Monday, August 31, 2015

Violence, Crime and Poverty -- The Lost No. 508 W. 38th Street

In 1938 residents gather on the porch.  What was possibly once a shop has been converted to a garage.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
On August 18, 1881 Mamie, John, William and James Wilson, ages 12, 10, 7 and 6, were “rescued from a place called ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’” by Officer J. D. Frederick, as reported in the New-York Tribune two days later.  The policeman had a warrant to remove the children from the care of a neighbor after both parents were sent to prison.

The Wilson children were found at No. 551 West 39th Street with “a Mrs. Fitzpatrick, a vicious woman living in a shanty.”  The newspaper said “The block in which this place is situated is considered one of the lowest and most dangerous localities in New York; across the street from ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ is ‘Battle Row,’ and not far distant is ‘Sebastopol,’ two notorious resorts for criminals.  It is made up of miserable huts and shanties built among the rocks…There was no doubt that if left to grow up surrounded by such influences and under the care of such guardians, these four children would soon have been initiated into lives of crime and vice.”

Many of the ramshackle wooden buildings, as noted by the Tribune, were given names by the locals.  Hell’s Kitchen where the Wilson children were found, would lend its name to the entire crime-ridden neighborhood from approximately 34th street to 59th, and Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. 

That same year The New York Times called the area “one of the most miserable and crime-polluted neighborhoods in this City” and said “there is more disease, crime, squalor, and vice to the square inch in this part of New-York.”  Even the police were intimidated by the tough and dangerous residents.  Looking back on his time here, a police sergeant told a Times reporter on September 18, 1892 “You were always on the defensive and carried your life in your hand if you made the streets safe for decent people.  If you chose to skulk and let the hoodlums have their own way, you were a good fellow, and never wanted for a cigar or a drink, and I have heard that some officers profited to a greater extent by being discreetly deaf, dumb, and blind.”

Just a block south of the original “Hell’s Kitchen” building where the Wilson children had been was a similar structure at No. 508 West 38th Street.   Three stories tall, it was faced in clapboard.  Scores of impoverished tenants crammed into its filthy rooms.

The history of crime and violence at No. 508 West 38th Street extended decades before the incident with the Wilson children.  Poverty often went hand-in-hand with frustration, anger, crime and heavy drinking.  Two of the tenants at No. 508 in 1868 were 55-year old John Corson, a coal cartman, and his wife Rebecca.  Corson was crude, vicious and a heavy drinker.  The Sun, who described him as “a thick-set and repulsive looking man,” on November 23, 1868 reported that he “was in the habit of beating his wife, and he was doing so on Saturday night.”  This time, however, would be far worse than normal.

A newspaper later reported that on Saturday night, November 20, 1868 Corson “reached home late at night intoxicated.”  The door to the meager apartment was broken in; evidence that Rebecca had tried to prevent her drunken husband from entering.  The enraged John Corson flew into a violent, uncontrolled frenzy upon gaining entrance.  The Sun later said “without the least provocation, it is alleged, [he] knocked down and beat his wife in the most brutal manner.”  The scene was described as a “wreck” with the “stove pipe, a broken stove, pans, an old kettle, and a bundle of rags lying scattered around.”

Rebecca Corson tried in vain to escape from her brutal husband’s assault.  Police later reported that “the little furniture they possessed was broken to pieces, and the only bedstead they owned was smashed.”  Rebecca struggled and “It was said that he chased the woman from room to room of their narrow dwelling, and then knocked her down, and jumping upon her, succeeded in stamping her body and face to an unrecognizable mass.”

The shocking act was even more than Hell’s Kitchen residents would tolerate.  Tenants, drawn by the screams and commotion, held “the murderously inclined husband” until Sergeant James from the 20th Precinct arrived and arrested him.   The Sun noted “The husband was, of course, intoxicated, and when taken into custody pretended to know nothing of what had occurred.”

In the meantime, Rebecca lay unconscious on the floor on a pile of rags.  Her battered appearance was described by the newspaper as “a hideous spectacle.”  Police could piece together some of the happenings of that evening.  “The floor and walls of the room were sprinkled with blood, and a handful of hair lay on the floor near the stove, giving evidence of a terrific struggle.  The blood was traced into the inner room, where the fiend had evidently dragged his victim when the work had been finished.”

Rebecca had suffered not only serious cuts and bruises, but her skull had been fractured.  She died early in the morning the following day.  Three months later Corson was still incarcerated in The Tombs awaiting his murder trial.

Reformer Jacob Riis photographed conditions in a typical Hell's Kitchen flat around 1890 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Late on the hot summer night of August 23 1870 two tenants, James Keenan and August Boer got into an argument on the sidewalk outside the house.  In true Hell’s Kitchen manner, it was settled with a knife.  Keenan delivered a severe head wound to Boer who was given “surgical attention at the Station-house,” according to The New York Times.  Keenan was arrested and Boer was able to return home to No. 508 West 38th Street.

Blacksmith Peter White lived here in 1899 when a friend, Nathan Kronman, was arrested on charges of murdering his wife.   When Kronman’s case was adjourned on August 11 for further investigation—meaning that the accused man would sit in The Tombs for an extended period—White came to his aid.  With the help of fruit dealer William Young who lived three blocks away, he provided bail for Kronman’s release.

While other Manhattan neighborhoods changed—improving or declining—over the decades; Hell’s Kitchen remained essentially the same.  The dilapidated building at No. 508 West 38th Street remained the home of destitute tenants into the Depression years.  And apparently the drinking habits of the occupants did not change, either.

Early on the morning of February 22, 1932 Jacob Gredlinger opened up his small cigar making shop at No. 142 West 31st Street.  To his shock and surprise the stove was already burning, fueled by his cigar boxes, and a man was slumped in a chair, a burned-out cigar hanging from his mouth.

Gredlinger left the shop at a much higher rate of speed than he had entered.  He rushed to the West 30th Street police station, directly behind his shop, “and announced he had a burglar to deliver.”  The Times reported “Policemen surrounded the shop and entered cautiously with drawn revolvers.”

It took much shaking to rouse James McAvoy, who was still drunk.  The 41-year old, who lived at No. 508 West 38th Street, “could not recall how he entered the place, but it was evident that he had bent the weather-eaten bars and raised a rear window.”

Like so many of the occupants of No. 508 over the past 80 years, McAvoy was arrested.  He spent the next five days in the workhouse.  The history of crime and poverty at No. 508 was drawing to a close, however.

Cars, possibly taxicabs, used the adjoining lot for parking on July 21, 1934.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Within a few years the dilapidated structure was demolished to be replaced with the four-story Shubert Theatrical Warehouse.  Nevertheless, Hell’s Kitchen retained its seedy reputation until the turn of the 21st century when developers began transforming the neighborhood into one of expensive high-rise residences.  As trendy cafes replaced old shops, real estate agents, tried hard to disguise the area’s sordid past by marketing Hell’s Kitchen as “Chelsea Heights.”
In 2007 the entire block where No. 508 West 38th Street had stood was erased.  On the site, once part of Manhattan’s—if not America’s—most notorious district, rose the soaring luxury apartment complex named 505W37, designed by Handel Architects.



  1. Replies
    1. Thanks. NY history isn't just about the great buildings and mansions. It is important we preserve the more sordid side, as well. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Typo of the day: Late on the hot summer night of August 23 1970 two tenants, James Keenan and August Boer got into an argument on the sidewalk outside the house. I think you meant 1870