Thursday, September 22, 2022

The 1855 Samuel Joyce House - 219 East 17th Street


Benjamin Wise and Joseph Whitehead assuredly knew one another through the building trade.  Wise was a bricklayer and Whitehead a mason.  In 1855 Wise purchased two vacant lots on East 17th Street, half a block from Stuyvesant Square from Lewis Rutherford, and Whitehead acquired three adjoining plots, also from Rutherford.  The five houses were completed in 1856, the only telltale sign that they were built as separate projects being a gap in the otherwise continuous cornice between the two groups.

The easternmost of the row was one of Wise's two houses, 118 East 17th Street (renumbered 219 in 1866).  Like the others, it rose four stories.  The basement and parlor levels were faced in rusticated brownstone, and the upper floors in warm orange-red brick.  The stoop was slightly higher than the average Anglo-Italianate example, yet still shorter than those seen in high-stooped Italianate homes.  The fully round arches of the parlor floor gave way to flat-headed openings on the upper stories, their flat lintels topped with projecting molded caps.

Wise sold 118 East 17th Street in 1856 to Samuel Joyce, a merchant tailor.  Like top tier dressmakers of the period, merchant tailors were highly paid, their clientele coming from the top rungs of business and finance.  Joyce's customers would have come to him for their extensive wardrobes--business attire, formal wear, riding outfits and such. 

Joyce and his wife, Ellen, had two children, Charles Augustus, who was 12 years old when the family moved into the house, and Emily.  A third child, Arthur James, had died in 1851 at ten months old.  Also living in the house was Samuel's brother, James T., and their widowed mother, Isabella, who was 84 at the time.

The family had barely settled in when Joyce received chilling news.  His large shop was at 378 Broadway at the corner of White Street, where he employed several workers.  Among them was Bartholomew Burke, the porter, who had been with Joyce for a decade.  Burke had a room in the back of the shop where he lived.  Around 8:30 on the night of July 18, 1856, Joyce bade him goodnight and came home.

The following morning, at around 9:00, an employee appeared at the Joyce house with startling news.  When the clerks and tailors arrived for work that morning, the door was locked and they could get no response from within.  After the door was forced open, according to the New York Herald, "a large pool of blood was discovered on the floor."  A trail of blood led the men to a small anteroom.  The article said, "on opening the door they were horror stricken."  There was the nude body of Burke, his throat cut "almost from ear to ear" and his forehead smashed in, "evidently produced by a large pressing iron which was lying within a few feet of the corpse."  Burke's gold watch and his bankbook were missing.

Later that morning Joyce told investigators, "I then came down to the store and found the body lying on the right side of the inner room."  He said, "I don't know that the deceased had an enemy in the world."  He notified the bank not to give money to anyone producing Burke's bankbook, explaining what had happened.

Rather surprisingly, the investigation was closed just three days later.  The New York Herald reported, "not a single available clue could be obtained to the perpetrator of one of the most shocking murders ever committed within the premises of New York.  The mystery attending the barbarous proceeding still remains unsolved."

The year 1861 was one of upheaval and sorrow within the Joyce household.   Charles Augustus went off to war, where he rose to the rank of first sergeant with the 88th New York Volunteer Infantry, known as The Irish Brigade.  On June 12, James T. Joyce died at the age of 48, and his funeral was held in the house the following day.  Four months later the parlor would be the scene of a second funeral.  Samuel Joyce died on October 1 at the age of 50, and his funeral was held on October 3.

There would be one more Joyce funeral held here.  Having just buried her two sons, Isabella Joyce died on December 11, 1862 at the age of 90.  Her casket sat in the parlor until her funeral there two days later.

Samuel Joyce's thriving business continued.  In 1863 Emily and her brother, Charles, were running it, both listed as tailors in the city directories.

Although Ellen retained possession of the house, the family left in 1864.  She leased it to a series of tenants before selling it in 1873.  It became home to the Metz family in the late 1870's.  Charles D. and Henry F. Metz were attorneys, with an office at 23 Park Row.  They sold the house to Dr. Sylvester Straat Bogert around 1883.

Bogert was born in Rockland County, New York on September 23, 1844, and graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1865.  He married Sara Kathrina Van Zandt (known as Kittie) on October 28, 1869.  They had two children, Helen Alberta and David Van Zandt.

When the family moved into 219 East 17th Street, in addition to his private practice Bogert was the House Physician of the Eastern Dispensary.  His close relationship with his patients was evidenced in the assumption by one of them who assumed Bogert would come to his financial aid on October 13, 1890.  The problem was, it seems, that the doctor had done so repeatedly already.

The New York Herald reported that "a tall young man wearing a blond mustache" had hired hackman James Hanley "to carry him to many Broadway cafes."  Two hours later and without the money to pay for the cab, "the young man told Hanley to drive him to No. 219 East Seventeenth street," said the article.  But when the cab arrived there, Dr. Bogert told Hanley "that he had paid all the cab fares for the young man that he proposed to pay."  Hanley then drove the young man (who refused to give up his name) to the West 13th Street police station "where he was deposited for all night."

After living in the house for nearly two decades, Bogert moved to Pearl River, New York where he set up his practice.  The house was sold to two wealthy, unmarried sisters, Katherine and Susan McGee.

In 1908 the sisters welcomed Edwin O. Kindberg into their home.  They had been close friends with him and his wife for nearly two decades.  Kindberg's wife had committed suicide on October 11, 1908 and within a week he moved into the East 17th Street house "pursuant to her express wish," according to court papers later.   "He occupied the best room in their house and paid generously for it," said the brief.

Kindberg had had a falling out with his brother, whom he claimed had scammed him out of property.  After moving into the East 17th Street house, he rewrote his will, leaving essentially his entire estate of around $90,000 (more than $2.6 million today) to the Presbyterian Hospital.  To his brother he bequeathed $100.  And to the Katherine McGee, he left the items he had brought to the house, "All my furniture, bric-a-brac, books, engravings, paintings, jewelry, piano and sundry personal recognition of her many kindnesses to my late wife."

The trauma of his wife's sudden death drove Kindberg to start drinking.  He was abetted in this, despite the McKee women's protests, by his lawyer August Reymert, who would take him drinking.  Katherine later told how Reymert would bring Kindberg home drunk, "although specifically warned by Miss McGee that Dr. Burke had said was dangerous to his health."

In February 1909 Kindberg became ill, to the point that he was unable to feed himself, take solid food, nor leave his bed.  The McGee sisters later testified that for two weeks "he rambled in his talk, was unable to carry on any connected conversation or hold his mind upon any subject."  While he was in this condition, on March 5, 1909, Reymert brought relatives of Kindberg to the McKee house and wrote a new will, dividing the estate among the Kindbergs and Reymert's daughters, leaving nothing to the hospital.

A series of suits to overturn the new will were launched, one by the Presbyterian Hospital, and another by Charles A. Kindberg, the brother who by the new will did not even get his $100.  Understandably, the McGee sisters were repeatedly called to the stand to testify.  The contest lasted until December 1910 when the Presbyterian Hospital won the case, and the second will was overturned.

On the afternoon of July 27, 1914, the 60 year old Katherine was crossing Fourth Avenue (later Park Avenue South) at 17th Street when she was struck by a streetcar and killed.  The New-York Tribune reported that her body "lay all last night in the Morgue, while police tried to discover, by means of addresses and papers in a handbag, who the victim was."  In the meantime, Susan was panicked when her sister did not return home.  The following morning she went to the East 22nd Street police station to file a report.  There she was shown jewelry which had been removed from the body, and identified it as Katherine's.

Susan's grief was augmented by a ghoulish crime.  When she collected her sister's effects from the morgue, a chamois bag containing diamond rings "worth about $2,000," according to The Evening World, was missing.  (The figure would be closer to $23,400 today.)  The newspaper noted, "Neither the Coroner's office nor the morgue records had any entry regarding them.  It was suggested the bag might have been caught in the underwork of the car and carried away."

Susan did not accept the unlikely explanation and pressed for an investigation.  And on August 8, The New York Times reported, "Thomas Carr and George Delassandro, employed at the Bellevue morgue...were locked up at Police Headquarters last night on the charge of stealing four diamond solitaire rings from the body of Miss Katherine McGee of 219 East Seventeenth Street."  The men admitted to stealing the jewelry, "but they said they thought the stones were imitations."

In fact, their story was true.  They men had gone to a saloon and, believing the rings to be worthless, gave three of them to friends to give to their wives, and sold the other to the bartender for $1 which they used to drink."  Detectives followed up, and found all four men.  The New York Times said, "All gave up the rings."

Around 1917, Susan sold 219 East 17th Street and it briefly became the Anna Levenberg Home for Immigrant Girls.  Mrs. Oscar Straus explained to a Congressional committee on immigration in 1920 that while the girls left their homelands with addresses of relatives, "These poor people move about a lot.  They had the wrong addresses, so that when they sent the telegrams and the relatives did not come to meet them, and then they are sent to us while they are looking up their relations."

In a macabre case of déjà vu, on the night November 12, 1920 an occupant of the Anna Levenberg Home for Immigrant Girls, 30-year-old Kathleen O'Connor, attempted to cross Fourth Avenue and 17th Street--the exact spot there Katherine McGee had been struck and killed by the streetcar--when she was hit by an automobile.  The New York Times reported, "The machine stopped after striking the woman, and the driver, a man, assisted in placing her in the automobile of Berger W. Tonneson."  Tonneson headed to Bellevue Hospital and the driver of other car promised to follow.  But along the way he disappeared.  The article said, "Miss O'Connor died shortly after reaching the hospital."

It appears 219 East 17th Street was being operated as a rooming house during the Great Depression years.   One resident, Thomas Scheehy, was the victim of a now all-too-familiar accident on October 1, 1939.   At 2:35 that morning, as he was crossing Third Avenue at 36th Street, he was struck by a southbound streetcar.  Scheehy was not killed, but was hospitalized.

image via

A renovation completed in 2002 resulted in an apartment in the basement and parlor levels, and a triplex on the top three floors.  From the exterior, almost nothing has changed since the house was completed in 1856.  It recently sold for just under $5.5 million.

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

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