At the end of the Civil War, New York City was a den of iniquity, with prostitution as common as warm beer in a cold dive. Although flesh peddling was available on the lower east and west sides of Manhattan, the most prolific area of prostitution was called Satan’s Circus, which was the area between 24th and 40th Streets, and between 5th and 7th Avenues. The “Main Street” of Satan’s Circus was Broadway between 23rd and 42nd Streets, which was then known as “The Line.” Satan’s Circus later became part of a larger tract of decadence called “The Tenderloin,” which was also known for it’s grifters and numerous gambling houses.
In the 1890’s, after Tom Edison electrified New York City, that stretch of Broadway in the Tenderloin was called “The Great White Way,” because of the numerous lighted advertising signs prominent on the streets. In the early 1900’s, when the theater district moved uptown above 42nd Street, the “Great White Way’s” name was conveyed to the area on Broadway above Times Square.
After the Civil War, the New York City police were greatly demoralized; destroyed by corruption within their own ranks and by a Tammany Hall political system that reeked of graft. As a result, the police spent very little time actually policing Satan’s Circle. In fact, there is great evidence that the police themselves profited from the prostitution houses by getting their weekly cuts from the proceeds.
John A. Kennedy, the Superintendent of Police in New York City was one of the few New York City cops not on the take. During the Civil War Riots of 1863 Kennedy was almost beaten to death when he tried to step in and personally stop the riots. The angry crowd descended upon Kennedy, pummeling him unmercifully. Kennedy was saved only because a sympathetic passerby witnessed his beating and told the angry crowd that Kennedy was already dead.
Kennedy tried as hard as he could to diminish the bordello epidemic in Satan’s Circus, but he was overwhelmed by the noncooperation of his cops, and by direct intervention by the powers that be at Tammany Hall. The simple fact was, as soon as Kennedy ordered a bordello closed and its occupants arrested, the dirty politicians stepped in. The very next day, the bordello was back open and it’s employees dutifully back at work.
In 1866, Kennedy released a report to Bishop Simpson of the Methodist Episcopal Church, who lorded over 20,000 parishioners. Bishop Simpson had made a sermon where he said there were more prostitutes in New York City than he had parishioners. Kennedy rebutted Bishop Simpson by saying his police records showed that there were “3300 prostitutes in New York City, working in 621 bordellos and 99 hotels. This figure also included 747 waiter girls employed in concert saloons and dance halls.”
Bishop Simpson chided Kennedy over his report, saying Kennedy was not considering the thousand of “street walkers,” who frequented dive bars and stalked the streets of New York City during the dimly lit night hours. Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage, who was on a mission to end the sins of Satan’s’ Circus, called the entire city of New York “the modern Gomorrah” for allowing Satan’s Circus to exist.
In the 1860’s, the most famous of the bordellos in Satan’s Circus was called Sisters’ Row, which was located at 25th Street near 7th Avenue. Sisters’ Row was a series of seven side-by-side brothels run by seven sisters, who had come to New York City from a New England village seeking fame and fortune. At first, the seven sisters tried to get legitimate jobs, but then they realized that the sex trade was rampant, out in the open, protected by the police, and quite profitable. So why not make some serious money from this phenomenon?
Sisters’ Row was considered the most expensive bordello in New York City. It was frequented by the blue-bloods of society, and quite frankly, only the rich could afford their prices. The working girls were advertised as “cultured and pleasing companions, accomplished on the piano and guitar, and familiar with the charms and graces of correct sexual intercourse.” On certain days of the month, no man was admitted unless he had an engraved invitation, wore evening dress, and carried a bouquet of flowers. And on Christmas Eve, all the proceeds garnered that night on Sisters’ Row was donated to charity.
By 1885, police estimated that half of all the building in Satan’s Circus was dedicated to some form of deviant behavior. Sixth Ave itself was teeming with brothels, dives, and all-night saloons. Plus the streets were packed with seedy customers looking for a few bright moments in their otherwise dull lives.
Satan’s Circus and the entire Tenderloin district was the responsibility of the 29 Precinct, which jurisdiction ran from 14th Street to 42nd Street, and from Fourth to Seventh Avenue. In 1876, Captain Alexander “Clubber” Williams was transferred to the 29th Precinct to be its leader. Williams, the exact opposite of Kennedy in honesty, was quite pleased with his transfer. He told a pal, “Well, I’ve been transferred. I’ve had nothing but chuck steak for awhile, and now I’m going to get me a little of the tenderloin.”
One of the most famous joints in Satan’s Circus was the Haymarket, on Sixth Avenue between 29th and 30th streets. The Haymarket originally opened right after the Civil War as an opera house and was named after a similar playhouse in London, England. But The Haymarket could not compete with the more established playhouses like the Trivoli Theatre and Tony Pastor’s, so it closed down in 1878.
Soon after, the Haymarket was renovated and it re-opened as a dancehall. But it was actually a dancehall in only the very restrictive sense of the word. Quite frankly, the Haymarket became a three-story, yellow brick den of iniquity. It was a hunting ground for prostitutes, thugs, and pickpockets who preyed mostly on out-of-town yokels who had heard of the infamous Haymarket and wanted to experience its storied vices. The Haymarket reached the height of its fame in New York City’s Gilded Age of the 1880’s and 1890’s, but after enduring several closings, the Haymarket remained open, in one form or the other, until 1913.
Woman at the Haymarket were admitted at no charge. However, men were obliged to pay a 25 cent admission fee, which allowed them to buy cheap drinks, dance, and carouse with the young ladies, the vast majority of whom were base and cheap prostitutes. In addition to a huge bar, all three floors of the Haymarket contained little private cubicles, where raunchy woman gave their marks a cheap rendition of the can-can, and for a few bucks more they turned these cubicles into a New York City version of the French peep shows. And one can imagine what a few bucks more might entice these woman to do, and do quickly, so that they could move on to their next customer.
The real action came well after midnight, when the Haymarket’s floors were littered with drunken revelers, some of whom were barely conscious. That’s when the muggers and pickpockets sprang into action, leaving the poor men, again, most of them out-of-towners, with no loose change to make their way back home.
If you wanted to see with a bearded lady with a bat, the place to go in Satan’s Circus was the French Madame’s on 31st Street just off Sixth Avenue. The place was named after it’s owner, a big bruiser of a broad who had a five o’clock shadow all day long and every day of the week. This female moose sat on a high stool near the cash register, and if a young lady was making too much noise, or making a fool of herself, the French Madame would clock them on the head with a bludgeon, then fling them out into the street by their hair.
The main room of the French Madame’s looked like a dinning room, but in fact, no food was sold there except black coffee. Booze flowed freely, and there were small cubicles on the second floor where women, young and old, pretty and pretty-ugly, danced the can-can for anyone who cared to watch. For a buck, a young lady would dance in the nude, and for an additional fee, who knows what else transpired in those small private cubicles.
If someone wanted an alcoholic beverage mixed by the best bartender in town, the place to go in Satan’s Circus was the Star and Garter, located at Sixth Avenue and 30th Street, owned by Ed Coffee, a renowned sportsman of his time. Coffee employed Billy Patterson, who was generally thought of as the best darn mixer-of-drinks in all of New York City. Billy made a mean martini, but he also was an expert in creating exotic mixtures, containing two more more types of liquors, which if you asked for these same drinks in virtually any other gin mill in town, you would have been thrown out by the scruff of your neck. A sign stating “Booze or beer, or get the heck out of here” was the norm in virtually every dive in New York City, but not at the Star and Garter.
Patterson was such a jovial fellow, and he made so many people happy with his drink concoctions, it was thought that Patterson didn’t have an enemy in the world. But apparently that was not the case, since one day as Patterson left the Star and Garter by a side entrance, someone clocked him in the side of the head with a rock slung from a sling shot. The assailant was never found, but the phrase “Who Struck Billy Patterson?” resounded throughout the street of Satan’s Circus for many days to come.
That phrase took on a life of it’s own, when it was uttered whenever people were mystified over anything. “Who Struck Billy Patterson?” could be said when somebody robbed a cash register, or if a favored sports team was somehow beaten by a rank underdog. “Who Struck Billy Patterson?” could also be exclaimed when someone, who was one day very poor, somehow came into some cash, by legitimate, or illegitimate means.
Another popular Satan’s Circus hotspot was the Cremorne which was located in the basement of a building on 32nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. The owner of the Cremorne, which was said to have been named after a British tavern, was an overbearing dolt known only as Don Whiskerandos. The Don was a whale-shaped man with a huge beard and a walrus-type mustache which ran down both sides of his bloated face. Don Whiskerandos’ mission in life was to make sure the scantily clad ladies whom he employed made sure the men who staggered inside his dive bought the ladies drinks at inflated prices.
Men’s drinks cost 15 cents, or two for a quarter. But ladies’ drinks cost a whopping 20 cents, of which the ladies were paid a small commission by Don Whiskerandos. Every time a sap bought a lady a drink, the lady received a small brass check to keep a tally on what she was owed at the end of the night. And if a sucker sprang for a bottle of wine for the lady, she kept the cork as proof of purchase.
Next door to the Cremorne was an establishment of the same name. It was not a drinking joint, nor a place where a man might pick up a chick. It was, in fact, a mission run by a former alcoholic named Jerry McAuley. Quite often, and always by accident, some lad looking for a good time would wander into the wrong Cremorne. When this happened, McAuley sprung into action. He quickly locked the door behind the befuddled chap. Then after plying him with sandwiches and coffee as thick as mud, McAuley would launch a mighty sermon on the wages of sin caused by the excesses of alcohol.
Needless to say, McAuley and Don Whiskerandos were not the best of pals, since The Don blamed McAuley for any shortages in The Don’s cash register.
Other noted dives in Satan’s Circus were Egyptian Hall on on 34th street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Sailor’s Hall on 30th Street (which was mostly frequents by Negroes), Buckingham Palace on 27th Street, which was famous for its masked balls, and Tom Gould’s on 31st Street, which was basically a large saloon with rooms for rent upstairs; rented by the day, and sometimes even by the hour.
By the turn of the 20th Century, Satan’s Circus was in a steady decline. The advent of the Ladies Temperance Movement, and the stalwart work of people like Carrie Nation and the Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, prompted the New York City police to crack down on the vices being perpetrated in Satan’s Circus. In 1895, Mayor Strong appointed Teddy Roosevelt as Police Commissioner of New York City. Roosevelt went hard after crooked cops who were taking pieces of the pie from the dives in Satan’s Circus. Soon places that were teeming with sex and sexual innuendo, were the exception and not the rule in the area between 24th and 40th Streets, and between Fifth and Seventh Avenues.
After the police crackdown in Satan’s Circus, drinking establishments still abounded in all parts of New York City. But bawdy play and sex for pay was moved from out in the open to behind closed doors, where of course they remain until the present day.
As much as things change, sometimes they still remain the same.