Friday, September 16, 2022

Donnelly Brothers' Saloon - 597 Hudson Street (14 Abingdon Square)

 


In the early 19th century, the block-long stretch of Hudson Street between Bethune and West 12th Streets took the name of the little park it faced--Abingdon Square.  Like the others on the block, the upscale house at the corner of Bethune, 14 Abingdon Square, was four-stories tall and faced in brick.  By the end of the century, however, the affluent personality of the neighborhood had greatly changed.  In 1893 developer James W. Ketchum purchased the vintage residence, and replaced it with a store-and-apartment building.

Designed by architect Thomas E. Goodwin, the five-story structure was his somewhat commercial take on the Romanesque Revival style.  Faced in yellow brick and sparsely trimmed in brownstone, most of its ornamentation was executed in brick--the rustication of the second floor, the voussoirs and arched eyebrows of the third and fourth floor windows, and the striped effect of the fifth floor.  Somewhat surprisingly, Goodwin's configuration of the openings on the Abingdon Square elevation followed that of livery stables.

The four- or five-room apartments were marketed as "elegant" with "bath & all improvements."  Rent for a five-room corner apartment was $27, or about $775 per month by 2022 standards.  Perhaps confusing to visitors was that the building had three addresses--14 Abingdon Square, 597 Hudson Street, and (for the westerly store) 6 Bethune Street.

Kethum sold the building to Meyer I. Sire, who, in turn, leased it to Thomas and Michael Donnelly.  The Irish-born brothers opened Donnelly Bros. saloon in the corner space.  They lived in the building, as did their brother James (who would work as a bartender downstairs for years), and sisters Ellen and Catharine.

Senator John Raines had a problem with saloons like the Donnellys'.   In 1896 he wrote a new state liquor tax legislation, known as the Raines Law.  It increased the cost of liquor licenses, raised the legal drinking age from 16 to 18, and banned liquor sales on Sunday, except in hotels with at least 10 rooms and which served the drinks with a meal.  It sparked the nearly omnipresent "Free Lunch" signs that hung over saloon bars.

The Donnellys responded by deeming 14 Abingdon Square a hotel and providing sandwiches with drinks on Sundays.  At 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, July 26, 1896, a plain clothes policeman named Geraghty walked in and ordered a beer and sandwich.  As he lingered, he took note of the other patrons.  He would later swear he saw "people who were drinking in the place, without the formality of also ordering sandwiches," and that he overheard Thomas Donnelly "telling a friend how easy it was to beat the present law by simply serving a sandwich, whether ordered or not."

After about 20 minutes, Geraghty walked to the door, but returned to his seat and ordered a second beer.  When he was served without a sandwich, he arrested Thomas Donnelly.  In court two days later, Donnelly insisted that because Geraghty had not left the saloon, he could legally sell him a second beer with his initial sandwich.  The magistrate agreed; however he held Donnelly on $1,000 bail awaiting trial "on the sworn statement of the policeman that he saw drinks served without a sandwich, and also, that he heard the defendant explaining how he beat the law."

Despite such problems, the brothers' success was such that in 1899 Michael and Thomas Donnelly purchased the building.  As was common among saloon owners, they partnered with a brewery, agreeing to sell only that firm's beers and ales.  For years they did business only with the Bernheimer & Schwartz Brewery.

Among the Donnellys' upstairs tenants at the turn of the century was Augustave Duffy, who made his living as a clerk.  It seems he had the day off on Wednesday, June 24, 1903, because he traveled to Stimmel's Park, in Whitestone, Queens to play baseball.  His day of recreation did not end well.  The 25-year-old Duffy was pitching, when he "was struck under the chin by a ball and received a lacerated wound that required the attention of Dr. B. Folzer," according to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  It was a significant injury, the article noting, "He was taken home by friends."

In July 1915 Michael and Thomas Donnelly transferred the title of the building to their sisters, Ellen and Catharine.  (Interestingly, the liquor license for the saloon had been in Ellen's name since 1908.)  Two months later, on July 12, The New York Press reported that the women had sold the property to "the No. 14 Abingdon Square Company, a new concern."  

The following year, H. J. Goodwin, an electrical contractor, took the commercial space at 6 Bethune.  The Donnellys' saloon continued in the corner space for years.

Despite the onset of Prohibition on January 17, 1920, the Donnelly Brothers' saloon forged on, apparently still selling contraband beer.  Michael Nesil was tending bar on the night of November 30, 1922.  He was chatting with his two customers when three armed men walked in and announced a stick-up.  One walked out again and stood watch.  Nesil was held at gunpoint while the third crook went behind the bar, headed for the cash register.  Nesil picked up a beer bottle and smashed it over the thief's head, who cried out, "Let him have it!"

The gunman fired two shots, both of which entered Nesil's stomach.  As the bartender fell to the floor, the robber opened the cash register and took out the $30.  The two joined their accomplice outside where they were confronted by members of the V.F. W. Michael Lynch Post next door who had heard the shots.  One, Patrick Heney, grabbed the gunman, "but the bandit twisted the gun upward, jabbed it against Heney's stomach and pulled the trigger," reported the New York Herald.  Amazingly, this time the firearm jammed.  The crook managed to free himself and the trio ran down Bethune Street, making their escape in a waiting car on Greenwich Street.

Within minutes Patrolman Shaw arrived.  He sent for an ambulance for Michael Nesil, who was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital.  He died there shortly after midnight.

Seven months later, on June 17, 1923, Ed Sheeran was arrested, accused with five other men of assaulting and attempting to rob Thomas Drayton.  The Sun and The Globe reported, "Screams of nurse girls out with children of the neighborhood for the early morning air saved the life of Drayton."  Sheeran gave his name as John McGuiness, but his fingerprints proved his true identity.  They also linked him to the Nesil murder.

The Sun and The Globe reported, "he did not deny that he was in the saloon of Thomas Donnelly, 597 Hudson street, when the bartender Michael Naasel [sic] was killed.  Sheeran is the man alleged to have done the shooting."

The tenants of the building, for the most part, came and went without drawing attention.  That was not the case with Walter Forster and his wife Annetta, who lived here in the early Depression years.  On January 6, 1936 they were arrested with four others in what the Long Island Daily Press called "One of the biggest life insurance fraud rings ever uncovered--a ring which may even have dealt in murder."

Knowing that his brother, Frederick, was dying of cancer and that he had no communication with his estranged wife, Paul Bottiger conceived a scheme.  Using the name Ewald Rottiger, Walter Forster underwent physical examinations, and took out 30 life insurance policies on himself, totaling more than $1 million (nearly 20 times that much in today's money).  When Bottiger died, Paul had him cremated under the name of Ewald Rottiger.  

The scam fell apart when Clara Bottinger discovered her husband had died and tried to cash in the legitimate life insurance police.  The Long Island Daily Press said she "could not collect on it because her husband's name had been changed on the death certificate."

As it turned out, the scheme went even further.  The newspaper reported, "The Forsters, who were the first to be questioned by police, said...that there were 'many other dead men' upon whom policies had been taken."


In the 1960's the former Donnelly Brothers' saloon space became home to the Bus Stop Coffee Shop.  Like its predecessor, it would become a fixture on the corner, still there six decades later.

photograph by the author
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