Saturday, August 21, 2021

The Benjamin W. C. Massett House - 310 West 20th Street


By the early 1850's the block of West 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues was lined with comfortable brick- or brownstone-faced homes.  The three-story house at 109 West 20th Street (renumbered 310 in 1868) was home to the Massett family.  At 25-feet-wide, it was intended for a well-to-do family and its floor-to-ceiling parlor windows and elliptically arched third floor windows (the cutting edge in domestic fashion) reflected that.

Benjamin W. Carey Massett was born in England in 1817.  He had arrived in the United States around 1843.  That same year he and his wife, the former Harriett Hart, had their only son, William Carey. 

An educator, in 1851 Massett co-founder the Massett & VillePlait's School.  An advertisement for the school in September 1859 read:

Messrs. Massett & Villeplait's Classical, English and French School--Eighth Year--No. 1,057 Broadway, between 29th and 30th sts., for the instruction personally by them of twenty-five boys, in the Latin, Greek and French Languages, Mathemetics, English and English Literature, with special reference to college or commerce...The instruction is individual, thorough, complete, systematic, disciplinarian and philosophical.  Mr. Massett, having returned from Europe, can be seen at the School till noonday, or at his residence, No. 109 West 20th-st., after 3 P.M.

Living with the family, at least by 1859, was Benjamin's brother, Stephen Massett.  He had taken a much different career path than his brother and was well-known nationally as a songwriter and singer.  

Interestingly, the brothers worked together in at least one instance.  In 1853 sheet music for "I'll Look for Thee, Mary" was published with an illustration of Stephen Massett.  He had composed the music and Benjamin had written the lyrics.

Stephen Massett, from the collection of The Huntington Library

In 1858 Stephen made a world tour.  The American did not especially impress the critic of the London Herald, who wrote on  April 27, 1858:

Mr. Stephen Massett, I hear, leaves in the next steamer for New York, with a view to a circuit of the entire Union, when he will give his 'Reminiscence of Travels in many Lands' (introducing appropriate warblettes--that is, songs--for each clime), in which he has been so successful in 'many lands.'  Mr. Massett, it appears--vide the correspondence of the 'Thunderer'--had a very narrow escape of getting his throat cut when among the mutinous sepoys [Indian soldiers serving under the British].  No doubt, as Mr. Massett cannot rightly phlebotomize his wind pipe, he will illustrate the event by some gurgling roulades.

His "circuit of the entire Union" seems to have gone more smoothly.  On February 3, 1859 the New York Herald reported, "Mr. Stephen Massett is in Richmond, Virginia, where his entertainment of 'Song and Chit-Chat' has made quite a sensation."

The outbreak of what Northerners called the War of the Rebellion changed the lives of the Massett family forever.  William Cary, whom The Buffalo Commercial described as "a noble youth...of high scholarly acquirements," had graduated from Columbia University and was in China at the time, "engaged in mercantile pursuits."  

Young William rushed home to join the 61st Regiment of the New York Volunteers.  Within nine months he had attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel.  On June 1, 1862 he led his unit at the battle of Fair Oaks, near Richmond Virginia.  He was killed in action at the age of 23.  His body was brought home with another Manhattan soldier, killed in the same battle, and they were given a double funeral in St. Thomas' Church on Houston Street.

The Buffalo Commercial wrote, "The death of his brave son, so far from disheartening [Benjamin] Massett, only served to fire his heart with greater enthusiasm and increased loyalty.

Despite his age (he was 45 years old) Benjamin joined the Union Army on November 26, 1862.  One can imagine Harriett's pleas with her husband to stay home after she had just lost her only son to the war.  But, according to The Buffalo Commercial later, "on every occasion and under all circumstances, [he] exhibited the utmost loyalty, declaring his desire to take an active personal share in the great struggle."  He was given the rank of Major of Cavalry.  

Eight months later Harriett's worst fears came true.  On July 31, 1863 the New-York Tribune reported, "The telegraph has briefly announced the death of Major Massett, at Memphis."  The article said, "Throwing his whole soul into the good work, he spared neither body nor mind in the faithful performance of his duties, and died, as he had lived, true, faithful, loyal."

The father and son were buried next to one another in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  Harriett remained in the West 20th Street house, leasing one room for additional income.   An advertisement in 1862 described "A furnished back parlor on the first floor to let to a gentleman and wife or to a single lady, with privilege of cooking in the basement."

Stephen Massett was not so patriotically moved as his brother and nephew.  His appearances at venues like the Brooklyn Atheneum continued to be announced in newspapers throughout the war.  Interestingly, however, he is no longer listed in the 20th Street house after 1862.

By the early-1870's William D. Tallman had purchased 310 West 20th Street, and it is possibly he who updated it.  The parlor floor received pressed metal lintels with classical pediments.  It may have been at this point that the parlor windows were shortened, as well.  Molded cast metal cornices were placed over the brownstone lintels of the upper floors and the arched openings of the top floor were flattened to match the others.

Tallman did not move his family into the remodeled house, but leased it in 1874 to his business partner, James Pearson.  They had run a gentlemen's furnishing store on Sixth Avenue since August 3, 1865.  Pearson paid a yearly rent of $900--around $20,800 today.

Pearson was born in County Donegal, Ireland in 1843, and was married to the former Annie Jane Hume.  The couple had one child, Jane (known as Jennie), who was born in 1869.  Also living with them was Annie's widowed mother, Ruth Hume.

In November 1883 Pearson was elected alderman.  Troubles arose between him and his business partner-landlord the following year when Pearson realized that he was being cheated.  To make matters worse, Annie's brother, policeman Harry J. Hume, was conspiring with Tallman.  They were syphoning off the business's funds behind Pearson's back.  

Pearson had steadfastly trusted his partner, who took care of the financial matters of the business.  When asked in court on March 20, 1886, "Did you know that it owed a pretty large debt?" Pearson replied, "No sir.  My partner, Mr. Tallman, had charged of the financial affairs.  He kept the books."  Pearson went on to testify, "There was a conspiracy, I think, between Hume and Tallman to rob me of my business."

Pearson testifies in court.  The Sun, March 21, 1886 (copyright expired)

The relationship between Annie and her brother was no doubt precarious in the months leading up to the trial, so one can only imagine the level of  tension in the parlor of 310 West 20th Street on January 23, 1886.  The funeral of their mother, Ruth Hume, was held there that afternoon.  Harry Hume had to sit through the service with his sister and brother-in-law while the court case was looming.

During the court proceedings, Pearson was closely grilled about another issue--an ongoing investigation into corruption within the Board of Aldermen.  It was suggested that he was receiving bribe money.  Pearson denied the accusation.

But the pressure did not subside and Pearson stepped down from his position.  On October 12, fourteen other aldermen were arrested in what The New York Times called "an earthquake in boodledom."

That night a reporter rushed to 310 West 20th Street.  The New York Times wrote, "a gentlemen who said he was a friend of the family answered the door bell.  He stated that Mr. Pearson had been at his place of business during the day and at his home early in the evening, but would not say whether he was in the house then.  Of one thing the gentleman was certain, that Mr. Pearson would be found when wanted."

Pearson was eventually wanted.  He was indicted for bribery and released on bail.  He, Annie and Jennie moved to a cottage in Paterson, New Jersey.  The Evening World later explained, "His indictment ruined his business and he found a new field of labor in Paterson where he removed."  

On the night of June 9, 1890 Pearson got on the wrong train going home.  When he realized his mistake and saw that the Paterson-bound train was about to leave, he jumped from the one he was on.  The Evening World reported, "He miscalculated the distance or his foot slipped and he fell to the ground directly in front of the incoming train, which struck him and threw him several yards with great violence."  He was just 47 years old.

In the meantime 310 West 20th Street was being operated as a boarding house.   Among the residents in 1894 was Annie Moore.  An Irish immigrant, her two sisters were servants in the homes of well-to-do Brooklynites.  Lulu Moore found herself in a terrifying situation that year: she was pregnant. 

In desperation, she went to Dr. Irving J. Cook on West 94th Street, who performed an abortion on July 2.  The following day the young woman, apparently in shock, appeared at 310 West 20th Street to see Annie.  The Evening World reported that she took "the body of her child with her."

Annie convinced her sister to stay overnight (exactly what was done with the fetus's remains is unclear).  The following day her other sister, Sally, visited Lulu in Brooklyn "and Lulu told her that she was very ill," according to court testimony later.  When Lulu's condition worsened, she gave Sally Dr. Cook's card.

Cook arrived and would not let Sally nor anyone else in the room.  Lulu's condition continued to deteriorate, but when Sally called for Dr. Cook again, he refused to come.  On July 13 Lulu was taken to Flatbush Hospital, where she died two hours later.

The fact that she was several social rungs below the physician did not stop Sally from having him arrested for murder through "a criminal operation."  He countered that the servant girl was blackmailing him.  In court he testified, "I did not perform a criminal operation.  She may have done so herself."

Interestingly, when the house was lost in foreclosure in 1898, it was Mary Tallman, William Tallman's wife, who bought it with Jennie Goodspeed, possibly her sister.  The women paid $4,500 for the property--about $143,000 today.

The boarders at 310 West 20th Street continued to get into legal trouble over the years.  On June 17, 1908, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported that Alfred Henry was "locked up, charged with making handbooks."  "Making handbooks" referred to operating an illegal betting operation.

Alfred M. Schlaegel, who lived here in 1913, became an unwitting victim of the notorious Gopher Gang on the night of July 28.  The Sun reported that the gang "which has been quiet for a month, broke loose at Tenth avenue and Nineteenth street last night with knives and attacked a policeman and two passersby who went to the policeman's assistance."

The gang was making a "great racket" at about 10:00 that night and policeman Hayes Keepers warned them to be quiet.  The Sun reported, "seven boys, each with a knife, pounced upon him."  Alfred Schlaegel and another passerby, 20-year-old Arthur Meyer, ran to help him.  

A set of double entrance doors were in place as late as the 1940's.  via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

Hayes Keepers used his nightstick as a weapon, but his would-be rescuers had only their hands.  The newspaper said Keepers "got only a cut on the chin.  His uniform was slashed to pieces."  The other two were not so lucky.  The article said that Arthur Meyer was in the New York Hospital "with seven knife wounds in his face and body.  He is expected to die."  Arthur was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital with a deep wound in the back.  "His condition is serious."

Once the home of Civil War heroes and an internationally-known singer-songwriter, 310 West 20th Street is filled with tiny apartments today.   The exterior doors have been removed and the stoop and areaway ironwork replaced, leaving just one of the newels installed by William Tallman surviving.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. With an air-conditioner in nearly every window and Tom's use of the word 'tiny' to describe the apartments, I'm guessing some of the original bedrooms have become entire apartments. Or smaller than that, Tom?

    1. There are apparently more than 2 dozen "micro-studios" in the building.

  2. Streeteasy says 33 apartments, each with private bath. (!)