- Historic Sites
April 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 2
I’ve recently moved up in the world, from the tenth floor to the seventeenth, and four blocks closer to the Hudson River, a slate gray slice of which I can just see from where I’m writing. Small birds flutter around a feeder outside the window, and last week a red-tailed hawk swooped past it, talons bared, rocketing after a frantically dodging dove.
But this is still New York. The evening sound of police sirens is fainter up here than it was from my old apartment, but it is rarely absent for very long. Since some seven and a half million people from everywhere live jammed together in this city—more than live in Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia combined—this is hardly surprising. According to the FBI’s 1991 figures for the number of violent crimes per thousand citizens, New York comes in a relatively pacific thirtieth among American cities. But there is still a lot of violent crime here—678,855 reported incidents in 1991 alone, including 2,154 murders—such relentless mayhem, in fact, that the local evening news shows now need ninety minutes just to get it all in.
The urban historian Richard C. Wade argued in these pages some years ago that, on the whole, the American city is better today, “cleaner, less crowded, safer and more livable, than its turn-of-thecentury counterpart.” The knowledge that things were once worse provides only academic comfort when they’re still pretty bad. But Evidence , a recent book of fifty-five police photos made between 1914 and 1918, discovered, selected, and annotated by the Belgianborn writer Luc Santé (Farrar Straus and Giroux, hardcover $40, paperback $16), provides the most vivid possible testimony that Wade was right. I know of no single volume that better evokes just how rough New York once was.
In 1991 Sante published Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $24.95), an elegantly written account of Manhattan’s seamiest side from 1840 to 1919. It is full of rich and unexpected lore:
The notorious Whyo gang employed a hit man, Piker Ryan, who was said to have carried with him at all times a printed menu of the services he was happy to perform: “Punching … $2; Both eyes blacked … $4;… Leg or arm broke … $19;… Doing the big job … $100 and up.”
When an 1896 law forbade the serving of drinks on Sundays—except in hotels, with meals—creative bar owners gained at least limited access to some extra rooms by placing on each table a “sandwich”—often a brick between two slices of increasingly moldy bread —then declaring themselves hoteliers.
And John McGurk, proprietor of the most ghastly of all the ghastly dives on the Bowery, liked to bill his establishment as McGurk’s Suicide Hall, because so many desperate prostitutes had killed themselves there (at least six in 1899 alone).
If Sante’s first book had a flaw, it seemed to me, it was that he sometimes seemed more amused than he should have been by the misery and squalor he found wherever he burrowed beneath the city’s shiny surface. Nothing about the photographs in Evidence is funny. Sante found the collection from which he chose them while researching his first book. They are all that survive of a once-vast trove that heedless workmen, emptying the old police headquarters on Centre Street in the early 1980s, dumped into the East River.
These pictures of corpses in situ are not for the squeamish. But starkly lit by magnesium flash, they provide any reader with the stomach for them an unforgettable glimpse of New York at its worst.
Sante managed to discover the stories behind a few of the pictures by sleuthing through old newspapers: the beat-up shoes protruding from the sewer pipe into which their owner has been stuffed apparently belong to a Mafia informer.
A fully clothed man lying on a Brooklyn-tenement bed next to a dead woman wrapped in bedclothes turns out to have been her lover; at 1:30 A.M. on a warm spring night in 1915 he climbed through her window, discovered her husband (who normally worked nights) in her bed, fired a shot at him as he fled in terror, then, perhaps in panic, killed the woman and himself.
A Brooklyn mother and three children, huddled together beneath a single quilt, all died when the mother turned on the gas after getting the news that her husband had drowned.
And, the only living subject in the collection, an enormously dignified eighty-year-old man, seated stoically in a chair at police headquarters, blood on his cheek, eyes closed, was a veteran of Garibaldi’s wars who became enraged when three neighborhood boys jeered at his old man’s walk and pelted him with snowballs. He complained to the father of one of the boys and, for daring to criticize him, got slashed with a knife. The old man stalked home, still bleeding, got the ancient weapon he had carried through the Italian campaigns, came back out, and blew off the unrepentant parent’s head. Police found him waiting for them in the cellar.
But most of the subjects of these photographs remain anonymous, their meager surroundings offering up clues that will now never lead anywhere.