Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Scandal and Tragedy -- No. 62 Bank St.

In 1822 a flood of new residents began settling in the rural village of Greenwich, fleeing the yellow fever epidemic to the south in New York City.  When they arrived, they would find that the Bank of New York, with astonishing forethought, had bought eight plots of land in 1798 and established a branch in the village.  The lane on which it stood became known as Bank Street.

The building boom in Greenwich Village would continue through the 1840s.  Brick and frame houses ranging from tiny working class homes to fine mansions quickly lined the winding streets.  Claiming a spot directly between the two classifications were handsome merchant-class homes like the one at No. 62 Bank Street.

Clad in Flemish bond red brick, it was built around 1836 for the dry goods merchant Leonard Kirby whose store was at No. 47 Cedar Street.  The vernacular architectural style reflected simple Federal elements like the paneled brownstone lintels that adorned the windows and doorway.  Styles were changing, however, and the dormered roof of the Federal style gave way here to a full third story.

The house became home to C. S. Fisk, his wife and children by 1841.  Fisk’s three little girls—aged 11, 13 and 14 years—were from a previous marriage.  On Monday August 10 of that year the three girls went on what was reported as “their usual walk” around 4:00.  They never returned.

On August 12 the New-York Tribune reported “For two days past, great excitement has existed in the neighborhood of No. 62 Bank street, owing to the sudden disappearance of three little girls…Reports were rife that they also had been kidnapped, violated and murdered.”

Alarmed locals demanded an investigation and acting Mayor Elijah F. Purdy ordered Justice Matsell  “to detail some officers to find the children, or arrest their abductors.”  The judge sent officers Prince, John Davis, and Cockefair into the city “with orders not to return until they had accomplished their errand.”

After interviewing several people in the Village area, the officers discovered that the three girls were seen with a lady in a Bleecker Street shoe store.  The woman purchased each girl new shoes and left with them.

The Tribune detailed the rather amazing detective work.  “The officers, from the description of this lady, looked for her on [the New Jersey] side, and then proceeded to Jersey City, where they found the lady in question and took her to the Police Office, all in one and a half hours after they set out.”

In a decision that astonishes the 21st century reader, the kidnapping was deemed appropriate and excusable when further facts were gleaned.   “This lady was the aunt of the children, and she stated that their step-mother, the wife of their father, Mr. Fisk, treated the children very badly, and that, with their consent, she had fitted them out and sent them to another of their aunts in Boston, where they had safely arrived.”

The New-York Tribune set readers’ minds at ease now that the girls were out of the hands of their wicked step-mother.  “She was then discharged, and the excitement will doubtless be allayed.”

Within three years the house would be home to A. L. McDonald, a Vice President of the Ninth Ward Whig Party.  Here on Saturday afternoon April 13, 1844 at 4:00 the funeral of McDonald’s 31-year old son, Pierre, was held.

Within the next decade or so there would be a relatively-quick turnover in residents.  The year after Pierre E. F. McDonald’s funeral, John DePew was living here.  The family was no doubt mortified when newspapers reported that he owed the city $2.65 in unpaid personal tax.

Another funeral would be held in the parlor on Monday afternoon, May 17, 1858, for Alexander, the 6-year old son of Alexander and Ellen Dalrymple.

One of the most colorful owners of No. 62 Bank Street was George W. Wiley who moved in around 1883.  Born at No. 27 Washington Street on April 15, 1825, he was one of the first of Greenwich Village’s volunteer firefighters.  Then, in 1849, when the nation was hit with gold fever and thousands of young men headed to California to strike it rich, Wiley had a better idea.

The 24-year old pooled his money with five other enterprising men and loaded a small schooner with groceries and general supplies that would be needed by prospectors arriving in California.  The New York Times later remembered that he “sailed around the Horn to San Francisco, where, during the gold fever, the greater part of the cargo was disposed of with wonderful profits, realizing easily for common sulphur matches $1 per box.”

The men established a store in Sacramento and used the schooner to transport goods from San Francisco to Sacramento.  “Frequently the money received for the freights on single trips would be more than the entire value of the schooner,” said The Times.

With his substantial profits, Wiley returned to New York after a few years and opened a cooperage business named McLaughlin & Wiley on Old Slip.  Now retired, Wiley lived quietly in the Bank Street house until he contracted “congestion of the brain” in May, 1888.  After an illness of three days, he died in the house on May 10.  In his obituary it was noted that George W. Wiley was “one of the oldest residents of the city who had lived through many of its changing phases.”

The house was sold to Edward Gorman, a truckman.  The Gorman family lived on the basement level and Sarah F. Gorman ran the upper floors as a boarding house.  Edward and Sarah may have regretted their decision to rent rooms when portrait artist Samuel J. Cowley turned a scandalous spotlight on the house.

Cowley’s studio was at No. 34 West 14th Street.  His estranged wife, Minnie, was among Mrs. Gorman’s first boarders.  On February 26, 1889 Cowley placed an advertisement in The Evening World offering a $6,000 reward for the return of a diamond necklace purloined from his studio.

Cowley told investigators that he was painting the portrait of a wealthy Philadelphia socialite who had left her $15,000 necklace in his studio.  The jewels were missing after a visit, he said, by a friend of the family.

It soon became apparent, as Cowley’s story fell apart, that it was all a publicity hoax.  Making matters worse for the artist was that his bid for attention drew some unwanted press as well.  On the day the advertisement was printed, he slipped up in an interview with a World reporter, saying that his wife and children lived in Cleveland, Ohio.

Another reporter, the following day, questioned him about the “lady living at 62 Bank street.”  On February 27 the Evening World reported “Later he admitted to the reporter that he had made a mistake when he said he had a wife and children living in Cleveland.”

The reporter asked if Minnie Crowley, then, was his true wife. “That I would not care to say either,” Crowley replied and the reporter said that “no further questioning would induce him to say whether she was or not.”

Undaunted the reporter pushed on to Mrs. Gorman’s boarding house at No. 62 Bank Street.  “The lady there, who claims to be Mrs. Cowley, lives on the top floor, front, in a small room, plainly furnished.  She is a dark-haired, plain-looking woman, but rather a prepossessing conversationalist,” reported The World.

To prove her marriage to the artist, Minnie presented a marriage certified dated July 12, 1879.  She admitted he was a philanderer; but insisted she was his only wife.  “I know that he was never married before he met me, and no matter how many women he has had dealings with since then I am his legal wife.”

The reporter discovered that Cowley was living with another woman named Hansen.  Minnie explained “He began to tire of me about two years ago, and gradually remained away from me, for longer periods each time, until last Christmas, when he left me, and we have not lived together since.  He has contributed to my support right along, though.”

She added “she passed herself off as Mrs. Cowley, but I never bothered my head about her.  My husband has been in innumerable scrapes with women.”

In the meantime Sarah Gorman was getting nervous because Cowley was in arrears for Minnie’s board.

Within two days of placing his phony advertisement, Samuel J. Cowley’s story was “the sensation of the town,” according to the newspaper; but it was definitely not the sort of publicity the artist had envisioned.

On March 7, 1889 The Evening World ran a headline “Cowley’s Fall—His Diamond Robbery Advertising Scheme Ruined Him—It Brings to Light the Fact that He Is Guilty of Bigamy.”  On the same day the Pittsburgh Dispatch reported “Mrs. Minnie Cowley, of 62 Bank street, wife of Artist Samuel J. Cowley, who advertised on February 26 a reward of $6,000 for the return of a diamond necklace alleged to have been stolen from his safe, secured warrants at the Jefferson Market Police Court on Tuesday for the arrest of her husband for abandonment and non-support, and also for bigamy.  She was accompanied to court by another woman, who, it is alleged, also claims to be the wife of the artist.”

Sarah Gorman got into the act by securing attachments against Cowley’s studio pictures for the $53 in back board and rent bills.  The Pittsburgh Dispatch said “She says in her complaint that Cowley has left the State with the intent to defraud his creditors.”

The Evening World was blatant in its censure.  “He is in hiding, and his business, instead of being increased, as he fondly hoped it would, has gone to smash…He was shown by The Evening World to be a most phenomenal perverter of the truth, and other things have since been discovered which make his history an interesting one.

“Mr. Cowley is a bigamist.”

Minnie Cowley was close to being evicted.  Sarah Gorman, whom The Evening World described as “the good-looking owner of the house where Mrs. Cowley lives,” put an advertisement in the newspapers around March 1 to rent the rooms.  Over 100 people answered the ads, “but no one wanted rooms,” reported The Evening World a week later.  “They only wanted to see Mrs. Cowley.”

The house at No. 62 Bank Street would be involved in another case of missing girls in September 1891.  Mrs. Spencer and her two daughters, Nettie and Gertrude, boarded with Mrs. Gorman for a period, as well as with Mrs. Rudd who ran a boarding house nearby at No. 79 Bank Street.

In actuality, “Mrs. Spencer” was probably an unwed mother.  On September 26, 1891 The New York Times said “The Gorman and Rudd women say that the mother of Nettie and Gertrude lived with both of them at various times.  They never saw Spencer.  The police look on Spencer as a myth.”

Little Gertrude and Netti were put in the care of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac W. Purinton in Brooklyn.  According to Mrs. Purinton she “knew the mother of the children before her family had repudiated her.”

Then, around 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon, September 23, 1891, the girls showed up at No. 62 Bank Street.  Sarah Gorman allowed them to stay overnight, then took them to the Rudd boarding house the next day.

On Friday, Mrs. Rudd read a newspaper account of the children’s disappearance and called an officer.  Little Nettie told officials “that she had run away from the Purinton flat because of ill treatment in the hands of Mrs. Purinton.”  After Mrs. Purinton left the girls alone around 8:00 that Wednesday, Nettie broke a chair while carrying it from one room to another.

The New York Times recounted “Fearing a beating when Mrs. Purinton returned, Nettie determined to escape to New-York.  She dressed three-year old Gertrude, and they boarded an elevated railroad train at Greene and Grand Avenues, crossed over the bridge, and took a Bleecker Street car to Bank Street.”

Nettie told the police that Mrs. Purinton frequently beat her and made her do all the housework.  Although the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was called to investigate the case; in the meantime Detective Delehanty took the girls back to the Purinton apartment.

Mrs. Purinton was not pleased.  She “said that she would keep Gertrude and place Nettie in some institution,” reported The Times.

Two years later unspeakable tragedy and horror would play out in the Gorman house.  In one of the first floor rooms with a window onto Bank Street was a folding bed.  The Evening World described “The bed had heavy weights at the base of the headboard, the slightest pressure on either end causing it to close in a jiffy.”

On August 9, 1893, at around 3:00 in the afternoon Sarah Gorman “was alone, engaged in housecleaning, and had removed part of the bed-clothing from the bed to facilitate the cleaning process.”   To clean the mattress she used naptha—it was a fatal decision.

The Evening World said the following day “No more terrible accident has ever been recorded than that which caused the death yesterday of Mrs. Edward Gorman of Bank Street.”  An earlier edition of the same newspaper explained the gruesome mishap.   As she “was pouring naphtha on the folding-bed yesterday, at the same time holding a lighted lamp in one hand, the bed closed upward, imprisoning her, together with the lamp and the can of inflammable fluid.”

“She must have touched the bed as she bent over it, at a point where the pillows lie, and before she could draw back the treacherous mechanism had caught her as in a trap.  The indications are that the lamp exploded, enveloping her in flames.  Owing to the fact that her head was pressed tightly in the bed whatever cries she may have uttered were not heard by the lodgers above.”

Two little children discovered the fire separately.  The small child of Mrs. Catherine (Kate) Collins, a boarder on the top floor, was playing with a ball in the hallway and entered the bedroom “to see the bed burning fiercely and the victim’s hands extending out of the fire and smoke.”  The little girl ran upstairs to tell her mother. 

In the meantime, Joseph Devine, a small boy living across the street, saw the flames and turned in a fire alarm.  A second-floor tenant, Mrs. Schultz, saw clouds of smoke swirling outside her window and, she too, called in an alarm.

When fire fighters arrived, all the tenants were accounted for except Kate Collins and her nine-month old baby, Helen.  They found the woman and child in a rear room “gasping for breath,” according to The Sun and were taken town a ladder to the street.  “It is thought that Mrs. Collins will recover, but the child’s case is doubtful,” said the newspaper.

Sarah Gorman was burned beyond recognition.  Only her hands and feet, which protruded from the mattress, were unburned.  The Evening World remarked “The house belonged to Mrs. Gorman.  The damage to it is great.  The other lodgers, of whom there were a dozen, lost nothing.”

The newspaper took the opportunity to warn its readers about being careless.  “This is certainly a horrible affair.  But what a lesson it teaches of the insane folly and recklessness of using explosive fluids carelessly!”

On September 11, 1895 the house was sold to William T. Ericson for $8,500—about $230,000 today.

In the first decades of the 20th century, Greenwich Village had become New York’s Bohemia; attracting writers and musicians and painters.  Quaint brick homes like No. 62 Bank Street also attracted financially successful New Yorkers who sought the charm of the vintage structures.

In the 1930s the house was home to the family of George N. White and his family.  White was an investment banker and authority on public utility finance.  The Whites had a summer home in Orleans, Massachusetts and George was what would have been called “a club man” a generation earlier.  He held memberships in the Bond Club and the Lunch Club of New York.

While at the Orleans house on August 1, 1938, White suffered a fatal heart attack.  His widow, Marjorie, lived on in the Bank Street home for some time.

In the spring of 2002 The New York Times listed the desirable property for sale for $3.5 million.  The listing detailed four bedrooms, three baths, three fireplaces, “wide-plank floors, original moldings and detail” and a rear garden 22 by 75 feet.

No. 62 Bank was purchased by Robert Duffy, president and co-founder of Marc Jacobs.  Following extensive restoration and decorating, it was included in Ingrid Abramovitch’s 2009 book Restoring A House in the City.  Nine years after purchasing the house, Duffy sold it for $7.05 million.

The pristinely-maintained house quietly hides its secrets of 19th century scandal and unspeakable tragedy.

photographs taken by the author


  1. Thanks for yet another fascinating post. That lovely house certainly had an eventful history. I was wondering what are your sources for all the information about the varied owners and occupants in the properties you describe.

    1. The owner and occupant info comes from contemporary newspapers, magazines (as cited in the text), tax records, obituaries, court records, building documents and real estate sales records, military records, college and professional journals and annuals...in short, many resources!

  2. If ever a NYC building deserved to be haunted, it is 62 Bank St.........poor Mrs. Gorman!