In contemporary New York City, the Bowery has become a sleek millennial hangout, but just over 100 years ago it epitomized urban tawdriness. Guidebooks warned you not to go there at night. Muckraker Jacob Riis called the Bowery “the great democratic highway of the poor.” Here follows an excerpt from Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s new book, Devil’s Mile: The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery, which will make you wax nostalgic for the street’s bad old days.
In 19th century New York City, the Bowery’s little economy was diverse. There, everything was for sale and at bargain prices. Women on the Bowery sold their flesh in the concert saloons or out on the street. There were so many ways to enjoy a wicked night out on the Bowery that people called it the devil’s work. Nestled among its various entertainment options—theaters, dives, dance halls, beer gardens, shooting galleries—were strange little places called dime museums or anatomical museums.
When P. T. Barnum’s five-story-high American Museum—it stood at the south end of Park Row, a ten-minute walk from the Bowery—burned down in a spectacular fire after the Civil War and Barnum left New York and took his show on the road, it left a huge gap in the city’s entertainment options. After all, Barnum’s had entertained crowds for some 25 years with a panoply of wonders and hoaxes: freak shows, fortune-tellers, cute-baby contests, minstrel shows. There were exotic animals: cages of tigers, lions, and monkeys, one water tank holding hippopotami and another with two white beluga whales—the newspapers said the poor creatures were boiled alive during the fire—and aquariums filled with fish. Finally, there were the miscellaneous “curiosities”: mostly dead creatures preserved by stuffing or varnishing or, as in the case of human fetuses, pickling in formaldehyde, and skeletons, the most famous touted to be a real mermaid named Feejee but was really monkey’s body and a fish’s tail sewn together. Barnum’s message to Americans was that it was fine for everybody, rich and poor, to be entertained by peoples’ deformities and weirdnesses. People bought it. And today cultural historians describe his museum—the huge structure was dirty and “ill-shaped,” according to the Times of July 14, 1865—as the birthplace of American pop culture.
True enough. And so was the Bowery, where all forms of artistic expression for the masses found a home. So too, naturally, did dime museums, which provided the same sleazy entertainment that people had grown to love at Barnum’s, but on a much smaller scale. The city had dozens of these places; besides the Bowery, they clustered on Broadway and later in Brooklyn, at Coney Island. Freaks, some of whom first cut their chops at Barnum’s, were the main attractions, especially if they were famous—many were—which gave them a lot of clout with their employers.
Freaks had a tightly knit community, a high sense of worth, and were protective of each other. There were so many kinds of freaks: people who, because of medical conditions that caused their bodies to waste away, were advertised as “living skeletons.” The original was Isaac Sprague, a Barnum’s alumnus. There were also giants, the best known of whom was Patrick O’Brien—he measured seven feet five inches—and his wife, the giantess Annie, whose height topped her husband’s by two and a half inches; albinos; dwarfs; the Davis brothers, a pair of tiny, mentally disabled brothers with unusual physical strength, born two years apart, who were claimed to be the Wild Men of Borneo; bearded ladies and young men whose faces were covered with hair due to a rare genetic disease called hypertrichosis, perhaps the most famous of whom was the Russian-born Fedor Jeftichew, a.k.a. Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, who was brought to America by Barnum; the ubiquitous fat ladies, who were sometimes used in staged marriages to living skeletons. Some dime museums displayed children with physical deformities: Bunnell’s, at 298 Bowery, billed a child who was no doubt hydrocephalic as “double-brained” and another, who had severe eczema, as “Leopard Boy.”
These poor things were victims—in contrast to the people who proudly displayed their bodies all covered with tattoos. Some of them were famous, such as Captain Costentenus, formerly a Greek sailor, and a woman named Nora Hildebrandt. (Today they would not be considered freaks at all.) The tattooed crowd could get their inking done right in the neighborhood; the Bowery by the 1880s sported at least one tattoo parlor.
They also frequented a photographer, Charles Eisenmann, at 229 Bowery. He was a German immigrant who, together with his son-in-law, Frank Wendt, opened a studio in 1881. Soon, to supplement their incomes, all the freaks from the neighboring dime museums were going to Eisenmann’s to get picture cards made, which people then traded and collected.
Some dime museums had something vaguely medical about them, in which case they were advertised as “anatomical museums.” They were stocked with glass jars with body parts preserved in formaldehyde or wax models of syphilis-ridden faces and deformed genitals. The more diseased the specimen or facsimile, the better: Americans then were fascinated by disease, especially the venereal kind, a common affliction of the times.
Usually newspapers advertised anatomical museums as “For Gentlemen Only.” The attractions there were notorious for built-in scams: for example, visitors might be suckered into paying extra to see “special exhibits,” such as a naked woman who turned out to be a mannequin in flesh-colored tights. Doctors—usually with dubious credentials, or disgraced members of their profession—lured men into offices for free blood pressure tests. Once inside, the men instead were offered cures for “paresis”—the then-catchall term for sexually transmitted diseases—and sometimes masturbation, which in those prurient Victorian times was considered a form of sexual deviancy. During the course of this “consultation,” a flap on the wall fell and exposed a sign saying the doctor’s fee was $2 (or some other sum), and typically the victim was too embarrassed not to pay up.
From DEVIL'S MILE: The Rich, Gritty History of The Bowery by Alice Sparberg Alexiou, copyright 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.