The Village Voice: NY Tributes to Death & Disasters

2004’s Best of NYC issue

Great New York Tributes to Deaths and Disasters

By Laura Barcella


New York may be the city that never rests, but it’s got no shortage of shrines to the eternal sleep. The town is as ephemeral as anywhere else and there are plaques, memorials, and monuments all around to remind us.


At the Trinity Church Cemetery (74 Trinity Place) sits a headstone hearing just two words: CHARLOTTE TEMPLE. All we know about this mysterious anti-heroine is that she was the protagonist of America’s first bestseller, a 1790 novel by Susanna Haswell Rowson. Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth was a morality tale about the decline of a 15-year-old British schoolgirl who found herself pregnant—later she starved to death in the NYC slums after running off to America with an army lieutenant. In the book, Charlotte’s remains were buried at Trinity Cemetery. Fans accepted this denouement as truth— especially after her headstone showed up there. It’s since been hypothesized that stonecutters engraved the tomb in the 1840s as a testament to the character.


Another Trinity graveyard resident (who, unlike Temple, actually lived) is Federalist leader ALEXANDER HAMILTON; the first secretary of the treasury and founder of the Customs Service, Coast Guard, and the Bank of New York. A marble pyramid marks his grave; his 1804 death is also noted on a building plaque at 82 Jane Street, where he died after being shot the day before in a duel with political rival (and ex-vice president) Aaron Burr. A few miles east in Tompkins Square Park, a slightly less majestic (but possibly more affecting) nine-foot-tall fountain commemorates the fire aboard the steamship GENERAL SLOCUM, which claimed the lives of 1021 German immigrants from the East Village (then dubbed “Little Germany”),. On June I5, 1904, 1,331 locals—mainly women and children—embarked on the Slocum excursion boat for a church picnic on Long Island Sound. After the ship set sail, a spark ignited a barrel filled with straw; instead of docking at a nearby pier, Captain William Van Schaick continued toward an island one mile ahead. The ship was ablaze by the time it got there, with most passengers already dead from bums or drowning. After the tragedy, only a few of the East Village’s original 80.000 German immigrants remained; most drifted uptown to Yorkville.


And just seven years after the Slocum, another community of immigrants was devastated by fire. In the top floors of the ASCH BUILDING at Greene Street and Washington Place, the Triangle Waist Company garment-making factory (read: sweatshop) employed nearly 500 workers, mostly young European women aged 16 to 23. They were locked in workrooms without sprinklers, adequate ventilation, or emergency exits. On March 25, 1911, flames broke out on the eighth floor of the “fireproof” building. Firefighters’ ladders didn’t quite reach the seventh story, so trapped employees leaped from windows, aiming for rescuers’ safety nets but crashing through from the force of the fall. Within 30 minutes, 146 workers were dead from jumping or smoke inhalation. The site of the disaster, now marked by plaques, is considered a national historic landmark.


Exactly 79 years later, on March 25, 1990, Julio Gonzalez dumped gasoline across the entryway of the HAPPYLAND SOCIAL CLUB (1959 Southern Boulevard, Bronx) to spite an ex-girlfriend he was fighting with that night. Because the (illegal) club lacked alarms, fire exits, and sprinklers, the flames spread quickly and people began expiring almost instantly. When firefighters arrived on the scene a few minutes later, 87 patrons (this time, mostly Honduran immigrants) were dead. Today, an eight-foot granite obelisk faces the former Happy Land. On the sides of the monument, all 87 victims’ names are engraved.


While not as grandiose as Happy Land’s tribute, the unobtrusive plaque at 6 East 23rd Street serves its purpose, listing the names of the firefighters who died there on October 17, 1966 in a fire at WONDER DRUGS pharmacy. Before September 11, it was considered the New York Fire Department’s worst catastrophe—they lost 12 men from Engine Company 18 and Ladder Company 7 when a concrete floor collapsed.


Across Gotham, similarly inconspicuous plaques note individual, not just mass, deaths. On September 13, 1899, real estate agent HENRY BLISS stepped off a streetcar and was hit by a taxi at West 74th Street and Central Park West. His demise the next morning made him famous as the first person killed by an automobile in America. On September 13, 1999, the city laid a plaque at the site of the accident.


The 1953 passing of a more famous fellow, poet DYLAN THOMAS, garnered two honorary plaques. One is at the White Horse Tavern (567 Hudson Street), where Thomas downed his last 18 (!) whiskey shots before collapsing; the other is at the Chelsea Hotel, where he fell into a coma before dying at St. Vincent’s Hospital a few days later.


The literary-minded ST. MARK’S CHURCH (131 East 10th Street) has long been a haven for bohemian scribes a la Thomas. So it’s not surprising that the trees in its churchyard honor dead poets (such as Allen Ginsberg, represented by a dogwood). And Peter Stuyvesant is actually buried beneath the church, with six generations of ancestors.


So though New York’s manic worker ants tend to forget it, death is all around us.