Reinvention and resurgence are intrinsic to New York, and few parts of the city exemplify this better than the Bowery. After all, it has been many things—a pastoral country lane turned infamous area of ill-repute, and now, a playground for wealthy trendsetters and NYU kids.
Many of the buildings that existed during the Bowery’s late-19th- and early-20th-century heyday are either long gone or virtually unrecognizable, but some establishments were so notorious that their history lives on. One of those—McGurk’s Suicide Hall—offers a glimpse into the Bowery’s sordid past.
The building, which was located at 295 Bowery between Houston and East 1st Street, didn’t always have that grisly moniker. It was built in 1863 as a hotel primarily serving soldiers returning from the Civil War. But over the next few decades, the thoroughfare—which one attracted a respectable clientele—would change dramatically, becoming a haven for debauchery in New York.
This was precisely the type of locale that its owner, John McGurk, favored. An Irish immigrant, he owned several saloons in the area (all of which were shut down by the police) prior to opening “McGurk’s Saloon” in 1893. And from the onset, his bar was considered the most degraded destination on the Bowery.
According to Daytonian in Manhattan, the head bartender, known as “Short-Change Charley” Steele, “kept a supply of chloral hydrate ready to drug unsuspecting patrons” in order to steal from them with ease. (He was later arrested for murder.) McGurk’s was the first saloon in the city to employ an armed bouncer, “Eat-‘em Up” Jack McManus, a former boxing champion. Although he was repeatedly arrested for assault, he was never charged as “his victims were always stricken with memory loss when it was time to identify him.” (He was associates with Paul Kelly, founder of the legendary Five Points Gang, which may explain his victims’ sudden amnesia.)
Unsurprisingly, police raids were common at McGurk’s. In 1893, The New York Times recorded these raids, explaining how “agents found it overrun with men and women of the lowest type” where “everything was carried on openly and in a disgusting manner.” A year later, in 1894, McGurk was charged with operating a brothel but was released “due to the transient nature of his ‘hotel’ guests”—a raid would have been proven futile.
McGurk’s was also heavily frequented by prostitutes, many of whom severely down on their luck and in a poor, helpless state—and their actions helped lead to the saloon’s macabre appellation. In 1899 alone, there were reportedly six deaths and seven failed suicide attempts; some of the women jumped out of the top floor windows, others ingested carbolic acid. Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, discusses one of the more infamous prostitute suicide tales:
In October , for example, Blonde Madge Davenport and her partner, Big Mame, decided to end it all, and so they bought carbolic acid, the elixir of choice, at a drugstore a few doors away. Blonde Madge was successful in gulping it down, but Big Mame hesitated and succeeded in spilling most of it on her face; the resulting disfiguration resulted only in her getting permanently barred from the place.
In perhaps the most heartless marketing ploy ever, John McGurk capitalized on this eerie phenomenon and renamed his saloon “Suicide Hall.” Despite the events that took place in his establishment, he did not take any blame. Sante’s book also includes this telling quote from McGurk:
Most of the women who come to my place have been on the down grade too long to think of reforming. I just want to say that I never pushed a girl downhill any more than I ever refused a helping hand to one who wanted to climb.
By the end of the 19th century, McGurk’s faced increased pressure from community leaders, City Hall, and the police—including, most notably, Theodore Roosevelt, who served as the police commissioner at the time. Given the increased number of arrests and charges (for prostitution, assault, election rigging, and the aforementioned murder charge against Charley Steele), the actions committed at McGurk’s could no longer be ignored. In 1901, there was yet another raid, but this time the police came equipped with multiple arrest warrants.
Within a year, a new police captain was at the helm who concentrated his efforts on “closing down disorderly houses and sending their proprietors to prison.” When informed by the police that he would have to close his saloon, McGurk feigned being a “nervous invalid” and requested one month in order to “dispose of his lease to some financial advantage.”
But clearly, the new captain didn’t know who he was dealing with: McGurk used the one-month leniency to skip bail by fleeing with his wife and daughter to California with half a million dollars in cash. McGurk would die in 1913 due to heart failure at the age of 59.
The “Suicide Hall” ceased operation in 1902 and 295 Bowery became the Liberty Hotel, a cheap lodging catering to a similar clientele. In the 1960s, the building was taken over by a cooperative of female artists, who lived there for more than 40 years. However, in the late 1990s the building—really, the land the building occupied—was being eyed by developers, a fate that would befall many of the Bowery’s old buildings in the years to come.
Its tenants and preservationists petitioned for the building to be landmarked due to its colorful history; however, the Landmarks Preservation Commission denied landmark designation, citing that it did not have “sufficient historical, cultural or architectural merit.” The building was razed in 2005 and the Avalon Bowery Place, a luxury apartment building, now stands there.