Friday, February 25, 2011

Brooklyn Raised Big Money For Civil War Soldiers, And Did It In Style

In 1864, the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Montague Street hosted the Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, a fundraiser for the Sanitary Commission, which provided medical assistance to Union soldiers on the front lines of the Civil War. The fair, largely organized by women’s church committees, began on Feb. 22, 1864, and ended a few weeks later on March 8.

Two temporary buildings were erected on Montague Street to augment the academy in accommodating the fair, and the Taylor Mansion, at Montague and Clinton streets, was converted into an art gallery.

It was a tremendous success, raising $402,943.74 (millions of dollars in today's terms), and a great point of pride for Brooklyn, which had been invited to join New York’s sanitary fair, but in going it alone, outshined the metropolis across the river.

The Sanitary Fair commissioned photographer W.E. James to take stereotypes of the fair’s participants, who dressed in period costume. In addition to raising money for Union soldiers, the fair was an exhibition of great patriotism, celebrating the life of George Washington and earlier periods of American history. For example, the fair’s New England Kitchen was an ‘authentic reproduction,’ of a colonial era-homestead.

Below are some of the images that James took at the fair. They are now part of the Brooklyn Historical Society Photography Collection.

See the Eagle for some more detail on what went on at the fair and for an excerpt from the fair's newsletter, The Drumbeat.

The Brooklyn Public Library also has info on the fair with links to some of the original Eagle articles on opening and closing night.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ebbets Field Is Demolished

Today marks a sad anniversary for Brooklyn. It was on Feb. 23, 1960, that wrecking crews began demolishing Ebbets Field.

The wrecking ball was painted white with stitches to look like a baseball. (It came in a little high and outside.) Was this meant to take the sting out? The visiting team’s dugout was the first part to go. (That first smash is pictured below)

In attendance were a group of former Dodgers, including Roy Campanella, who was catcher in the last game played at Ebbets, Otto Miller, who was catcher at the first game played at Ebbets in 1913, Ralph Branca, Carl Erskine (who is pictured above palming one of the wrecking balls) and Tommy Holmes. They were joined by a group of about 200 other spectators, a paltry number considering the thousands that jammed the stands for 44 years to watch ‘Dem Bums’ play ball. Leo Allen, historian for the Baseball Hall of Fame, was presented with home plate.

The passing of Ebbets was summed up by one angry state senator like this: “What’s Niagara without the Falls? What’s Hershey without chocolate? What’s Brooklyn without the Dodgers?”

Today, the Jackie Robinson Apartments occupy the land where the team used to play.

On April 9, 1913, Ebbets Field was the most modern ballpark of its time when it opened in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, between Bedford Avenue and Sullivan Place. By the 1950s it had become the smallest field in the National League and it had become rickety. The team was losing money in New York and was sold to Los Angeles.

The last game the Dodgers played at home was on Sept. 24, 1957, and fewer than 7,000 people came out to watch Brooklyn beat the Pirates 3-0.

The game ended with Gladys Gooding playing “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” on the organ and then the loudspeakers rang with a recording of the Dodgers theme song: “Oh, follow the Dodgers/Follow the Dodgers around/The infield, the outfield/The catcher and that fellow on the mound. There’s a ball club in Brooklyn/The team they call “Dem Bums”/But keep your eyes right on them/And watch for hits and runs.”

When the recording ended Gooding started playing “Auld Lang Syne,” but by then the fans were carrying off anything they could lift: patches of turf, home plate and pieces of the outfield fence.

Reminder: The Brooklyn Dodgers Film Series is still under way at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Photos from AP

Monday, February 21, 2011

On the Lecture Circuit: George Washington and Walt Whitman

The Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library will host a lecture on Walt Whitman this Wednesday, Feb. 23 at 6:30 p.m. Professor Matt Miller of Yeshiva University will give an illustrated talk on his new book Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass. In the first book-length study of Whitman's journals and manuscripts, Prof. Miller demonstrates that until approximately 1854 (only one year before the first publication of Leaves of Grass), Whitman — who once speculated that Leaves would be a novel or a play — was unaware that his ambitions would assume the form of poetry at all.

The Brooklyn Collection is on the second floor of the library's main branch at Grand Army Plaza. The lecture is free and open to the public.

And if you haven't had your fill of George Washington this Presidents Day, you can catch a book talk by Barnet Schecter at Green-Wood Cemetery, scheduled for March 13 at 1 p.m. in the cemetery's chapel. Schecter's latest book, George Washington: A Biography Through Maps, is a portrait of the man through the hundreds of maps he used throughout his life. The talk will be followed by a trolley tour guide of the Battle of Brooklyn, part of which was fought on Green-Wood's grounds. (The talk is free, tour is $10 for Green-Wood Historic Fund members/$20 for non-members.)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bank Robber Willie Sutton Busted in Brooklyn

I know this looks like a film still, but it's a real photo! Handcuffed and seated at right is bank robber Willie Sutton. He's being questioned by police in Brooklyn on Feb. 18, 1952, the day he was finally busted after escaping from prison five years earlier. Assistant District Attorney Thomas Cullen holds a .38 caliber automatic, which Sutton had on his person when he was arrested, and a .38 caliber revolver police found in his room. On the table is money, nearly $10,000, found on Sutton and in his room. AP Photo

The criminal career of bank robber Willie “The Actor” Sutton ended in Brooklyn on Feb. 18, 1952. He was apprehended by police after being recognized on the subway by a young clothing salesman named Arnold Schuster.

Sutton was on his way from Union Square back to Brooklyn, where he had been staying in a room at 340 Dean St., when Schuster, who had boarded the train at DeKalb Ave., recognized the famous criminal. Schuster followed him when they exited the train and flagged down two policemen.

The capture made headlines across the country and Schuster was called a hero. But the young man soon paid dearly for fingering “Slick Willie.” Schuster was murdered 17 days later, shot in each eye and in the groin while walking near his home in Borough Park. No one was ever convicted of the murder, though city lore has it that it was at the order of a mob boss who hated “squealers.”

Sutton, who had been born in Brooklyn near Prospect Park in 1901, robbed banks for decades, beginning in the late 1920s. His first robbery was reportedly at the age of 9, however, when he broke into a grocery store and took $6 from the register. Sutton claimed to have stolen $2 million during the course of his career.

Though he was arrested many times, and ultimately spent 33 years of his 79-year life in prison, he also successfully escaped prison three times, using elaborate schemes, such as painstakingly sculpting a likeness of his head out of bits of plaster and laying it on his cot so that guards would think he was still safely incarcerated rather than running to freedom.

When Sutton was captured in Brooklyn in 1952, he had been on the run since his last escape from prison, in Pennsylvania in 1947 (in which he and other prisoners fled dressed as prison guards.) He was put on the FBI’s Most Wanted List in 1950.

After his Brooklyn arrest, he was sent to Attica prison, from which he was released in 1969, sick with emphysema.

Once when a reporter asked Sutton why he robbed banks, he famously retorted, “Because that’s where the money is.” Sutton later said these were not his words, but it didn’t stop him from releasing a book titled Where the Money Was, which was written with Edward Linn and published in 1976. He also co-authored the book I, Willie Sutton.

In its obituary of Sutton, the New York Times described his robbery technique:

“Although early in his career he robbed jewelry stores, it was banks that presented irresistible challenges to him. Often, according to the police, he would leave a bank with a cheering admonition for his frightened victims: ‘Don’t worry, the insurance will cover this.’

“The bank-robbing technique he evolved, beginning in the early 1930s, has been widely copied. First, he would study a bank carefully until he learned how many employees worked there, when they arrived for duty and what their duties were.

“He invariably entered the bank after the arrival of the first employee, usually a porter or guard, then welcomed the other employees at gunpoint. When the manager arrived, he would warn him that his employees would be the first to be shot if there was trouble. The robber and his helper or helpers were always gone before the bank opened for public business.”

Sutton was known as “The Actor” because he often perpetrated his hold-ups disguised as a bank guard, window cleaner, maintenance man, policeman, etc.

The Times obituary also described how this technique evolved: “He was walking down Broadway one day and, at a bank, noticed that the guards looked not at the faces but at the uniforms of messengers and armored-car guards arriving at the bank. Dressed as a Western Union messenger, he got into the bank, and handed a fake telegram to a guard. ‘As soon as both his hands were occupied, I merely reached down and lifted his revolver out of its holster,’ Mr. Sutton later recalled.”

Willie Sutton died on Nov. 2, 1980, in Florida. His body was sent back to Brooklyn and he was buried in the Sutton family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fort Greene Memoir

The New York Times Local blog ran this lovely memoir by Naima Coster about growing up in Fort Greene in the 1980s and 90s. Needless to say, the old neighborhood changed a lot while she was away at Yale for college.

As for me, I'm a newbie. I'm a gentrifier. I'm not from Brooklyn, but it's been my home for about eight years now and I love it. And unlike a lot of Brooklyn natives, who are seeing their homeland transformed before them, I enjoy seeing all the new shops open and seeing the streets change (though I'm pretty passionate about most of the the old buildings and the past in general, if that's not obvious, and don't want it messed with too drastically.)

But having lived in Buffalo, where people would beg for the kind population-swelling development happening here, I'm not inclined to see gentrification as an altogether bad thing (which I don't think Coster does either).

“Decline and renewal often are simultaneous processes," my friend Francis Morrone, a local historian, said. And I more or less take that view of things.

But I bring all this up because Coster made me ache for her Fort Greene, not mine. Which tells me it's a pretty well-written, thoughtful piece. I suggest you give it a gander.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

MURDER! Lovers’ Tryst Ends in Tragedy

The front page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Feb. 16, 1902, was dominated with news of the murder of 20-year-old Walter S. Brooks, a young man from Brooklyn who had met some acclaim playing football for Brooklyn Boys High School before going into the dried-fruit business in Manhattan.

All evidence pointed to Florence Burns (pictured at left), a beautiful 19-year old girl from Flatbush who had been having an affair with Brooks for the previous four months. Brooks had tried to break it off with the girl, according to friends, but she had been madly in love with him and resisted every attempt to sever their ties.

The young man was found unconscious in a hotel room at the Glen Island Hotel in Manhattan. Earlier that evening the couple had checked into the hotel as “J. Wilson and wife, Brooklyn, N.Y.”

“The bell boy, who showed them to their room, has identified Florence Burns as the woman who went to the room with Brooks. The identification was complete and positive. He picked her out of a number of other women without the slightest hesitation,” the Eagle reported.

Burns denied having gone to the hotel with Brooks, claiming to have gone home to Flatbush at 6:30 p.m. However, “No one saw her at her father’s home until this morning, and her declaration is the only proof she has,” the article stated.

“The beautiful Brooklyn girl sat unmoved throughout the ordeal of a ‘third degree’ investigation by the police. She was as calm and cool as the big, stern police captain and the iron-hearted detectives who tried to make her confess. If the murder of the man she loved caused any emotion in her heart, there was no indication of it in the almost smiling face or the innocent blue eyes that met her accusers so frankly, yet so firmly,” the Eagle wrote.

Adding to the appearance of her guilt was the testimony of Brooks’ closest friend, Harry Cohen, who said that Brooks had frequently told him he expected the girl to kill him. He said that she had threatened that if he didn’t marry her, he would never marry anyone. ‘Well, Harry, I’m going out to get shot tonight,’ he had said on a recent evening that he went out to meet her.

The body had been discovered by the same bellboy that showed them to their room (whose name was George Washington, oddly enough). He approached the room a little after 11 p.m. because he was concerned about the overwhelming smell of gas emanating from within it. He opened the door to discover the gas turned all the way up and Brooks lying unconscious on the bed. He immediately summoned help.

At this time Brooks was still alive, and amazingly the doctor who came to the scene, Dr. John Vincent Sweeney, did not surmise that Brooks had also been the victim of a gunshot wound, thinking the blood coming from his head was the result of a superficial wound. He simply administered “restoratives” and left him to rest for the night. The next morning, when it was realized his injuries were more serious, Brooks was taken to the hospital. It took the ambulance two hours to arrive, and Brooks died at 11 a.m. (It’s hard to say who was more responsible for Brooks’ death, Ms. Burns or the medical professionals who should have saved him!)

But one crucial piece of evidence was missing from the scene. The revolver was no where to be found.

Over the next few months, other circumstantial evidence surfaced that pointed to Burns’ guilt. A comb was found in the hotel room that an acquaintance claimed belonged to Burns. Also a train conductor swore that she was on his train at about 11:45 p.m. at the Brooklyn Bridge, which would have fit the time frame of the murder, which is believed to have happened around 11 p.m.

But without a “smoking gun,” so to speak, Ms. Burns was released from jail on March 24 of that year, according to an Eagle report. And on May 20, she was exonerated of all charges.

Though there was a lack of legal evidence, the Eagle reported, there was “widespread moral conviction that Florence Burns shot Brooks.”

After the murder investigation was behind her, Ms. Burns tried to take her now recognizable name from headlines to headliner. The Eagle reported she made her vaudeville debut on Dec. 15, 1902, at Hyde & Behmen’s theatre. The Eagle’s review: “A decided failure from every standpoint. She didn’t even gratify the curiosity of the multitude that had jammed itself into the theatre to see her. She was off the stage almost as soon as she got on it. The audience seemed relieved when she left the stage, for her effort was pitiable. She almost collapsed, not from fright, but from sheer inability to go through her act.”

Monday, February 14, 2011

St. Valentine's Massacre and other Violence

This was the gruesome scene in a garage on the northside of Chicago following the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929.

Seven members of Bugs Moran’s gang were gunned down. The slaughter was long assumed to be the work of the Brooklyn-born gang leader Al Capone. But Capone was never charged with the crime, and a new book about the arch criminal (Get Capone, 2010) by Jonathan Eig uses never-before-revealed FBI files to make the case that Capone was not behind the massacre. The book points instead to a notorious gunman named William White who was most likely seeking revenge for the Moran gang’s murder of his cousin William Davern. (Read more about Eig's Capone revelations here.
Photo from the Bettmann Archive

Apparently, this wasn't the first violent Valentine's Day on record. According to NPR, the holiday has very dark roots. Read up here on The Dark Origins of Valentine's.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Edison Video of the Brooklyn Bridge

Today is the birth anniversary of Thomas Edison, whom we have to thank for such things as lightbulbs, the motion picture camera and all sorts of innovations having to do with the generation of electricity. So you should check out this sweet video he took while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in 1899.

Discovering the Beauty in Central Brooklyn Neighborhoods

The New York Times Lens blog has a great Q&A with Brooklyn photographer Russell Frederick. He has been documenting the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood since 1999. I loved how he described his motivation for the project:

"The motivation behind it was really that when I told people where I lived, they would cringe as if Bed-Stuy was this place where I had to wear a helmet and a bulletproof vest. They assumed it to be this slum or this place that was just a war zone. And it actually was completely the opposite.

I might see images of robberies, shootings and acts of violence in Bed-Stuy, but never did I see images of the sweet things about the community. Images about the love, about family, about the diversity, about the good people, about all of these wonderful things that actually take place in the community. It is so rich with history. I mean Spike Lee, Lena Horne, Chris Rock, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Earl Graves and even Jackie Gleason lived in Bed-Stuy."

The Times also posted a photo gallery with some of his work. Beautiful stuff. And kudos to Mr. Frederick for enriching the historical record being created about Bed-Stuy's recent history.

As a resident of Crown Heights, I think I've seen that same cringe on people's faces that Frederick refers to. Many still associate the neighborhood with the riots in 1991. But it's really a great place to live.

Soon after I moved to the area a few years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly lecture on its history at the Brooklyn Public Library. She's written books about both Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights for the Images in America series (Arcadia Publishing). (Read more about that here).

She seemed to have the same misgivings about how her neighborhood is portrayed. “Tragedy and loss of life have always dominated the media, and this unfortunate neighborhood incident [the riot] proved to be no exception,” she writes, adding, “Crown Heights is, and remains, an American location of beauty and promise, with a dynamic history that is, and hopefully continues to be, a glowing example of multicultural successes and unlimited accomplishment.”

I'll drink to that.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Anniversary of Arthur Miller's Death

Today is the anniversary of playwright Arthur Miller's death. He passed away at his home in Connecticut on Feb. 10, 2005 at the ripe old age of 89. He is pictured in this AP photo in 1959 with his then wife Marilyn Monroe.

Though born in Manhattan, Miller was raised in Brooklyn and spent many of his adult years in the borough as well.

The Brooklyn Eagle has more on his career (the highlight being "Death of a Salesman") and his time in the Brooklyn.

Death of a Playwright [Brooklyn Eagle]

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Brooklyn Dodgers Film Series at Historical Society

If you're in eager anticipation of the baseball season, there are some upcoming events at the Brooklyn Historical Society that may help you bide your time, especially if you are, or ever were, a Dodgers fan.

In conjunction with their exhibit, "Home Base: Memories of the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field," the historical society will be hosting a Brooklyn baseball film series, screening three documentaries about the beloved team.

On Sunday, Feb 20 at 2 p.m. will be The Brooklyn Dodgers: An American Treasure. On Sunday, Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. will be The Life of Jackie Robinson. And on Sunday, March 6 at 2 p.m. will be Dem Bums: The History of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

All screenings are free with admission to the historical society, 128 Pierrepont St. in Brooklyn Heights.

Preceding the film series will be a a lecture on Saturday, Feb, 19 at 2 p.m. by historian John Zinn on the legacy of Charles Ebbets, who of course owned the Brooklyn Dodgers and built Ebbets Field.

Monday, February 7, 2011

L.A. Dodgers To Honor Their Brooklyn Roots With Old Uniforms

This news came in to the Brooklyn Eagle today from the AP:

The Los Angeles Dodgers will wear throwback uniforms honoring their Brooklyn roots for six games during the upcoming season.

The team is asking fans to pick from among three uniform choices.

Fans who vote online at from Feb. 7-17 can pick between uniforms that the team wore in 1911 (shown above) or 1931 or during the 1940s.

The winning uniform will be announced on Feb. 25.

The Dodgers will wear the uniforms for the first time on April 21 against the Braves, the anniversary of the franchise's first victory, which also came against the Braves in 1890.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

This Just In: Ratzer Map Will Be On View Until May!

The Brooklyn Historical Society released this press release on Wednesday:

Due to popular demand following the front page New York Times article about the Ratzer map that ran on January 17, 2011, the recently restored 1770 map is now on view to the public between February 2 and May 1, 2011. The map is available for viewing during the Brooklyn Historical Society's hours as follows: Wednesday-Friday and Sunday, 12pm-5pm and Saturday, 10am-5pm. Museum admission is free for BHS members; $6 for adults; $4 for teachers/students/seniors; children 12 and under are free.

While bringing our collections out of deep storage, we came upon an extremely rare map of New York City made by Bernard Ratzer in the late 1760s – only the fourth known copy of the map in the world. The map was in horrible condition. Varnished more than 200 years ago, it was discolored and brittle, with horizontal cracks every few inches along the entire map. Happily, our professional archive team sprang into action, and got the map to a conservator who first took emergency measures to stabilize it, and after 12 weeks returned the map to a magnificently conserved state.

See also, "Brooklyn Historical Society Digs Deep into the Archives, And Publishes Its Findings Online" [Brooklyn Eagle]

Drinking on Sunday? Yes Please, says Brooklyn

On Feb. 2, 1902, a front-page story in the Brooklyn Eagle reported that “Three of Each Four Voters Favors Sunday Saloons.”

A few years earlier, New York State passed the Raines Law (named for Republican State Senator John Raines), which prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, except in hotels. This prompted many saloons to throw together some rooms for rent, which in turn was believed to increase prostitution.

The Eagle took it upon itself to canvass 5,000 Brooklynites, "representative of all classes and sections of the borough," to assess their feelings on the matter. It was conducted during the evening rush hour at various ferry terminals along the waterfront.

Half of respondents wanted their liquor on Sundays, but they were in favor of restricting sales during church service hours. About a quarter wanted unrestricted access to liquor on Sundays. And another quarter wanted absolute restriction on Sundays.

Of course, the sale of alcohol became completely illegal all over the nation during Prohibition (1920-1933), but this led to unprecedented corruption. And the government learned to let people have their drink.

The sale of alcohol on Sundays remains restricted in some way in many parts of the country. It was only within the past decade that liquor stores were allowed to be open in New York state.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Need to Brush Up on Beecher?

Brownstoner's Montrose Morris just wrapped up a three-part tract on Brooklyn's famous 19th century preacher Henry Ward Beecher. Relying heavily on Debby Applegate's 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Most Famous Man in America, Morris gives a thorough run down of Beecher's highs and lows, i.e., being an extraordinarily effective abolitionist and being a philandering hippocrite.

Morris' introductory paragraph gives a good sense of the drama and scandal that defined Beecher's life:

..He was an amazingly complex man, with the religious zeal of a Billy Graham, the oratorical gifts of a Martin Luther King, Jr., the showmanship of a P.T. Barnum, and the marital infidelity and scandalous downfall of a Tiger Woods. Add to that the societal mores of Victorian Brooklyn, a couple of enemies looking for weakness, an eager press, and you’ve got the makings of a great tale...

It's a good read. Part 1, Part II, Part III