Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Incurables

Then I started wondering about the location of the terrible-sounding Home for Incurables where Ella Wesner and her sister Mary spent their last days.  I ruled out the first Home for Incurables I came across, because it was founded in the Bronx.  It became St. Barnabas Hospital, still in the Bronx today.  The Faith Home for Incurables, at Park Place & Classon, though relatively close to Ella's Clinton Hill home, was also in the wrong borough.  I then considered the Free Church Home for Incurables at 149 Second Avenue (9th Street), in today's East Village, but it closed in 1915, two years before Ella's death. The only real possibility was the Hospital for Incurables on Blackwell's Island.  The name was a little different, but it was the only hospital I could find within the boundaries of Manhattan that fit the date.  If anyone can solve the mystery for sure, I'd love to know. 

New York Times, December 16, 1869

NYC Department of Records & Information Services

In addition to the Hospital for Incurables other nineteenth-century facilities on the island included a penitentiary, an almshouse, a workhouse, a charitable hospital and an asylum for the insane. What a grim place of exile for the city's unwanted.

Attached to the Almshouse are the Hospitals for Incurables, which consists 
of two one-story buildings, 175 feet long, and 25 feet wide. One is devoted 
to men and the other to women. In these buildings are quartered those who 
are afflicted with incurable diseases, but who require no medical attention.

Brooklyn Genealogy

Through the years of the Almshouse and its related entities, Blackwell’s Island name also changed. It became Welfare Island in 1921, a name chosen to reflect the large number of institutions it held.
Institutions included the Almshouse, Charity Hospital, Metropolitan Hospital, City Home, the City
Hospital, Welfare Hospital, Central and Neurological Hospital, The Children’s Clearing Bureau and the Incurable Hospital. In 1968 residential development began on the island, thus ending the era of the Almshouse. To reflect the changing times, in 1973 Welfare Island was given its present name, Roosevelt Island. One hospital from the Almshouse era continues to function on the island, NYC Health &Hospitals Corporation/Coler, formed by the merging of Bird S. Coler Hospital and Goldwater Memorial Hospitals (formerly Welfare Hospital).  (National Archives)

The Museum of the City of New York has a number of photographs of Blackwell's Island in its collection.  They don't show the Hospital for Incurables, but they certainly summon the spirit of place.

Blackwell's Island, The Female Almhouse - Jacob A. Riis, ca. 1890

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.), ca. 1896

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

On Stage: Ella Wesner

Ella Wesner and British-born Annie Hindle were the most popular male impersonators of the 1870s and 80s.  Wesner, born in the States in 1841, grew up in a family of vaudeville singers and dancers, and began performing as a child.  She is said to have worked as a dresser for Hindle at one time, and to have begun working as a male impersonator in the 1860s.  In 1870 she debuted at the theater of vaudeville impresario Tony Pastor. Her stage career ran until the turn of the century.

Brooklyn Eagle, March 1875

Both Wesner, "the veteran personator of swells" (Eagle) and Hindle were known for their 'realistic' impersonations, and described as convincingly masculine in appearance: "(Wesner) might easily walk Broadway in male attire without her sex being suspected" (The Clipper).  Gillian Rodger, in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, describes the routines and performance styles of male impersonation in the period. Performing in the mid-to-late 1800s, women such as Wesner and Hindle were allowed far greater sexual license & freedom of gender expression in male costume than in women's - both as artists and as queer individuals.  They could play themselves as well as the characters they impersonated.  Rodgers suggests that a strong element of their appeal to male audiences also lay in their varied and sympathetic constructions of class and masculinity.

Both Wesner and Hindle had publicly-known relationships with women. Hindle was married three times.  The third time - identifying herself as Charles - she married her dresser, Annie Ryan.  Details of the marriage were revealed in the popular press, but the two lived openly together until Ryan's death in 1891.  In 1872, Wesner, who was fast becoming a stage sensation, caused a scandal by eloping to Paris with Helen "Josie" Mansfield, mistress of both the Gilded Age Robber Baron Jim Fiske, and his murderer Edward S. Stokes.  The romance cooled however, and Wesner returned to perform in the States in 1873.  Any other relationships Wesner may have had with women went unreported.

The Eagle has adverts for a number of Wesner's performances in Brooklyn theaters. "Streams of Overjoyed People at Every Performance" boasts a notice for a 1889 show at the Gaiety Theater on Fulton near Hoyt.

By this time, however, Wesner's career may have peaked.  A few years later, in 1896, her billing is a sad one:

"Among the performers will be Ella Wesner, who used to be the best male impersonator on the stage."

Gillian Rodger traces a change in society's attitudes towards male impersonation towards the end of the nineteenth century.  The masculinity that Wesner and Hindle embodied (and their audiences embraced) was no longer deemed acceptable.  Impersonators were expected to be seen as women 'playing' and never convincingly presenting themselves as men.  "Mannishness" was not welcome; a more feminine portrayal of manhood was required, as was (at least overtly) a clearer distinction between an impersonator's stage performance and a conventionally acceptable private life.

Ella Wesner gave her last performance in 1902. Her last home was a Clinton Hill brownstone; she died in 1917, in the Home for the Incurables.  She asked to be buried in one of her stage costumes.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 12th, 1917

Photographs - NYPL Digital Collections

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Living with Buildings

"But I had my own defensive magic in place, the routine of walking unresolved problems out into the city, eavesdropping on random incidents, forcing connections, and carrying annotations and photographs back to the house in which I had lived for fifty years.  If we are to sustain a relationship with the buildings that precede us, we must solicit their tolerance of our intrusion.  Structures ripped down leave a cloud of active dust.  New builds are hungry for narrative.  When that equation falters, we sicken, and search for scapegoats among the developers and architects.  But the buildings and their interior spaces, bedrooms, corridors, kitchens, become evolving self-portraits, visions of how we see our better selves.  Working or resting, we shape who we are, and are shaped, in exchange, by the walls that contain us.  Some of the older tribes on this earth, indigenous peoples able to convert time into space, flow with the seasons, with their seminal rivers.  Shelters are made and abandoned.  Ancestors are always in attendance."
           Iain Sinclair - Living with Buildings and Walking with Ghosts: On Health and Architecture

Friday, January 18, 2019


Excelsior looking swamped by empty storefronts, with (New) Shirly Nails a couple of blocks north, the Kindest Deli not finding its kindness returned, & Jake's Handcrafted (formerly Der Kommissar) closed a month or so back.  This little low-lying strip looks like a vulnerable retail location - I hope Excelsior will be able to hang in there.

Monday, January 14, 2019

On Stage: Mlle Beatrice

No wind & a temperature just above freezing make good walking weather, with no hats or gloves needed.  I hate hats and gloves. And at home I've been reading more - Moby Dick finally conquered! - and working my way through the NYPL Billy Rose Collection of theater photographs. I'm particularly drawn to the nineteenth & early twentieth-century popular theater & vaudeville pictures. Maybe it's time for a little winter series.

Many of the photographs in the Rose collection - especially the earlier ones - come with little in the way of documentation, but cigarette or publicity cards like this one are helpful. Elmer E. Vance's Limited Mail Co. right there under the subject's name does the trick. A review of a Vance production, Treasure Island, recently arrived at the Bijou Theater, on Smith Street, mentions the youthful Beatrice.

                               Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 3rd, 1901

"As the delineator of the harum-scarum boy, this tiny girl has no superior."

The Eagle article also reproduces the photograph of Beatrice shown above. Ohio-born Elmer Vance, who started his career as a telegraph operator (or lightning slinger) & train dispatcher made a rapid transition to dramatist and theater producer around 1890. By 1891 he was the manager of Niblo's Garden theater on Broadway near Prince Street. The production for which he became best known, the railway-themed Limited Mail (1892) brought him great success, and ran for years. One season alone netted $60,000 in profit.  Vance married (the much younger?) Beatrice (Conway) in 1894, in Camden, New Jersey. In 1905 Beatrice Vance appears in her husband's first musical production, The Girl and the MoonThe Washington Post describes her "remarkably beautiful soprano," but reserves its highest praise for her appearance on horseback as queen of the circus.

Niblo's Garden closed down in 1905.  Did the Vances stay successful or did times get leaner? A booklet printed in 1915 advertises Beatrice Vance, of Elmer Vance Theatrical Enterprises. as a "Prima Donna Soubrette," with a "Novelty Singing and Dancing Change Act." It's hard to tell, but things look a bit more modest.  Beatrice, though,  is as plucky and versatile as ever.

By 1915 the advent of silent movies was beginning to impact the careers of popular stage artists; some of them made the transition to screen work, and cinema and live acts were often shown in combination, but traditional vaudeville shows were on the decline. I'd like to know what happened to the couple after 1915, but the (amateurish online) trail ran cold.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Shopping on Sixth

Model Airplanes - 464 Sixth Avenue

Forget Fifth, or the less bustling Seventh.  At one time, my old neighbor Sal told me, you could get pretty much all you needed on Sixth.  I believed him, but it was difficult to match his memories to the avenue I knew.  By then the retail on Sixth was reduced to corner bodegas and laundromats - handy places, but hardly supplying all life's basic needs.  Today the bodegas have almost vanished too, and laundromats are thinner on the ground.  The other day I took a three block sample, from 9th to 12th; the businesses there now cater strictly to a niche market. 1. Fitness & health: Feldenkrais movement center, physical training, a chiropractor & medical offices. 2. Kids: three nursery school premises, a children's cooking space & a writing center.  3. Restaurants & cafes: Colson & Toto (mayoral hangouts), Muse, & Soigne.  4. An art gallery.  (Oh & a laundromat & a real estate office.)

Sixth (9th/10th)

Sixth at 11th

When Sal was a kid, in the 1940s, this stretch of Sixth teemed with stores.  Today, most of their windows have been long bricked up & the spaces inside are residential.  It's easy to spot the switch, but impossible to know what stores they replaced.  Thankfully, the DOF tax photos came to my rescue, showing us where Sal & his family shopped.  Pre-supermarket, pre-Fresh Direct, day-to-day shopping was local & specific.  On 9th to 12th there were two print shops, three delis and groceries, a butcher's, roofing, plumbing and carpentry shops, two barbers, a shoe repair shop, a hats-cleaned-and-blocked store, two restaurant/bars, a shoe shine parlor, a tire & auto supply shop, a liquor store, two clothing/watch & jewelry stores, a radio/photo shop, an appliance store, a shoe store, a model airplane store, and a corner drug store/ice cream parlor.  There were also several other stores whose purpose I couldn't determine, their signs lost in photographic blur..

Friedland drug store & ice cream parlor - Sixth & 12th

Delicatessen, Leah's, 438 - 442 Sixth

If there was all that retail activity in just three blocks, you can imagine the vibrancy of all of Sixth then, along with avenues like Third and Fourth, which have followed similar retail cycles over the last eighty years.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Carpenter

The one grand stage where he enacted all his various parts so manifold, was his vice-bench; a long rude ponderous table furnished with several vices, of different sizes, and both of iron and of wood. At all times except when whales were alongside, this bench was securely lashed athwartships against the rear of the Try-works.

A belaying pin is found too large to be easily inserted into its hole: the carpenter claps it into one of his ever ready vices, and straightway files it smaller. A lost landbird of strange plumage strays on board, and is made a captive: out of clean shaved rods of right-whale bone, and cross-beams of sperm whale ivory, the carpenter makes a pagoda-looking cage for it. An oarsmen sprains his wrist: the carpenter concocts a soothing lotion. Stubb longed for vermillion stars to be painted upon the blade of his every oar; screwing each oar in his big vice of wood, the carpenter symmetrically supplies the constellation. A sailor takes a fancy to wear shark-bone ear-rings: the carpenter drills his ears. Another has the toothache: the carpenter out pincers, and clapping one hand upon his bench bids him be seated there; but the poor fellow unmanageably winces under the unconcluded operation; whirling round the handle of his wooden vice, the carpenter signs him to clap his jaw in that, if he would have him draw the tooth.
                                                                                                 Herman Melville, Moby Dick