While the millionaires of New York’s Gilded Age built their uptown mansions, lower-class New Yorkers got their kicks on the seedy streets of downtown Manhattan. Raucous crowds gathered for dancing, drinking, and gambling at places like Kit Burns’ Sportsman’s Hall at 273 Water Street and at the many concert saloons, brothels, dime museums, and pool halls that lined the Bowery, an epicenter of cheap and “fast” fun in the mid-19th century. A concert saloon is exactly what it sounds like, a watering hole where New Yorkers could catch low-end theatre, drink liquor, and dance. Harry Hill’s was one of the most famous of these establishments and one of the many New York City sites that appear in the historical thriller Cleopatra’s Dagger, a murder mystery that takes readers into the upper crust and underbelly of Gilded Age Manhattan from Mrs. Astor’s tea room to the rat pits of the seaport.

On June 12th, uncover more sordid tales of the Gilded Age with Carole Lawerence, author of the novel Cleopatra’s Dagger. This virtual talk is free for Untapped New York Insiders! Not an Insider yet? Become a member today with promo code JOINUS and get your first month free!

The Underbelly of the Gilded Age: Notorious Sites from Cleopatra’s Dagger

Cleopatra's Dagger Book cover and author headshot

Cleopatra’s Dagger follows the story of fictional 19th-century journalist Elizabeth van den Broek. When Elizabeth and her bohemian friend Carlotta Ackerman find a woman’s body wrapped like a mummy in a freshly dug hole in Central Park―the intended site of an obelisk called Cleopatra’s Needle―the macabre discovery leads Elizabeth on an investigation through New York City’s darkest shadows. Her hunt for the truth takes Elizabeth to the Bowery where she braves the debaucherous crowds of Harry Hill’s to get information on the mysterious murder.

In his 1882 work New York by Sunlight and Gaslight, James McCabe describes concert saloons as “places where the devil’s work is done.” He goes on to describe the scene inside: “They provide a low order of music, and the service of the place is rendered by young women, many of whom are dressed in tights and all sorts of fantastic costumes, the chief object of which is to display the figure as much as possible.” These fantastically costumed women were “waiter girls” who served drinks.

These venues likely sprang up in the years preceding the Civil War and grew in popularity over the next decade. They were a combination of the English music hall and American tavern. According to the book The New York Concert Saloon: The Devil’s Own Nights by Brooks McNamara, there were roughly seventy concert halls operating in Manhattan by 1862. They tended to be concentrated in rougher parts of the city like the Bowery (described as “the centre of one of Satan’s strongholds”), Hell’s Kitchen, and the Tenderloin. Harry Hill’s was located at Houston and Crosby, just a few blocks west of the Bowery and east of Broadway.

Harry Hill’s Dance Hall was remembered in a December 1927 issue of The New Yorker in an article recalling “When New York was Really Wicked.” The report described Harry’s as a “sprawling, dingy, two-story frame house which had two front entrances, a small door for the ladies who were admitted free, and a larger one for gentlemen, who paid twenty cents.”

Harry Hill's Theatre
Image via NYPL

Inside there were multiple rooms and bars and a small simple stage where various acts were performed. The proprietor himself took to the stage every week to recite some of his own poetry. Mark Twain wrote of his visit to Harry’s in 1867, describing the female dancers who “did spin around with such thoughtless vehemence that I was constrained to place my hat before my eyes.”

Harry posted a list of rules for his establishment on the wall including no profanity, no loud talking, and no drunkenness. Thanks largely to the owner’s low tolerance for any truly disruptive behavior, Harry’s was a cut above the worst of the dance halls where robbery and violence were rampant, but still on a lower rung than the more reputable theatres of Broadway further uptown. In his New York Times obituary, Harry Hill was described as “a queer combination of the lawless, reckless, rough, and honest man.”

In April 1862, New York passed the Concert Saloon Bill. The New York Times reported that this ambiguous bill would “purge our places of public amusement of most of their evils” and” to “make respectable and popular those that are properly conducted.” Essentially, the bill required all venues to obtain a license for any spoken or sung performances, though no licenses were granted to places that served alcohol or had waiter girls. Hefty fines were imposed on venues that skirted these rules, though many concert saloon proprietors took their chances, either ignoring the bill entirely or finding crafty ways around the new rule.

harry Hill's theatre
Image via NYPL

At Harry’s, the entertainment offering shifted to boxing matches. Some of the most well-known boxers got their start on Harry’s stage. Hill even put on a fight between two female boxers.

Due to financial struggles from his other business ventures, Harry was forced to close the dance hall in the 1880s. By the turn of the 20th century, most concert saloons had closed but their influence led to other forms of entertainment like burlesque and vaudeville.

Dive deeper into the dichotomy between the upper and lower classes of Gilded Age New York in our upcoming virtual talk!

The Underbelly of the Gilded Age: Notorious Sites from Cleopatra’s Dagger

Kit Burns rat pit

Next, check out “Wicked” Secrets of the South Street Seaport