At the turn of the century, while New York City’s fashionably rich time-killers were making fortunes arrogantly and engaging in Roman carnivals of gluttony and pomp, the working poor and the newly arrived immigrants struggled earning starvation wages and living in wretched tenement housing. Jacob August Riis, a police reporter for The New York Tribune, covering some of the city’s most crime-ridden districts, wanted his readers to truly understand the dehumanizing dangers in the slums of the great metropolis. Jacob taught himself photography and began taking a camera with him on his nightly rounds. Riis’s pioneering use of flash photography brought to light even the darkest parts of the city.
In 1890 Riis wrote a treatise of social criticism How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, which was filled with unapologetically harsh accounts of life in the worst slums of New York, fascinating and terrible statistics on tenement living, and reproductions of his revelatory photographs. How the Other Half Lives was a shock to many New Yorkers and an immediate success. Not only did it sell well, but it inspired police commissioner and future president Teddy Roosevelt to close the worst of the lodging houses and spurred city officials to reform and enforce the city’s housing policies.
The pomposity among the ultra rich socialites, Mrs. Astor’s 400, continued full force but under altered motives. In February of 1897, the Bradley-Martins and their eight hundred true blue blood guests spent $9.7 million in today’s money at a costume ball at the Waldorf, a few miles from the lower Manhattan dregs, for five hours of entertainment. The interior of the hotel was transformed into a replica of Versailles. The guests dressed as kings and queens. Their stated intentions were to throw “the greatest party in the history of the city,” but also to create an economic stimulus for New York City by hiring a small army of party planners, decorators and caterers, as well as financial strapped locals to carry out menial tasks. Organizers of the grand fête believed offering employment however temporary gave more honor and dignity to the lower classes than providing handouts. In an acrobatic act of straddling the two worlds, the politically ambitious Teddy Roosevelt had his wife join in the extravagance, while he stayed outside with his officers on the beat.
In 1904, social worker Robert Hunter published Poverty, a study that bared the contrast between the myth of equality and the grim realities of life. His report elucidated the extreme conditions of urban living. It presented evidence of tragic conditions throughout the United States, not just in the cities. He wrote:
There are probably in fairly prosperous years no less than 10,000,000 persons in poverty [out of a total population of about 80,000,000]; that is to say, underfed, underclothed, and poorly housed. Of these about 4,000,000 persons are public paupers. Over 2,000,000 working-men are unemployed from four to six months in the year. About 500,000 male immigrants arrive yearly and seek work in the very districts where unemployment is greatest. Nearly half of the families in the country are propertyless. Over 1,700,000 little children are forced to become wage earners when they should still be in school. About 5,000,000 women find it necessary to work and about 2,000,000 are employed in factories, mills, etc. Probably no less than 1,000,000 workers are injured or killed each year while doing their work.
It was during this period that Amy got to know the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Chinatown” and ruffian, Chuck Connors, and participated in the practice of “slumming,” perhaps the most egregious and despicable past time that the swells of New York became involved in. Slumming was a fashionable entertainment outlet for the social elite whereby the downtrodden were observed in squalid locales out of curiosity or for amusement. Lucky guests would go on nocturnal tours guided by colorful characters such as Connors and see rickety condemned buildings and crowded tenements innumerable.
The New York Times embraced the trend even giving suggestions on which districts to hit for a thrilling night out. These expeditions focused on communities that overlapped the city’s principal red-light districts, the Jewish and Italian tenements, Chinatown and the black communities. Slumming parties would find gambling carried on the shadow of a church, and visit “some of the lowest beer saloons in the city, dingy and dirty, frequented by the vilest characters of both sexes,” according to the Times. Part of the thrill for the guests was in running the risk of being slugged on the riverside or relieved of their valuables. Amy, in her constant search for new adventures, made a habit of frequenting red-light districts in major cities the world over like the Barbary Coast in San Francisco and Pigalle in Paris. She wrote about a visit to an opium den in Hong Kong in her 1936 travel book And I’d Do It Again.
Slumming sometimes assumed the guise of a fact finding mission for a reform enterprise. Close observation of the poor caused some wealthy looky-loos, outraged religious leaders and turn-of-the-century social welfare workers to conclude that people’s environments, rather than their personal defects, caused poverty. Some came to believe that the ills of poverty could be cured by improving housing, sanitation, and job opportunities rather than by admonishing the poor to be more diligent and moral. Occasionally improvements were made to the tenements. Walls were whitewashed, lights and ventilation were added. Social welfare programs were initiated. There certainly remained many who saw poverty as a reflection of communities and individuals that were morally bankrupt. In the early 1890s, the Reverend Charles Parkhurst’s “sin tours” to observe the lowly in lower Manhattan, provided grist for his bombastic sermons and reform movements against drinking, prostitution, lewd dancing and opium use.
The self-described “Mayor of Chinatown,” “Sage of Doyers Street,” and “King of the Lobbygows,” Chuck Connors was a famous wit and raconteur, a flashy Irish ex-boxer and Bowery barfly. Born George Washington Connors, Chuck spent his days swaggering amongst Tong runners and sightseers, bumming drinks and telling colorful stories with flourishes in German, Yiddish, Chinese, Cockney, and of course “Oirish” blarney. He worked as a bouncer and factotum in some of the area’s seedier establishments like the Chatham Club and frequented all of the most notorious dives that fed on real desperation, as the grim black humor of their names suggests: the Plague, the Dump, the Hell Hole, the Fleabag, the Bucket of Blood, and Paresis Hall, a gay hangout for male prostitutes that got its nickname from a general term for syphilitic insanity. Connors took Amy there. She carefully described Paresis in her memoirs, “It was an institution for men only. Trusting you to understand with true modern perception, I shall only add that the gentlemen were such that my presence was not noticed.” The most notorious of all was McGurk’s Saloon, aka “Suicide Hall,” which acquired its bleak nickname because more prostitutes killed themselves within its walls than at any other spot in the world. Connors held court in some bars with a group of newspaper reporters and was the source and often the main character of many Chinatown tales.
Connors had no obvious means of support but lived rent free in an apartment at 6 Doyers Street supplied by Richard K. Fox, publisher of the Police Gazette and later Connors’ autobiography Bowery Life. Chuck acquired friends in high and low places.
Combining his vast knowledge of the region and his connections with various social groups, Chuck capitalized on the upper class’s fascination with the crime, poverty, and vice of the day by acting as “lobbygow,” a pidgin Chinese term for tour guide, to groups of well-known celebrities and tourists. He would take these sightseers on nocturnal tours around the Bowery and through Chinatown, where he had the field all to himself. Chinatown was his turf. Some of his famous patrons included novelist Israel Zangwill, actresses Ellen Terry and Anna Held, businessman and tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton, Prince William of Sweden and Prince Harry of Battenberg.
Chuck claimed that his official presence alone would protect the ladies of the party from insult and the gentlemen from violence. Connors would take his tours passed the popular Chinese Opera House on Doyers Street, the only Chinese Theater east of San Francisco or to the Mott Street “joss house” or temple. They would go to the Chinese Tuxedo restaurant to dine on “authentic” chop suey. Chuck would often spice things up and tantalize his slumming customers by setting up fake opium dens to see addicts in the throws of a poppy seed induced euphoria. He would point out innocent shop keepers and claim they were ax-wielding murderers. They had no way to know that much of what they had seen was elaborate street theater, put on to fool celebrities and gullible white tourists.
Real dangers were ever present. Chuck’s customers might inadvertently hear gunfire spontaneously break out between rival gangs the On Leongs and the Hip Sings. Because there was so many murders by hatchet and pistol in the neighborhood, it was appropriately nicknamed “The Bloody Angle.” The New York Times reported that “more people have died violently at the Bloody Angle, the crook at Doyers Street near Pell, than at any other intersection in America.”
In her autobiography, Amy called Connors New York’s most curious figure of the twentieth century, “splendid and mysterious, a ruffian and a gentleman, a nobleman and an apache, still a legend in New York’s saga.”
She went on:
What shall I tell you about him? That his wife died in my arms? That he silently ruled the Underworld, that he was the Bowery king, the “open sesame” of the hinterland of lower New York where even the police never ventured save in numbers and armed? I can picture him still…hard-faced and strong, with the look of a handsome man, powerful in body, a walk in which every step seemed to say, “I go where I choose, unmolested, the master,” dark, with those triangular eyes that fighters have.
It has been said of me that I collect people as others collect postage stamps. I used to resent it, but now I think it is probably true. I “collected” Chuck Connors (or did he collect me, I wonder?) and brought him frequently to my house in New York where he became one of the more spectacular members of a very varied assortment. It amused him. I suspect that I amused him, too, and that was fair enough because it was natural. It was through him that I had the privilege of seeing what was behind the scenes of New York, and peering into the dregs of that cauldron.
Adding to Chuck’s popularity was his unique manner of dress and speech. The well-known “Connors look” consisted of bell bottom trousers, a blue-striped shirt, a bright silk scarf, a pea coat festooned with large pearl buttons, a white tie, and his trademark bowler hat. He reportedly acquired his fondness for hats as a sailor, when he saw them on the heads of the “swells” in London. Chuck became quite a sport. He had a jingle to go with his getup:
Pearlies on my shirt front
Pearlies on my coat
Little bitta dicer, stuck up on my nut
If you don’t think I’m de real t’ing
Why, tut, tut, tut
His indigenous slang was described as a “dialect untouched by education.” Chuck enlivened newspaper feature pages throughout the 1890s with his comments on the trials and tribulations of Bowery life. Connor’s observations, like those of all Bowery characters, derived added humor from his accent, which turned “these,” “them,” and “those,” into “dese,” “dem,” and “dose,” and “pearl,” “girl,” and “twirl” into “poil,” “goil,” and “twoil.”
“I’m one of dose guys now wot gits ink all over his flippers and looks wise. Say, it’s a cinch, and I’ve got some of dem blokes wot writes books skinned a mile,” Chuck wrote in Bowery Life.
Chuck’s popularity sparked an array of Bowery melodramas between 1890 and 1917: The Bowery, The Bowery After Ten, The Bowery Bud, The Bowery Boy (four of these in the 1890s alone), The Bowery Boys, The Bowery Girl (three separate versions), The Bowery King, The Bowery Caruso, The Bowery of New York, The Bowery Newsgirl, The Bowery Pawnbroker, The Bowery Waif, and, most famous of all, The Bowery After Dark, an implausible tale of lowbrow thugs that was a nationwide sensation in 1900.
The Bowery was, to be sure, a world of crime and violence, but the majority of its criminals were depicted in popular culture as a far tamer variety of evil-doer: pickpockets, con artists and small-time crooks who were comically naïve and somehow endearing.
Connors soon began appearing on the stage and was eventually coupled with the great Anna Held herself in an act staged at Oscar Hammerstein’s theater on Broadway. Connors would become a lead character in a 1933 20th century Fox film The Bowery starring Wallace Beery as Chuck, Jackie Cooper as Swipes McGurk, George Raft as Steve Brodie, Fay Wray as love interest Lucy Calhoun, and included an appearance by a young Lucille Ball in her first film role.
Taking full advantage of his newfound notoriety, the Bowery philosopher and storyteller threw events for the Chuck Connors Association whose proceeds went to none other than Chuck himself. Chuck Connors’ annual Chinatown Ball had been renowned for its transgressive revelry. Chuck hosted special guests, boxing champions “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and Charles “Kid” McCoy at his 1897 ball months after the ornate but stuffy Bradley-Martin extravaganza. His yearly jamboree would sometimes be held at Tammany Hall, the central Democratic headquarters and engine for graft and political corruption. Bigwigs both high and low would rub up against the flotsam and jetsam. Police Captain Big Tim Sullivan could exchange pleasantries with Tom Lee of the On Leong tong while listening to music by Professor Yee Wah Lung’s Chinese Orchestra. In the words of a 1903 New York Times account, “There were Chinamen dancing with white girls, negro women waltzing with white men in evening dress, pugilists from the Bowery, well-known theatrical folks from the uptown theatres, society men and women who had come in their carriages just to look on, and a raft of humanity from the Chinese quarter…”
As was the case with the dynamic heiress Amy Crocker, it was Chuck Connors’ guest list that was his genius. His magnanimous personality could bring together people from all walks of life, in unity and in tune, both illustrious and infamous. His yearly ball was a United Nations of merrymakers…
Chuck Connors died in 1913 at the age of 61 of pneumonia having in his last years lost his grip, due to a combination of alcohol and ill health. His funeral procession consisted of sixty three coaches filled with mourning friends, and an additional six coaches stuffed with floral arrangements. The mourners were a who’s who of the political world, the sporting world, and the underworld. The procession snaked around the streets of Chinatown and the Bowery. As Connors’ coffin passed each establishment, Chinese merchants set off their tradition funeral firework displays, in honor of a white man they considered one of their own.