5 “Wicked” Secrets of NYC’s 19th Century South Street Seaport

South Street Seaport Vintage Photo-Brooklyn Bridge-NYC

This article is written by William Roka, a historian with the South Street Seaport Museum.

As the recovery from Hurricane Sandy continues apace in the South Street Seaport district of New York City, the South Street Seaport Museum continues to teach the unique role that the district played in the development of New York as a great port city through the 19th century. The Museum currently offers two walking tours of the area: the Hidden History of the Fourth Ward, and the Hidden History of the Brooklyn Bridge. Both tours focus on the critical years after the Civil War.

The Museum’s main buildings on Fulton and Water Streets, located in what was then the Second Ward, are fine examples of the irrepressible commercial spirit that defined the first half of the 19th century, when New York City rose to become America’s preeminent port and commercial city. As trade expanded and more sailors came through the area, the Fourth Ward, bordering the Second Ward, became home to New York’s vice district, a strange combination of commercial virtue and sin living side by side.

While in the first half of the century New York became America’s largest city, it boomed into a great global metropolis in the latter half. No other structure so clearly demonstrated this transition as the Brooklyn Bridge. Its construction would alter the very nature of the Seaport district. Completed in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, a true symbol of American industrial might.

Here are 5 wicked secrets, ranging from colorful personalities and addresses from the Seaport’s seedy Fourth Ward, to the incredible odds that were overcome in order to build the Brooklyn Bridge.

1. Gallus Mag’s Jar of Ears at 279 Water Street

bridge cafe-oldest surviving bars-water district-nycAlmost the entirety of this street is in the process of reconstruction after Hurricane Sandy.  

This little wooden building was home to the former Bridge Café and before Sandy it was claimed to have been the longest operating tavern in the City, dating from 1794. In the 1850s it was thought to be the site of the Hole-in-the-Wall. Owned by One-Armed Charley Monell, his name really says it all, and his two ‘glamorous’ lady bouncers, Kate Flannery and Gallus Mag. Mag is the much better known of the two. She stood six-feet tall, filed her teeth to points, and kept a pistol at her waist. For those that displeased her, Mag had the interesting habit of biting off their ears, occasionally a finger, and pickling them in a large jar she kept behind the bar.

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