Down in the Bowery Dives: The History of McGurk’s Suicide Hall

Posted on: December 5th, 2012 at 11:23 am by

[New York Herald, March 12, 1899]

The grimy parts of NYC are part of its charm, and when 295 Bowery was torn down – despite its sordid past – another unique and awesome piece of history was lost; a glass monstrosity now stands over its bones.

From the (relatively) new building’s website: Avalon Bowery Place was designed to let you indulge in Manhattan living, the way you always dreamt. Set in the famed Bowery, this luxury residence puts you in the center of an all-encompassing lifestyle.”

Let us observe a moment of silence.

W

T

F

(deep sigh)

I’ve said it a time or two – this yuppification of the city is detrimental to the fabric that was woven through 400 years of triumph, sorrow, filth, reform, disease, despair, renewal, and rebirth.

Yes, change is good and oftentimes necessary, but for a building that withstood the most progressive century of Manhattan’s past, to make it into the millennium and then be destroyed?

A shame. Truly.

Seven years have passed since HPD gave the green light, ultimately reducing 295 Bowery to dust. As you can see, I’m clearly not over it. The Landmarks Preservation Commission denied landmark status, stating that it did not maintain “sufficient historical, cultural or architectural merit.”

Why preserve the history of a building that once housed suicide prone prostitutes? Because it is the world’s oldest profession for a reason and whether or not you agree, it has helped shape our city. You can check here for more on that.

Alas, mistakes involving demolition can never be undone so all I can do is show you what was and hope that you’ll help stop the active re-development (i.e. demolition) of the Bowery by real estate developers.

Here’s a story of a building once nicknamed McGurk’s “Suicide Hall.”

295 Bowery was built in 1863.

[1995]

Monte Williams of the New York Times wrote:

The building had been a hotel during the Civil War, catering to returning soldiers. By the 1890’s it was a brothel and a dive where it is said a half-dozen destitute courtesans drank carbolic acid and died. John H. McGurk, the owner of the saloon on the ground floor, then capitalized on the notoriety of the place by renaming it McGurk’s Suicide Hall.

McGurk owned several dive “resorts” in the Bowery which was notorious for its “foul dives.” Any sort of vice, whatever your fancy, could be found there/here. There? Here.

[THE WORLD MARCH 13 1899 DIVES of the BOWERY]

[The Bowery Dives THE WORLD, 1899]

A necessary digression: Listerine anyone?

There once was man who changed surgery and germ theory forever – Joseph Lister (and subsequently, the mouthwash business).

How?

He was a pioneer of anti-septics, sterilization of surgical tools and the use of  carbolic acid in the form of a spray to disinfect during surgery.

By the by, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the bloodier the apron, the more experienced the doctor:  dirty coats were seen as a sign of a surgeon’s knowledge and experience and the smell was referred to as “good old surgical stink.”

[Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President ... By Candice Millard]

[Germs apparatus]

Because of Lister and his work, Carbolic Acid became widely used and available for all sorts of ailments and was the main culprit behind 295 earning its nickname of “Suicide Hall.”

In October [1899], for example, Blonde Madge Davenport and her partner, Big Mame, decided to end it all, and so they bought carbolic acid, the elixir of choice, at a drugstore a few doors away. Blonde Madge was successful in gulping it down, but Big Mame hesitated and succeeded in spilling most of it on her face; the resulting disfiguration resulted only in her getting permanently barred from the place.

— From Luc Sante, Low Life

[THE WORLD excerpt, MARCH 13, 1899]

[Elmira NY Star Gazette, 1899]

[NY Herald March 12, 1899]

Waiter turned bartender and alleged murderer, “Short-Change Charley” Charles Steele kept a supply of chloral hydrate to drug unsuspecting patrons.

[MURDER DURING MAN HUNT - January 25, 1899 NY Times]

It seemed no one was safe at McGurk’s: sailors, marines, longshoreman, back-room girls, waiters and the city’s first recorded bouncer – “Eat ‘Em up Jack.” Even John McGurk’s own daughter suffered the Curse of McGurk (that is mine, want to use it? Ask me.) when she was denied entry to Catholic School after the nuns found out about her father’s shady past.

The Curse of McGurk’s got ‘em all.

[The Evening World, August 8, 1904]

[NY Press 1905]

Suicide central closed in 1902.

After 1902, 295 Bowery became a restaurant. Look to the left of Hadley Rescue Hall below.

[295-Bowery-Library of Congress-circa 1910]

In the 1920s, Mae West wrote about McGurk’s Suicide Hall in her novelization of the play, Diamond Lil, which became a film called “She Done Him Wrong” featuring Miss West and Cary Grant.

[When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment - Marybeth Hamilton]

According to Fran Capo, author of Myths and Mysteries of New York, 295 Bowery became The Liberty Hotel in the 1950s, a flophouse for men down on their luck. A sign there reminded them “When did you write to mother?”

In the mid-60s it was converted into artists’ studios.

Fast forward to 2000.

From The Village Voice, June 13 2000:

“Bounty on the Bowery, Big Developers, Big Plans for Downtown Lots ”

Cooper Sq. Urban Renewal Area redevelopment…a request for proposals from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, which plans to select a developer by late summer. Sources say the bidders for the 2.85-acre patch include real estate heavies such as the Gotham Organization, the Related Companies, a partnership involving developer Donald Zucker, and a joint venture that combines Jack Resnick with Donald Capoccia, a builder who became the target of protests because of his city-backed bulldozing of community gardens to make way for town houses.

[Kate] Millett and her neighbors had hoped to save their building by installing a museum to commemorate the prostitutes who died at McGurk’s so-called suicide hall, the pub that operated in the first floor of 295 Bowery until the turn of the 20th century. At least 10 women reportedly killed themselves there with carbolic acid. But even pleas from Gloria Steinem could not persuade HPD commissioner Richard Roberts to keep the building.

Millett laments the changes along the Bowery, which she calls “one of the longest and best real streets in New York; it’s older than even Broadway. All this is just going to make housing for yuppies, who can make a straight shot down to Wall Street. It’s going from being the Bowery to la-la land.”

Millett, I’m with you, sister! To the Bowery – We love every facet of you. Rest in Peace.

[When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment - Marybeth Hamilton]

[When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment - Marybeth Hamilton]

[Global Graphica]

[Downtown Express photo by Clayton Patterson]

[Google Maps]

As always, ah, New York. My stunning and gritty, sparkling and filthy, tremendous, transcendent metropolis. You were forged by the keepers of secrets and those secrets I plan to find and reveal, one brick at a time. Bless up.

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  • david

    Carbolic acid huh? grim