Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Washington Terrace Part 2: Survival

In Part 1 of this mini-series about Washington Terrace, Ella, who lived on the street, was found murdered a few miles away. As a reminder, this mini-series is about a little street in Manhattan that was built off the regular street grid.

In the same year that Ella was found murdered, 1907, a young man arrived in New York City as a newcomer from Norway. This story is about the survival of his son, Arthur Wigeland.

Arthur and his older brother Hans grew up on Washington Terrace. Their home was likely a lively place with the two brothers, their parents, two cousins from Norway, and three more boarders - also from Norway - all in one apartment.

Arthur spent his childhood, from the 1920s until he enlisted in WWII, living in this row of houses,
shown here as they appear in 2017. Photo by blog author.

When World War II broke out, Hans and Arthur both enlisted in the Army. Hans was a musician and he ended up playing in an Army artillery band. Arthur, age 21, had a job selling advertising for The New York Times when he enlisted as a private.

Arthur Wigeland. New York Times Studios.

Arthur reported for duty with the Army at Fort Jay on Governor’s Island. The small island is in the upper bay of New York Harbor, just off the southern tip of Manhattan. A United States military post since the beginning of our country’s independence, it was a place for troops to muster before heading overseas during WWII.

Manhattan and Governor's Island. Fort Jay is on the lower left side of the photo,
the structure surrounded by open land.
Plane Flying above Governor's Island, 1935, unknown photographer. 
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Arthur headed to Western Europe with the Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and his job was Forward Observer in a tank. 


In January 1945 Arthur was riding with a small group of tanks in Belgium when he was surrounded by Germans.

Arthur was in Belgium at tail end of the Battle of the Bulge. The battle began a month before, in December 1944, when the Nazis were in a desperate situation, and Hitler launched an all-out attack against the Allies. It was the largest battle on the western front, and it was brutal.

Arthur’s tank was attacked and the driver was killed. Arthur and several others found an abandoned house as shelter, but it didn’t offer them lasting protection. They fought the Nazis from the house but soon succumbed. 

Arthur had been fighting in the war for almost  three years when he was taken prisoner. Whatever bravery he pulled from himself to fight during those years, he would need to pull out even more to survive as a P.O.W. in a German stalag, a prison camp for enlisted troops.

After capturing the soldiers in Belgium, the Germans marched the prisoners to Limburg, Germany. They passed through small towns, and one veteran who survived the march recalled townspeople throwing apple cores at the prisoners to watch them dive for the cores and fight each other over a small bite of food.

The soldiers marched for days and days without adequate meals – often without any food at all. Escapees were shot on the spot.

Stalag XII

Their destination was Stalag XII. The place had served for years as a staging camp where newly-captured prisoners were sent before being disbursed to other places like work camps. As temporary housing for the prisoners, the conditions were stark to the extreme, devoid of anything to make the place habitable.

By the time Arthur arrived in 1944, Stalag XII housed P.O.W.s long-term, though the conditions remained inhumane.

Stalag XII. Photo from

Stalag XII had no lights, no heat, no beds, no blankets. The men slept on the ground – which was cobblestone for those in tents – with lice-filled straw. I’m sure you can imagine the state of the latrines without my description, and many men suffered dysentery. 

Conditions, however, would get worse. 

In March 1944, the Allies progressed closer and closer, and the Nazis loaded the P.O.W.s from Stalag XII onto railway boxcars to move them toward Berlin. The men were so crowded that there was only room for them to stand, body-to-body, though in some cars they were able to rotate rest times when men could sit while others stood waiting their turn. 

The boxcars full of prisoners sat on the tracks for 36 hours. And then they were strafed.

Strafe comes from the German verb strafen, which means to punish. In WWI, the word strafe entered the English language through the Brits when they heard the German phrase, “Gott strafe England,” meaning, “May God punish England,” and strafe was used to describe any type of attack. 

In WW2, however, the word strafe meant, specifically, attacking the ground from machine-gun fire from a plane flying above.

The prisoners in the boxcars were strafed by Allied planes. The cars were not marked with “P.O.W.” as they should have been according to Geneva Convention rules. The Allies had no idea they were killing and wounding fellow countrymen. They thought they were bombarding enemy transport.

The German guards fled. Some reports say the guards opened the railcar doors before they left. Other reports say the prisoners broke free themselves. However the prisoners escaped, they did it while being strafed.

Shirts off their Backs

As the men ran or stumbled or fell out of the cars, leaders among them organized the group. A Scottish military chaplain arranged them into a formation with the hope that it would save their lives.

If the Germans didn’t label them properly as P.O.W.s, they would label themselves. The men were ordered to take off their shirts and bend over, using their bare bodies in the sun to spell out the letters P O W that could be read by the pilots above.  

Completely unarmed and defenseless under fire, they held the formation. The strafing continued. Men were hit, and one man broke formation to run away. Everyone else remained feet on ground, bodies bent over – except the wounded and two chaplains who performed last rites on the dying.

The P47 Thunderbird pilots stopped the attack when they realized the men were prisoners, and they dipped their plane wings in acknowledgement that the message was received. The pilots flew away, but still the men on the ground held position, half-dressed, mostly starved, in the elements, all afternoon. 

Arthur Wigeland from Washington Terrace was among them.

It seems like the next thing I should write is the Allies returned and the man were safe, but that’s not what happened. Instead, in the evening, the German guards returned. The prisoners couldn’t be moved by train, and at 1 o’clock in the morning, the prisoners were ordered to march.

But not Arthur. He didn’t march. He escaped that night, and he wasn’t the only one. 

Escape and Rescue

Another prisoner slipped away when the group started moving, and he found his way to a farmhouse. A woman there gave him coffee and food. The word was going around the town that the Americans would soon be in Limburg.

Meanwhile Arthur met up with some others who escaped and they hid in a house. There was no resident there to feed them, but they found apples in the cellar – the first food they had had in weeks.

After a couple of days, they recognized the sound of American tanks, and the men wept. 

The tanks were part of the “most powerful tank force ever assembled on the western front,” according to The New York Times report. The enemy had destroyed bridges and left rubble in the streets to block the way of the Allies, but the American bulldozers busted through the mess and the tanks rolled into Limburg at 3:45 in the afternoon of March 27, 1945. 

Allies advancing eastward through Germany. Limburg, where Stalag XII was located, is
circled in red by blog author. Berlin is to the northeast. Map from The New York Times, March 28, 1945.

Arthur and the other starving men came out of the house where they were hiding, and the American soldiers in the tanks tossed chocolate, K-rations, and cigarettes to them. 

Arthur had survived. He went home weighing 130 lbs on his 6’2” frame as one of the lucky ones. Maj. David Roberts told The New York Times the survivors of Stalag XII “were in a pitiful state of well-being.”

Arthur returned to the States around the time of the VE-Day celebrations. The war in Europe was over.

VE-Day celebration in Times Square. Photo from

Back in New York City, the New York Times gave Arthur a position again in the ad department, and, over the years, he worked his way up in the advertising industry. 

Arthur left his childhood home on Washington Terrace to fight in a war. Almost twenty years to the day after his capture by the enemy in Belgium, he died in New Jersey at age 43 after a long illness. He left behind a wife, three children, five battle stars, a Purple Heart, and this story of his survival.

After covering murders in Part 1, and war in Part 2 of this mini-series, Part 3 will be about artwork on Washington Terrace.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Washington Terrace, Part 1: Murders

This isn't a story about Manhattan real estate. It's a story about murder, money, and another murder. President Cleveland makes an appearance, and there is an exotic lagoon, a neighborhood amusement park, and an insanity case - all with ties to a little street in upper Manhattan.

We'll start with the street because that's where I started, before I knew anything about the murders. I didn't recognize the name, Washington Terrace, and I headed to the place to check it out. 

Washington Terrace

Washington Terrace is a privately-made road off the street grid in upper Manhattan. 

Washington Terrace today, 2017. Photo by PBM, used with permission.
A developer bought the land in the middle of a city block on West 186th Street and built row houses on the lots.

Washington Terrace run south from the middle of the block on 186th Street between Amsterdam and Audubon Avenues. The small street is not part of the regular Manhattan grid. Map detail from The New York Public Library Digital Collections

When Emma and George Dease lived on Washington Terrace in the early 1900s, they were described in the Emma’s hometown paper, Watkin’s Express, as living “in great style in a suburban home.”

Emma and George were among the first renters in the three-story buildings, advertised at $40/month rent and being close to the Amsterdam Avenue trolleys.

A housekeeper lived with Emma and George in 1900, and so did a teenager named Ella. Emma said Ella was her niece she adopted when the girl's father (Emma’s brother) died. 

From Small Town to Big City

Emma's brother, who lived in their hometown in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, was a troubled young man and threatened suicide on a few occasions. Frank once threw himself into a well - to discover the water came up only to his neck, and he survived. He intended to freeze himself to death on a cold winter night, but returned to the house after his feet got cold. And, in a more aggressive attempt, he slit his throat.

Frank died in 1887, at age 32, leaving behind a little daughter named Ella. Emma said she took in Ella and raised her as her own. 

Meanwhile, according to gossip near her hometown, Emma, as a young woman in her twenties, married a New York City banker several decades her senior by the name of Sclier, who passed away not long after the marriage. I can find no evidence for that marriage. In fact, I can’t find any banker named Sclier that fits the story, but I do find someone named E.G. Squier who may have crossed paths with Emma, though he never married her.

E.G. Squier.
Image in public domain.
Squier was a divorced man about forty years older than Emma, and among his many endeavors in life, he was once the charge d’affairs to Central America and was an expert on the Mosquito Coast.

I haven’t sailed off on a tangent here, trust me. 

Mosquito Coast expert Squier died in 1888, and that’s when Emma, along with little Ella, headed to Honduras. They went to the Mosquito Coast to be precise.

I don’t know where Emma got the idea – or the money – to go there, but perhaps she knew Squier in his final years and was inspired by his stories. 

Or maybe it was Charles Renton who was inspired by Squier. Emma and Ella moved to Honduras with Charles. He was a recent widower, a machinist, a naturalized U.S. citizen from England, and a man 20 years Emma's senior. Emma says they were married, and at this point, we might as well believe her.


Charles laid claim on 100 square miles of land on Brewer's Lagoon, now called Brus Laguna in Honduras, on the northern end of the Mosquito Coast. The coastal area was named after the local indigenous people, the Mosquito.

Emma, Ella, and Charles moved to Brewers Lagoon in Hondura. Google map 2017.

Though the place was very remote and sparsely populated, Emma and Charles had neighbors on the lagoon - the English, French, and American men involved with the Brewer's Lagoon Wood and Produce Company. It took a few years of being neighbors before Charles and the company men hated each other.

The story goes that the men from the company routinely trespassed on Charles’ land and he didn’t like it. The disagreement escalated into the company men tearing down Charles’ coconut trees, stealing his cattle, breaking his fences, and setting fires on his property. There weren’t many authorities in the area to appeal to, and the ones who were there were linked with the company. Charles was on his own in the battle.

And a battle it was. 

Eventually the feud turned into gunfire, and on March 15, 1894, Charles was shot clear through the torso during a volley with several men from the company. He didn’t die immediately from his wounds, but the men returned the next day to finish the job. After that, Charles was never seen alive again.

The villains took Emma and 8-year Ella across the lagoon and held them captive for a few days before ordering them to get to Nicaragua on their own. Some reports say that the leader of the company gang gave Emma money to make safe passage home, along with some clothes from her house before they burned the place down.


Once in the USA, Emma immediately alerted the State Department. The State Department took action and urged Honduras to investigate immediately.

The Hondurans did investigate, but at their own pace of “immediately,” and not much came of their efforts. The United States, in response, sent not one but two letters to Honduras to express that President Cleveland himself was not pleased, and the U.S. dispatched Commander Davis on the Navy cruiser U.S.S. Montgomery to Honduras with orders to conduct a thorough investigation of the case.

The U.S.S. Montgomery was dispatched to Honduras as part of the Renton murder investigation.
Image in public domain.
By the time Commander Davis arrived at Brewer's Lagoon, some of the accused murderers had disappeared, and one key witness had been found drowned nearby. Still, Commander Davis was able to conclude that murder and abduction did occur as Emma said it did, and the U.S. once again urged Honduras to take action.

And this time they did. Five men were found guilty of crimes in the case, but the jury did not consider a murder charge because Charles’ body was never found. Witnesses in the investigation stage said his body was dropped piece by piece into the lagoon. Others said his body was thrown into the fire that was set to burn down Charles’ house. Some locals claimed his body, at least his head and torso, were buried. But, at trial, there were no witnesses to murder, no body, no charges of murder, and no conviction for that crime. 

And, at the time of the five men's guilty verdicts, four men had already escaped. 

Honduras considered the case closed.

The Claim

But Emma didn’t consider the case closed. She pressed on and made a monetary claim against the government of Honduras. 

Honduras replied that a government is not responsible for crimes committed by its citizens, and the crimes weren’t even committed by its citizens anyway but by English, French, and American citizens. 

And, there was the delicate issue that Emma might not have been Charles' wife and legal heir, and, thus, had no right to make a monetary claim.

There were a couple of small details, though, that made a big difference. Emma said that when the men abducted her, they held her and little Ella in a house owned by a government official. The official, she said, knowingly looked the other way - at minimum - and his inaction while on duty made the government liable. And, her case stated, governments must actively and competently investigate crimes committed in their territory, which Honduras failed to do.

Emma won the case. 

It took several years, but Honduras agreed to pay Emma about $30,000* (worth over $800,000 today) with a lesser amount of about $4,000 to little Ella. Though, by the time the monthly installments commenced, Ella wasn’t a little girl anymore. And, she never received the full payment.

New York

Emma had legal help in NYC with her claim. She liked the help so much that she married her lawyer and became Mrs. George Dease. The couple, along with Emma’s niece Ella and a housekeeper, moved into their newly-built home on Washington Terrace to live "in great style."

Emma appeared on society pages of newspapers, including a mention of her trip to Washington D.C. to attend a Daughters of the American Revolution conference. Emma was into genealogy. 

DAR congress, 1908. Emma attend the congress in 1907.
Source: Daughters of the American Revolution..

She returned home to New York City from the genealogy conference on April 24, 1907, and one week later, her husband George died of complications from an illness. His obituary mentioned his widow, but no mention was made of Ella.

Ella was, perhaps, troubled like her father Frank who made many attempts at suicide and died as a young man, as you will recall. Ella witnessed the violent death of her step-father and suffered an abduction on the Mosquito Coast, and it’s understandable that tragedy could have affected her mental health. She was said to have fits and outbursts. Maybe she was simply a young woman with a mind of her own and who didn’t get along with her aunt Emma - not everyone thought Ella was a problem. 

Ella's lawyer was quoted in The New York Times: 
"Miss Renton as an attractive girl, she wrote clear business letters and there was nothing apparently wrong with her mental faculties."

But, Emma's lawyer stated Ella
"is of weak mind, and on information she is unclean, untruthful, and there is no hope of her ever becoming any different."
Whatever version was the truth, there was turmoil in the house and Emma wanted it resolved soon as Ella was about to turn 21 and gain control of the money she received from Honduras. Emma petitioned the court to declare her niece Ella insane and to commit her to an institution.

Ella had no intention of being institutionalized. 

On May 17, 1907, ten days after she turned 21, Ella left the house on Washington Terrace. She boarded with Mr. and Mrs. Ross, acquaintances of her aunt. And instead of heading to court to be examined by alienists (the term used for psychiatrists in those days), Ella headed up the street to Fort George.

Fort George was an amusement park on the edge of upper Manhattan bordering the Harlem River, and who can blame a young person set free from strict control wanting to enjoy her freedom. Ella had served in her aunt's household on Washington Terrace, according to her lawyer in The New York Times, as "a household drudge."

Fort George Amusement House, Amsterdam and 190th Street. Seidman Photo Studio, 1908.
From Museum of the City of New York Digital Collection

Unlike the Arrowhead Inn just a mile or so away on the Hudson River that catered to the elite of Manhattan, Fort George had a bit of a seedy reputation. Ella was spotted there on several occasions with men that her aunt Emma did not approve of. Yet, other than asking the courts to commit Ella to an institution, Emma didn’t keep an eye out for Ella that spring. Instead, Emma left the city, as was her routine in the summer, entrusting the insanity case to her lawyer and entrusting Emma’s shelter to the Rosses.

The Rosses did not approve of Ella spending time at Fort George any more than Emma did. After a few weeks of boarding her, Mrs. Ross wanted Ella to leave, and Mr. Ross sent some kids in the neighborhood to find Ella at Fort George and tell her to pick up her truck from the apartment.

Ella didn’t pick up the trunk. She didn’t show up at her court date for the insanity hearing either. Nobody reported her missing, however.

Lost, then Found

Nobody looked for Ella while she was missing, but somebody did find her.

On the morning of July 30, 1907, a police officer on East 90th Street noticed a pair of women’s shoes on the top step of stairs leading to a basement apartment. 

When he looked closer, he spotted blood on the steps and a heap of clothes at the bottom of the landing. It wasn’t a heap of clothes tossed down the stairs, but a young woman who had been murdered and mutilated.

The body was found on East 90th Street, in an areaway of an apartment building.
Detail of map from the New York Public Library Digital Collection.

She had no identification on her. The police released a description of her clothing – cheap and common. She wore a brown shirtwaist, dark skirt, shoes of the type that were found in any inexpensive shoe shop in the city, and tan stockings. Her hands showed evidence that she toiled at physical work, and her stomach had been empty for a couple of days. She was assumed to be a waif.

The day the news hit the papers, a businessman from Harlem reported a possible lead. He was certain he saw the same girl the day previous to the murder, alive but in a heap on the ground at 129th Street and Broadway. The businessman saw a man come out of a house who then retreated back into the house when he saw the businessman watching him. 

Note: North is to the right on this map. The circle at 129th and Broadway shows where the witness saw the victim on the ground the day before she was killed. Note the yellow building on the left inside the circle. The witness spotted a man acting suspicious at that building.  Detail of map from New York City Public Library Digital Collection

Based on the tip from the witness, police interrogated the watchman of the house. He admitted Ella was with him the day before the murder, but said she left alive. No direct evidence could link him to the crime and he was released.

Days passed and news coverage continued, and the neighbors where Ella was boarding told Mr. Ross that they thought the victim might be Ella. Mr. and Mrs. Ross went to the morgue, and they were able to identify her. 

When Emma learned Ella's fate, the aunt thought the murderers were the old gang from Honduras. She speculated they were, perhaps, being forced to pay back Honduras for the claim money, and they murdered Ella to avoid the payment. She said the gang must have forced Ella, who wore only the best and most fashionable clothes, into common clothes to cover her identity. Her story made little sense, but that’s what Emma said.

Whoever committed the vicious crime got away with it. The case of Ella's murder was never solved.

The Past and the Future

Emma remained out of town and did not attend Ella's burial. 

A few weeks later, Emma incorporated a new organization she founded called Daughters of America, with herself as director. The purpose of her genealogy group was for membership to be “pure” with strict rules about who was eligible to join. 

Membership required both parents to be born in the United States, at least one grandparent born here, and at least one-great grandparent who was not only born here but also who was "prominent and respectable," according to Medina Daily Journal. "She said pure blooded American women feel the need of a society of their own."

With that attitude, it must have been exciting for her when she met Mr. Washington, her next husband. Washington is certainly a name that goes along with American prominence and respectability. Her new husband had a son named George, which means Emma was the step-mother to George Washington. Too bad, however, that her husband, named Alfred, was himself born in England. Still, I’m guessing that Emma Washington enjoyed her new surname.

Emma and Alfred Washington didn't live on Washington Terrace after their marriage, but in this apartment building on West 164th Street:

The apartment building where Emma and Alfred Washington lived on W 164th Street,
as seen in 2016 (on garbage pick-up day). Map from Google.

Emma and Alfred's neighbors in the building, Carl and Walborg, would later move to Washington Terrace themselves, to that little street off the grid where Emma had once lived in suburban style. Carl and Walborg had a son, and he will be the topic of the next post in this mini-series on Washington Terrace in upper Manhattan. (Please subscribe to the blog or follow History Underfoot on Facebook or Twitter to get notices of new posts.)


*It's unclear how much the actual payment from Honduras to Emma was. A government document states it was $78,000, but it's possible that two offspring from Charles Renton's first marriage received a portion. I chose $30,000 in consideration that it was a shared payout and as an estimate based on other reports of what Emma received.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Manhattan: Bolted at the Edge of the Grid

I like to look at history underfoot, though this bit of history is 5½ inches above my feet.

The history here is not only precisely 5½ inches above the sidewalk, its elevation is precisely 148.729 feet above sea level, and the historical object has been in place since the 1880s when Alston Culver put it there.

Here’s a closer look at what I’m talking about it.

See it? Not really? No worries – let’s set the scene.

The location where I’m standing is on 155th Street, a significant street in New York City history. In the early 1800s, a Commission was formed to plan the growth of the city, and that plan turned out to be a grid of streets and avenues that reached as far as where I am standing at 155th Street.

After City Surveyor John Randel, Jr. marked the grid on paper in 1811, his next step was to mark the grid on land by placing marble markers at proposed intersections. When markers couldn’t be placed because of bedrock outcrops, he set bolts in the bedrock. He placed a marker at the intersection where I am standing, but it was across the street from my location, and the marker doesn’t exist anymore.

Instead, what does exist is this galvanized iron bolt protruding from the column base.

The red arrow points to the bolt.

The bolt is not a bench mark set by Randel in the early 1800s, but, rather, one set by Alston Culver decades later in the 1880s.

Quite a bit happened in the area between 1811 when the City planned the grid and 1880. One significant change is that the countryside estates and farms around 155th Street were sold off.

One large parcel of land was sold by a box-maker turned land-speculator, named Richard Carman, to Trinity Church in the 1840s, and the church made a large cemetery on the land. The north side of the Trinity Cemetery runs along 155th Street and a stone wall marks the boundary. On the corners of the wall are ornamental columns, and on the base of the column on the corner of 155th and Amsterdam Avenue is a bolt placed there by Alston Culver.

But why? Why was this bolt set here and who was Alston Culver?

Culver lived in Harlem, was involved with Tammany Hall politics, and was the Assistant Engineer for the Department of Public Works. Part of his job was to measure the elevations of Manhattan from Bellevue Hospital downtown all the way to High Bridge Water Tower uptown. To do that, he set markers, called bench marks, at intersections like John Randel, Jr. did years before him. The bench marks were then measured against a set mark to determine the elevation at each location. One of those bench marks is the bolt on 155th Street, on the northeast corner of Trinity Cemetery.

Culver later took a job as Water Purveyor in the city, and he was noticed. The New York Press wrote, “Water Purveyor Alston G. Culver can be seen any day driving the avenue in his buggy on his way to inspect the work under his command.” He then ran, unsuccessfully, for state public office.

A few years later, his name hit the papers outside of New York City in connection with a mysterious death after Roy Culver, Alston’s younger half-brother, was fished out a river upstate. Even though he was found in the river with a weight tied to him, the coroner found no water in the victim’s lungs. There was, however, poison in his stomach. Alston thought his brother was murdered. A clue in the case was a letter signed by “A Stranger” who claimed that he killed Roy, who was obsessed with researching genealogy to prove his right to an inheritance. It seems that a Culver ancestor was an early settler of Long Island and Roy thought he might have a stake in the estate. As far as I can tell, the “Stranger” was deemed to be Roy himself, the mysterious death was officially assumed to be suicide, and there was no long-lost inheritance to be had.

Alston Culver changed jobs within the City and worked for the Finance Department, and he largely disappears from the public eye. 

Meanwhile, the city kept expanding, and 155th Street was finally graded. Eventually the city grew all the way to 220th Street at the upper tip of Manhattan.

As the city grew, a young man named Frederick Koop graduated from Cooper Union as a civil engineer, passed the civil service exam for assistant draughtsman with a respectable score of 92%, and was hired by the City. He shows up in the papers with a bit of mystery too. His roommate accused him of stealing $30, but when the police nabbed Koop that same day, Koop denied the charges, didn’t have the money on him, and said he simply was out having breakfast.

Koop, like Culver, worked on measuring the elevations of the City. By this time, in the early 1900s, however, the City was more than just Manhattan. In 1898, all five boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island consolidated into one City of Greater New York. Koop, promoted to Assistant Engineer, set out to measure them all.

To do so, Koop set 1,186 bench marks throughout the five boroughs and also gathered the data from existing bench marks set by others in the past, including the bolt on 155th Street.

In this 1910 photo, you can see the ornamental column to the right of the intersection. This is how the place looked when Koop worked on his measuring project.

Photo by Thaddeus Wilkerson,1910, from the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Over the years, the City used several different sites to measure elevation against. These sites are called datums, and Koop documented all of them, but only one was decided to be the official datum from that point forward. It's called, appropriately, the Standard Datum, and it's defined as the mean sea level at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The bolt on 155th Street is, therefore, 148.729 feet above the mean sea level at Sandy Hook.  

Koop published his findings, listing all the bench marks in New York City and their elevations, in a publication called Precise Leveling of New York City in 1914. He went on the lecture circuit with it, at least a circuit of fellow engineers, and even illustrated his talks with lantern slides.

The bench marks that still exist are still used as measuring devices throughout the city. They mark history hidden in plain sight, not quite underfoot, but just above it.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Mr. Knapp needs a staff: 165th Street

"New York, New York
So nice they named it twice"
lyrics by Gerard Kenny

But what about 165th Street in New York? It's named twice too.

Two streets named 165th Street, one right after the other. Google map.
Or, rather, there are two 165th Streets, one right after the other. And, the streets - especially the northern of the two 165th Streets -  didn't have the reputation of being particularly nice. In 1912, a New York Times reporter said it was "a useless lane." And Reginald Bolton, local historian, wrote in the 1920s that the street "exists only as a blot upon the neighborhood."

How did the street end up like that?

Going back about 175 years, we'd find a road in this location called Croton Street. But, let's go back further in time and work our way forward.

Before the Europeans arrived, the Lenape Native Americans were the inhabitants of upper Manhattan. The land at what is now 165th Street was a forested spot and with big outcrops of bedrock that jutted out of the ground. 

Later, after the English took Manhattan from the Dutch, land in northern Manhattan was allotted to residents by Governor Dongan, but our plot in question remained in an unclaimed, uncultivated section bordered by farms and estates to the north and south.

In 1712, that uncultivated stretch of land was divided into 12 plots, and our plot was allotted to Captain Johannes Benson, a Scandinavian who had previously purchased land in what is now Harlem. Interestingly enough, Captain Benson served as the Surveyor of Highways in Harlem. I wonder what he would have thought of two streets with the same name?

The land changed hands a few more times, and then, in 1803, George Wear the blacksmith bought the plot and set up shop. The blacksmith's plot was a skinny strip of land, set at angle.

A nearby landowner named Shepherd Knapp purchased a bit of land from the blacksmith, and that bit of land is now the northern of the two 165th Streets. So, why did Knapp need that land when he already had a large estate nearby?

1867 map from New York Public Library Digital Collection.
As a young man, Shepherd Knapp learned the leather tanning business in lower Manhattan. He worked his way up in the city to become the president of Mechanics Bank of New York. He bought land in upper Manhattan to be his country estate.

Image from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

A wealthy landowner needs a staff, and the staff need places to live. So, Knapp purchased land from George Wear the blacksmith and built wood-frame homes on it for his workers.

To access the homes, Knapp cut a road and called it Croton. 

Why the name Croton?

I don't have direct evidence about why Knapp named his street of workers' cottages Croton, but I have a hunch.

The Croton Aqueduct that carried fresh water from upstate New York into Manhattan was a big construction project that was completed in the 1840s, just about the time Knapp purchased land from the blacksmith. Knapp was a leading proponent of building a reservoir in the neighborhood, and that reservoir was indeed built in the 1860s. (It's now Highbridge swimming pool on 173rd Street.)

I have a hunch Knapp named his private street after his interest in the project, the reservoir along the Croton Aqueduct.

Knapp died in 1875 and his estate deeded Croton Street to the city.

The Croton Street name still shows up in 1916, when the city was growing up around it. Pink indicates brick buildings while yellow is for wood structures. Those wood structures are what The New York Times called in those years "ancient shanties" on a "worthless thoroughfare."

1916 map from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

A few short years later, the street name is gone, as are any buildings on the triangle.

1921-23 map from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Add a soldier's name

Something else happened between the 1916 and the 1920s maps. A local man named William J. McKenna enlisted to fight in World War I. He was sent to France and served as in Company D Anti-Aircraft Machine Gun Battalion. A few months later, he died in action at the age of 30. 

The little triangle was eventually named after him, and the land is now McKenna Square, part of the NYC Parks Department.

In the 1980s, it was updated with a Greek temple structure and new benches. I haven't figured out why a Greek temple was chosen for the park, so I like to think of the ghost-like structure as a memorial to the little wooden dwelling houses that once stood on this stretch of land.

A look at the street over the years

Keep an eye on the building marked with the star. It remains in all the photos. All views are looking to the east, toward Amsterdam Avenue.

Before 1923. The street remained unpaved until the building were torn down.
Photo from New York Public Library Digital Collection.

1941. Note the triangle section is now a seating area with benches in the middle of the two 165th Streets.
Photo from New York Public Library Digital Collections.

2015. The old building is still there! 
The lots on the left are now the site of Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics. 
McKenna Park is to the right, out of the picture range.

Old Croton Street and the little triangle park that remains captured my heart when I learned about the place. In fact, the history of that particular place is what inspired me to start this History Underfoot blog, and I use a photo of McKenna Square between the two 165th Streets as the header on my blog and as my Twitter and Facebook logos. History is indeed underfoot, wherever we are.

List of sources.

Monday, February 29, 2016

From Immigrant Shopgirl to Multi-Millionaire

When someone builds a multi-million dollar fortune from scratch, that's impressive. When it's a former immigrant shopgirl who amassed the million-dollar fortune by 1911, well, that's a story to be told.

The immigrant part of the story starts in 1853 when Clementine Cahn arrived from Germany with her parents and siblings. A few years later, at age 14, Clementine was a shopgirl in Manhattan. Maybe it's through her sales job that she met her husband, Morris Silverman - he was a fancy-goods merchant, specializing in lace, trimmings, and hats.

However they met, Morris and Clementine married in 1867 and the first of their six children arrived the next year. The growing family lived above their fancy-goods shop downtown, but Clementine and her children would one day build big apartment houses uptown - and not just any apartments, but buildings with modern amenities like elevators, electronic call buttons, cedar closets, and bathtubs.

Clementine Silverman and family living at 570 Third Avenue, 1870 U.S. Census


Before we get to the buildings and bathtubs, we need to talk about fire and family finances. In 1871, a fire broke out in Morris' fancy-goods shop on Third Avenue, and it seemed suspicious. When alerted to the fire during the night, Morris' calm demeanor was noted by the nightwatchman. As the fire got going, Morris and his wife were spotted leaving their apartment above the shop with their children, fully dressed, and carrying a packed trunk. It was also discovered that the $2000 worth of goods in the shop were insured for $20,000. Morris was arrested at the scene.

I don't know what became of the suspected arson case, but Clementine and Morris had more children in quick succession, so I'm assuming life continued as usual. Business continued as usual as well, and, unfortunately, that meant the family was in debt. Morris wasn't able to run his business successfully, and Clementine stepped in.

Clementine handled the business of caps and lace manufacturing well enough that she was able to support the family and save money to buy a house in Harlem. She didn't hold the uptown property for long, and when she sold it, she made a nice little profit. That profit provided inspiration to purchase more property, and at 50 years old with no experience in the field, Clementine started her career in real estate and construction.


It was during this era, in the 1890s, when photojournalist Jacob Riis published pictures of tenements on the lower east side of the city, exposing the conditions of that crowded neighborhood. At that time, tenants in tenements shared toilets and cold-water taps on the ground floor. People heated water to fill portable tubs in their kitchen to bathe. In 1895, the state mandated public baths in large cities, and in 1901, apartment buildings were required by law to have a toilet for every two families. Bathtubs remained a status symbol and were not found in most apartments.

Clementine raised six children in New York City, and I suspect she knew a thing or two about the convenience of a private bathtub. When her children were young, there was at least one documented case of communicable disease - typhoid fever - in the building where they lived on Wooster Street. People desire to live comfortably, and that includes preventing diseases as well as avoiding neighbors at the toilet and sink. Clementine would have been acutely aware of how people lived in the city and she knew what they could use in their homes. When she became a builder, one of her first decisions was to install private bathtubs in her constructions, even before the city required them.

Never mind that the tenants used the new bathtubs to store coal.


The men in real estate might have laughed at her extravagance of installing tubs, and they certainly laughed at her idea to purchase property on the desolate upper east side next to a power plant. The purchase on 98th Street at 1st Avenue was her first venture into speculation. She figured workers would want to live next to their jobs at the power plant and nearby factories, and she was right. Within a month of completion, the building was rented to capacity. She quickly sold the place at a good profit, which she used to buy, build, and sell again. And again and again and again.

Her specialty was buying lots where she predicted people would want to live, and mostly that meant in uptown neighborhoods where the subway was proposed to be built. Thinking ahead was key to her success.

Another key to her success was keeping business personal. One after another, she set up all three of her sons-in-law and all three of her sons in the real estate and construction business. She oversaw every aspect of the buying, constructing, and selling herself. When workers went on strike at one of her sites, she settled the matter with them quickly, face-to-face. She cut out the middlemen and purchased her construction materials directly from suppliers, and she personally made the rounds to her buildings in her motorcar, dressed fashionably and allowing time to attend the opera in the evening.

We can see evidence of her love for routine and working directly with suppliers in her family's buildings. Take a look at some of the apartments that are still around:, June 2011 street view map.
The building above is the "DeLeon" on West 112th Street, built by Clementine's son Robert when he was twenty-two years old, under the direction of his mother.

Robert also built the "Claire" and the "Rosedale" a few blocks away on West 118th Street: Sept 2014 street view map

And here are the "Robert" and the "Millard" apartment buildings on West 107th: April 2009 street view map
The "Beatrice" is a little further uptown in West 131st Street" Sept 2014 street view map

Are you noticing the patterns? The different buildings have a similar look with red-and-white bricks. It's not a stretch to imagine that Clementine got a good deal on the bricks and followed a formula when designing each building. Sticking to a system is perhaps why she reached the rate of constructing a building a month.

In the early 1900s, Clementine was one of the biggest players in New York City real estate, and she played it her way. She was a pioneer in choosing property uptown and she was a pioneer in providing up-to-date small luxuries that attracted tenants. Her pioneering ways and progressive ideas meant she could buy low, sell high, and build her fortune quickly once she got started. The men in the field might have scoffed at the middle-aged mom without assets new to the scene, but while they scoffed, Clementine's businesses built hundreds of apartment houses during her 15 years in real estate.

Not all the buildings are still standing today and not all the buildings look alike, but the red-and-white exterior is a clue that a building might have been built by Clementine, self-made middle-aged millionaire, over a century ago.

In 1910, Clementine left the real estate business, and within a year, she passed away in her apartment on Madison Avenue. A year after her death, her descendants unveiled a monument at the gravesite in Brooklyn. Her husband outlived her, but not for long. Days before the second anniversary of her death, Morris was struck by a passing street car on Madison Avenue and he soon died from his injuries. At the ten-year anniversary of Clementine's death, her children placed an announcement in the New York Times in loving memory of their parents: "Gone but not forgotten."

Sources are found here.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Charlotte Temple: Trinity Church Cemetery

Tourists file past the grave of Alexander Hamilton at Trinity Church cemetery, but there is a grave on the other side of the churchyard that was once more popular than Hamilton's big monument. Charlotte Temple's grave might not get much attention now, but in the past, her tombstone marked a popular plot in the cemetery to visit.

Grave site of Charlotte Temple, Trinity Cemetery.

Who Was Charlotte Temple?

If you asked "Who was Charlotte Temple?" two centuries ago, just about everyone would know, and people might reply - that poor, unlucky girl - as if Charlotte were a real person. But, she was not. Charlotte was the main character of America's first best-selling novel, Charlotte, A Tale of Truth by Susanna Rowson, published in 1794.

Plenty of people were convinced the story was literally a tale of truth and that Charlotte actually existed. Since there is a real tombstone in a real cemetery, it would be easy to assume they were right. In the story, Charlotte was a teenager who suffered betrayal. She was turned away by her lover, and young Charlotte died soon after giving birth to a daughter. That poor, unlucky girl.

A number of real-life young women have been suggested as the true identity of the character, but Charlotte Temple is a "tale of truth" because her story could belong to any young woman of that era who had been betrayed. The author of the book, Susanna Rowson, was an actress in addition to being a novelist, poet, and songwriter. In other words, she knew how to tell a story and how to pull material from the world around her to use in her work. Whether or not Charlotte was based on a specific person - or was a composite of several people - interests me less than the fact there is a gravestone for a fictional character in Trinity Church graveyard.

I want to know how that happened.

Getting the story straight

After reading some old newspaper articles, I couldn't get a straight story about Charlotte and her grave. There are as many theories about the tombstone as there are about the identity of Charlotte. To keep focused, I made a list of the earliest dates that Charlotte appeared in the papers, and here is what I found:
  • In the early 1800s and prior, the mentions of Charlotte Temple were largely in advertisements for shops that carried the book. 
  • In the 1820s, references to a theatrical play based on the novel started to appear. 
  • In the 1830s (as well as later in the 1860s), there was a horse named Charlotte Temple that shows up in racing reports.
  • In the 1840s, Charlotte Temple is written about in periodicals as a person/character for the first time when stories appeared that her house burned down. (Well, the building that people speculated was her house, based on the novel.)
  • In the 1850s, there is it - the first mention of the grave at Trinity Churchyard, printed in the New York Times. It seems that coverage of Charlotte Temple from this time forward routinely includes the grave.
What to make of that? Why did the grave appear in the 1850s?

Meanwhile, up on Ann Street

I followed a clue I found in The Sun newspaper from 1918 that at first I dismissed as silly. The clue lead me up Broadway to Ann Street and to the American Museum once located there.

In this old image, the American Museum is the large white building in the left foreground. You can see the steeple of Trinity Church in the distance on the right side of the image. The distance from the museum to the Trinity graveyard is about six short blocks, and there was a reason a person would walk from one place directly to the other, as you will see.

Print by J.W. Hill, Jos. Laing & Co. From the collection of Museum of the City of New York.

In 1850, a theatrical version of Charlotte Temple opened as a matinee at the American Museum, six blocks from Trinity. The performances were part of a new trend in entertainment. In previous times, the theater could be a raunchy place with entertainments offered beyond what was on stage, if you know what I mean - the theater was not the sort of place you would bring a family. But times were changing in the Victorian era, and theater promoters were offering wholesome and affordable shows for all ages. One such place of theatrical respectability was the American Museum on Ann Street.

Theater at theAmerican Museum.
From: New York Public Library Digital Collection.

The newspaper piece provided another clue by mentioning the crowds after the matinee on Ann Street trampled on the graves at Trinity. That little detail - that I first dismissed as a silly throw-away comment - sparked an understanding about how the fictional Charlotte Temple got a real grave.

It turns out that the owner of the American Museum, the person who helped make theater respectable with morality tales like Charlotte Temple, was none other than P.T. Barnum, one of America's finest publicity men. 
From New-York Daily Tribune.

It's my guess that P.T. Barnum gave Charlotte Temple a grave. 

Barnum had a knack for creating stories that got into the papers. In fact, he wrote in 1869 in his book Struggles and Triumphs:
"Leaving nothing undone that would bring Barnum and his museum before the public, I often engage some exhibition, knowing that it would directly bring no extra dollars to the treasury, but hoping it would incite a newspaper paragraph which would float through the columns of the American press and be copied, perhaps, abroad, and my hopes in this respect were often gratified."
I think Charlotte Temple's grave was a publicity stunt for the show at Barnum's theater. Compared to some of Barnum's other stunts, a phony grave is rather low-key and perhaps that is why the story of her grave in Trinity cemetery was not questioned much. The tombstone was accepted as something that has been in the cemetery since Charlotte died, even though that defies logic since fictional characters don't have real graves. 

But perhaps the lack of logic is the best part because it leads to speculation and conversations about Charlotte, and that's what Barnum wanted.

The puzzle

It might seem a stretch that Barnum would use a church for his own publicity, but there is evidence he wasn't above doing so. 

Before a July 4th celebration one year, he claims to have asked the leaders of St. Paul's Church, across the street from his American Museum, if he could string American flags from his building over to the tree in St. Paul's churchyard. He was turned down. But, he strung the flags anyway, and when church leaders confronted Barnum in the street, the crowd was on Barnum's side - and they felt quite fulfilled, I'm sure, when they re-told the story of defending the Stars & Stripes on Independence Day. That's how Barnum tells the story anyway, and what's the point of doubting a good story?

From Struggles and Triumphs.

I worried my theory about the 1850s would fall apart when I read Ann Douglas'  introduction to the Penguin 1991 edition of the novel Charlotte. She pointed out that an image "of the tombstone adorned new editions of Charlotte in the 1840s and after." 

Upon further investigation, that 1840s image of the grave was based on an illustrator's imagination and looks nothing like the actual gravestone at Trinity. If the grave existed in 1840s that fans visited, the illustrator would've drawn it accurately. But the illustrator didn't, so we're safe in looking at the 1850s as the first appearance of Charlotte's "real" grave.

According to a story passed around, a man named William Crommelin confessed that he inscribed the stone with the name Charlotte Temple. Crommelin claimed he was working as a stonecutter at Trinity when the church was rebuilt in the 1840s, and after the work was done, he inscribed the stone with Charlotte's name. 

William Crommelin was a real person and he was indeed a stonecutter in New York City. He was born in 1822, which would make him in his early 20s when Trinity Church was rebuilt in the 1840s. However, I find it odd that a young man would inscribe a name of a character from an old romance novel on a tombstone on his own. 

At any rate, the stonecutter confessed to the deed in a letter to the New-York Historical Society librarian, William Kelby. But Mr. Kelby is quoted that the stonecutter made the inscription during church repairs in 1850s, not during the 1840s re-build. Whatever the dates, both the letter and Mr. Kelby's quote happened decades after the fact, and I think it's likely that any supposed correspondence between the two men was all part of the shenanigans anyway. The long-after-the-fact confession kept the story alive and running.

The way I see it, Barnum put Crommelin the stonecutter up to participating in the publicity stunt in the 1850s to entice public interest in Charlotte. The more interest in Charlotte, the more interest in seeing the show at Barnum's theater. The stunt provided wholesome entertainment for the public and indirect advertising for Barnum. Everyone wins.

I can't explain with evidence how the inscription actually happened, and I state my assertions as a hunch rather than a fact. But that's the fun of it. Barnum liked to play with the public, not as a mean-spirited joke, but as part of providing an entertainment package. Even now, well over 160 years after the events, Barnum is puzzling and testing my wits....and I've been enchanted and entertained by his antics.

Seeing is believing

When you make a trip to Trinity Church and stroll the cemetery, you'll find Charlotte Temple's grave exactly where the old references say it is, on the north side of the church behind the fence along Broadway. You can't miss it.
From Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, November 1890.

Sources are found here.

Free Kindle version of the novel Charlotte Temple is here.

Note: Trinity Church lifted the stone in 2008 to see if there was a vault or grave underneath, but all that was found was packed earth. The stone was returned to its place and remains there.