Today’s guest post by Benjamin Feldman of The New York Wanderer describes, step by step, one of his many journeys through the streets and archives of New York City in search of, what?- a pot of gold, buried treasure, the lost ark—call it what you wish. In the tradition of Indiana Jones, he is driven to uncover the past, or, in his words, he seeks veracity. A chance encounter with a de-accessioned lantern slide leads him down a windy road that leads uptown and back down again, to the Bowery.
A Miner’s Lantern
By Ben Feldman
People constantly ask me this question: Why are you learning modern Hebrew? Why did you learn Yiddish? Why is it so enticing to you, that old newspaper article, that strange lantern slide? I listen, and then I stare off into space, speechless. All I can think of is that corny phrase my superannuated Yankee torts professor, Willis Livingston Mesier Reese, taught us at Columbia Law School. Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself. These people ! I meet their Why? with equal vigor: I have no idea how anyone with a brain in their head could not be fascinated by the things that enthrall me. And it’s not as if I expect universal interest in my pursuits. What amazes me is the rarity of passion itself. It’s the least common denominator of intellectual fanatics, this overarching symptom of a wonderful disease. I hope to die from it.
As a child, and now as a so-called grown-up, the prospect of finding buried treasure continues to thrill me. Whether it’s a wind-blown bank note on the sidewalk or hardware scavenged in the street as I bike my way through New York, whether salvaged furniture from Yorkville trash piles or scouted-out scuz bars on the Brooklyn waterfront, I’m always up for a casual encounter with windblown wealth.
At Green-Wood Cemetery’s History office, I’ve stumbled upon a mother lode. You might think that working among the dead would be creepy. Quite the contrary. Imagination grows best in a quiet room. There among gentle, living souls I’ve found my looming mill, factory of dreams and recollection. High above Gowanus rooftops, threads spin tightly on whirring bobbins, shuttles shooting back and forth. Memory and anticipation, warp and woof, I weave a precious psychic cloth.
Wednesdays are my special days. I work mid-week in a hyper-chilled room with a view out over one of the “Public Lots” where hundreds of unrelated folks lie peacefully. In a locked cage I sort and catalog paper ephemera and random objects. My deal as a volunteer is unbeatable: there’s one for the boss, and one for me. I take my sweet time, reading and dreaming, enveloping myself in a comforter of knowledge. At the end of the day, I leave the storied brownstone gates laden with gifts, my mind overflowing with new-found riches. Six weeks ago, though, I got extra-special lucky. Opening a bubble-wrapped tiny parcel, I held in my hand an object unlike any I’d seen before.
Wherein lies the power of a simple piece of tinted glass? Some ink, a bit of silica, a century old, it was plucked from the refuse by an E-bay entrepreneur and sold for a pittance to my hungry historian friend Jeffrey Richman. After a cursory inspection, the questions began to flutter in my mind like feathers spilling from a bursting old bed-pillow:
What is that big fat stone in the foreground ?
Where was this taken and what year was it?
Who are these window-shoppers?
One question encircled all the others. In it perhaps lies an answer to the complained of Why? Embedded in the passion that drives me is a core of curiosity, the desire for something more than knowledge. It’s veracity I seek. With every query I repeat, How can I know? How can I be sure?
Excitement’s flammable vapors are invisible and odorless. One dasn’t light a match when I get in this state. Some people race Harleys, their pipes blazing, cylinders roaring. Others head straight for the gym. Flexing and spinning, they push their limits, seeking to conquer, finding out just how far they can go. I’ve a different Nautilus contraption, though, albeit inchoate, one more akin to the littoral kind. In each of my finds lies a swirling darkness, crustacean mystery. I hold them close and hear briney whispers. They’re as common as sea-shells, these gilded invites, cleverly disguised as chance encounters. They’re free for the taking. Who needs a Benz?
Lantern slides are small glass plates, positive images that were projected in auditoriums in the 1800s in Europe and America by traveling showmen. In Harrisburg and Lower Podunk, Carlsbad and Yukhupetz-ville, lantern slide shows offered the masses the Eight Wonders of the World, theatrical tableaux. In the days before motion pictures, scenes that only the wealthy and well-traveled could experience first-hand were brought to life for common people, first with oil-lamp projectors, and then electricity.
After I blinked to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, my eyes focused on my new treasure and the search for answers began. Look at the clothing the man and boys wear. When was it stylish and who could afford it? Knickers: there’s the very first clue. And a bowler on the man, his jacket short and snug. With that I could bracket things, narrow the window. Experience told me, it’s the turn of the 20th century. But where are they standing and what is that stone, stuck in the sidewalk in the foreground?
A faded label on the edge of the slide got me off to a healthy start. The Museum of the City of New York somehow de-accessioned this slide: the label marks it as part of a collection once maintained there. So it must be New York City, this funny old scene. That tan stone column looks like a milestone, but where in New York did such a thing stand, as late as maybe 1900?
Some bell went a-ringing deep in my cranium: I’d heard of these stones and seen one, I thought, up on the 7th floor at New York Historical Society. Two minutes on the internet confirmed my memory. And then came an historian’s choicest moment: The original site of this particular stone, which I now could fix in front of 216 Bowery, I found misidentified in authoritative texts.
The Boston Post Road dated from early colonial times, and at least nine milestones marked the Manhattan portion of its route. Three of them are on display at NYHS, where the audio guide claims that they date from the early 19th century. I’ve no reason to contest this information (the stones at NYHS may not be the originals, which were in all likelihood placed along the Road during the previous century) but the lantern slide tells me that unless milestone #1 was relocated before the photo was taken, its home was different than the placement along the Bowery, south of Canal Street, that I found quoted in several research sources.
Fever erupted in my brain, so I hopped on my bike and raced downtown. I had to see where the stone once stood. 216 Bowery lies far north of Canal Street; on the west side of the Bowery between Rivington and Prince. How the apparently erroneous location of milestone #1 came to be accepted is anyone’s guess. I’ve got the goods on it now I think…
Like wrestling a slippery, angry hog, it’s best to come at the dating question for this slide from as many angles as possible. “I. Silverman – Picture Frames” gleams from inside the showcase window on the right hand side of the image. What can we know from these simple block letters? The shabby storefront and modest use had screamed Bowery to me even before I checked out the milestones. An hour at the NYHS’ hushed library yielded the story for me forthwith.
Trow’s Directories are a cornucopia, and they led me straightaway to the truth. I can see him now, Mr. Israel Silverman, making his way to his fancy new frame shop. There Silverman was in Trow’s in cold hard type, starting in 1902, living and working on the Lower East Side for almost a decade. He made his home on East Broadway, then on Eldridge, with his shop on Chrystie in ’02 and ’03. In 1908 Silverman’s shop made it over to the Bowery. Probably a step up, better foot traffic, more out-of-towners. I blew the image up on my computer. Just look at that rolling vitrine, out on the sidewalk, holding its stock of framed prints of hunting scenes and other genteel images. Even cold-water tenement walls in sweatshopper’s walk-ups could use a bit of goyish class. The Bowery in those days was also the center of a low-class entertainment district. Think of Times Square in recent decades. Storefronts beckoning to the unsuspecting; “Art Treaures” and “Antiques” vying for window space with the latest in electronics gray-goods deals.
It’s the left-hand window in the slide that truly grabbed me, though. Despite the slides’s tattered paper label that mentioned the milestone as the object of interest, the theater broadsides you see in the window of what must be 214 Bowery are the reason I stumbled upon this gem. My buddy Jeff bought this slide on e-Bay when he searched for items with a connection to Henry C. Miner, one of the many eminences entombed in Green-Wood in ornate mausoleums.
Giant block letters scream the message to passersby: MINER’S THEATER “The Bowery Hall of Fame” OUR PATRONS DEMAND WEEKLY AMATEUR PERFORMANCES EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT. MINER’S METHODS WIN. I had no idea what these words meant, notwithstanding their imposing scale. Down below, with blurry capitals, another line peers out from the glass. ENORMOUS ATHLETIC JUBILEE ! WEDNESDAY NIGHT ONLY APR. 15. It must have been fisticuffs: Jim Galvin vs. Young Sharkey is a featured match. Again bells rang: I knew the name Sharkey, so off I ran again to the internet. I’d no idea that arcane boxing history was so easy to find.
Sharkey, Sharkey: Jack Sharkey, that’s the name. My mind had not failed me: he beat Max Schmeling in ’31 for the world heavyweight title. Held it for one year ‘til Primo Carnera whipped him in ’32. Sharkey was the only guy to fight Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey. But wait a second… Wouldn’t Jack Sharkey have been too young at the turn of the century to be doing prize fights at Miner’s as “Young Sharkey?” Jack was born in 1902, so I guess it could be the same guy if the photo is from 1917 or so. But it seemed unlikely. Back to the salt mines.
Turns out that many, many fighters went by the appellation “Young” back in those days. “Young Sharkey” could have been one of several guys. Website boxing records are enormous. Date, ring site, combatants, decision after enumerated rounds: if you type in a name at Cyberboxingzone.com, you peek at a world that’s vanished today. Another site devoted to pre-WW II boxing in Britain lists 16 fellows by the name of Sharkey who boxed in the years 1913-4 and/or 1920-1939, three of whom went by the nickname “Young.” I fixated, though on someone else: one of the most famous American boxers in 1910, memorialized in cigarette and candy premium cards, was Tom Sharkey.
I would have bet that this is the guy advertised in the Miner’s poster as “Young Sharkey,” but another internet source made me stop short. Tom Sharkey was born in 1873, hardly young even by 1900. And his fight career had a large hiatus during the years 1904-1923. Wikipedia and Cyberboxingzone.com make it clear that Tom Sharkey’s ringside moniker was “Sailor Tom,” so my best guess is that Miner’s put up a Sharkey wannabe against Jim Galvin, another pug whose modest turn of the century fight career is verifiable.
Joe Wagner, also a featured pugilist at Miner’s that week, is an easier case: Wagner was active in New York during 1908-17, fighting in the Bronx, Albany, and Brooklyn. Another 1910 collectors card I found on e-Bay shows Wagner in classic pose.
The funnel narrows on the date of the lantern slide photo when you look at the date advertised for the “Athletic Jubilee” in which Wagner and Sharkey (Young or not) went a few rounds. Wednesday April 15th. Reverse perpetual calendars are handy things. 1903, 1908, and 1914 had such a date. Wagner’s career probably didn’t start ‘til 1908. Israel Silverman’s frame store is not listed in the 1914 editions of Trow’s directories. QED, we have a winner: 1908 is the date of the lantern slide, in all likelihood.
Miner’s Bowery Theater touted in the broadside as “The Bowery Hall of Fame” was perhaps the most famous of the Miner performance halls in New York. Harry C. Miner got his start in New York after Reconstruction, managing theaters for other owners as well as owning and operating eponymous establishments. His Bowery hall at #165 (the number varies a bit over the years) appears in Trow’s by 1879, and the structure still stands on the east side of the boulevard, just south of Delancey Street. Home today to a carpet store and known as #169, Miner’s Bowery was soon joined by Miner’s Eighth Avenue Theatre at 312 8th, and by the People’s Theatre, erected by Miner at 201 Bowery in 1883.
English-language productions were a fixture on the Bowery starting in the late 1820s, but tides of Germans, Jews, Italians and Chinese changed the tongues heard on local stages as these immigrant swarmed into the neighborhood later in the century. By the end of the 1800s only two English language houses remained. German theater had already folled the wholesale exodus of its fans from the Lower East Side’s Little Germany to Williamsburg, Bushwick and uptown Yorkville. An unquenchable thirst among “nativist” Americans for low-class vaudeville and risque tableaux kept the box-office humming at the oldest Miner establishment with devotees from throughout the metropolitan area. Though its second Bowery location closed and moved to the Bronx, Miner’s Bowery remained a neighborhood staple, with amateur nights showcasing future legends well into the 20th century.
George M. Cohan, Al Jolson, Weber and Fields, and Eddie Cantor all made their debuts at Miner’s Bowery, where one Friday night in 1903 “give ‘em the hook” was heard for the very first time. Long periods of darkness and foreign languages finally took over the house, and Miner’s tenure on the street ended ingloriously when the building burned in 1929.
Walk down the Bowery now day or night; it’s hard to imagine all that once was. The screech of the Third Avenue elevated drowned out even the heartiest calls from the masses of sailors and drovers, gamblers and pimps who swaggered and staggered from Park Row up and back to Cooper Square. Even the drunks and the whores are mostly gone, their empty bottles of cheap wine and sorry trade now supplied elsewhere. Nowadays, an eerie quiet descends on the post-rush hour Bowery from Canal north to Houston, after traffic down to the Manhattan Bridge plaza slackens. Things get slow and sometimes still, though hipsters have started a small rebirth. Out at Green-Wood’s Dell Water shimmer, Henry Clay Miner sleeps in peace. The roar of the greasepaint makes the only sound.
What can you find when you turn a rock over? Worms by zillions live under the loam. Why would you do it, kick that stone over? You see some mud, some dirt and bugs. I see rubies, sparkles of gold.
Why? they ask me. I just stare. It’s pointless to try, I can’t explain. Res ipsa loquitur, close your eyes. Come with me, I’ll show you where…
This post was originally published November 22, 2006 on The New York Wanderer
Benjamin Feldman has lived and worked in New York City since 1969. His essays and book reviews about New York City, American history, and Yiddish culture have appeared online and in print in CUNY’s Gotham History Blotter, The New Partisan Review, Columbia County History and Heritage, and Ducts literary magazine. Read more about Feldman and his work on his blog, The New York Wanderer.