from the collection of the New York Public Library
Dr. James Knight arrived in New York City from Baltimore in 1842 at the age of 32, and became associated with the famed Dr. Valentine Mott. The New York Times later said, "While thus engaged he conceived the idea of establishing a hospital for the relief of the offspring of the poor, who by reason of deformity and malformation were rendered helpless." The need was severe, as the New-York Tribune later recalled. "The majority of the [crippled] children died. The rest were thrown out on the world to become beggars, and to trade on their deformities."
Dr. Knight (who developed his own methods to treat physical deformities) organized the Society for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled in 1863, with backing from R. M. Hartley, Robert B. Minturn and Joseph B. Collins. Knight was appointed its resident surgeon.
But there was a problem. "It was not rich enough to purchase a site and build," explained The New York Times, so Knight "offered the use of the upper story of his own private dwelling." The make-do space could accommodate 28 beds, and received its first patient, a four-year-old boy, on May 1, 1863.
Twenty-eight beds would not be sufficient for long. The New York Times reported that the hospital had treated 2,000 patients in 1868. Its Board of Managers, therefore, acquired the plot of land on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue as the site for a proper facility. In January 1869 architect E. T. Polland filed plans for a four-story and basement hospital "to accommodate 200 children." The cost of construction was placed at $150,000. As it turned out, it soared to $250,000, more than $4.8 million today.
Designed in the Ruskinian Gothic style, the building was faced in brick and trimmed in "brown and Ohio stone." The two colors of stone provided the alternating hues of the arches, obligatory in the style. Two massive turrets formed the corners of the 115-foot wide front, and a lacy iron balcony girded the fourth floor. Within a circular cartouche above the main entrance was a carved angel assisting a crippled woman on crutches. Below it was inscribed, "Then shall the lame man leap as an hart."
The basement held the general dining room; the first floor contained the offices of the physicians, the matron, and the nurses. The boys' dormitory engulfed the second floor, and the third held the girls' dormitory. The entire fourth floor was used as a playground, classrooms, and gymnasium. It was not all fun and games there, however. In the gymnasium the children received physical therapy and treatments--often experimental.
A stretching exercise was part of this group's physical therapy in 1902. New-York Tribune, November 2, 1902 (copyright expired)
The patients were also given schooling, The New York Times explaining that they "received in the hospital such an education as, under happier circumstances, they would get in the public schools." There was a special focus on making them self-sufficient despite their disabilities. (As The New York Times reminded readers on April 3, 1869, "These children, except for charity, would be burdens upon the public, left to drag out their lives in hopeless suffering.")
A "social reception" was held for supporters in "their magnificent new hospital," as worded by The New York Times, on November 10, 1870. The article noted that since its organization the facility had treated 11,000 children.
The site which the Society chose was, perhaps, in danger from the beginning. Cornelius Vanderbilt was amassing land just to the west for his massive Grand Central Depot. The Sun described the block on December 14, 1869, saying, "The western portion of the east half is covered by the Croton Market, and the corner of Lexington avenue by an elegant new building for the hospital for the relief of the ruptured and crippled. It is understood that the Commodore designs a raid on these institutions in order to secure possession of the entire block for the purposes of his railroads." It was a "design" the Vanderbilts would not give up.
An annex to the hospital, erected a few years later behind the main building, held employee bathrooms, sleeping rooms for servants, and storerooms.
Dr. Knight remained at the helm, with the title of Surveyor-in-Chief, despite a few rocky periods. In August 1887 he was forced to defend the nurses and teachers when complaints of what today would be termed child abuse reached the newspapers. An investigation, he said, did uncover one teacher who boxed the ears of a student, but "no patient was injured." The teacher was fired. He was also accused of firing any physicians on staff who did not agree with his procedures or who wanted to try their own treatments. Knight died on October 24, 1887.
Around 6:30 on the evening of January 29, 1888 a little girl was passing the room of resident surgeon Dr. Eli E. Joselyn when she smelled smoke. She ran to him and the small fire on top of his bureau was quickly squelched. The New York Times reported, "no damage except the destruction of the bureau cover and a pair of suspenders was done."
The article continued, "After the fire was extinguished the doctor went to dinner. Ten minutes later fire was discovered in the bathroom at the bottom of the stairway running through the annex." That fire was discovered by two girl patients who informed a nurse. "By this time," said the article, "the fire had assumed threatening proportions."
The 163 children were quickly and systematically evacuated. The New York Times reported that "calamity was averted by the courage and coolness of the doctors and nurses in charge of the little cripples and the ready help given by the police, firemen, and many citizens." The children who were mobile were lead out, while those who could not walk "were aroused quietly, wrapped in their blankets, and carried down stairs." Most of the children were taken in by the Vanderbilt Hotel, while homeowners "threw open their doors and were proud to have the privilege of sheltering and caring for the little unfortunates." One patient, 18-year-old Alice Ramsey, had only one arm, but she "made good use of her remaining arm in carrying several children across the street to the hotel."
The fire had broken out in the annex, occupied solely by the servants. Tragically, while the children were all safely evacuated, the head cook, Mary Donnelly, was asleep in her bed and died of smoke inhalation.
Investigators were at a loss to explain the origin of the blaze. A newspaper noted, "It started in a part of the building in which fire is not kept, and it is difficult to see how gas could have started the blaze." Fire investigators dismissed the earlier fire in Dr. Josselyn's room as "not worth mention as a coincidence." As things turned out, however, it was anything but a coincidence.
The following day Dr. W. Travers Gibb noticed that someone had been in his room, which was uncomfortably hot. He discovered that a box of matches had been placed on the floor register, the heat turned fully up, and a reclining chair moved over the heater. The would-be arsonist intended for the matches to ignite. The same thing occurred the next day in another room. Once again the matches were found before they could ignite.
The Fire Marshall was notified and he was interviewing staff one-by-one on February 2 when yet another fire broke out. A maid entered the drawing room to find it filled with smoke. The Fire Marshal and doctors rushed to the scene, to find the pantry off the dining room "blazing fiercely." Again the children were evacuated. The fire was quickly put out, but was "attended with great excitement and almost a panic among the children and nurses," said The New York Times.
At the time May Wilson had been a patient in the hospital for three years. Affectionately called Mamie, the 11-year-old suffered from a "wry neck," a condition known today as torticollis, a twisted or tilted neck. Because of that she wore "an iron frame" which forced her head into a straight position. Mamie was well-liked by the other children and the staff. She was highly intelligent and because she was totally ambulatory, was allowed to move freely throughout the building. She was often entrusted to go outside the hospital on errands for the staff and routinely answered the doorbell.
Now, as hospital employees talked to one another, suspicion began to focus on Mamie. One chambermaid remembered her coming out of the dining room and shutting the door behind her just minutes before the fire was discovered. The matron said that Mamie had "hurried" into her room, asking if she did not have an errand for her to attend to outside. And another servant recalled that Mamie had just come out of the ladies' bathroom prior to the first fire.
Fire Marshall Sheldon called for her. Initially the girl denied any involvement, but finally broke down and gave a tearful confession. On February 4 the New Jersey newspaper The Patterson Morning Call reported, "Little May Wilson, the 11-year-old child who confessed to having on several occasions set fire to the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled, was arraigned in the Yorkville police court and turned over to the care of the Children's society. Richard Wilson, the father of the young culprit, is entirely at a loss to account for the child's conduct."
Mamie's plight was dire. Legally, because a death had occurred because of her actions, she could face execution. She first appeared before a judge on the day of her arrest, too traumatized to answered with anything more than "yes" or "no." A trial before a coroner's jury was held on February 8. The girl was not forced to take the stand in her own defense "on account of the highly-excited state she had been in every since the occurrence," according to the Children's Aid Society physician. Despite Mamie's written confession, she was exonerated for a lack of evidence--an apparent act of compassion by the coroner and the jury. She was remanded to the custody of the Children's Aid Society.
Activities taking place on the fourth floor in 1875. from the collection of the New York Public Library
On January 27, 1902 excavation work was underway for the subway trench below Park Avenue at 41st Street. At noon workmen attempted to dry rain-dampened dynamite by igniting loose powder. The imprudent idea resulted in half a ton of dynamite exploding. Eight people were killed immediately, four others died later, and several hundred were injured by flying glass and rocks.
The impact was felt more than a block away at the hospital. The New-York Tribune reported that "beyond a small panic among the two hundred children inmates of the institution, there were no fatalities...Many of the windows on the Forty-second-st. side of the hospital were smashed, and the patients in these rooms had to be removed to other parts of the building." Sixteen injured civilians were brought to the hospital, keeping the four house surgeons and nurses busy for more than two hours.
On December 23, 1910 the New-York Tribune reported, "Even this afternoon the jingle of sleigh-bells will send the color to the cheeks of children at the New York Society for the Relief of the Ruptured and Crippled...Children will act in a play called 'Santa Claus's Visit." It would be the last Christmas party in the building.
A month earlier, on November 26, the Record & Guide had reported that the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company had finally acquired the property it had eyed for nearly half a century. "It is announced that a portion of the block will be improved with a high-class hotel building," said the article. The Hotel Commodore--named for Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt--would be part of the new Grand Central Terminal complex designed by Warren & Wetmore.
Demolition on the hospital began on June 1, 1911, while construction was underway for a new facility down the street at 321 East 42nd Street. The Commodore Hotel still stands, albeit completely unrecognizable after being gutted and refaced in the 1980's for the Hyatt chain.
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