Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Rat Fights, Embalming and Trash Removal - No. 47-49 Madison Street

The Dutch Rutgers family had originally settled in Albany; but by the 18th century had relocated to Manhattan.  The extensive “Rutgers Farm” sat just above the established city. 

Henry Rutgers and his brother both served in the Revolutionary War.  While his brother was killed in the Battle of Long Island, Henry survived to enter a life of public service and distinguish the family name with his generous philanthropies.  One of these would result in the change of the name of Queens College to Rutgers College.

The Commissioners Plan of 1811 which laid out the grid of streets and avenues spelled the eventual end of Manhattan’s farms and estates.  But the Rutgers Farm was already seeing development.  Henry managed to leave his mark on the map by laying out streets and selling plots. 

He named the wide street on which his mansion stood Rutgers Street.  Intersecting it was Henry Street, named for himself; and nearby was Catherine Street, named for Catherine Rutgers and Bancker Street, named for Henry’s son-in-law.

By 1808 George Hauptman’s cabinetmaking shop was located on Bancker Street.  The two-and-a-half story Federal style building provided living space upstairs and a shop area at street level.   By 1823 John Mansfield lived here.  A grocer, he most likely ran his store on the lower level.

But the neighborhood had quickly deteriorated.  In 1826 the Bancker family was humiliated by having its name connected with the seedy area and requested a name change.   Bancker Street became Madison Street that year, named for the former President and Founding Father, James Madison.

That same year the brick-faced house and store, now Nos. 47-49 Madison Street, had several blue collar residents.  David M. Baldwin, a cooper (barrel maker); grocer Jeremiah Driscoll; and Joseph Demarest, a barber, all lived upstairs. At the time the residential space upstairs used the address of No. 47 while the shop took No. 49.

If the Bancker family was uncomfortable with the gritty atmosphere of the area in 1826, they would be horrified in 1853.  Mid-century saloons which offered bare-knuckle boxing, dog fighting, and illegal gambling were sometimes termed “sportsman’s halls.”  The most infamous of these would be Kip Burns’ Sportsman’s Hall on Water Street, opened in 1863.  But a full decade earlier John Marriott operated his at No. 49 Madison Street.   Like Burns, Marriott offered a grisly and popular betting game—rat and dog fighting.

Young boys were paid a commission to gather brown wharf rats from the nearby riverfront.  Patrons then laid bets on how long a dog—most often a terrier—could kill 100 rats.   An advertisement appeared in the Spirit of the Times in March 1853:  “Rat Killing, and other sports, every Monday evening.  A good supply of rats kept constantly on hand for gentlemen wishing to try their dogs, with the use of the pit gratis, at J. Marriott’s Sportsman’s Hall, 49 Madison Street.”

Ironically, years later Marriott would be appointed “Pound-Master” of the city dog pound.  On June 24, 1874 he would face trial, charged “with using unnecessary cruelty, and being criminally careless in the killing of the dogs brought to the establishment by the thieves and ruffians of the City.” 

Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA, questioned him, “Were you ever engaged in the business of dog-fighting?”

Marriott replied that he did not know why that would have anything to do with the current charges.

“Yes, it has,” said Bergh, “were you not a professional dog-fighter for about ten years?”

Marriott refused to answer the question and Bergh rested his case.

But before all this came to pass, another rat-and-dog fight promoter in the 1850s and early ‘60s was the English-born Harry Jennings.  Well dressed and with a gentleman’s deportment, he ran Kerrigan Hall on White Street.   Jennings went even further than Marriott.  He offered prostitution to the sailors and other men who haunted the dark downtown streets after nightfall.  But even the most corrupt police were unable to ignore his blatant operation.

On August 23, 1861 The New York Times reported “An Englishman, known as Harry Jennings, has been exercising a baleful influence for a year or two past upon the youth of the lower part of the City by inducing their attendance at rat-baits, dog-fights and other demoralizing sports, of which he was the presiding genius at Kerrigan Hall, in White-street.  Not more than two months ago the conduct of Jennings and the frequenters of his establishment became so disorderly and offensive that Capt. Petty, of the Fifth Ward Police, found it necessary to pay the place a visit, and having quietly carried out his plans, the proprietor and more than thirty of his audience found themselves in custody.”

Although Jennings was jailed for 30 days, “This punishment, however, has proved powerless to deter him from pursuing his former vocation,” said The Times.  Jennings, whom the newspaper described as “of rat-killing notoriety,” offered rat and dog fights at No. 49 Madison Street twice a month. 

Harry Jennings’ dog and rat fighting career would come to a crashing end in 1869 when he was convicted, along with Charles H. Steadman, for robbing the safe of Bostonian George H. Gooding of $13,000.   The crime had happened three years earlier.  The Times’ Boston correspondent reported on April 4, 1869 that Gooding, a broker, “was robbed in July, 1866, by the famous dog-fancier, Harry Jennings, and the man-about-town, Charles Steadman.”  Both men were sentenced to four years imprisonment.

In an interesting side note, Jennings seems to have been forgiven by New Yorkers following his release.  On February 4, 1886 The Fanciers’ Show opened at Madison Square Garden.  Here well-dressed ladies and gentlemen marveled at a demonstration of homing pigeons, the newly-invented incubator, and domestic goods.  And Harry Jennings was there as well.

“A feature of the day that pleased visitors was the performance of Harry Jennings, the rat-catcher.  Every few minutes he went into the big rat cage and made free with the brown-coated inmates, picking them up and flinging them about as though he thought he was giving them pleasure.  Occasionally he enticed a lad to enter the cage with him to get a lesson in the way to handle and tame rats.”

By now John Marriott had moved his operation, renamed the Empire Rat Pit, to No. 92 Crosby Street.  And the upper floor at No. 47 Madison Street was a warren of criminals and rowdies.  

What Newark resident Frederick Schmidt was doing in the sordid neighborhood of Pearl and Park Streets at 2:00 in the morning on November 21, 1870 is suspect; nevertheless he quickly realized the dangers involved.  Among the three thugs who assaulted and robbed Schmidt of $150 on the dark street was Charles Jones of No. 47 Madison Street. 

Schmidt was able to wrestle Jones to the ground and hold him until a policeman arrived.  The other robbers escaped.  But the judge could not ignore the suspicious and unsavory location of the crime.  While Jones was held for trial, the victim Schmidt was sent to the House of Detention.

Thomas Conklin was living here on September 12, 1872 when he entered Racliff’s saloon on Eighth Avenue.   The night would not end well.  Both he and another Irish immigrant, William McDonald, were taken away with stab wounds inflicted by Charles Morton.

A year later another boarder, Felix Carroll would end up on the wrong side of the law.  On August 25, 1873 he was arrested by Officer Kierns “while in the act of carrying off about $100 worth of books” from Harper Brothers publishing, as reported by The Sun.   At the police station he “feigned convulsions.”  When that ploy did not work, he offered Harper $10 “to square” the case.  The Sun reported “He was locked up.”

The ground floor space where Marriott and Jennings had held their bloody rat and dog fights became home to J. Appelgate’s harness shop by 1876.  And in 1895 Samuel Pukulsky’s dairy store was here.  But even the innocent-seeming milk store was corrupt.

Manhattan’s supply of milk came from Brooklyn farms.  Unscrupulous city dealers diluted the milk then added fillers and coloring agents—plaster of Paris and molasses, for instance—to make the “adulterated” product look and taste like wholesome milk.

In August 1895 Samuel Pakulsky pleaded guilty to selling adulterated milk.  The Health Board Inspector testified that Pakulsky’s milk was 7 percent water and “36 percent skim”   Pakulsky’s defended himself to the judge saying “I didn’t know it was skim milk”

Justice Jerome did not buy his excuse, responding “Nonsense” and adding “you, having sold it for years, should be an expert.”  The no-nonsense judge gave Pakulsky a $50 fine (nearly $1,500 today) and ten days in prison.

By 1900 Patrick Charles Murphy operated his bizarre business from the commercial space.  Not only was the Downtown Contracting Co. a construction firm, it did trash removal, undertaking and embalming.

Patrick Charles Murphy advertised his odd concoction of services in The Sun on March 7, 1909 (copyright expired)

Murphy was active in politics and was Vice President of the Seymour Club, a Democratic organization.  On Sunday afternoon, August 5, 1900 the 33-yearold went to Bath Beach, where the club had a beach house, for a swim.  He never returned from the water.

Worried family members went to the beach in search of him.  They discovered that he had “hired a suit at Shields’s bathing pavilion” and there they found his clothes, $83 in cash and his gold watch and chain.  The shore had been full of bathers several of whom said they saw Murphy swimming out to a raft; but no other information was available.

Three days later The New York Times reported that his family and friends “feel sure that he was drowned.”  A diver involved in the search reported that the undertow where Murphy was believed to have gone under was very strong and would have carried the body out very rapidly.

Murphy’s wife and five children eventually mourned him as lost.  Mrs. Murphy had searched every morgue in the area with no results.   Then on September 21, weeks after disappearing, Murphy turned up in Denver.

“According to a dispatch received yesterday from the Chief of Police of Denver by Mrs. Murphy, her husband walked into the police station and announced that he had just discovered his identity.  He was clad in overalls and a jumper, but does not remember where he has been or what he has been doing since Aug. 6,” reported The New York Times.

Mrs. Murphy told reporters that her husband “was inclined to be apoplectic, and was probably stricken while on the beach.”  The Times noted “How, having only a bathing suit, he got to Denver, is a mystery she does not even try to fathom.”

In 1902 the building was declared unsafe by the Department of Buildings and a demolition permit issued.  But necessary repairs were initiated and the old house survived.  A 1905 renovation was most likely responsible for the updated storefront.  Murphy’s odd patchwork of businesses would remain in the building for years.

In the spring of 1915 two enterprising boys in Chicago got the idea that they could make a fortune in banking in the big city of New York.  Their father was a truck driver of modest means; yet the boys had managed to save up $50.  Bennie Harris, 14, and his brother George, 17 years old, arrived in New York with $20 left of their fortune, after paying train fare and other expenses.

The teens took a room at No 47 Madison, paying $4 rent and quickly realized that “getting into the banking business, even with $20 capital, was more difficult than they had expected,” according to The Times later.

So they invested their money in old coins.  They had sold a few of the coins at a small profit when, on Friday night April 23, there was a loud knock on their door.  Policemen rushed into the room and confronted the frightened boys.

“What are you doing with that money there?  This looks like a counterfeiting plant.  Some one tipped us off that there was one here.”

The Harris boys explained their story, which sounded suspicious to the officers.  They were taken in and held overnight before being questioned by Magistrate McQuade in the Tombs Court.  The judge found no evidence of criminal activity, but said to the brothers, “But don’t you think I’d better send you back to Chicago?”

The boys pleaded not to be sent home.  “No, don’t do that.  You see our father is only a teamster and he hasn’t very much money, and we can earn our living here all right.  When times get a little better we will surely get our start in the banking business.”

The judge relented, however “said he would notify their parents and in the meantime keep track of them.”

On September 9, 1927 when P. L. Sperry took this photograph, The Cosmos was operating from street level -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

Before long Nos. 47-49 Madison Street was the last of the old Federal homes left on the block.  The ground floor was home to The Cosmos, a Greek-American printing Company in the 1920s.  By 1961 it was home to Herb Loeb’s grocery called the Shoppers’ Market, then John’s Bargain Store and, after that, a hardware store.

In the 1980s the building was owned by the nearby St. James’Church and the ground floor used as a Christian Fellowship meeting place.  In 1985 the church converted the house to a women’s homeless shelter with 19 beds on the first floor, and kitchen, dining room and office on the second floor.  The turn of the century storefront was removed, replaced by a residential-looking façade.

Trouble came in 2011 when a caller telephoned in a complaint that there was an overcrowded night club operating without a license.  A similar complaint was lodged on May 7, 2013.  Department of Buildings records described the complaint as “St. James Church owns building, women’s shelter, now nightclub and party venue, rented with minors, with alcohol being served, over capacity.”  The church did offer live music in its fellowship hall, which may have prompted the neighbors’ complaints. 

The relic of the first years of the 19th century has survived not only time, but a most colorful and sometimes bizarre history.

photographs by the author

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