McGurk’s Suicide Hall

December 29, 2013

From www.boweryboogie.com. Note McGurk's at left.

In keeping with some recent posts about New York City’s Lower East Side, here’s a special one on my namesake, McGurk’s tavern.

I first learned about it when I was at a Moonlighters show a few years ago. I heard my name in a lyric (believe me, when your name is McGurk, that’s unusual) and snapped to attention. The lyric was: “McGurk’s is too gay for my final display”.

They mean gay in the old-fashioned sense, by the way, or this would be another kind of post. So, basically the song says that McGurk’s was too cheerful to kill yourself there. I was intrigued, especially when I found out it was the most despicable place in a despicable neighborhood. That must’ve been some melancholy suicide who wouldn’t even kill themselves in a place like McGurk’s.

It was located at 295 Bowery in New York City’s Lower East Side, which was a tough, tough neighborhood around the turn of 20th century: it was an immigrant neighborhood with con men preying on those who had just arrived and didn’t know the ropes yet; it was home to lots of dives, flophouses, and featured a high mortality rate, the constant danger of fire, and raw sewage running in the street. In this environment, McGurk’s still stood out.

It started out innocently enough, built in 1863 as a hotel. Its clientele were mostly soldiers returning home from the Civil War, but by the 1890s, it had become a brothel, a place of business for both male and female prostitutes.

There were many saloons on the Bowery that posed as hotels so they could serve alcohol on Sundays, but the upper rooms were used exclusively for prostitution. McGurk’s was the best known of these.

It was legitimately famous for lots of reasons. For one, Al Jolson supposedly got his first singing gig there. Secondly, the world’s first recorded bouncer, “Eat ‘Em Up Jack” McManus, worked there. In 1899, a fifteen-year-old prostitute named Emma Hartig attempted suicide on the premises and was called to testify about it in front of an investigatory committee. McGurk’s was popularized again in the 1920s, when Mae West wrote about it; she adapted a play called Diamond Lil into a novel of the same name. One of these sources inspired the film called She Done Him Wrong starring Mae West and Cary Grant.

But what was so bad about it, really?

The NY Herald, on Sunday March 12, 1899, said:

“McGurk’s is a little more inviting than an undertaker’s shop, not so comfortable as a Bowery lodging house, and less pleasant than the saloon known as the dead house, where a drink is a hearse”.

Two additional headlines from the same day’s paper: “‘Better Dead’ Is Written on the Lintel of McGurk’s Suicide Hall” and “Three Suicides Attempted There in One Week”.

According to Mae West’s recollections from the era, McGurk’s was also called The Plague, The Hell Hole, The Fleabag, The Bucket of Blood, and Paresis Hall, named after a form of paralysis thought to be transmitted by gay sex. But by far, the most famous name for McGurk’s tavern was McGurk’s Suicide Hall, which, the owner boasted, was because more prostitutes killed themselves there than at any other spot in the world. At least ten suicides via carbolic acid, which was commonly used as a disinfectant at that time, occurred on the premises.

The New York Herald, in the particularly melodramatic prose of the era also says:

“McGurk’s is the resort of the better dead. “Suicide Hall” the Bowery calls it now, for the reasons that occasionally a young girl comes out from the ill lighted and gloomy dance hall reeling under the effects of self-administered poison. Often she takes her carbolic acid or paris green on the sidewalk in front of the place. In any event those who seek to end mortal ills at McGurk’s are lugged to the corner of the Bowery and First Street, supported by attendants, there to await the coming of the ambulance. Hence “Suicide Corner”.

Other headlines of the day were:

“M’Gurk [sic] Girl Suicides”

“Jennie Kellar Visited the Bowery Dive and Then Took Carbolic Acid”

“Another name has been added to the long list of victims of McGurk’s suicide dive on Bowery”

“Another victim of the wrecking life in McGurk’s…”

Once, a McGurk’s waiter was arrested for homicide with a shotgun, and the same man was found to keep chloral hydrate on him in order to drug patrons. Anecdotally, the owner’s daughter was denied entrance to Catholic school after the nuns found out where her dad worked.

My favorite article about McGurk’s comes from The Evening World:

Complaint has been made about the number of marines from the Brooklyn Navy Yard who have recently been robbed of their clothing in McGurk’s resort on the Bowery. The result of the robberies is a large increase in the desertions from the Marine Corps.

Those poor naked Marines!

At some point in 1902, McGurk’s closed, allegedly because police “had watched the place so carefully that it had been impossible for the place to make any money recently.” Later, the first floor of the building became a restaurant and eventually artist studios. So this post is about art in a roundabout way after all.

Here’s a postscript from The New York Press in 1905, when we learn about the death of McGurk’s old bouncer:

“He hated to go, did “Eat ‘Em Up Jack” McManus, but when a section of lead pipe was wrapped around his head from the base of the skull to his bulldog chin, cracking the cranium all the way, he laid himself down in the gutter and talked about his wife, Gertrude.

He didn’t have much to say after that, did “Eat ‘Em Up”, until he died in Bellevue Hospital yesterday morning. He only thought he was a young fellow again, and not the toughest of Bowery roughs, and talked like a kid about Gertrude, as if she also were 16 and not 40, and with a face he had scarred and battered because she was his wife, wasn’t she, and a man could do what he pleased with his own.”

Whoa.

That sure was a different era.

In 2000, a pop-up museum was established on the premises of 295 Bowery to draw attention to the women who took their lives there, and also in an attempt to grant historical status to the structure. The bid failed, and the building was torn down shortly thereafter, replaced by pricy co-op apartments.

A great history of the Bowery and McGurk’s can be read here and here. Many thanks to Bowery Boogie for shedding light on my name’s colorful past!

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