a resort for disorderly women

In 1890s New York, the worst dive on the Bowery was McGurk’s Suicide Hall.

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***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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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


the oiling of a stiff key

What is it with men of the cloth and scandalous women? I’ve lost count of the number of rectors I’ve written about at the Gimcrack. Here’s another one from a village in Stiffkey, Norfolk.

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Harold Francis Davidson, sometimes known as the “Prostitutes’ Padre“, was a Church of England priest who was defrocked in 1932 for his allegedly licentious lifestyle.

from:That Thin Line Productions

During the First World War he served as a Royal Navy chaplain. When he returned, his wife, Molly, whom he had married in October 1906 after a six-year engagement, was pregnant by another man. There was some pressure on him to leave her, but he refused, claiming marriage vows were for life.

In November 1930, Davidson was late back from London for the annual Remembrance Day service. Major Philip Hamond, who had disliked Davidson since he refused to allow him to be churchwarden in 1919 and had had several further altercations with him since, was ‘incandescent with rage’ and accused Davidson of doing it as an insult to the war dead. A complaint was made to Henry Dashwood, solicitor to the Church of England and adviser to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.

Dashwood then began investigating Davidson’s activities in London. He hired the Arrows Detective Agency to follow the rector and report his activities in London. The private detectives uncovered little; of the 40 girls they interviewed only one would say anything against him and then only when drunk (she recanted when sober).

from: Married to the Sea

His defence was that his work in London had been authorised by his bishop, and that only one had actually given evidence of immorality, she having been paid by the prosecution. He admitted to trying to help up to 1,000 girls with advice and sometimes money. The rector’s family including his daughter Patricia gave evidence that some of the girls had visited the family at Stiffkey and that neither she nor her mother had objected. The hearing lasted 26 days and attracted enormous crowds.

On 8 July Davidson was convicted on all charges. After he had exhausted his appeals, he was defrocked at Norwich Cathedral. Davidson then went to Blackpool to live off his notoriety. He would appear either in a barrel or being apparently roasted in an oven while a figure dressed as a devil prodded him with a pitchfork.

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For the summer season in 1937 Davidson worked at Thompsons’ Amusement Park in Skegness, where he was billed as “A modern Daniel in a lion’s den”. He would enter a cage with a lion called Freddie and a lioness called Toto, and talk for about ten minutes about the injustice he felt had been meted out to him. On 28 July, he was moving through his act when he accidentally tripped on the tail of the lioness. Perceiving this as an attack, Freddie attacked and mauled him. Renee Somer, the 16-year-old lion attendant entered the cage and fought the lion back using a 3 ft whip and an iron bar.

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Davidson was taken to Skegness Cottage Hospital with a neck injury and broken collar-bone and lacerations on his upper body. The lion had mauled him at the neck leaving a gash behind his left ear. The injury was not severe; the lion was old, toothless and sedated. He was recovering from his injuries and it was arranged that he should be taken back to London when his employer, a Captain Rye, sent private doctors to treat him. They diagnosed an advanced case of diabetes without testing him for the disease. They ordered insulin and supervised the injection themselves. The rector sank into a coma and died the next morning. Davidson’s widow refused to wear black and arrived for his funeral dressed in white. She wanted it to be a celebration of his amazing life.

Harold