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A Nightmare on 13th Street

Recently, the block of East 13th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in the East Village has received a lot of attention after it was announced that a developer purchased a large vacant lot in the middle of the block.  Buildings on the block have been rumored to be haunted.  While we may not be ghost hunters at GVSHP, we do know a thing or two about history.

And, there is definitely some dark history on East 13th Street.

The culprit, dressed in white, trimmed with black, and seated on his coffin
in an open wagon, was transported from the Bridewell (City Hall Park)
through Broadway to an open field at the junction of Second
Avenue and
about Thirteenth Street, where his execution was witnessed by many
thousands of persons…”

 — Reminisces of New York by an Octogenarian (1816-1860), Charles H. Haswell, 1896

In the early 1800’s a field that is now the intersection of East 13th Street and 2nd Avenue was used for public hangings. One of the most widely attended took place on April 2, 1824 when it was estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 people came to see John Johnson executed.

To give you an idea of how significant that was, the city’s population at that time was around 120,000.

Why was Johnson’s execution such a big deal?

Johnson was the owner of a boarding house on Front Street that was frequented by sailors. While lodging at Johnson’s house James Murray, a seaman from Boston, was brutally murdered and his money was stolen. Murray’s body was found in a nearby alley and Johnson was quickly arrested for the crime.

What drew the widespread public outrage were the circumstances in which the murder occurred. At the time New York was a thriving port city and the public felt that travelers had a right to expect to be safe in lodging houses.  According to the New York Advocate Johnson murdered a man who had, “every natural and moral claim to his protection.”

Ironically, the block may be more notorious for some fictional crimes which took place there, as chronicled in our blog post “It Happened Here: Taxi Driver.”

If you like ghosts, ghouls and goblins you are in for a treat, this week Off the Grid will be featuring Halloween-themed posts.

We also have some great events in the next few weeks about the history of the East Village including lectures on Yiddish Theatre, a talk about the Puerto Rican community of Loisaida and Much Ado about Noshing, a night of food and fun.

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