In 1890s New York, the worst dive on the Bowery was McGurk’s Suicide Hall.
***Located in the heart of the old Red Light District, McGurk’s saloon had the distinction of sporting one of the first electric signs in the city. The clientele typically consisted of sailors, pickpockets, waterfront thieves, gang members, morphine addicts, and prostitutes—or as the police reports frequently described them, “women of no occupation.” Entertainment was provided by singing waiters and a small band. Whiskey was the drink of choice, selling for five cents a glass. Liquor was often mixed with water and liquid camphor (also used as moth repellent and embalming fluid) to strengthen the drink—sometimes fatally. Waiters were armed with chloral hydrate (the ever-popular Mickey Finn) for doping unsuspecting guests as preparation for back alley robbery, or worse.
The headwaiter was Charles “Short-Change Charley” Steele, once arrested for burglary and attempted murder, but released when none of the witnesses could identify him. According to rumors another McGurk employee was Commodore Dutch, a freeloader and con artist later famous for his forty year stint chairing a “society” whose sole purpose was to collect funds for himself.
On hand as “mayhem specialist” was a pock-marked ex-prizefighter with cauliflower ears known as Thomas “Eat ‘Em Up Jack” McManus who, according to a newspaper account of the time, wore “a flaming cerise tie and a derby at a tilted angle.”
image found at chateauthombeau
What distinguished McGurk’s Saloon from the other roughneck dives on skid row was that it soon became the suicide den of choice for Bowery prostitutes down on their luck. Figures are hazy, but there were reportedly from six to a dozen self-administered deaths in the year 1899 alone. Swallowing carbolic acid was the most popular method of offing oneself. Later known as Phenol, carbolic acid was typically used as a disinfectant and was easily available at pharmacies.
Blonde Madge Davenport and Big Mame were two such prostitutes who chose the carbolic acid route, possibly mixing the acid into their booze to make it more palatable. Blonde Madge died of internal chemical burn. Big Mame was less successful. She spilled most of the acid on her face, disfiguring herself, which got her permanently barred from the saloon.
Mamie Van Doren NOT Big Mame
The suicides “got to be quite a fad,” an observer later recounted, and the saloon was quickly rechristened McGurk’s Suicide Hall as a shrewd marketing ploy to attract the morbidly curious. With this kind of reputation the police led countless raids on the saloon. Newspapers gave lurid accounts of sailors and gamblers, women “conducting themselves indecorously” and all manner of “indiscretions” happening in the upstairs rooms.
“Indiscretion” recipe found here
Tom McManus, by now having acquired a second moniker of “The Brute,” opened a music hall of his own called Eat ‘Em Up Jacks. In 1905 he got in a dispute over a woman with a notorious gangster named Chick Tricker who owned a joint of his own called The Fleabag. A pistol duel left Tricker with a bullet in his leg and one of his associates with six knife wounds. The next day, as McManus was leaving work someone crept out of an alley and cracked his skull with an iron bar wrapped in newspaper. His murderer was never arrested.
During the Suicide Hall’s heyday a woman known as the “Pride of the Stevedores” and her husband Big Barney were regulars at the saloon. They would waltz down the middle of the saloon as everyone would push their tables against the wall to clear space. Big Barney and the woman later disappeared. She resurfaced many years later with a new husband named Billy the Gink, called so because his right eye had been knocked out. By then the woman was known as Deaf Lilly, and in 1910 Billy the Gink beat her to death in their apartment and fled.
read the story behind the one eyed man ad campaign here
The Suicide Hall was a natural for literary material. Soon after it closed a play appeared by Theodore Kremer called The Bowery After Dark, which was partially set there. The Hall also provides the setting for Mae West’s novel Diamond Lil, in which the second chapter is titled “Suicide Hall.”
As for the building itself, from World War I until the 1950s it was known as the Liberty Hotel, a Skid Row flophouse with a sign above the door that read “When did you write to mother?”
In 2005, the building which housed McGurk’s Suicide Hall was bulldozed to make way for the Avalon Bowery Place apartment complex. Avalon Bay advertised their new development as “one of Manhattan’s finest locations in Soho”. Future residents should not be surprised to discover their crisp new apartments haunted by the ghosts of women of no occupation, rifling through the medicine cabinet in search of an antidote.
***by Rob Hill
More excellent artwork by Ellen Rixford here