Around 1855 Henry G. Tiemiear moved into the upper floors of the recently-completed house and store at 119 East 26th Street (renumbered 207 in 1867). Faced in red brick, the Italianate style structure was three stories tall above the store level. The working class Gas House District (so-called because of the nearby Manhattan Gas Works) in which it stood was reflected in the straight-forward design. The only decoration was the paneled fascia below the simple bracketed cornice.
The grocery Tiemiear opened on the ground floor was one of two he owned, the other being two blocks away on East 24th. Boarding with his family in 1855 and 1856 was R. B. Mooney, a butcher who was quite likely an employee of Tiemiear. He was, as well, a volunteer fire fighter, a member of the Metropolitan Hose Co. No. 39 on Third Avenue.
By the Civil War years, the house was being operated as a boarding house. An typical advertisement in March 1865 read, "To Let--A Pleasant and neatly furnished front Room on the first floor in a respectable locality."
Throughout the ensuing decades the building was home mostly to working class Irish immigrants. Living here in 1872, for instance, were James Bracket, a real estate agent; policeman Matthew Campbell; Michael O'Meara, a carpenter; and Samuel Thurman, who was in the tin business.
A surprising resident in the early 1890s was John Cairns, described by the New York Herald as "a Scotchman about thirty-three years old, tall, manly looking and frank in manner." On January 2, 1896 the newspaper noted, "Cairns lives with his wife and one child, two years old, in modest rooms in a flat house at No. 223 East Thirty-second street. Until six months ago his home was at No. 207 East Twenty-sixth street."
Years earlier Cairns's father had obtained a job in the Burden Iron Company in Troy, New York. John learned bookkeeping, and got an office job with the company. His performance was so notable that in 1889 millionaire owner Isaac Townsend Burden made John Cairns his personal secretary. It was a highly responsible position and an astounding rise in station for the young immigrant.
The New York Herald said, "He, and he alone, of all the household, it is said, has often had in his keeping the keys of the safes. He has known the combination of the locks which secure the silver closets, and has been trusted with many such details, with which even Mr. Burden himself was not familiar." And yet, Cairns continued to live in modest boarding houses like this one.
On December 28 The Richmond Item reported, "Isaac Townsend Burden, the multi-millionaire, and one of the leaders of the four hundred, and his wife, lament the loss of $70,000 worth of diamonds and uncounted stocks and bonds, which are easily convertible into cash. The goods was taken from the safe in the private residence about last midnight, while the family was awake." Naturally, Cairns came under intense police scrutiny.
Burden, however, refused to suspect Cairns, and a week later still insisted to the New York Herald that "his faith in the man is absolutely unshaken." The newspaper added that police could find "no flaw in the honest record and seemingly sterling character of John Cairns." Investigators were sent to 207 East 26th Street. According to the newspaper, the boarders "speak of him and his wife only in terms of respect." The mystery was never solved.
The working class status of the residents of 207 East 26th Street was reflected in their advertisements seeking jobs. In February 1899 Bernard Foicarelli placed one that read, "Boy, 15 years old, like to learn horseshoeing," and the following year "J. P." wrote, "Man. Care for horse, cow; owing to sickness lost place [i.e. former job]; good, competent man; board, room; terms suit employer." John Crown lived here in 1906 when he advertised, "Bartender (24) wishes steady position."
Lawrence Halleran had had a job as a city tugboat engineer since 1889. On June 15, 1904 his tugboat was on the East River when the pleasure sidewheeler the General Slocum caught fire with 1,348 German women and children on aboard, headed for a picnic. The tug's captain headed for the burning vessel, The Farmer reporting, "Halleran carried eighteen of the excursionists to the tug." The Trenton Evening Times said, "his hair was burned off and his face blistered." He was hailed as one of the heroes of that terrible day on which 1,021 perished and received a Carnegie medal.
Grace Corbett had found a job working in a nearby Chinese laundry. She and another woman, Agnes Reynolds, may have been valuable as interpreters if the other staff did not speak English. Chinese immigrants had been suffering from intense prejudice for decades, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. On the night of January 29, 1906, Grace Corbett must have been terrified when, as reported by The New York Times, "A crowd of 500 men and boys invaded a Chinese laundry kept by Sam Lee and Ching Foy at 211 East Twenty-sixth Street last night. They broke down the door, smashed the windows, and scattered the laundry packages in the street. Then they chased the Chinaman over the back fence." When police arrived they found Grace Corbett and Agnes Reynolds cowering in the shop.
Lawrence Halleran was still living at 207 East 26th Street on July 25, 1909 when he and three friends went to Rockaway Beach for the day. They boarded the Manhattan-bound train at 5:20 and stood on the rear platform. The train was going about 45 miles per hour and Halleran's hat blew off. In an attempt to grab his hat, he leaned "far out to the side of the tracks, and his head struck a post," reported The Farmer. "He was dashed from the platform and thrown to the mud of the flats." When his body was recovered, his Carnegie medal hung around his neck.
Another resident, Margaret (known as Mollie) Herbst, was walking past the boarding house at 147 East 26th Street on the night of February 12, 1911 when saw a horrific incident unfold. A few hours later she was in night court with a kitten cat in her arms, testifying against Thomas Murphy, an electrical worker. She told the judge, "I was passing this man's house and I heard a kitten wail. I looked up and saw him deliberately drop this kitten out of the third story window."
According to The Sun, Murphy "said the cat was persistent in showing a preference for his room." He explained the accident to the judge saying, "I chase her out day after day. Last night I tried to shoo her out and she jumped out the window." The magistrate found the testimony of Molly Herbst much more believable and held Murphy in $100 bail for trial. The Sun said, "Miss Herps [sic] left court with the kitten in her muff."
Molly named the cat Pinkey. Despite her care, it had suffered multiple injuries, including a broken leg, that proved too great for her home nursing. Five months later, on July 30, she walked into the East 22nd Street police station and told Lieutenant Gregg that Pinkey was dead. The Sun reported, "Lieut. Gregg showed some concern, as it is a turbulent neighborhood. Later he learned that Pinkey was a cat that had been resuscitated by Mrs. Herbst, so he called up the Health Department."
Molly Herbst had no intention of Pinkey's being disposed of by the Health Department, and left before it arrived. The Sun said she "put into the fist of Philip Lombardi, a youth of the region, one dime to insure a respectable interment for the kitten, and the Gas House district mourned."
Olaf Termansen and his wife were living here in January 1919 when he lost his job. He tried repeatedly to find another, with no success. The couple's dwindling finances and his inability to find a new position affected him greatly. On March 19 The Evening World reported that he suffered from "the strange delusion that people he passed on the street were laughing at him." It became too much for him to bear.
That afternoon his wife came home to find him "sitting in a rocking chair, a strip of rubber tied to his lips and the gas turned on." (The rubber tubing was connected to the gas lighting fixture.) According to the newspaper, his wife "told the police their savings had been used up and the wolf was already through the door of their cramped two rooms they called home."
The house-and-store building continued to operate as a rooming house until 1961, when it was remodeled into apartments, one per floor above the store.
photograph by the author
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