Brooklyn is such a scary place! Wait. No. No, it's not. But it used to be? I mean, that's debatable, I guess. Bad things are always happening and there were certainly times in this borough—and this city's—history when they were happening more frequently than they do now. But it's a trade-off, you know? Because when all those violent things were happening, New York also had, um, more integrity? Or something. I don't know. I don't want to romanticize too much about the past (other than the low rents) because nostalgia is death. But I do want to look back on all the tragic occurrences that have taken place in this borough. Not because we're all voyeurs or sadists or anything, but because out of this history of violence came our current state of relative calm and quiet. Also, this is the kind of esoteric information that will impress people at, I guess, cocktail parties. If, that is, you are the type of person who goes to cocktail parties.
Brooklyn Theater Fire; December 5, 1876
I remember learning about the First Amendment and how the right to Freedom of Speech offered Americans all sorts of protections and yay America and everything. My teacher was quick to point out though that there were some things you couldn't say, and one of those things was yelling "Fire!" in a theater. And, years later, I get why it would be bad to verbally induce panic, but also? Not yelling fire? When there is actually a fire in a theater? Can lead to the deaths of well over 200 people, as it did in the case of the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876. This tragic disaster began between the 4th and 5th act of the play The Two Orphans and it started right on the main stage. Once the fire was noticed, instead of immediately evacuating the theater, the show actually continued to go on, with actors assuring audience members that there was nothing to fear. By the time people began to leave, it was too late. Hundreds of people in the upper seats of the theater died of smoke inhalation and other effects of the fire. By the time the bodies were recovered, they were so mangled and beyond recognition that it was not only impossible to identify individuals, but also impossible to get an exact body count. There is a mass grave in Greenwood Cemetery for the 100 or so unidentified corpses and "an obelisk near the main entrance at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street marks the burial site." This lasting results of this fire included stricter building codes in the city and a better understanding of how best to quell conflagrations. The site of the Brooklyn Theater is now a part of Cadman Plaza.
Brooklyn Bridge Stampede; May 30, 1883
When you look at the Brooklyn Bridge now, what do you see? An awe-inspiring Gothic monument to human achievement? I mean, sure. But also what you see is DEATH. Despite its beauty, the Brooklyn Bridge has quite a tragic history. Well, beauty frequently goes hand in hand with misery, but that's another story all together. The sad story of the Brooklyn Bridge really begins with the sorry fates of its main designers, father and son team John Augustus and Washington Roebling. The elder Roebling died following an injury to his foot while visiting the bridge's construction site. His toes were crushed, required amputation, and then—because there were no antibiotics—he died of the subsequent infection. His son, Washington, took over the project and then suffreed decompression sickness and was bed-ridden for the rest of the bridge's construction. The younger Roebling did not succumb to his illness, and in a nice turn of events, had his wife, Emily, supervise the bridge's completion, but still. Bad run of luck for the Roebling family. But so, that's just back story, because what we're really here to talk about is the horrific stampede that took place on May 30, 1883. The bridge had opened only 6 days before, but fears of its instability caused mass panic and 12 people died in the resulting stampede. Twelve people! And that's why you never yell "Collapse!" when you're crossing a bridge. The lasting effects of this tragic incident? I mean, there weren't any really, because nothing was wrong with the bridge, just with humanity and that'll never change. But also, one year later, circus man P.T. Barnum led a parade of 21 elephants over the bridge to vouch for its stability.
Malbone Street Wreck; November 1, 1918
So this remains a total, irrational nightmare of mine—the out-of-control subway wreck. And part of that fear stems from this century-old accident that resulted in the deaths of 93 people. Basically, this wooden subway was driven by an inexperienced conductor and took a turn that ought to have been approached at 6 mph at a much faster speed. The train derailed in a tunnel and while two of the cars sustained no damage (the conductor managed to walk away from the accident) three were severely impacted by the force of the crash, leaving dozens of people dead. This traumatic incident led to several safety overhauls in the subway system, the end of wooden subway cars, and the introduction of the name "Empire Boulevard" because no one wanted to get anywhere near Malbone Street after that. Which, understandable. Just think how bad it must have been for real estate. Ugh.
Real Life Dog Day Afternoon; August 22, 1972
So, in compiling this list, I had a choice. I could have included a lot of crime stories with gory, sordid details, but in the end I felt uncomfortable doing so. Why? I don't know, exactly. I'd like to say there was some level of ethics and integrity involved, but I know myself a little too well to say that without acknowledging that it would be slightly disingenouous. Instead, what I think it was more about was not wanting this list to be too personal. Sometimes tragic events with greater scopes are more palatable because of how hard they are to swallow. But so anyway, I'm straying from that a little with this tragic event because this is indeed a small, personal, tragic story, but it is also one that had larger ramifications and is a good indication of how different Brooklyn used to be. Anyway, on August 22, 1972 in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn (E 3rd and Ave P, to be precise) John Wojtowicz, along with Salvatore Naturile and Robert Westenberg, tried to rob a Chase Bank in order to get money for a sex change operation for Wojtowicz's lover. The robbery was a bungled mess, leading to a tense standoff with the police and culminating in the death of Naturile and the arrest of Wojtowicz. It also led to the awesome movie Dog Day Afternoon (filmed in WIndsor Terrace). What is there to be learned from this event? That we do crazy things for love? Yes. Maybe. Also, that it probably feels really good to chant "Attica! Attica!" in front of a crowd. Try it sometime and see what happens.
Son of Sam Killings; July 31, 1977
So the next time someone says that they wished they lived in the New York of a few decades ago, just nod along in agreement and pay lip service to how much cooler it used to be back then and think to yourself how much happier you are not to have been living in the same society as David Berkowitz aka the Son of Sam. Beginning in the summer of 1976, Berkowitz went on a killing rampage that resulted in the deaths of 6 people, and injuries to 7 more. While most of his crimes took place in Queens and the Bronx, the entire city of New York felt terrorized by living under the threat of the Son of Sam. Only one of Berkowitz's murders took place in Brooklyn, but it wound up being his final crime. Early in the morning (2:35 am) of July 31, 1977, Berkowitz approached a car that was parked in Bath Beach and shot both Stacy Moskowitz and Robert Violante in the head. Moskowitz died from her wounds, though Violante survived. Unlike Berkowitz's other crimes, this one had a surplus of witnesses including one—Cecilia Davis—who saw the killer get into a ticketed car parked by a fire hydrant. When Davis told the police, they were able to trace Berkowitz through the parking ticket, and finally, the reign of the SOn of Sam came to an end. What is the moral here? Don't park by hydrants? Don't be a fucking mass murdering piece of human excrement? Do be happy that you don't live in a time when serial killers have the run of the city? Yes. All of the above. Seriously. While I can only lament the fact that Brooklyn's violent past did not involve vampires that look like Eddie Murphy, I think I can safely say that we're all better off for not living through tragic events like these.
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