What it Was Like Growing Up in the Notorious McGurk’s Suicide Hall on the Bowery [HISTORY]

Posted on: October 18th, 2016 at 9:37 am by

mcgurks-1996-vassifer-blog

Here’s a story of a building nicknamed McGurk’s Suicide Hall. You may have read it before. We touched upon the history a while back, but for this go ’round we decided to dig deeper into the past, while chatting with someone who actually lived there: Mr. Mehai Bakaty of forty-year-old pioneer, Fineline Tattoo.

295 Bowery was built in 1863, though there is some conflicting historical information:

The Evening Post 1833

The Evening Post 1833

Most likely we will never know the exact date. That’s the thing about history, isn’t it? It’s recorded, sure, but if recorded incorrectly, once the building is gone, there’s no way to ever really confirm or deny. Even the go-to concrete Real Estate Records Guide has two different years listed with the same metes and bounds. Regardless, it was brick and magnificent, and there was absolutely no reason to tear it down other than greed, but I digress.

Monte Williams of the New York Times wrote:

The building had been a hotel during the Civil War, catering to returning soldiers. By the 1890s 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

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.) With the saloon below and a “hotel” with brothel-esque decor above, prostitutes, sailors, drunkards, degenerates, low lives, and criminals … they all found a good time or a last time at McGurks.

In 1882, James D. McCabe, Jr. noted that “you would find [the prostitute] in the terrible dens, sailors’ dance houses, and living hells of some kindred locality. She is a mass of disease, utterly vile and repulsive, steadily dying from her bodily ailments, and the effects of rum and gin. She has reached the bottom of the ladder, and can go no lower. She knows it, and in a sort of dumbly desperate way is glad it is so. Life is such a daily torture to her, hope has so entirely left her, that death only offers her relief.”

mcgurk-the-world-march-13-1899

Not to worry, the worst dive in NYC allowed Benevolent societies to meet there. Perhaps to even it all out.

295-bowery-directory-of-social-and-health-agencies-1883

295-bowery-directory-of-social-and-health-agencies-1883

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 antiseptics, sterilization of surgical tools and the use of  carbolic acid in the form of a spray to disinfect during surgery.

mcgurk

Germs-apparatus

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

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

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

Elmira NY Star Gazette 1899

Elmira NY Star Gazette 1899

Suicide central closed in 1902.

mcgurk

The Sun, March 11, 1902

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

The low-rise Hadley Hall, or “Volksgarden,” a gathering place for German immigrants when they dominated the Lower East Side in the latter 19th Century, then the Stanton Trading restaurant supply company, soldiered on for over a century after.

mcgurk

295-Bowery-Library of Congress-circa 1910

By the 1920s, 295 was the Brooklyn Jobbing House (“jobbing” meaning wholesale merchants) where the government stored seized liquor during.

NYT: April 6, 1922

NYT: April 6, 1922

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.

Liberty Hotel 1958

Liberty Hotel, 1958. Courtesy of the Transit Museum

From Kate Millet in the New York Times, circa 1999:

”When I came here, it was dark and dirty, with no windows in the front, just openings covered with tins; no bathroom except for a toilet, no heat and no kitchen,” said Ms. Millett, whose living quarters now are filled with three Franklin stoves, a wealth of antiques, and shelves upon shelves of books.

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development says it will relocate the tenants, but exactly where is not yet known. The city is obligated to move the residents into comparable space, and a statement released by the housing agency says the new dwelling must be ”decent, safe and sanitary.” But it is not required that the rent remain the same, nor that the apartment be in the same condition. Tenants, the statement said, can get rental assistance if they meet eligibility requirements.

Ms. Millett’s downstairs neighbor and longtime friend, Sophie Keir, denied that she and her neighbors knew that the building would one day be leveled. Ms. Millett moved in after her former residence on the Bowery was razed. ”Why would they put her in a building that was going to be demolished, too?” asked Ms. Keir, a sculptor and furniture maker who has lived for 20 years in the second-floor loft. She added that the artist Michael Bakaty — who lives on the fourth floor with his wife, Yvonne Muranushi, and two young sons, Zoli, 5, and Kaz, 2 — was living in the building 30 years ago [this information is incorrect; Yvonne lived in the building for approx. 9 years; Michael Bakaty lived with his first wife prior to that] when it was privately owned.

The Bakatys, who pay $300 a month for rent, have erected a warren of rooms in their apartment. ”I love this place,” said Ms. Muranushi, a curator. ”Both my children were born here with a midwife right there on the sofa.”

Michael Bakaty.  Mike, as we know and love him, may he rest in peace, has two older sons, both of whom grew up in McGurk’s.

This story has multiple pages:

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