Monday, July 26, 2010

Murder, Degraded Women, and a Grocery -- 279 Water Street

Photo by official-ly cool

Comfortable brick homes lined Water Street in the last years of the 18th Century.  Ships’ captains and importers built their residences here, conveniently near their private piers and commercial wharfs.  In 1794 Newell Narin leased from James Kip a wood frame Georgian-style building at 279 Water Street on the corner of Dover Street.  The two-and-a-half story building housed his “grocery and wine and porter bottler” business on the ground floor while he most likely lived above.

Before landfill would later move the riverfront two blocks away, the East River’s bank was just half a block to the east where Lawrence’s Wharf stood.

Two years later Narine was sent to debtor's prison, after which Kip leased the property to retired ship captain Peter Laing who continued running the grocery with his wife, Janet.  Later Laing purchased the building in what would be the first of a great many title changes.  Things apparently went smoothly for two decades, then the Laing’s sold the business in 1826 to attorney Charles G. Ferris.

Ferris leased the building and after his death it was managed by his estate.  As the Civil War approached, the climate of Water Street declined. Once-elegant captains’ homes were being converted to brothels, gambling houses and saloons.

The proprietors of 279 Water changed rapidly.  In 1847 Henry Williams opened his porter house selling malt liquor here. In 1858 John Henry Stelling and William Brosnan ran their saloon for one year before Thomas Norton took over the lease.

The neighborhood continued to get seedier.  In 1862 Catharine Curran was lured into the bar and murdered. According to the press, the 28-year old Curran had been “living a dissolute course of life with a man named James Winthrop.”  When Winthrop left her for another woman, Honora Morrissey, Catherine became jealous and stalked him for several weeks, begging that he come back to her.

After about a week, Winthrop decided that the only way to free himself was to murder her.  The New York Times reported that he “…in company with Honora, formed the diabolical plan of destroying her life by making her drink a mixture, composed of equal parts of burning fluid and alcohol; and incredible as it appear, witnesses testified upon the inquest that the deceased was compelled to drink three decanters full of this fiery fluid, each decanter containing a quart, in one hour.  The result was death in a short time thereafter.”

In 1867 Samuel Norton was arrested, bail being set at $100, for having “disposed of strong and spirituous liquors, wines, ales and beer on Sundays.”

Around this time, at 273 Water Street just down the block, Kit Burns was running his infamous rat pit in his Sportsmen’s Hall where bets were placed on how many wharf rats a terrier could kill in an hour and where “Jack the Rat” would bite off the heads of live mice and rats.

The depravity of the area caused reformers like Jerry Macauley to attempt to introduce religion.  From his Water Street Mission Macauley railed against the saloons and brothels.  On March 30, 1878 he was responsible for a raid that included 279 Water Street.  Nearly two dozen prostitutes ended up in court.

“Twenty-two of the most repulsive types of degraded womanhood stood huddled together at the prisoners’ bar in the Tombs Police Court yesterday,” reported The New York Times. Mary Reilley, “the proprietress of the premises,” was held on $1000 bail to appear for trial.  In April of the next year the District Attorney brought an indictment against the business as “a disorderly house,” or brothel.

In 1888 the pitched roof was removed and a third floor added.  The overall appearance was Victorianized with Eastlake-style window lintels, a modestly-ornate cornice and a late-Victorian saloon entrance with a corner cast iron pillar.

In 1891 Jeremiah J. Cronin and John Murphy ran a bar here until 1902 when Peter J. Boyle took over until Prohibition.  John Pikel leased "the store and basement” from Margaret C. Hyland on September 27, 1921, the year following the enactment of Prohibition.  While he ran the place ostensibly as a restaurant, patrons came for the “cider” and for the home-made beer that was imported from Brooklyn by bootlegger, Charlie Brennan.

As the 20th Century progressed, the Water Street neighborhood improved.  With the development of the South Street Seaport area starting in 1967, tourists and New Yorkers alike began discovering what had been a somewhat isolated area.

279 Water Street was renamed “The Bridge Café” in 1979 when the new owners of the building upgraded the restaurant and bar.  Today, inside or out, it is difficult to remember that the neat, red wooden building at 279 Water Street was the haunt of murderers, prostitutes and thugs during the last half of the 19th Century.


  1. The correct spelling is Newell Narine. He leased the house from James Kip. He never owned or sold the house. Narine went to debtors prison in 1796 and Kip leased it to Peter Laing who later bought it.
    Where did you get the information about John Pickel?
    Richard McDermott:

  2. Thank you for the clarifications. I made the corrections. I need to backtrack to find the real estate records on Pikel.

  3. My great grandfather Edward Androvette owned this building in the 1920's. He gave a great deal of money to the Water Street Mission.

    1. Did your grandfather ever comment about the speakeasy in today's kitchen section of the building? Exactly what years did he own the building?

  4. Was John Pikel connected to Rudy's Hungarian Restaurant operating in the building during part of Prohibition? The speakeasy was located in what is today the Bridge Cafe's kitchen and was run by Mike McCormack. Charlie Brennan delivered his booze to McCormack. Rudy did serve cider but I have no information about him serving booze.
    Richard McDermott

  5. My Great Grandfather died before I was born. I know he owned the building in 1926. He was a member of the Union Church in Brooklyn.

  6. My Grandmothers brother, John McCormack, sold this bar in 1979. My Dad worked there as a teenager and his early adult years. We celebrated many family holidays and events there when I was a small girl.

  7. My uncle Jack Giambrone would Bar Tend at McCormack's Bar and Restaurant when he would finish his shift working at the Fulton Fish Market in the late 1960s into the early 1970s. I believe the McCormack family ran the bar from the 1920s to the 1970s. I was told that Alfred E. Smith would stop by that bar when he would visit the neighborhood of his birth.