Friday, April 15, 2011

Mark Twain, Tragedy and Ghosts -- No. 14 West 10th Street

Tall windows replace the original doorway above the sidewalk after removal of the brownstone stoop.
Prior to the Civil War the streets around Washington Square were among the most fashionable in the city. Wealthy New Yorkers moved into wide brownstone residences filled with costly furniture from the shops of Henry Belter or Joseph Meeks.

West 10th Street, between the park and 6th Avenue, was one such street. At No. 14 a stylish Greek Revival home was built towards the end of the 1850s. Constructed of red brick with brownstone trim over an English basement, it was exceptionally wide and spacious.  Here, throughout the turbulent war years, women in voluminous Victorian dresses and men in starched collars were entertained beneath whale oil chandeliers.

The neighborhood, unlike so many other chic residential areas, retained its elite character even as most monied New Yorkers moved northward.

Here the wealthy widow Mrs. James Boorman Johnston was living in the 1880s with her daughters. A member of the Colonial Dames of America, her husband had been a founder of the Metropolitan Underground Railroad and the Broadway Underground Railroad.

The socially-active Johnstons were highly-involved in charitable causes. James Boorman Johnston was one of a group of men including Albert Bierstadt, James Beekman, and J. F. D. Lanier who, in 1864, incorporated to establish a library, reading room and gallery of art “and any other means deemed proper” for the purpose of “promoting the advancement of Literature and Art.”

In 1897 Fred H. Andrew was living at No. 14.  A cyclist, he had the bad luck to collide with little 8-year old William Murtha on Hudson Street, breaking the boy’s leg. Andrew was arrested for reckless bicycle riding.

It was in 1900, however, that the house drew the attention of the press and the curious when the author and satirist Samuel Clemens took up residency with his family. Years later Mark Twain’s daughter would recall “One could never describe the atmosphere of adulation that swept across the threshold.” This was reportedly Twain’s favorite among the several residences in which he lived in New York and here the author and his wife entertained lavishly.

The feisty author, Mark Twain, lived at No. 14 from 1900 to 1901 - photo World Almanac
Twain was living here when one of his maid servants, Kate Leary, was overcharged by cabman William Beck by 50 cents for a ride from Grand Central Station to the house. When Twain confronted the man about the $1.50 fare (which should have been $1.00), the cabbie gave him a false cab number and fled. Twain’s butler chased the cab on foot to get the correct number.

William Beck soon realized that 50 cents was not worth incurring the wrath of Samuel Clemens.

Despite the piddling amount, Twain took the cabbie to court to prove a point of principal, resulting in Beck’s losing his cab license.

“What a damn fool that cabman was!” Twain said upon leaving the courtroom.

Charles W. Wetmore, President of several concerns including the North American Company, leased the residence when Clemens moved out in 1901. Wetmore was a leading force in the New York Yacht Club and its annual competition for the Americas Cup.

The list of wealthy residents continued when, later, the prominent John Farr family purchased No. 14.  Farr, a leader in the sugar industry, was the Vice President of the Guayama Railroad and was on the board of several companies. The Farrs had two sons and two daughters. The house was the scene of elegant coming-out parties for both daughters, Edith and Frances.

The Farrs’ names often appeared upon the society pages of The New York Times; especially for the highly-publicized and socially-important marriage in 1921 of Edith to William Montague Geer, Jr., the son of the Rev. Dr. William Montague Geer, Vicar Emeritus of St. Paul’s Chapel.

John Farr died in 1933 and five years later Frances sold the house to the Fourteen Ten Corporation which immediately announced its plans to convert it into a 10-family apartment -- two apartments per floor. 

The grand brownstone stoop of No. 14 West 10th Street was lost in the middle of the last century, yet the street never lost its residential charm.   The relatively quiet tradition of No. 14, however, was jolted when resident Joel Steinberg beat to death his six-year old adopted daughter, Jessica, inside the house. The subsequent discovery of his repeated physical abuse to both the sad-faced little girl and Steinberg’s common-law wife shocked the city and the nation.

New York lore speaks of 22 unnamed people dying in No. 14 West 10th Street over the years, some of them haunting its halls; while some report that Mark Twain himself is seen on its staircase. Although it is called by some “The House of Death;” in fact, a score of residents dying over the course of 160 years in any residence would be expected, especially considering that wealthy Victorians and Edwardians normally received medical treatment at home, rather than a hospital.

Haunted or not, No. 14 West 10th – even without its stoop -- is a charming and elegant row house on an equally-charming residential street.

non-credited photographs taken  by the author

9 comments:

  1. This house is definitely haunted. I attended a walking tour along with a medium and I've never had such a physical reaction to a house before.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just did a ghost tour by it and got 3 apparitions in my picture so I definitely agree with you.

      Delete
  2. wow. that is very interesting. Thanks for giving your input.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. you guys are so right. I totally agree with you.

      Delete
  3. A friend of mine used to live in that building and I went with her to a Halloween Party in 3-W, which was the apartment where Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum lived. A doctor and his wife were living there then. They were both from the South and they didn’t mind talking about things like ghosts. They both thought that the place was haunted and the wife said that the bathroom where little Lisa Steinberg lay for hours that night would be strangely cold at times. They didn't stay there long, but I don't think that it was because of the ghosts that they left. They just didn't like New York and they went back down South. The wife didn’t work and if there were news reporters or whatever outside, sometimes she would invite them in to see the building and the apartment. One night, she and her husband let a whole ghost tour of about 10 people come inside and some of the other residents didn’t like it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. True story dude. One time I was chased by a ghost and a zombie. they chased down the block. Then I realized they were not even real they were just trick or treaters. I was scared of out of my mind. I think I peed in my pants. hey don't think that I'm weird cause I am only 10 years old. True story dude. My name is...... you will never find out

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm wondering about the actual year that this residence was built at 14 West 10th. You mention it was toward the end of 1850s. In the 1840s, this was the address of Guardian Engine Company No. 29 of the volunteer fire department. Eli Bates, who was appointed Chief of the paid department in 1873, began his long and illustrious fire company at 14 West 10th Street in 1846. Great story, though!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The house was erected in 1854-1855 for Clinton Gilbert, who lived next door at No. 12 at the time.

      Delete
  6. I used to visit my grandparents, Jeannette and Milton May, back in the1940's when I was a kid. They lived in the front basement apartment, where we could watch people's feet go by. Far from being a "house of death" for me, 14 West 10th was a source of life, where I was allowed to be myself, where I was included, where I was loved.

    ReplyDelete