Friday, August 28, 2020

The J. R. Wardlaw House - 305 West 138th Street

J. R. Wardlaw was a busy man in the late 1880's.  A surveyor for the city, he worked in the rapidly-developing upper sections of Manhattan.  He became a resident of that area, as well.  On April 19, 1890 The New York Statesman ran the announcement: "J. R. Wardlaw is residing at 305 West 138th street, New York City."

Wardlaw's new home was the middle of three identical Queen Anne style homes.  At just 16-feet wide, they were erected for middle-class buyers like him.  Yet at three stories tall above an English basement, they were comfortable and stylish.

Within the year Wardlaw leased the house to Henry H. Bliss.  The deputy librarian at the College of the City of New York, he had married his wife, Evelina, on July 23, 1868.  It was her second marriage, having divorced Robert Swift Livingston.

Also living in the house was Evelina's daughter, Mary Alice Almont Livingston Fleming, and her children.  It was not a tranquil arrangement, with Mary Alice seemingly constantly at odds with her mother and step-father over finances.

Henry Bliss leased the house through 1894.  That year Wardlaw lost it in foreclosure and it was sold to real estate operator Laura A. Hudson for a mere $14,000 (about $41,750 today).  The Bliss family moved to No. 121 Manhattan Avenue.  But the domestic drama was only just beginning.

On the night of August 30, 1895 Evelina and Mary Alice got into another heated argument in Henry's presence.  After dinner Evelina fell violently ill.   A doctor was called who diagnosed "mixed poisoning."

On September 9, 1895 the Glens Falls Daily Times reported "Nine days ago Mrs. Evelina M. Bliss ate some clam chowder.  Five hours after eating it she was dead."  Police launched an investigation and Dr. Henry A. Mott, an analytical chemist, was brought in on the case.  He found "a large amount of arsenic in the stomach of Mrs. Bliss," according to testimony later.

The morning after Evelina's death Mary Alice was arrested "and locked up in the Tombs charged with murdering her mother," said the Glens Falls Daily Times.  An official told the newspaper "There is not the shadow of a doubt that Mrs. Bliss was poisoned by eating clam chowder."

Mary Alice Livingston Fleming The Tully Times, June 27, 1896 (copyright expired)
Mary Alice waited for nine months in jail before the trial began.  On June 8, 1896 her step-father took the stand.  The Evening Telegram described him as "a rather rotund, elderly person, decidedly bald, with a stubby grey moustache."  During his testimony he asserted that "he himself had been sufficiently suspicious of Mrs. Fleming to say to her on the day of the funeral--'Alice, did you poison your mother?'"

The trial lasted seven weeks.  It took the jury just over an hour to reach its verdict--not guilty.  Newspaper readers who had closely followed the trial were no doubt stunned.

It appears that Mary Alice now set out to exact revenge.  She took Henry H. Bliss to court in November, suing for $375 which she claimed he owed her for money she expended while living in No. 305 West 138th Street.  Three years later, on September 14, 1899, the unlucky Henry Bliss was struck and killed by an automobile while getting off a street car on Eighth Avenue at 74th Street.

In the meantime, Laura A. Hudson had leased the 138th Street house to a series of tenants.  In 1897 Isidor Cohen, a manufacturer of women's apparel, lived here; and by 1899 a Mrs. Symons leased the house.  The funeral of her niece, Mrs. George H. Crawford was held in the parlor on December 26 that year.

In the first years of the 20th century No. 305 was a fraternity house.  On October 28, 1914 the weekly newspaper of the College of the City of New York, The Campus, reported "George F. Balland delivered the first of a series of monthly lectures to be given at the Delta Sigma Phi House, 305 West 138th Street.  He spoke on 'The Panama Canal.'  The lecture was illustrated by sterioptican [sic] views."

Laura A. Hudson sold No. 305 in September 1920.  By now the Harlem demographics had greatly changed and was the center of Manhattan's Black population.   Now operated as a rooming house, it attracted blue collar tenants.

Among them was Hugh A. Sprauve, who landed a job on September 1, 1932 with the Board of Transportation as a porter in the subway.  He was promoted to station agent on June 18, 1933, a raise in responsibility and pay.

Sprauve was put in charge of the 163rd Street Station with the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift.  There was only one turnstile at that station, a condition that Sprauve brought to the attention of his supervisors.  During the morning rush hour a tremendous crush of passengers would build up in the station as they passed one-by-one through the single turnstile.  Despite Sprauve's reports, nothing was done about the problem.

Then, on the morning of May 25, 1935, the passengers revolted.  Sprauve stopped the line long enough to empty the turnstile which had become full of nickels.  The crowd pushed through the "folding gate" onto the platform.  Sprauve was fired that day for allowing passengers to ride for free.  (The day after the incident a second turnstile was installed at that station.)

Sprauve sued the city for "irregularly and illegally" firing him.  His was an uphill battle, however, and he not only lost the case but was forced to pay the city its $10 in court costs (about $187 today).

Another roomer at the time was George Gruby, who worked as a porter for the LaRocca Construction Company.  He suffered a gruesome injury at work on June 20, 1931 when, while walking out of a garage, one of the firm's trucks struck him, fracturing both of his ankles.

In 1959 the house was converted to apartments, two on each floor including the basement.  That configuration remained until 2007 when architects A. S. III Design Studio filed for a "gut rehabilitation."  The renovation, completed in 2011, resulted in one apartment per floor.  In the meantime, the exterior of the little house with the riveting history remains little changed.

photograph by the author


  1. Hello! Thank you for all your posts, as always.
    Mr. Bliss's death merited a plaque on 74th and CPW because it was the first automobile pedestrian fatality that ever happened in the U.S.! The plaque is still there and here is a link to that part of your interesting story:,struck%20by%20a%20passing%20taxicab.

  2. A couple of things. Evelina Bliss moved to the Manhattan avenue address. Henry, Mary Alice, and her three kids moved to separate apartments in the Colonial Hotel at the corner of 8th Avenue and 125th Street. He subsidized her and the kids. He told her he was going to stop doing so and soon thereafter, Evelina met her fate. She was interred at Green-Wood cemetery but I haven’t been able to find her plot. Evelina’s and Henry’s son, Henry Evelyn was the librarian at City College. He developed his own library classification system that isn’t used much here but is used in England. He was convinced Mary Alice killed their mother. Also, Evelina’s first husband, Robert Swift Livingston, died in his 80s; they were not divorced.

    1. Wonderful stories again, Tom. Thank you! And such fascinating details added by Beth & Bill.