Crime & Spectacle in 19th-Century New York

19th century New York City was a very different place. Most murders went unsolved, the city smelled bad and people went to see unbelievable sideshows. I just read two books that paint an unrecognizable picture of the city’s beginnings.

Two Book Reviews of 19th-Century New York

[usrlist Must-read!:5]

Crime In 19th-Century New York

The Last Pirate in New York City by Rich Cohen

In New York City in 1860, nobody wanted to live by the water. That’s where the worst of society was: dock workers, prostitutes, drunks and penny-a-day boarding houses, and people like Albert Hicks.

Hicks found work on an oyster sloop, a small sailing ship. Once at sea, he murdered the other three crew members with an axe, stole $150 and some belongings, and then returned to Manhattan to enjoy life. He didn’t know that Detective Nevins was following a trail of evidence!

Author Rich Cohen brings the crime to life, painting a picture of an 1860 New York City that is difficult to imagine!

19th-Century New York City Detective Work

Hicks was soon arrested and went to trial. It was a barbarous crime that caught the public’s attention! Few murderers in those times were caught and convicted. There was no CSI, no dusting for fingerprints, no mugshots and no DNA proof!

Still, Detective Nevins put together the pieces to lead him to Albert Hicks, a sailor and family man.

His evidence was so compelling that the jury took just 7 minutes to find him guilty.

The judge sentenced Hicks to death by hanging at Bedloe’s Island. Today, we call it Liberty Island and we go there to visit the Statue of Liberty!

19th-Century New York City Entertainment Spectaculars

Those were the days of P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman, and others, who made their money promoting spectacles. The New York Sun newspaper published stories of man-bats living on the moon, Edgar Allan Poe attempted various hoaxes (and failed), and, for $1, spectators boarded a ship to watch Albert Hicks’ execution. Beer and oysters were served.

Albert Hicks’ execution turned out to be historic, since it would be the last public execution in NYC.

The 19th-Century NYPD harbor house, where police were ready to fight pirates
This 19th-century buildings housed the NYPD harbor police, who protected NYC from pirates

The Sun And The Moon: Hoaxers, Showmen And lunar Man-Bats in 19-Century New York by Matthew Goodman

In 1835, the New York Sun newspaper published a series of articles, mixed with fact and fiction, about a race of quasi-humans living on the moon. It’s unbelievable that a newspaper printed such an absurd series of articles. The editors of the New York Sun newspaper never asked the writer if the story was true, but the majority of their readers believed it and the newspaper loved the skyrocketing sales figures!

The newsies (the boys who sold the papers) would look through the headlines, assessing how the day’s news. They had to sell them to make their profits. This was economics, pure and simple.

Recommended: Two 19th-Century New York City Books

The Last Pirate Of New York

By Rich Cohen

The Sun An The Moon: Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists and Lunar Man-Bats In Nineteenth Century New York

By Matthew Goodman

Would You Believe That Two 19-Century Women Raced each Other Around The World?

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