There's No Place Like NoMad

October 29, 2018

The Three Most Scandalous Stories from NoMad’s Past

During its initial glory days as a destination for New York’s “blue bloods” and the world’s elite, not everything about the NoMad neighborhood was glitz and glamour during the Gilded Age. New York’s wealthy were not immune to vice (in fact, they could afford to indulge more than the average New Yorker). In addition, the seedy and notorious Tenderloin District began to extend its influence on the northern side of what is now NoMad—a combination that often led to scandal. Let’s review three of the more colorful stories from NoMad’s past.

The Seven Sisters of Satan’s Circus

As the Tenderloin spread its tentacles southward, so did the neighborhood’s so-called “red-light district”—a collective of brothels denounced by the pious as “Satan’s Circus.” Despite the fact that prostitution was (and still is) illegal in New York City, the well-known corruption pervading the police department basically allowed the brothels to operate unchecked. Quite a few of these houses of ill repute dotted the streets north of Madison Square Park. (A pocket guide of the day known as The Gentlemen’s Directory, which purported to list the brothels on the false pretense of steering gentlemen away from them, listed 23 such brothels on West 27th Street alone.)

Among the most notorious of these were “Sister’s Row,” a set of seven houses side-by-side along 25th Street. Owned and operated by seven actual sisters who had migrated to New York from New England, Sister’s Row comprised the most expensive bordello in town, catering only to the very wealthy who could afford them. At their height of success, the seven sisters sought to legitimize their practice with a veneer of social grace. Several days a month, admittance was by engraved invitation only, and gentlemen callers were required to arrive in evening attire carrying a bouquet of flowers. In addition, all proceeds generated on Christmas Eve were donated to charity.

Saloons and Sex Rooms

The brothels weren’t the only places in NoMad to get a not-so-cheap thrill; many of the local watering holes included their own private rooms for more lurid activities. One of the more colorful of these was French Madame’s on 31st Street, owned and operated by a woman described as having a perpetual “five o’clock shadow” and wielding a bat, with which she would reportedly clobber misbehaving women over the head and toss them into the street by the hair. Her establishment fronted as a dining room, but liquor was readily available and the upstairs contained private rooms where visitors could watch women dance the can-can, pay a dollar to watch a woman dance naked, and (ahem) other services for additional fees.

Even more notorious, as much for its dishonesty as its debauchery, was the Haymarket on Sixth Avenue at 30th Street, a closed theatre converted into a dance hall. For a 25-cent cover charge, men could enter the venue to drink and dance with available ladies. (Women were admitted free.) However, the real action took in private rooms located on each floor of the three-story building, where patrons could buy a private can-can dance, peep show or sexual favor. As the night wore on, however, many patrons (especially the drunk ones) paid much more than they bargained for, as pickpockets awaited to ravage them once they became sufficiently impaired.

Stanford White, Mirrors and Swings

Perhaps the most notorious stories of NoMad in the Gilded Age swirled around one Stanford White, a partner/architect in the famed architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. Described by some as a tall, burly, red-haired man with a flamboyant air, White maintained a multi-floor apartment on 24th Street that reportedly contained some unusual decor, including a lush green room with a red velvet swing and a room of mirrors, from which circulated rumors of certain illicit activities. One of the seedier stories about him involved a relationship he developed with Evelyn Nesbit, at that time a teenager, who was a model and chorus girl from the popular play Floridora. Over the course of several seemingly innocent visits at his home (most accompanied by her mother), White reportedly entertained the girl with exotic meals, his red velvet swing and his mirror room, and allegedly took her virginity when she passed out from too much drink.

Years later, the indiscretion caught up with White. After a string of relationships, Evelyn Nesbit eventually married Harry Kendall Thaw, a mentally unstable man developed a vendetta against Stanford White after learning how he had seduced Evelyn years before, even though he had no claim to her at the time. Thaw’s growing rage eventually drove him to shoot and kill White in public view on June 25, 1906, on the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden during a show performance. The resulting public frenzy led to a highly sensationalized and drama-filled trial often referred to as the “Trial of the Century.” During two separate trials, Nesbit was forced to provide explicit details on the stand about her sexual assault by White, which had up to that time been a carefully guarded secret known only to White, Nesbit and Thaw.

Remarkably, the first jury came up deadlocked; during the second trial, Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity. After 7 years in a mental institution that included a temporary escape to Canada, Thaw leveraged his wealth to have himself declared sane. As for Stanford White, the murder victim—excoriated by the press after his death, especially after the revelation of his sexual assault, his reputation was forever tainted.