Better Dead: McGurk's Suicide Hall
The Bowery in the late 1800’s was an impoverished and crime ridden place, especially foreboding when the sun went down. At night it was a land of men, respectable women didn't walk here. But men didn't come to the Bowery to find respectable women.
Bordering the squalid Five Points slum in the south and the East Village in the north it was New York City’s most notorious mile filled with dens of vice and sported the largest number of homeless drunks in the entire nation.
The elevated Third Avenue EL train tracks almost touched the cramped tenement buildings, casting a permanent shadow below, making the street murky and dangerous, benefiting all sorts of unsavory trades like pickpocketing, fencing of stolen goods and a sordid sex trade. The noisy EL trains rumbled past the holdouts from better days, a few German beer gardens, tattoo parlors, shabby pawn shops and a dirty string of Raines Law hotels.
Raines Law, established 1896, forbade the sale of liquor on Sundays, with the exception of guests of hotels. Intended to curb alcoholism this was a problematic loss of income for any saloon because the working man only had Sundays off to spend his meager wages.
In order to qualify for a hotel license and not having to shutter on their most profitable day, many saloons rented out their storage rooms and upstairs quarters as makeshift hotel rooms mostly to streetwalkers and their Johns. Nobody brought luggage, many “wives” checked in with several different “husbands” over the course of the evening.
Of all these seedy Raines law hotels, the title of the vilest was firmly bestowed on McGurk’s Saloon at 295 Bowery, between E. Houston and Bleeker Street.
John H. McGurk, a stout Irish lad from country Tyrone had immigrated in 1870 with his brother James and purchased the four stories narrow brick tenement at 295 Bowery and opened his saloon in 1895.
The front of McGurk’s establishment was an unfurnished gloomy bar that reeked of stale beer and was rarely patronized. However, the cavernous dimly-lit back room, separated by a partition, had over a hundred chairs, a piano and theatrical prints decorating the walls. McGurk’s was a rowdy dive, packed to the gills every night with sailors on shore leave, drunks, and crooks. The waiters and barkeeps sported some impressive felony records themselves. 5 cents bought some watered down whiskey and any bar fight could end up in a homicide. Even seasoned criminals got robbed at McGurk’s.
Head bouncer John McManus, a disgraced Boston Irish prize fighter nicknamed “Eat-em-up Jack”, kept the peace with a lead pipe and made sure the Johns paid the girls and the petty thieves working the crowd paid their cut to the house. Shot and stabbed on numerous occasions, McManus was the terror of the Bowery, a feared brawler, and a merciless wife beater.
“It is a wretched world where no man has a true friend”
McGurk’s Salon became quickly notorious as the place to meet very young ladies with very low morals. Plenty of wealthy gents and powerful politicians left their elegant parlors and came to the Bowery just for that. Far from the fancy bordellos of the Tenderloin district, the Bowery catered to darker vices.
Barkeeps were instructed to generously pour strong rum for any young girl down on her luck. Teenage runaways, young war widows, and desperately poor women were always welcome as long as they were pretty, but when their rosy cheeks and youthful looks faded which sometimes only took a few months of hard living, they had no admission anymore. For most of the poor, this was the lowest rung, the last stop, rock bottom. Economical depression and a bank collapse crippled the city in the 1890’s, times were hard, opportunities and employment became very scarce.
In 1889 newspapers started to report about a suicide craze amongst the most wretched of New York City.
In one week in March of 1899 alone, The New York Herald reported 3 suicide attempts in the back rooms of McGurk’s. One of them, a 15-year-old teenager named Emma Harting, attempted to kill herself by drinking carbolic acid but was saved in the nick of time by a German Mission a few doors down who had an outreach for the fallen daughters of the poor.
Carbolic Acid and a shot of Whiskey
Carbolic Acid, a sweet tasting but highly toxic liquid promised a sure but painful death for those determined to die. The poison causes severe caustic burns to the mouth and esophagus, excruciating abdominal pain, bloody vomit and convulsions leading to coma and death.
Like the Emerald-colored arsenic powder "Paris-Green", it was cheap and widely available as a disinfectant or rodenticide.
Urged on by her rescuers, young Emma volunteered testify in front of governor Theodore Roosevelt’s newly established Mazet Committee, which was tasked with investigating the widespread political and police corruption in the wards. Emma had worked at McGurk’s as a prostitute since she was 14. Emma could name prominent clients. John McGurk already had a charge on record for admitting minors where liquor was served after 15-year-old Mary Ormsby of 249 Spring Street was removed from the premises by the law, after having been found openly engaged in a non-specified vile and disgusting manner.
John McGurk was arrested on the charge of keeping and maintaining a disorderly establishment, an euphemism for running a whorehouse, but a man with his political connections didn’t have to worry. After he easily made bail, business at the now officially renamed “Suicide Hall” boomed. He proudly boasted more women killed themselves in his saloon than in any other place in the world.
“I never pushed a girl downhill anymore that I ever refused a helping hand ”
McGurk famously said to the press he had invited to the Bellevue hospital morgue, standing over the corpse of Tina Gordon, one of his bar room singers who had been popular for her sass and noted talent of sarcasm before she killed herself. Kneeling next to the dead girl McGurk stroked her hair and kissed her pale face sobbing for forgiveness. So overcome by grief and sorrow was he that he had to be helped from the room by the morgue attendants. McGurk wept frantically and pleaded to the Almighty to save her soiled soul and pledged to have her burial arranged to repent for his many sins.
The gathered press observed that his pangs of remorse only lasted for minutes.
The saloon never closed because of a death and the same night the raucous party continued on. Tina Gordon’s real name was Christina Koch, a witty German Canadian beauty who had come to New York with big dreams to become an actress before her luck ran out on the Bowery.
Weeks later two more of McGurk’s soiled doves made headlines. Blonde Madge Davenport and her girlfriend Big Mame made a pact to end it together. After a shot of Whiskey chased with carbolic acid, Blonde Madge died an awfully gory death but Mame missed and spilled the corrosive acid on her face and ended up grotesquely disfigured. She was barred for life from McGurks for upsetting the customers.
“Better Dead” said the inscription on the doorway of McGurk
McGurk had made a great success of himself. The morbid notoriety of his Suicide Hall made him rich and so popular he had one of the first electric signs installed advertising it. He owned three or four more Raines law saloons including the equally unsavory Oxford Hotel at 303 Bowery, a dive where local politicians met in back rooms and the occasional dead body upstairs never seem to shock anyone.
McGurk himself lived far from the squalor in an upscale Gramercy brownstone at tony 209 E. 18th Street with his pious young English wife Louisa, their little daughter Agnes Martina and a 17-year-old Irish servant girl.
But the suicides wouldn't end. In the fall of 1899 a terrible wave of influenza swept the city and in the dire and cold days of October, two young girls decided to end it all at McGurks. On a freezing morning in December, Jenny Kellar, 28, returned home from a night at McGurk’s and killed herself in her room at 178 Chrystie street by taking a lethal dose of 2 ounces of carbolic acid.
By the end of 1899 alone, 10 had attempted suicide and six more girls had succeeded, most of them still teenagers. To avoid a constant police presence in the saloon, the bouncers were instructed to quickly remove any inebriated girl suspected of taking poison and to leave her on the corner of First Street and the Bowery, nicknamed “Suicide Corner”.
McGurks spawned a sort of suicide tourism, fueled by many newspapers articles of tragic tales. Postcards with the names of the dead women were popular souvenirs and can still be found in sailor retirement homes around the world.
At McGurk’s, a swig of whiskey chased by a shot of sweet smelling acid could relieve the wretched of all of their pain.
The price of doing this sort of business in the Bowery was to grease the local cops and politicians. Suicide Hall had long been the festering thorn in the side of social reformers who were itching to clean up the Bowery. New elections brought new political leadership which spelled disaster for McGurk. In 1902 the new police chief of the 5th precinct James “Terror of the Tenderloin” Churchill had it out for McGurk and came after him with all he had.
Because of some violent brawls, Suicide Hall was repeatedly subjected to the biggest police raids the city had ever seen. The constant harassment and arrests of patrons hemorrhaged so much business that McGurk hastily sold the salon to an upstate German named George Schneider who announced his intention to transform the wretched dive into a family resort by proclaiming “no more suicides!”
But it was too late. McGurk was arrested again January 21st, 1902 again on charges of running a disorderly house. This time it stuck.
Faking illness, John McGurk fled with wife Louisa and their now 16-year-old daughter to California, fortifying $1,000 bail. The family started a very comfortable new life in the temperance-minded town of Riverside amongst orange groves, aided by the half a million dollars (the equivalent of roughly 14 Million today) he had cashed out from his various Raines law dives.
The man who had run the worst establishment in the worst part of New York was apparently deeply offended when his only daughter was rejected from her convent school because apparently, the nuns had gotten wind of his sordid past.
Even bouncer “Eat-em-up” Jack, described as “one of the worst men the Bowery ever knew” eventually met his fate. In 1905 he finally lost a brawl. He had just opened his own bar when he challenged a gangster over a woman. When he lay dying in the gutter with a cracked skull he cried for his wife Gertrude, a woman he had so viciously battered, her face was permanently disfigured.
Deaf Lilly, one of McGurk's notorious soiled doves, was beaten to death over a suitor by her common law husband in her room in a run down boarding house the same year.
John H. McGurk died in California of a heart attack in 1913, a few months short of turning 60.
The former Suicide Hall changed ownership several times and became a bare bulb flop house known as Liberty Hotel.
In 1960 it was rented out as a bare bones artists lofts without kitchens or working bathrooms. Two bohemian women artist moved in and lived there for 38 years. Kate Millett, an Oxford educated activist, champion of women’s rights and feminist writer (Sexual Politics) and her Japanese husband sculptor Fumio Yosimura rented the top floor and a full floor studio from the city for $300, artist and photographer Sophie Keir rented the huge second floor for $200. Within a few years, the building had five full-time tenants, including the two children of Fineline tattoo artist Michael Bataky, who were born on site with the help of a midwife.
In gritty 1973 Columbia University art student Liz Christy created the first community garden in McGurk's back yard on the corner of E Houston street. Liz and a group of volunteers cleaned up the abandoned lot adjacent to 295 Bowery and planted a lush garden with a small turtle pond, resident cats, trees, and pretty vines creeping up the walls of the former Suicide Hall. Liz and her Green Gorillas transformed many abandoned lots into cherished community gardens. Sadly Liz died young of lung cancer in 1985, but her first garden will always be named in her honor.
Fast forward to the 1990's, when 295 Bowery ended up in the crosshairs of real estate developers. Sticking out like a sore thumb amongst vacant lots, surrounded by industrial kitchen supply and lamp stores on a dreary block. The Cooper Square Urban Renewal Project proposed clearing some of the old tenement buildings and combining lots for large modern residential projects. In the late 1999’s the residents fought eviction by attempting to landmark Suicide Hall to save it from redevelopment. Neighborhood activists held fundraisers, hung signage off the building and rallied to save the site but the city sided with the developers. Unfortunately, all attempts to save McGurk's former salon failed because the building was deemed not historically or architecturally noteworthy. The wrecking ball came 2005 and the building was demolished to make way for the construction of a modern luxury apartment building. Liz Christy's garden was spared.
Avalon Bowery Place, a luxury rental building stands on the very spot where more than a dozen women suffered an agonizing death. It has been 115 years since the last drink was poured at the Suicide Hall, but here is to you ladies, may you finally sleep in peace.