A HEART FROM BED-STUY’S GIANTESS (1898)

The history of Bedford-Stuyvesant embraces many giants. There is Jackie Robinson, Jackie Gleason, and Chris Rock, just to name a few. Bedford-Stuyvesant, though, probably claims only one giantess. It most certainly claims only one murdering giantess – and, no doubt, claims the first murdering giantess to be put to death in the electric chair. Martha Place, who lived for a time in a brick townhouse at 598 Hancock Street, was that giantess. She stood 6 foot 7 inches tall and – around Valentine’s Day of 1898 – had become the talk of Stuyvesant Heights. But her popularity was not due to her loving, endearing ways. Quite the opposite. It was because she had committed such a brutal murder that year that the State of New York considered, for the first time, putting a woman to death in their new-fangled electric chair. The electric chair had been adopted by the State of New York just ten years previous. And in the decade to follow, just 25 men had been executed with it. This would be the first time, though, that “Old Sparky” would snuff out the life of a woman. Indeed most people could not believe it was about to happen. A jealous and volatile woman, Martha had had the “temper of a tigress.” And so it was, when her husband, William, an insurance adjuster, returned home to 598 Hancock Street one night in February of 1898, that he was confronted by Martha swinging an ax. To utilize a phrase from […]

DIVINING THE HISTORY OF YOUR HOME

I can tell you a little bit about every single family on my block. Well, not the present day families, of course – that might be a little creepy. Actually, it is a lot easier to extract such personal information about the families that lived on my block more than 100 years ago – in the year 1900. No, I am not a mesmerist or paranormal investigator. I don’t read cards or tea leaves. Nor do I make tables float or ask the spirit guides to knock in answer to my questions. I happen to use a less fantastic, more pedestrian source for this type of information for my answers. For, you see, I am a Brownstone Detective – and I use the 1900 Federal Census. I’M FROM THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AND I’M HERE TO HELP. The founders of our Federal government in the 18th century demanded that a decennial census be instituted. The demand was delineated within the U.S. Constitution, and the first attempt at listing Americans took place in 1790. The State of New York decided, too, that knowing who lived within its political boundaries was important. And so the state also began taking its own census in 1825. It was a decennial census, as well, which, in order not to conflict with the Federal censuses, would take place in years ending with a “5.” So, theoretically, nearly every house had had its residents counted from the time of its existence (so long as it existed after 1790), […]

FINDING YOUR BROWNSTONE – IN 1924

Have you ever wondered what your neighborhood looked like in 1924? Or 1951? Or 1996? Aerial photography exists of all of New York City’s neighborhoods and is available to view (and zoom in on!) for free just by visiting NYC Map (a service of the City of New York). Simply type your address in the box at the top of the page and click “Search.” Then – in the upper right hand corner of the map – click on “Map Type,” and select the year you would like to view. Here is a view of Stuyvesant East in Bedford-Stuyvesant (showing Saratoga Park) in 1924. As you might have guessed, you won’t be able to see the expressions on peoples’ faces with this imagery, but it will give you a good indication of what your neighborhood looked like in any of these years. For comparison’s sake, here is a view of the same section of Bedford-Stuyvesant (as above) – but for 1996. Comparing the two maps, you can see some obvious changes. Other than the fact that the second image is in color and was apparently taken in the winter time, if you look closely, you can see how whole swaths of brownstones have been torn down and replaced with such structures as schools and other planned housing projects. These images can also help you to determine whether certain structures existed at certain times and when they might have been built or demolished. Best of all, these maps are good plain […]

THE “BRIDGE & TUNNEL” CROWD (1903)

In 1896, the “Bridge & Tunnel” hipster crowd took a giant leap forward. With the success of the Brooklyn Bridge – and its affect on the borough’s progress – long ago assured, construction on the Williamsburg Bridge had begun that year. Shortly after the bridge’s opening in 1903, though, the seriousness of the occasion passed, and the inevitable cartoons lampooning the “simple folk” of the outer boroughs would begin to appear. This cartoon was printed in The Evening World about a year after the opening – just long enough afterwards for the cartoonist – and everyone else who traveled the bridge on a regular basis – to have already become familiar with the “types” who crossed the bridge. It lampooned the “country mouse comes to the city” aspect of those suburbanites (rural dwellers, to those living in the city) from the outer borough of Brooklyn who were beginning at the time to patronize the offerings of the city through its novel and accessible rapid transit system. The cartoon also depicted the out-of-date dress and forced style of the Williamsburg “set.” Specifically, though, it represented the new access to the city that the commuters from the Eastern District of Brooklyn (read Williamsburg) then enjoyed due to the recent addition of the new suspension bridge spanning the East River. Its caption read: “Henny and Gertie who live in Williamsburg, are on their way to New York to see a show.” As 1903 dawned, in a foreordaining of the hipster movement, it was […]

HITLER’S BROOKLYN TENEMENT (1940)

I know. I know. So dramatic, right? You must be thinking that we’re using a figure of speech in a misguided attempt to characterize a Brooklyn slumlord, right? I mean, he’d have to be a really nasty landlord to get the Hitler comparison. Takes your deposit and keeps the heat off in the winter? Goes into your place when you’re not there? Charges you part of the common area bill? What a dictator! But hold on, because there’s actually a story behind this. A good one… WHAT TO DO WITH A “CRUMMY BUILDING”? Once upon a time, in the City of Churches, two Manhattan attorneys – who had allowed the mortgage payments to lapse on a certain “crummy building” they owned – were discussing legal strategy. These two gentlemen, Julius Freilicher and Martin Auslander of 1 Park Place, had a $3,300 mortgage on their tenement – 541 Clinton Street in Carroll Gardens – with the Dime Savings Bank. The two advocates had determined that it was not in their best interests to pay the mortgage, but they also did not like the idea of losing. They were attorneys, you know. So, they opted for a scheme that would be the next best thing. One day when the bank was about to foreclose, the two attorneys hampered the foreclosure proceedings considerably when they filed a deed of gift with the city that would throw a certain preposterous, albeit figurative, spanner into its works. Freilicher and Auslander’s deed of gift was exactly […]

IS THIS THE SITE OF A MASS GRAVE? (1905)

This year will mark the 241st anniversary of the day that, in 1776, our gallant soldiers of the 1st Maryland Regiment “fell in combat” in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Gen. George Washington was being routed by the British in the battle that might very well have ended our colonial bid for independence, were it not for these brave men, who held the British off while the rest of the American army could escape to fight another day. While Washington’s troops were spiriting away towards the East River, soon to escape in a fog so dense that the British did not know it was happening, the Maryland soldiers were dying and being captured at the hands of the representatives of our former enemy, the British Army. In the words of Walt Whitman, describing Washington as he watched the discomfiting scene through his telescope: Now of the old war-days . . the defeat at Brooklyn; Washington stands inside the lines . . he stands on the entrenched hills amid a crowd of officers, His face is cold and damp . . . . he cannot repress the weeping drops . . . . He lifts the glass perpetually to his eyes . . . . the color is blanched from his cheeks, He sees the slaughter of the southern braves confided to him by their parents. Ultimately,” according to the New York Times, “of the the original Maryland 400 muster, 96 returned, with only 35 fit for duty.” The mass grave, consisting of six […]

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