Out of the Ashes…

Monday, March 25th, 2013 passed for most people as an ordinary day.  People went to work and returned home safe and sound, but 102 years ago, the day ended differently for a group of workers in New York City.  Some of them have never left the building they died in.

Asch Building (1911)Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Asch Building (1911)
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Asch Building (foreground above), at the intersections of Washington Place and Greene Street, housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on its top three floors in 1911.   A shirtwaist was the name for the blouses made popular by the Gibson girls in that era.

Artist: Gibson, Charles Dana, 1867-1944 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Artist: Gibson, Charles Dana, 1867-1944 Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The executives offices were located on the 10th floor.  The 8th and 9th floors were large open spaces with most of the sewers occupying big long rows of machines on the 9th. Most of the employees were young, immigrant women who counted themselves lucky to be sewing rather than standing for 14 hours in a department store or in a dangerous, stifling commercial laundry.  Still they worked 52 hours or more a week, Monday through Saturday producing 10-12,000 shirts a week.

Moods ran high on March 25th, 1911 because quitting time came sooner on Saturdays. On the 8th floor at 4:40 p.m., as employees gathered their coats and belongings, supervisors started to pass out paychecks, and someone threw a cigarette butt into one of the bins.  The tissue paper and scrap fabric burst into a ball of fire.  People grabbed buckets of water that were on hand as required, but the materials were too flammable, rendering the water useless.  The flames quickly engulfed the main exit area, so people ran to the rear exit, but workers had to wait for a manager to come and unlock the door.  Brave elevator operators made as many trips as possible until the fire blocked their way.  Someone on the 8th floor alerted the 10th floor executive offices of the fire, but the switchboard operator then dropped the phone, leaving no one able to call the 9th floor.

Most of the people on the 10th floor followed the owners through the dense smoke in the main stairwell to the roof.  They were dismayed to find that their building was shorter than the New York University building next door.  Fortunately a professor, leading a lecture, noticed the fire, and he and his students rushed to the roof and lowered ladders rescuing everyone there.

Sewing room, shirt factory, Troy, N.Y. -Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Sewing room, shirt factory, Troy, N.Y. –
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The sewers worked in a room that encompassed the building’s entire ninth floor, similar to the Troy, NY factory depicted above.  Machines hummed until 4:45 p.m. when the quitting bell sounded. That’s when the fire reached them.  Flame and smoke blocked the main entrance, so people rushed to the only other staircase but found the exit door locked. No one had a key.

Some of the girls remembered the fire escape that hung on the inside airshaft of the building.  Fire danced up from the eighth floor making it a harrowing journey down. The  rungs measured only 18 inches wide.  Abe Gordon, a button puncher, saw that there were no exits at the bottom of the air shaft, so he kicked through a 6th floor window.  As he pulled his foot off the balcony, his clothes smoking, he heard a grinding screech followed by shrill screams as the fire escape collapsed, sending 24 souls to their death by falling onto the spiked iron fence at the bottom or through the basement skylight.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Firemen arrived at 4:47 p.m. to bodies crashing to the pavement.  They looked up to see faces pressed against the ninth floor windows with flames behind them.  The firemen extended their ladder to the sky, but it stopped at the sixth floor, 30 feet too short.  They held out catch blankets for the jumpers, but the force of the fall ripped the blankets from the rescuers hands, and most victims died on impact.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

One woman, surrounded by flames, tossed her new hat into the air, dumped her money on to the crowd below, and jumped.  Another man helped women up on to the windowsill, so they could jump. One of the women he embraced tightly and gently lowered her to her death.  A United Press reporter, William Shepherd, who arrived with the first fire truck, described the man “…as if he were helping them into a streetcar instead of into eternity.” Twenty-one people jumped from the Washington Place side of the building, while another thirty-three jumped or fell from the Greene Street side.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The last body fell at 4:57 pm.  Seventeen minutes after the fire began, 146 people were dead or dying.  Most were young women between the ages of 16 and 23. Authorities established a morgue on the pier at East 26th Street, opening the doors to the public at midnight.  Through the night wails of grief echoed in the cavernous space as more than 6,000 people an hour wandered “Misery Lane”.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Asch Building, now the Brown Building belonging to New York University, still stands and has a history of hauntings. People of have smelt burnt flesh, smoke, and heard screams in foreign languages. Some have seen bodies on the sidewalk. A woman has been seen running in terror down the hallway.  A friend of mine who attended NYU did not experience such dramatic events, but she did say that there were unexplained noises, lights would turn on and off, and the energy of the building was very somber and oppressive.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Until September 11th, 2001, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in New York’s history in terms of loss of life. Although the evidence indicated that supervisors locked the workers in, the factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, were found not guilty of manslaughter. They would later lose a civil suit and owe $75 per victim.

The victims though did not die in vain. This event shaped the future of New York City, and  fire equipment and fire codes changed for the better. Out of the ashes Unions grew more powerful and so too worker’s rights. No longer could workers be locked in their work place.  Every year on March 25th, the city’s unions pay their respects at the intersection of Washington Place and Greene Street, and the fire trucks arrive and shoot their ladders to the sky to say that we will never forget.

Trade parade in memory of fire victims - Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Trade parade in memory of fire victims – Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Crime of the Century

Today’s blog post is an excerpt from my book Ghosts and Murders of Manhattan from Arcadia Publishing, to be released the week of July 29, 2013.

Madness and murder visited Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906.  A syndicate of wealthy men built this the second Garden in 1890 at 26th Street, overlooking Madison Square Park.  The architect, Stanford White, incorporated Moorish characteristics in the Beaux Arts structure. White occupied a studio in the tower for his work, and he would die in the rooftop restaurant.


Madison Square Garden Btwn 1900-1910, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Madison Square Garden Btwn 1900-1910, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Stanford White, born in New York in 1853, studied architecture in Europe.  Using elements of Italian Renaissance, he composed a new style called Free Classical.  Designing banks, the Boston Public Library, the Washington Square Arch, and private residences made him rich in the 1890s. Although married, he grew interested in the 16-year-old model and showgirl, Evelyn Nesbit.  At age 47 he convinced Nesbit’s mother he wanted only to be a benefactor.

Stanford White (1892)

Stanford White (1892)

Evelyn Nesbit’s beauty and talent attracted White.  An artist first discovered her at the age of 14 and turned her into the most recognizable fashion model of the period.  Growing up poor and fatherless, she must have been dazzled by White’s wealth. When her mother went out of town, White plied her with alcohol and took her virginity.

Evelyn Nesbit (1900) Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Evelyn Nesbit (1900) Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Nesbit also gained the attention of millionaire Harry K. Thaw who had a history of mental illness.  When she appeared in a show called “The Wild Rose”, Thaw attended 40 performances and begged to marry her.  Knowing he valued chastity, she divulged her experiences with White.  The revelation unhinged him. He imprisoned, beat, and raped her. Despite her ordeal, Nesbit married Thaw, knowing that her reputation was ruined because of White.

Harry K. Thaw (Btwn 1910-1915) Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Harry K. Thaw (Btwn 1910-1915) Courtesy of the Library of Congress

On June 25, 1906 Harry K. Thaw booked tickets to a revue at Madison Square Garden’s rooftop restaurant.  At the last minute, Stanford White changed his plans and took his regular seat to watch the show.  At 11:00 p.m., Thaw approached White from behind and fired three times, killing White instantly.  Raising the gun high in triumph, Thaw allowed himself to be carried to the Tombs prison where crowds would gather. Newspapers dubbed his case the “Trial of the Century”, and it would end in a hung jury.  His second jury found him guilty by reason of insanity. He never regretted the killing, convincing himself he had avenged his wife’s honor.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Thaw Jury - Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Thaw Jury – Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Although sentenced to life at the Matteawan State Hospital for the criminally insane, Thaw was declared sane on July 16, 1915.  The following December, Thaw met 18-year-old Frederick Gump in Kansas City and earned the trust of Gump’s family, convincing them he would pay for their son’s education.  Gump arrived in New York City on Christmas Eve, 1916, and Thaw directed him to the Hotel McAlpin.

Hotel McAlpin (Btwn 1910 and 1920) Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Hotel McAlpin (Btwn 1910 and 1920) Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Early Christmas morning, Thaw entered Gump’s bedroom and attacked the boy, whipping him into a bloody mess. Thaw stepped out, leaving his bodyguard in charge, but Gump escaped.  Thaw went into hiding at this boarding house in Philadelphia. On January 11th he attempted suicide by slashing his throat and was sent to Kirkbride Asylum in Philadelphia until 1924.  Thaw died in 1947 at age 76.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Ghost Hunter, The Witch, and The Actress

June Havoc (1952)

June Havoc (1952) Courtesy of The Library of Congress

Lucy Ryan began wandering a patch of ground on West 44th Street in New York City in 1792 when there were only farming fields and forests.  The street didn’t get built until the mid-1800s, and no one knew Lucy’s name until after the actress, June Havoc, bought the still quaint brick townhouse between Ninth and Tenth Avenues.

June was the star of vaudeville, movies, and Broadway, and the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee. She bought the house in the 1960’s, rented out the top floors, and moved into the ground floor apartment.  As Lucy had done with past tenants, she harnessed her energy and began rapping on the floor of the kitchen, usually around 3 a.m. Havoc called in an architect, a plumber, and a carpenter who found nothing structurally wrong with the building to explain the noise.


Gypsy Rose Lee (1956)Courtesy of The Library of Congress

Gypsy Rose Lee (1956) Courtesy of The Library of Congress


June shared her sleepless nights on her television show, and a viewer put her in touch with the renowned paranormal researcher, Hans Holzer.  Holzer who had a doctorate in parapsychology published more than 100 books in his lifetime.

Hans Book

Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond

According to Holzer’s book, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, Holzer arranged multiple séances beginning in January of 1965 at Havoc’s home and one even aired on her television show.   He felt that productive ghost hunting could only occur with the help of a legitimate, gifted medium, and in this case he chose to work with an English woman named Sybil Leek.  Due to her upbringing and a stint traveling with Romany Gypsies, Leek became involved with witchcraft and authored many books on the occult and was called by the BBC Britain’s most famous witch.

The ghost announced its presence shortly after Holzer arrived in the apartment by tapping below the floorboards at the rear of the house.  Later when Leek dropped into trance, the spirit spoke through her lamenting how hungry she was.  She identified herself as Lucy Ryan.  She said she was 20 years old and the year was 1792.  Asking how she had gotten there she replied, “Came…people set us away…soldiers…follow them….sent me away…” [1] When asked which regiment, Lucy said “Napier”[2] which Holzer later identified as possibly being the Office George Napier who had fought for the British during the American War for Independence.   She also said he knew a solider named Alfred Bailey, that he left her, and she came to this place.  When asked why, she said, “They made me come. Picked me up.  Man brought me here. Put me down on the ground.”[3]  When asked if she had died on that spot.  She replied, “Die? Die? I’m not dead. I’m hungry.”[4]

At the end of the trance, the group, including Leek, Holzer, and Havoc, gathered around a table, which began to move and lift.  The tapping from earlier resumed, and through a lengthy communication process, they determined that the energy spelled out the word “leave”.

In later trance sessions, Hungry Lucy as she became known, revealed that her soldier, Bailey, had promised to meet her at 3:00 a.m., but he never came, and she waited for him still.  Then in March 1965 at a final séance, it appeared that Lucy had finally crossed over, and now Alfred came through.

When asked about Lucy, he said, “She didn’t get any food, and then she got cold by the river. [5]

“…Nobody helped them there by the river. Let them die. Buried them in a pit.”[6]

During outbreaks of yellow fever and other epidemics, bodies were buried in New York City in mass graves.  Perhaps this was Lucy’s fate, and when part of her story came to light, it appeared to release her, for ever since the séances with the Ghost Hunter, the Witch, and the Actress, the residents at number 428 all sleep peacefully with full tummies.

[1] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 257
[2] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 257
[3] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 258
[4] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 258,
[5] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 262
[6] Holzer, Hans, Ghosts: True Encounters with the World Beyond, (New York, NY, Blackdog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. 1997), p 262

The Palace Theatre’s Gang of Ghosts

Palace Theatre

Opening in 1913, the Palace (tallest building above) became a premier vaudeville theater. When an act played the Palace they knew they had hit the big time.  Performer Jack Haley once wrote:

The walk through the iron gate on 47th Street through the courtyard to the stage door, was the cum laude walk to a show business diploma. A feeling of ecstasy came with the knowledge that this was the Palace, the epitome of the more than 15,000 vaudeville theaters in America, and the realization that you have been selected to play it. Of all the thousands upon thousands of vaudeville performers in the business, you are there. This was a dream fulfilled; this was the pinnacle of Variety success.

Helen Keller

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini

Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman

Up until the 1930s stars such as Helen Keller, Harry Houdini, Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, and Ethel Merman graced its stage until the popularity of motion pictures turned it into a high-class movie house.  In the 1950’s it attempted to reclaim its live-theatrical roots with stellar performances by Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.  It began producing legitimate Broadway productions in 1965 with the opening of Sweet Charity, and stars continue to grace its stage.

BossalinaHowever, some acts have refused to bow out. The most famous ghost is thought to be Louis Bossalina, who is the second from the left in this picture from an article published in The Reading Eagle on March 31, 1935.  (His name was apparently misspelled as Borsalino in a New York Times article in 1935, and the misspelling stuck.)  The article reported how Bossalina fell 18 feet to the stage while performing with the acrobatic team, The Four Casting Pearls on August 27, 1935.  They leapt from stationary positions without nets, and Louis, the team captain, missed the hands of his partner while performing a double summersault, a move his team called “The Death Loop”.  He suffered a fractured pelvis and internal bleeding.  It was thought he died because stories abound that stagehands have seen his ghost swinging from the dress circle rim.  Some people have heard him scream and seen him fall.  Actually I believe I found his obituary in his hometown paper, The Reading Eagle, and it listed his death as August 4th, 1963, at the age of 61.  Perhaps the paranormal activity is a residual haunting as a result of the dramatic nature of the accident.

Bing Crosby singing for the troops.

Bossalina isn’t the only ghost in the majestic theater.  Other phantoms seen include a sad little girl who looks down from the Mezzanine and a little boy who plays with toy trucks. There is also a man in a brown suit who walks past the House Manager’s office door at night after the audience has left.  In 1995 an actor in the cast of Beauty and the Beast saw a white-gowned cellist in the orchestra pit vanish during a performance.  Intrigued cast members invited the famous psychic, Elizabeth Baron, to do a reading of the theater, which she conducted on October 6th, 1995.  As Baron sat down, she became overwhelmed by the impression of more than 103 souls.  One included the singer, Bing Crosby (performing for the troops above), who conveyed his remorse at how he had treated his children in life.  Baron went on to say that many of the spirits were full of pain, worry, and unhappiness and were stuck in their stubbornness in not wanting to leave the theater.  Some of the ghosts wouldn’t go on to a higher dimension until they make it right with people left behind, so when she finished her reading, the psychic asked cast members to pray for those stuck behind.  A moving account of the reading is told by her daughter on Ms Barron’s official website:


The Real Boston Strangler From Bank Street, NY

Bank Street

Bucolic Bank Street in the neighborhood of Greenwich Village in New York City features both stories of ghosts and murderers.  This week’s longer post focuses on one of the most notorious serial killers from the 1960s who lived on the quiet street. On June 14, 1962, Anna E. Slesers became the first of 13 murder victims attributed to one killer that the press dubbed The Boston Strangler.


In March of 1965, Albert DeSalvo confessed to be the Boston Strangler. However DeSalvo never stood trial for a single murder because the authorities did not have enough physical evidence to try him.  When DeSalvo confessed, he was facing a life sentence for crimes called the Greenman Molestations in Connecticut, and he had been heard saying that he hoped to make money from his notoriety.  In the 1960s any money paid to a murderer for interviews and book deals could be kept, and DeSalvo had a wife and children to support.


In November 1973, DeSalvo called the original psychiatrist that had interviewed him when he confessed, Dr. Ames Robey, who had always doubted DeSalvo’s claims.  DeSalvo asked the psychiatrist to come the prison right away and bring a reporter because he wanted to tell what really went on with the Boston Stranglings.   Dr. Robey agreed, but when he and the reporter arrived at the jail the next morning on November 26, 1973, he learned that someone stabbed Albert to death during the night.

Crime Tape

What was DeSalvo going to say?  We’ll never know, but doubts continue to be raised over whether or not DeSalvo was the strangler. Recent DNA testing between him and one of the victims did not prove a match.  A theory suggests that one man committed the first six murders, which occurred between June 14th and August 30th, 1962, and that the next seven slayings were copycat crimes.  The modus operandi of the murders changed: The first six victims were all over the age of 50 while nearly all of the next seven victims were under the age of 30, and elements at the later crime scenes differed as well.

Times Square 1962

On May 30th, 1963, just steps from Times Square (pictured here months before) at the beautiful Woodstock Hotel, a maid discovered Zenovia Clegg, age 62, dead.  She had been strangled with her own scarf, her body was molested, and her room ransacked.  Using matchbooks they found in her room, police determined she had dined alone at a restaurant in Greenwich Village earlier in the evening.  Afterward witnesses saw her conversing with a tall, thin young man who got in a taxicab with her.

Terry Sketch

Using a new technique for rendering witness description composites, the police distributed the above sketch, which led to the apprehension of Charles E. Terry.  Terry left Maine in 1961 after serving time for the assault of a 50-year-old woman.  Although a suspect in the strangulation murder of Shirley Coulin in Brunswick, Maine, Terry moved to Boston and lived there until August 30, 1962. On that day, the same day that the sixth Boston Strangler murder occurred, he relocated to a house on Bank Street in Greenwich Village in New York City.


Thomas Cavanagh, the detective that inspired the television show Kojak (played by Telly Savalas above) elicited from Terry a solid confession of Clegg’s murder.  After reviewing all of the evidence from the Times Square hotel murder, Cavanagh reviewed Terry’s background and compared it to the open murder cases in Boston, and he became convinced he had the Boston Strangler in custody.  In fact, Lieutenant John J. Donovan of Boston traveled to New York City, but Terry refused to talk with him so the Lieutenant returned to Boston where the world would later turn its attention to Albert DeSalvo.  Terry died in prison in 1981, but according to an Associated Press story by Dan Sewell in 1993, Detective Cavanagh never forgot the case.  In fact Cavanagh gathered fellow retired detectives together to research the murders.  They confirmed that Terry’s New York murder resembled the first six Boston murders in that the victims were all strangled with a ligature tied into an elaborate bow.  They were all over the age of 50, their bodies staged and violated in a macabre fashion, and the crime scenes were ransacked but nothing was taken. Cavanagh experienced much resistance from the Boston police when he tried to resolve the cases, and he died on August 2, 1996 without proving his assertions, but I believe he discovered the true identity of the Boston Strangler.