Corlear’s Hook and Its Hooker History

Posted on: January 31st, 2012 at 10:22 am by

Allison B. Siegel returns with another epic Lower East Side history.  As urban historian, preservationist and educator, Siegel focuses on 18th through early 20th Century NYC, bringing her penchant (and obsession) for history and adventure to everything that she researches.

If you entered my brain, you’d find a whole section devoted to seemingly useless etymologies. I like to share my random knowledge even at the most inappropriate times. I guess I could rein it in, but then family dinners wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. My aunt can attest to that: on one occasion she simply mentioned the word “hook” and I saw this as an open invitation to exclaim, “Did you know hookers got that name from prostituting in Corlear’s Hook?!!!”

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East River Shore, ca 1876; NYPL

(Pause for silence and throat clearing. Oh and the look of horror on my mother’s face; don’t worry Mom, I know you’re proud of me now.)

Well folks, today is your lucky day. Here I go, sharing again…

Let’s go back, waaaay back to when Manhattan was Manahatta and Corlear’s Hook was a Native American settlement occupied by the Mareckawick group of the Canarsee Tribe. They lived on the East River islands and in Brooklyn.

In the beginning of the 17th century, the Mareckawicks of Corlear’s Hook or Naghtongh, as it was known then, lived in bark huts along the sandy beach. The area was marsh and a perfect place to land canoes. There was even a ferry system throughout the harbor on which Naghtongh was a stop.

Looking into our Manhattan forefathers, I came across this little ditty. The Henry Street Settlement Players performed a musical about Corlear’s Hook and this was one of the numbers:

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“Play Gives History Of Corlear’s Hook” NYT, May 11, 1941

As the 17th century marched on, the seventy-six acres of the Lower East Side leading up to the beach would become farmland belonging to Jacobus Van Corlaer (hence the name Corlear’s Hook; the spelling changed in the early 19th century). Van Corlaer would sell his property to William Beekman and by the 18th century it looked like this:

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Corlear's Hook as Crown Point during British Occupation, ca 1776; Boston Public Library

By 1793, that land was described as “fashionable East Side Hills where chasing the hounds was the vogue.” Also, during the late 1700s, Corlear’s had become a Navy Yard and a shipyard giving way to sailors and immigrant shipbuilders who moved their families into the area. The first tenement was built in Corlear’s Hook in 1833 and as more and more new Americans poured into the neighborhood, along with them came the bars and brothels. By the 19th century, Corlear’s Hook, colloquially called “the Hook” was a notorious slum.

You know when you hit that fork in the road and have a choice to make? My choices at this point are (1) to write about the river gangs that terrorized the area or go the less traveled route and (2) write about the world’s oldest profession in Corlear’s Hook comprised of women who “were the lowest and most debased of their class. They were flashy, untidy and covered with tinsel…”

The tinsel intrigued me. Ready to get filthy? No. Wait. Not like that!

“Walnut Street [now Jackson] probably had the highest concentration of commercial sex in New York…Prostitution in the Hook was the most impoverished in the city… By 1839, eighty-seven brothels were situated in the Hook.”

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Violation of Tenement Laws, NYT October 1901

Many prostitutes had other occupations. A report published by the New York Female Moral Reform Society in 1839 listed fur sewers, book folders, umbrella sewers, tailoresses, and milliners as the highest percentages with dual occupations. By the early 20th century, amidst the full-time or permanent prostitutes, there were also those women who might trade intercourse for, say, a nice gift?

Please welcome the treating girls, or the occasional prostitutes. (I really must thank the Tenement Museum for having an Educator Meeting about this fascinating topic). This kind of vice like regular prostitution was, of course, not limited to the Hook, but I thought you’d get a kick out of this:

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The Purchase of Intimacy, Viviana A. Rotman Zelizer

I almost forgot – Ladies? When he says he’ll “treat you to dinner” I might suggest going Dutch. That whole, “oh but then he expected me to, ah, put out” thing that gets us angry – yeah. Some might say he has a valid argument.

In New York, prostitution was so prevalent and almost, dare I say accepted, that some streetwalkers became celebrities.

Helen Jewitt, for instance; famous for her beauty and her murder, Helen was headline news for years. Several books have been written about her still-unsolved murder.

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And how about Madam Eliza Jumel? You may recognize that name. Her eponymous mansion is the oldest surviving house in Manhattan. Again, according to City of Eros “the leading prostitute in post-Revolutionary America was Eliza Bowen Jumel…she entered her mother’s profession at an early age…everybody who was anybody knew her or knew about her.” For several decades she was the wealthiest woman in America.

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Courtesy of Morris Jumel Mansion

Not ringing any bells? Okay, how about this guy? He was her second husband. Your eyes do not decieve you! Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States of America, was married to a former strumpet [insert joke here].

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I’ll let you stew on that for a moment and then let’s saunter back to the Hook…

By the end of the 19th century, the shipyard docks were removed, landfill was set in place and Corlear’s Hook Park opens in 1895 as one of the city’s first municipal parks.

This next find raised the Hallelujah Chorus in my head. I found what I knew to be true and previously had not been able to prove. You remember that fun fact I shared with bemused family?

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Dictionary of Americanisms, John Russell Bartlett, 1859

I kind of want to say “I TOLD YOU SO!!!” but I grew out of that stage a couple weeks ago.

Got one of my side notes for ya: As with all things, there are those who disagree with that origin; they say the word comes from prostitutes “hooking” a client. I say, “sure, why not?” This is history, people! There will always be different perspectives. For now, this is mine.

So what did happen to the best, little whorehouse(s) in New York? Two words: slum clearance.

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Demolition of Grand Street area for East River Housing, ca 1952

I came across hundreds of articles that championed the razing of Corlear’s Hook calling it “the Five Points of the Thirteenth ward” and “a malarious slum.”

And now?

As Co-op Village says: “The East River Housing Corporation was incorporated on November 28, 1950. In its initial planning stages, the East River Houses were known as the Corlear’s Hook Project. This project would clear the last of the slums and tenements from Corlear’s.”

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As for the park, Corlear’s now boasts a baseball fields, playgrounds, dog runs and spray showers! How ‘bout that for a comeback?!

So there you have it. A Native American settlement turned Dutch farm turned fashionable hills turned shipyard turned red light district/slum turned housing project/waterfront park. I suppose I could have saved a ton of time by just writing that one sentence earlier, but then you’d have missed all the pretty pictures. Ladies and Gents, I hope you enjoyed my take on hookers and Corlear’s Hook.

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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