The cows that went wild on West Street in 1896 were being transported from Staten Island to the stock yards in Jersey City via the Erie Railroad's Pavonia Ferry. Here are the stock yards pictured in 1913. Museum of the City of New York Collections

The cows that went wild on West Street in 1896 were being transported from Staten Island to the stock yards in Jersey City via the Erie Railroad Pavonia Ferry. Here are the stock yards pictured in 1913. Museum of the City of New York Collections

When New York City Policeman James Breen joined the Leonard Street Station in the late 19th century, he probably never dreamed that one day he’d have to play the role of a Wild West cowboy in Manhattan on West Street, at the Chambers Street Ferry Terminal.

In the late 19th century, West Street was always crowded in the afternoons during rush hour, even on Saturdays. The main thoroughfare was especially busy near the Chambers Street Ferry Terminal, where thousands of men, women, and children boarded the Erie Railroad Pavonia Ferry to Harsimus Cove in Jersey City, New Jersey.

On Saturday, January 23, 1896, Policeman Breen was on crossing duty at the ferry terminal when he saw about 20 women and children who were just about to cross West Street scatter in every direction. Turning around to see what had caused the commotion, he saw a herd of cows charging toward him. Within seconds, he was knocked to the ground.

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Raining Cats

The following cat story of Old Brooklyn is courtesy of The Brownstone Detectives, who first published this tale in March 2017. I take the story one step further by exploring the history around the Grand Street Museum and the land on which it was once located. 

Agent Clark Investigates a Report of Cruelty to Cats

In December 1887, Agent Frank Clark of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) received a letter from a resident of the Eastern District in Brooklyn notifying him that cats were being abused during the production of a musical comedy called the “Soap Bubble” at the Grand Street Museum in Williamsburg. According to the letter writer, a large number of cats were being used as shooting targets by the actors during the first act of the play.

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James T. Clyde, the manager of the new Hotel Lincoln on Eighth Avenue, welcomed the stray kitten into his establishment and named him, appropriately, Abe.

James T. Clyde, the manager of the new Hotel Lincoln at 700 Eighth Avenue, welcomed the stray kitten into his establishment and named him, appropriately, Abe.

“A half-grown cat has adopted the Hotel Lincoln as its permanent home. Cats have always been regarded as a good omen, especially when they come to the door unsolicited. This kitten has a special history. He was born on the site of the present hotel, and spent his life in the debris while the hotel was in course of construction. Let us all be kind to our new mascot. His name from now on is Abe.” — James T. Clyde, manager, Hotel Lincoln, March 1928

In Part I of this Old New York cat story, we met Abe, the lucky kitten who was born in the spring of 1927 on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 45th Street in New York City’s Time Square neighborhood.  Although his mother cat and two brother kittens left the area a couple of months later, Abe stayed on the construction site. Even as the new Hotel Lincoln continued to rise higher and higher each day, Abe refused to scat.

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Abe, the mascot cat of the Hotel Lincoln, in 1928 or 1929.

Abe, the mascot cat of New York City’s brand-new Hotel Lincoln at 700 Eighth Avenue. (Wisconsin Daily Tribune, June 25, 1928)

Some studies have shown that where you’re born has a huge impact on how far you’ll go in life. I think the same holds true for cats, especially those who are born in large cities like New York.

When Abe’s mother cat gave birth to three kittens in New York City’s Time Square neighborhood in 1928, she couldn’t have picked a better place to bring her little ones into the world.

I don’t know what possessed her to give birth among the wrecking crews at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 45th Street, but the decision paid off big time for one little guy who would one day be called Abe.

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45 West Street New York

In 1915, the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association established a community center at 45 West Street. The four-story building housed a day nursery, library, and rooms for English instruction, household arts, citizenship classes, and various clubs. The community playground was behind the wall to the right in this photo.

In 1917, the president of the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association (BGNA) came up with a plan to help control the feral cat population in Manhattan’s Lower West Side. Dr. Miner C. Hill, a pediatrician in charge of the nonprofit association’s baby clinic, believed that the stray cats were responsible for spreading diseases to the poor immigrant babies and children under his care.

Dr. Hill’s idea was to offer a nickel to every neighborhood child who captured and delivered a stray cat to the Bowling Green Community Playground on West and Washington streets. There, the cats would be placed in boxes and carted off to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals “to finish the job.”

For the next 10 years, the annual cat roundup — or annual Bowling Green cat massacre as I prefer to call it — resulted in the murder of thousands of cats and kittens at the hands of little children and the SPCA. (The association claimed that the roundup of stray cats was done “for humanitarian purposes” because the cats were sick and starving; unfortunately many healthy cats were also captured during this annual open season on felines.)

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“Then appeared a 7-year-old girl…dragging a yowling Maltese. ‘I got him last night and tied him up in the back yard until today, so’s I could get the money from you today.'” — New York Times, October 7, 1923

The Bowling Green Cat Roundup

“When darkness settled down last night over the territory encompassed by West Street and Broadway, Vesey Street and the Battery, and lights began to blink in the tenement quarters of Syrians, Turks, Hungarians and Russians, eerie dirges rose from pitchy backyards. There was a melancholia in the walls, a lost soul’s lowest note, one that jiggled spines of all who heard.

“Up to the high heavens, or wherever the destinies of cats are molded, a feline appeal for help soared with the coming of nightfall. From the throats of 1,500 cats went a chant for mercy, for yesterday the word had spread that not one of their 13,500 lives was safe. Crafty hunters stalked them, cunning minds trapped them, lusty young legs gave unremitting pursuit.”–The New York Times, October 7, 1923

The words are almost poetic, and yet the story behind them is tragic. Not only for the cats who were victims of the annual Bowling Green Cat Massacre (as I like to call it), but for the children who were desperate enough to take part in such madness for but a nickel or a ticket to see a free show.

The Bowling Green Cat Massacre, more notably known as the annual cat round-up, was the brainchild of Dr. Miner C. Hill, the president of the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association. Dr. Hill, who was in charge of the association’s baby clinic, came up with the idea to round up the cats in 1917. The feral cats were a menace to the neighborhood and, he thought, were probably responsible for spreading diseases to the immigrant babies and children under his care.

The plan seemed simple enough. Post a sign in the association’s playground on Washington Street in Lower Manhattan stating that every stray cat rounded up would yield five cents to the hunter or huntress. Collect all the stray cats in boxes and present them to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The SPCA would then cart the cats away by wagon and “finish the job.” Oh, the irony.

Incentivized by a shiny nickel or show ticket, hundreds of poor and hungry children were more than eager to gather up the stray cats and bring them to the playground. What could possibly go wrong, I wonder?

Immigrant children from Syria, Serbia, Armenia, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria play in the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association playground between Washington Street and West Street in 1920. For almost 10 years, these children were paid a nickel for every stray cat they caught during the association’s annual cat roundup.

Little Syria and the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association

Over the years, the area of Manhattan west of Broadway from the Battery up to Liberty Street has been known by many names. During the mid-19th century it was a neighborhood of well-kept row houses called “Bowling Green Village.” When this story takes place in the 1920s, it was known as “Little Serbia” and “Wall Street’s back yard.” Before the World Trade Center was constructed in the early 1970s, it was called the “Electronics District” or “Radio Row.”

Originally populated by the Irish, then Italians and Greeks, the neighborhood was the nation’s first and largest Arabic settlement. From the late 1880’s to about 1940 the area was home to thousands of Arab and Maronite Catholic immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. Slavs from Eastern Europe and Orthodox Greeks and Turks also settled there. They lived in overcrowded multi-family tenements converted from 150-year-old dilapidated warehouses and once-fashionable row houses that had fallen into decay.

As with most immigrant neighborhoods in the city, Little Syria was rife with unsanitary conditions and poor health. In 1916, The New York Times reported that the district had the worst housing conditions in the city. The Times also noted that the area’s infant mortality rate was almost 50% greater than that of the city at large.

Little Syria had one good this going: it was close to Wall Street and all the financial district’s wealth. Therefore, the neighborhood was the recipient of many philanthropic attempts by wealthy executives and business owners who wanted to clean up “Wall Street’s dirty back yard.”

From the late 1880s to the 1940s, the area just south of the World Trade Center and centered along Washington Street was called Little Serbia. It was also called Wall Street's back yard due to its proximity to the city's financial district.

From the late 1880s to the 1940s, the area just south of the World Trade Center and centered along Washington Street (highlighted in yellow) was called “Little Syria.” It was also called “Wall Street’s back yard” due to its proximity to the city’s financial district just east of Broadway. Many immigrants were attracted to the area because the nearby piers provided steady employment for the men who found work on the docks.

One of the largest philanthropic efforts to help improve the people’s living conditions and health was the creation of the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association, or BGNA for short. The BGNA was an outgrowth of a health center started by the New York Milk Committee in 1914. Under the direction of volunteer secretary Kenneth D. Widdemer, the association set up shop in 1915 at its temporary headquarters at 98 Washington Street.

During its first year of operation, the BGNA established a baby clinic, milk station (for the distribution of pure milk), and visiting nurse services. As the results began to show, more downtown businessmen got involved with the project, allowing the BGNA to set up a community center at 45 West Street and an experimental restaurant at 21 Morris Street.

45 West Street New York

In 1915, the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association established a community center at 45 West Street. The four-story building, constructed in 1845 (shortly after landfill was used to create the street), housed a day nursery, library, and rooms for English instruction, household arts, citizenship classes, and various clubs. The playground where the annual cat roundup took place occupied nine vacant lots adjacent to 45 West Street (behind the wall on the right in this photo).

 

From November 1, 1919, to May 1, 1920, the BGNA operated an experimental restaurant for 25 undernourished children at 21 Morris Street.

From November 1, 1919, to May 1, 1920, the BGNA operated an experimental restaurant for 25 undernourished children at 21 Morris Street. The children were provided 3 square meals a day, 6 days a week, at a cost of only $108 dollars a month.

The Bowling Green Neighborhood Association’s Playground

The building at 45 West Street, in addition to the vacant lots which served as a playground and stray cat drop-off location, was once part of the Benjamin T. Babbitt soap works campus. Established on the landfill that became Washington and West streets in 1845, the campus comprised #64-84 Washington Street and #41-51 West Street.

The B.T. Babbitt Soap Works is clearly marked on this 1885 map.

The B.T. Babbitt Soap Works is marked on this 1885 tax map map. 45 West Street was one of several tenements on that street that were incorporated into the soap business (perhaps used for storage purposes).

 

Here is an illustration of the B.T. Babbitt soap works factory as it appeared in 1859.

Here is an illustration of the B.T. Babbitt soap works factory on Washington Street as it probably appeared in 1859. For many years, the giant smoke stacks guided ship captains while also spewing horrific black smoke that gave off a horrible stench.

 

Benjamin Babbitt was known as a genius of advertising--his soap was one of the first nationally advertised products. Here's one such ad from 1882.

Benjamin Babbitt was known as a genius of advertising. In fact, his soap was one of the first nationally advertised products. Here’s one such ad from 1882, which features his buildings on the left. Check out this great Thomas Edison film from 1903 of New York skyscrapers filmed from a boat on the North (Hudson) River–B.T. Babbitt’s soap factory can be seen at the 1:34 minute marker.

 

By 1915, 16 years after B.T. Babbitt's death, the factory buildings had been demolished, leaving nine vacant lots between 41 and 44 West Street and 62 to 72 Washington Street.

By 1915, most of the B.T. Babbitt factory buildings had been demolished, leaving 10 vacant lots between 41 and 44 West Street and 62 to 72 Washington Street.

Sometime around 1904, 15 years after the death of B.T. Babbitt, his heirs moved the business to the North Bergen Meadows in New Jersey (today’s Meadowlands). In 1911, Babbitt’s daughter, Mrs. C.M. (Elizabeth) Hyde, sold the New York buildings to R. Crystal & Son. The new buyers had planned on erecting a modern office structure on the site, but apparently they didn’t get any further than the demolition stage.

Ten of the lots remained vacant until 1916, which is when the Babbitt estate loaned them to the BGNA for use as a playground. The city’s Public Service Commission donated the sand used to level the land, and the Parks and Playgrounds Association helped equip the new playground with swings, seesaws, and gym equipment.

The Bowling Green Community Playground, as it was called, opened on June 22, 1916.

Here's an aerial view of the Bowling Green Community Playground in 1925, the year the land was purchased for development.

Here’s an aerial view of the Bowling Green Community Playground in 1925, the year the land was purchased for development. That year, the annual stray cat roundup was moved to Bowling Green public park in the city’s financial district.

The End of the Bowling Green Community Playground

In April 1925, Edgar G. Ruwe Company of 49 West Street purchased the playground property from the estates of B.T. Babbitt and Elizabeth Hyde for $500,000. As the workmen took away all the swings and slides and sand piles on April 14, scores of children stood and solemnly watched. After all, they had no where else to go.

In Part II, I’ll tell you about the Bowling Green Neighborhood Association’s new home on Washington Street and what disasters happened when the annual stray cat roundup and massacre was moved to the Bowling Green public park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

48th Street and First Avenue, 1915Tim and Tige lived and played on East 48th Street near First Avenue, pictured here in 1915. This neighborhood was razed to make way for the United Nations Plaza in 1948. NYPL Digital Collections

When we left Part I of this Old New York dog tale, little Tim Leahy had just been separated from his only friend, a Newfoundland named Tige. In Part II, we’ll travel to the southwest shore of Staten Island, to Father Drumgoole’s Mission of the Immaculate Virgin at Mount Loretto, a large, 600-acre farm for thousands of orphaned children and one very lucky homeless Newfoundland.

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Boy with Newfoundland dog, vintage

This is not Tim Leahy and Tige, but this vintage photo is perfect for this story.

Tim Leahy was only seven years old when his father died and his mother ran away and left him on his own. With no other living relatives in his homeland of Ireland, he was put on a ship and sent to live with a great aunt in New York City.

Great Aunt Julia Kelley was not a wealthy woman by any means; in fact, she barely made enough money selling apples and candies at a little stand in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue (the neighborhood kids called her Apple Julia). But she welcomed Tim into her modest tenement apartment at 400 East 48th Street and cared for him as best she could.

Shortly after Tim was united with his great aunt, a homeless, half-starved Newfoundland followed Tim home and won over the hearts of the little boy and his aged aunt. Though very poor, Aunt Julia could not turn the dog away, and so the three lived in poverty together.

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Aimee Crocker with Bulldog

Aimee Crocker with one of her many prized pampered French bulldogs.

I’m taking the Hatching Cat on the road again with a new presentation for dog lovers. My first presentation of The Dames and Damsels of Old New York and the Lap Dogs They Adored will be on Thursday, May 11, 6:30 p.m., at the Albert Wisner Public Library in Warwick, New York. 

In the 1800s and early 1900s, lap dogs were extremely popular with socialites and starlets of stage and screen. Pet dogs were as much a status symbol for these wealthy ladies as were their diamonds and pearls. Many–if not most–of these women loved their dogs more than their husbands (and their children, if they had any).

In this hour-long presentation, I will wind the audience through the streets of Old New York as I share amazing stories of eight wealthy and eccentric women of New York City’s Gilded Age and the dogs they adored. Hear about:

 

  • The monkey griffon that opened the door for all pets at the Plaza Hotel
  • The French poodle with a $1 million dog yard on Fifth Avenue
  • The terrier that inspired Margaret Wise Brown’s last picture book
  • And 5 more fascinating dog tales

Fun for dog lovers and New York City history fans alike!

Remember, if you know of a library or nonprofit group (eg, animal shelter, historical society) in the New York City area that you think would be interested in this presentation, please contact me and let me know.

For 40 years, Fred Sauter stuffed every kind of animal imaginable at 42 Bleecker Street, pictured here on the right sometime around 1905.

For 40 years, Fred Sauter stuffed every kind of animal imaginable in his workshop at 42 Bleecker Street, pictured here on the right sometime around 1905. Note the entrance to the brand-new subway in the foreground, at the intersection of Mulberry Street and Elm Street (today’s Lafayette Street).

In the first part of this Old New York menagerie tale, we met taxidermist Fred Sauter Jr., a well-known New York City taxidermist who did a thriving business stuffing deer, bears, lions, birds, monkeys, and even pet dogs and cats in his large warehouse at 42 Bleecker Street. In Part 2, we’ll explore the history of the building on Bleecker Street where Fred Sauter Jr. and his son turned the skins of dead animals into fascinating if not grotesque displays for hunters, department stores, theater sets, movies, and distraught pet owners.

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