Changes in New York: Reminiscences of Down-Town Streets 1853


Nearly all the lower part of the City, except those portions of it which appear to be finished, are in a transition state. A few years ago, Greenwich street, from the Battery up to Liberty-street, was the residence of the old aristocratic families. Now the street has been filled up, and the elegant old mansions are occupied by immigrant foreigners, principally Dutch, almost every house being a beer shop or boarding house. The lower part of Broadway, also the former residence of the old aristocracy, is now almost exclusively devoted to business, lofty and splendid stores occupying the sites of the ancient dwelling houses. Dey-street, also one of the oldest in the City, and but a few years ago occupied by the most respectable families, is entirely changed; the whole street being devoted to business, and perhaps not half a dozen families living in it.

 The exclusives of Park-place have also fled uptown, and now stores, lawyer's offices, and gaming rooms, fill up the street. Beekman-street, too, once the clean, neat and quiet residence of wealthy Quakers, is a filthy, noisy, and bustling street. The beautiful residence of ex-Mayor Bowne, is now a German boarding house, and on the opposite side of the street, the house in which ex-Mayor Woodhull, three years ago, lived in splendor, is strangely metamorphosed; his elegant hall is now used as a common thorough-fare to the next street, and to various workshops and offices; his splendid parlors, as the offices of a society for reclaiming debased females; the second story as the office of the Independent newspaper; the third by the remains of the Anti-Gambling Society, and the manufacturers of jewelry. Liberty-street, Barclay, Warren, and Chambers-streets, are all becoming business streets, and in two or three years, the whole lower part of the City, for a mile above the Battery, will contain nothing but elegant stores, banks, and offices.

Ann-street holds its own, and is still the Grub-street of New York, where all sorts of books and newspapers are manufactured. Some little improvement, however, is about to take place near Broadway, as two or three old houses, long since rendered classic, are about to be torn down. One of these, No. 8 is an old-fashioned two-story brick house, which, for the last twenty-five years, has been a boarding-house, a low groggery, a gambling house, and last, a cheap lodging-house, in which loafers of every description, who could raise 12 1/2 cents, could buy a place to lay his head. The first story was used as a drinking shop, and the second, together with the attic, was occupied by a beautiful English-woman, who presided over the sleepers and sleeping apartments.

There was one bed-room in the second story, which contained but one bed, and might be procured, as a special favor, by early application; the rest of the beds were in the garret, one-half of which was divided into three rooms, while the other half remained open. Ordinary persons would not have used those rooms for sleeping purposes, our English-woman contrived to stow away about forty men every night! The beds were very narrow, and placed one above another, on the steamboat berth plan; rough boards nailed together constituted the bedstead, upon which was spread a straw mattress and a scanty supply of coarse and dirty bed-clothes. There was no washstand, basin or water, nor any other bedroom furniture, not even a chair; those who desired to bathe their hands or face in the morning, went into the yard, where a tin basin, a small piece of brown soap and a filthy towel, awaited their pleasure. In every case the lodging money must be paid in advance, when the lodger was conducted to his bed, and was allowed the use of a light long enough to "turn in," when, if he did not put out the light, the mistress would take it away. If he complained of cold, he was told to put his rags over him. If he complained that there were too many in a room, he was told to go and sleep in the Park, where he could have a bed and plenty of room for nothing. By 1 o'clock at night, the beds in this model lodging-house were all occupied, and no matter how drunk the lodger may have been, or how sleepy he might be, he was expected to turn out by 7 o'clock in the morning. At the bottom of the staircase leading to the sleeping rooms, was a broad, high, strong latticed door, which was kept locked, so that the lodgers could not leave the house without knocking at this door, when the lady would appear, and as she could see through the door, would allow the gentleman to pass if she was satisfied that he was dressed in his rags, and was not about to take away more than he brought.

The next house, now an old wooden shantee, has more interesting reminiscences of a particular kind than any house in the city. Twenty-five years ago it was the favorite resort of first-class gamblers. There was a billiard room in the rear for the exclusive use of the professional gamblers. All heavy matches were played upon those tables. Hiram, the Albany Pony, as he was called, once played a match in this room for $2,000. It was supposed that he was the best player in the world, and he was pitted against a Southern gambler named Miller; they were to play a certain number of games, the winner of the greatest number of course to win the match. "Mockason Jackson," a rich old business man, but a great lover of sport, was the Poney's backer, and no one doubted but that he would win the match, as he was constantly playing, and had the run and hang of the table. The day arrived and the play commenced, Hiram leading off in fine style, but at last he began to miss his most favorite shots. The betting became brisk, reaching at least $25,000! It had rained during the day and the table was damp. Hiram made no allowance for this, but played as usual, and of course frequently failed. Miller, on the contrary, played to suit the table, and, contrary to all expectation, won the match. Hiram afterward went to England with Jackson, expecting to beat all the English players, but was sadly mistaken. For many years after the closing of the billiard room, the front part of the house was used as a gaming room in which both faro and roulette were played. Hundreds of young men were ruined in these rooms, and some of the most remarkable forgeries, embezzlements and suicides, which at the time of their commission, startled the city, had their origin in this old house; but when it was in the height of its glory, gaming was confined to very narrow limits. Now splendid gambling saloons are in all the fashionable streets, and are easy of access as any other public house, so that that the old Ann street den, has fallen into disrepute. Four or five years ago it was the favorite resort for thieves, stuffers, droppers, thimble-riggers, & c., who met there to play faro, poker and brag. It was then known as the "Tapis Franc." A faro bank was opened every morning for the "crowd," and as fast as they got broke they would sally forth into the streets to make a raise, and when made, would return and "rush their money."

Among the anecdotes told of these thieves is the following: a gambler named Macgan, a harmless, inoffensive sort of man, occasionally opened a faro bank for them. One morning, before commencing operations, he took off his coat and hung it against the wall, and soon after was deeply immersed in his game. A thief, who had lost all his money, retired from the table, and deliberately took down Mac's coat, and went to a pawnbroker's shop, and pledged it for $5 returned with the money and began to play. He was successful, and soon quit $50 winner redeemed the coat and placed it where he found it. Another broken thief then took the coat, pledged it for the same sum, and then lost the money. When the bank closed, the gambler missed his coat, and was told where he could find it, the thief at the same time presenting him with the pawnbroker's ticket; but what annoyed Mac more than all was, that the only money he had lost that day, was the $50 the thief won who first stole his coat. If the walls of this old house could speak, they could tell of more fun and frolic, of more crime, wretchedness and despair, of more acts of villany, of more plans to ruin prosperous men and virtuous women, than any other walls ever reared within the City. The "Old Brewery," of the Five Points, is famed for its squalid misery and monstrous vices, but the crimes of this little old house would sink those of the "Old Brewery" into insignificance. Both may be razed from the face of the earth and forgotten, but the evil deeds conceived, matured and perpetrated within them will live forever.


Website: The History
Article Name: Changes in New York: Reminiscences of Down-Town Streets 1853
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times July 4, 1853
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