Friday, December 13, 2013

The Sordid Past of No. 265 Bowery

photo by Alice Lum
As the Bowery changed in the 19th century, so did the property at No. 265.  Early in the century respectable businesses thrived along the thoroughfare—dry goods stores, custom hardware shops and pharmacies.  In 1829 H. R. Piercy ran his printing business from No. 265, and Theodore Burling’s publishing company found its home here.  That year Burling published “The Cabinet of Instruction, Literature, and Amusement.”

The building would be home to another printer in the 1830s, Mitchell & Turner; and in 1840 James Newman ran his metal goods business here.  That year he promised that his “Tin, copper, sheet iron ware & stove manufactory will continue to manufacture the First Premium Milk Kettles together with milk pails, pans, strainers, yokes, measures, cream kettles, etc. of the best materials.”

But the nature of the Bowery would drastically change in the years following the Civil War.  The once respectable street was becoming anything but.  It was around this time that the original building was either razed and replaced; or significantly altered. 

In 1872 William Branch ran an “eating house” on the first floor, with a “lodging house” on the second floor.    The establishment seems to have quickly changed hands, and in 1875 Cunningham & Lyons held the wine and liquor license for the establishment, and a year later Charles Sachs was running the restaurant/hotel.

Sachs advertised his restaurant and lodging house in "Important Events of the Century" in 1876 (copyright expired)
Sachs somewhat pretentiously advertised his “Manhattan Hotel” as being run on “the American Plan.”  Downstairs, at the same time, Theodore Oliver was listed in “Gouldings New York Directory” as dealing in “segars.”

By 1879 the “restaurant” was frankly listed as a “saloon.”  It was being run by John Pery, alias Parrier.  He was arrested for violating the Excise law—which prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sunday—in January that year and was fined $25.

The Bowery of the 1880s was not a place where respectable men and women ventured.  James D. McCabe in 1882 wrote “Men and women in all stages of intoxication stagger along the pavements, and here and there is a sturdy policeman with some offender in his grasp, hastening on to the station-house. Vice offers every inducement to its votaries, and the devil’s work is done nightly upon a grand scale in the Bowery.”

By now the little two-story building stood out among its neighbors with an overpowering cast metal cornice and parapet.  The paired windows of the second floor featured carved keystones with bearded faces that doubled as visual support to the cornice.
Keystones, possibly brownstone, are painted green.  They would have originally contrasted with the brick facade and cast metal cornice.  photo by Alice Lum

As the 1880s drew to a close Charles Erdman and his wife were renting rooms upstairs.    His occupation as a lineman for the Manhattan Electric Light Company was unusual.  Electricity as a source of lighting was only starting to make its presence known.   In October 8, 1889 the 39-year old walked out of his room at No. 265 to head off to work.  He would not return that night.

Erdman climbed the light pole in front of No. 155 Grand Street.  The cross arm of the pole carried two wires owned by the Manhattan Electric Light firm and four belonging to the Brush Company.   As he worked on the Manhattan lines, the electrician did not notice that the Brush wires were bare—either the insulation had disintegrated, or they were never properly insulated.

Later Joseph Mack, another lineman, would admit that Erdman “had been drinking, although he was able to take care of himself.”  Worse, Erdman neglected to wear his protective rubber gloves.

David Andriosi, whose fruit stand was nearby, heard the crackle of electric static and saw the wires emitting smoke and blue flames as Erdman touched them.   The electric shock knocked the lineman from the pole.  He fell to the pavement, fracturing the base of his skull.

A month later, while a coroner’s jury weighed the evidence concerning guilt, The Brush Company negotiated a settlement with Mrs. Erdman for $5,000.

At the time of the tragedy, the saloon had once again changed hands.  It was now being run by Theodore Mallenda.   But he would not hold on to the bar long, either.  On June 21, 1894 The Evening World ran a succinct advertisement: “Saloon for sale cheap.  Inquire 265 Bowery.”

Meanwhile Frank Jackson was living upstairs.  On October 22, 1893, the 41-year old was arrested with two accomplices for the burglary of Henry E. Blankmeyer’s saloon at No. 100 East 31st Street.  Neighbors told police that prior to the break-in “The men had been seen acting suspiciously in the neighborhood for some time.”

Jackson was typical of many of the residents of the crime-ridden neighborhood.  The following year another tenant, Jerry Ormond was also arrested.  Ormond was 21-years old and working with the Schribner & Smith’s circus.   He was described by The New York Times as “five feet five inches in height, and of dark complexion.”  

When he noticed a policeman eying him suspiciously on January 4, 1894, Ormond began running.   “Policeman Gillen pursued him and asked him his name and business.  The fellow’s replies were evasive, and Gillen placed him under arrest and searched him,” reported The Times.  Among the items in his pockets were a pair of steel knuckles and two knives.

Having given the false name of Donovan, he finally admitted it was Ormond when letters were found in his pocket from his mother and sister.  Eventually he was recognized as the assailant of May Barrowcliff “who was so brutally attacked in Jersey City last week,” said The Times on January 5.

In 1895 stark changes seemed to be coming to No. 265 Bowery.  On June 26 Electricity: A Popular Electrical Journal noted that plans had been filed for a “Mercantile building, six stories and basement…all modern improvements” for the site.  The publication listed Schneider and Herter as the architects.

Someone changed his mind, however, and the squat little building lived on.  In 1897 it was home to Lyon’s restaurant.   Nearby was Hook and Ladder Company 9 on Elizabeth Street with its canine mascot, Jack-the-Tramp.

When a Bowery lodging house caught fire the dog became a hero.  The New York Times reported on October 17, 1897 “He entered a room in which a man was fast asleep and pulled and bit at him until he awoke.”  The man’s life was saved because of the actions of the mongrel dog.

When Mr. Lyon, who owned the restaurant, heard of the dog’s actions he told his employees to feed the dog whenever he should appear at the door.  “Tramp has taken his meals, sometimes numbering eight a day, at Lyon’s restaurant…ever since he was the means of saving a lodger’s life in a Bowery lodging house which was on fire,” said The Times.  “That Tramp appreciates this standing order may readily be seen by his size and generally sleek appearance.”

Like the saloon that preceded it, however, the restaurant would quickly change owners.  In 1898 it was being run by Joseph Mayer.  That same year Corneliua Mortanero was living upstairs when she died in her room on December 17 “of dropsy, Bright’s disease, and fatty degeneration of the heart,” according to The New York Times.

The impoverished 67-year old woman was obese, weighing around 350 pounds.  Her size presented a posthumously-humiliating problem in removing her corpse.  The Times reported that “when the dead wagon was sent to the house for her body, her friends being too poor to bury her, it was impossible to get it out of the front door.  Six Italians assisted the two dead wagon attendants to lower the body from the first floor to the lower hall.  It was let down with ropes and then carried to the rear court, from which it was carried to the street through a large hallway.”

Before the turn of the century the former restaurant-saloon space on the first floor had been converted to a cigar factory.  On November 17, 1900 the Cigarmakers’ Union of New York City ordered a strike of its members working here “to enforce a demand for increased wages.”  Before the week was over the shop conceded; and workers came back to work on November 24.

The wage hike was, perhaps, too much for the little cigar maker.  A year later it was gone and M. Barcovie and B. Smusch ran their “restaurant and saloon fixtures” business from the space.  They apparently shared the lower floor with M. Glucksman, an auctioneer.

Meanwhile, the Bowery continued as a disreputable district.  In 1904 Joseph Elstein was operating his “vest factory” in the building; but the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children focused its attention on Larry’s Pool Room, operating in the basement.  In its Annual Report the society said it fought “to curtail and exterminate the evils growing out of such resorts as have been established for the purpose of alluring young boys into gambling practices and their attendant evils.  Of these resorts there has always been far too many, and among them the ‘two-and-a-half-cents-a-cue,’ pool rooms have always proved attractive and invited attention.”

But Larry’s operation was even more dangerous.  “In the present instance ‘Larry’s Pool Room,’ located at 265 Bowery, had been the subject of complaint and investigation.  ‘Larry’ went his competitors one-and-a-half-cent better, his established price being ‘one cent a cue,’ which naturally proved a drawing card.”

Officers of the Society made a raid on the poolroom one night and found at least 50 young men and boys playing pool or gambling on the games. “The low basement room was clouded from the smoke of cigarettes, and the most vile and profane language was heard from the majority of the participants in the games,” said the report.

Manager Joseph Mayn was taken into custody, along with several of the younger boys.  He was charged with permitting a minor “to be placed in such a situation that his morals were likely to be impaired.”  Mayn chose the $50 fine over the alternative of 30 days in the city prison.  The hefty fine would among to about $1,000 in today’s money.

Meanwhile things were even shadier upstairs.  In February 1904 Police Officer Thiele paid four undercover visits to No. 265 Bowery.  Later, testifying before the Supreme Court of the State of New York, he remember that he and his partner “found about thirty women and forty men in this rear room, most of them drinking.  We were solicited by two women…They said they would give us a good time upstairs for one dollar, and fifty cents for a room.  We saw women on this occasion hugging and kissing men and placing their hands in the neighborhood of the privates on the trousers.”

The brothel was shut down; but it was replaced by the “Illusion Parlor;” one of the side-show type “museums” that police said “are simply resorts for crooks.”  On December 3, 1908 the New-York Tribune ran the headline “Bowery Shows Raided,” and described the problems police had at No. 265.

“Captain O’Connor’s troubles began at the ‘Illusion Parlor,’ No. 265 Bowery, when Louise Embriano, billed as ‘the fat woman who tips the scales at 780 pounds,’ emerged from the museum.  The crowd that had gathered gave a cheer.  When she placed one foot on the step of the patrol wagon, the strain was too much, and O’Connor decided that she should have a wagon all to herself.

“When the ‘fat woman’ had been pried into the wagon there was a loud protest from the other wagon and a slight little man, who said he was the husband of the ponderous one, bounced out and demanded to know if the law sanctioned the unjustifiable separation of man and wife.  Captain O’Connor squeezed the excitable little man into a seat alongside his wife.”

Later the captain explained the goings-on inside these establishments.  “He said that the places were resorts for crooks and strong-arm men, and that persons who visited them and declined to be fleeced were brutally beaten and thrown into the street.”

Before long the little building with the sordid past would gain some respectability.  By 1912 the Walker Shoe Company was here; although it suffered from its still-seedy location when it was burglarized on January 6 that year.

After World War I druggist M. Diugasch, who dealt in “chemicals, colors and dyestuffs,” would be here for several years, sharing the first floor space with the Epstein Novelty Company.  Epstein manufactured canes, among other wholesale items.

As mid-century approached, the ground floor was once again a place of entertainment.  The Department of Buildings noted in 1944 that a “kitchen and cabaret” took up street level while upstairs was used solely for storage.   In 1944, a “cabaret” on the Bowery—a street known world-wide for “Bowery bums” littering the pavement--did not include the bow-tied waiters and torch song singers the word might suggest.
Once again patrons enjoy a drink in the first floor space.  The long history of shady goings-on here has come to an end. --photo by Alice Lum

Toward the end of the century this area of the Bowery was known as the restaurant supply district.  Today the block is still lined with restaurant equipment outlets; one of which operated from No. 265 until recently. At some point around the 1960s or ‘70s, someone thought it a good idea to encase the building in artificial stone.   Thankfully, the exuberant Victorian cornice and parapet along with the carved head keystones were preserved.

1 comment:

  1. The "cabaret" briefly noted was Sammy's Bowery Follies, which was in business as, basically, a place for slumming from 1944 till 1970; it was featured in Life magazine, and while it was open the photographer Weegee took a number of photos there: