Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The 1868 Leonard Street Police Station -- Nos. 19-21 Leonard St.

By 1862 Nathaniel Bush had achieved the rank of sergeant within the New York Police Department.  That year his responsibilities were expanded when he was made the official architect for the force.   Bush’s station house designs were attractive but no-nonsense.  Repeatedly working in the popular Italianate style, he followed a tried and true plan—a symmetrical façade featuring a centered entrance, Renaissance pediments over some openings—both triangular and arched—and molded lintels.

In 1867 he began work on another.  The Fifth Precinct had been located at No. 49 Leonard Street for years and its station house was outdated and inadequate.  Two old buildings at Nos. 17 and 19 Leonard Street were demolished and construction begun on a new station house and jail, over 50-feet wide, for the Fifth Precinct.

The building was completed in June 1868, according to the Record & Guide.  Police historian Augustine E. Costello, in his 1885 Our Police Protectors, History of the New York Police, described the precinct as embracing “nearly all the dry goods district” including the Hudson River Railroad depot, “the large grocery houses, the public stores, Chambers Street Hospital, much of the produce business, and several bonded warehouse.”

The 97 officers assigned to the new building fought a different type of crime than those in the notorious Gaslight or Tenderloin areas.  In the “dry goods district” downtown there was little problem with prostitution, illegal saloons or gambling; but there were plenty of con artists and robbers.

On November 15, 1868 The New York Herald reported “The confidence operators of New York being stimulated by the unparalleled boldness of bank burglars and check forgers in their games of late, are and have been maneuvering recently with a vim and action that remind the police authorities of days long passed.”  The newspaper pointed to scam committed in the Fifth Precinct.

The day before a Canadian, William McDonald, walked into the station house.  He had arrived in New York that morning.  For two decades thousands had headed to California to strike it rich and now the Transcontinental Railway was nearing completion, making the trip decidedly more convenient.  McDonald, described by the newspaper as “a man of modest demeanor and unsophisticated ideas,” intended to join the migration.

At the ticket office on Canal Street the clerk refused to accept his Canadian gold coins.  He was instructed to go “up the street” and exchange his money for American currency.  On the way he was stopped by a “well dressed man who asked him if he was going to San Francisco.”  One thing led to another and before too long the con man had convinced McDonald to allow him to exchange the gold for American $20 coins.

After the fast-talking New Yorker was gone, McDonald had the sinking feeling that he had been duped.  He showed the coins to a few people and “found that he had been swindled, and the result is that he is now a stranger in New York penniless and without friends.”

In addition to handling crimes like fights among the sailors who arrived on ships docked at the nearby Hudson River piers; the officers of the Fifth Precinct also dealt with more humanitarian issues.  Insufferable summer heat coupled with layers of Victorian clothing was a deadly combination.  On August 14, 1872 alone three victims of heat and sun stroke were carried into the station house.  One of them died there. 

The living conditions of the poor, too, were sometimes the concern of the Fifth Precinct.  On June 12, 1871, for instance, The New York Times reported “A horror tottered into the Leonard-street Police station yesterday morning, in the person of Eliza Gamble, who had come from No. 29 Hubert-street, carrying her week-old infant in her arms.  Both were plainly dying for want of proper nourishment, and appealed without a word for succor.”  The starving woman and her baby were taken to Bellevue Hospital.

The Fifth Precinct had, of course, its share of more serious crime.  On September 9, 1881 Thomas Quinlan walked into the police station and informed Sgt. Doran that his wife, Julia, had died during the night.  Quinlan, who was a longshoreman, lived with his wife in a tenement building at No. 78 Watts Street a few blocks north.

Quinlan explained that his wife was “an industrious and good woman, but was of extremely intemperate habits.  For nearly a month past, although sober during the day, she was drunk every night.”  He told the sergeant he was willing to sign an affidavit that “she had not gone to bed sober one night in three weeks.”  He said that when she was drunk she would often threaten to take her own life. 

That night, when he got up around 4:00 in the morning, he said, she was lying on the floor.  He assumed she had left the bed because of the heat, so he did not disturb her.  When he arose at 6:00 to go to work, she had not moved.  When he tried to arouse her he found her dead.

According to The Times “The case was regarded by the Police as one of ordinary nature, and it was not until a rumor reached the station-house that the woman had not died a natural death that any action was taken.”  Only then was an officer dispatched to the apartment. 

The body of 45-year old Julia Quinlan was still on the floor after so many hours.  She had a large bruise over her left eye and a strip of calico, torn from her apron, was bound so tightly around her neck that it was removed only “with much difficulty.”   When it was removed it left what the coroner described as “a broad, deep mark in the flesh.”

Quite astonishingly, although the Deputy Coroner thought “it impossible for her to have tied the strip of calico about her neck herself,” and was led to “suspect that she may have met her death at the hands of her husband,” The New York Times reported “All the indications were that Mrs. Quinlan had committed suicide.

The newspaper added that Quinlan “bears an excellent reputation in the neighborhood.  He had been married 10 years, and the only child of the couple is a bright girl about 6 years old.”

Nathaniel Bush’s station house buildings were functional, but they were most often poorly ventilated and lit.  In 1881 the Fifth Precinct Station House was deemed “unsafe” by the Bureau of Inspection of Buildings.  The City budgeted $5,000 to bring it up to standards on March 20, 1882.

In the meantime, the precinct continued operating as usual.  Capt. Joseph B. Eakins was commanding officer at the time.  Augustine E. Costello said of him “At one time no precinct was so overrun with burglars as this, and some of the depredations were serious, but Captain Eakins has been singularly fortunate since he has been there, and a burglary is a rare occurrence.”

At around 11:00 on the night of July 12, 1883 Capt. Eakins was sitting on the station house steps, no doubt to escape the heat inside, when a young man walked up and bowed.  He was about to give Eakins a startling confession.

Police had been looking for Aleck Boyer for about three days.  During the weekend of July 7 he and another man got into a vicious argument which would later end in death. 

The New York Times explained later “Robert Simpson, a truck driver, was living with a mulatto woman.  He and Boyer, a boatman, got into a quarrel over the woman’s slapping a boy for striking her with a stick.  Both were drunk.”  The disagreement ended with Simpson knocking Boyer over the head with a cast iron stove lid, and with the woman threatening revenge.

Robert Simpson was married, although he had been living with the woman involved in the conflict.  On Monday night, July 9, he went to the saloon at No. 2 York Street to meet his wife “and make up with her.”   Aleck Boyer had trailed him and while Simpson and his wife were talking in front of the saloon, Boyer rushed up and stabbed him in the head.  “Simpson ran into the saloon, came out again, fired off a pistol, and fell dead on the walk,” wrote The Times.

Now, on Thursday night, Aleck Boyer introduced himself to Capt. Eakins.

“The man who stabbed Simpson?”

“Yes.  I knew you were looking for me on account of that fight, so I came to give myself up.”

It was an easy conclusion to manhunt.

Not technically prisoners, these men attempt to sleep on a wooden pallet or the floor in the Precinct's "lounging room" around 1890.  They have all hung their hats tidily on the pegs provided.  photo by Jacob Riis, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
There were occasional murders and serious incidents in the Fifth Precinct.  It was the here that the notorious con artist “Tom” Davis was murdered by James T. Holland, a Texan who had paid him $500 in exchange for $10,000 in counterfeit bills.  When Holland discovered the bundles were composed of bills on the top and bottom, and blank paper inside, he reacted by returning and firing a bullet into Davis.  The trial was a national sensation.

But as the 19th century drew to a close, highly-publicized crime in the Fifth Precinct came from within the Leonard Street station house, rather than from the streets.  Graft and corruption were brought to light in 1891 when neighboring businessmen finally revolted against the extortion practices of Captain Thomas Stephenson, whom The Evening World described as tall and handsome.

On August 30, 1894 the newspaper reported “After many days of waiting, Police Captain John Thomas Stephenson was to-day placed on trial before the Commissioners at Police Headquarters of several charges of bribery.”  Testimonies throughout the day revealed the scheme by which the Fifth Precinct police, most notably the Captain, received money and goods. 

Martin N. Edwards, for instance, ran a fruit store on Duane Street.  The Evening World said that on September 12, 1891 he sent Stephenson “$38 in cash and $12 worth of fruit, making the $50 agreed upon for a year’s immunity from arrest for ordinance violation.”

Edwards testified “In the early part of March, 1891, a police officer came to my store.  He said the Captain used a great deal of fruit, and if we had no objection he would accept some fruit for the protection of us in the use of the sidewalk.”

The trial dragged on for months, until unexpectedly on December 15 Police Officer Augustus J. Thorne “under indictment and under arrest for perjury and bribery, confessed and was released and restored to duty, having implicated eight Captains or acting Captains, who had commanded him in that precinct, in bribetaking and protecting crime.”

With its honor restored, newspaper accounts regarding the Fifth Precinct again turned more positive.  None more so, perhaps, than that of Policeman Norman Sheldon and a “big, shaggy, tramp Newfoundland dog” on August 1895.   

Officer Sheldon was about a block away when he saw the massive canine running wildly down Chambers Street, followed by a mob of men and boys.  The Times reported that it was “given a wide berth by pedestrians, who ran into stores, cellar-ways, and hallways to get out of his path.”  As the beast and his pursuers neared, Sheldon ran into a store and got a rope, which he quickly tied into a slipnoose. 

He emerged just as the dog reached his location.  Like a Texas ranch hand, he lassoed the dog, then held him until it quieted down.  The Times reported “Shortly afterward he led the dog to the station house, where Sergt. Blair consigned him to a cell until the arrival of a wagon from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.”

Blair, in the meantime, sent for some meat for the dog.  By the time he was taken away he was as “quiet as a kitten.”  The sergeant initially wanted to keep the dog as a station house mascot; but “owing to his advanced age,” decided against it.

On May 1, 1898 the station house was renumbered, becoming the Eighth Precinct.   It was here that a Bureau of Investigation was established on October 29, 1900, just hours after what The Evening World called “The most terrific and disastrous explosion ever known in New York.” 

Fire had broken out at 12:18 that afternoon on the third floor of the Tarrant & Co. building at the northwest corner of Warren and Greenwich Streets.  The wholesale druggists stored large quantities of chemicals.  According to The Evening World, the flames reached the chemicals within four minutes, resulting in two “terrific explosions” which blew out the front of the building.  They were followed by three others “which completely wrecked it, along with the structures adjoining.”

The number of killed or injured topped 400.  Members of the Bureau of Information pulled together the information and witness accounts here regarding the disaster.

Eight years later the officers of the Eighth Precinct would deal with a different type of explosion.  On March 28, 1908 a Socialist protest which drew about 7,000 participants to Union Square threatened to get out of hand.  The Eighth Precinct was called to help control the unruly mob.

The New-York Tribune reported “Cards and circulars and pamphlets in Yiddish and the other polyglot dialects of the East Side were waved exultingly and defiantly in the faces of the men. ‘We will fight until we die!’ ‘We demand work!’ and demands for the over-throw of every one with the clean collar habit were passed about.”

By about 2:30 the park and the plaza were nearly cleared.  Captain Miles O’Reilly then began gathering his Eight Precinct officers at the east of the fountain to head back to Leonard Street.  The Tribune wrote “Up behind them ran [Selig] Silverstein to throw the bomb.”

Selig Silverstein, who also went by the name Cohen, was a well-known Russian born anarchist.  His hatred was aimed mostly at police.   At least one innocent bystander was killed and several police were injured, including Eight Precinct officers Patrick Hanan, who was struck by a piece of brass shrapnel, and Nicholas Conroy, whom the Tribune said “was bowled clean off his feet.”

By the time World War I had broken out the old Leonard Street station house was decidedly obsolete.  On March 24, 1917 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that the City was “nearing conclusion” of negotiations involving the liquidation of several properties, including Nos. 19-21 Leonard Street.

In June 1918 the building was sold for $45,000 (a little over $700,000 in 2016) to Texan Robert E. Paine, owner of Standard Rice Company, Inc.  Two months later The American Contractor announced architect Charles Schaefer, Jr. had been commissioned to convert the building for “storage and loft” purposes.  The renovations, which cost $2,000, included the installation of a loading platform. 

Standard Rice Company would occupy the building several decades.  In 1941 it was home to the Semer Hardware Company.  Other tenants included the Ronald Paper Co., the Hailer Elevator Co., and the Empire Elevator Corporation.  Then in 1999 as the Tribeca neighborhood was rediscovered, it was converted to five apartments.  

photographs by the author


  1. Looks like the precinct stable was right next to it!

  2. This is uncanny -- I am literally publishing a story about the Leonard Street Police mascot dog on my blog right now!