Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The 1880 Caspar Knauer House - 439 East 87th Street


Emma J. and John S. Johnston lived in Astoria, Queens, but focused their attention on the Yorkville district of Manhattan in the 1870s and 1880s.  The real estate operators erected dozens of homes, selling them as quickly as they were completed.  In February 1880, the Johnstons sold the first house in their row of houses along the north side of East 87th Street between York and First Avenues.  On May 7, they sold three more--one of them, 439 East 87th Street, to Caspar Knauer, who paid $9,500 (equal to about $281,000 in 2024).

Like its neighbors, the brownstone-faced house was neo-Grec in style.  The architrave frames of the parlor and second-floor windows were capped with incised lintels and a geometric neo-Grec cornice crowned the design.  Beefy cast iron newels flanked the short stoop.

In 1941, the neo-Grec details survived.  image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information , Services.

Born in 1843, Knauer owned a "profitable picture frame factory" on Centre Street, as described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  He served with the 20th New York Volunteers during the Civil War, and was a member of the Riker Post of the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic).  The newspaper said Knauer and his family "occupy a fine house at 439 East Eighty-seventh street, New York."

Katherine Schwartz was Knauer's second wife, and the couple had six children.  She replaced a servant in October 1883, her ad reading, "Wanted--Girl for General Housework, washing, ironing, and cooking; a German speaking English [girl] preferred; call evening after 6; ring three times."  

Although a family of eight plus at least one servant may have made things tight in the three-story house, the Knauers managed to take in one boarder at a time.  Living here in 1888 was grammar school teacher Pauline Sesso.  Another educator, August Rupp, who listed his profession as "tutor," lived with the family in 1891; and Peter Wolf, who was president of the St. Ignatius branch of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, moved in the next year.  Wolf would remain at least through 1895.

It is doubtful that Peter Wolf ever met Caspar Knauer.  In the 19th century, declaring an inconvenient relative a lunatic or "incompetent" was a common means of disposing of the problem.  It was used, for instance, by men who had grown tired of their wives, or by those who wanted control of the finances of their relatives.  

On April 4, 1891, Knauer was the victim of what he described as an "abduction," and spent the night in the East 88th Street police station.  The following day he was transferred to Bellevue Hospital where he was pronounced insane.  In a dizzying series of events, the next day, April 6, he was "confined as an insane patient at Dr. Daniel A. Harrison's sanitarium at Whitestone," as reported by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  News of the incident reached as far as the west coast.  The Los Angeles Herald reported that, according to Katherine, "He imagines that he is wealthy, talks of gigantic speculations, thinks he is a great soldier and acquainted with all the generals in the army, and believes he is the Prince of Wales."  The  Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted, "After her husband was sent to the sanitarium, Mrs. Knauer was appointed the committee of his person and estate."

In fact, Knauer was financially well-off, and through his military service did know several high-ranking officers.  He had, as well, been casual friends with Grover Cleveland when the future President lived on West 23rd Street.  Six years after his being committed, members of the Riker's Post of the G.A.R. tracked Knauer down at Breezehurst Terrace (the Whitestone, Long Island sanitarium).  His comrades started legal proceedings to have his insanity diagnosis reversed.  On March 21, 1897, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "They were so impressed by his earnestness that the members of the post took steps to secure his release and it was mainly through their efforts that he was brought to court." 

On the stand on March 20, 1897, Knauer insisted, "I am sane and although I have been in the company of idiots and imbeciles for the past six years, my mind is perfectly clear."  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle recounted, "He said that his wife and sons conspired against him, and stole deeds, bank books and valuable papers."

Robert Safford Newtown, "the well known expert on mental diseases," according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, testified about his examination of Knauer.  He said that "after two hours' careful work [I] became thoroughly convinced that he is sane.  I swear positively that Knauer is perfectly sane and competent...He is not suffering from any mania and his mind is free from any delusion."

The trial was still ongoing a week later when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle again reminded readers that Knauer's "army comrades claim that he is sane and are making herculean efforts to secure his release."  On March 27, Dr. McDonald was called to the stand.  He was the doctor who had initially deemed Knauer insane in 1891.  He said he had "no particular recollection in the case," but "must have found him insane, otherwise he would have been discharged."  He denied, as had been charged, that he "was under the influence of liquor when he examined Knauer."

The stream of doctors--for and against Knauer's release--was followed by Katherine's testimony.  She said she had visited him "several times" since his commitment and "was satisfied that he is demented."  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "The woman stated that she feared if her husband was released from the asylum he would do her bodily harm and probably kill her as well as his children."

The article continued,

Dr. Gustav Sholer was called in rebuttal.  He testified that when he examined Knauer at the asylum he found the patient perfectly rational and in full possession of his faculties.  The doctor said that Knauer had a remarkable memory and quoted dates and incidents of battles in which he fought with astonishing accuracy.

After a month of testimony, on April 14, 1897 Judge Harrison S. Moore handed down his decision.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle titled an article, "Casper Knauer A Paranoid," and reported that the application for his release had been denied.  The article ended saying, "Knauer's family resides at 439 East Eighty-seventh street, New York.  He made a fortune in the picture frame business in Center [sic] street years ago."

Despite the ruling, Knauer was finally released in 1899 and regained control of his estate.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Katherine "left him, taking with her their son, 10 years old."  A few months later, she sued for separation and alimony.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on March 27, 1900, "He muttered threats, counsel said, and led the wife to believe that her life was in danger."  Since she left, Knauer had been paying her $20 a month support for her and their son (about $720 by today's conversion).  The article continued, "in view of the fact that the income from the estate was $3,000 a year, counsel said that he thought the wife's allowance should be increased."

Rather surprisingly, given the couple's history, Knauer's attorney countered "that the plaintiff had repeatedly asked her to return and live with him.  There was no specific act of cruelty alleged and the law would not allow alimony under such circumstances."  

Caspar Knauer died alone in the house three years later.  In July 1903, his daughter Philippine Knauer, the executrix of his estate, sold 439 East 87th Street to Herman and Magdalena Trunk for $9,500 (about $326,000 today). 

It appears the Trunks purchased the house as an investment rather than a residence.  The Yorkville district had been a center of Manhattan's German community for years.  Living here in 1905 was August L. Gieg, who ran for Alderman that year.  And during World War I, Charles and Emma Pregenzer occupied the house.  Charles died here on January 25, 1919.

Johana Stuke purchased 439 East 87th Street in 1922.  The Depression years saw it being operated as a rooming house.  Among the residents in 1936 was Fred L. Boelsen.  The 21-year-old college student had grown up in Little Neck, Queens, the son of a New York police sergeant, Otto J. Boelsen.  Stricken with polio as child, Fred walked with a noticeable limp.

In January that year, he stole a car in Queens, and then burglarized a house of $12 for gas.  "The two crimes were so easy that he said to himself, 'Oh, boy, what have I been missing!", The New York Evening Post later recounted.  It was the beginning of a seven-month-long crime spree that would earn him the nickname the Nassau Phantom.  Boelsen often used his clean-cut schoolboy looks to his advantage.  Following his arrest on July 26, 1936 (having committed at least 200 burglaries), he gloated to police as he described his crimes.  

In one case, he said, a milkman discovered him trying to enter a window.  "Who are you?," he asked, "I've never seen you before."

Boelsen coolly replied, "I just got home from college and I'm trying to get in.  And, by the way, leave an extra half pint of cream today."  He told the police, "He did, and I went ahead with the robbery."

Another time, as he was leaving a house in Great Neck, he heard the sounds of a police siren.  He untied a dog in the yard and walked down the street.  He recalled, "A cop stopped me and said, 'Who are you?'  I said, 'I live over there and I'm taking the dog for a walk.'  He said, 'Did you see a man running?'  I said, 'Yeah, he went that way.'  So did the cop."

He remembered burglarizing "from four to eight homes in a night and taking a total of $10,000 in cash and valuables."  But in one case, Boelsen's actions ended tragically.  Police tried to stop the automobile they believed he was using as a getaway vehicle on April 25.   Instead, it was occupied by Marguerite Wiggen and her husband.  When Wiggen did not stop, a policeman fired a shot, which fatally hit Marguerite.  At the police station on July 26, Boelsen's breezy attitude turned somber when reminded of that.  "I'm sorry that woman was killed," he said.  "It should have been me."

Noting that he was a roomer at 439 East 87th Street, the North Shore Daily Journal reported that police formally charged Boelsen "with first degree robbery, first degree grand larceny and third degree burglary."

In 1960, the house was converted to a two-family residence.  It may have been at this time that the neo-Grec details were removed.  Today the entrance and windows wear prim, molded surrounds.  The hefty 1880 cast iron areaway railings and newels have been replaced with modern examples.  A most striking change is the unique portrait keystone that was installed above the doorway--its disfigured countenance no doubt catching many passersby off guard.

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

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