van Sicklen and Voorhies farmhouses (both near today’s Neptune Avenue and W. 3rd Street).

Their intention was to attract families and day-trippers who wanted to get away from the city for a few hours to have a picnic, dance a few waltzes in the sea breeze, chow down on chowder and clams, and enjoy the fresh air. Bath houses were later added for those who wanted to swim, and sportsmen were encouraged to bring their guns if they wanted to hunt for sand-birds.

Norton's Point Pier, 1845

Reed and Bielby built a small pier that jutted out into Gravesend Bay so that they could operate daily side-wheeler steamboat ferry excursions to the pavilion. The fare was 12 1/2 cents each way for the hour-long ride from New York.

Unfortunately, the ferries mostly attracted the worst classes of people, including gamblers, ruffians, and prostitutes, giving the West End a very bad reputation that lasted for decades.

The Era of Mike “Thunderbolt” Norton

In the mid-1800s, the crowds at “the Point” were greater than any other part of the island. Between 2,000 and 3,000 bathers came daily to the West End beach, which was said to be unsurpassed with its extensive view of the ocean and the Narrows.

Enter Mike “Thunderbolt” Norton.

Before getting in tight with Tammany’s William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, Mike Norton had served as a captain in the 25th Regiment in the Civil War, a New York City alderman in 1864, and, at the age of 28, a state senator in 1867. He was indicted with Tweed in 1872, arrested in 1873, and, after jumping bail, turned state’s evidence in 1874.

Norton & Murray's Coney Island

This 1879 map shows the location of Norton and Murray’s on the Point and their Point Comfort House on the beach.

The story is more complicated, but in a nutshell, Norton and his partner James Murray used some of the Tammany loot to buy the lease on the Coney Island Point and refurbish the old pavilion and bath houses. They also erected the Point Comfort House and additional bathing pavilions and facilities for dining and drinking.

Norton and Murray’s Pavilion was located about a quarter of a mile southeast of the old steamboat pier, and was reached by a wide plank walk. The pavilion comprised three buildings, the largest containing about 700 bath houses. The center building was the pavilion proper, and contained a bar and restaurant. The third building was a small shanty bearing the sign “Coney Island Stock Exchange,” which contained an office of the Western Union Telegraph Company and tables for picnics.

In 1874, the Atlantic Monthly described Norton & Murray’s Pavilion as “a large, windy frame building that has weathered the storms of the coast for many a year. Every pore in its planks, every joint, every crack, is thoroughly saturated with sand…here, of all places, that the sandwich appears to be most truthfully denoted by its time-honored name.”

Point Comfort House, Coney Island

Norton and Murray erected the Point Comfort House near today’s West 33rd St., which was later owned by J.B. McPherson, one of the island’s first settlers. In 1879, the house was described as “rustic and cheerful” with “several neatly furnished rooms for sleeping” and 200 bathing houses.

James J. Sangunitto, the Original Light Keeper

There is a lot more to the history and corrupt politics of Norton’s Point — especially around the formation of the exclusive gated community of Sea Gate — but this started out as a story about the Coney Island Lighthouse, so I’ll get back on point, no pun intended, with a story rarely told about this lighthouse.

James J. Sangunitto was born in Genoa, Italy in 1838. He arrived in the United States as an infant, and at the age of 19, moved to Coney Island with his father. He married Sarah Mann and had six children: James, Albert, Mabel, Leon, Robert, and Richard.

For many years, James was the keeper of the makeshift Norton’s Point light. Every night, he would set up two oil lamps on poles to warn the vessels. On a number of occasions, he and his wife helped survivors of vessels that had foundered on the Coney Island shores. During the day, he and Sarah operated a tintype photography studio called Mammoth Photograph Gallery on Surf Avenue opposite the Sea Beach Palace and railroad depot (Sarah was reportedly credited for introducing tintype studios to Coney Island, having purchased the invention from Adolphe-Alexandre Martin of France).

Tintype by Sangunitto, Mammoth Photograph Gallery, Coney Island

This tintype photograph is one of many that can be attributed to the Sangunittos.

The Street Cleaning Department eventually installed a more permanent light on Norton’s Point to protects its garbage tug boats, but newspaper accounts say James’ actions did help prevent many wrecks. When the new lighthouse was constructed in 1890, James worked there as a watchman.

When James died in 1936 at his home at 2817 West 1st Street (now the site of a JASA retirement community near West Avenue) he was Coney Island’s oldest resident.

Congress Establishes a Lighthouse at Coney Island

In February 1889, J.O., Coleman, Commissioner of Street Cleaning, sent a letter to all New York and Brooklyn representatives in Congress asking them to pass House Bill 11,527 of 1888, “to establish lights on the western end of Coney Island.”

1880 Coney Island

In this bird’s-eye view from 1880, you can see that Norton’s Point (left) was still very much barren. The tall structure mid-island is the 300-foot tall Iron Tower, a structure from the 1876 Philadelphia Expo that had steam elevators that whisked visitors to the top for a high view of the island.

In the letter, Coleman talked about all the boats that navigated the narrow channel around the western point, including the excursion steamers and the garbage tug boats. He said his department had been maintaining a light on the point for some time, but it was just a makeshift light.

In 1889, Congress approved $25,000 to build two range lights at Norton’s Point; however, when the Lighthouse Board tried to buy the necessary land, the property owners asked for twice the estimated value of the land. No problem; the property was condemned and obtained for $3,500.

Coney Island Lighthouse

Plans for the new lighthouse were drawn up in 1889.

Work on the tower, a separate front beacon, the fog bell tower, and the keeper’s dwelling began in March 1890. The tower was designed as a square, skeleton tower with 87 steps to the eight-sided lantern room. The simple two-story dwelling had a cellar and an attic and an attached shed; a gravel path led to the shoreline. In 1896, the front tower was removed and taken to Staten Island, and the land it stood on was sold at public auction.

Lighthouse Keeper Greenwood

In 1933, when Tommy Mulligan washed ashore at Norton’s Point, Herbert Greenwood had been living at the lighthouse for 15 years. Herbert was the fourth head keeper of the lighthouse, following Thomas Higginbotham (1890 – 1910), Ernest J. Larsson (1910), and Gilbert L. Rulon (1910 – 1918). Born in Rhode Island on May 6, 1882, Herbert grew up in New London, Connecticut and joined the Coast Guard in 1900. He married Agnes Snow in 1910 and the couple took over the Coney Island lighthouse in 1918.

Herbert Greenwood

Herbert Greenwood was described as a six-foot tall husky man with a deep voice.

For 27 years, Herbert tended to his lighthouse duties, climbing the 87 steps to fill the oil lamp and clean the giant reflectors every day (and then, when the lamp was replaced by a 500-watt bulb in 1936, cleaning the six revolving lenses and red screen and oiling the mechanism that turned the lenses on a regular basis). He took his job very seriously, knowing that the lighthouse helped mariners get their bearing on Norton’s Point.

Although Herbert and Agnes led a fairly secluded life, they still got their mail delivered twice a day (back then the postman always rang twice) and had access to three major rapid transit lines. They also had some exciting times, like the night in 1928 when they rowed out in their boat to rescue two naval prisoners that had escaped the army transport U.S.E. Grant.

After retiring in 1941, Herbert and Agnes returned to New Haven, where Herbert died in July 1975.

Coney Island Lighthouse

In this Google Earth screen-grab, you can see how narrow the shoreline is in front of the grassy yard of the lighthouse.

Thirty-seven years later, Hurricane Sandy ripped through the eastern seaboard, doing considerable damage to New York’s coastal communities. Only a few months ago, the Coney Island Lighthouse was still surrounded by rubble from the storm that had been pushed ashore by the sea. Many of the 750 homes that were damaged are still boarded up, and the bulkhead that once safeguarded Sea Gate has been completely destroyed.

Some say that if another hurricane of Sandy’s magnitude were to strike again, the entire island could be totally destroyed by the sea. Even a fighter-cat like Tommy Mulligan wouldn’t be able to survive that.

Norton's Point Lighthouse, Coney Island

Billy goat, mascot of The Lambs

Billy played the role of Djali in “Notre Dame” and served as The Lambs’ mascot in 1902.

A while back, I wrote about Sir Oliver, a parrot that performed on Broadway in the early 1900s and served as mascot for The Lambs, America’s first professional theatrical club. Right after I posted the story, New York actor and Lambs’ Shepherd (president) Marc Baron contacted me to tell me that The Lambs also had a mascot tomcat named Tommy in the 1930s. He sent me a picture of Tommy that is on display at the club’s current headquarters, and I began to do some research.

As I searched for more information on Tommy, I came across two articles in The Sunday Telegraph and The New York Times about Billy, a goat that was also a Lambs’ mascot in the early 1900s (you’d think actors could come up with more original mascot names!). Although the details differ slightly in both articles, the most likely story is that Billy came to The Lambs via honorary member Daniel Frohman sometime around January 1902.

Daniel Frohman

Daniel Frohman, an honorary member of The Lambs, was the producer-manager of the Lyceum Theatre and the Lyceum Theatre Stock Company from 1886 to 1909.

According to the report in the Telegraph, Daniel Frohman had gone to Harlem in search of a goat for Miss Hilda Spong, who was performing with Frohman’s Lyceum Theatre Stock Company. Miss Spong was playing the role of Esmeralda in “Notre Dame” at Daly’s Theatre on Broadway, and she needed a goat to play the role of Djali.

Daniel returned from his jaunt with Billy, a white goat that, until that point, had been surviving on garbage in the wild lands of Harlem Heights.

From February 26 to April 6, 1902, Billy appeared on stage every night as the clever goat with gold-painted hoofs and horns (as depicted by Victor Hugo in his 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame).

When he wasn’t performing, Billy made his home at the Lambs Club on West 36th Street in the Herald Square Theater District, where he was treated like royalty with weekly baths and grooming.

Daly Theatre, New York

The Daly Theatre at 1221 Broadway opened in 1867 as Barnvard’s Museum, a museum-theater operated by owner John Banvard. In 1879, Augustin Daly took over, creating one of America’s foremost theaters. After his death in 1899, various managers followed, including the Shuberts. It was operating as a burlesque house when it was demolished in 1920.

In a preview of “Notre Dame” in the January 1902 issue of “The Theatre,” most of the performers were panned, but Billy received a thumbs-up:

“With the exception of Esmeralda’s goat, the only natural-appearing, convincing creatures on the stage are Mr. (George) Barbier’s Quasimodo, Mr. (James Lee) Finney’s Gringoire, and, in a limited way, Mr. (Frank) Bangs’ Major Galiache.”

Hilda Spong

Hilda Spong did not receive any rave reviews for her betrayal of Esmeralda in “Notre Dame.” But her “leading man,” Billy the goat, did win over the critics with his strong will to take center stage.

Billy also received some ink in The New York Times’ review of the play on February 27, the day after opening night:

“Esmeralda’s goat made his entrance in the first act, and showed a strong histrionic instinct! At least, when one of the stage people tried to lead him out of the centre of the stage he resisted stoutly.”

Although Billy spent most of his time in The Lambs’ back yard at 70 West 36th Street, he preferred being indoors where there many more items other than a wood fence to chew on and destroy. Billy was particularly fond of towels, hats, slippers, and umbrellas. He was always blamed when items disappeared – he even took the blame one time when a diamond ring went missing from the club.

Lambs Club, 70 West 36th Street

The Lambs moved to West 36th Street in 1897 and stayed there until 1905. It was here that Shepherd Clay M. Greene inducted Billy the goat as their mascot.

1932: Tommy Makes Himself at Home

Tommy C. Lamb…was truly a remarkable cat. Merely an alley cat when he first came to the Lambs, he blossomed forth as one of the most beautiful cats you have ever seen. There wasn’t a pregnant cat within a radius of six blocks that didn’t blame it on Tom. He really was remarkable.–Joe Laurie, Jr., 1953

Tommy Casanova Lamb, a husky grey-and-white cat from the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, wandered into The Lambs’ Club in 1932 when he was just a kitten. There, at 128 West 44th Street, he took up his station at the bar, where he spent most of his waking hours gazing at the celebrity customers, fattening up on beer and free lunches, or kicking out any other cats that tried to create disorder in the club.

Tommy Casanova Lamb

Tommy Casanova Lamb was a life member of The Lambs. To this day, his picture hangs in their clubhouse on West 51st Street. Photo courtesy of Lambs Shepherd Marc Baron.

Although The New York Times called Tommy the Feline Bar Fly, he did keep good order at the establishment. One time a black tom with green eyes from Sixth Avenue crashed into the bar and tried to steal some bologna from the counter. As the Times reported, Tommy evicted him with a few well-placed lefts.

Tommy was also a very smart feline. Not only did he know when anyone in the dining room ordered fish, he was quite aware that The Lambs’ Club was his forever home.

Lamb's Club, West 44th Street, 1918

Tommy made his home at The Lambs’ clubhouse on West 44th Street. This building was designated a New York City Landmark in 1974 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Today it is home to the Chatwal Hotel, which operates a restaurant called the Lambs’ Club.

For example, in December 1935, vaudeville singer and pianist Herb Williams borrowed Tommy for his trick piano skit at a gambol at the Waldorf. During the finale, as the piano fell apart, Tommy popped out, let out a loud meow, jumped over the footlights and ran down the aisle and out the door. Two hours later, drenched by rain, he appeared at the entrance to the Lambs clubhouse, meowing to be let in.

One of the reasons Tommy may have felt so at home with The Lambs is that he was reportedly a descendent of one of the performing cats in Charles Swain’s Rats and Cats vaudeville act. This act featured rats dressed as jockeys who would ride on the cats’ backs around a little racetrack. The climax of the act was a comedy skit featuring two of the cats boxing each other.

Herb Williams with trick piano

Herb Williams (Herbert Schussler Billerbeck) had a trick piano that fell apart during his act. In 1935, one year before his death, he borrowed Tommy to jump out of the piano. You can see Tommy running away in this video capture. You can also click here to see and hear the entire act.

Based on Tommy’s track record as a fighter — the Times dubbed him “the toughest cat of New York” — I have a feeling that if he truly was a descendant of one of Swain’s feline performers, it would have been one of the boxing cats.

You see, Tommy had a bad habit of flirting with the other tomcat’s wives, which not only earned him the title “The Great Lover of the Forties,” but also got him into trouble with the competition. Many a boxing match took place when Tommy tried to add another female to his feline harem.

Ellin Prince Speyer Hospital for Animals

Tommy spent several days healing from his wounds at the Ellin Prince Speyer Hospital for Animals at 350 Lafayette Street (at the cost of $3 a day). Formerly known as the Hospital of Women’s League for Animals, the facility opened in 1914.

One time, Tommy got into a fight with Felix Adelphi, the Tuxedo cat mascot of the Alpha Delta Phi Club, which was next door at 136 West 44th Street. Another time, after an all-night battle in the winter of 1936, he limped home in such a shocking state of disrepair that he was put in a taxi cab and rushed to the Ellin Prince Speyer Hospital for Animals. Dr. James R. Kinney, chief vet, said it was one of the worst cases of mayhem and mussing up that he had ever seen. Although the vet thought Tommy’s wounds would lead to gangrene, the tough cat pulled through, albeit, he had quite a few more battle scars.

Tough Tomcat to Take Girlfriend to Party

To celebrate Tommy’s recovery from the big fight, the Gallery Boys, the younger set of The Lambs Club, decided to hold a testimonial dinner for Tommy Lamb in March 1936. On March 21, the headline in The New York Post read: “Lambs Club’s Tough Tomcat to Take Girlfriend to Party.” Right above this story, the headline was, “Hitler is Asked for Counter-Plan.”

According to the article, Joe Laurie, Jr., super president of the Gallery Boys, came up with the idea for the dinner. The special dinner featured all of Tommy’s favorite dishes, including scallops, stuffed olives, cantaloupe, and beer.Tails and white tie were compulsory, and it was agreed that Tommy would sit at the head of the table (although no one wanted to volunteer to make him sit there.)

Tommy’s latest girlfriend, a little black-and-white kitty who lived at the nearby Central Union Bus Terminal, was invited to be his escort for the evening. The Alpha Delta Phi fraternity asked if Felix could attend, but that request was shot down by the Gallery Boys.

Central Union Bus Terminal, Hotel Dixie, New York

Before the Port Authority Bus Terminal, there was a much smaller Central Union Bus Terminal at the Hotel Dixie on W. 42nd Street. Tommy’s favorite girlfriend was a black-and-white kitty who lived at the terminal. She was also invited to Tommy’s dinner, although I’m not sure if she attended.

Joe Laurie, who wrote about the event in his book Vaudeville from the Honky Tonks to the Palace, reported that everyone wore evening clothes, many great speeches were made, and Tommy took it all in stride as he stretched out on a special throne with loads of catnip around him.

Joe Laurie jr.

Joe Laurie, Jr., “The Pint-Sized Comedian” (bottom), came up with the idea to have a testimonial dinner for Tommy Lamb.

When people read about the dinner, they sent him gifts, including catnip, hand-knit sweaters and booties, dishes, and more. Pro boxer Edward Patrick “Mickey” Walker gave him a set of boxing gloves and New York artist James Montgomery Flagg sketched a portrait of him amongst all his fellow Lambs.

A month after the dinner, Mrs. Diana Belais, president of the New York Anti-vivisection Society, presented a silver
medal to Tommy. The medal was accompanied by this inscription:

“Thomas Casanova Lamb crept into the Lambs’ club four years ago when he was an orphan and took up residence in the bar, fattening on the beer and free lunches until now he is a great, husky gray and white cat who is to receive our medal for his super-intelligence and devotion.”

Although Tommy was long since gone “to where all good cats go” when Joe Laurie published his vaudeville book in 1953, Joe said he did leave a grandson who was even more talented than his grandpa cat.

This cat was trained by Willie, The Lambs’ long-time waiter, to sit up with a cigarette in his mouth while wearing glasses and holding a newspaper in his paws. The word was, when Tommy III (I don’t know his real name) was on the pool table, nobody was allowed to chase him off – the players simply had to shoot around him.

Tommy Lamb

Tommy Lamb’s grandson was very well trained. Here, he strikes one of his favorite poses for the press.

Sounds to me as if Tommy’s grandson was a life member, too.

RomeowPillow

The following story is dedicated to my cat Romeow, who passed away after 16 years of life on July 21, 2014.

On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum caught fire and sank in the East River. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board the side-wheel passenger boat were killed — most of them German American women and children from the Lower East Side who were all dressed up and on their way to a picnic hosted by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Many of the victims had lived on East 4th Street, including Lina Giessmann, Minnie Cohn, Clara Erhardt, Eugene Hansel, Louisa and Alfred Ansel, Grace Iden, and Mrs. Katy Ambrust and her nine-year-old daughter, Florrie, of 166 East 4th Street.

General Slocum funeral procession

A funeral procession for unidentified victims of the General Slocum disaster on Avenue A and East 6th Street.

Five weeks after what was to be the worst maritime disaster in New York City’s history, the residents on East 4th Street had, at least, a little something to celebrate when their favorite cat was rescued after spending two years stuck between two tenement buildings.

A Brief History of the Neighborhood

Before I tell you about this special cat, a little background on this particular section of the Lower East Side is warranted.

The land that now comprises the Lower East Side was originally part of the Dutch West India Company’s Bowery No. 2, acquired by Petrus Stuyvesant, and Bowery No. 3, granted to Gerrit Hendricksen and later acquired by Phillip Minthorne around 1732. Both these large farms were bordered on the west by the Bowery Lane (today’s Bowery).

Following Phillip Minthorne’s death in 1756, much of the eastern half of the 110-acre bowery was sold to John Jacob Astor. The western half was divided into 27 individual lots, three for each of his nine children: Philip Minthorne, a farmer; John, a cooper; Henry, a tinman; Mangle, a cooper; Hannah, the wife of Viert Banta, a house carpenter; Hilah, the wife of Abraham Cock, a cooper; Margaret, the wife of Nicholas Romaine, a carpenter; Sarah, the wife of Samuel Hallet, a carpenter; and Frankie, the wife of Paulus Banta, also a carpenter.

Minthorne Farms

Bowery No. 3 was also called the Schout’s Bowery. The fanlike arrangements of the nine Minthorne family farms is clearly visible in this 1776 Ratzer map. Incredibly, even more than 200 years later, the patterns of these early farms are still evident in the current New York City tax maps that show modern property lines.

Each of his heirs received a lot along the Bowery, an internal meadow lot, and a salt-marsh lot closer to the East River. Ownership of most of the Minthorne property was eventually consolidated under Mangle Minthorn, Philip’s most prominent son.

Development in this area picked up during the 1830s, with elegant single-family row houses turning once empty land into one of New York’s most prestigious neighborhoods. By the 1850s, many immigrants began to settle in the area as wealthier residents moved farther uptown. The lovely row houses were converted for multiple-family dwellings and boarding houses, and eventually replaced by tenements in the 1860s to accommodate the housing demand. These buildings were later called “pre-law” tenements because they predated the Tenement House Act of 1879, which required windows to face a source of fresh air and light (as opposed to an interior hallway, as was the case with the older railroad flats).

Old-Law Dumbbell Tenement

The Tenement House Act of 1879, which required windows to face a source of fresh air and light as opposed to an interior hallway, led to the “Old-Law dumbbell tenements” with the narrow air shafts.

Had the buildings in the following story been constructed in the dumbbell shape adopted after 1879 by the “Old Law” tenements, our featured feline could have been rescued immediately from the air shaft rather than spending two years in a three-inch wide prison.

A Kitten Takes a Tumble

Like many tenements of the Lower East Side, Nos. 163 and 165 East 4th Street were five-story brick buildings with a commercial business and two rear apartments on the ground floor and four three-room flats on each of the upper floors. Only one of the rooms in each apartment had direct window access; the remaining interior rooms had no windows and no ventilation.

These two buildings occupied the same long and narrow footprint (about 25 x 50 feet) as the row houses of the previous decades. Thus, they were constructed extremely close together – perhaps as close as 3 inches toward the ground and 14 inches near their rooftops (the old walls of the buildings reportedly bulged out toward the ground floor).

On September 1, 1902, a striped kitten was living in the top rear apartment at No. 163 with John Poppenlauer, his wife, and family. With the arrival of a new baby boy, John decided to isolate the kitten on the roof to keep it away from the infant. Whether some mischievous boy pushed it, or it was just curious and clumsy, the poor little kitten fell into the crevice between the rooftops and landed at the bottom of the brick chasm. There was no escape; the crevice was closed off front and back, and even some tin roofing closed off part of the top, giving the kitten very little air and light.

Like many tenements of the Lower East Side, Nos. 163 and 165 East 4th Street were five-story brick buildings with a commercial business and two rear apartments on the ground floor and four three-room flats on each of the upper floors.

Like many tenements of the Lower East Side, Nos. 163 and 165 East 4th Street, pictured here, were five-story brick buildings with a commercial business and two rear apartments on the ground floor and four 3-room flats on each of the upper floors.

During the early days of imprisonment, the neighbors watched from the roof with pity as the kitten tried to climb up these slippery walls, only to fall back down. The people soon became divided into two factions: those who thought the kitten should be killed and relieved of its misery, and those who believed that while there was life there was hope. George Betz and his wife, who lived on the top floor of No. 165, and Mrs. Rose Kolb, who lived at No. 163, sided with those who believed in miracles.

Although cats were plentiful in this neighborhood, Holey, as she was named, got everyone’s sympathy with her continuous howls and meows. Fishing for the kitten using fish hooks with meat, button hooks, nooses, miniature scaffolds, poles, and other devices became a common diversion for the residents. Men, women, and children would often sit on the roof and talk to her. Some neighbors, like George Betz and Mrs. Kolb, also lowered buckets of water and food down the shaft, including wienerwurst, chicken and fish. (Food-wise, Holey made out better than any of the other stray cats on the street.)

A Kitten Grows in the Lower East Side

Meanwhile the kitten continued to grow – the people fed her so well, in fact, that she got fat and could only turn around on the wider end of the shaft. George told Gustave Froelich, the owner of No. 163, that he was going to cut a hole in the cellar wall if the cat got any fatter. “Every time I looked down and saw the poor prisoner my heart was touched, and I made up my mind she would not spend another winter down there.”

For two winters, though, Holey survived in the narrow brick prison. Sometime the snow would pile up and no one could see her for days at a time. Although she could keep fairly dry under the end that was covered by the tin gutter, during heavy rain storms the shaft would fill up with a couple of inches of water. George reportedly made a raft for the cat, which he lowered down to her. When it rained, Holey could “sail” on the makeshift raft.

The cat’s predicament finally got the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The agent who came to investigate was in favor of killing the cat. First he suggested shooting it, but the cat’s advocates argued that this might jeopardize the safety of the human residents. He also tried to send down poisoned liver, but the cat had instinctive wisdom and ignored it. As the women of the neighborhood began mobbing him and shouting that he was being cruel to Holey, the agent finally gave up and left.

Mrs. Rose Kolb and Holey

Mrs. Rose Kolb holds her new pet cat, Holey, following the cat’s two-year ordeal.

A Cowboy to the Rescue

Finally, on July 22, 1904, a former cowboy who had learned how to use a lariat in the West came to the rescue with a clothesline noose. At 7 in the morning he went upon the roof of No. 163 and, as Holey sat amazingly still, he got the noose around her and freed her. Although Holey tried to escape, George was able to grab her and bring her to Mrs. Kolb, who had expressed an interest in adopting the cat. Once in the apartment, Holey drank some milk and ran under a bed.

It took Holey a while to adjust to daylight. It also took some time for her to learn to walk in directions other than back and forth along a straight line.

Another Cat Takes a Tumble

Three years after Holey’s rescue, a white cat moved into an apartment at No. 163 East 4th Street. The apartment was home to Louis Leichtman, his wife, and their three children, Aaron, Ruth, and Isaac. Louis named the cat Gittel, which means “good” in Yiddish.

Gittel brought much luck to Louis, and according to a story about the cat in The Sun, he would have done anything for her in return. Apparently so.

On July 21 1908, Gittel was on the rooftop of No. 163 when she fell into an unfinished chimney that ran down to the basement. Louis and his family could hear Gittel howling all night long. The next day, instead of going to work at the National Employment Agency, Louis made a rope ladder of cord and sticks and lowered it down. Of course, the cat would have none of it.

Next, he tried lowering liver skewered to the rope, pails of milk, and bits of fish. That didn’t work, so Louis asked the landlord if he could make a hole in the wall in the basement. The landlord refused.

Thomas F. Freel, superintendent of the SPCA

Thomas F. Freel, superintendent of the SPCA, came to Gittel’s rescue.

Desperate to free his beloved Gittel, Louis resorted to lowering his son Aaron down the chimney, but Aaron got stuck halfway down the shaft and some friends and neighbors had to help Louis pull him out.

Finally, four days after Gittel had fallen down the chimney, Louis sought help from the SPCA. Agent Thomas Freel responded and found a plumber in the neighborhood. Together, the men were able to create a hole in the wall. The cat, of course, was too frightened to come out, so Agent Freel went back up on the roof and tossed a few pieces of brick down to encourage the cat to run out the hole.

As Gittel emerged from the hole, all the neighbors shouted in joy.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Houses

In 1959, 1,738 families and 300 small businesses were evicted from the four-block area bounded by 2nd Street, Avenue A, 6th Street, and 1st Avenue. All of the tenements were demolished over the next two years, including Nos. 163 and 165 East 4th Street. In December 1960, the New York City Housing Authority broke ground for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Houses, a complex of seven buildings comprising 1,200 apartments. Today, the complex is called Village View.

FDR Houses