Saturday, April 30, 2022

The William H. Newschafer House - 227 East 31st Street


In 1857 attorney William H. Newschafer lived in the newly built house at 139 East 31st Street (renumbered 227 in 1868).  One of four identical 17-foot-wide homes, it was designed in the emerging Ango-Italianate style.  Short stone stoops led to the single-doored entrances.  The eye-catching cast iron lintels of the second floor windows set the design apart.  Their frothy French-inspired brackets and keystones reflected the domestic tastes of the 1850's.  Newschafer would be the first of a long string of occupants through the decades.  

By 1863 John F. Kellers, a grocer, lived here, followed the next year by Captain William H. Russell, a seaman.  In July 1865, The New York Times published a list of the notable "illuminations," or decorations, for Independence Day.  The 31st Street neighbors apparently got together to make their block especially patriotic and seven homes were chosen by the police department for listing.  Among them was the residence of "Capt. Russell, No. 139 East Thirty-first street."

By the late 1860's, Charles K. Hyde and his family lived in the house.  He was an inspector for the Department of Buildings.  The Hydes would remain until 1872 when they leased it, and then advertised it for sale in 1873.  The ad mentioned, "ten rooms; all modern improvements."

William H. Fisher, the proprietor of an eatinghouse, purchased 227 East 31st Street, and would remain at least through 1879.  By the early 1890's it was home to Margaret Meredith, whose son, Edward, had been sent to Sing Sing prison on December 20, 1888 for shooting Phil Daly, known by the press as "the gambler king."

Edward J. Meredith had "received a classical education, is an excellent bookkeeper, and one of the most expert penmen in the country," said to The New York Journal.  His clerical abilities were valuable in the prison office, but the warden discovered that he was taking detailed, and potentially damaging notes.  The New York Times expounded, "while in Sing Sing Meredith was a bookkeeper in Warden Brown's office, and soon after he had made some reflections on the management of the office he was sent to the State Asylum for the Insane at Matteawan."  Meredith arrived at the asylum on September 11, 1891.

Margaret "made strenuous efforts to secure his release from the asylum, declaring that he is not insane," wrote The New York Times on August 9, 1893, "and she finally secured the writ of habeas corpus."  Judge Barnard in the Poughkeepsie Supreme Court had deemed her son sane.

With "his mother promising to look after him," according to The Sun, Meredith was released October 18, 1894 at the expiration of his term.  At the time of his release the superintendent of the asylum, Dr. Allison, was not in total agreement with Judge Barnard's ruling:

We do not concede that he is not insane, nor that he is cured of his hallucination; but his mother and his friends seem positive that if he is given a chance he will lead a new life.  His mania is not dangerous in any event.

Edward returned to 227 East 31st Street and two months later his sanity would be weighed one more time.  On December 24 a commission was assembled to rejudge his mental stability.  The Sun reported, "It was said that the purpose of the commission is to care for his property, which is worth $5,000."  That property was in the form of an exposé book about Sing Sing--his compiled notes that he had somehow carefully guarded and spirited out with him.  

Meredith leaked portions of his manuscript that appeared in an article in The New York Times in November 1894.  In it he said he that when had found a deficiency of over $80,000 in the prison accounts, the warden told him to "fix the books."  It was when he refused, according to Meredith, that "he was persecuted by the prison officials, who conspired to have him removed to the Matteawan Asylum."  

Prison officials were quick to respond to the serious allegations.  Principal Keeper Connaughton called the accusations "pure inventions," and Warden O. V. Sage insisted, "The books show a good, clean record."

Things did not turn out well for Edward Meredith.  His book, for one thing, was not published.  Then, on February 9, 1897, the New York Journal reported, "The man who was arrested Sunday night for attempting to blackmail ex-Corporation Counsel Almet F. Jenks of Brooklyn, is the same man who once shot Phil Daly, the noted sporting man."  The article noted, "When arrested the prisoner said that his name was Edward J. Russell.  But to Mr. Daly, the New York police, to the officials of Sing Sing Prison and to the authorities at Matteawan Insane Asylum he was always known as Edward Meredith."

The New York Journal, February 9, 1897 (copyright expired)

Meredith was convicted of blackmail and sentenced to ten years hard labor at Sing Sing.  In November 1904, the New York Attorney General, John Cunneen, wrote that Meredith, aka Russell, "is still an insane convict and properly confined in the Dannemora State Hospital for Insane Convicts."

By then the East 31st Street house was being operated as a rooming house, home to hard-working Swedish immigrants.  On January 28, 1897, an advertisement in The New York Times read, "Gardener, &c.--By young Swede as gardener on gentleman's place; understands good care of horses; many years' experience; best references.  Gardener, 227 East 31st St."  And on April 19, 1899, another position-wanted ad read, "Nurse and Valet for insane or sick gentleman; experience and reference good.  Hundgren (Swede)."  That year another Swedish resident named Lindstrom sought work as "Second or Third Man to family or clubhouse."  (The second and third men assisted the butler in his duties.)

Charles E. Coan took a room in the house following the end of World War I.  He was enraged and humiliated when he found that his name was included on the War Department's list of draft deserters.  The administrative error was straightened out on August 31, 1921 when Secretary of War Weeks announced that his military records and those of two other "deserters" had been found.  Charles E. Coan, who served in the army during the war, had been listed as Ernest Coan.

The exact nature of the relationship between two roomers, Joseph Bonsiglio and Mrs. Mary Reed, in 1938 is unclear, but in any case it was not good.  On September 19 Bonsiglio was walking along East 23rd Street at 2:30 in the morning when, according to him, he "felt a sting and found he had been wounded."  He had been shot in the back.

Minutes later, according to the New York Post, "an excited taxicab driver" hailed two policeman in their patrol car, saying "I just saw a woman shoot a guy up the street."  The cruiser drove up Third Avenue and saw Mary Reed.  "As they stopped to question her she reached for a pistol which she was holding under her left arm, but the policemen disarmed her."  Despite having shot Bonsiglio in the back, at the station house Mary professed self defense.  "I had to shoot him or I would have been in the morgue myself," she said.

The house was painted barn red in the early 2000's.  photo via

The house continued to be operated as a rooming house until 1968 when a renovation was completed that resulted in a duplex in the basement and first floor, and one apartment each on the upper stories.  Then, in 2008, it was reconverted to a single family house.

photographs by the author
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