Joe Bruno on the Mob – The Old Brewery

It was called the “most decadent building ever built,” and there is no doubt the Old Brewery, located in the Five Points area of Lower Manhattan, was the quintessential den of iniquity.

The Old Brewery was originally what the name implies: a brewery, built by Isaac Coulthard, just southeast of a body of fresh water called the Collect Pond. After more than a hundred years of being polluted by various industrial enterprises, including Coulthard’s Brewery, Collect Pond was filled in during the time period of 1811-1812. New streets sprung up on the former body of water and other existing streets were extended.

By 1812, Cross Street (then Park Street, now Mosco Street) passed in front of the Coulthard’s Brewery, and Orange Street (now Baxter Street) intersected Cross just north of the brewery. At the intersection of Cross and Orange, Anthony Street originated, and soon two more streets intersected at this very point: Mulberry Street and Little Water Street (which no longer exists). This became the notorious area known as the Five Points, and Coulthard’s Brewery was the hub.

After the Financial Panic of 1837, during which 363 United States banks closed completely and thousands of businesses fell into financial ruin, Coulthard’s Brewery went out of business. It was converted into a tenement building and renamed the Old Brewery.

The Old Brewery, which was partitioned off into over 100 small rooms housing over 1000 people, was five stories high, but only the top three floors had windows. Most rooms had no sunlight and fresh air, and some of the babies born there did not see the light of day until they were into their teens. The outside of the building was originally painted bright yellow, but by the time it had been converted into a tenement, the outside walls were peeling, and now had a sickly greenish color, looking like an old dragon ready to die.

There was a narrow three-foot-wide alley on the south side of the building, which narrowed even further, until it ended at a large first floor room called the “Den of Thieves.” More than seventy five men, woman, and children lived in the Den of Thieves without furniture, or any conveniences whatsoever. The woman were mostly prostitutes, and they entertained their customers in this large room in full view of everyone who occupied the room with them.

The cellar, which formerly stored brewery machinery, was converted into twenty small rooms, occupied only by black men with their wives, who were mostly white. In one basement room about fifteen feet square, twenty-six people lived under conditions that can best be described as misery and squalor. One day, a little girl was stabbed to death there, when it was discovered she was in the possession of a bright new penny. The girl’s dead body lay in a corner for five days before her mother buried her in a shallow grave in the floor.
On the top three floors, which were occupied by Irish-Catholics, ran a long corridor aptly named “Murderer’s Alley.” Along Murderer’s Alley there were seventy-five rooms, occupied by murderers, thieves, pickpockets, prostitutes, and degenerates of every type known to man. Incest was common and fights were a constant occurrence. During every hour of the day there was some sort of disturbance going on in Murderer’s Alley. Victims, who had been lured into the brewery with the promise of booze, or sex, or both, were killed and stuffed into the walls and under the floor boards. It was estimated that during the last fifteen years of its existence, at least one murder a night was committed in the Old Brewery.

Things were so dangerous, if only a handful of policeman entered the brewery to quell a disturbance, they were instantly attacked and killed, and their clothes stolen, before their bodies were buried in some small crevice in Murderer’s Alley. As a result, when the police did storm the building, they came in full force of 50-75 men, armed with clubs, bats, guns, and knives.

Just as it was dangerous for people to enter the building, it was just as dangerous for the building’s inhabitants to venture outside into the fresh air. The denizens of the Old Brewery were so hated and feared by the general public, any human who walked out the front door of the brewery was immediately pelted with stones and hit with bats. This caused people who wanted to leave the brewery to do so through a maze of tunnels that snaked throughout the Five Points area.

As outlandish as it might seem, some of the inhabitants of the Old Brewery had once been prosperous people of some importance. The Panic of 1837 had something to do with that, but mostly people who knew better sank to the level of the slime-balls who surrounded them. It was rumored that the last of the Blennerhassetts, the second son of Harman Blennerhassett, who conspired with Aaron Burr to form a Western dictatorship, died in the Old Brewery, as did other families of a higher calling. They decided of their own free will that they would spend their last days entrenched in the violence, insanity, drunkenness, and promiscuity that was the daily way of life in the brewery.

The churches of that time voiced great distress at the goings-on in the brewery. However, they were unable to make a dent in the brewery’s myriad of problems because those churches were mostly Presbyterian, while the inhabitants of the brewery were overwhelmingly Irish Catholics, who detested the Protestants due to the prosecution of the Catholics back in Ireland, where most of these wretched people were born.

In 1840, a Congregational Church called the Broadway Tabernacle was built on Broadway near Anthony Street, just a short walk from the brewery. But although many attempts were made to do humanitarian social work at the brewery, nothing of consequence was ever accomplished.

In 1850, the Ladies’ Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church sent the Rev. Lewis Morris Pease into the Five Points, along with his wife, to open a mission on Cross Street near the brewery. Pease was considered one of the great humanitarians of his time. But he soon realized that the ills in the brewery could not be combated unless the conditions that caused the crime, vice, and poverty were eliminated. Pease stared schools for both adults and children, and he also established work rooms in the brewery where clothing manufacturers sent clothing materials, so that Pease and his wife could manufacture decent clothes for the brewery inhabitants. This did not please the Ladies Home Missionary Society, who insisted that preaching the word to God was Pease’s job, not getting involved with worldly activities.

A year into his work at the Old Brewery, Pease was replaced by the Reverend J. Luckey, a noted evangelist. The reason Pease was let go was because a group of ladies from the Ladies Home Missionary Society visited Pease’s mission and discovered, that since Pease and his wife were so busy manufacturing clothes for the poor, Pease had not give a religious sermon in more than two days. However, Luckey fared no better than Pease, and it was decided that in order for the misery and decadence to end, the brewery had to be razed to the ground and replaced by a church.

In 1852, the Ladies Home Missionary Society, with money raised from a group of philanthropists headed by Daniel Drew, bought the Old Brewery. The purchase price was $16,000, and the city of New York contributed $1,000 to the purchase. On December 1, 1852, the Ladies Home Missionary Society asked the police to raid the brewery and evict the wretched people still living there. Scores of armed policemen stormed inside, and numerous vicious battles at close quarters took place.

By the end of the day, the police had arrested twenty known murders, and children, who had never seen sunlight, blinked in terror as they were led from the building by the police.

The next day, the demolition of the Old Brewery commenced. As the building was being torn down, laborers were seen carrying numerous sacks of human bones that had been found inside the walls, underneath the floorboards, and in the cellar. In the next few days, dozens of gang members raided the premises looking for buried treasure they heard had been hidden there. Yet, nothing of value was ever found.

It cost $36,000 to build, and on January 27, 1853, Bishop Jones laid the cornerstone for the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was now on the site of the Old Brewery.

The City of New York rejoiced at the demolition of the Old Brewery and the creation of the church. The Reverend Thomas Fitz Mercein was so moved, he wrote a poem celebrating the occasion. It said:

God knows it’s time thy walls are going!

Through every stone

Life-blood, as through a heart, is flowing:

Murmurs a smothered groan

Long years the cup of poison filling

From leaves of gall;

Long years a darker cup distilling

From withered hearts that fall!

O! this world is stern and dreary,

Everywhere they roam;

God! Hast thou never called the weary

Have they in thee no home?

Foul haunt! A glorious resurrection,

Springs from thy grave!

Faith, hope and purified affection,

Praising the “Strong to save!”

God bless the love that, like a angel,

Flies to each call,

Till every lip hath this evangel,

“Christ pleaded for us all!”

Oh! This world is stern and dreary,

Everywhere they roam;

Praise God! A voice has called the weary,

In thee has found a home!


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