Spies, hwdefault.com 1On a cloudy day in 1913, all but two of the members of the Musica family from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn stood on a pier in New Orleans, waiting to board a steamer to Honduras by way of Panama. To anyone watching, the family was large, but unremarkable; two aging parents, and their adult and younger children. The parents were from the Old Country, speaking rapid Italian while admonishing their younger children. The oldest son and daughter, in their 20s, were the standouts; dressed in stylish and expensive clothes, the picture of wealth and success. Around them were the trunks and boxes containing the family’s possessions, ready to be loaded onto the ship. This did not look like a family on a vacation, these people looked as if they were leaving for good. And they were; the Musica family was on the run, and the law was hot on their trail.

Part One of this story will give you the background on the early life of Philip Musica. He was born Filippo Musica in Italy, the eldest son of a barber named Antonio and his wife, Marie. The three immigrated to New York when Filippo was a child, and he grew up in the tenements of Little Italy. His father opened a barbershop, and later, a grocery store, and it was there that young Filippo became Phillip, striving to achieve the American Dream. By the time he was a teenager, he had dropped out of school to run the store, and had branched out into importing. He was bringing in shipments of Italian cheeses, olive oil, pasta and other specialty provisions, and his father’s shop soon became one of the most profitable Italian importers in New York. (more…)

Music, Edwardian lady, hairandmakeupartist.com 1Financial scandals, con games and rip-offs have been news since the invention of greed; so they’ve been around a long time. As our media and the 24 hour a day news cycle brings us news more quickly, every big Ponzi scheme, every large stock manipulation, every case of massive embezzlement brings headlines as the “scandal of the year/decade/century.” There have certainly been some doozies; Bernie Madoff being the one most people remember recently, but he certainly wasn’t the first, or even the most ambitious con artist we’ve seen. His profit may have been higher because of the times we live in, but he came from a long line of very smart, ambitious and audacious takers.

One of the greatest entries in the Con Man Hall of Fame has to be a man named F. Donald Coster. His great scandal of the century broke in 1938, here in New York City in the middle of the Great Depression. But Coster wasn’t his real name, and names are very much a part of this story. His family name was really “Musica,” and he and his family were a well-tuned chamber ensemble of white collar crime that went back well before 1938. Here’s their story: (more…)

Tiffany Place, 1904 map, NYPL

Some of Brooklyn’s most charming blocks are those one or two block little streets that are tucked in just about every neighborhood. There are all kinds of reasons why they exist; some are developer-designed enclaves that were added to the street grid, while others are streets that were created to accommodate a specific business or industry. Still others were added because the topography allowed for just one more small street in order to make sense in directing traffic or creating lots of a certain size. Whatever the reason, they are great, especially if few people outside of the neighborhood know about them. Who wouldn’t want a secret street?

The bisection of Red Hook by Robert Moses’ Brooklyn Queens Expressway created some new streets, and made others harder to get to. But even before the highway was cut, the neighborhood once known as South Brooklyn already had a few one block streets. It is home to four “places”: Tompkins Place, Strong Place, Cheever Place and Tiffany Place. The first three are purely residential streets in Cobble Hill, but Tiffany Place, on the other side of the BQE cut, has long been a mixture of residential and manufacturing.

Tiffany Place…what a great name. It must have been named after one of the great Tiffany’s of Gilded Age fame. If not Louis Comfort Tiffany, than surely it was named after his father, the founder of the famous jewelry store in Midtown Manhattan. That Tiffany, the one whose bling inspired thousands of people to name their daughters for a fabulous emporium of gold, silver and expensive jewels. The name means quality and riches. Who wouldn’t want to live on a street with the Tiffany name? (more…)

Trolley, Accident Nostrand Putnam. Brooklyn Memories 1931

If you go on line to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Eagle archives and enter “trolley accidents,” in the search function, there are 644 entries under that topic, from 1891 to 1950. Granted, not all of them are about trolley accidents in Brooklyn, and some of them are repeated stories about the same incidents. Some are just general mentions or stories about changes needed or implemented, but no matter how you want to cut it, trolley accidents were a rather common occurrence.

Like any mass transit conveyance, trolley cars had mechanical failures and human failures. People were often careless; ordinary citizens of all ages, and employees alike. The trolley companies, and there were a lot of them, all were trying to make a profit, and corners were sometimes cut. In the days before stringent safety laws and strong labor unions, all kinds of things went wrong, often maiming and killing people in the process.

I could tell stories about all kinds of accidents and tragedies that took place in the course of the trolley’s long history in Brooklyn, but I find the period when the trolley and the car had to share the road to be the most interesting. As a transportation of the past literally collided with the transportation of the future, we can reach some insight into our present day transportation situations. (more…)

Trolley,WB trolleys, 1907 postcard

Public transportation in Brooklyn began with stage coaches, called omnibuses. They ran along the major streets, and had fixed routes. They began running around 1827, and helped expand the borders of the bustling town of Brooklyn by taking passengers outwards away from the harbor and Heights. They were pretty reliable, but small. The average omnibus could only hold 15 passengers, and that’s with several of them hanging on to the sides and riding on top or with the driver. A passenger would signal the driver to stop by pulling a cord which was attached to the driver’s leg. Could this be one of the origins of the phrase “pulling my leg?”

As demand for better and larger forms of public transportation, other than trains, grew, the horse drawn trolley cars were developed. Some bright entrepreneur looked at a railroad car, the track, and the poor horse, and put them all together: enter the horsecar. Brooklyn’s network of horsecars began in 1854. They were already running over in Manhattan, and had been since 1832. Since the cars ran on metal wheels along a fixed track, and not bumpy cobblestone streets or muddy side streets, it was much easier for the horse to pull a larger load. This was a great improvement over the omnibuses.

There were limitations, of course. The horses were still pulling heavy loads, and most only lasted about five years before they were done and broken. They needed a lot of food and water to fuel them, and so added to the pollution on the streets and had to be cleaned up after. And they were slow – at best clopping along at a human’s fast walk. Still, they allowed people to commute from places like the town of Bedford, in Central Brooklyn, for example, to the ferry in a reasonable time. This created a commuter class that could live further and further away from Brooklyn Heights and downtown, and still work in Lower Manhattan. (more…)

Wash Hull, Julia Hull,composite

Architect Washington Hull had a lot of successes in his personal and professional life. He also had some profound failures. He was a Brooklyn boy, with a lot of talent as well as a healthy ego and a rather pugilistic personality. All of those factors resulted in a life that was certainly interesting, as well as news fodder for an eager press. He helped design and build the largest one-family home in New York City. His mansion for copper tycoon William A. Clark was an enormous castle designed for a man whose own ego, not to mention wealth, knew few boundaries.

This fantastic and rather overdone palace of 120 rooms is no longer standing, but it’s still in the memory of New Yorkers. Clark was the father of eccentric heiress Huguette Clark, who downsized from the family pile to 42 rooms over three apartments on 5th Avenue at 72nd Street. She led a strange and troubled life, and was the topic of a best-selling book called “Empty Mansions”, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Washington Hull’s own life read like a novel sometimes. Aside from the mixed blessing of building a home for one of the Gilded Age’s most powerful and picky men, Hull also won a prestigious contest to design Brooklyn’s new Municipal Building in 1902. But just as he was about to begin to build, the contract was snatched out of his hands by the new, incoming Brooklyn Borough President Martin Littleton. He declared the Hull’s contest design and city contract null and void, and the architect who dreamed of designing a Brooklyn civic building for the ages saw his dream dashed on the rocks of political one-upmanship. (more…)

Wash Hull, Parfitt Design, BE, 1910

In 1903, a young Brooklyn architect named Washington Hull won a competition to design the new Municipal Building for the borough of Brooklyn. His design was deemed the best, with competition from the Parfitt Brothers, William Tubby and other important Brooklyn architects. The Borough President at the time, J. Edward Swanstrom, made the announcement at the end of November, 1903. Unfortunately, he had not been returned to office by the voters, and a month and a half later, Swanstrom was gone, and new Borough President Martin Littleton took over.

Littleton had great ambition, and a larger ego, and he immediately put out the notice that he would be reviewing everything that his predecessor had put into effect, and he would be making changes if things didn’t meet his exacting standards. One of those projects was the new Municipal Building. Three months after taking office, Littleton made the announcement that he didn’t like Hull’s design, and he wanted to void the prize and Hull’s signed contract and have a do-over.

Littleton held a press conference where he announced that he was going to get a better design. He owed it to the people of Brooklyn, he said. The story of this competition can be found in Part Two of this story. Needless to say, this did not go over well with Washington Hull, who was left holding a lucrative contract that wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. (more…)

Isaac Reynolds, 196-202 Mac D St. CB, PS

Isaac Delamater Reynolds began his career at a time when many of our row house blocks were not designed by architects as we know them now. They were designed and built by builders, carpenters and masons who used plan books and their own extensive experience to build this mostly speculative housing. Sure, there were architects around, but they were busy with other things, like churches, banks, schools and other commercial buildings, or were designing homes for the wealthy. Some of them, like Minard Lefever and Alexander Jackson Davis, were also busy writing those plan and style books that the builders were using.

Reynolds was a contemporary of Amzi Hill, and both men designed in the same neighborhoods. They got their training before the Civil War, and both began practicing in Brooklyn in the early 1860s. Isaac Reynolds didn’t leave much of a personal footprint, unlike later architects like Montrose Morris,William Tubby and Rudolfe Daus, but he left a legacy of buildings that can be matched by only a few. (more…)

Mac Levy ad, NY Sun, 1905

We Americans love “Trials of the Century.” From time to time, heinous crimes are committed that cause the entire country to sit up and take notice of the deeds of a notorious criminal, usually a murderer or a thief of enormous proportions. Those trials are hyped up in the papers and media, and usually by the time the case actually comes to the trial phase, rare is the person who doesn’t already know every detail of the crime and the criminal already. Such was the case in 1903 when the murder case against William Hooper Young took place.

He was accused of killing a pretty young woman of dubious reputation in 1902. Her name was Anna Pulitzer. It was said that he picked her up on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, took her back to his father’s apartment near the Plaza Hotel, and killed her. He then took the body out of the apartment in a trunk, rented a horse and wagon, and dumped her body into the Hudson River in New Jersey. Her body washed ashore a couple of days later.

The motive seemed unclear until it was revealed that William Hooper Young was the black sheep grandson of the late Brigham Young, the powerful Mormon leader who founded Salt Lake City. The Mormons were a secretive and mysterious group, as far as much of America was concerned. They had a long history of persecution and death that ran from NY State, where they were founded, across the country to their haven in Utah. Up until it was outlawed, and even beyond, they practiced polygamy, which both repelled and fascinated Americans. They were also insular and as a group, extremely rich. (more…)

Singsing, ossiningdemocrats.com 1The murder trial of William Hooper Young was set to being in February of 1903. Young was accused of killing a woman named Anna Pulitzer of Manhattan. She was the pretty, 24 year old wife of a man named Joseph Pulitzer. The couple lived in what is now Hell’s Kitchen, on West 47th Street. Anna was known to police as a sometimes prostitute and streetwalker. Her husband was involved with local politics, but didn’t seem to have any other employment.

In spite of that, Anna walked around with diamonds and other jewels, was very well dressed, and was known to love the good life. She picked who she chose to step out with, always wealthy men, and been seen talking to William Young on the street after midnight, the night she disappeared in 1902. Her body washed up on shore in New Jersey several days after her disappearance.

The evidence against Young was strong. He was identified by several witnesses who saw him with Anna, and later, by those who said that he moved a large heavy trunk the night of the murder, and rented a horse and wagon to take that trunk to a pier in New Jersey. When police finally identified him and went into his apartment, they found bloodstained towels in a cupboard also filled with blood. They only needed to find William Young. (more…)

Mac Levy, Young and Pulitzer, NY Herald, 1902

On a balmy September night in 1902, a beautiful young woman named Anna Pulitzer went out on the town in Manhattan, on the last night of her life. Around midnight, she was seen buying rolls for her husband at an all-night bakery on West 47th Street. She was then seen talking to a young man on the street, and she went off in a cab with him, still carrying the rolls. Two days later, her nude body washed ashore in New Jersey. She had been murdered, and her body had a large cut in the abdomen.

Her husband, Joseph, had been considered a suspect, but was soon cleared. Suspicion went next to the mysterious young man who had ridden away with her into the night. Someone matching his description had also rented a horse and wagon in New Jersey, and had not returned it, the very same night as the murder. The man did return the rig late the next day, but couldn’t pay the overtime fine. He told the stableman that he worked for a local paper, and was good for the payment.

When police took the stableman to the office of the paper, he picked out the young man from a photograph. He was William Hooper Young, once a co-owner of the paper. Young was also the grandson of Mormon leader Brigham Young, and had a very wealthy father who kept a large apartment in Manhattan, near the Plaza Hotel. This was the same area where the West Side cab driver had let Anna Pulitzer and her gentleman friend out. It wasn’t looking good for young Bill Young. (more…)

Early 20th Century NYC, Smithsonial Magazine 1

“Professor” Mac Levy, born Max Levy, of Brooklyn, was a self-made man, and one of America’s first fitness entrepreneurs. At the turn of the 20th century, he had made quite a name for himself in New York City and Long Island, and was building his fitness empire, ready to expand to wherever the market led him. As a puny and sickly teenager, he had decided he wouldn’t live that way, and through diet and exercise, especially swimming, calisthenics and weight lifting, he had built himself up into a healthy and strong young man; billed on the vaudeville and speaking circuits as a “young Hercules” and “Brooklyn’s Perfect Man.”

He spent years building up his business by building himself. He was an advocate for healthy living, and coached a curious and eager public through his speaking engagements, vaudeville appearances and through his health clubs. He ran the first gymnasium and health club at the prestigious Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights. He also ran summer health clubs at beach resorts in Babylon, Long Island and at Bath Beach, Brooklyn. Other locations followed, as did books, and a line of fitness equipment.

Chapter One of our story details some of his operations and his early days. Chapter Two continues the story of his career, including the would-be mugging on New Year’s Day, 1897, that propelled him into the limelight as a man who take care of himself, with gusto. But for all of the young Professor’s personal and business successes, none of them could propel his name into the history books like his involvement in one of the most sensational murder cases of the early 20th century. (more…)