Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Broken Ankle and a Twist of Fate: Uncovering the Stories of 103 Orchard

Adina Langer completed an internship at the Tenement Museum in 2008. Below is an excerpt of her final report, which details one of the most interesting stories she discovered in researching the past residents of 103 Orchard Street.

When I started my work on the residents of 103 Orchard Street, I immediately appreciated the foundations laid by my predecessor. Thanks to her work, I already knew that 103 Orchard encompassed what had once been 103, 105 and 107 Orchard as well as 81-83 Delancey street. She had found enlistment records for Italian-born men who were residents of the building in 1942, and Chinese men who lived in the building in the 60s and 70s. But I was especially fascinated by the results of her research into the Surrogate's Court plaintiff records. These records revealed that in 1910, 81 Delancey Street resident Bessie Gold sued the building owner, Joseph Marcus, and his lessee Samuel Appel for negligent upkeep of the building's stairs. Gold contended that their negligence caused her to slip down the stairs and break her ankle, preventing her from dancing in the theater. This resulted in her demotion to the role of a singer, reducing her income.

 Dancers Miriam Carson and Florence Williams were Bessie Gold's contemporaries

Bessie Gold's story immediately fascinated me. Here was a young Jewish woman who lived with her mother Lena in a tenement apartment. Her occupation was listed in the 1910 federal census as “dancer and singer in the theater.” Her mother was a “wardrobe lady.” In 1910, Bessie Gold was 24. She was born in England and immigrated to the United States with her mother in 1887 when she was only 1 year old. By 1910, she was established enough in her new home to try her luck in the city court system and her suit was moderately successful. She recovered a few thousand dollars in damages.

Even before I delved into the surrogate's court records, Bessie and Lena Gold's story sent my mind into fits of wild speculation. Bessie was born in London. Had Lena been an actress in London? What drove her to leave for America without her husband? Bessie spoke English, but Yiddish was her mother's native tongue. Where did Bessie perform? Was it the Yiddish theater? Smalltime Vaudeville? If she hadn’t broken her ankle, would she have played the Palace one day?

Studying the surrogate's court records raised additional questions. Marcus and Appel's counter arguments challenge the severity of Bessie’s ankle injury prompting Bessie to describe her convalescence in detail in the court records. She was confined to her apartment for 15 weeks-- 9 of those weeks spent entirely in bed. Doctor's visits and bills were costly (although she was able somehow to pay them). Gold wore a plaster cast for 16 weeks and after the cast was removed, she bathed the leg and foot in sea salt twice daily and a masseuse came to massage the foot. Nevertheless, her doctor contended that the injury would be permanent. Bessie would never dance in the theater again.

This court case raises interesting questions about common medical practices, resources for small-time actors who lived on the Lower East Side and the spread of knowledge about the American legal system through the immigrant community.

After her modest court settlement, Bessie Gold left the theater permanently and moved out of the building. At the municipal archives, I learned that she married Henry Reissman in 1910. He was a furrier who owned his own business. Together, they had three children, Sidonia, Seymour and Myron. By 1920 they owned a home in Brooklyn-- Lena lived with them. But the 1930 census revealed a family hit by the great depression. Bessie was working as a laborer and Henry as an “errand boy.” Lena wasn’t mentioned. Fortunately, they still owned their home in Brooklyn. Bessie died suddenly of a head injury in 1942. Research into her last will and testament revealed that upon her death, her husband and daughter were still living in Brooklyn but her two sons were on army bases in the South. Seymour was part of the 753rd Tank Battalion in Virgina. Perhaps Myron had inherited his mother's musical talent--he was listed as being part of the NATTO band, based in Memphis Tennessee.

Bessie Gold's family's stories continue after her death. The New York Times revealed that Sidonia was engaged to marry a Private named Rosen later in 1942. revealed possible death dates and locations for Seymour Reissman and Sidonia Rosen. The researcher who follows me will likely search for Seymour's will in the Nassau County surrogate's courthouse. Sidonia Rosen may have died in Rockville Maryland in 2007. If living descendants are found, the Tenement Museum will make every effort to contact them.

When Gold gave up any dreams of fame in vaudeville, would she ever have dreamed she would become a social historian's subject in 2008? Most likely not. But exactly that quality that makes her story both ordinary and unique gives me hope that she will be woven into future interpretive plans at the Tenement Museum.

--Posted by Adina Langer


  1. Wonderful story that brings the museum to life yet again.

  2. Very interesting, and I can relate to it even more because I have suffered 2 (simultaneous) broken ankles. Medical technology has greatly improved since that time!


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