Monday, May 29, 2017

The Lost New York Turkish Bath - 13-15 Laight Street

Around 1855 Dr. Trall expanded into the taller No. 13 Laight Street. The original double-wide Georgian mansion doubled as his residence.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
By 1807 Trinity Church had transformed the boggy, snake and mosquito infested tract bordered by Beach, Hudson, Varick and Laight Streets into the elegant St. John's Park.  Fine brick mansions faced the square, its focal point being the magnificent Georgian-style St. John's Chapel.

Although the neighborhood remained exclusive in 1850, wealthy homeowners were already moving northward.  That year Dr. Russell Thacher Trall converted the handsome, double-wide mansion at No 15 Laight Street to his "Water-Cure Institute."  Simultaneously he opened a "country" facility.  His advertisement on October 23 explained "Dr. Trall receives Patients at the commodious City establishment, 15 Laight-st. and at Oyster Bay, L.I.  Communication daily between these places by steamboat and railroad."  Dr. Trall's consultations did not come cheaply.  The $5 fee would be about $157 today.

Trall quickly added a Medical School to his institute.  The lecture room was frequently used by outside speakers.  On November 21, 1854 Dr. J. E. Snodgrass spoke here on "The Curiosities of Science."

Within five years Trall took over the abutting house at No. 13 Laight Street.  The combined buildings now served as his Hydropathic and Hygienic Institute--a combination hospital, medical school and "water-cure" establishment.

Russell Thacher Trall --from the collection of the Ernest Bell Library

The water cure, a precursor to today's hydrotherapy, was considered more spiritual and natural than contemporary medicine.  Practitioners believed that water (the major component of the body) would enter wounds and imperfections in the skin and flush out impurities.  This was done by various methods--"plunging baths," "sitting baths," and "head baths" among them.  Only cold water was used.

Trall was also an enthusiast of vegetarianism and founded the New-York Vegetarian Society in October 1852.  At its second meeting in the Water Cure Institute in November Trall announced that there were now 25 members.

Another group that used the lecture room as its meeting place was the Women's City Temperance Alliance.  At its meeting on the afternoon of December 9, 1853, the members voiced concern that propaganda from anti-Temperance groups linked them with Women's Rights organizations.  A resolution was adopted that read:

Resolved, That this Alliance is in no sense a Woman's Rights movement--we neither adopt its principles, nor endorse its measures, but have organized ourselves with a Society for the one great object of aiding the progress and securing the triumph of the Temperance Reform, by the use of all the means in our power.

In the meantime, the Hydropathic and Hygienic Institute proved successfully.  An 1855 advertisement said that 100 patients could be accommodated.  The Institute was not limited to the water cure.  Among the staff were Mrs. L. F. Fowler, in charge of female diseases and obstetrics; L. N. Fowler, an expert in phrenology and mental science; and surgeon G. H. Taylor.

The medical school promised not only to "qualify male and female practitioners of Healing Art, but also to educate and send into the field of human progress, competent Health-reform, Teachers and Lecturers."  Tuition was $50 for a six-month course, or $100 for students boarding at the school.

Despite the upscale tenor of the neighborhood, Dr. Trall was surprisingly attacked on August 23, 1855.  The New York Times reported "As Dr. R. T. Trall, the Vegetarian, was returning from a visit to the sick bed of a friend...while near St. John's Park, he was violently assaulted by two rowdies, one of whom struck him with a slung-shot, which felled him to the earth.  After lying in a state of insensibility for some time, he managed to get to his house, No. 15 Laight street, where he now lies in a very critical condition."

Out-of town clients taking the water cure could board at the Institute.  An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on November 22, 1859 explained "Good board can be obtained from $5 to $7 per week.  Full treatment, with board, from $7 to $15 per week.  Transient persons $1 per day.  Gymnasium and Bathing privileges for the use of guests free of charge."

Another trend was emerging at the time--Russian and Turkish "vapor baths."  In 1865 a Parisian physician named Buisson, wrote in The Medical and Surgical Reporter "When a person has been bitten by a mad dog, he should be made to take seven of the so-called Russian Vapor baths."  The doctor explained that the resulting perspiration would sweat out the infection.  He added that the same would work for a rattlesnake or tarantula bite.

Another expert, Dr. Laurence Turnbull, wrote a paper on "Diseases of the Internal Ear" that year.  He concluded, in part, "Finally, here belong all those cases of hardness of hearing which have happened to be relieved by the use of Russian vapor baths."

In February 1865 two doctors, A. L. Wood and E. P. Miller took over Dr. Trall's operation, opening The New York Hygienic Institute the following month, the first Turkish bath in Manhattan.  Later that year Erasmus Wilson, in his The Eastern, or, Turkish Bath, wrote "By far the most complete baths that have yet been erected in this country, are those at 13 Laight St., New York City, by Miller, Wood & Co., first opened to the public in March, 1865.  They are already patronized very largely by the most cultivated and intelligent people of New York.  They were the first to introduce Shampooing, and, in fact, this is a very important part of the process, and has high value."

Laight Street was misleadingly depicted as quiet and residential in 1872.  The new owners added a sign "Turkish Baths" to the side.  The Herald of Health, July 1872 (copyright expired)

The Turkish bath used heat, steam and cold plunges to cure an almost endless list of maladies, including malaria, gout, rheumatism, diabetes, hysteria, "female weaknesses," epilepsy, hypochondria, paralysis, influenza, lameness, and dysentery.

Wilson pointed out that women would benefit greatly from the treatments.  "Physically their habits are so much worse; their skin so much weaker; circulation so much more languid; dress so much more confining, and perspiration so rarely well performed, that it becomes to them a necessity, and one of the greatest luxuries they can enjoy."

The fact that Miller, Wood & Co. published Wilson's book make his glowing review a bit suspect.

Clients descended a flight of stairs to the Frigidarium--a "nice, comfortable room, filled with easy chairs, and lined around with little curtained apartments."  Those "apartments" were the 10 changing rooms where a "bath garment" was put on.   Called a cummerbund, it was a rectangular piece of red cloth.  "This is tied artistically over the right shoulder, passing under the left one, and descends about to the knee," explained Wilson.

So dressed, the patron moved on to the warm-air Tepidarium and sat upon upholstered lounges.  Attendants then wrapped a wet towel around the client's forehead and placed his feet in a tub of warm water.  The room was lit by the soft light of stained glass windows.  Once perspiration began to appear, the patron was moved to the next room--the Sudatorium, or "hot place."

One client sits in the Tepidarium, at left, while others recline in the Sudatorium, then shower.  The Eastern, or, Turkish Bath, 1865 (copyright expired)

Each client was stretched out on a couch.  "There you lie till bathed in a profuse perspiration, and you are wet with tears of sweat."  Attendants then shampooed and massaged the body "till all the old skin is gone."  A soapy sponge bath followed by a shower brought the body temperature down.

The procedure was not over yet.  Another brisk rub down followed, then a trip back to the Tepidarium for further cooling, then back to the Frigidarium.  Clients sat wrapped in a "good, motherly, soft, woolen blanket" until ready to go back to their daily routine.

The Rev. W. C. Van Meter gave a glowing recommendation in The Little Wanderer's Friend in 1864.  "The perspiration that does not exhaust, the rubbing that electrifies, the shower-bath more refreshing than a summer shower upon withered plants, the wrapping in clean white soft woolen blankets, the reclining in 'extension chairs,' surpass the most luxurious dream."

As had been the case with Dr. Trall's operation, patrons could board here.  On November 3, 1865 The New York Times mentioned that Virginia Paine Grant, the sister of General Ulysses S. Grant, and two companions "have been spending several days at the Hygiene Institute, Nos. 13 and 15 Laight-street."

Dr. Miller left to open Dr. Miller's Turkish Baths on West 26th Street before 1872.  Wood & Holbrook continued to run the Laight Street operation.  That year they boasted that its "boarding department" was "supplied with the Best Kinds of Food, Healthfully Prepared, and Plenty of it." Clients taking advantage of the accommodations and treatments paid from $15 to $25 per week; as much as $500 in today's dollars.

But the Turkish bath phenomena seems to have been fading.  By 1877 Wood and Holbrook were focusing on publishing its popular magazine The Herald of Health, from the Laight Street location, along with books like the somewhat sensational The Relations of the Sexes by Mrs. E. B. Duffey.  The author touched on subjects like the history, evils, causes and remedies of prostitution, "marriage and its abuses," polygamy, "free love and its evils," and chastity.

Other titles published by Wood & Holbrook that year were The Change of Life; What Young People Should Know; Advice to a Wife; and The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation.

The Hygienic Institute was now advertised as the Hygienic Hotel.  An advertisement in 1874 said it "combines all the advantages of a good hotel and home with those of a first-class health institution."

By now the elegant St. John's Park had been demolished by the Hudson River Railroad Company and replaced by a freight terminal.  Instead of the handsome dwellings, loft buildings now closed in around Nos. 13 and 15 Laight Street.   The one next door at Nos. 9 and 11 Laight Street caught fire on during a fierce gale on March 12, 1888.  Four fire companies battled the fire, the New York Times noting they "saved the surrounding property which was in great danger for a time."  Nevertheless, the newspaper pointed out that there was "slight damage to the Hygienic Hotel."

Within a few years Helen C. Julliard purchased and demolished the old buildings and erected a six-story brick warehouse.  It, the old freight depot, and all the buildings around the site of what had been St. John's Park were razed in the early 1920s to make way for the entrance to the new Holland Tunnel.


  1. "slung shot" is not a misprint for slingshot. a slung shot was a lead shot ball in a knotted cord or stitched leather sling - a form of blackjack.