The victim survived and his apparent recovery reassured Vice President Theodore Roosevelt to depart on a camping trip to the Adirondacks. McKinley died on September 14th. That day Roosevelt gave his inauguration speech as America’s 26th President in Ansley Wilcox House at 61 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo. Edwin Davis, New York’s first State Electrician, was in charge of the murderer’s execution on October 29th.
Roosevelt turned the presidency into an effective executive. A “charismatic” leader, he insisted that government should serve as an agent of reform. The ambition to make society more equitable motivated his policy making. In doing so, he forged a national sense of unity and participation. Patriotism became part of politics.
The cusp of the twentieth century did not signify the nostalgic closure of a century, but rather a momentous “preview” of the often chaotic and conflicting tendencies that came to characterize the metropolis in the modern era in which triumph and tragedy went side by side.
Oscar Hammerstein was born in Prussia into a Jewish family. His wish to study music was blocked by his father who forced him to pursue a business career. After the death of his mother, Oscar ran away, pawned the family violin, and sailed from Liverpool to the city of New York, arriving in in the city in 1864. He was eighteen years old.
Having made a fortune in tobacco production, he returned to his first passion – music and the stage. In 1895, he opened the spectacular Olympia Theatre at Longacre Square (later renamed Times Square). The limestone building was inaugurated on November 25th with the colorful appearance of over thirty European performers, including acrobats, high-wire walkers, clowns, and puppeteers. Many thousands of onlookers watched the spectacle.
As urban pleasure moved outdoors, people gathered in ever larger numbers at parades, public concerts, sporting events, or the Bronx Zoo (opened in 1899). Hammerstein put New York’s entertainment district on the map. Within a ten year period, he built three more theaters of which The Victoria, at the corner of 42nd Street & 7th Avenue, was the most successful. Opened in 1899 and shrewdly managed by his son Willie, it made Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields, Al Jolson, Buster Keaton, and Mae West household names. Under Oscar’s ambitious expansion policy, Times Square became an immense construction site. The future of showbiz was being built.
Stage & Stardom
In May 1884 Martin Beck arrived from his native Hungary in Chicago and started work as a waiter in a beer garden that catered for the city’s large community of German immigrants. His application was noticed by impresario Morris Meyerfeld who, through his Orpheum Circuit of theaters, dominated the vaudeville market west of the Mississippi. Beck soon acted as his right hand man.
In July 1878, the Hungarian Weisz family settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Mayer Weisz served as rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. His son Ehrich made his debut as a trapeze artist at a young age. By 1887 he had moved to New York, finding lodgings in a boarding house on East 79th Street. Having adopted the stage name Harry Houdini (after the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin), he struggled to make a living as a touring showman.
In the spring of 1899 Beck watched his countryman display his act in front of a sparse audience. He liked the performance and booked Harry to join the company. It was Houdini’s big break as a professional stunt performer. He soon dominated American vaudeville and for many years he was the highest-paid performer on stage.
While Houdini started out on his dazzling career, New York gave birth to future stars. Jimmy Cagney was born on July 17th, 1899, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Although there is disagreement about the exact location, the address given on his birth certificate is 391 East 8th Street. His father, a bartender and amateur boxer, was of Irish descent. On December 25th, 1899, Humphrey Bogart was born into a prosperous family of Dutch descent at 245 West 103rd Street. His ancestral grandparents were rooted in seventeenth century New Amsterdam and New Netherland.
Revolving Doors at Rector’s
A parallel development in the area was the opening of restaurants. Charles Rector began his career as a dining car superintendent on the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1884 he opened the Oyster House in Chicago. By 1899 he had moved to New York to launch the city’s first “Lobster Palace” on Broadway.
Lobster Palaces were luxurious dining establishments in the theater district, popular with an affluent clientele in the years preceding the First World War. Due to their palatial interiors and opulent lobster parties, the establishments acquired their name. As their owners possessed all-night liquor licenses, food and alcohol consumption continued until the early morning hours.
Although competition was fierce, Rector’s was the place to be noticed. A lively clique of singers, dancers, and actors was seen in company of entrepreneurs who spent money like water, tipped generously, and put up an extravagant show. Noisy and ostentatious, they filled the premises night after night whilst the champagne flowed. The 1913 Ziegfeld Follies hit song “If a Table at Rector’s Could Talk” captured the spirit of the era.
The entrance to Rector’s was of particular interest to the public. Patented (no. 641,563) in 1888 by Theophilus Van Kannel, the palace was New York’s first building with a revolving door. The invention helped alleviate problems associated with conventional doors. It kept out fumes and served as an airlock preventing the influx of cold air on windy days. The door revolutionized the design of twentieth century skyscrapers.
King of Bling
With the growth of Broadway’s fame as a place of flamboyant characters, James Buchanan Brady stood out. A man with a legendary appetite, he was a regular and respected guest at Rector’s. Better known as Diamond Jim, Brady was born to a family of Irish immigrants on August 12th, 1856, above the saloon which his father ran in Cedar Street, Lower Manhattan.
James was still young when his father died. His mother remarried, but he hated his stepfather. Aged eleven, he left home to be employed as a bellboy at the stylish 200-room St James Hotel on Broadway & 26th Street. One of the regulars there was John M. Toucey, an executive with the New York Central Railroad. The latter took a liking to the youngster and offered him the opportunity to start work on the railways. Jim accepted and quickly made his way up in the business.
He then joined the railway supply company of Manning, Maxwell & Moore in Connecticut, and developed into an accomplished salesman. Through shrewd and shady dealings in the stock market, Brady accumulated a vast wealth, becoming a prominent member of the Gilded Age oligarchy.
Living the good life, Jim owned a mansion on 86th Street. Ever a bachelor, he was always accompanied by Broadway actress Lillian Russell when entertaining at New York’s finest venues. The self-styled King of Bling, Brady wore diamonds on his buttons, watch, belt buckle, scarf pin, rings, tie pins, and cuff links. The head of his walking cane contained a three carat diamond.
When Jim succumbed to a heart attack in 1917, he bequeathed a collection of thirty diamond-encrusted watches to his childhood friend Jules Weiss. One of those, a gold pocket watch produced circa 1910 in Geneva by Vacheron & Constantin, was auctioned in New York on March 10th, 2010 (the Swiss firm had been present in Manhattan since 1832).
The watch carried a relief portrait of Napoleon in a case set with thirty-six diamonds. It symbolized the cult of the ‘Colossus of the Nineteenth Century’ amongst the power brokers of the Gilded Age.
Traffic Jam in Manhattan
Brady was the first person in New York City to own an automobile. It was a custom built electric “brougham” manufactured for him by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago in 1895. On delivery, the car was accompanied by the firm’s mechanic. Named William Johnson, Brady hired the services of the African-American technician, dressed him in a bottle-green uniform, and gave him the official title of “chauffeur.”
Brady had Johnson drive him around the city on five consecutive mornings between three and four o’clock, when no one was watching, to make sure that the car was reliable. He then alerted the press, before debuting his ‘horseless carriage’ on a spring afternoon. With William Johnson in uniform and Diamond Jim Brady with top hat, they drove down Fifth Avenue to Madison Square.
Crowds gathered along the way to view the spectacle. The new machine delighted the spectators, but horses on the road panicked. When the brougham reached the thoroughfare of 42nd Street at least five teams of horses bolted in terror, causing Manhattan’s first auto-related traffic jam.
The trip caused so much disruption that the New York City Police Department ordered Brady not to bring his machine out again during the day. This prohibition was short lived. Within a year cars were a common sight in the metropolis.
By 1899 the Automobile Club of America (ACA) was founded with its headquarters at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. In November that year the Club organized it first annual parade in downtown Manhattan which displayed at least ten different makes of electric or steam powered models.
Two months earlier, on September 13th, the city’s first recorded fatal car accident occurred. Sixty-nine year old real estate dealer Henry Hale Bliss met his fate when he stepped off a south bound 8th Avenue trolley on the “Dangerous Stretch” at Central Park West & West 74th Street. Whilst turning to help his female companion step down, he was struck by an electric-powered taxicab. Bliss hit the pavement, crushing his skull and chest.
The cab’s passenger was physician David Orr Edson, son of former Mayor Franklin Edson. He tried to assist Henry Bliss while waiting for the ambulance, but to no avail. Bliss died from his injuries the next morning at Roosevelt Hospital. Arthur Smith, the driver of the cab, was charged with manslaughter. But as Bliss’s death was later deemed an accident, he was acquitted.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, automobiles brought the promise of expanded mobility. But cars created new hazards. An alarming increase in deaths resulting from accidents raised social concern. Speed undermined safety. Unless measures were taken to improve driver behavior and regulate the flow of traffic, the car would prove to be a menace rather than a boon.
In a city split by excessive wealth and dire poverty, crime was a stark reality. Twentieth century gangland war was prepared on January 17th, 1899, when Alphonse Capone was born into an immigrant family from Angri, near Salerno. His parents had settled at 95 Navy Street, Brooklyn, in 1893. Young Al Capone became involved with groups that included the Bowery Boys and the Brooklyn Rippers, before joining the notorious Five Points Gang of Italian-Americans in Lower Manhattan.
Britain had introduced the death penalty in the American colonies. The first recorded instance took place in 1608 when George Kendall of Virginia was executed for allegedly plotting to betray the British to the Spanish. Over time, public executions became a rowdy spectacle. In 1824, the hanging in East Village of John Johnson, a boarding house keeper who had robbed and murdered one of his guests, drew a massive turnout of unruly spectators.
Such spectacles achieved the opposite of their intended effect. Instead of grave events that would deter people from crime, executions became drunken parties of debauchery. The regularity of hangings led to a hardening of the public’s moral senses. Rhode Island (1833), Pennsylvania (1834), New York (1835), Massachusetts (1835), and New Jersey (1835) all abolished public executions. By 1849, fifteen states were holding private hangings.
In 1887, New York State established a committee to determine a more ‘humane’ system of execution. Alfred P. Southwick launched the idea of putting electric current through a device similar to his dental chair. Built in 1888, William Kemmler was the first person to be executed at New York’s Auburn Prison on August 6th, 1890. An alcoholic of German ancestry, he had murdered his wife with a hatchet. With seventeen witnesses in attendance, the execution proved difficult and took some eight minutes. Those present described the event as an awful spectacle, one worse than hanging.
On March 20th, 1899, Martha M. Place was the first woman to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, for the murder her stepdaughter Ida Place. Her husband William was a key witness against her. Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor of New York State, was asked to commute Place’s death sentence, but he refused. Use of the electric chair has been a controversial topic ever since.
Windsor Hotel Tragedy
When the 500-room, seven-story Windsor Hotel opened in 1873 at 575 Fifth Avenue, it was one of the new buildings that transformed what had been up till then a sleepy area. At a time that hotel living was becoming a fashionable alternative to owning a family mansion for wealthy New Yorkers, the hotel was promoted as the most homelike residence in the metropolis.
In the afternoon of March 17th, 1899, a guest reportedly lit his cigarette or cigar with a match in the second-floor parlor, then tossed the match out of the window. But instead of falling to the street, it was blown into a curtain, starting a fire that spread quickly.
Crowds lining Fifth Avenue had gathered to watch St Patrick’s Day parade. Suddenly they found themselves witnessing guests jumping to their deaths to escape the flames. Their mass presence prevented the fire brigade from approaching the hotel. The death toll was estimated at ninety. Thirty-one unidentified bodies were buried in an unmarked grave in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla.
Hugh Bonner, New York’s 6th Fire Commissioner, blamed poor construction for the rapid spread of the fire as the building did not have the cross walls which, by 1899, were a legal requirement. There were no fire proof steps in the draughty corridors. According to some reports fire escapes were too hot to use; other accounts state that there were none. The Windsor Hotel was a fire trap and tinder box.
An era of grandiosity had created an atmosphere in which hasty construction, cost cutting, and short cuts led to disastrous failures. Calls rang out for stricter safety regulations and increased protection of the public. John Kenlon, one of the firefighters in the 1899 tragedy, became a forceful advocate of a high-pressure hydrant system in New York which was finally installed in 1907.
Illustrations, from above: The original St. James Hotel on Broadway & 26th Street (New York Public Library); A cartoon of Diamond Jim’s outfit; Diamond Jim’s gold pocket watch with a portrait of Napoleon produced circa 1910 in Geneva by Vacheron & Constantin; A 1890 Electric Broughham; A satirical postcard from 1908; The execution of William Kemmler (print published in August 17, 1890, in Le Petit Parisien); and Fire at the Windsor Hotel. (Photograph by H.N. Tiemann (active 1890s-1900s).