New York Almanack friend Jerry Kuntz has been collecting and transcribing columns that appeared between 1880 and 1886 in the New York Sunday Mercury entitled “Thirty Years in Gotham.” The articles were published with the byline “by Harry Hill,” but were drafted by ghost writer Isaac George Reed.
Harry Hill, the proprietor of the most infamous dance hall in Manhattan from the 1850s through the 1880s, likely offered comments, notes, and suggestions on some of the articles. The columns covered topics dealing with the history of the city of New York: its institutions, characters, neighborhoods, social life, politics, disasters, sports, criminals, and more.
Hill, Reed, and the editors of the Mercury did not confine the scope of the columns to events from the 1850s-1880s, but instead covered many decades, as far back as Dutch settlement. Most columns used previously published books and magazine articles as source material, without attribution; but the rewrites were abridged, quick reads, and were leavened by Harry’s dialect voice and his man-on-the-street perspective.
In the latter decades of the 19th century, Henry “Harry” Hill (ca 1828 – 1896) was a celebrated fixture of the New York social life. In fact, he was a national figure, thanks not only to the widespread notoriety of his dance hall/variety show saloon (located near Crosby and Houston Streets, SoHo, Manhattan), but also because of his involvement in prizefighting and other sporting competitions.
Though the low-brow fare that Hill offered at his “little theatre” differed only slightly from several other contemporary dives, his establishment attracted a steady stream of tourists, businessmen, sportsmen, actors, writers, politicians, and the simply curious—thanks mainly to Harry’s reputation.
Each week’s column consisted of three to four “chapters,” each covering a different topic, so the entire run of the column included over 1,000 chapters. Each chapter averaged 2,100 words in length, so the size of the entire output was likely over 2 million words. Kuntz is gradually adding them to an online archive.
This material has, for the most part, been inaccessible since its publication. No libraries in New York have runs of the Sunday Mercury from 1882-1886. The only copies that exist reside in storage at the Library of Congress, where they are rapidly deteriorating from the acidic newsprint paper; it may be too late to use normal digitizing methods to preserve the papers as a whole.
Though the vast majority of the columns are derivative, there were several that appear to be original, and some seemed to have been directly based on Harry’s experiences and the anecdotes he heard. Kuntz says he hopes “they will become a valuable, freely-available corpus of content on the history of New York City.”
We’re sure they will.
You can find the columns online at https://hillsgotham.org/
For those interested in early boxing, Jerry Kuntz recently republished The American Prize Ring: Its Battles, Its Wrangles, and Its Heroes, 1812-1881 by William Harding. The volume includes a foreword by New York Almanack founder and editor John Warren. You can read about that here.
Illustrations, from above: A fanciful illustration of the inside of Harry Hill’s saloon; and an exterior view Harry Hill’s saloon at 26 East Houston street in New York.