|photo by Alice Lum|
The area earned its names in the 1840s when gas tanks were built near the East River. The tanks often leaked, resulting in a disgusting odor that permeated the neighborhood. As explained by Edward K. Spann in his "The New Metropolis," “Who, but the poor and the disreputable, would live there? And so the city’s notorious Gashouse District was born.”
The policemen stationed at the 21st Street station house had the challenge of controlling disreputable thugs and crime-ridden dives. The area was populated by nearly penniless Irish immigrant workers who were joined, around this time, by Germans, Jews, and Italians who crowded into cheap tenements.
The station house that Bush designed, completed in 1863 at 327 East 22nd Street, was a handsome Italianate structure, five stories tall including the English basement. The restrained design included a classical closed pediment over the central doorway, bracketed brownstone sills on the tall windows and a deeply overhanging cornice. Handsome openwork wrought iron newel posts ornamented the steps rising from the sidewalk.
Shortly after its completion the station house doubled as headquarters for a battalion of the 7th New York Regiment under Colonel Lefferts. With the Civil War raging in the South, Lefferts was “charged with suppressing all mobs and riots, and will sternly use all means he has in doing so,” according to a report by Bevet Brig. General H. Brown on July 16, 1863.
After the war, in 1868, Police Officer Alexander S. Williams was transferred to the 21st Precinct from Brooklyn where he had walked a beat for his first two years with the NYPD. By now the neighborhood had grown worse, in part because of the notorious Gas House Gang that terrorized the area. According to Herbert Asbury in his "The Gangs of New York," “Scarcely a night passed in which gangsters did not loot houses and stores and fight among themselves in the streets and dives, and the police were powerless to stop them.” Criminals gathered in saloons like the “Rowdy Wall” to plot their offenses.
Williams did not believe in “powerless.”
According to station house lore, on this third day in the precinct and fed up with the openly criminal behavior of the gang, the officer purposely picked a fight with two thugs and clubbed them mercilessly with his baton. When other hoodlums tried to rescue their comrades, he beat them too.
Supposedly over the next four years Williams engaged in at least one bloody confrontation per day in his efforts to clean up the neighborhood. He was said to have tossed toughs through the window of the Florence Saloon.
Whether the stories became exaggerated in their retelling or not, Williams earned the nickname “Clubber.” He was long remembered for his philosophy that “there is more law in the end of a policeman’s night stick than a Supreme Court decision.”
The complaints of police brutality filed against Williams equaled the number of corruption charges. But Clubber Williams had successfully controlled the Gas House Gang that had bullied and terrorized the neighborhood so, rather than being dismissed, he was promoted to Captain in charge of the 21st Precinct in 1871.
Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo convened the Lexow Committee in 1874 to investigate evidence of Williams' accepting money and gifts from brothel owners and gamblers. One madame testified that she turned over to the captain $30,000 every year for protection. Other women with lesser operations told of $500 fees to open a house and between $25 to $50 per house thereafter. Pool rooms paid as much as $300 and high class gambling houses paid more. He was partial owner in a brand of whiskey that saloons were forced to sell.
Amazingly, Williams managed to retain his command for another five years before being transferred to the West 29th Street station.
A decade later, in 1895, Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt who would stand for no corruption under his watch demanded Williams’ resignation. Clubber Williams retired with $1 million in the bank, a yacht on his $39,000 private dock, and a summer estate in Cos Cob, Connecticut. He had garnered his fortune, he explained, in Japanese real estate.
Despite Williams’ scandalous and unlawful behavior, he had to be credited for cleaning up the neighborhood. The October 1894 issue of St. Andrew’s Cross noted that the old Gas House District had “lost much of the element that made it of ill-repute during the days when recognized leaders in all sorts of organized crime made it their abode…The ‘Gas House Gang’ had found that their old stamping ground was made uncomfortable for them by the police.”
The succeeding police captain of the 21st Precinct had another issue to deal with, however: Tammany Hall. Charley Murphy was leader of the 18th Assembly district and Leslie’s Monthly Magazine noted that “Early in his career as a district leader, Murphy in a quiet way made it clear to the police and the citizens of his district that he was master there.” Through intimidation the police captain became a puppet of Murphy.
“A pool room opened in his district,” reported Leslie’s Monthly, “and a woman went to Murphy and complained that her husband was losing all his wages in the new gambling place.” Murphy went to the captain saying “Put it out of my district.”
Before the end of the day the pool room was closed for good.
One commanding officer, Captain Smith attempted to defy Murphy. In 1896 the Raines Law was enacted that prohibited the sale of liquor on Sundays. Murphy owned three saloons. When the captain ordered Murphy to close his saloons on Sundays, he refused. Smith did the unthinkable. He arrested a Tammany leader.
Murphy had himself appointed Commissioner of Docks then went to the Police Board saying “Put Smith on the boat and keep him there. I want him right under my window, where I can keep my eye on him.”
Captain Smith was transferred from the 21st Precinct to the Police Steamboat Patrol where he served under the eye of Murphy for four years.
Roosevelt’s reformations took hold and graft and corruption were increasingly exposed. In 1901 the City Club of New York demanded answers when, on February 21, businessmen in the 21st Precinct hosted a dinner at $10 a plate for the new Police Captain Cooney and presented him with a diamond-studded badge.
In 1908 Captain Stephen McDermott, known as “Battleaxe Steve,” was in command of the 21st Precinct. He described the district as “pretty tough quarters around here.” But, he told a New York Times reporter, “I never feel any animosity or bitterness toward the criminals with whom I come in contact. The way they live, the traditions they have, all make it almost impossible for them to be anything except what they are.”
Although in 1912 there were still 37 brothels (or “disorderly houses”) within the confines of the precinct, the 162 officers diligently fought crime. The 9,500 arrests made in 1913 were the most of any precinct in the city.
But by now the aging station house was in bad shape.
That same year an investigative committee appointed by the City Alderman reported that ventilation was nearly non-existent. A subsequent inspection in January 1914 said the building “is very old and out of date…There should be a new station house, with a modern jail having a department for women.”
By October the jail in the house was condemned and prisoners were no longer held here.
It would not be until 1952 that the precinct – now renumbered the 13th Precinct – moved into a new building on East 21st Street.
Today the building from which Clubber Williams reigned over the Gas House District houses Green Chimneys’ “Gramercy Residence at Ungar House.” It functions as a foster care group residence for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning young people – 16 to 20 years of age – in a supervised setting.
According to Green Chimneys, the purpose of the Gramercy Residence is to “enable older adolescents in foster care to function in the urban community independently and successfully” and to serve as a transition for older youth growing out of the foster care system.
Little has changed to the exterior of the old 21st Precinct Station House. Yet hardly anyone passing by it knows of its rich history and the remarkable stories that played out inside its walls.