Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Fish, Murder and Gangsters -- No. 251 Water Street (22 Peck Slip)

Sweeping arched openings marked the street level -- photo by Alice Lum
The Civil War made John N. Eitel a prosperous man.   The government was desperate to keep a supply of recruits moving southward to fill the decimated ranks of the army and navy.  A system of “recruitment brokers” was initiated whereby a private citizen, as a broker, would receive $300 for each recruit who was accepted for service.  It was a handsome sum in the 1860s and the practice was a custom-fit for Eitel, who was a partner in the clothing firm John N. Eitel & Co. in the Fulton Street area.  Eitel sold apparel to naval recruits, making between $8 and $9 profit on each recruit.

Expanding the business to include the recruitment itself made sense.  But it soon caused problems.

Despite Eitel’s flawless reputation as a merchant and citizen, widespread corruption and fraud in the system put him under suspicion of the government.  Unscrupulous brokers would sign up false recruits, receive the $300 bounty, then the recruit would run away overnight, sharing the profits with the broker.

Between May 20 and October 9, 1864 1,284 recruits were enlisted by brokers.  Of them only 813 showed up on Governor’s and Hart’s Islands for duty.  The government was defrauded of $141,300 during that period alone—about $1.7 million today.

War Department detective Colonel Lafayette C. Baker was positive that Eitel was defrauding the government and on February 18, 1865 military police arrested him, whisking him away to the Old Capitol prison in Washington DC.  Neither his business partners nor his family was notified of his arrest.

When the details of his disappearance came to light, the War Department was flooded with letters and pleas for his release.  Not only did he have a faultless reputation in the community, his business was suffering from his absence and his wife had become ill from anxiety.

Military Judge Advocate General Joseph Hold refused to set bail or parole, saying the crimes “to which the prisoner is alleged to belong are so atrocious and strike so directly at the life of the military service that it is believe as a general rule the parties should not be paroled.” 

Abraham Lincoln disagreed.

He overruled the judge, writing on March 17, 1865 “Let this man be bailed, Mr. [Assistant Secretary of War Charles A.] Dana fix the amount."  The amount was $10,000 and a Republican placeman, Abram Wakeman of New York, immediately sent off a check in that amount.

Eitel continued in the clothing business and was partner in Lewis, Eitel & Co. at No. 8 Fulton Street in 1879.  By 1888 he owned the building at No. 251 Water Street where he ran his business.

But that year he decided to raze the old structure and put up a store-and-tenement on the site.  He hired architect Carl f. Eisenbach to design it. 

An overhanging cornice originally crowned the structure -- photo by Alice Lum
Despite the decidedly unfashionable area of docks, ships and rowdy sailors, Eisenbach produced a striking five-story amalgam of Romanesque Revival and Italianate styles in red brick with terra cotta trim.   Sweeping, broad arches provided window and entrance openings for the retail space, entered at No. 22 Peck Slip.  An elaborate terra cotta tympanum above the door to the residential space above, at No. 251 Water Street, carried on the arch motif.

A chain of sunflowers, a popular motif in the 1880s, adorns the elaborate tympanum above the entrance to the upper floors -- photo by Alice Lum
Delicate terra cotta bands ran along the second and fourth floors while somber terra cotta faces served as keystones to the fourth floor windows.   Costing Eitel $12,000 to build, it was a handsome and, perhaps, unexpected addition to the neighborhood.

The Historic American Buildings Survey of the National Park Service in 1933 noted that most of the terra cotta heads had been stolen "by vandals."  -- photo by Alice Lum

The upper floors were rented to two families per floor.  Eitel seems to have retired at this point because he did not re-establish his clothing business in the new building.

Among the tenants in 1894 was 63-year old widower August Loeffler.  A Civil War veteran, he lived here with his five children and earned his salary as a night watchman at the candy factory of Henry Heide at No. 179 Franklin Street.   A year earlier a packer in the factory, Bavarian-born Charles Miller, had been fired due to an argument he had with the old man; although from time to time he was brought back when business demanded extra help.

Miller was 25-years old and, according to The New York Times, “his habits were disreputable.”  Once a year, at New Year’s, his family would send him $400 from Bavaria to help him make ends meet.

On Tuesday, April 17, 1894 Charles Miller was doing work at the candy factory.  Andrew Lindner, a lozenge maker, left him there when he quit for the night.  August Loeffler never came home to his children the next morning.

At 6:00 am, engineer Frederick Rebmann stumbled over the watchman’s body in the basement of the factory.  The elderly man’s lantern was on the floor, broken, and a handkerchief had been placed over his face.  The coroner noted that Loeffler’s skull was fractured in several places, and his jaw and ribs were broken, giving “every indication that the attack on him had been atrociously brutal,” said The Times.

Investigation revealed that the watchman had caught Miller in the act of robbing the timekeeper’s desk and chased him to the basement.  There the robber grabbed a double-headed hammer and murdered the old man.

In 1897 Edward Weisberger purchased the building and, like Eitel, used it as rental income.  Weisberger’s business, a liquor store, was located at No. 148 Delancey Street.  He would retain possession of No. 251 Water Street until 1908.

As the 20th century progressed, the area had become the epicenter of the fish trade.  On May 13, Frank Maibach and Rueben Hafter purchased the building.  The two were partners in the Level Fish Company, which ran the Eagle Fish Company out of the first floor space.  In 1922 they commissioned Abraham Farber and contractor Louis Sessler to do minor stair alterations, costing $500; and six years later hired architect Charles M. Straub to convert the second story from apartments to a dental office.

Business dealing in the fish market neighborhood was often corrupt and dangerous.   The South Street Seaport area which now teems with trendy shops and restaurants was rife with mobsters and goons.  In July 1925 the Eagle Fish Company refused to produced its books and papers to a Federal Grand Jury doing an anti-trust investigation.  Before the month was up, Frank Maibach was indicted on price fixing along with 11 others who “combined to control the price of fish” and “agreed to boycott fishermen and others who sold fish to independent dealers.”

Legal problems for Maibach continued and a year later he was convicted and fined $31,000 for violating Sherman Anti-trust laws. 

The fine did not deter him, however, and in June 1933 Maibach and his brother Jack, who was vice president of the Eagle Fish Company, were charged with conspiracy to monopolize and restrain interstate trade in fresh-water fish.  Included in the indictment were the American Federation of Labor, 24 corporations, 53 other individuals and three trade associations.

The same year that Maibach was charged with conspiracy to monopolize, in 1933, the above photograph was taken.  The attractive building was seriously abused.  -- photo Library of Congress
The New York Times noted that “to carry out the scheme [to control prices]…the defendants hired gangsters who assaulted retailers and their families, damaged motor vehicles, dumped fish in transit, threw stench bombs, induced the union to refuse to unload fish handled by independent retails, cut off electric current in stores and committed other acts of terrorism.”

Reuben Hafter died in 1937 and the Maibach family retained possession of the building at No. 251 Water Street until 1961 when it was sold to the Berbor Corporation.  By now the aged structure had been sorely abused.  The cornice had been stripped off and architectural thieves had made away with most of the terra cotta faces.

Prior to the renaissance of the South Street Seaport, the area around No. 22 Peck Slip was dismal at best -- photo Library of Congress
But as the historic buildings of the Fulton Street area were rediscovered, they were one-by-one restored.   No. 251 Water Street was converted to apartments in 1977—one per floor above the street level.  Today a restaurant and bar are housed in the ground floor where racketeers sold wholesale seafood.

photo by Alice Lum
Although the restoration has perhaps left the building a bit too manicured, it is a remarkable survivor.  The exuberant ornamentation over the residential door is exceptional and, luckily, a few of the dour terra cotta faces above the fourth floor windows remain.

No comments:

Post a Comment