What You Find on a Stroll Through New York City’s Macabre Past

In Depth

Life in modern-day NYC sure ain’t what it used to be—and thank god for that, because living here used to be downright hellish. From its beginnings as a fur trading outpost and ensuing rise to the top of the global metropolitan heap, the Big Apple has always kept its metaphorical hands dirty. The pages of our fair city’s biography are filthy—waterlogged with splashes from the poisonous East River, the stinking Gowanus canal, and their floating corpses; streaked with blood from murderers, serial killers, cops, and politicians alike; splattered with bile from the city’s many pestilential epidemics, from yellow fever and cholera to Spanish flu and HIV/AIDS; stained with tears from the disenfranchised, the hoodwinked, the desperate, the dead.

The history of this joint is as fascinating as it is gory, which is why there’s such a brisk (albeit niche) trade in the exploration of NYC’s weird and wretched corners. Thanks to a small handful of intrepid ghouls, there are now plenty of opportunities for more adventurous types to venture off the beaten path, from the Morbid Anatomy Museum to Atlas Obscura’s event calendar to one very special walking tour company. Boroughs of the Dead is “devoted to strange, dark and unusual walking tours of New York City” and offers a wide array of themed, borough-specific jaunts down memory lane. While most typical NYC walking tours are exclusively populated by tourists (and my grandma) and focus on the commercial neon fallout of Times Square and the like, these guys are all about the horror business—and what could possibly be scarier than real life? Whether you’d like to pay your respects to the lost souls of McGurk’s Suicide Hall, feel drawn by the call of Cthulhu to to swing by H.P. Lovecraft’s house, or are partial to the thought of a guided stroll through Greenwood Cemetery, operator Andrea Janes and her crack team of morbid guides are more than happy to help.

Even though I’m usually more inclined to curl up with a nice history of bubonic plague than to go tramping around outside on a Sunday afternoon, I found myself drawn to one of their newest offerings, the sporadically-offered “Museums, Medicine, and Mesmerism” medical history tour of Lower Manhattan. After convincing my coworker and fellow creepy-crawler Annalise to come along and snap some photos, we met up with Janes and the rest of the group outside City Hall on June 28. It was a balmy day, and while most of our party was sensibly dressed—shorts, sundresses, cutoffs—I was impressed by the individual who’d come turned out in a head-to-toe black cloak, voluminous hat, and thick white makeup. Of course there was a card-carrying goth on this tour, and even on an afternoon dedicated to death and decay, this person’s gloom game was off the charts.

Janes herself is a dynamic host. Armed with a mic and exhaustive knowledge of the day’s topic, she gathered the group of twenty or so patrons around her at each stop before launching into the next gripping historical tidbit. I won’t spoil the tour for you by noting every stop along the way, but a few of the grislier locations are still stuck in my head thanks to Janes’ storytelling gusto. Along the way, we met John Augustus Roebling, who designed the Brooklyn Bridge then died of tetanus after refusing any medical attention save for the controversial and clearly ineffective fad “water cure;” Dr. Harvey Burdell, a womanizing dentist who was garroted in his own chair by a spurned lover; Ruben Peale, who hypnotized blind women for fun and profit, and many more of the old ghosts, quacks, and demons that still haunt the Lower East Side.

We started out on Broadway, in front of the former site of Scudder’s American Museum and a stone’s throw from P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, the former home of the legendary “Feejee Mermaid” (the museum was destroyed in a mysterious 1865 fire that set many of its residents free—according to a contemporary report in the Times, only a pack of snakes got loose, but the mental image of a horde of elephants and trained poodles booking it down Broadway is too good not to mention). So-called “dime museums” stocked with oddities, anatomical models, and medical marvels were huge during this period, as was spiritualism, phenology, and all manner of quack cures. Science, particularly medical science, was still finding its footing, and people were inclined to believe all manner of claptrap in an effort to understand the strange, expanding world around them. We passed by the ghosts of quite a few dime museums (many of which are now Duane Reades, in a stroke of medical irony) as well as Fowler’s Phrenological Cabinet (where a skeptical Mark Twain was tickled to learn that his cranium was exceptionally predisposed towards humorlessness) and Peale’s New York Museum, which began as the home of a two-headed calf and a “learned dog” called Romeo and became a beacon for one of Victorian America’s weirdest fads—mesmerism, better known as hypnotism (and now even better known as “bullshit).

We trekked deeper into City Hall Park to visit what was once the New York Hospital, a precursor to the famed Bellevue Hospital. Before that, the notorious Bridewell Prison sat on those grounds, which also held a pauper’s cemetery. As we stood there listening to Janes, I looked down and realized that I was standing on someone’s grave—many someones’ graves, really—and was struck by the thought that scores and scores of bodies must lie beneath the Lower East Side’s concrete and grime. Whenever you grab dim sum on Canal Street or wander down the Bowery, old bones are crunching beneath your feet. Between the epidemics, and the poverty, and the murders, our whole damn city’s built on corpses. That thought stayed with me as we marched onwards, especially once we got to Chambers. On one side of the street lay an African-American burial ground (now designated as the African Burial Ground National Monument); a block or so behind us lay that pauper’s graveyard, with the New York Hospital within spitting distance of both.

Andrea Janes.

The late 1700s were a crucial era in medical history, when many doctors graduated medical school without ever touching a scalpel and the dissection of human cadavers was a hotly-debated topic. There was no real legal way to lay one’s hands on a fresh cadaver, and medical professors were desperate for bodies. Enter the “resurrection men”—graverobbers who plundered the dead to benefit the living. They couldn’t risk the great outcry that would arise if they were to cart off a newly-interred rich banker or society lady, though, so where did they get the bodies? Think about where the hospital was located, and which segments of society had the least rights and social standing at the time—African-Americans and poor immigrants. The body-snatchers would have continued turning a nice profit trafficking in human misfortune, too, were it not for a bunch of boneheaded medical students.

Janes recounted the tale of the 1788 Doctor’s Riot, which erupted after a little boy whose mother had recently died ran into some asshole older kids whilst he was playing with his friends outside the New York Hospital. A team of medical students were inside dissecting a corpse; spying the children, a student named John Hicks took the body’s arm and waved it out the window at the boy, telling them that it belonged to his deceased mother. As hilarious as that may have seemed to Hicks, the boy was horrified, and ran home to tell his father. When they went to check on his mother’s grave, they found it disturbed…and his mother’s body missing. Enraged, the boy’s father amassed a mob of citizens, who stormed the hospital. Once inside, they found a number of stolen bodies in varying states of vivisection—a shocking-enough sight now that would have seemed positively barbaric on a crude 18th century dissecting table. They attacked a number of medical students and doctors inside, and the altercation escalated into full-blown riot once others heard about what the mob had seen. The cavalry was called, and ultimately six people died. After that, a law was soon put in place that aimed to curb grave-robbing by designating the bodies of criminals as legal fodder for dissection.

The tour also stopped by the former site of the Collect Pond and New York history’s most shameful slum, the Five Points. Squalor, disease, violence, child mortality, and general wretchedness reigned within its borders; at one point, its population density was greater than Calcutta’s. Swine wandered freely through streets piled with human shit, and cholera ran rampant. Its status as the original “melting pot” (populated primarily by free Africans and Irish immigrants) is overshadowed by its brutal reputation. Society ladies would go on guided tours of the slum for kicks, giving rise to the original source for the word “slumming.” The average age of death in New York City during the 19th century was 20 years, 8 months. It was completely, utterly destitute, and left Charles Dickens—who was a bit of an expert on subpar living conditions—aghast. “This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over,” he wrote in 1842. “Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken forays.”

As Janes was telling us about the misery that once teemed upon these streets, I could hear a gentle lilt of melody from the group of elderly Chinese musicians set up nearby, and see the bustle of Chinatown rising up ahead. The Lower East Side is still a melting pot, but now that the stench of shit and sickness has dissipated a bit and medical science has advanced by leaps and bounds, it smells a hell of a lot better.

Kim Kelly is a writer and music journalist based in New York City. She’s currently an editor at Noisey, and freelances for The Guardian, Vice, Spin, Rolling Stone, and more. Her favorite things in life are black tea and black metal.

Images via Boroughs of the Dead.

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