Tenement House Wholesale Massacre

by James B. Teague, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University

© James B. Teague 2018. All rights reserved.

The rear yard of 596 Second Avenue in the early morning hours of 16 December 1867. Harper’s Weekly, 4 January 1868. New York Public Library Digital ID 804808.

In spite of valiant efforts by seven engine companies and three hook-and-ladder trucks, a fire at 596 Second Avenue on the corner of 33rd Street claimed nine victims shortly before Christmas 1867.[1] Tragically, new laws covering tenement buildings like this one might have saved those lives.

New York City had had a dubious reputation for its tenements ever since Charles Dickens described those in the Sixth Ward as hideous, loathsome and decayed.[2] One early reformer declared New York was “the city in the United States in which improper tenement conditions began earliest and proceeded farthest.”[3] Old, multi-family buildings in crowded immigrant neighborhoods where rent was cheap contributed to this situation, compounded by problems stemming from poverty, mental health, and sanitation issues.  The residents of these low-rent buildings included many, many Irish who had fled famine in Ireland between 1847 and 1851.

In 1856 a New York State legislative committee was appointed to study the problem of tenements in New York City.  Its report documented “filth, dilapidation, overcrowding, degradation, dark rooms, offensive privies, lack of water, high rents, and exorbitant profits that were nearly unbelievable by present standards.”[4] Early housing reformers tried to educate business men about their corporate interest in the well-being of their existing and future workforce. These efforts resulted in local government involving itself in urban development, passing laws and building codes aimed at tenement housing. While on the surface, these efforts appeared to speak to the morality of taking care of the working class, in reality the motivation was the “reproduction of labor power,” the ability of workers to provide value (and revenue) for their employers.[5] Therefore, building and hygiene codes were rarely enforced; it would take countless and needless deaths – twenty people died in an Elm Street tenement fire in February 1860, for example[6]  — before laws were finally passed to begin to protect the City’s most vulnerable residents.

There were more than 15,000 tenements housing 60% of the city’s population in 1863.[7] The Draft Riots that summer were critical to raising awareness of working-class grievances that went far beyond issues of conscription and racial animosity.  Early housing reformer Lawrence Veiller described the aftermath of the riots, “For the first time, did the general public realize what it meant to permit human beings to be reared under the conditions which had so long prevailed in the tenement houses in New York City.”[8] A journalist lamented “that so much misery, disease, and wretchedness could be huddled together and hidden by high walls, unvisited and unthought of so near our own abodes.”[9] Calls for reforms escalated.

In 1865 a professional reorganization of previously voluntary firefighters created the Metropolitan Fire Department.[10]  New York City passed a new law affecting dwelling places in May 1867. “Every such house shall be provided with a proper fire escape or means of escape in case of a fire, to be approved in New York by the Inspector of Public Buildings and in Brooklyn by the Assistant Sanitary Superintendent of the Metropolitan Board of Health.”[11] In using the phrase “shall be provided,” the law made fire escapes mandatory for tenement buildings like the one at 596 Second Avenue. “From and after the 1st day of July 1867, no house, building, or portion thereof, in the cities of New York and Brooklyn, shall be used, occupied, leased, or rented for a tenement and lodging house unless the same conforms, in its construction and appurtenances, to the requirements of this act.”[12] Landlords tried to circumvent the law by arguing that it could not be applied retroactively to properties already in existence.[13]  James McGregor, Superintendent of Buildings for New York City, described “meeting great opposition from landlords, who would rather litigate this law in courts than go to the expense of a few dollars.” On October 30, 1867 he ordered his eighteen inspectors to survey the tenements in their districts (approximately 800 buildings per inspector), declaring “half these houses are man-traps” and “it is astonishing more accidents don’t happen.”[14]

This is the neighborhood that the Cunninghams, Kellys, Murphys and O’Mearas called home in 1867. “Sheet 10: [Bounded by E. Fortieth Street, First Avenue, E. Twentieth Street and Sixth Avenue.]” New York Public Library Digital ID 1520733.

Second Avenue was a major thoroughfare through the 18th Ward, which was home to more than 15,000 Irish immigrants in 1865, accounting for 31.6% of the entire population in this district.[15]  Located at the corner of 33rd Street, 596 Second Avenue was a four-story brick and wood-framed tenement building in a prime location. The basement and the first floor were occupied by a bakery; the upper three floors housed “a large number of tenants.”[16]

Several Irish immigrant families resided at 596 Second Avenue in December 1867, no doubt anticipating the joys of Christmas.  Among these were the O’Meara family (spelled O’Mara in some newspaper accounts), the Murphys, Kellys, and Cunninghams. Undoubtedly, they knew one another, residing in the close quarters of a small tenement. On a snowy Monday, December 16 at 2:15 a.m., a fire alarm sounded, and the lives of everyone in the building were indelibly changed and bound together through unspeakable tragedy.

East Side cellar bakery, photographed by Lewis Hine in the early twentieth century. New York Public Library Digital ID 416494.

Although it appeared the fire had burned for some time before the alarm was raised, firemen quickly arrived and contained the flames to the basement, with little damage to the property. The Millers [sometimes reported as Muller] —Maximillan and his wife, Ernestine—and Fernando Kreis [sometimes Grice], their journeyman baker who lived at the back of the bakery on the first floor, were able to escape unharmed. Unfortunately, the fire originated near the stairs, which were constructed of wood; dense smoke filled the stairwell and upper three floors.  Officer William Tobin, one of the first policemen on the scene, described the mass of smoke, “I tried to enter but was driven back by the smoke. . .I could see no sign of fire, only smoke.”[17] While Jacob Campbell and his wife, who lived on the second floor with their two boarders, Emma Eldridge and Eliza Davis, were able to escape through the window unharmed, the smoke prevented others from escaping and also hindered the rescue attempts of firemen. Some residents were suffocated in their sleep; others managed to reach the roof trap door only to find a broken ladder.

Those who suffered most were the four Irish families who lived on the third and fourth floors in the building, paying rents between $25 and $40 depending on the floor.[18]  They left virtually no trace for historians in contemporary census, city directories or ship manifests, other than what was reported about them in the aftermath of the fire.  This suggests a marginality that would have rendered them anonymous and forgotten were it not for being engulfed by this 1867 tragedy.

Police officers on the roof of 596 Second Avenue hauling members of the Cunningham family to safety. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, 4 January 1868, p. 249.

The first family rescued by firefighters lived in the front apartment on the fourth floor. The smell of smoke woke Mrs. Cunningham and when her husband, Lawrence, opened the door to the hallway, the smoke extinguished his kerosene lamp.  In the dark he reached for the ladder that hung on the wall and with great difficulty was able to prop it under the scuttle hole to the roof.  When it broke under his weight and with the screams of his family ringing in his ears, he “took possession of a cord [clothesline], lowered from the eaves by those [police officers] on the roof, and tied it to each of his four children in turn, who were drawn up feet foremost and sent through adjacent buildings uninjured.”  He too had to be drawn up to the roof by rope.  This dramatic rescue scene was depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated a few weeks later.  According to the New York Times, “Mrs. Cunningham was enabled to escape [through the window] by one of the ladders raised by Hook and Ladder Company No. 7” after being “suspended mid-air for some time” by a rope that was too short.[19]

There were six in the O’Meara family, who had the front apartment on the third floor.  Four of them perished at the scene, all natives of Ireland: Margaret (50), and her three teenage daughters, Eliza (19), Mary Jane (17), and Catherine (15).  Their father, John, a longshoreman, was found “insensible” from smoke inhalation and had to be sent to Bellevue Hospital. The New York Herald reported that he was still there two days after the fire but “is soon to follow, if not accompany, the remains of his wife and children.”[20]  The only survivor in this family was thirteen-year-old Thomas.

Their neighbors, Thomas Kelly and his wife, Julia, lived in the third-floor rear apartment with their two children and Thomas’s brother, William. Mrs. Kelly, age 38, “became so frightened that she leaped from the third-story rear window into the yard, sustaining severe [spinal] injuries.”[21] The rest of the family were able to get to the fourth floor where Irish policemen Coogan, Carroll, and Slattery helped pulled all to safety on the roof with a rope.  By then thirteen-year-old Mary Anne had inhaled so much smoke that she had to be hospitalized too.[22]

Ellen Duffy descends via clothesline (upper left) while Julia Kelly’s fall broke her back (lower left). Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, 4 January 1868, p. 249

The Murphy family, who lived in the back apartment on the fourth floor, were not so fortunate and became separated in the confusion. The family’s boarder, seventeen year old Ellen Duffy, escaped by sliding down the clothesline the police dropped from the roof; in the process, her hands got rope burn and she dropped the line and fell the last fifteen feet. The New York Times attributed thirteen-year-old Jeremiah Murphy’s ingenuity in using a window shutter and a gutter to climb up to the roof as the reason for his survival.  His three siblings, Ellen (17), Mary (15), and Thomas (10), all suffocated in the building.  Their father, Patrick, age 45, broke two ribs and sustained serious internal injuries when he jumped from the fourth floor window into the street.  He was sent to Bellevue along with his wife, Rosanna Murphy, age 38, who died of smoke inhalation in the days following the devastating fire.  The New York Herald gave thanks that she never regained consciousness and died “insensible of her sufferings,” which included the deaths of three of her children.[23]

The shock on the faces of neighbors, friends and relatives is clear in the scene at the hospital morgue depicted in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated.  According to the New York Herald, “hundreds of young girls, the shopmates and acquaintances of the dead girls, took a last look at the bodies.” Four Murphys were buried on December 17th and five O’Mearas on December 18th, most likely from nearby St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church at 179 East 36th Street (between First and Second Avenues) which had been newly dedicated in 1865 to serve this rapidly growing section of New York City.  The pastor, Fr. William Clowry (1822-1884), a native of County Carlow, probably said their funeral masses.[24]

“As soon as it became known that the dead bodies were removed to the Morgue, the place was visited by an immense throng of relatives, friends and curious strangers. The pressure to obtain a look at the ghastly swollen features of the dead became so great that it was found necessary to remove the coffins to the yard, and during the entire day a large crowd kept passing and repassing the dismal spot. Intimate friends of the deceased gazed upon each coffin until they found the one containing the remains of a favorite companion, and then bending low, gave heartrending expressions of the grief they felt.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, 4 January 1868, pp. 248-249.

The building was owned by Charles Hoffman, who lived at 302 East 33rd Street in 1867.  He and his brother, William, natives of Hanover, Germany were both young bakers, ages 27 and 26 respectively.  The city directory for the year of the fire lists William as the baker at 596 Second Avenue, so presumably Max Miller (age 24 and also from Germany) was either leasing the premises from the Hoffmans or working for them. According to Fernando Kreis, Miller “was not a regular baker” and had only “had possession of the store for four months.” When questioned by the police, Charles Hoffman said “that Miller has not been doing a good business, that his neighbors had refused to buy of him, and that he had been trying to sell out the place.” The New York World described Miller as having “a careworn, emaciated appearance.” [25]

The bakery was not in use when the fire broke out, during a time when Miller should have been baking the day’s bread. Suspicion immediately fell on him because of his behavior on the night of the fire, because he told two versions of events in its aftermath, and then refused to answer questions after he was arrested. Additionally, just days before the fire, Miller purchased insurance in the amount of $1,500 from the Baltic Insurance Company even though he had told Kreis that the bakery was uninsured.[26]  The Coroner’s jury took less than an hour to convict Miller of arson on December 20, 1867 and he was committed to the Tombs without bail.  His wife was “prostrated with grief and terror, sobbing violently and continuously” throughout the inquest.[27]

“This fire,” opined the New York Evening Post, “is another strong argument in favor of enforcing the law in relation to tenement houses.”[28] The New York Herald argued that “the responsibility at last must be divided between the officers whose duty it is to enforce the law concerning tenement houses and the owners of these villainous dens.” It went on to directly accuse the inspectors and landlords of the deaths of the victims of the Second Avenue fire: “Had the law been enforced in reference to ventilation and fire escapes, there would have been no helpless women and children suffocated; not a soul would have been lost.”[29]  Inspections cost the city between $60,000-$70,000 per year specifically to avoid such catastrophic loss of life.  Dr. Wooster Beach testified at the Coroner’s inquest that the victims of the Second Avenue fire had died from suffocation as a result of the heavy smoke. His testimony proved vital to accusations that access to the roof would have saved the victims from otherwise certain death. Sergeant William McConnell said the “scuttle hole” to the roof was 8’5” above the floor, a distance far too high to reach without a ladder. Dr. Beach’s allegation, widely supported in the press, was substantiated by Mr. W. W. Rhodes, an engineer, who testified that “if there had been a proper ladder, everybody would have escaped.” The ladder in question – on which at least two dozen people on the upper floors at 596 Second Avenue depended – was described as “of cheap pine, smoke-dried, sun-dried, fire-dried, and cockroach-dried…nearly all the rungs were broken, and the supports patched, and nailed, and jobbed together. Quite a veteran decrepit ladder.” [30]

For this reason, focus at the inquest also included the extent to which the landlord had failed his tenants.  Superintendent James McGregor described the building during the coroner’s inquest following the fire: “This class of houses, only four stories high and same level of roof, were generally considered safe; but they are not safe.” The building suffered $1,500 in damages above the first floor but Charles Hoffman had a policy with the Eagle Insurance Company. The jury found him guilty of “culpable and criminal negligence in not providing suitable means of escape” from the building. Hoffman was release on $5,000 bail (the equivalent of $74,200 in 2017) and the case was referred to a grand jury.[31]

Within three months of posting $5,000 in bail, Charles Hoffman sold another building he owned, this one further uptown in the 19th Ward. New York Herald, 27 March 1868.

The New York World quoted a “stalwart fellow in the crowd” watching the fire that early morning in December who mused, “I wonder if all the rascally landlords who own tenement-houses in New York, will put fire-escapes in their houses tomorrow when they hear of this.”  Another was more cynical, “They won’t do anything of the kind. They’ll just sit down and read the papers and think nothing more about them that’s dead.”[32]  Charles Hoffman wrote to the press to say that “the casualty in Second-avenue has given me great pain.”  Compounding the tragedy was his claim that he “was never notified of the necessity of having a different fire-escape or bulkhead, from that which I had in use, nor did I know that a law had been passed requiring it.”[33]

 

NOTES

[1] “Frightful Calamity,” New York Times, 17 December 1867

[2] Charles Dickens, American Notes, 1843.

[3] Richard Fogelsong, Planning the Capitalist City: The Colonial Era to the 1920s (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986), 63.

[4] Fogelsong, 57.

[5] Fogelsong, Planning, 56-57.

[6] Donald J. Cannon, “Firefighting,”Encyclopedia of New York City, ed. Kenneth T. Jackson (Yale University Press, 2010, 2nd edition), p. 450-451.

[7] Glenn P. Corbett, “Fire Escapes,” Encyclopedia of New York City, ed. Kenneth T. Jackson (Yale University Press, 2010, 2nd edition), p. 448.

[8] Fogelsong, Planning, 68.

[9] Fogelsong, Planning, 68.

[10] Cannon, “Firefighting,” p. 452.

[11] “The Tenement House Horror,” New York Herald, 18 December 1867

[12] “The Tenement House Tragedy,” New York World, 20 December 1867

[13] Fogelsong, Planning, 69.

[14] “The Tenement House Tragedy,” New York World, 20 December 1867

[15] Table A.2, The New York Irish, eds. Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 553.  According to the Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York Upon the Sanitary Condition of the City (D. Appleton & Company, 1865, pp. 269, 275, 276), 596 Second Avenue was in 22nd Sanitary Inspection District.  The Avenue was said to be kept “in tolerably good condition” and the residents of this section were largely working class, “almost entirely Irish or Irish descent.”  Most of the tenement buildings in the district were considered to be second class;  596 Second Avenue had two families per floor whereas a first class tenement typically meant only one family per floor.  

[16] Various details that follow about this tragic event have been gleaned from the following: “The Terrors of the Tenement House System: Death by Wholesale: Seven Persons Suffocated by Smoke,” New York Evening Post, 16 December 1867; “Frightful Calamity,” New York Times, 17 December 1867; “The Latest Tenement House Murder,” New York Herald, 17 December 1867; “Crime: Seven Persons Suffocated in a Tenement House in Second Avenue,” New York World, 17 December 1867; “The Tenement House Horror,” New York Herald, 18 December 1867; “The Second Avenue Murders: Inquest by Coroner Wildey,” New York Tribune, 20 December 1867; “The Disastrous Fire in Second Avenue – Policemen Rescuing the Inmates,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 4 January 1868, pp. 11-12.

[17] “The Tenement House Tragedy,” New York World, 20 December 1867.

[18] “Crime: Seven Persons Suffocated in a Tenement House in Second Avenue,” New York World, 17 December 1867.  The value of these rents in 2017 would be $427 and $594 respectively.  Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2019.  www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/

[19] “The Tenement House Tragedy,” The New York World, 20 December 1867; “Frightful Calamity,” New York Times, 17 December 1867; “Crime: Seven Persons Suffocated in a Tenement House in Second Avenue,” New York World, 17 December 1867.

[20] Newspaper reporting is inconsistent with some of the names, for example, O’Meara is sometimes spelled O’Mara. In particular, the account in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, 4 January 1868, mixed up the O’Meara and Murphy family members and their ages.  For consistency, we are following the list of victims originally published in the New York Times on 17 December 1867.  Bellevue Hospital was well kept and had 1,200 beds in 1865. Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens’ Association of New York Upon the Sanitary Condition of the City (D. Appleton & Company, 1865), p. 278.

[21] “Frightful Calamity,” New York Times, 17 December 1867.

[22] The newspaper accounts identify Mrs. Kelly’s daughter from a previous marriage as Mary Ann Gorry.  The names of the policemen were published with comment on their bravery in the New York Times, 17 December 1867; “Crime: Seven Persons Suffocated in a Tenement House in Second Avenue,” New York World, 17 December 1867.

[23] “Frightful Calamity,” New York Times, 17 December 1867; “The Tenement House Horror,” New York Herald, 18 December 1867.

[24] Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, 4 January 1868, p. 248; “The Tenement House Horror,” New York Herald, 18 December 1867; The Catholic Church in the United States of America: Undertaken to Celebrate the Golden Jubilee of His Holiness, Pope Pius X, Vol. III (New York: Catholic Editing Company, 1914), p. 327; “The Rev. William H. Clowry,” New York Tribune, 13 June 1884; L.E. Jackson, A Church Directory for New York City (New York City Mission, 1867), p. 13.

[25] Trow’s New City Directory for 1867/1868, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100513654; Ancestry.com Year: 1870; Census Place: New York Ward 17 District 4, New York, New York, p. 6; “The Tenement House Tragedy,” The New York World, 20 December 1867; “The Tenement House Horror,” New York Herald, 18 December 1867. Germans were the largest group of foreign-born bakers in New York City.  Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York City, 1825-1863 (Syracuse University Press, 1994), p. 214.

[26] “Crime: Seven Persons Suffocated in a Tenement House in Second Avenue,” New York World, 17 December 1867; “The Second Avenue Murders: Inquest by Coroner Wildey,” New York Tribune, 20 December 1867.

[27] “The Tenement House Tragedy,” The New York World, 20 December 1867; “The Second Avenue Murders: Inquest by Coroner Wildey,” New York Tribune, 20 December 1867.

[28] “The Terrors of the Tenement House System: Death by Wholesale: Seven Persons Suffocated by Smoke,” New York Evening Post, 16 December 1867.

[29] “The Latest Tenement House Murder,” New York Herald, 17 December 1867.

[30] “The Second Avenue Fire,” New York Times, 22 December 1867; “The Second Avenue Murders: Inquest by Coroner Wildey,” New York Tribune, 20 December 1867; “The Tenement House Tragedy,” The New York World, 20 December 1867; “Crime: Seven Persons Suffocated in a Tenement House in Second Avenue,” New York World, 17 December 1867.

[31] “The Second Avenue Murders: Inquest by Coroner Wildey,” New York Tribune, 20 December 1867; “The Tenement House Tragedy,” The New York World, 20 December 1867; “The Terrors of the Tenement House System: Death by Wholesale: Seven Persons Suffocated by Smoke,” New York Evening Post, 16 December 1867; “The Second Avenue Fire,” New York Times, 22 December 1867; Underwriters’ Weekly Circular (New York), 21 December 1867, p. 5; Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2019.  www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/

[32] “Crime: Seven Persons Suffocated in a Tenement House in Second Avenue,” New York World, 17 December 1867.

[33] “A Card from Charles Hoffman,” New York World, 21 December 1867.