When my editor asked me to write a new historical detective series with a female protagonist, my first thought was to set it in New York, where I live. I thought I knew something of the city’s history, having happily wandered its streets for many years in search of historical treasures – old buildings, secrets hidden in dark alleys, street names reminiscent of its Dutch past – even visiting the caves once inhabited by its natives. people, the Lenape tribe, who gave their name to Manhattan (“the island of many hills”).
I am a frequent visitor to the New York Historical Society and the Museum of the City of New York; I had two friends who were city tour guides. I thought research would be a breeze, so much easier than my deep dive into Edinburgh’s past for my Ian Hamilton mysteries. I love Edinburgh, but I am only a visitor there; I have spent most of my life in New York. And, after all, New York is a fairly young city compared to Scotland’s former capital, with human settlers recorded as early as 8500. A piece of cake, isn’t it?
Wrong. Oh, so, very badly. New York is an onion with endless overlapping layers. I could study it for the rest of my life and only scratch the surface of what there is to know. It is vast, deep and endless – its importance to our country and to the world can hardly be overstated. It is, and has been for centuries now, the city at the center of the world – a trendsetter in art and music, theater, finance, capitalism, fashion and , dare I say, of the future.
But I am now preoccupied with traveling to his past. And to help those of you who might be so inclined, here are just a few of the many invaluable books that have helped me on this journey.
David Oshinsky, Bellevue: three centuries of medicine and chaos in America’s most famous hospital
The subtitle of Nice view, David Oshinsky’s masterful historical account of Bellevue Hospital reads: “Three centuries of medicine and chaos in America’s tallest hospital.” It’s no exaggeration to call what happened at the country’s oldest hospital “chaos.” In its early days, the constant parade of shipwrecks, drunks and delinquents was matched only by the equally pervasive presence of disease, disaster and despair.
But by the time Bellevue took off in the late 19th century, it was a bustling center of innovation, with brilliant surgeons like Valentine Mott and William Halsted (who battled cocaine addiction much of his life). It was also the home of Frank Hamilton, an arrogant physician whose refusal to follow the principles of antiseptic medicine already widely used in Europe led to the death of President Garfield. After the president was shot by the deranged Charles Guiteau, Hamilton and others probed the wound with unwashed fingers, likely causing the blood infection that ultimately killed the president.
Bellevue has played a role in many pivotal events in the city’s and country’s history, hosting too many celebrities to mention. Stephen Foster died there, as did Huddie William Ledbetter, the musician better known as Lead Belly. Dilapidation and neglect continue to haunt the corridors of the hospital today, even under the leadership of the great Stephen Smith, who was instrumental in bringing down the notorious Boss Tweed, Tammany Hall’s corrupt figurehead.
The history of Bellevue is, in many ways, the history of New York. I recommend it to any writer of historical fiction based there – and to history students everywhere.
Tyler Anbinderfive points: The 19th-century New York neighborhood that invented tap dancing, stole the election and became the world’s most notorious slum
Tyler Anbinder’s engaging and lively cover image Five Points depicts the overcrowding and chaos common to one of the world’s most legendary slums, but fails to capture its misery and violence. No one had a better eye for poverty and misery than Charles Dickens, and his account of the place, written in 1841, is famous:
Let’s resume…and…dive into the Five Points…. We saw no beggars on the street by night or day, but other kinds of walkers aplenty. Poverty, misery and vice are quite widespread where we are going now.
This is the place – these narrow paths, diverging right and left, and everywhere reeking of dirt and grime. The lives we lead here bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The rude, puffy faces at the gates have counterparts at home and around the world. Debauchery prematurely aged the houses themselves. See how the rotting beams crumble and how the patched and shattered windows seem to scow weakly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken scrums. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in the privilege of crawling? And why are they talking instead of growling?
Growling indeed. To Dickens, and to many people living outside the Five Points, its people must have looked little better than pigs. They were poor, elderly, sick and disenfranchised immigrants, trapped among the criminal elements who attacked them. They were the workers who worked the dirty and unforgiving streets, the prostitutes and the chimney sweeps, the laborers and the seamstresses who took the jobs no one else wanted – as well as those whose only job was crime.
The triangular area, encompassing part of today’s Chinatown, as well as part of the judicial district, was the epicenter of all social injustice and inequality in an increasingly divided city. The full title of the book says it all. Five Points: The 19th-century New York neighborhood that invented tap dancing, stole the election, and became the world’s most notorious slum.
It’s as close to a page-turner as any history book can get – I hope it becomes part of your permanent collection, as it has mine.
The first time I read Lucy Sante Low Life: Lures and Traps of Old New York my first thought was. “Wow! How can someone keep so much information in their head?” This was shortly after the book was published, almost twenty years ago.
Nobody can make a list like Health. His prose coils, twists and turns like a hungry snake in search of its own tail. Here she describes gang warfare on the Lower East Side: “These battles went on for days on end, with the amalgamated gangs massed behind barricades of stacked carts and cobblestones, fighting with every weapon then available: fists , feet, teeth, truncheons, bricks, stones, knives, pistols, muskets, many times even cannons.
For the writer looking for a deep dive into the seedy underbelly of Olde New York, there can be no better reference book than Sante’s.
Tom Miller, In Search of New York: The Stories Behind Manhattan’s Historic Architecture, One Building at a Time
Historical photographs by Tom Miller, beautifully illustrated and annotated In search of New York are numerous, but even more appealing are Jenny Seddon’s charming pen-and-ink drawings of the buildings at the top of each chapter. The book is organized by neighborhoods: Chinatown, Murray Hill, Harlem, etc. Miller weaves the architectural details of the buildings seamlessly into a concise historical narrative of each, along with fascinating facts about the surrounding neighborhoods and streets. The book begs for a sequel – out of necessity many wonderful and important structures were left out – the Puck Building, the Chrysler Building, the Hamilton Grange, to name a few. Regardless, there is so much to enjoy and ponder, many hours of fascinating reading.
I was also pleased to see that Miller is a fellow Buckeye, having emigrated from Dayton shortly before I moved to the East Coast myself. He might even be a cousin – I have Millers on my father’s side of the family! In any case, I hope he plans a sequel.
He has a blog: http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/
I am already subscribed. I hope you too.
The Fascinating and Complete Story of Esther Crain New York’s Golden Age is packed with information presented in lively and graceful prose. The first paragraph gives a brilliant overview of a city on the move:
In 1866, New York’s population of just over 800,000 was concentrated below 23rd Street. Residents rode the cobbled roads in horse-drawn carriages and lit their homes with candles and gas lamps. The tallest structure in what could barely be called a skyline was the 281-foot spire of Trinity Church on lower Broadway. For entertainment, New Yorkers paid twenty-five cents to gaze at the sights of the Barnum Museum near City Hall, or they attended one of the Theater District musicals on Broadway near Union. Square. Reaching the new Central Park from downtown required a long horse-drawn carriage ride on bumpy Fifth Avenue past open fields; crossing the East River to the city of Brooklyn meant boarding a ferry. In 1900, the City of the Empire had become the Imperial City. New arrivals poured in from all over the world and helped bring the population to 3.4 million. Wealth generated by Wall Street and industrial labor fueled a housing boom of opulent Fifth Avenue mansions, gabled-roof apartments and rows of shabby apartment buildings. Electric streetlights bathed the nighttime sidewalks in a brilliant glow, especially along the new downtown theater district as you approach 42nd Street. Steel-framed office towers rose twenty stories and hugged the skies. Along the metropolis were elevated railway tracks, paved avenues, and a graceful bridge surrounded by steel cables. Trains and cable cars transported the growing middle class from the new downtown residential enclaves of Harlem and Brooklyn to their jobs downtown and Sunday outings to Coney Island. At the dawn of the 20th century, New York was teeming with beauty, power and possibility.
His mastery of his subject is evident from his wide range of sources. In the first chapter, we find quotes from Walt Whitman and George Templeton Strong, as well as a young soldier asking his mother to send more cake to the battlefield. There are also excerpts from New York Timesthe New York Herald, and The Brooklyn Eagle. We get a glimpse of the three Booth brothers on stage together a few years before John Wilkes’ terrible act. She brings the project’s riots to life in all their horror and tragedy. Each chapter is accompanied by color illustrations to accompany the text, in the form of period photographs and paintings.