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I Hear A Song Comin' On

May 10, 2012 10:55 AM | 0 comments

If you should ever decide to delve into the Brooklyn Sheet Music Collection,  you will be amazed at the variety of styles and genres that songwriters have used to celebrate the borough of Brooklyn. We've got Marches, Waltzes, Cake-walks, Rags and Two-Steps, celebrating everything from Coney Island to Bushwick High School; and quite possibly the first song ever written about a logjam of people crossing a bridge:The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Bridge Crush March.


The music in our collection dates from 1869 with Crossing on the Ferry all the way to 1987 with No Sleep Till Brooklyn by the Beastie Boys.  Beginning in the 1930's with the rise and popularity of motion pictures, the marriage between music and movies produced such popular titles as Take it From There, sung by Betty Grable in "Coney Island;" An Old Fashioned Love Song sung by Danny Kaye in "The Kid from Brooklyn;" and My Brooklyn Love Song immortalized by Eddie Cantor in the 1947 musical "If You Knew Susie".

The early 1900's were a period of increased immigration, and many songs were written that spoke to the immigrant experience. Our collection contains Mariutch (Make-a the Hootch-a Ma Kootch) Down at Coney Isle, and our featured song, Born and Bred in Brooklyn (Over the Bridge).



This little number comes from the musical "The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly" which opened on December 23rd, 1905 at The Liberty Theater and ran for 87 performances. Written by George M. Cohan, it tells the story of a millionaire and a beautiful young Irish girl who sells flowers under the Brooklyn Bridge, in the area now known an DUMBO. Sticking to her working-class roots she shuns the millionaire's advances and settles down with a gentleman of humbler means.

A sheet music cover is all very well, but nothing brings music--even, it must be admitted, less than sublime music--to life like a performance.  So without further ado, here for your listening and viewing pleasure is Born and Bred in Brooklyn (Over the Bridge), performed by librarians of the Brooklyn Collection and with photographs drawn from our collections.  And not to worry, we're not quitting our day jobs! 



Brooklyn's Artful Dodgers

May 9, 2012 10:06 AM | 0 comments

Brooklyn used to be lousy with dips. They were everywhere filching anything they could get their filthy paws on, these dips were. The Eagle ran one story back in the 1930s about a gang of dips posing as a bunch of grieving mourners so they could snatch some easy loot away from the unsuspecting weepy-eyed bereaved at a Jewish funeral. Dips were the lowest of the low. At least a hold-up goon had the decency to plug you with a gat. Not the dip. The dip was a sneak. The dip was a rat. But wait...what's a dip you might ask? Well -- you know -- a fobber, a jostler, a sometime lushworker or purse-snatcher, but always and everywhere a common, no good, thieving pick pocket. 

Pickpocket at work -- In this posed picture, a "dip" deftly extracts a victim's wallet while he holds a folded newspaper into which the loot is quickly thrust. Published in the Eagle, August 4th, 1946.

Down on Deck 4 in the Eagle morgue we have drawer upon drawer of clippings filed away under the heading Robberies. Within this criminal genus we find a number of rarer species: Robberies -- Accordion; Robberies -- Baby Carriages; Robberies -- Human Ashes Theft; Robberies -- Diapers; Robberies -- Face Powder; Robberies -- Furs (typically plundered by "thugs") and, of course, what interests us here: Robberies -- Pickpockets. If you have any hankering to read more about the history of the five-fingered discount here in Brooklyn, you could do worse than make an appointment with us to browse these clippings. The stories are usually brief, almost always tragic, and every once in a while more than a little amusing.

Of the latter variety is an article which appeared under the above headline on May 12, 1925. Two dips who had been in and out of prison about as much as their busy fingers had been in and out of pockets were busted when the older of the duo, James Monroe, couldn't free his hand from one jumbo pocket's trap. Here's how the paper reported it: "Monroe had his hand in the trousers pocket of a fat man, who was perspiring freely. The pocket had become damp and, in trying to draw his hand out, it stuck to the pocket, dragging the pocket with it." 

One of the sadder pickpocket tales to appear in the pages of the Eagle was published on August 6th, 1923. Turning a sympathetic eye to the circumstances that might drive one to a life of dipping, the Eagle reported on the plight of an undernourished, brown-eyed, bobbed haired Italian girl named Viola. The waif portrayed in this account of despair appears here and there in the description to be flickering like a dying flame; the reader should take care lest he blow her out, so tenuous her claim on existence seems. Just four feet tall at the age of 16, she stands before a judge in plain cotton frock trimmed with coarse white lace and begins to explain: "'I took the pits out of cherries. I worked for a week. I made $7.21. My stepmother made me give it to her. I didn't go back to the canning factory next week. I went to Fulton St. for the pocketbooks.'" Who could blame her?

Then of course there are the tragic stories, like the one above, when the petty larcenies aren't so petty. Poor Max Syndowsky! Wary of trusting his hard earned dough to a bank, he kept his savings on his person, that is until a jostler came along on the Myrtle Avenue elevated and decided to keep them on his person. But Max's mind must have been elsewhere; he'd just come from Washington Cemetery where he was visiting his mother's grave. If only she had been alive to give him some advice. Oh you dummy, she might have said, keep your stash in a fannypack, Max! And no wonder that when Max's wife found out about the theft she fainted. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $6,370 in 1913 money (Max lost his in 1912, but never mind, the inflation calculator doesn't go back that far) has the same buying power as $147,598.69 in 2012. I'm surprised Max's wife didn't murder him. But who knows, maybe she did, I didn't check the following day's issue of the Eagle.

But it wasn't just the squealers, the perps, and the marks who had a tough go of all this dipping, so too did the coppers. As you might expect, to catch a dip you gotta think like a dip, and if there's one thing a dip don't like it's a cop. By which I mean to say, the police officers on the Pickpocket Squad (there was such a thing) often went undercover to catch their crooks. But as you can imagine, catching a pickpocket -- that expert of diversion and concealment -- was no easy task. Just a few months after Max Syndowsky lost his life savings, Detectives Dowling and Kennedy of the Bedford Avenue police station were mixing it up in a crowd of Saturday night shoppers looking to nab some fobbers. Dressed in plainclothes the detectives eyed a couple of kids, Samuel Wallach and Max Nathan, making real cozy with a lady's pocketbook. When the cops moved in to make the arrest the two Artful Dodgers raised such a cry that all the shoppers at Grand and Havemeyer dropped their packages and fell on the officers thinking they were assaulting the innocent youngsters. The fracas didn't end until police reserves were called in to squelch it, but by that time the detectives were already a sorry sight: a black eye for Kennedy and a face all pulped up with scratches "inflicted by the infuriated women shoppers" for Dowling.

A Black Church in Williamsburgh

May 4, 2012 10:00 AM | 0 comments

Leslie's recent post on the Italian marionette theater reminds me that research can be rewarding--a useful reminder, because sometimes one's best efforts bring only moderate success, or worse. I discovered this anew while investigating the next stop on our continuing tour of the Brooklyn Collection's manuscripts, the A.M.E. Zion Church Collection. This unassuming handful of mortgages and receipts, while superficially uninteresting, actually provides us with rare evidence of the activities of one of the earliest black churches in Williamsburgh. But finding further information on the history of the church and its trustees proved difficult.

Black Population Distribution, Brooklyn, 1863

In the early 1850s, the Burgh was on the brink of consolidation into greater Brooklyn. (A neglected corner of our web site called Our Brooklyn provides a short history of Williamsburg.) According to our finding aid, the AME Zion Churches were established by black Methodists in reaction to the racism of the larger Methodist community and its unwillingness to take an organized stand against slavery.  Church members were active abolitionists and were "rumored to have used some of their church locations as ... Underground Railroad stations. The church to which these documents relate was located on North Second St near Union Avenue in Williamsburg, a neighborhood inhabited by numerous African Americans after the abolition of slavery in 1827."  The population map above compiled by June Koffi and Rioghan Kirchner shows the black population of Brooklyn a few years later--1863--still with a significant concentration in Williamsburgh.

Among the individuals who were signatories to mortgages were Oliver Fields, Peter Lee (Rector), Benjamin Portland, Major West, and Thomas Worlds. Lemuel Richardson, one of the founders of the Williamsburgh Bank, was also involved. I decided to try to find out more about some of these people. Where exactly did they live? What work did they do?  Who were their families?

List of the church's trustees in 1851 and 1855

OLIVER FIELDS--In the Williamsburgh City Directories, an individual by the name of Oliver Field* (the asterisk marking him as a person of color) is listed as a "Laborer," living at 81 North 4th St in 1848-9. In the 1860 census he is 47 years old. Although no specific address is given, the local post office is "Wmsburgh NY". Oliver is living with Jane, aged 32, and a number of children--Thomas, 18, Isabella, 10, Lidia, 4, William, 2 and Oliver, 15. The immediate neighbors are also black, bearing family names Wilson and Raymond;  their jobs include seaman, porter and waiter. And there the story more or less starts and finishes, except for one mention of an Oliver Fields in a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about a brutal stabbing in Battle Row. The witness, Thomas Fields (perhaps Oliver's son) says, "Rogers [the victim] was on the sidewalk, my aunt called me in, and when I came out the crowd was at No. 2's door...Oliver Fields (probably referring to his brother Oliver Jr.) and John Paterson were there..."

THOMAS WORLDS is listed in the 1850-51 Williamsburgh Directory as a "carman", and in the 1860 census as a laborer, born in New York around 1822. He lives with Mary J. (31), Rachel A. (7) Stephen W. (4), and Rachael (66). The whole family is listed as black. World's Civil War draft registration (his name spelled Wurles) describes him as a cartman, living on North 6th St. Now, strangely, in 1870 a Thomas Worlds in Newtown, Queens is still living with a Mary J. --but now the couple is listed as white! Was this an unforseen effect of moving from Brooklyn to Queens? We will never know!

BENJAMIN PORTLAND or PORTLEN, laborer, lived on North 4th and North 6th Streets. Like Fields above, Portland seems to have found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A police jotter article dated 1860 (under the heading "Practical Amalgamation" and written in the highly offensive language of the time,) places him in a "notoriously bad 'crib''' at the foot of Leonard Street during a police raid. Exactly what the people in the house at the time were accused of, aside from simply being there together, is not stated. 

All three men are named among others in a Court Notices published in May 1855 as defendents in a suit brought by Warren and William Mitchell against the Trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Village of Williamsburgh. The Church had defaulted on its mortgage, and the mortgage holders felt that it was time "something should be done," according to our documents. 

A history of the AME Zion Church credits Rev. R. H. Stitt with improving the dire financial situation of the Williamsburgh church in the 1880s. After spending a year  "repairing the church, paying incidental expenses, and raising the interest on the great debt that burdens [it], he was removed to the Fleet St Church, where he preached with...phenomenal success."

Churches come and go--they grow, wither, amalgamate and separate.  Clearly, teasing out a complete history of the Williamsburgh AME Zion Church is a no job for an amateur--so beyond this I'll leave it to the real historians!