Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The 1855 J. J. Ellis House - 142 West 11th Street


In 1854 Linus Scudder, a well-known Greenwich Village builder, teamed with a number of other men in the construction trade to erect a row of eight upscale residences along the southern side of West 11th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.  Completed in 1855, the identical houses were 22-feet wide and three stories high above a tall English basement level.   The entrances wore elliptically arched cornices rather than the more expected foliate-bracketed pediments.  The full-height parlor windows were given the same treatment.  Each house had elaborate areaway fencing which morphed into stoop gates--a rather unusual element.  Matching ironwork formed the stoop railings and the full-width parlor balconies.

In 1861 142 West 11th Street became home to the Dr. Isaac John Greenwood family.  Greenwood was a dentist and his son, Isaac, Jr., was a "chemist," or pharmacist.  They came from a long line of Greenwoods and dentists.  Nathaniel Greenwood had arrived in Boston about 1650.   His grandson, Isaac Greenwood II listed his occupations as "mathematical instrument maker, wood and ivory turner, umbrella manufacturer and dentist," and made sets of false teeth in the years prior to the Revolution.

The Greenwoods' residency was relatively short.   The family of Dr. James J. Connolly lived in the house in the years after the end of the Civil War.  Described by the New York Herald as a "well-to-do and very respectable physician," Connolly was resident surgeon to St. Vincent's Hospital.   His wife, Ellen, was the daughter of Thomas and Margaret Killoran.  The Connollys had two live-in servants--most likely Irish girls.  In 1869 the couple had a daughter, Mary Agnes, and the in December 1870 another child, Clara Regina, was born.

According to another doctor, Thomas C. Finneil, Connolly had for some time "been subject to frequent attacks of insanity and nervous prostration."  He would waver between long periods of normalcy and attacks of erratic behavior--possibly what is diagnosed as bipolar disorder today.

The Sunday afternoon of June 18, 1871 was stormy.  Nevertheless, Connolly told his 14-year-old carriage driver to exercise the horse.  When David Collins returned, Ellen was crying, and told the teen that her husband was locked in the nursery with the two girls.  Neither of the servants had been able to get a response.  Collins later said, "I then went up and called Dr. Connolly; he came to the door with a carving knife in his hand, and looked so wild that I was afraid of him; I ran away, and the Doctor closed and locked the door."

Living directly across the street at 145 West 11th Street was George C. Wetmore.  At around 4:00 he was sitting at his front window and could hear Ellen "crying and calling out to her husband to give her the children."  He crossed the street in the pelting rain and asked Ellen if anything were wrong.  He later told officials, "she said there was nothing and disappeared inside.  Soon she reappeared, and told me her husband was drunk.  She seemed to be in terror of her life, and frequently called out to her servant, to tell her if the Doctor was coming."  

She told Wetmore that Connolly refused to open the nursery door.  As the two spoke, a priest who had either been called by Ellen or a servant, arrived.  "Oh, I am so glad the reverend father has come!" Ellen exclaimed.  While the priest climbed the stairs, Wetmore rushed to the police station.

Before long two policemen arrived at 142 West 11th Street (the priest had been unable to get Connolly to open the door).  Ellen was terrified that their presence would upset her husband and she steadfastly refused them entrance.  The officers, however, were certain something serious was going on, and reported the facts at the station house.  Captain Washburn and several officers returned.  Ellen was not intimidated by the Captain's authority, but no less than he was of hers.  He detained her in the hallway and sent two policemen up to the nursery.  Unable to get a response from inside, they forced the door open.

The first officer to enter stopped short.  The New York Herald reported, "the sight which there met his gaze beggars all description."  The article said that like "the veterans of a hundred battle fields," policemen become inured to "revolting scenes of blood and cruelty," but "Captain Washburn and the two officers who accompanied him will never, never forget the sight of that room when they entered at about seven o'clock last evening."

Connolly had slit the throats of his two babies.  Agnes was just two-years-old and Clara Regina only seven months.  He had then turned the 14-inch bread knife on himself, first stabbing himself in the chest and then slitting his own throat so violently that he "almost dissevered his own head from his body."  The New York Herald, in dramatic Victorian fashion, noted, "The children had nothing on but little night slips, which hung loosely about their bodies.  Between them and their father, floating in a pool of blood, was a little India rubber ball, which they had evidently been paying with before the horrid deed was done."

Ellen had followed the officers and entered the nursery.  The newspaper reported, "when she saw the forms of all those she held most dear in life drenched in their own blood her grief knew no bounds.  She swooned away and was removed by the kind-hearted policeman to...the lower floor, where she lay for a long time in a perfectly unconscious state."

The bodies were kept in the nursery until Coroner Keenan and Dr. Thomas C. Finneil arrived to inspect the scene.  Finneil testified at the coroner's inquest, "I considered that at the time [Connolly] committed the crime he was suffering from acute insanity."

The pathetic story swept the nation.  The New York Herald called it "one of the most revolting, heart-rending cases of child murder and subsequent suicide ever known in this city, for by it a whole family, save the wife and mother, of very respectable people are swept into eternity."  Three days after the tragedy the newspaper reported, "Crowds flock to the vicinity of Eleventh street and Sixth avenue, and gaze at the house for minutes at a time with a morbid curiosity."

Ellen's mental condition was a serious concern for her doctor.  The New York Daily Herald said, "Mrs. Connolly is still--naturally enough--in a most critical condition.  It is feared that her mind has been completely wrecked.  Her nerves, however, are severely shattered, and her physician finds it necessary to keep her under the influence of powerful opiates."

Dr. Connolly left an estate valued at about $1.5 million by today's standards.  But Ellen would not enjoy the wealth.

It was no doubt through her physician's urging that Ellen travelled to Canada to rest.  Around September 6, according to the New York Herald, she "was in the French cathedral at Montreal, and while the service was being performed, she was seized with a sudden aberration."  Ellen was removed, deranged, from the cathedral and two weeks later the newspaper reported that she "has since lost all control of her mental powers."  

On September 19, 1871 Dr. Willard Parker adjudged Ellen "to be a raving maniac" and a court order demanded "to have her forwarded to Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum," according to the New York Herald.  The article added, "The Doctor stated that hers was an almost hopeless case, and in his mind grave doubts arose whether she could ever recover."

The Connolly house was purchased by Jacob Huyler, who owned numerous investment properties in the city.  It now became an upscale boarding house.  

Annie C. Allis, whom The Evening World described as "well known in uptown circles," took rooms after her husband, Edmund E. Allis left her in 1888.  At the time the couple had been married just two years, but according to her, he told her "he had grown tired of her."  After some sleuthing, Annie Allis discovered that he had run off to Indianapolis "with a young woman of this city," and was living as H. E. Alden.  The Evening World reported, "When Allis learned that his wife had discovered his whereabouts, he left Indianapolis and has not been heard of since."  Annie was eager to find him in order to contest the "secret divorce" he was reportedly pursuing.

By January 1890 Nellie McCance had rooms here.  The New York Sun described her as "a pretty young woman who is learning the art of dressmaking in Prof. Livingston's art school on Broadway."  She was on her way to class on January 15 when 18-year-old Henry Hansome snatched her pocketbook containing $10--just under $300 today.  He was quickly apprehended by a policeman and in the Jefferson Market Court said "he took it because he was hungry."  The teens' parents, he said, had "put him out."  Hansome was held for trial.

Jacob Huyler died on April 2, 1889.  His son, John S. Huyler retained possession of the house until 1900 when he traded it and another Manhattan property to Mrs. James Cunningham for her 26-acre country home, Cunningham Castle, at Irvington-on-the-Hudson.  The sale did not change the status of the boarding house.

Among the tenants at the turn of the century were Silas H. Jessup and his wife.  Jessup was one of the oldest members of the Produce Exchange.  Born in 1812, he had come to New York City at the age of 18.  He had been in the malt business, but retired around 1896.

Also living here were Cortlandt H. Van Rensselaer and his wife Mary.  Despite their old and prestigious surname, the couple was upper-middle class.  In 1890 they purchased a farm in Seneca Falls, New York.  But the venture did not go well.  The New-York Tribune reported on February 18, 1900 that they "have filed a petition in bankruptcy with liabilities of $2,530 and no assets."

Martha Parke Hofer, the widow of Anthony V. Hofer, and her daughter Elizabeth J. Hofer, lived here by 1903.  A member of the American Historical Society, Elizabeth was principal of P.S. 174 on Attorney Street downtown.  Martha died here at the age of 85 on February 27, 1904 and her funeral was held in the parlor two days later.

Mrs. Louisa Bardousch purchased the house in February 1908.   She sold it in November 1917 to William J. Farrell for $20,000--just under $400,000 in today's money.  He quickly leased it to John Haupt who hired architect Ferdinand Savignano to update the house.  The extensive interior alterations cost about half as much as what Farrell had paid for the property.

Respectable boarders continued to call 142 West 11th Street home, like Alexis I. duPont Coleman, here in the 1920's.  Educated at Oxford University, he was a professor of English at the City College of New York and a free-lance journalist.  The Evening Journal of Wilmington, Delaware, said "He contributed for a number of years to The Critic and was internationally know for his contributions to literature through magazines, newspapers and an encyclopedia." 

A renovation completed in 1951 resulted in an apartment in the basement, a doctor's office on the first and second floors, and a total of three apartments on the third floor and new fourth floor level (unseen from the street).

On May 23, 1968 The Villager reported that Mr. and Mrs. Theodore H. Story had purchased the house for the equivalent of $808,000 today.  The article said they "plan to reside there."  Mrs. Story was cabaret singer Cynthia Crane and her husband was playwright Ted Story.  The couple initiated another renovation, completed in 1974, which resulted in a duplex in the basement and parlor level, one apartment on the second floor, two on the third, and one on the fourth.

Unfortunately, the Storys were forced to sell 142 West 11th Street "after losing their life savings to Bernard L. Madoff," according to The New York Times on September 7, 2011.

The handsome home where one of New York City's most horrific tragedies occurred is outwardly little changed after more than 165 years.

photographs by the author
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  1. How horrible for those children and that woman. Beautiful house, and nice to see the original iron balcony still extant.

    The doors are so deep-set that I wonder if there was another pair of exterior doors, providing a vestibule?

    1. Those are the original exterior doors. If you look closely you can see the transom of the interior doors, beyond the foyer.