In 1845 William C. Freeman, a clerk in the Surrogate's Office, lived in the recently built house at 112 East 13th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. (It would be renumbered 138 in 1867.) Twenty-feet wide, it was faced in warm orange brick and trimmed in brownstone. Its single-doored entrance was flanked by narrow sidelights and sat above a short stone stoop.
By 1851 Erastus Wheaton had moved his family into the house. That year he puzzlingly listed his profession as "drover." Two years later he had amended it to "shipping merchant."
The family rented two "communicating" (or connecting) rooms in 1856, but Wheaton was especially particular about who shared his home, and was clear that the renter would not be fed. His advertisement offered the rooms to "one or two single gentlemen" and noted, "no children; no boarders."
Wheaton attempted to liquidate the property in February 1858, offering it for sale or "will exchange for a farm within fifty miles of this city." He noted the house had "Croton and gas throughout," putting it on the cutting edge of amenities--running water and safe, clean gas light fixtures. When it had not sold a year later, Wheaton made an ultimatum in his advertisement on February 5, 1859. "If not sold within twenty days will be disposed of at auction."
The house was purchased by James H. Drake, who ran a hardware and "furnishings" store at 54 Fourth Avenue. The Drakes remained through the Civil War years. The respectability of their former home declined when, around 1876, it became home to Daniel and Mary A. Stiles Burns, a.k.a. Barron. Daniel was known on the street as "Dan the Blacksmith."
On April 11, 1877, the New York Herald reported that "Daniel H. Burns, alias 'Dan the Blacksmith,'" had been arraigned the previous day on charges of bank burglary. Although an eyewitness placed him on the scene, Burns pleaded innocent, saying he was at home at the time of the crime. Mary, whom the newspapers described as "a fine, portly looking woman, richly dressed and with diamond earrings and other jewelry on her person" was called to the stand.
She testified that she remembered that Sunday clearly, since one of their two children was very sick. Daniel, she said, came home between 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning, went to bed, and slept until 11:00. He had breakfast at 11:25, lay down again, and did not leave the house until 11:00 the following morning. Mary Hanlon, a servant, took the stand to support her employer's story.
Things would only get worse for the reputation of 138 East 13th Street. Mary sold the house to Wilhelmina Rupprecht on January 5, 1885 for $14,000 (about $407,000 in 2022). She leased it in January of the following year to Lina (sometimes spelled Lena) Schmidt, who also went by Lena Annus.
In order to rent rooms on a temporary basis (sometimes for periods of an hour or two at a time), the house was named the Hotel Europe. Reformers--specifically William C. Rehn, Parkhurst Society agents Lennon and Whitney, and Rev. Dr. McEwen of the 14th Street Presbyterian Church-- first realized that the "guests" were not coming here merely for a night's rest in the fall of 1894.
Simultaneously, a committee of East 13th Street residents delivered a petition to the Mayor's office on September 21 demanding the "suppression of the Hotel Europe." The Evening World reported, "The petition sets forth that the Hotel Europe is the resort of men and women whose 'bacchanalian revels are a disgrace to the neighborhood.'"
A hearing was held at the Essex Market Police Court on October 6, 1894 to "find out whether or not it is a disreputable resort," as reported in the New-York Tribune. Neighbor Joseph Eller testified he had "watched the place for two years and seen disreputable women take different men in there nightly." Reverend McEwen, who also lived on East 13th Street, said, "I know several of the disreputable women by sight, have been solicited myself by them and have seen them take other men to the Hotel Europe. Among them is a Danish woman whom I have noticed as being particularly flagrant."
When William C. Rhem took the stand, he added attempted bribery to the charges. "Mrs. Annus and another woman came to see me...and at last asked me to let up on the Hotel Europe. I said I couldn't." According to Rhem, Lena returned later in an attempt to bribe him "to tear up the complaint."
Less than a month later, the Hotel Europe was up and running again. And, once again, a hearing was held. Among the witnesses on October 31 were Frederick Heeble, a tailor, and his employee named Mancura. Their testimony might rightfully have raised questions about their own behavior. The Sun reported that they "testified to some of the sights they saw in a rear room of the hotel while looking through a spyglass from the roof of Blank's Winter Garden at 100 Third Avenue."
Lena had gotten away with running her brothel for years by paying protection money. When the Lexow Committee was formed in 1894 to investigate police corruption, a long list of illegal operations that had been protected was compiled, including the "house of assignation" at 138 East 13th Street run by Lena Schmitt.
Surprisingly, despite the reformers' and the neighbors' intense efforts, Lena's "hotel" was still operating three years later, when her request "to place and keep sign at No. 138 East Thirteenth street" was approved by the Board of Aldermen. In February that year a report to the Chief of Police by Captain John D. Herlihy of the 14th Precinct, deemed 138 East 13th Street a "suspected" house of assignation and a "reputed" hotel. The report listed "Mrs. Schmitt" as proprietor.
In May 1901, Lena leased the house to Annie Stander for five years. Lena had apparently branched out. Only a month later, on June 12, 1901, The New York Times reported on a "raid made on the house at 27 Stuyvesant Street. Lena Schmidt was arrested and charged with running a brothel.
And back on East 13th Street, nothing had changed. On January 1, 1903, The City Record reported on the "arrest of Anna Stander and Edw. Baer, for keeping house of assignation at No. 138 East Thirteenth street." Following the end of Anna Stander's lease in 1906, Lena Schmitt/Annus returned and picked up where Anna had left off.
As part of his declared war on vice, on October 20, 1910, Mayor William Jay Gaynor forced the resignation of Police Commissioner William F. Baker and simultaneously fired Charles W. Kirby, second deputy. The Elmira-Star Gazette wrote, "The first manifestation of activity of the new officials was the raiding of five gambling houses...The first descent was made on the house at 138 East 13th street."
Max Praiss, a truck driver, rented an upper room from Lena in 1916. He used his wagon on May 19 in burglarizing the Tauber & Co. warehouse on West 25th Street. He and Frank Omalion, a bootblack, broke in and carried "silks valued at $12,000" to the wagon. It would have been a sizable haul--more than $300,000 today-- had they not been caught. The Sun reported, "When arrested in Twenty-third street, the alleged stolen property was on the truck they were driving."
When Lena Schmitt, a.k.a. Annus left the East 13th Street house in 1924, a colorful if tainted chapter came to an end. She died four years later, on August 18, 1928, in an apartment on East 71st Street.
The passage of years did not necessarily improve the respectability of the residents of 138 East 13th Street. In 1953 Greenwich Village was stalked by a mugger who waited in the shadows and pounced upon drunks "who came staggering out of village nite spots," according to the Long Island Daily Star, on August 12." There had been more than 100 nearly identical assaults and robberies. Just past midnight on August 12, 1953, undercover detective Peter Hynes was on the lookout for the perpetrator, when he noticed "a skulking figure in the shadows." Hynes staggered along the sidewalk, pretending to be drunk. The article said, "When the prowler pounced on him, Hynes was prepared."
The mugger was 28-year-old Ramigio Camacho, who roomed at 138 East 12th Street. The mugger had no intentions of being arrested. The Long Island Star-Journal said he was "captured after a fierce battle." Hynes was able to subdue him only after Patrolman Gerard Cicero rushed in to help. The "battered suspect," as described by the Long Island Daily Star, confessed to the 100 muggings.
As least one resident was a victim, rather than the perpetrator, of a crime. Virginia Zabriskie returned home on the afternoon of March 26, 1967 "to discover her television set and a suitcase standing in the hallway," reported the Ossining, New York Citizen Register. When she entered her apartment, she found a cigarette burning in an ashtray. Fearing someone was still there, she ran to the street to find a policeman. When the two returned, they discovered Fred Prendergass "stacking various articles of loot near a doorway." The gutsy burglar was held on $5,000 bail pending a hearing.
A renovation completed in 1984 resulted in an apartment in the basement level and an "artists studio" on the roof. The nearly windowless addition distracts from the otherwise intact Greek Revival facade below. The dignified appearance of the venerable house belies its often shocking history.
photographs by the author
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