Monday, February 10, 2020

The Lost "Mott Street Barracks" - 308-318 Mott Street

When famous reformer Jacob A. Riis took this photograph, the owner had installed an impressive cornice and flower boxes to disguise the squalid conditions inside.  How The Other Half Lives, 1901 (copyright expired)

Born in Ireland, stonemason Martin Walsh lived on Mott Street between Bleecker and Houston Streets in the 1850's, when he began construction on six tenement buildings on the same block, Nos. 308 through 318.  There were two three-room apartments per floor.  One room had a window, the other two did not.  Just five feet away in the rear was a second, shorter building.  The closeness of the two structures limited the light and air within the rear rooms.  To make conditions worse, there was no plumbing and all tenants emptied their waste in latrines in the cellar.

Reformer Jacob A. Riis included a sketch of the "yard" in his 1892 The Children of the Poor (copyright expired)

Within a decade of the buildings' completion they had jointly earned the reputation as one of the worst tenements in the city.  Called The Barracks, the complex was not only the scene of suffering and and disease; but within its walls crime, poverty and violence festered.

Living here in 1863 was Peter Gannon, his wife, Ann, and their son, James, whose age was estimated by The New York Times as "between eight and nine years."  Like many of his neighbors, Gannon drank heavily and physically abused his wife, especially when he was drunk.

Around 6:00 on the evening of March 13 Gannon came home intoxicated.  Apparently unprovoked, he began kicking Ann violently.  The woman crawled into a corner where he kicked her again.  James sat beside her for a while, then despite his young age, realized his mother was in serious trouble.  He ran down the street to notify his uncle, Ann's brother, that she was dying.  While he was gone Peter kicked Ann two more times--once in the back and again in the stomach.

Seeing Ann's condition, the brother left to find a policeman.  In his absence Gannon fled, telling his son to say he had simply gone to buy milk.  According to James later, he also warned him "not to say he saw him kick his mother."

According to The New York Times, at the station house Gannon pinched James on the hand "and told him not to tell anything about it."  The little boy had more courage than his father gave him credit for.  Before the coroner's jury he told of Gannon's brutal history.  "Witness further testified that his father had frequently beaten his mother, sometimes with a stick, sometimes with his hands, and sometimes he would kicker her; at one time he beat her with a bench upon her head," reported The Times.  Gannon was convicted of murder.

So notorious was the tenement that on June 1, 1877 The New York Times entitled one article "The 'Barracks' Again."  The article said "A fight took place last night in the building known as the 'Barracks,' No. 310 Mott street, between two Italians named Jose Cario and Carl Mariana, during which Cario drew a knife and stabbed Mariana three times in the back."

Children born in The Barracks had little chance of rising about their circumstances.  They learned to make a living by theft, con games and other crimes.  Among them was Blanche Douglass.  As soon as she was old enough she turned to prostitution.   In the summer of 1881 two well-to-do young cousins from New Haven, Connecticut, James and Walter Malley, came to the city  for less than respectable reasons.  The New York Telegram later said "Blanche Douglas was a dissolute woman, well known in the New York Tenderloin" and that "the Malley boys had made her acquaintance while on one of their roystering trips to the metropolis."

The Malleys "were both young society men," said the article, "Walter the son of a wealthy dry goods merchant."  The three commenced an unpredictable friendship and Blanche accompanied the men back to New Haven.  She proved to be a bad influence.

At some point they lured Jennie Cramer, the 19-year old daughter of an affluent cigar manufacturer, into their web. Blanche and Walter had become romantically--or at least sexually--involved and Jennie was now wooed by James.   But Blanche had other plans.

As dawn broke on August 4 a few men on a pier on the Long Island Sound discovered the body of a woman face down in the water.  The New York Telegram reported "The body was dressed in white and a hat with ostrich feathers was still upon the head."  It was Jennie Cramer.

An investigation soon pointed to Blanche and the Malley boys.  The three were arrested and a month-long trial ensued.  But Blanche had a overwhelming ability to charm men and from the beginning she received preferential treatment.  The New York Times reported on August 30 "There has been to-day almost a popular outcry against the authorities because this Blanche Douglass has not been sent to jail instead of being pampered at the private residence of Sheriff Peck."  And despite overwhelming circumstantial evidence, all three were acquitted.

It was not the last newspaper readers would hear of Blanche Douglass.  Back in New York she returned to the Barracks where a "tough" named Edward Hanley saw an opportunity.  The 28-year old was described by The Sun as "Blanche Douglass's unprofitable follower for years."  He stole love letters written by Walter Malley from Blanche's trunk and set out to blackmail him.

Then on April 1, 1885 The Evening Telegram reported that a young Philadelphia man, Harry Risbard, had spent time in the room of a woman who called herself Johanna Ryan.  When he got back to his hotel he realized he had been robbed of a diamond scarf pin, his pocketbook, and his gold watch.   He took a policeman back to the room where it happened.  "Policeman Shields at once recognized the stylish Johanna as the notorious Blanche Douglass, considered by the police the most skillful pickpocket and confidence woman in New York," said the article.

The newspaper wondered if the charges would stick.  "Blanche has a reputation of the very worst, and, although arrested almost numberless times for offences of this character, has managed to elude the law in every case...She was mixed up in the Fitpatrick-Norton shooting cast not long ago.  Both of the men were policemen and in love with 'Big Blanche,' as she is sometimes called."  That incident ended in Norton being killed and Fitpatrick going to prison.

John J. McCarthy, known on the street as Dolly McCarthy, had a reputation equal to that of Blanche.  On the evening of December 21, 1881 he was arrested for the stabbing murder of Pasquale Lavarino on the sidewalk just outside The Barracks.  The man had been in this country only three days.  In the fight his brother, Antonio, and cousin, Pasquale, were "dangerously cut," according to the Albany Evening Journal.

McCarthy, who was just 23-years old at the time, confessed to using a butcher knife to kill the immigrant man.  He was sent to prison for twelve years.  But seven years into his sentence new evidence came to light when John Luby made a deathbed confession.  The Evening Journal explained "McCarthy and Luby were intimate friends, and the former felt bound not to expose Luby after Luby had attempted to defend him and went to prison in Luby's stead."

He would be back, however.  In 1889, within a year of his release, he murdered another man.  The Evening Post recounted that "in a race war between the Irish and Italians in the Mott Street barracks...he stabbed four or five Italians, killing one."  The warring gangs had been fighting for some time when McCarthy became aware of it.  "It was the Italians who first drew knives," said the article, "but McCarthy ran out of the barracks to a grocery store, seized a cheese-knife, and coming back, outdid the Italians with his long weapon which he swung more like a club than a stiletto.  He was sentenced to Sing Sing for four years for that."

In the meantime, despite it's location within view of the Board of Health offices attached to the Police Headquarters building, The Barracks continued as perhaps the worst tenement in the city.  The 1888 census showed 360 tenants, of which 40 were infants.

It served as an example for a Massachusetts inspector in the Report of the Chief of the Massachusetts District Police in 1891.  He said "Perhaps no clearer illustration of the gross evils of the system can be given than a brief description of what is locally known as the Mott Street Barracks."  He called the narrow space between the front and rear buildings where children played "filthy in the extreme" and said "It is stated that in summer crowds of inmates camp out on the flat roofs.  Naked children make a playground of the halls and stairways, or huddle in the dirt outside.  The Barracks furnish a convenient harbor for thieves and beggars."

The roof supplied the only real source of sunlight and fresh air.  photo by Jacob A. Riis, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
A "free doctor" made a visit to one apartment in The Barracks on June 4, 1894 and The Evening World published his report, which said in part:

The husband and father out of work.  Wife and mother in bed in the last stage of consumption and will soon pass away.  Two little boys, poorly clad, half starved and suffering with bronchitis, which will ere long be consumption.  Nothing in the house to eat.  Nearly all the furniture gone.  No fuel to burn in the rickety little stove.

Reformer Jacob Riis, in his 1892 The Children of the Poor, wrote "The closets [i.e., privies] of all the buildings are in the cellar of the rear houses and open upon this 'yard,' where it is always dark and damp as in a dungeon.  Its foul stenches reach even the top floor."  He pointed out that the death rate among babies here was 32.5 percent--nearly one in three.

Having been hit with 49 violations by the Board of Health, in 1890 the owner hired architects Walgrove & Israels to put lipstick on the pig.  The Lake George News said "the old place was actually scrubbed and painted and a glittering new cornice put on, with a glaring tin front containing '1890' in figures a foot long.  But just the same the old structure is as foul as it was forty years ago and so full of Italians that it literally overflows, for in hot weather they sleep on the sidewalks and on the roof."

The article brought up a familiar figure again.  "In that structure the once noted Blanche Douglass was reared...Blanche and an old blind beggar who called her his daughter long occupied one of the dark little rear rooms, and in the same house she was found by the police after the tragedy in company with Hanley, the tough who was concocting a great blackmailing scheme, of which the Malley boys were to be the victims."

At the time rents ranged from $6 per month on the dark, lower floors, and $9 "up where the windows let in a little light," according to a newspaper.  The more expensive rooms cost the tenants the equivalent of $265 a month today.

On September 17, 1896 the Health Department sent a letter to Petro Rosa informing him that it "desires to acquire title to the rear building."  The politely worded correspondence was more of an order than a request.  It went on to say the Department "hereby offers to you for your interest of said buildings the sum of One ($1) Dollar, in consideration of the conveyance." 

On December 31 that year the back buildings were "ordered vacated and condemned by the Board of Health as unfit for human habitation."  The hope was that when the structures were razed the influx of sunlight and air would greatly improve conditions in the main buildings.  Even Jacob A. Riis was somewhat mollified.  In an article in the June 1900 issue of The American Monthly Review of Reviews he said "Then came the wreckers, and tore down the rear houses.  Where they stood the sun shines in now, and the children play."

The Mott Street Barracks was demolished in 1901--but not before Blanche Douglass appeared in newspapers one more time.  The Evening Telegram printed a startling article on October 21 reporting "Walter Malley, principal of the most noted murder trial in New England, has married Blanche Douglass, who shared in the trial."  The New Haven Evening Journal added "Malley is a millionaire bachelor, and the fact that he never married has been regarded as the result of the notoriety gained in the Jennie Cramer murder trial...He is the proprietor of the largest department store of this city."

The Mott Street Barracks was replaced by a modern apartment building which survives.

photo via

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