Thursday, November 18, 2010

Questions for Curatorial: Crime on the Lower East Side

Curatorial Director Dave answers your questions. 

Did theft increase at the end of the 19th century when there was an increase in the number of people living at 97 Orchard Street? Were there locks on the doors at any point?

No, there is no evidence to indicate that an increase in residential density at 97 Orchard Street, from 72 individuals in 1870 to 110 in 1900, had any impact on the incidence of theft or other crime.

Based upon the available evidence, the front door of 97 Orchard Street was probably not locked. Describing his travels among the tenements of the Lower East Side, turn-of-the-century reformer Jacob Riis found unlocked tenement front doors opening onto a “hall that is a highway for all the world by night and by day is the tenement’s proper badge. The Other Half ever receives with open doors.”

The front doors of the residential apartments at 97 Orchard Street are not believed to have had locks during the period between 1863 and 1935 when the building was inhabited. Museum researchers are not certain, but the locks currently on the 2nd floor ruin apartments were likely installed some time after 1935 when 97 Orchard Street closed as a residence, since the lock is unlike others at 97 Orchard Street.

Museum researchers know of few crimes committed at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. However, in the 1894 Report and Proceedings of the Senate on the Investigation of the Police Department of the City of New York, a note appeared indicating the 97 Orchard Street was the site of “policy and gambling.” Unfortunately, the Report does not specify who was responsible for this gambling operation.

Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the incidence of prostitution, crime, and gang activity on the Lower East Side during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was high.

Prostitution was a pervasive part of immigrant life on the Lower East Side. Located one-block west of Orchard Street, Allen Street stood as the neighborhood’s most notorious thoroughfare of commercial sex. There, most prostitution took place in tenements. During the 1890s, for example, one observer remarked that in “broad day light you can see them [prostitutes] at their windows and calling to passers by at night. They are so vulgar in front of their houses that any respectable person cannot pass without being insulted by them.” Another resident lamented that neighborhood women could not walk the street after dark “without becoming a victim to the because of the paramours who hang around corners awaiting the proceeds of their concubines.” For most, there was little recourse. “It is useless to appeal to the police,” decried another resident, “as the very men who are sent out in citizen clothes stand and talk with them and go in saloons and drink with them.”

Criminal activity in the form of robbery and extortion was also common on the Lower East Side during the early twentieth century. One resident remembered that, “Horse poisoning was a big problem. They were called the Jewish Black Hand. They were a bad bunch of people. They wanted tribute, a dollar a month for your horse. If you had ten horses, they wanted ten dollars a month or they poisoned your horses.” Another resident found an Italian gang also known as the Black Hand particularly menacing. In later years he remembered, “It was very tough around Avenue D. You couldn’t walk through there...they were Italians. They’d show you a knife. ‘Give me your money or I’ll kill you.’”

On December 8, 1891, an article appeared in the New York Times describing a incident of theft on Orchard Street. According to the article, burglars stole the Torah scrolls out of a synagogue at 91 Delancey, when the 3 men saw a police patrolman in front of 105 Orchard Street, they threw the Torah scrolls under a truck and ran away. The article doesn’t mention if they were caught, but the scrolls were returned to the President of the congregation, Mogan Abraham Ansche Ostrolenko.

Several years earlier in July of 1882, the New York Times reported an attempted murder-suicide at 106 Orchard Street. The incident, according to the Times, involved Mr. Martin Hoernlein and his wife, a “German couple well advanced in years.” Apparently, Mr. Hoernlein, who had a history of mental illness, cut his wife’s throat before attempting to cut his own. Although their wounds were “of a serious nature,” they were not fatal. Both husband and wife appear to have survived.

Murder and rape, however, were far less common on the Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century. While many local criminals stole handbags and lifted watches, violent crimes were rare, especially in the predominantly Jewish tenth ward. “East Side Jews are the most peaceful people I have ever come in contact with,” observed James Reynolds of the University Settlement. Historian Jenna Weissman Joselit writes, “…on those occasions when Jews were indicted for murder, the Jewish community was simply astounded and found the association between Jews and violence to be ‘without precedent…in the whole course of Jewish history.’”

When violence did occur, it was often rooted in ethnic tension and conflict. Youth gangs frequently battled over territory in their respective parts of the Lower East Side. One resident recalled that, “We had fights galore, the Italians and the Jews. They called us kikes and we called the wops. The Italians lived on one side of the bridge, and the Jews lived on the other side. There were terrific battles with stones and bottles, broken heads...”

While prostitution, robbery and extortion, murder and rape, and gang violence played a role in the daily lives of Lower East Siders during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, residents were much less likely to come to harm than outsiders. Lower East Siders better understood the unwritten geography and social order of the neighborhood—which areas to steer clear of, which people to avoid. Indeed, residents of the neighborhood during the 1920s and 1930s remembered a general feeling of safety when walking the streets at night. Knowing where not to venture and who not to cross no doubt mitigated residents’ likelihood of falling prey to crime and violence.

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