Life at 20 Cherry Street

by Patricia Feighery Padian, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University

© Patricia Feighery Padian 2016.  All rights reserved.

Roscommon, Ireland-born cousins Thomas Murray and Michael Corcoran were living at 20 Cherry Street with their families and numerous boarders at the time of the 1855 New York State Census. They had been living at 20 Cherry since at least May of 1853, when they first listed it as their address upon opening separate accounts at Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank (EISB).

The 1855 Census listed 20 Cherry Street as a brick building[1] and valued it at $8,600. There were 77 individuals living in the building on the date of the census, with 33 of them boarders.[2] Twenty Cherry was located in the 4th ward of Manhattan, south of Canal Street, and was contiguous with the 5th and 6th wards. In 1855, one-third of the people residing in these three wards had been born in Ireland.[3] The percentage at 20 Cherry was even higher, with 61 of the 77 residents Irish-born.[4]  At 20 Cherry Street, they had established their very own “Irish” building, making their strange, new urban environment at once more familiar.

19-21 Cherry 1932

An 1932 image of 19-21 Cherry Street. These buildings were located directly across the street from 20 Cherry Street.  Photograph by Charles Von Urban.  33.173.76.

But none of these tenants were listed in the 1852 New York City Directory as living at 20 Cherry Street at that time.[5] And, in the 1859 New York City Directory, only three tenants still listed 20 Cherry Street as their address: Thomas Murray, Hermann Schwarte, a grocer and native of Germany, and William Costello, a porter who, like Murray, was also from Ireland.[6] This type of transience was the norm, however, as “for many immigrants New York was not much more than a brief holding area before moving on to another destination” and even within the City, “New Yorkers changed their residence with little hesitation.”[7]

As John T. Ridge described, a number of Irish settlements from specific counties began to develop in New York City in the 1850s. He did not, however, find any obvious settlement of emigrants from Roscommon.[8] It appears that after landing at 20 Cherry Street, though, Thomas Murray and Michael Corcoran had created a slight settlement of their own, perhaps starting their own miniature chain migration. Sixteen-year-old Bridget Cassidy lived as a boarder with the Murray family and her occupation was listed as servant in the 1855 census. EISB account number 21608 was opened by a Bridget Cassidy on October 6, 1859. This Bridget Cassidy was a native of Roscommon and a domestic. She listed her address as Ave 3, but as we have seen, address movement like this was not unusual. Mary McDermott was also listed as a boarder in the Murray home, along with her husband John and daughter Julia. A Mary McDermott opened up EISB account number 9805 on August 22, 1855. She was also a native of Roscommon, and listed a husband John and one child. Her address was recorded as Rose Street, but as the Census was taken two months earlier, on June 11th, it is not inconceivable that her family had moved during that short time.[9] The Caseys, a family of four, also boarded with the Murrays. Although I could find no additional information about them, Casey was Mary Murray’s maiden name, so they might have been relatives of Thomas’s wife from Roscommon.

Cherry View from 37

This is a view looking up Cherry Street from No. 37, circa 1900. 20 Cherry Street was located on this cobblestone block.  Photographer unknown. x2010.11.1723.

A typical tenement house at this time stood on a 25 x 100 lot and was usually four to six stories high.[10] A floor usually housed four families in two rooms each, an eight feet by 10 living/cooking/eating area and a six feet by ten bedroom.[11] There are 10 “families” listed as residing at 20 Cherry Street in the 1855 Census. But six of the families, including the Murrays and Corcorans, also had boarders, and it is not clear the amount of space each family occupied. Taking in boarders was very popular during this time. In most cases, boarding houses were not separate entities, rather boarders resided either in another apartment within the building or a room within a resident’s apartment.[12] Twenty Cherry was typical of the density on this block:  18 Cherry housed 185 people on the same-sized lot while 22 Cherry was home to 122 people.[13]

A report by the Council of Hygiene and Public Health, published in 1865, sheds light on the sanitary conditions of New York City at this time. After reading sanitary inspector Ezra R. Pulling’s descriptions of the squalid living environment in the 4th ward, it is easy to understand why the vast majority of the residents of 20 Cherry Street quickly moved on from that building. The interiors of most of the tenements had a “scanty atmospheric supply,” and oftentimes “a sickening and stifling odor, most offensive to the unaccustomed senses.”[14]


Tenement Life in New York.  Harpers Weekly, October 15, 1881, drawn by W. St John Harper, collection of Maggie Land Blanck.

In addition to this, according to Pulling:

“Of the 714 buildings classed as tenant-houses, less than one-half were found to have a waste-pipe or drain connected directly with the sewer. Where this is wanting, liquid refuse is emptied on the sidewalk or into the street, or in some instances into sinks in the domiciles communicating with a common pipe which discharges its contents into the open gutter to run perhaps hundreds of feet, giving forth the most noisome exhalations, and uniting its fetid streams with numerous others from similar sources, before reaching its subterranean destination.”[15]

Pulling went on to describe in great detail the “rather notorious” Gotham Court, located at 36 and 38 Cherry Street.[16] Just half a block away from 20 Cherry on the same side of the street, Gotham Court was overcrowded with tenants and overrun with vermin. The grocery store on the first floor featured “partially-decayed vegetables, rather suspicious looking solids, bearing respectively the names of butter and cheese, and a decidedly suspicious fluid bearing the name of milk.”[17]


West Gotham Court. Harper’s Weekly, March 29, 1879.

The health of those residing at 36 and 38 Cherry Street was atrocious:

“Of the 504 inmates, 146, or about 29 per cent., were found to be suffering from diseases of a more or less serious character, among which four cases of small-pox (three of them unvaccinated), eight cases of typhus fever, seven cases of scarlatina, and four of measles in the eruptive stage, twenty-seven cases of infantile marasmus, twelve cases of phthisis pulmonalis, five cases of dysentery, three cases of chronic diarrhoea, and a large number of slight cases of diarrhoea and of cutaneous eruptions.”[18]

Children were especially at risk, described as “strumous, debilitated, and lacking in muscular development…”[19] With an infant mortality rate of 44 percent, it was not surprising that the average length of time a person lived at Gotham Court was two years and eight months.[20]

Pulling felt that “on the whole, perhaps, this section of Gotham Court presents about an average specimen of tenant-houses in the lower part of the city in respect to salubrity.”[21] He saw overcrowding, a major factor in the 4th ward, as “the source of the greatest sanitary and social evils.”[22] The poor quality of the food sold in markets and butcher shops throughout the ward also greatly contributed to the poor health of its citizens.[23] In addition to this, there were 80 junk shops and second-hand stores in the 4th ward. When a resident died, his or her clothes were often given to one of these dealers and, “saturated with contagion,” these clothes made their way throughout the City to infect others.[24]


The block of Cherry Street between Franklin Square and Roosevelt Street which included No. 20 as well as Gotham Court, Nos. 36 and 38. The chart indicates the number of stories (St), families (F) and people (P) in each tenement.  Buildings that contained liquor stores (LS) and grocery stores (G) are denoted.  Two stars indicated a tenement in which typhus or typhoid fever had occurred in the past year; three stars referred to small pox.  Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Sanitary and social chart of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York, to accompany a report of the 4th Sanitary Inspection District, made to the Council of Hygiene of the Citizens’ Association by E.R. Pulling, M.D. assisted by F.J. Randall” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1864.


Blindman’s Alley, 22 Cherry Street. Photographed by Jacob A. Riis, ca 1890.  20 Cherry Street shared this alley and a common courtyard with 22 Cherry Street (see sanitary and social chart above).

Just doors away from Gotham Court, the residents of 20 Cherry Street inhabited the same toxic world. A sanitary and social chart that accompanied Pulling’s report indicated that 20 Cherry was a building in which typhus or typhoid fever had occurred during the past year.[25] When the Corcorans sailed to America in 1852, they were accompanied by their son, John, and an infant daughter, Maria.[26] Maria is not listed in the 1855 Census. Had she perhaps succumbed to typhoid, or some other disease, while living at 20 Cherry Street? If so, she would simply be another young victim of a highly contaminated living environment.

The constant specter of fatal illness was not the only challenge facing the residents of 20 Cherry Street in their day-to-day lives. Contemporaneous newspaper accounts refer to the building in connection with a number of local crimes, accidents and deaths. A series of articles in the New York Times in 1858 recounted the murder of a Charlie Samuels, whose body was found in the water near Beekman Street in early April, 1858. Patrick Katon, about 40-years-old, was one of two suspects arrested for the murder. At the time, Katon, an Irishman, lived at 20 Cherry Street. Since Thomas Murray was still living at 20 Cherry as of the 1859 City Directory, he would have certainly been aware of the murder and Mr. Katon could have even been a boarder of his.[27]

Patrick Katon, one of the prisoners arrested on suspicion of the murder, was first called, and testified as follows:  I live at No. 20 Cherry-street; I am employed in loading and unloading shipping; the first time I ever saw the deceased was when the body was taken by my cell door; I did not see Mr. Curtis last Wednesday, during the day or evening; I heard of the murder last Friday morning, about an hour before I was arrested; Officer Kline, of the Second Ward, arrested me; he asked me when I last saw Curtis, and I told him about a week before; he called another officer, and I was brought to the Station-House; during the absence of the officer I passed over to Curtis’ oyster stand and asked him, “Tom, how is this?  The officers are asking me about you, you have been doing nothing wrong, have you?”  Immediately I was taken into custody; on Wednesday night last I was home, and went to bed at half-past nine o’clock.

An excerpt from an article on the murder of Charlie Samuels. Patrick Katon, a resident of 20 Cherry Street, was one of two men tried for the crime.  The New York Times, April 6, 1858.

A New York Daily News article from October 18, 1853, reported on a female pickpocket who robbed John H. Schuster, a grocer at 20 Cherry Street, while he was serving her in his store. An article in the New York Daily Tribune on September 15, 1859, mentioned a robbery in the alley of 20 Cherry Street. A Lawrence Costello, subsequently apprehended, and two others, robbed another man of a silver watch and some change.   A family of eight with the last name Costello lived at 20 Cherry Street at the time of the 1855 Census.[28]


New York Daily News, October 18, 1853.

An interesting item that appeared in the New York Daily News on August 16, 1853 highlighted the transient nature of 20 Cherry Street. Danish Second Lieutenant Christian Hansen, a sailor on the Saga, had gone missing from his vessel and was being sought by the Danish Consul. A man, who was referred to as “a sailor boarding-house keeper, at No. 20 Cherry-street” arrived at the Mayor’s office to let them know that he had seen Hansen. In fact, Hansen had boarded with him for a few days and then had procured papers, with the help of the landlord, to ship out on the merchant ship Union. In the 1855 Census, there were two sailors living at 20 Cherry, one from China, so it is likely that sailors moved in and out of the building with regularity.


New York Daily News, August 16, 1853.

The Murrays and the Corcorans must have weathered many storms on their journey from Roscommon to a new life in America. Once in America, their existence may not have proved much better than what they had left behind, and they were faced with a variety of challenges as they attempted to navigate life in their new home. But, like Irish immigrants before and after them, they labored to carve out a better life for themselves and their children.


[1] Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “4th Ward. Plate 10: Map bounded by Peck Slip, Pearl Street, Franklin Square, Pearl Street, Oak Street, Roosevelt Street, South Street; Including Dover Street, Front Street, Water Street, Cherry Street” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

[2] 1855 New York State Census. The 5th Election District of the 4th Ward.

[3] Jay P. Dolan, The Immigrant Church:  New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865.  Baltimore and London:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975, p. 37.

[4] The 11 tenants who were born in New York were all six-years-old or younger. Of the remaining five residents, two were from Germany, two were from Canada and one was from China.

[5] Directory of the City of New York for 1852-1853.  New York:  John F. Trow, 1852.

[6] Directory for the City of New York for 1859. New York:  John F. Trow, 1859.

[7] Jay P. Dolan, The Immigrant Church:  New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865.  Baltimore and London:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975, p. 38 and p. 41.

[8] John T. Ridge, “Irish County Colonies in New York City, (Part III).” New York Irish History, vol. 27, 2013, p. 51.

[9] New York, Emigrant Savings Bank Records, 1850-1883.  Test books of Bridget Cassidy, account 21608, and Mary McDermott, account 9805.

[10] Cherry Street was only 3 stories high.  See sanitary and social chart below.

[11] Ridge, p. 34.

[12] Tyler Anbinder, “Moving Beyond ‘Rags to Riches’: New York’s Irish Famine Immigrants and Their Surprising Savings Accounts.” The Journal of American History, December 2012, p. 758.

[13] Both 18 Cherry and 22 Cherry included a rear building. Both buildings on 18 Cherry were 5 stories while 22 Cherry included a 3 1/2-story and 5-story building.  20 Cherry Street was had only 3 stories.  See sanitary and social chart below.

[14] Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York Upon the Sanitary Condition of the City. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865, p. 44.

[15] Ibid, p. 47.

[16] Pulling redacted the number of the building in his report but I was able to ascertain its location based on his description of its size, make-up and borders.

[17] Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health, p. 54.

[18] Ibid, p. 54.

[19] Ibid, p. 48.

[20] Ibid, p. 52.

[21] Ibid, p. 55.

[22] Ibid, p. 58.

[23] Ibid, p. 59.

[24] Ibid, p. 61.

[25] Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Sanitary and social chart of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York, to accompany a report of the 4th Sanitary Inspection District, made to the Council of Hygiene of the Citizens’ Association by E.R. Pulling, M.D. assisted by F.J. Randall” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1864.

[26] New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.  Manifest for the Blanchard.  Arrived in New York on March 27, 1852.

[27] New York Times, April 3 and April 6, 1858.

[28] None of these Costellos were named Lawrence, but perhaps the perpetrator was a relative who now lived in the building.