Friday, October 20, 2017

The Home of a Murderer's Moll - Nos. 167-169 Ninth Avenue

Combined as a single building today, Nos. 167 and 169 on the corner were built with No. 165 (also painted yellow at left) in 1845.
Highly important in the development of Chelsea, Don Alonzo Cushman completed three matching houses at the southwest corner of Ninth Avenue and 20th Street in 1845.  Each two bays wide and four stories high, they were designed in popular Greek Revival style.  No. 169 at the corner had a shop in the first floor, with the residential entrance located at No. 400 West 20th Street.

The initial store--a puzzling combination of candy shop and oyster bar--did not last long.  On April 15, 1847 an auction was held on site.  The announcement offered

At 169 Ninth Avenue, Chelsea, the store fixtures and moveables of a confectionery and oyster saloon of the first class, consisting of white marble top and black walnut table counters with marble tops, chairs, glasses, glass jars, show cases, soda fountain, counter scales, and all the requisite articles necessary for carrying on the business.

Also included was the oilcloth floor covering "in one piece" for $110 (a little over $3,000 today).  The announcement noted "The above have been recently purchased and are almost equal to new."

Within five years a shop had been carved into the street level of No. 167 next door.  By 1852 it was the office of James N. Wells and William Roome, real estate agents.  A close friend of Clement Clarke Moore, Wells had been active in developing Chelsea since about 1832.  Now Roome & Wells was the district's most important real estate operator.

Roome & Wells remained in the building at least through 1867, offering not only houses and stores (on March 18, 1854 it advertised for sale "a four story brown stone front house, situated in Twenty-second street, finished in the best manner, with all the modern improvements"), but undeveloped plots.  In March 1864, for instance, they advertised "To Let--A plot of ground, on corner of Eleventh avenue and Thirtieth street, 50 by about 370 feet, with a dock on one side, suitable for the lumber business."

(Well's name survived as the real estate firm of James N. Wells until 1989, when it became Stribling Wells & Gay.)

In the meantime, the upper floors of both houses were being operated as boarding houses by 1865.  That year Christina Troutt, a teacher at Primary School No. 27 on 37th Street near Tenth Avenue, lived in No. 169, as did Rubert Curran.  He was a sexton of the nearby St. Peter's Church and ran his undertaking business from store space.

No. 167 had similar boarders, like Kate E. Chatman, who taught in the Primary Department of Public School No. 38 on Clarke Street near Broome; Frederick Beck, a boot dealer; roofer James Kennedy; and Ebenezer W. McCord, a mason.  In 1870 the shop space formerly occupied by Roome & Wells was now the grocery of James C. Hull.

Living among the blue collar workers and school teachers in No. 167 in 1873 was 21-year old Maggie Jourdan, who listed her occupation as housekeeper.   But she was much more interesting than that. 

Maggie was described by The New York Herald as "a small woman...of very fragile make, with a thin, pinched face, delicate features, rather sallow complexion, large dark eyes and black hair, which she wears in a simple coil."  She was engaged to William J. Sharkey, described by Police Chief George Washington Walling later as "a pickpocket, a gambler, a notorious bank burglar, a politician of no mean influence."  And, most importantly, "the murderer of Robert S. Dunn."

William J. Sharkey - from Recollections of a New York Chief of Police, by George Washington Walling (copyright expired)

Deeply infatuated, Maggie looked past his flaws and focused on his looks and flashy wardrobe.  According to The New York Herald, she said "Billy was the most beautiful man in New York when he slung that fur overcoat."   During the four months he was incarcerated in The Tombs awaiting sentencing she visited him every day.  But her visit on November 19, 1873 would end in headlines nationwide. 

Maggie carried a bag when she arrived at The Tombs just before visiting hours at 10:00 that morning.  She received her visitor's ticket, and went in.  A few minutes later Sarah Allen, known to the newspapers as Mrs. "Wes" Allen, arrived supposedly to visit her brother-in-law. 

In his 1887 book Recollections of a New York Chief of Police George Washington Walling admitted "If the keeper who was at the door when Maggie Jourdan entered and was given her ticket of exit had searched this bright young woman more thoroughly, he might have discovered that she carried on her person, not one set of raiment, but two."

She also carried a copy of the cell door lock.  It was later discovered that she had taken a wax impression of the lock and, assisted by Sharkey's cohorts, managed to make the duplicate.

Sharkey rapidly shaved off his mustache and put on the female attire.  Using Sarah Allen's pass, he walked out of the cell.  Keeper Phillips recognized Maggie as she passed.  Walling wrote "This second woman was dressed in a dark woollen dress, black cloak, and an Alpine hat.  She wore a thick green veil, which she kept close to her face.  She was large and rather masculine in appearance."

Murderer William J. Sharkey walks out of prison in women's clothing.  from The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and its Mysteries (1874), copyright expired

An hour later Sarah attempted to leave.  When asked for her ticket she fumbled about then exclaimed, "Why, I must have lost it."  She was detained and a search of the cells was initiated.   Sharkey's cell door was found open and his clothing lay strewn about the floor.  Sarah was arrested.  She insisted that Maggie Jourdan must have picked her pocket to get the ticket.

Maggie was arrested and held at $10,000 bail--more than $205,000 today.   Police commissioners were confident that the "had the strongest evidence in the world against Maggie Jourdan," according to The New York Herald on November 21.

While Maggie awaited trial, Sharkey apparently hid out in New York for about three or four weeks.  Eventually he escaped under the alias of Campbell aboard a small schooner, finally ending up in Havana.

Maggie Jourdan at her trial in January 1874.  from The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and its Mysteries (1874), copyright expired

On January 1, 1874 Maggie Jourdan's trial began.  Its conclusion sent waves of shock across the nation.   Her lawyer, known as Big Bill Howe, was a member of the highly successful criminal law firm of Hummel and Howe.  Despite overwhelming evidence against her, he managed to instill doubt.  The trial ended in a hung jury and Maggie was set free.

Justice was served not by the courts, but by her lover.  Maggie Jourdan traveled to Havana in 1876 to be with Sharkey.  According to George Washington Walling, "The girl's devotion, however, was but poorly rewarded.  With base ingratitude he soon began to ill-use her.  To his harsh treatment she at first submitted, but when it continued day after day her infatuation ceased, and indignant at Sharkey's insults she left the man for whom she had perilled [sic] so much, and returned to New York."

In the meantime, although the boarders in both houses continued to be working class, the accommodations were comfortable.  An advertisement on July 18, 1873 offered "Two elegant suits of four rooms each, well lighted and every convenience" in the corner building.  The following year "An elegant corner floor, of four rooms, No. 400 West Twentieth street, fronting grounds of Episcopal College, in complete order, with gas fixtures, stationary tubs, water closets, &c." was available.

Alfred T. and Susie W. Bricher lived in the house that year.  Their 2-year old son Herbert Adams Bricher, died on March 28.  The toddler's funeral was held in their rooms two days later.

There were four residents in No. 167 in 1877:  Patrick J. Meagher; William H. Newman, whose furniture store was at No. 302 Eighth Avenue; iceman Calvin Oakes; and Joseph Ahague.

from White, Stokes & Allen's Guide and Select Directory, 1885 (copyright expired)

In the 1880s the corner store was home to H. Carsten's "fancy grocery" store.  It was taken over by the mid-1890s by Henry F. Schnitker.  Because he also sold wine he was required to have a liquor license.  It was about this time that Nos. 167 and 169 were joined internally and the top floors raised to full height.

Part of the 1890s conversion to an apartment house was this impressive entry on West 20th Street and the interesting iron railings.

Among the residents at the turn of the century were Albert N. Whitesell and his wife.   On October 4, 1900 Mrs. Whitesell fell for a scam still popular among thieves today.   She allowed man claiming to be an inspector for a gas company into the apartment.  The New York Times reported "He passed through the rooms examining the burners, and then, pronouncing everything in good condition, went out."  Mrs. Whitesell almost immediately noticed her jewel case was open and a diamond pin, valued at $150, was missing.

She called the elevator boy who found the man on the third floor.  "The man tried to run, but the boy grabbed him, and they fought all the way down the stairs, while Mrs. Whitesell fled to the street, shouting for help," said The Times.  A policeman arrested Arthur Somerville and as he took him away, Mrs. Whitesell caught up with them.

She promised not to appear against the crook in court if he would just return her pin.  The thief handed it over, but Officer Dierkes grabbed it first.  He told her he "could not allow such a bargain."  Mrs. Whitesell went home, Somerville was held on $1,000, and Mrs. Whitesell was issued a summons to appear in court.

Her bad luck continued seven months later when she took a Sunday trip to the New Jersey Palisades.  She was a passenger on scenic trolley that, as described by The Sun, started at "the Fort Lee ferry, climbs the Palisades, makes long loops around the ridges of the cliff and then runs along the top of the Palisades." 

The two-car trolley was designed to seat 84 "pleasure seekers."  There were 97 aboard the trolley Mrs. Whitesell rode in.   At the bottom of a steep hill there was a sharp curve, and the over-burdened trolley overturned.   Many passengers jumped for their lives, others were thrown to the ground and "the passengers jammed on top of them."  Among the sixteen injured who were taken to the Englewood Hospital was Mrs. Whitesell, who suffered back and head bruising.

F. H. Schnitker's grocery store was still in the corner shop in 1903, while next door was the butcher shop of John H. Roeder.  Schnitker's would be replaced by the Empire Hotel Supply Co. by 1914, a wholesale butcher shop.

from the New York Hotel Record, October 1914 (copyright expired)

The Empire Hotel Supply would remain in the corner shop into the 1920s.  For the most part the upstairs residents were respectable and law-abiding--like the family of John Rush who celebrated the wedding of their daughter Sara, to Herbert R. Conner in September 1920.   But not everything was so joyful in the apartments.  The following month tragedy occurred.

The New York Herald reported on October 16, "Leaving two notes, one to her mother in Switzerland expressing regret for her act and the other saying she was tired of life, Annie Fisher, 24 years old, shot herself in the head and was instantly killed in a room" here.

One resident who brought unwanted publicity to the address was theatrical producer Ned Jakobs.  Born Nachem Jakobs in The Netherlands, he came to the U.S. about 1916.   His amazing list of talents included his ability to speak 10 languages, play the violin, and sing.

He married actress Marietta O'Brien in 1928, apparently the same year the 35-year old moved into No. 400 West 20th Street.  It was also the year he produced two Broadway plays, The Money Lender, and Houseboat on the Styx.  But trouble was looming in the wings.

Unaware he was married, in July 1928 Beatrice Barry gave him $5,000 to purchase a house in Queens, New York.   According to one newspaper the widow explained "He had promised he would marry her about Oct. 15, and told her he would need the $5,000 to bind the contract for the house."

The $5,000 was only the beginning.  Within a period of five months she gave him a total of $41,000 before he admitted that he had no intention of marrying her.    Mrs. Barry had Jakobs arrested on a charge of grand larceny.  When Assistant District Attorney George Carney found out he was not a U.S. citizen, he managed to have his bail increased from $5,000 to $15,000.

On January 23, 1929, as she waited for her day in court, Mrs. Barry told reporters she "had received at least three telephone calls from women who told her Jakobs had obtained money from them."

Simultaneously another woman, Dorothy E. Huyett Jakobs, filed suit, claiming to be his common law wife.  That case dragged on until October 1935 when a court ruled that she was, indeed, his legal wife.  One might assume it caused tension within the domestic relations of Ned and Marietta

The last quarter of the 20th century saw a significant decline in the Chelsea neighborhood.  Crime was on the rise and side streets were at times dangerous after nightfall.  On August 4, 1978 33-year old Najia Nieves was working alone in her father's grocery store at No. 167 Ninth Avenue.  Two robbers entered the store with guns drawn.  The feisty woman struggled with one of the crooks, and suffered a bullet wound in the arm.  They got away with $500.

But a turnaround in the neighborhood was on the horizon.  On May 6, 1998 Florence Fabricant, writing in the Food Section of The New York Times, said "Chelsea continues to rise as a venue for restaurants and food shops, with the spotlight focused increasingly along the former food deserts of Ninth and Tenth Avenues."  She pointed out the newly-opened La Begamote, "a very French pastry shop and cafe" at No. 169 Ninth Avenue.

The cafe remained in the corner shop until 2012 when Bocca di Bacco opened.  Time Out magazine described the Italian restaurant as "clubbily furnished" and offering "homey dishes like spaghetti and meatballs."

Patrons sitting down to a plate of pasta, or residents signing a lease for an apartment upstairs, could have no clue that the building was once home to one of America's most notorious criminal molls.

photographs by the author

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