Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Notorious Picus Hotel - 504 Canal Street


In 1818, the year that work began to cover the eight-foot-wide canal that drained the Lispenard Meadows, John Y. Smith began construction of a duel-purpose building at the southwest corner of Greenwich Street and what would soon become Canal Street.  Smith leased the oddly-shaped plot from Alexander L. Stewart and his wife, Sarah (who was the daughter of Leonard Lispenard).  He produced a striking, Federal style house and store at what would become 480 Greenwich Street.

Smith used the plot next door as a side yard to his home and hair starch business.  Finally, in 1841 Robert Stewart, an heir of Alexander Stewart, erected a four-story house-and-store on the vacant lot.  Completed in  1842, the substantial granite storefront of 237 Canal Street (renumbered 504 in 1860) sat below three stories of red brick.  Consistent with the Greek Revival style, the attic floor was substantially shorter than the lower floors, yet the steep peaked roof was a holdover from the earlier Federal style.

Operated as a boarding or tenement house, the upper floors were populated by blue collar tenants.  One, seemingly a teenager, sought work in 1848, her advertisement reading:

A Protestant girl wants a situation as chambermaid or seamstress, or take care of children.  The best of city reference given.  Can be seen for 2 days at 237 Canal street, one door from Greenwich.

The shop was home to the collar store of Irish-born William Kelly by 1850.  He and his 24-year-old wife Margaret lived upstairs.  Two teenaged boys, William Gillian and Patrick Ball, lived in the building and listed their professions as "apprentice," suggesting they worked for Kelly.  The extended Hoffmire family took several rooms.  Fifty-year-old clerk William Hoffmire and his wife Maria had eight children--two adults, William Jr., who was a machinist, and Charles, who was a silversmith, and three younger boys and three girls.  Completing the tenant list were 30-year-old boilermaker James O'Neil and his 21-year-old wife Mary; and George Green, a 21-year-old trunkmaker.

If William Kelly's apprentices had indeed boarded with him and his wife in 1850, the couple had rethought the idea by 1854.  That year Kelly placed an advertisement in the New York Herald that read, "Wanted--Two young men to learn a trade, and board with their parents.  Apply at the Collar Factory, 237 Canal street."

Kelly moved his operation to 487 Greenwich Street in 1856.  The store was converted by John Martin to a saloon.  It survived until the first year of the Civil War.  On July 23, 1861, three months after the first shot was fired, an advertisement appeared in the New York Herald:

For Sale--Very cheap, the lease, stock and fixtures of a good liquor store; well located near ferries and several lines of steamships, doing a good business; lease of whole house if required.  Sold in consequence of the owner going to sea.  Apply to 504 Canal street. 

The former saloon became a Union Army recruiting office.  On March 3, 1863 the Enrollment Act of 1863 was enacted.  It required that every male citizen between 20 and 45 years of age enroll for the draft.  The legislation provided a loophole for the wealthy in that exemptions could be purchased for $300--about $12,000 in 2023--or draftees could pay for a substitute.  An advertisement in the New York Sun read:

U. S. RECRUITING OFFICE, 504 CANAL st.  One door from Greenwich.  $500 to $1,000 for volunteers and substitutes for the army and navy; a few boys 18 years of age will be taken.  Substitutes furnished at short notice.  All business transacted with promptness and dispatch.

At the end of the war, the ground floor became home to John Borman's "segars" business.  Among the tenants upstairs was Henry Depping, a "segarmaker," who most likely worked for Borman.  Also rooming in the building in 1864 were James Burns, a clerk; and Daniel Hogan, an engineer.  (The term "engineer" referred to both a bridge, road, and machinery designer, as today, or to a person who maintained machinery.  Hogan was most likely the latter.)

Daniel Hogan found himself before a judge on July 12, 1865.  Miles Gragin, who lived in Pennsylvania, came to New York to liquidate some property.  He apparently got a bit drunk the night before and had fallen asleep "on a stoop in Canal-street," as reported by The New York Times.  When he woke, he realized that his four deeds, which he valued at $15,000, were gone.  Suddenly Daniel Hogan appeared and "told him that if he would pay him a certain sum, he would get him all his papers," said the article.  After Cragin gave him $2, Hogan went into 504 Canal Street and returned with one of the deeds.

Cragin found a policeman and had him arrested.  Hogan explained to the judge that he saw a boy take a package from Cragin's pocket, pursued him, and retrieved the single deed.  He was held for trial.  Whether or not Cragin ever got his other three deeds back is unclear.

Other tenants were similarly suspicious.  Luke D. Broughton listed his occupation in city directories in 1868 as physician.  However, an ad in the New York Herald that year read, "Astrology--Dr. and Mrs. Broughton can be consulted in astrology and medicine at 504 Canal street."

By 1870 the ground floor had been returned to a saloon, run by Peter Krieg.  Both it and the upper floors were taken over by Louis Picus in 1872, kicking off a notorious chapter in the life of 504 Canal Street.  The nefarious activities at the address started almost immediately.

On May 2, 1872, The Evening Telegram reported, "On Monday afternoon, a man named John Keller, was removed in a senseless condition from No. 504 Canal street, to St. Mary's Hospital, Hoboken, where he expired on Monday afternoon."  Keller had suffered several obvious wounds and internal injuries.  The coroner visited 504 Canal Street, "but none of the inmates would consent to give the slightest information concerning deceased," said the article.  And so subpoenas were issued.

Picus's wife Bertha explained under oath that Keller, who had lived there for six months, went to bed around 7:00 that night.  He repeatedly fell out of bed, she insisted.  She and Louis tied him to the bed, but he "burst the cords and again fell to the floor," so they took him to the New Jersey hospital.  (She offered no reason as to why they did not opt for a local facility.)  Other tenants were questioned, but finally the case was dropped for lack of evidence.

In 1874 William Bohner worked for Picus and lived in the house.  On June 9, the New York Herald reported, "A supposed incendiary fire occurred yesterday at No. 504 Canal street.  William Bohner was arrested on suspicion by Fire Marshal Sheldon."  Further investigation revealed the motive.  The New-York Tribune reported that Bohner had recently been fired, "and in revenge he attempted to set fire to the premises, building a small conflagration in his bed for the purpose."

Picus became well-known to law enforcement for his organized scheme of fleecing immigrants.  Perfect targets were a young couple from Lebanon, Syria who arrived in New York in November 1882.  Six months later, according to 22-year-old Wardy Tanoos, James Rosedale "told her her child would be taken away from her, and she would be imprisoned a year for begging, but if she would give him $100 he could get her out of the trouble."  He said he would purchase steamer tickets to get them safely out of the city.  (This additional service would cost another $50.)  The New York Times reported on April 19, 1883, "he took them to a hotel at No. 504 Canal street, where their expenses had to be paid."  Those expenses were mounting.  Rosedale charged them $112 for the steerage tickets.  Eventually, he took $560 from the naïve couple--nearly $17,000 in 2023 terms.

On April 18, Thomas G. Roebuck went to the pier to see friends off.  The New York Times reported he "saw a man pushing several men and women on board, while the latter seemed to protesting and refused to go."  They were the Tanoos family, who had realized the City of Richmond was headed to Liverpool.  Happily for them, police interfered and Rosedale was arrested.

Five months later, Frederick Rufenacht, who arrived in New York on his way to Europe, became a victim.  On September 9, the Syracuse Herald reported, "He was met at the boat landing by a runner for Louis Picus, keeper of an immigrant boarding house at No. 504 Canal street, who induced Rufenacht to go with him to the boarding house."  There, the runner sold him a ticket to Switzerland.  Rufenacht had $100 in American currency left, "and with this bought of the runner a sight draft on 'The Anglo-American Bank' of Basil, Switzerland, for 500 francs," said the article.  

When Rufenacht disembarked in Europe, he discovered there was no such bank.  Furious, he boarded a ship back to New York and went straight to the Mayor's office.  The slippery Louis Picus managed to wriggle out of the charges, however.  The Syracuse Herald reported, "Marshall McDermott sent for Picus who admitted that the runner was in his employ, but said that be had left New York and he did not know where he had gone.  Picus asserted that he knew nothing whatever about the draft and argued that he would not be held responsible for it.  The case was not settled."

Louis Picus placed a very strange help-wanted ad in the New York World on May 14, 1889.  "Boy--wanted, a very black boy, from 8 to 10 years, 504 Canal st."

Typical of the Picuses' victims was R. J. Gordon, who arrived in New York from Boston on April 14, 1892.  He was here on business with The Lone Star Cotton Picking Machine Company.  While he was looking in a tobacco shop window, a man struck up a conversation.  The new friend visited Gordon at his hotel the following morning and, as reported by The New York Times, "the man said something about '$3,000 worth of good stuff.'  The two drove in a cab to Picus's Hotel, a squalid hostelry at 504 Canal Street.  Here Gordon registered as 'John Brown, Custer City,' and took a room."  (The "good stuff" was known as "green goods," or counterfeit money.)

Gordon soon realized he had made a serious mistake.  A second man came in the room and asked Gordon to write a note "to a third party who would 'bring the stuff over presently on receipt of the dispatch.'"  He did so, but, "Then he got a little frightened at his surroundings, the more so because Friend No. 2 had locked the door and pocketed the key."  Gordon said he wanted a drink of water and promised to return in a minute.  His captor "reluctantly" let him out or the room.  Gordon attempted to flee but was intercepted by Bertha Picus.  The New York Times reported, "The woman grabbed his satchel and umbrella," but Picus escaped and ran directly to the 5th Precinct station house.  

It appears that Picus was paying protection money to the police.  Officers were sent to investigate and "found no green-goods men, and the woman said she had never seen him before."  Captain Stephenson turned the tables on Gordon, who was now accused of attempting to buy counterfeit money.  He was directed to return to 504 Canal Street and pay Bertha Picus the day's rent before he could retrieve his umbrella and satchel.

The Picuses and their henchman would continue to victimize immigrants and tourists for years.  But, despite their apparent paying off of police, the Raines Law enacted in 1896, affected their saloon business.   The New York World explained on March 27, "Under it not one of the nearly 500 restaurants in this city which now hold licenses permitting them to serve drinks to their patrons with their meals, but not over bars, will be permitted to so serve on Sundays."  

Whether the Raines Law had anything to do with the Picuses closing the saloon and ending their lease is impossible to know.  But a year later, in 1897, the Stewart family sold the property to Samuel Weil.  

At the time, Dr. George A. Hayunga ran a drugstore in the corner building next door.  Before 1902 he and his wife Margaret moved into 504 Canal Street, along with Hayunga's brother, his uncle, a cousin, and a live-in servant.  Margaret was highly involved in the business and by 1906 held her own retail druggist license.  

Hayunga's uncle, (who had the confusingly similar name of Dr. George E. Hayunga) was apparently also involved in the drugstore.  He had served as a surgeon in the Unites States Navy during the Civil War, and had practiced medicine ever since. 

On March 6, 1907, George E. Hayunga died "at the residence of his nephew," as reported by the New-York Tribune.  The physician was 67 years old.

George A. Hayunga continued to run the drugstore next door and practice medicine from 504 Canal Street.  On March 24, 1911, The New York Times reported, "The first steps were taken last night...for the erection of a Lutheran hospital and dispensary."  A constitution for the Society of the Lutheran Hospital of the city of New York was adopted and George Hayunga was elected its president.

When the process of acquiring land dragged on, Hayunga took matters into his own hands.  The 1914 New York Charities Directory listed the Lutheran Hospital of Manhattan at 502 Canal Street, and described the facility as being "for care and relief of ill and indigent poor of the Borough of Manhattan, without regard to race, creed or color.  Accommodates about 100 daily." 

By then, Samuel Weil had owned that building since 1908.  He  had purchased 506 Canal Street in 1907, and finally added to his holdings on September 12, 1919 by buying 508 Canal Street.  Real estate operators most likely expected that Weil would erect a modern commercial building on the site, but surprisingly that never happened.

The row as it appeared in 1931.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Although the venerable structures survived, they suffered neglect throughout the 20th century.  The group was owned by V. Ponte & Sons, a New Jersey-based carting business in the last decade of the century.  Legal troubles caused the family to change course in 1997.  On April 2 that year, Newsday reported, "The business and its owners, Angelo Ponte, 72, and his son, Vincent J. Ponte, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges on Jan. 28...As part of the plea agreement, the Pontes agreed to stay out of the carting business forever."  

The family's failure to maintain the Canal Street properties was strikingly evident when, on April 1, 1997, the 18-by-20-foot rear wall of 504 Canal Street collapsed.  Newsday reported, "The Buildings Department had issued a permit to repair the non-bearing wall in 1994, but the work was never done."  Once again, although the end of the line for the vintage structure seemed unavoidable, the significant damage was repaired.

Surviving against all odds, the building forms part of an astonishing row, giving us a glimpse into commercial New York City in the early part of the 19th century.

photographs by the author
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