Ten Ways to Die in Turn-of-the-Last-Century New York
The first decade of the twentieth century in New York City was a time of crowded tenements and splendid mansions, of extraordinary inventions and ubiquitous fraud, of widespread corruption and reformist zeal. It was, in short, a time of contrast and conflict on a grand scale—making it a terrific setting for a mystery series. The period also presented some intriguing ways to die, just waiting to be mined by the murder mystery author. Here are ten of them:
Death by electrocution. Electricity was still new and exciting at the turn of the century, and everyone wanted a piece of it. At Coney Island, clowns used electric prods to chase people across a funhouse stage. “Electrotherapists” ran current through patients’ brains and bodies to cure a variety of ills. Among the middle and upper classes, electric vibrators became de rigueur. While these applications apparently never killed anybody, the use of electricity for more utilitarian purposes was often deadly. A general lack of understanding of electrical principles, along with the absence of a uniform electrical code, led to faulty installations that caused countless fires and electrocutions in the early years of the century.
Death by opiate overdose. Before the Harrison Act of 1914 restricted their manufacture and distribution, various forms of opium were widely available. Dens offering smokable opium latex lined Mott and Pell Streets and were heavily frequented by non-Chinese users as well as by tourists who paid to gawk at narcotized smokers and their layouts. Laudanum, a solution of opium and alcohol, could be purchased from pharmacists without a prescription and was used to treat a plethora of ills including toothache, menstrual pain, cough, insomnia, and anxiety. Morphine, an active constituent of opium, was the main ingredient in several patent medicines including Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a popular “mother’s helper” for quieting fussy babies. All of these opiates could be—and frequently were—lethal when taken in excess.
Death by oyster. Oysters were wildly popular at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth and grew abundantly in New York City waters. Unfortunately, their local habitats were contaminated over time by sewage piped into the city’s rivers, making them increasingly dangerous to consume. In the early 1900s, several deaths were linked to oysters carrying the typhoid bacillus, which is transferred through human excrement. The industry subsequently went into decline, and by 1927, all of the city’s oyster beds were closed.
Death by hit-and-run. Badly trained drivers, frequent tire blowouts, unsuspecting pedestrians, and equine fear of noisy machinery resulted in hundreds of fatal accidents when automobiles first appeared on the roads in significant numbers. Children playing in the street were often the victims, but no one was immune. According to newspaper reports of the time, hit-and-run drivers were not uncommon, managing in many cases to outrun the mounted police who chased them. In one August alone, seventeen people were killed by automobiles, six of whom were children.
Death by roof garden. Before air conditioning, roof gardens were a popular place to cool off in the summertime. Found on top of theaters, hotels, hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, they were used for dining, theater, farming, calisthenics, and recuperation. Some of their more elaborate features included decorative iron arches, lakes with swans, sliding glass ceilings, windmills, and waterfalls, all typically lit with strings of glittering electric bulbs that enticed people up from the street. With so many people flocking upward, death was sure to follow. The most famous roof garden victim was architect Stanford White, who was shot in an open air theater on top of Madison Square Garden by a former lover’s deranged husband in 1906. Most other roof garden deaths were a result of falls, usually suicides.
Death by caisson disease. Caused by the compressed air used in bridge and tunnel construction, caisson disease first appeared in New York City during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Compressed air causes nitrogen to dissolve in the blood; if decompression is too rapid, the dissolved nitrogen forms bubbles that lodge in the blood vessels and soft tissue, causing extreme pain and, in many cases, death. Limiting the amount of time workers were required to spend in compressed air chambers and allowing longer decompression periods reduced the risk slightly on later projects, but at least a dozen men still died from the illness during the construction of the Hudson River Tunnels between 1904 and 1908.
Death by wood alcohol. Life in the city was hard for many, and alcoholic beverages promised relief. For those unable to afford the real thing, alcohol produced from wood vapor, otherwise known as methyl alcohol, was a tempting but toxic alternative. Cheap to produce, it was sold in pure form and added to other spirits to reduce their cost. It was also an ingredient in flavoring extracts such as essence of ginger, and in various toiletries, including bay rum. Even moderate amounts could be fatal, first blinding and then killing the drinker within 30 hours of ingestion.
Death by runaway. In the spring and fall, when the weather was mild and New York society was “at home,” thousands of horses passed through Central Park each day. In the morning, they were taken out under saddle for training and exercise, while in the evening they were harnessed to luxurious carriages and driven in the daily “park parade,” where the fashionable flocked between the hours of four and seven to see and be seen by their peers. With so many animals in motion, it was inevitable that some would bolt; according to one article of the time, runaways averaged fourteen per week. Although the mounted police were often heroic in their attempts to chase them down, falls and collisions were a regular occurrence, frequently resulting in death.
Death by drowning. During the 1880s and 1890s, the city built fifteen “floating baths” in the East and Hudson Rivers to provide relief for sweltering New York residents, each a floating rectangular wooden frame with a swimming well in the center. Unfortunately, by the early 1900s, the burgeoning tenement population had outstripped the baths’ capacity, resulting in long lines and the occasional riot. Seeking an easier alternative, many city youths chose to dive directly into the rivers from the nearest dock or pier, sharing the water with river rats, clumps of sewage, and floating debris. One favorite pastime was to swim out and climb up on sand barges, where the sand was cleaner than on the-oil soaked shore. Another was to sneak aboard a steamship berthed at a pier and dive off its bridge. Not infrequently, the youngest and/or least experienced swimmers paid for these adventures with their lives.
Death by sword. In my historical mystery, A Deadly Affection, a society doctor is killed with a scimitar he received in gratitude for his attempts to treat Czar Nicholas’s hemophiliac son. A more widely available weapon at the time was the cane-sword, which made good use of the walking sticks fashionable with men and women of the period. Other popular turn-of-the-century weapons included pistol-canes, noiseless spring revolvers, metal knuckles, revolver-dirk-knuckle combinations, sandbags, slingshots, blackjacks, and bowie knives.
About the author: Cuyler Overholt’s debut mystery, A Deadly Affection (Sourcebooks Landmark), is about a young female psychiatrist in 1907 New York City who fears she may have unwittingly provoked a patient to commit a murder. For more information about the book, or about the Dr. Genevieve Summerford historical mystery series, visit www.cuyleroverholt.com .