Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City: Little-Known Tales About Gotham's People and Places

Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City: Little-Known Tales About Gotham's People and Places

by Tim Rowland


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Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City: Little-Known Tales About Gotham's People and Places by Tim Rowland

The 1948 crime film The Naked City (later a television show) ended with this iconic line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” Things have not changed; every era and neighborhood is full of true tales and legends about which even residents are likely to be unaware. Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City takes the reader on a breathtaking tour of the five boroughs in search of these accounts. Some are eerily fascinating in their own right while others explain how the city became the great metropolis that it is.

Before the World Trade Center 9/11 tragedy, the aftermath of a fire aboard the steamboat General Slocum in the East River was the city’s greatest disaster. The 1904 event occurred during an outing for a church group. The loss of life—1,021 out of the 1,358 passengers—devastated the German American community that inhabited Manhattan’s East Village. To escape bad memories, they relocated to Yorkville on the Upper East Side, a neighborhood later celebrated for its German restaurants, stores, and breweries.

On July 23, 1886, not long after the Brooklyn Bridge opened, a twenty-three-year-old named Steve Brodie announced that he survived a 150-foot drop into the East River. (A liquor dealer offered to back a saloon that Brodie wanted to open but only if he took the risk.) Although there were no witnesses, news of the alleged jump made headlines, with the New York Times supporting Brodie’s claim and the phrase “pull a Brodie,” meaning to try a dangerous stunt, entering popular parlance.

Then, too, are the unsolved murders, ghost stories, urban legends (are there indeed alligators living in the sewers?), and hidden histories that are all part of this lively and captivating chronicle of the world’s greatest city.

Skyhorse Publishing, as well as our Arcade imprint, are proud to publish a broad range of books for readers interested in history—books about World War II, the Third Reich, Hitler and his henchmen, the JFK assassination, conspiracies, the American Civil War, the American Revolution, gladiators, Vikings, ancient Rome, medieval times, the old West, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510700123
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 228
Sales rank: 775,144
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Tim Rowland is an award-winning columnist at Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Maryland. He has written for numerous history and outdoor magazines and news syndicates nationwide. He has also authored several books, most recently Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War , and Strange and Obscure Stories of the Revolutionary War , as well as All Pets are Off: A Collection of Hairy Columns , Petrified Fact: Stories of Bizarre Behavior That Really Happened, Mostly , High Peaks: A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine & Mountaineering. He is also a regular columnist for several newspapers. He lives with his family in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

Read an Excerpt


Selling the Public on a Jump from the Brooklyn Bridge

In all probability, on a midsummer day in 1886, a twenty-five-year-old man named Steve Brodie joined thousands of other New Yorkers by not jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. No matter. The young huckster from the Bowery parlayed this nonevent into a storied career that lives on in the annals of history, pop culture, and showmanship. There is, however, just that chance that he did jump; like Brodie himself, that facts that surround that July day are hopelessly complex.

The Brooklyn Bridge had been completed in 1883, and the engineering marvel had captured the imagination of New Yorkers almost from the day that it was proposed in a set of improbable architectural sketches. Dubbed one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, one hundred and fifty thousand pedestrians and eighteen hundred vehicles crossed the bridge into history on its opening day. A week later, a rumor spread that the massive stone structure was in imminent danger of collapse. The news caused a stampede that killed a dozen people. Sensing an opportunity, the legendary P. T. Barnum later paraded twenty-one elephants across the bridge to prove its stability.

But with a height of 135 feet, equal to a fourteen-story building, from the decking to the water, the bridge quickly attracted the attention of daredevils, who contemplated the odds of leaping from the bridge and surviving.

The first was Robert Emmet Odlum, a swimming instructor from a family torn by the Civil War, who taught aquatic skills to the children of such luminaries as Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and William T. Sherman. Always seeking new challenges, Odlum transitioned from endurance swimming into high-diving. He escaped unharmed, more or less, from dives off a ninety-foot bridge near Washington, DC, and a ladder affixed to a steamship 110 feet high. Meanwhile, as he was plummeting to the depths below, so was his business. His swimming school, while critically acclaimed, failed, and his proffered side bets on how far he could swim found no takers. He was one of those whose success in life never seemed to translate into financial reward; he won applause for his swimming feats, and as a hotel lifeguard he was credited with the ocean rescue of Sky Colfax, son of Lincoln's Vice President Schuyler Colfax — but these heroics weren't paying the bills. Odlum reckoned a jump from the celebrated Brooklyn Bridge might be the ticket to success, and he began to make plans for just such an event.

Unfortunately, the police got wind of the stunt, and the chief police inspector put out the word to be on the lookout for suspicious activity. Odlum's mother would later say that her boy's motives were pure; he wanted to prove that the rushing air of a fall was not, in itself, fatal. This, she said, would convince the men and women trapped in the upper floors of a burning building to be at ease jumping into a fire net. And, of course, if he happened to parlay the daredevil act into a little coin, well, what woman in those days couldn't use a little cash?

On the nineteenth of May 1885, Robert Odlum got out of bed and went to church to confess his sins. Everything else was in place. He'd hired a strong swimmer stationed on a tugboat to come to his aid after the jump, as well as a body double whose job was to bait the police into chasing down the wrong guy. At a little after five in the afternoon, the radar on the Brooklyn Bridge's toll collector wiggled to life. A carriage carrying a man in a skin-tight blue shirt passed through the gate, with a second man who appeared to be attempting to screen his companion. And the cab was going way too fast; something was up. At the toll keeper's signal, a dozen watchmen scampered after Odlum. The police weren't the only ones on high alert for the jump. With stunning quickness, a crowd of thousands materialized out of nowhere. Part of the problem, the newspapers said later, was that the police themselves had spread word of the impending "crazy scheme," hoping that many would be on hand to view their heroics as they stopped this insane individual from certain death. As PR goes, it was a fair effort, except that the gathering crowd made it impossible for police to do their job. The Times wrote that the "Bluecoats could be seen from the roadway making an ado above, in utterly useless attempts to keep the crowd in motion." The cops closed in on the suspected jumper from all sides. "They were determined that the cab should not get close enough to the rail on the river side for the best leaper in the world to jump."

There was no doubt in the minds of the police that the mysterious man in the cab was indeed Odlum. If any further proof was needed, a tug of cheering fans churned up the river, spectators affixing spyglasses on the bridge in search of their hero's profile against the sky. The whole affair seemed to play out in slow motion, the cab and the police inching along through a sea of derby-hatted humanity. The blue-shirted man grew increasingly nervous, more from the chase, perhaps, than the thought of the jump. He fumbled cartoonishly with the collar of his shirt, as officers got within an arm's length of the cab. According to the Times, "The commotion in the vicinity of the cab had become tumultuous; other vehicles pressed close behind; the crowd was clamorous and excited overhead; the middle of the bridge had been reached, and the people in the tugboat were intently watching the bridge." But as dogged as the cab driver had been, the police had been even more determined. Relentlessly, they began to form a line of blue between the cab and the rail of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was as they had hoped. The crowd would be treated to the sight of New York's finest in action, and there were plenty of self- satisfied smiles all around as the police finally took the cab into custody.

So intent was everyone's attention on the cab that few noticed when a trim man in a red shirt stepped from a nondescript wagon and hopped lightly upon the bridge's railing, raising his right hand to the sky. The police, the spectators in the tug, everyone, had been watching the wrong man. So relieved had the toll keeper been at spotting that man who he thought was Odlum that he had subsequently let down his guard. "The ordinary black covered wagon in which Odlum got access to the bridge had nothing about it to suggest suspicion," said the Times. "It moved along with the slow line, its three occupants sitting quietly within, looking as though that was where they belonged." Had the toll keeper been a whisper sharper, he might have noticed the glint of a showman's outfit peeking out from under the standard workman's garb. But in fact, it hardly mattered — Odlum was one determined man.

A jump from the height represented by the Brooklyn Bridge is survivable, but only if everything goes right. The key is to hit the water ramrod straight, and Odlum didn't, quite. Some blamed the wind. Others said that the haste in which he exited the wagon and leapt to the rail destroyed his balance. Whatever, Odlum was several degrees off plumb and smacked the water with a sound that could be heard over the noise of the crowd. When the great swimmer surfaced, he was face down and wasn't moving. Odlum was pulled, unconscious, into the tug, and laid out in the galley. Brandy, the catch-all medicine of the day, was poured down his throat. The liquor revived him somewhat, and faintly he asked, "What kind of jump did I make?" Everyone assured him that he'd nailed it. He struggled to sit up, and for a beat, it seemed as if he might survive. Then blood began to dribble from the corner of his mouth. "Am I spitting blood?" he asked. No, he was assured, it was just the brandy coming back up. It wasn't, of course. His liver, spleen, and most of his other internal organs had ruptured on impact. An hour after his jump, he was dead.

If nothing else, Odlum set the table for whoever might jump next, and live. That honor most likely went to a fellow by the name of Larry Donovan, a chap who received zero credit for his exploit. Seeking a suitable sobriquet for a specimen such as himself, Donovan, not wishing to aim low, had settled on "the Champion Aerial Jumper of the World." On April 18, 1887, the champion of the world determined to jump from the bridge, and alerted the press to his impending feat. The press, being the press, immediately raced to his mother's home so that they would be present to dutifully record the look on her face when she received word of her son's death. But the woman wasn't home. She was down at the police station, tipping off the cops regarding her son's shenanigans.

In the history of superheroes, it is possible, perhaps, to conceive of a more ignominious fate than that of young Donovan. If Superman's mommy, for example, had pointed out a hole in his shorts prior to his impending rescue of Lois Lane. But for the Champion Aerial Jumper of the world, this embarrassment only hardened his resolve. On August 28, 1886, Donovan, a typesetter by trade, leapt from the Brooklyn Bridge and survived. History little remembers him, perhaps because in less than two years he was dead himself, victim of a failed attempt to jump from the Hungerford Bridge over the River Thames in London. But more likely it's because when he jumped, the feat was thought to be old news — a month prior, Steve Brodie had won the honor for himself, or so everyone thought.

Unlike Odlum before him, Brodie, a twenty-three-year-old former paperboy from the Bowery, did not seem to duck attention as he stood on the New York side of the bridge on July 23, 1886. He may have, however, been every bit as deceitful. The story was that he'd made a $200 bet — about $5,000 today — that he could survive a leap into the river (the price for such a stunt had risen substantially following the publicity surrounding Odlum's death). A young woman spoke loudly — maybe a little too loudly — as she bid farewell to the daredevil: "Good-bye Steve; take care of yourself and may you be successful and scoop in dose two huntrid dollars so's we kin have a good time," quoted the Times.

Brodie also needed the cash to cover some unfortunate bets he had made of late at the horse track, it was whispered. Brodie loved to gamble, and had earned some decent money as a professional speedwalker (a popular endurance sport in the nineteenth century known as pedestrianism; events could last for days, and were subject to heavy wagering among the betting public). When that pursuit had become dull, Brodie had turned to high-diving, and he carried with him clippings documenting his jumps. Bridge jumping came naturally, as Brodie had been a lifeguard in his early years, reportedly saving a number of lives, including that of a young woman who gave him her locket as a keepsake.

As Brodie parted from his sweetie du jour on the day of the jump (a woman who was not his wife, it would turn out), he hopped aboard a lumber wagon, and the police officer stationed at the toll house either failed to notice Brodie or was indifferent. Or perhaps he failed to recognize Brodie for the simple reason that the young man was not Brodie at all. Even today, no one is sure. At the time, it seemed real enough. The Times reported that, as multiple people reached up to pull him back, Brodie scampered up and over the rail and then grabbed the underside of a girder and hung over the river. "Brodie swung to and fro in the breeze, and he steadied himself as well as he could. When he hung perpendicularly over the river he let go his hold and shot down like an arrow," the paper said. He hit the water in a standing position, for the most part, and disappeared beneath the surface for several seconds. His friends had been waiting in a rowboat below, and when Brodie surfaced, dazed, they fished him out and assessed his condition.

Finding him no worse for wear, he was transported to shore, where he was more than happy to wave to the rapidly growing crowd and speak with the waiting press. Not so impressed with his performance was the bridge officer, who immediately placed New York's newest hero under arrest. A soaking wet Brodie was taken to the nearest precinct station. Appearing pale and blue-lipped, a sympathetic officer gave the young man a pull on his whiskey bottle. This seemed to revive the shivering diver, who sent a newspaper reporter to fetch him a fresh pint. The police — not wanting the perp to show up for court drunk — were disinclined to allow him any more, but when Brodie clutched his side, wailed in pain, and went into convulsions, they relented. A doctor was called, who checked Brodie out and declared him fit as a fiddle, a diagnosis that Brodie celebrated with more whiskey. Seeing that Brodie was consuming so much liquor under the watchful eyes of the men in blue, it hardly seemed fair when they took him to the city prison on a charge of intoxication, along with endangering his own life.

Prison wardens in those days felt no particular need to prohibit newspaper reporters from wandering the cellblocks, and a correspondent from the Times struck up a conversation with the new celebrity, deciphering, as best he was able, Brodie's heavy Bowery accent, his slurred speech, and his truly impressive command of contemporary profanity. Other reporters quickly tracked down Brodie's wife, who said she had known nothing about it until an hour after the fact. This made the good-bye wishes from the young woman on the bridge prior to the jump a little problematic — not that Brodie was a traditionalist in his relationships with women; he was once arrested for kidnapping and attempting to marry a sixteen-year-old girl. His wife also said that the injury to his side, which had been attributed to the jump, was an old malady that Brodie frequently complained of. Back in the Bowery, Brodie, wrote the Times, "is regarded as a sort of half-witted fellow by his friends, a man who will undertake anything if provoked or offered money."

However, if he were indeed half-witted, then what to say of the people he supposedly duped that day? The skeptics believed that Brodie arranged to have a dummy tossed from the bridge, and then swam to general vicinity either from shore or from the rowboat. This was partly based on the comments of a friend, forty years after the fact, and well after Brodie's death, who suggested the jump was all an act. Yet the evidence to support it being a fraud is largely second hand, and more than a century later doesn't seem any more convincing than the first-hand accounts at the time, which did not question the authenticity.

If Brodie was a skilled jumper, he was even better at getting his name out before an enchanted public. He made the rounds of dime museums and traveled the country jumping off of high places, which was a lucrative way to make a living at the time, apparently. With his substantial earnings, he opened a saloon in the Bowery, which became something of a shrine to neighborhood boxers and fighters. This "den of iniquity," as the papers framed it, was scorned by the city's upper crust, as was his taste in younger women, some of them fresh out of reform school. But he was a hero to his people. He fed many a hungry person, distributed umbrellas to shop girls on rainy days, and, when all else failed, paid the funeral expenses for those who died on the street without identification. And if the press wished to write up any stories of his largesse, he never seemed to object.

Brodie grew into the personification of the rough and tumble, vice- riddled Bowery itself. His celebrity was eventually transformed to the stage, and he starred in the play "On the Bowery," which enjoyed a national following. From there it was on to musicals (where he sang about his "Bowery Goyls") and national tours. He was onstage in Cleveland in 1898 when he collapsed, struggled to his feet, and collapsed again. The crowd hissed, thinking him to be drunk, always a viable supposition when it came to Brodie. In fact, he had been battling a bout of pleurisy, and had just telegraphed his family, telling them that he'd be home to recuperate. He never made it. His daughter was awaiting his arrival when she received the telegram reporting his death at age forty.

Brodie's memory lived on long after he did, and throughout the twentieth century the phrase "taking a Brody (sic)" came to mean anything involving a suicidal jump. In pop culture, Brodie's character was invoked in everything from Broadway musicals, to literature, to cinema, to a Bugs Bunny cartoon, where, in trying to sell a tourist the Brooklyn Bridge, "Bowery Bugs" tells the story of how he tormented Brodie into jumping.

Interestingly, sometimes the alleged dummy-double is written into these works, and sometimes it isn't. In the 1933 film The Bowery, which covers both bases, Brodie intends to use a dummy, but has to make the jump himself when the figure is stolen by his rival. The 1965 Broadway musical Kelly was inspired by Brodie's life and, fittingly, perhaps, wound up being just as controversial.


Excerpted from "Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Tim Rowland.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Chapter 1 Selling the Public on a Jump from the Brooklyn Bridge 1

Chapter 2 A Humble Printer Establishes Freedom of the Press 13

Chapter 3 Botched Abortion, Botched Justice 27

Chapter 4 The US Mail Underfoot 39

Chapter 5 The Grand Slave Conspiracy that Wasn't 55

Chapter 6 Mark Twain Takes New York by Storm and Spirit 69

Chapter 7 The Rise and Fall of Little Germany 81

Chapter 8 New York's Cross-Dressing Governor 93

Chapter 9 A Deadly Battle of Shakespearean Actors 103

Chapter 10 Woodlawn Cemetery's Celebrated Clientele 113

Chapter 11 A Building and a Food Fight for the Ages 129

Chapter 12 New York's New Insane Classes, and the Woman Who Fought for Them 143

Chapter 13 New York Declares War on Pigs 157

Chapter 14 A Floating City of Liquor 165

Chapter 15 A Lake Gets Its Revenge on Manhattan 181

Sources 193

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