Saturday, October 17, 2015

Crime and Heartbreak -- Nos. 228-230 West 18th Street

In 1856 the residents along the block of West 18th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue most likely took little notice when Isaac Tendall purchased the properties stretching from No. 224 to 230.  But he no doubt got their attention six years later when he erected two tenement buildings on the site—Nos. 224-226 and 228-230.

The Chelsea citizens had every cause to be concerned.  In the early Civil War years the neighborhood was already slowly changing from an upper-middle class neighborhood to a more working-class one.  Several of the commodious townhouses were being operated as boarding houses.  But apartment buildings carried the stigma of poverty and crime.

The five-story building at Nos. 228-230 West 18th Street brought little attention to itself in its early years, however.  When John B. B. Yates died here on Monday, May 29, 1865 at the age of 52, his funeral was held in his apartment four days later.  It was the only sort of publicity the building would draw for many years.

James Buck lived here in 1880 when he was standing nearby at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 19th Street on the morning of August 29.  The 25-year old was apparently preoccupied when a horse-drawn fire engine came dashing up the avenue to what turned out to be a false alarm of fire.  Before he could react, Buck was knocked off his feet and severely cut on his right side.

Before long the tenant list would include a more worrisome group.  Daniel Russell lived here in 1887.  He was in the crowd watching a parade on Saturday June 18 that year when he caught the attention of Detective Price.   While one spectator focused on the marchers, Russell removed his pocket watch.

Price took chase.  “The pickpocket, as he ran, threw away a silver and a brass watch,” reported The Sun two days later.  Detective Price was a faster runner than Russell.  “He was collared” and locked up in the Jefferson Market Court.

Also in the building that year was the Gebhardt family.  Two of the brothers were members of the militia--groups that would become today's National Guard--and were often seen coming and going in uniform.  It was a situation that caused friction between them and another resident, 45-year old Frederick Lamann.  The Evening World described Lamann as a self-proclaimed “Anarchist and a bitter foe to the militia and the police.”

The military uniforms irritated Lamann and led to repeated, heated verbal exchanges.  The World wrote “The militia uniform worn by the two Gebhardts seems to have been an eyesore to Lamann, who openly expressed himself with what contempt he looked upon them.”  The brothers understandably took offense to the anarchist’s insults.  “Disputes arose frequently between Lamann and the Gebhardt brothers regarding the expressions used by the former.”

The clash of ideologies came to a head on the night of December 1 and nearly resulted in the destruction of the apartment building.  At around 7:00 Lamann returned home intoxicated.  He “staggered into the house, and while stumbling up the stairs cursed the Gebhardt brothers and threatened all sorts of mischief,” reported the newspaper.

On the first landing he ran into Frederick, the youngest of the Gebhardt boys.  Lamann shouted a curse and sprang at the boy.  Instead of retreating, Gebhardt stood his ground and when Lamann was within an arm’s length, he landed his fist on Lamann’s nose, knocking him down.

Indignant, drunk and enraged, Lamann got to his feet and continued to his apartment.  He lit an oil lamp and carried it back down to the Gebhardt apartment.   Frederick heard the commotion of his attacker coming down the stairs and opened the apartment door.

“No sooner did he make an appearance than Lamann threw the lighted lamp at him,” reported The Evening World.  Frederick dodged, escaping injury; but the lamp smashed against the wall.   The burning oil spread across the floor and walls.  Other tenants rushed to the street and notified two policemen who extinguished the fire.

After a vigorous struggle, they arrested Lamann.  His defense to the judge was that he had been attacked first.  He was fined $10 (in the neighborhood of $250 today).

The Kendall family commissioned esteemed architects Lamb & Rich to design a rear building at Nos. 228-230 in July 1889.  It was most likely at this time that the façade was updated.  Looking more like factory than residence, the Romanesque Revival front was clad in brown-red brick with minimal terra cotta accents.  The Kendalls spent no unnecessary money on ornamentation—most of the decorative details being executed in brick.

The foliate terra cotta band was among the few decorations the Kendalls agreed to.
The surnames of the residents were now heavily Italian and Irish, reflecting the immigrant population that had recently spread north from the Greenwich Village neighborhood.  Truck driver Jeremiah McCarthy was among them in 1890.  He was employed in the stable of T. F. Brown on Bank Street.

On Sunday night, November 23, he left his 18th Street apartment and headed to work.  He did not get far.  McCarthy was found injured on the sidewalk in front of No. 18 Eighth Avenue and taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital.

After spending the night in the hospital, he went to work on Monday.  His co-workers noticed he was dazed as he explained he had been hospitalized.  “Then he lapsed into unconsciousness,” reported The Sun on November 26.  He was returned to St. Vincent’s where he died two days later “from compression of the brain.”  The newspaper’s headline read ‘How He Was Hurt Not Known.”

The immigrant Volomino family lived in the rear of the building in 1898.  Little Joseph, just 15 months old, became ill that fall and his 37-year old mother, Angela, was instructed to give him castor oil when necessary.

On the morning of October 9 Angela did so, but made a horrifying mistake.  “Instead of giving him castor oil, however, she took a bottle containing carbolic acid and gave him a spoonful of that powerful poison,” reported The New York Times.

The Sun further explained “The bottles which contained the poison and the castor oil were about the same size, and the mother, who is unable to read English, mistook one for the other.”

The frantic woman ran with the baby in her arms to the office of Dr. Joseph E. Messenger at No. 323 West 19th Street.  Recognizing what had happened, he ordered an ambulance from New York Hospital.  The horse-drawn vehicle galloped through the streets with the infant to the hospital.

“Every effort was made to save its life, but the baby died a short time after reaching the hospital,” reported the newspaper.  Its grieving mother, Angela Volomino, was arrested, charged with homicide.

Equally horrifying was the fate of Mrs. Kate Feeley the following year.  Kate had left her husband several years earlier and was working as a servant.  She placed her son, who was 14-years old in 1899, in Father Drumgoole’s mission on Lafayette Place to enable her to work.

Kate was working for the Smith family on West 35th Street.  But after “a quarrel over her wages,” she left that position and moved in temporarily with a friend, Mrs. Sarah Carroll.  Sarah’s apartment was in the rear of the 18th Street building.

Kate immediately looked for a new position and placed an advertisement in a newspaper.  On October 6 a man called, saying he wanted a house keeper during the illness of his wife.  Sarah Carroll later related that he met with Kate and they worked out the terms of employment.  She left supposedly to his house nearby on 17th Street near Seventh Avenue.  She was never heard from again.

Almost two weeks later she was still missing.  The New York Times, on October 11, reported that Sarah Carroll told police “she was sure some harm had befallen the missing woman.  She said that Mrs. Feeley had left her clothes at the house, and that if she were at service she would have sent for them before this.  She also pointed out as peculiar the fact that Mrs. Feeley, who was in the habit of daily visiting her son at the mission, has not been seen by the boy since Oct. 5, the day before she disappeared.”

Most unsettling was that on the day after Kate left with the unknown man, the dismembered parts of a woman turned up in different areas of the city.  Twelve days after her disappearance police felt that victim may be Kate.  On October 18 The Sun reported “The search for Mrs. Kate Feeley, formerly of 230 West Eighteenth street, who it is thought, may have been the woman portions of whose mutilated remains were found in this city, was continued unsuccessfully by the police yesterday.  Mrs. Feeley has dropped completely out of sight, and the conviction is growing with the police that it was she who was butchered.”

Detectives heard more from Sarah Carroll who said that on Friday night, October 6—the day Kate disappeared—“she was in a doze in the back room of her house [when] she heard screams from the vicinity of the houses on Seventeenth Street, that back her premises.”

Sarah said that she initially attributed the screams to a “street row;” but then heard a woman’s voice cry “Don’t, for God’s sake!” followed by unsettling silence.  The Times reported “She is quite convinced that the cry she heard emanated from Mrs. Feeley.”

The police were puzzled, however, by a possible disparity in the case.  “The doctors have also maintained that the dead woman was carefully nurtured and took great care of her personal appearance, which would hardly be the case with a servant.”

Eventually the cases of the butchered woman and the missing Kate Feeley went cold.  Victorian forensic procedures were unable to conclusively link the two crimes.

Life in the 18th Street tenement building continued to be difficult for its tenants.  One year after Kate Feeley went missing 55-year old Mary Barbier lived in a single room on the top floor.  Born in France, she made her living as a lace maker in a factory on West 19th Street.  On the evening of October 19, 1900 she returned to her room here and committed suicide by inhaling gas.

The Times noted “The woman was respected by her neighbors, but kept to herself altogether.”

The harsh life for residents was reflected two years later on July 9, 1902, a day deemed by The New York Times as the hottest day that year.  Sixty-year old Mrs. Splain died of the heat in her apartment that day.

Later that year a resident lost her job as a domestic.  She placed an advertisement in the New-York Tribune on December 4.  “Cook—Competent; good baker; city or country; best reference from last place.”

Patrick Walsh made his living working for the Singer Sewing Machine as a bill collector.  On the morning of August 27, 1907 he was simply trying to do good.  He saw a small boy wander into the street in front of No. 421 West 35th Street just as a truck rumbled down the street toward him.  Not near enough to grab the child, Walsh frantically tried to warn him.

The New-York Tribune reported that he “shouted so loudly and motioned so energetically to the lad to warn him of the danger that he fell to the sidewalk and expired before medical aid could reach him.”  When Dr. Sutton of the New York Hospital arrived, he deemed the cause of death heart failure, brought on by the excitement of trying to rescue the boy.

In 1908 D. R. Kendall updated the four-decade old building again.  He commissioned architect W. J. Conway to do $5,000 worth of alterations that year.

Apparently the renovations did not upgrade the tenant list.  In May 1911 Percy W. Shields was arrested for having stolen perfumes from the high-end store of Park & Tilford.  His relatively long-term pilfering was made possible by an accomplice, a former employee who kept a key.  Shields admitted he had taken as much as $100 worth of perfume a day—amounting to a total haul of $30,000 by the time of his capture.

No doubt the building’s most colorful resident was Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven who moved into a basement apartment in 1921.  Born in Germany, she was a poet and Dadaist artist; but most notably an avant-garde bohemian.  She supported herself by working in a cigarette factory and posing as a model.

Baroness Elsa’s biographer, Irene Gammel, noted “Walter Shaw, a delivery driver, made a special detour to deliver pastries for her animals, for the Baroness was feeding not only her cats and dogs; she was also feeding the rats, refusing to discriminate against social definitions of lower life forms.”

Considered by many to be insane, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven lived in a basement apartment here.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
The poet-artist was once assaulted in the building by a man who attacked her when she opened her apartment door.  She danced nightly at a chop house on 14th Street and was regularly insulted by patrons who considered her eccentric or, worse, insane.  Nevertheless she continued devoting her life to her art.  She moved back to Berlin in 1923 and died penniless four years later in Paris.

After owning the property for six decades, the Kendall family sold Nos. 228-230 West 18th Street in May 1922.  The New-York Tribune generously called the building a Chelsea section landmark.

The lives of the tenants continued to be harsh and often heart-breaking.  Juaquin Casanave was 46 years old in 1927.  A fruit commission agent, he was infatuated with Monserrate Aviles who lived a block away at No. 216 West 19th Street with her married sister.

On the night of February 5 he walked to Monserrate’s building just as she and her sister were leaving.  Casanave asked the woman to join him, and was turned down.  He asked her to step back into the building’s foyer to discuss it.  Monserrate was not interested in dealing with Casanave’s attentions and refused.

Insulted, Casanave pulled out a pistol and fired a shot at the woman.  Thinking he had killed her, he pointed the gun at his own head and fired.  Casanave died instantly.  Monserrate Avilies was taken to the New York Hospital.

At the time of Casanave’s death the New York docks were under the control of organized crime.  Raymond Steino worked as a longshoreman and apparently made enemies of the wrong people.  At around 9:00 on the night of April 8, 1928 the 38-year old stepped out of a café on Mott Street and was gunned down.

The New York Times reported that seven shots had been fired at him.  He was found under the stairway of the house at No. 165 Mott Street where he had crawled for cover.  He told detectives he had no idea who shot him.  “His condition is critical,” reported the newspaper.

Despite the odds, some residents fought desperately to improve their lots in life.   Joseph Cappolino lived here in 1930, earning his rent money as a house painter.  But after work he went to the night modeling class at Cooper Union where he studied sculpture.

In March that year he won the highest award in the sculpture competition of the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design; and in July he was awarded first prize for architectural sculpture in a series of monthly competitions.

In 1962 a tragedy occurred which was eerily similar to the case of Juaquin Casanave and Monserrate Avilies.  Yolanda Cassano lived in the 18th Street building.  The 18-year old had seemingly dated the much older 34-year old Frank Torres, but recently had refused to meet him.

Like Casanave, Torres did not take rejection well.  On the night of February 19, 1962 Yolanda and her 19-year old friend, Lydia Martinez, were emerging from the subway station at Seventh Avenue and 18th Street.  Frank Torres was there waiting.

He fired six shots at the girls, killing Yolanda and seriously wounding Lydia, who suffered two bullet wounds in the back.

The apartment building with its often-gritty, often heart-wrenching history survives on a much-changed West 18th Street.  It has lost its cornice and its replacement windows, like square pegs in round holes, force themselves into the arched openings.  But the riveting stories that played out within its walls are a colorful reminder of a time before Chelsea was the trendy neighborhood it is today.

photographs by the author

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