- Historic Sites
“New York Is Worth Twenty Richmonds”
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
Although other hotels throughout the city were less ostentatious, they were almost always busy, too, because of the comings and goings spurred by the war. Lovejoy’s, on Park Row opposite City Hall Park, catered to transient businessmen and travellers en route to other parts of the Union. The Tammany, a block away, was a favorite lunching spot for merchants. The United States, on Fulton Street near the East River, was a creaky but comfortable old hotel always filled with ship’s captains. Businessmen in the Wall Street area lunched regularly at the Howard, one of the largest and best conducted of the older downtown hotels.
Each of the Confederates was assigned four hotels. Rooms were taken in advance when possible, under a variety of fictitious names. Meetings were held regularly at Headley’s quarters, Room 204 at the Astor, where he had registered as “W. S. Haines.” (Afterward the chambermaid would recall that the fireplace had been used unusually often to keep the room warm for his frequent visitors.) On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, as the North rejoiced over the prospect of victory over the South, Headley, acting on instructions left by Longmire, went to the chemist’s basement shop in Greenwich Village and collected a suitcase filled with dozens of vials of a colorless liquid, the Greek fire.
The date now fixed for carrying out the plot was the next day, Friday. Like Thanksgiving, it also was a holiday in New York—Evacuation Day, celebrating the departure of the last British troops from the city after the Revolution. Barnum’s Museum had scheduled an extra performance of the London drama Waiting for the Verdict in anticipation of large holiday crowds. The Booth brothers- Edwin, Junius Brutus, and John Wilkes—were to appear together for the first time in Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden in a benefit performance to raise money for a statue of Shakespeare to be erected in Central Park. Niblo’s Garden was featuring William Wheatley in the new rave melodrama The Corsican Brothers .
The Confederates planned to start the fires from 8 P.M. onward. The arson, they decided, would be confined chiefly to the business districts, but Headley was also to set several fires along the wharves of the Hudson to confuse the fire department and to destroy valuable cargoes.
By six o’clock Friday evening, when the Rebels met for the last time, most of them had booked rooms at several of their assigned hotels. The rest of the rooms were to be taken that night, as the men circulated about the city. Each was instructed to pile all the bedding and the mattress atop the bed and then to douse the heap with the Greek fire. To avoid detection windows, shutters, and doors were to be shut tight while they worked, and the doors carefully closed upon leaving. As the Rebels packed the vials of Greek fire into cheap black carpetbags, Martin appeared in the uniform of a federal officer; he had brought it from Toronto in a trunk.
The first fire alarm sounded from the St. James Hotel, at Broadway and Twenty-sixth Street, at 8:43 P.M. A guest in Room 85, on the topmost floor, smelled a peculiar odor. On opening his door he found the hallway full of smoke. He ran down the stairs calling for help. Within minutes the second alarm was sounded at the St. Nicholas Hotel, at Broadway and Spring Street, when a guest saw smoke coming from under the door to Room 174.
Instead of the customary nine o’clock all-clear gong, the watchman at the City Hall fire tower was repeatedly plunging the lever that rang the enormous twenty-three-thousand-pound bell: one ring for the First Fire District, a pause, four rings for the Fourth Fire District, a pause; then the cycle was repeated over and over again. The tolling was picked up by watchmen at the other fire towers in the city. Soon they interspersed eight rings for the Eighth Fire District.
The alarm from the Eighth Fire District was sounded at Barnum’s Museum, located on Broadway at Ann Street. Kennedy had made an unscheduled stop there, going upstairs into the building to see from a window in the stairwell whether any fires had taken hold. Upon hearing the first alarm he returned to the street outside and headed for his next assignment. As he went downstairs, he flung a vial of phosphorus back at the stairs “just to scare the people.” Soon afterward, an usher ran out of the building, crying “Fire!” In the Lecture-Room on the fifth floor panic had already seized the audience and members of the cast of Waiting for the Verdict . Cries of “Fire! Fire!” came from every side. Several people slid down the pillars from the gallery to the parquet. Women and children shrieked with fear. As men fought to get by them to the exits, several women fainted. The alarm spread to the floors below, too. Barnum’s seven-foot-tall giantess, her hair flying wildly behind her, lurched down the stairs and out an exit. Turning the corner, she ran down Ann Street and straight into a saloon. Those who reached the street behind her burst out of the museum in a virtual stampede.
Meanwhile, uptown at the La Farge House the servant girl stationed on the third floor passed by Room 104 and saw, through the transom above the door, a light in the room. Its occupant had left a few minutes earlier. Believing he had left the gaslight on by mistake—he had made such a fuss looking for matches to light it—she stopped by the door and was about to open it when a burst of flame suddenly lit up the hallway.