Nicodemus Brian G. Hughes

In 1895, Brian G. Hughes entered an alley cat he named Nicodemus in the first National Cat Show at Madison Square Garden. On May 5, the Chicago Tribune reported that the cat looked like “the ordinary backyard, high-fence cat that gets itself shot at moonlight nights.”

Mr. Brian Hughes died the other day at his farm in Monroe, N. Y., and with his passing New York lost its master jokesmith, the originator of countless practical jokes that made everybody laugh, even their victims. Although a successful banker and manufacturer, he was more widely known for his ability to joke than for his commercial successes. His entire career was one of devastating jocularity. He lived to be 75 years old, and almost to the day of his death he was getting as much fun out of life as was possible.—The Galveston Daily News, Jan. 5, 1925

I discovered the late great Mr. Brian George Hughes while writing a story about Arson and Homicide, two cats that patrolled the old New York Police headquarters building at 240 Centre Street. As I was doing research on this building, I learned that the site had been occupied by the Centre Market.

Demolishing Centre Street Market

When the old Centre Market was torn down in 1904 (shown here), Brian Hughes moved his company to a seven-story building at 133-137 Mulberry Street. Brian hired a sign painter to paint “Not for Sale” on the building, about 150 feet from the ground. He told the painter to add “Post No Bills” for good measure. Museum of the City of New York Collections

Brian Hughes & Brother, a paper box manufacturer, leased offices in the north end of the market building at 242 Centre Street. It was here Brian played one of his greatest signature pranks.

In 1904, right about the time the city was considering the site of the Centre Market for its new police headquarters, Brian and his brother Hugh (his parents also had a sense of humor) decided that the building would be a good investment.

When they inquired about purchasing the building, the city comptroller told them the property was not for sale. The next day, Brian placed huge signs in the windows with bold lettering that read “THIS PROPERTY IS NOT FOR SALE. B.G. HUGHES, AMERICA.”

When the comptroller asked about the signs, Brian told him that he was giving the city free advertising by telling folks that the building was not for sale. The comptroller was not amused, but Brian got a good laugh. From that point on, Brian placed “Not for Sale” signs on all his real estate.

Brian G. Hughes

From his offices on Centre and Mulberry streets, Brian devised new ways to fool people and thumb his nose at high society.

Nicodemus, the Female Tom Cat

One of Brian’s biggest jokes involved a stray cat that he purchased for a dime in 1895 from a young bootblack on Hester Street who was just about to drown it. According to one news report, Brian bought the cat because he was attracted to the cat’s six toes.

Although he originally intended to keep the cat at his factory to kill the rats, the cat wasn’t a mouser (probably because Brian fed it too well). The dark gray cat did, however, hold its head at an “aristocratic angle” due to an injury he sustained when he was struck by a falling infant. That gave Brian a great idea.

Cosey, Best in Show, 1895

Nicodemus had to compete with about 200 other cats in the first-ever National Cat Show, including Mrs. Fred Brown’s Cosey, a Maine coon that won Best in Show. Several cats died during the inaugural event due to excessive heat inside the building.

Brian Hughes took the cat home and had it carefully washed and brushed. Then he entered the cat in the National Cat Show as “the last of the Dublin Brindle breed.” He told the judges that the cat’s name was Nicodemus, by Bowery, out of Dust-Pan, by Sweeper, by Ragtag-and-Bobtail.

At the show, Nicodemus was placed on display on a silk cushion inside a gold-plated cage surrounded by roses and attended to by a woman in a nurse’s gown. According to The New York Times, one woman reportedly walked by and commented on how absurd it was for a cat to have its own nurse when so many children in the world did not receive half the amount of care and attention.

Each day of the show, an African-American livery footman by the name of Sam Smith would arrive with ice cream and chicken packed in the boxes of a celebrated caterer. A florist would also deliver flowers to the alley cat every day. The other cats, including those belonging to Mrs. Standford White, Miss Louisa (J.P.) Morgan, and Mrs. John J. Astor could only look on in envy.

Brian G. Hughes

This news article about New York’s practical joker depicts Brian Hughes as the grinning funny face logo of Steeplechase at Coney Island.

Nicodemus created a great sensation at the show, and several offers of $2,000 and more came in for the former street urchin (even though Brian advertised him as “the $1,000 Cat Not for Sale”). He took a fifty-dollar prize in the class for brown and dark gray tom cats (there were no other winners in this sub-class).

Despite all the attention and great food, Nicodemus apparently did not like the high life. According to a report in the Rochester Daily Union and Advertiser, he broke away from his attendant on the last day of the show and disappeared. A few days later, however, he appeared at Brian’s offices in the old Centre Street market.

A year later, Brian pulled the stunt again with the same cat. But this time, the joke was on him when it was discovered that his “male” cat was actually female. Sure enough, the alley cat soon gave birth to two kittens.

Determined to have the last laugh, Brian pulled the trick again in 1899, this time disguising his name as Nairb G. Sehguh and making up a fabulous story for the organizers of the International Cat Show at the Grand Central Palace.

Spanish Ship Vizcaya

Brian Hughes told everyone his cat had been a mascot on the Vizcaya during the Spanish-American War and was once owned by the King of Spain.

Brian said his new cat, Eulata, was a native of Hindustan who was once a mascot on the Spanish ship Vizcaya, and that when the ship sank in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, she swam to the USS Oregon and was rescued by sailors. As if that story wasn’t good enough, Brian also said the cat had been presented to the King of Spain by a Bombay merchant, who in turn presented her to Captain Don Antonio Eulate of the Vizcaya.

During the show, Eulata dined from silver dishes, slept on velvet cushions, and was occasionally sprayed with violet perfume. Her gilded cage was bedecked with fresh roses, violets, hyacinths, and carnations. On top were American and Spanish flags, a doll’s trunk labeled “Eulata,” and a box of food in a box stamped with “Sherry’s.” The cat had been completely shaved (save for her head and the tip of her tail) and was like nothing the judges had ever seen before.

This time, though, the judges figured out the joke when they realized that Nairb G. Sehguh was Brian G. Hughes spelled backwards.

Puldeka Orphan, the Old Car Horse

Since the cat pranks got so many laughs, Brian decided to try something similar with a horse in 1900. A few months before the National Horse Show opened at Madison Square Garden, he purchased an old streetcar mare from the Metropolitan Street Railway Company for $11.50. He got such a great deal because the horse was old and about to lose her job pulling a car on the 59th Street line to an electric trolley car.

Clara Hughes and Puldeka Orphan

Brian’s daughter Clara riding Puldeka Orphan at the National Horse Show.

Brian sent the horse up to his farm, Brightside, in Monroe, New York, and told his head stable man that he was entering her in the horse show. Brian said that every cent of the $500 prize money would go to the man who was able to get the horse into condition to compete. For the next two months, the old car horse got the lion’s share of attention in the stable.

The day before the show, Brian paid $24 for a special rail car to transport the horse back to the city. When the Garden show opened, Brian entered the horse as “Puldeka Orphan, by Metropolitan, dam, Electricity.” She was placed in a stall surrounded by flowers and attended to by two livery grooms. She looked absolutely majestic in the arena, with Brian’s daughter at the reins.

1875 Monroe New York

Brian Hughes’ country estate, Brightside (bottom left on this 1875 map), was located at the intersection of present-day Route 17M and Freeland Street.

Now, everything would have gone smoothly, and Puldeka may have even won, had nobody noticed the small bell placed under her saddle. You see, Puldeka was used to hearing one bell (start) and two bells (stop), and didn’t know any other signals or “giddyup.” Miss Clara Hughes, Brian’s 18-year-old daughter, had to use the bells several times, which Brian said was what cost him the blue ribbon.

The funny thing is, although they noticed the bell, nobody noticed until the event was over that the name of the horse could be read, “Pulled a car often, by Metropolitan. Damn electricity.”

Brian Hughes Reetsa Expedition

Brian Hughes’ “Reetsa Expedition” hoax appeared in The Big Book of Hoaxes, published in 1996.

Another time, Brian claimed to have funded a South American expedition to catch a rare animal called a reetsa. For a year he supplied the media with updates about the expedition. Then he announced the capture and arranged for a ship to pull into the docks on the Hudson River. All the newsmen anxiously awaited for a chance to see this rare beast — which turned out to be a steer (reetsa spelled backwards).

The Man Behind the Practical Jokes

Brian Hughes was born in Ireland on May 16, 1849. He arrived in America in 1858, and soon thereafter pulled his first prank while living uptown.* Central Park was just being laid out at this time, and Brian would often play hooky to snare yellow birds from the area of the new park and sell them as singing canaries.

Brian married Josephine White of Boston in 1876 and the couple had three children: Gertrude Marie (later Mrs. John Joseph Burrell), Clara, and Arthur (who legally changed his name to Brian G. Hughes in 1909). They lived for a time in Brooklyn and also at 49 East 126th Street.

Brian Hughes Brightside Farm, Monroe, New York

Brian Hughes owned a farm he called Brightside in Monroe at the intersection of what was then called the road to Harriman and Freeland Street. Today this site is occupied by an auto body shop, a Gulf station, a CVS, and a large strip mall.

Little is known about his earlier life in New York or how he came to work in the box manufacturing industry. However, he became one of the most prosperous box makers in the city, and everyone seemed to know him, even though the only address he ever used was “America.” Almost any New York mail that was addressed “Brian G. Hughes, America” found its way to his desk.

Brian Hughes Tree

One time Brian Hughes told a colonel of the British Army that his trees in Monroe grew vegetables. Sure enough, when the colonel came to visit, he saw an old apple tree with cabbages, cantaloupes, lemons, onions, peaches, pineapples, sweet pickles, and other vegetables “growing” on it. What he didn’t see were the copper wires used to attach them to the tree.

Not All Fun and Games

Although local and national newspapers often wrote about Brian and his practical jokes, the news was not always jovial. In 1910, several upstate New York papers reported on the grim discovery of Brian’s grandson, John Burrell, in a concrete ice house on Fairland Farm in Goshen, New York. The boy was still alive, but he had been confined to the small underground ice house for about a month.

According to the story, for some time there had been rumors among the farmers near Prospect Lake (today’s Goshen Reservoir) that Burrell had locked his son in the ice house. He was discovered by Fred Mann and Fred Mabee, two young neighbors who saw a farmhand entering the structure with bread. The health officer was summoned and the boy was taken to the State Hospital in Middletown.

Fairland Farm Goshen

Brian’s son-in-law, John Joseph Burrell, owned Fairland Farm just south of Pleasant Lake in Goshen (bottom center of this 1903 map). The farmhouse and ice house were near the intersection of today’s Reservoir Road and Strack Road.

Mr. Burrell told authorities that his son had been committed to an asylum on several occasions but could not be contained. He said the ice house was the only place he could keep him from destroying his property. The boy’s mother, Gertrude Hughes Burrell, was living in Harlem with the couple’s two other children at the time.

A Permanent Moratorium on Jokes

On August 1, 1915, Brian’s wife died at Brightside in Monroe. Only 57, she had been in poor health for some time, and had left their city home on Madison Avenue in Harlem for the country about 6 weeks earlier.

Three years later, Brian Hughes became president of the Dollar Savings Bank in the Bronx. In light of this new position and the war, Brian told the public that he would put an end to the pranks.

1984 Broadway

Brian Hughes, his three children, and two of his grandchildren lived in this townhouse (right door) at 1984 Madison Avenue in Harlem during his later years. The family also had a cook and a butler who lived at the residence.

Brian Hughes died at his home in Monroe on December 8, 1924. More than 400 people attended the services at the All Saints Church on Madison Avenue in Harlem. Reverend Patrick F. MacAran, founder of the Parish of St. Anastasia in Harriman, New York, officiated the mass. Brian was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

Four years later, at age 42, Brian G. Hughes, Jr. shot himself with a pistol in the Mulberry Street office just minutes after talking to his young bride, Margaret. His wife and secretary thought he was just pulling a practical joke, but when they went in to check on him, they found him dead on the floor. To this day, the motive remains a mystery.

* No census reports for the Hughes family from 1860 or 1870 could be located, which leads me to believe that Brian may have grown up in one of the many shanty houses occupied by Irish immigrants before Central Park was completed.

Mike Dalmatian Engine 8

Mike was the fire dog of Engine Company 8 from 1908 to 1914. Twice, he won the blue ribbon in the Dalmatian class at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden.

Mike was no ordinary fire dog. In fact, he was no ordinary Dalmatian. As the son of Oakie and Bess, two of the most famous mascot dogs in the history of the Fire Department of New York, he was destined for greatness.

Oakie was raised in Newport, Rhode Island on Oakland Farm, the residence of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. In March 1907, Vanderbilt shipped the dog by crate to Engine Company 39 at Fire Headquarters after he heard that their fire dog, Pinkie, was killed trying to slide down the pole at the firehouse. Oakie was placed in charge of Foreman Edward J. Levy.

Vanderbilt Oakland Farm

Mike’s father, Oakie, was raised on Oakland Farm, the country residence of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt in Newport, Rhode Island.

Bess also came from a litter of aristocratic dogs, but her master is not known. As the story goes, he very much admired the work of the firemen who responded to a fire at his house, so he decided to give them a Dalmatian.

One day he drove up to the firehouse of Engine Company No. 8 in his touring car and gave them a puppy. He didn’t say who he was, but told them that the dog’s name was Bess and that he wanted her to be a real dog working with firemen.

Alfred G. Vanderbilt Sr.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Sr. was the third son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and Alice Claypoole Gwynne. He was among the 1,198 passengers who died on the RMS Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland. He was called a hero for helping others into lifeboats – he even offered his own life jacket to a woman with an infant even though he couldn’t swim. Vanderbilt’s body was never recovered.

Boisterous, beefy Michael Creegman, aka, Mickey the Breeze, clicked with little pup right off the bat, and took her uptown every night for dinner. Perhaps he had connections, or perhaps it was his dominating presence, but somehow Mickey got her a special pass to ride the Third Avenue Railroad trolley cars with him.

In March 1908, Bess gave birth to several noble pups. From the litter, a puppy the firemen named Mike was selected and turned over to driver David M. Lynx of Engine Company 8.

Third Avenue Railroad Pass

Shortly after Mike starting training for the position of fire dog with Engine Company 8, Bess was transferred to a quieter station house in Queens to recover from injuries sustained from running into burning buildings. Since she would no longer need her surface rail pass, Fireman David Lynx escorted Mike to the office of Receiver Frederick Wallington Whitridge to see if it could be transferred to Bess’ son.

Engine Company No. 8 FDNY

Metropolitan Steam Engine Company No. 8 was organized on September 11, 1865. The company spent the first four years at 128 E. 50th Street, and then moved to its current location at 165 East 51st Street in 1869. Today the company shares headquarters with Ladder Company 2 and Battalion 8.

Now, Mike was not one for acknowledging anyone not wearing a fireman’s uniform. But according to David Lynx, he jumped right up on Whitridge’s lap “just like a politician asking for a favor.” Whitridge gave the fireman permission to transfer the pass to Mike, saying, “It’s the only pass of the kind ever issued by the road, and if Mike is willing to take all the risks and not sue the company in case of accident I guess we’ll transfer the pass to him.”

Frederick W. Whitridge

Frederick Whitridge of 16 East 11th Street was appointed Receiver of the Third Avenue Railroad on January 6, 1908, following its foreclosure under the collapse of the Metropolitan Street Railway, which then controlled the rail company. In 1910, the Third Avenue Railway was chartered, acquiring all the properties of the former Third Avenue Railroad. Whitridge was named president of the new company around 1915.

The special pass was engraved on a silver plate attached to his collar, which also held a tiny brass fire helmet. The inscription read: “To conductors: permission is hereby granted to carry a fire dog on the cars of this company. Third Avenue Railway Company. Frederick W. Whitridge, Receiver.”

All the conductors were instructed to honor this pass, which let him ride back and forth on the front platform of all the Third Avenue lines. Mike used the pass often to go home with the firemen for dinner and to visit his fire dog pals in uptown fire houses.

Horse-drawn carriage

The Third Avenue Railroad Company formed in 1852 and began operating its horse-drawn cars on July 3, 1853. By 1859, using the 125th Street Railroad and trackage along 10th Avenue (Amsterdam Avenue), the line ran from the Astor House (Broadway and Park Row) north along Park Row, the Bowery, and Third Avenue to 130th Street near the Harlem River, a distance of about 8 miles.

Mike and Jerry’s Excellent Adventures

One of Mike’s best canine friends was Jerry, an ordinary mongrel attached to what was then the 29th Precinct at 163 E. 51st Street. Jerry was brought to the police station on March 4, 1909, by a woman who had found him outside starving and shivering. Captain John J. Lantry accepted the dog and the men named him Jerry in honor of the station’s doorman (they were originally going to call him Bill Taft in honor of President William Taft’s inauguration that year).

One of the dogs’ favorite activity was taking the ferry-boat from East 53rd Street to Blackwell’s Island. If it was a warm day, they’d go swimming to cool off. Sometimes they would stay there for two or three days, but they always returned to their respective stations.

First Third Avenue Cable Car

By the mid-1880s, the Third Avenue Railroad Company began operating cable cars on the Tenth Avenue cable line and 125th Street line. The surface railway used cable cars as well as horse-drawn streetcars until 1899 when the company switched over to electric-powered trolleys.

When it came to the job, though, Mike and Jerry were all business. Jerry would accompany the policeman on patrol or ride along with the patrol wagon that picked up the prisoners for night court, and Mike would ride along with the fire engines. The two never switched jobs or mixed pleasure with business.

Mike did his job very well, and the firemen say he saved many lives. He’d jump up and down in excitement as the horses, Jerry, Pat, and Miguel got into their harnesses, and would run ahead to bark and snap at pedestrians in cross streets to let them know the horses were coming. On the scene of the fire, Mike would always run into the buildings with the firemen, just like he mother once did. His reward on hot nights was getting hosed down with the horses when their work was done.

Old 17th Precinct Stationhouse

Mike’s friend Jerry was attached to the 29th Precinct – originally the 19th – which was established at 163 East 51st Street on September 7, 1877. Today it’s known as the 17th Precinct.

Mike and Tom and Jerry

Mike’s two other good four-legged friends at the firehouse were a big grey horse named Jerry who also arrived in 1908 and a large black cat named Tom. The three animals loved being together, and always slept in Jerry’s stall – Mike would put his head on Jerry’s neck and Tom would sleep on Jerry’s back. Jerry fussed over his small friends in the stall, and would always lie down carefully so as not to crush them.

When an alarm came in at night, Tom would jump out of the way and walk to the street to watch the engines pull away. Then he’d go back inside to sleep until his friends came home (who said cats were not as smart as dogs?) Actually, one time Tom tried to ride on Jerry’s back as he raced to a fire. He held on for a few seconds and then jumped, landing on his end and injuring himself (so maybe he wasn’t that smart).

Tom, Jerry, Mike, Engine Company No. 8

The four-legged buddies of Engine Company 8.

Although Mike usually went inside the buildings with the men, he must have sensed that his friend Jerry was about to lose his job when he noticed the horse was falling asleep on the scene. According to Captain Joseph Donovan, no sooner would Dave Lynx place a blanket over his team, Jerry would drop down in the gutter and take a nap. Dave and the engine men Dennis McNamara and Frank Leonard didn’t know what to do – but Mike had an idea.

For the next few nights, Mike remained outside with the horses and began nipping Jerry on the knees as soon as he started to kneel down. Sometimes he’d nip him 10 times in a half hour, but eventually the trick worked and Jerry stopped falling asleep on the job.

Mike Goes to Doggie Heaven

On December 5, 1914, Jerry stumbled and fell while racing to a fire. The large horse landed on top of Mike, crushing his hind legs. The firemen carried Mike back to the station and placed him in Jerry’s stall to quiet the horse – she seemed to know that the end was near for her dear canine friend.

Mike wins Westminster Kennel Club Show

Although Mike had a short life, it was a very rewarding one. Not only did he help save lives, he also took first place in the Dalmatian class at the 34th annual Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden in 1910 and 1911. The class was specifically dedicated to firemen’s dogs. In 1910, second place went to two-year-old Smoke II of Engine Company 68 on Jay Street in Brooklyn.

This story is dedicated to the families and friends of the following firefighters from Engine 8, Ladder 2, and Battalion 8 who made the supreme sacrifice on September 11th, 2001.

ENGINE 8
FF. Robert Parro
LADDER 2
CPT. Federick Ill, Jr.
FF. Denis Germain
FF. Daniel Harlin
FF. Dennis Mulligan
FF. Michael Clarke
FF. George Dipasquale
FF. Carl Molinaro
BATTALION 8
BC. Thomas DeAngelis
FF. Thomas McCann

I once wrote about Sir Oliver, The Lambs’ mascot parrot. In 1900, Sir Oliver was a matinée idol who had a habit of going off script and speaking out of line on stage. When he wasn’t performing, he spent his time startling customers with his “fowl” language in a bird shop on Broadway. I have to wonder if Sir Oliver was the parrot who also starred in this drama…

Madion Square Park

Madison Square Park in 1893. NYPL digital collections.

“Help! Help! Murder! Police!”

The loud cries for help pierced the early morning stillness in Madison Square Park, nearly startling Policeman Betts out of his shoes as he walked his beat near the Hoffman House Hotel on Broadway and 25th Street.

As a police officer with what was then called the 19th Police Precinct – otherwise known as the notorious Tenderloin District – Betts was exposed to a heavy dose of crime every day.

This district, which covered roughly 23rd Street to 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, was the most crime-ridden section of the city — and possibly of the country. Hundreds of brothels, saloons, and gambling parlors lined the streets. Graft and corruption among the police was rampant.

According to newspaper accounts from the early 1900s, Betts had assisted on dangerous door-busting raids of gambling and opium dens, made heroic rescues when the Hoffman House caught fire, and dealt with all kinds of vice on a daily basis. But he’d apparently never heard a screech for help quite like this.

Captain Alexander Williams, Tenderloin District

The Tenderloin area reportedly got its nickname when Alexander “Clubber” Williams took command of what was then the 29th Precinct in 1876. He cheerfully noted that he was looking forward to getting some “tenderloin” after working many years for “chuck steak” on the Lower East Side. Captain Williams retired in 1895 a millionaire.

“They’re killing me! Quick, quick!”

Hearing the second cry for help, Policeman Betts rapped his nightstick on the asphalt to signal the three other policemen patrolling the area that their immediate help was needed. From each corner of Madison Square Park, the four police officers made a systematic search toward the center of the park, gripping their nightsticks tightly in preparation for striking a few blows on the assailants.

Unable to find any trace of a crime in progress, Policeman Betts and his fellow officers retreated to their posts.

Tenderloin Station House

The station house for the 29th Precinct at 137-139 West 30th Street was designed by NYPD sergeant and official architect Nathaniel D. Bush in 1869. By 1898, the station (now re-numbered the 19th Precinct) was overcrowded and had insufficient dormitory quarters for the patrolmen. In 1903, Commissioner William McAdoo seized upon the city-owned building next door to create more dormitory space. Today this is the site of a Courtyard Marriott.

“Rubbah! Rubbah! Rubbah-neck!” The voice was still loud, but this time there was a mocking cadence.

Betts rapped again to signal to the others that they were needed again. This time they converged to a bench where the voice seemed to be coming from. They look up and saw the culprit on the branches of a maple tree.

“Polly wants a cracker!”

It is not known from whose cage the green parrot escaped. But he (or she) remained in the park for a while, where he amused the children and kept the tramps awake at night with his loud outbursts. One homeless man said he heard a man on Fourth Avenue was willing to pay $2 for the bird, and so began a challenge to catch the parrot.

Hoffman House Hotel

Policeman Betts’ regular post was at the Hoffman House Hotel on Broadway at 25th Street, which was built in 1864 on land once occupied by the Isaac Varian farm and homestead. In its first year, the hotel served as headquarters for General Winfield Scott and Benjamin F. Butler, who had been sent to New York to help quell the draft riots. The Hoffman House and the adjoining Albermarle Hotel were demolished in 1915 to make way for a 16-story office building.

It was believed that someone eventually caught and sold the bird, and used the money to buy alcohol.

Tenderloin Police Station

In April and May 1905, the city secured four lots on the south side of 30th Street, across from the old station house, on land once occupied by the James A. Stewart farm. The property contained an old wooden house and a wooden structure that served as a carpenter’s shop and an African-American church. The existing buildings were demolished to provide a site for the new Tenderloin Station, aka, The Fortress.