The old saloons and dance halls of the Bowery are familiar to anyone with a love of New York City history, their debauched and surly reputations appealing in a prurient way, a reminder of a time of great abandon. The Bowery bars and lounges of today often try to emulate the past in demeanor and decor. (Although nobody was drinking expensive bespoke cocktails back in the day.)
But the dance hall at 295 Bowery, the loathsome establishment owned by John McGurk, was not a place to admire. It was the worst of the worst, a dive where criminal activity thrived alongside bawdy can-can dancers and endless pours of putrid booze.
In early March of 1899, a woman named Bess Levery climbed to one of the top floors of McGurk's -- floors given over to illegal behavior -- and killed herself by drinking carbolic acid. Within a week, two more women had ventured to McGurk's, attempting the same dire deed.
By the end of 1899, the dance hall had received a truly grim reputation, and its proprietor, capitalizing on its reputation, began calling his joint McGurk's Suicide Hall.
What happened to the Bowery, once the location of fashionable homes and theaters, that such a despicable place could thrive -- mere blocks from police headquarters? This is the history of a truly dark place and the forces of reform that managed to finally shut it down.
FEATURING: Theodore Roosevelt, Jacob Riis, Charles Parkhurst and some disreputable fellows by the names of Eat Em Up McManus and Short Change Charley.
This episode is sponsored by TNT’s new limited series The Alienist.