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Unmarried – Lived with parents until middle-age – Sounds suspicious! Oh and they collected all kinds of things in their Manhattan townhouse – to the tune of 130+ tons of junk and mementos, including fourteen pianos, rusty bicycles, 25,000 books, three dress-making mannequins, old beds and box springs, everything once owned by their mother and father, broken furniture, pickled human organs in jars from their father’s medical practice, boxes of empty soda and beer bottles, eight live cats and untold dead ones. The only thing not found in the house was Howard Hughes.
Oh, and their home was booby trapped. Because being strange was not enough, the brothers were also paranoid that someone was going to steal their useless junk. And this was in 1947.
The brothers were born during the Gilded Age in New York City. Both were very intelligent, having gone to college and graduated. One was a talented concert pianist, having played at Carnegie Hall. Enough with the words, let’s look at some photos! (and I don’t know why but strange NYC cases bother me more than the other things I’ve seen on this planet)
Sorry ladies at Grey Gardens, these two gents have you beat! A pile of empty cat food cans doesn’t count. I think I saw a book or two available on these brothers, maybe a movie also. Go digging if you want to know more.
Oh, and cops don’t get paid enough. Look at that detective going ledge to ledge!
To bookend the sordid tale of Legs’ murder two weeks ago. There is no closure in this one.
Those apartments in Brooklyn certainly maintain themselves. Someone is renting Legs’ old lady’s pad and they probably don’t even know about it. Except for the ZZ Top cars in the first picture, and the duct tape on the BMW in the second (and the window a/c units) you might think it’s the same photograph.
Something tells me Kiki Roberts, the other woman in Legs’ life, got whatever cash he had squandered away…
“That ignorance plays its part, as well as poverty and bad hygienic surroundings, in the sacrifice of life is of course inevitable.”
* * * *
Estimates vary, but in the late 1800s there were anywhere from 20-to-40,000 homeless children making it on their own in New York City. The legends of the newsboys and the girls who sold corn-on-the-cob on street corners demand our attention today.
One-hundred and twenty-six years ago, when Jacob Riis took his photographer’s lens to the slums and tenements of old New York City, he was embarking on uncharted territory – that of a photojournalist. His actions, by way of his book “How the Other Half Lives”, actually helped to foster change in the slums. He did it with in your face guilt by way of the children and the elderly poor. In reading an engaging story from history, it is not uncommon to have feelings for the subjects. Then, the mind starts to wander and one has to reel themselves back in with something similar to “My goodness, here I am waxing sentimental for someone who’s been dead for eighty or ninety years!”. Then, I find that I have collected enough husks to share, so why not make a blog post.
Children were to be invisible. Seen and not heard. Older street boys who were not yet old enough to join a real gang, but too old to be playing marbles carried with them the moniker “street arabs”. They made money as bootblacks and some were probably just your local bullies of the block. The younger boys were called of course, newsboys. Such a romantic and affectionate role the newsboys had at the time, there was even a former newsboy who became a crowd-favorite, bare-knuckle prizefighter named “Swipes the newsboy” (real name Simon Besser). He was said to have killed a man in the ring. All of this long before regular and sanctioned bouts and modern rules of the sweet science.
Young girls would sell items on the street corners, whether food, sweets or trinkets. Girls aged 12 to 18 could waitress and serve booze at any of the hundreds of dives, wearing skimpy outfits. Family ties are what usually indentured a girl or boy to work in a dangerous factory, to help the family with money, etc. When one sees the old photos of child labor – it was not the child’s choice, and a homeless child would rather risk life in the street than succumb to such hell as factory work. Street girls did what they had to do also.
However small these lads were, it was still a man’s world, so the street arabs and newsboys also had their social time: mini-saloons and watering holes for a game of faro or craps. The street arabs and newsboys alike could get a “three-cent whiskey” or curry favors from the little girls that worked in the backrooms. And these are the more or less homeless children, seen back then as some sort of miniature adults in society. Most poor kids were expected to take care of themselves at a certain age, and whether they left the house voluntarily or were kicked out remains to be seen. Certainly, there were religious ministers and relief agencies aplenty, but the city was just too enormous.
An adolescent gang of boys who called themselves the “Baxter Street Dudes” even operated their own little theatre in the 1870s – they charged admission, put on “blood and thunder” plays of the era, which are not unlike the lure of “action movies” for boys in the present day. Under their leader, Baby-Faced Willie, the Grand Duke’s Theatre functioned for many years as a hideout and dive for these young people. Constant fighting at the theatre finally led cops to shut the ad hoc playhouse down. But as legend would have it, these kids wrote and starred in their own plays and musicals, something that would be mimicked forty years later on film in Hal Roach’s “The L’il Rascals” television show.
But back to Jacob Riis’ books (he did a few sequels), of which the saddest case studies are of Katie and Pietro. This is because they spoke to us. And we don’t know what happened to them. Luckily, both kids were with their families, Pietro sitting at the kitchen table of their tenement flat, as he seems eager to learn his letters and school lessons – his proud father, probably tired as hell after a long day at the docks or pushing a cart looks over his son and with his broken English he says “Pietro is a good boy”.
And across Manhattan, while Katie helps her mother by cleaning and doing chores. When asked by Jacob Riis what the little one does all day, she simply replied “I scrubs”. But she also went to school. Katie took care of the house, as everybody else in the poor family worked.
And we sign off today by bringing you, the dear reader, a rare photo of The Short-Tails, or Shirt-Tales, a well known NYC gang during the era. They numbered in the fifties. Most of these gangs were just drunks who loved to fight and steal. It’s also hard to look tough wearing a bowler hat, but they did. At least two of them have what seems like that thousand-yard stare from being in one too many battles.
Low Life by Luc Sante
The books of Jacob Riis
In the old news articles, if you were a crook on the business end of crime piece, they were bound to have fun with your odd physiology – if you possessed anything noteworthy. Criminals were often referred to as being short, fat, having a swarthy complexion. If it was a female then maybe she was “a bit on the heavy side” or how the “femme-sneak thief had stunningly beautiful raven hair”. And in the more innocent human interest stories they always maintain that “so-and-so, a smart and pretty girl, won the bake sale”.
Legs was one of those gangsters who was adored by the public, for whatever reasons.
Diamond’s ostrich-like limbs seemed to start at his Adam’s apple … he ran like an ostrich … and so he made his getaway by legging it:
A mobster’s family and his friends will spare no expense on his final day above ground. When Joe “the Boss” Masseria was gunned down in 1931, his casket cost $15,000:
In contrast, when Mad Dog Coll was rubbed out the following year in 1932 in a Manhattan phone booth, hardly anyone attended his funeral. Mad Dog was not well liked for he was a kidnapping-for-ransom and extortion thug. He also shot up a sidewalk full of children in 1931 while attempting to kill another gangster. This incident became known as the “Harlem Baby Massacre”. A dozen people showed up in the mud for Mad Dog’s burial. The writer casts it as a spooky scene, almost:
And here is the promised gallery – many a rogue’s final day on Earth:
After two years in Manhattan, she was to be dismantled, moved to Coney Island and reassembled, but her fate after this initial docking in Union Square remains unknown.
USS Recruit, also known as the Landship Recruit, was a wooden mockup of a dreadnought battleship constructed by the United States Navy in Manhattan in New York City, as a recruiting tool and training ship during the First World War. Commissioned as if it were a normal vessel of the U.S. Navy and manned by a crew of trainee sailors, Recruit was located in Union Square from 1917 until the end of the war. In 1920, with the reduced requirements for manning in the post-war Navy, Recruit was decommissioned, dismantled, and moved to Coney Island. The New York Times reported at the time that the “Landship” had helped the U.S. Navy recruit 25,000 men into the service—625 times the size of her own crew, and enough to crew twenty-eight battleships.