The block of Bleecker Street between Broadway and Lafayette Street was on the border of one of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhoods in the 1830s—the Bond Street district. Holding its own with the mansions one block away was No. 56 Bleecker Street. Clad in Flemish bond red brick, its commodious proportions reflected the status of its owner, Evert Augustus Duyckninck. The house rose three stories below a dormered attic, and handsome paneled lintels of brownstone capped the openings.
In 1834 the Harlem Railroad Company proposed extending its tracks north along the Bowery, past Prince Street. Duyckninck joined neighbors in a petition to the Common Council. In part the document pleaded “Your Petitioners are convinced, that the present single track is a very serious injury to their property, and also a great nuisance to the public, particularly on the Sabbath.” The signers ended “They would therefore ask your honorable body, to take such measures as will prevent the said Company from further incumbering so public a street; and also to remedy existing evils; and, as in duty bound, your Petitioners will ever pray.”
Duyckninck would make a name for himself in the publishing business. In 1845 he would assist Edgar Allan Poe in selecting which stories to include in his Tales collection. By the middle of the century he would be leading figure on the New York literary stage. But by then he would no longer be living at No. 56 Bleecker. In 1837, after being admitted to the bar, he left New York for Europe for a year.
The house became home to Ann Bedford, a widow, who lived here from 1837 to 1841. She was immediately followed by the well regarded physician, Dr. Joseph M. Smith. The doctor was highly involved in the American Medical Association. After he became Chairman of the Committee on Nominations (the committee proposed appointments to “several new Special Committees") he routinely held meetings in the house throughout the early 1850s.
By the time Civil War broke out the once-elegant Bleecker Street block was far less so. Wealthy citizens moved northward into Murray Hill and onto Fifth Avenue. By 1862 Dr. Smith’s house had been converted to a store on ground level and rented rooms upstairs.
Madame Flora Pinchon ran her upscale ladies’ apparel and accessories shop in the former parlor level. She was understandably upset when she realized that a black silk mantilla was missing in June 1862. Its price tag was $55—nearly $1,500 today.
On Monday night, June 9, Madame Pinchon attended the Cremorne Gardens and was stunned when Mary Murray walked in wearing the high-priced mantilla. Mary was arrested and police warned other shopkeepers that she was just one of a gang.
“It is alleged that there is a large class of cloak and mantilla thieves, who have recently plied their trade with great success in the neighborhood of Canal and Bleecker streets.”
Irish immigrant John Farell was living upstairs at the time. In 1863 his name was pulled in the Draft Lottery, instituted to increase the numbers of Union soldiers.
By the end of the war Madame Pinchon’s shop was gone, replaced by Edington B. Decker’s piano shop. But a far more exciting tenant would take over much of the upper floor space in 1874: The United States Secret Service.
The Secret Service, originally formed to battle counterfeiting, had been in existence since around 1865. Now it opened a New York City office. On April 11, 1874 The New York Times wrote “Of the thousands who daily traverse Broadway in the vicinity of Bleecker Street, few, if any, are aware of the close vicinity of an institution whose ramifications, extending from Maine to California, and from Minnesota to Texas, carry terror and defeat into the ranks of outlaws, whose secret haunts no other organization in the land could reach or break up.”
That same year, on July 20, a Times reporter “called on Col. Whitely, at his office, No. 56 Bleecker street.” The interviewer was interested in a sensational safe burglary at the Office of the United States Attorney General in Washington D. C.; and about rumors that Solicitor Wilson “had recommended that the Secret Service Division should be entirely abolished, on the ground that it was managed with reckless extravagance, and did not, by its results, satisfy the expectations of the Treasury Department.”
H. C. Whitely, who headed up the New York office, was quick to defend his organization. “Aside from the matters connected with the safe burglary, Mr. Wilson had not made even a superficial examination of either the papers or records of the Secret Service Division; that the examination he had made was certainly not such as would enable him to come to any conclusion in regard to its efficiency, and the amount of the work done, or the character of its disbursements," he told the newspaper.
The safe burglary of the Attorney General’s office was the major case Colonel Whitely and his agents worked on that entire year. In the meantime, the Secret Service shared the upper floors of No. 56 Bleecker with Porter & Schraidt’s detective agency.
Taxes were levied on alcohol products and to ensure that only the goods for which the taxes had been paid made it to the saloons and liquor stores, revenue stamps were affixed to the bottles. They sealed the caps so that when the bottles were opened, the stamp was damaged. A brewer who could get his hands on pristine beer stamps could avoid paying taxes and save himself thousands of dollars.
Early in September 1875 an informant told the private detectives that barber William Pakulski, who lived at No. 154 West Houston Street, “was in possession of a large amount of stolen United States beer stamps.” The detectives moved in.
They informed the police of their case, then Schraidt became friendly with Pakulski at his shop at No. 529 Broadway. He hinted to the barber that he was interested in purchasing the stamps, and The New York Times later explained “it was arranged that the stamps should be brought to a wine saloon in the Bowery.”
On September 16 Pakulski went to the saloon. He called in a boy named Henry Myers who gave the barber a large case. Outside of the rear entrance on Chrystie Street, Detectives Sullivan of the 10th Precinct and Schraidt were waiting. When Henry Myers walked out, he was arrested. The detectives then nabbed Pakuski inside.
“The valise on being opened was found to contain $4,360 worth of stolen beer stamps,” reported The Times. The haul would translate to about $95,500 today.
Within the decade the investigative offices would be gone and low-income roomers would occupy the upper floors. The class of tenant was exemplified by two girls, Jennie Walsh and Maud Mack, who both worked at Kinney’s cigarette factory. On August 14, 1887 the company organized an employee picnic which both girls attended. Unfortunately, they were not the paragons of ladylike Victorian demeanor.
Their trouble began when they were arrested on the way home for intoxication and disorderly conduct. While they sat in the Jefferson Market Court awaiting arraignment, Nellie Tracey approached Jennie. The woman had been released from the Blackwell’s Island workhouse and celebrated her freedom by getting drunk. She asked Jennie if she had any snuff.
When Jennie said she did not, Nellie Tracey pulled out a penknife and stabbed Jennie in the right hip, “inflicting a severe wound,” reported a newspaper. The other women in the holding cell “raised an outcry” and officers disarmed Nellie—who now faced charges of felonious assault.
The incident did not lighten the fates of Maud nor Jennie, however. The New York Times reported on August 15 “After Jennie’s wound had been dressed she was sent to the House of Detention. Maud Mack was sentenced to 10 days for intoxication.”
As the turn of the century approached, the garment and millinery district was engulfing the neighborhood and the owner of No. 56 Bleecker Street ceased renting rooms; leasing space instead to small businesses. In 1890 the ground floor was occupied by S. Meuer & Co., “dealers in artificial flowers.” Charles Welsker Co. was listed in the building by 1896. The firm sold feathers—“fancy and military”—to adorn the headwear of fashionable women and the ceremonial hats of military officers.
At the same time the Household Publishing and Printing Company was headquartered here. But in 1897 the firm was in trouble. The first signs appeared in April when United States Deputy Marshall Walter Stafford entered the office and arrested Carrington Thompson “on the charge of using the mails for swindling purposes.” Thompson, it was alleged, sent letters through the mail offering to send a bicycle worth $100 to anyone sending him $45.” The duped would-be bicyclists complained to authorities when the bikes were never received.
Things only got worse two months later. The American Stationer reported on June 3 that year that its secretary, John Maclay “charges that the company’s president, Carrington Thomson, has misappropriated some $20,000 worth of the company’s funds and has wrecked the concern.”
Two days later The New York Times reported on a “meeting of the creditors of the Household Publishing and Printing Company, publisher of The Household Magazine…to see if anything could be saved out of the wreck of the concern.” The newspaper said bluntly “The affairs of the company are in a deplorable condition.”
The building would continue to house garment companies throughout two decades. Ban Shecket “manufacturer of fur lined coats” was here in the 1910s into the 1920s. On October 31, 1917 the firm purchased 3,250 “muskrat rats” which would be transformed into ladies’ apparel.
By now No. 56 was the last remnant of the elegant residential neighborhood of the 1830s. The building was overshadowed by hulking factory buildings. As the 20th century forgot the Noho neighborhood, the brick house fell into neglect.
But eventually, as is always the case in Manhattan, the neighborhood changed. Artists rediscovered the area in the last quarter of the century. The Bleecker Gallery opened in No. 56, lasting here until 1987. In 1990 the ground floor where Madame Flora Pinchon sold mantillas and cloaks to moneyed female shoppers, became the Bleecker Street Bar which still operates today.
photos by the author
photos by the author