New York City’s Scroogelicious History

Kara Hughes |
Author: Kara Hughes
Publisher: Globe Pequot
Publication Date: Nov. 2011

Ebenezer Scrooge is the poster child for all things miserable throughout the holiday season. But based on some of New York City’s residents of yore, it turns out Scrooge is not lacking for company when it comes to misanthropic miscreants.

Brooklyn Author Kara Hughes recently published a book of the 15 most notorious dead jerks in New York’s history. Seeing as how it is a Scroogilicious season, we decided to publish a list of Hughes’ picks for the top five New York jerks of all time.

Have a look at her Scroogey choices, in her own words, below.

#1. Dan Sickles (1819-1914): The Jerk Most Likely to Have Nine Lives

Like Scrooge, Dan Sickles’ reputation preceded him. A widely known philanderer, Sickles started out as a cutthroat New York lawyer by day, a ladies man by night. In his lifetime he was an attorney, a senator, a prisoner, an army general, a minister to Spain and a congressman. Sickles’ notoriety began when he became the first American to use insanity (successfully) as a courtroom defense.

An impulsive cad, his pattern of unscrupulous decision-making did not wane following his 1859 trial for first-degree murder; instead, his willingness to remain utterly shameless continued until the day he died. Those wanting to celebrate Sickles can go visit his leg — blown off during the battle of Gettysburg — which is on display in Maryland’s National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Typhoid Mary, a typhoid carrier, depicted in a newspaper cartoon. Arrested twice for cooking despite her illness, Mary Mallon was eventually banished for life. Flick/intrepidblue

#2. “Typhoid” Mary Mallon (1869-1938): The Jerk Most Likely to Poison You

Mary Mallon may not have been tightfisted like Scrooge, but her hands were what got her into trouble. Mallon, who worked as a chef, emigrated from Ireland and moved to New York City in 1883. Mallon knowingly infected her customers with typhoid fever as she continued to cook and serve them food despite her illness. It took authorities four attempts to compel her cooperation — each failed attempt involved her wielding a weapon — before they eventually confirmed her status as a typhoid carrier. After her first stint in exile on North Brother Island, Mallon was released only to be arrested again for returning to life as a cook at a hospital. Typhoid Mary secured her spot in history by having dirty hands and was quarantined in North Brother Island for life.

Sanford White was "as faithful to his mistresses as he was to his wife," writes Hughes of this perennial philanderer. Photo by George Cox

#3. Stanford White (1853-1906): The Jerk Most Likely to Have It Coming to Him

If Scrooge were married, he might have treated his wife the way Standford White treated his. Delivering terms of endearment to his wife including love notes that said “fat is fatal,” White had a way with the women. The architect whose vision created the Washington Square Arch, gorgeous estate homes in and around New York City, portions of the University of Virginia campus and the second iteration of Madison Square Garden, White was exceptionally talented. He was also a despicable character who, by 1890, had cemented himself into all sorts of New York scenes, ranging from the high-brow and pretentious to the sordid and seedy. White came to a sad end; he was murdered by the fiancé of one of his former sexual conquests.

"Taking Becker to Sing Sing," an undated image from the Bain News Service, of Charles Becker being escorted to Sing Sing jail, where he would later be executed. This image is in the public domain.

#4. Charles Becker (1870-1915): The Jerk Most Likely to Bribe You, Then Have You Killed

Charles Becker’s greed did not dissolve the patience he was willing to exert while he rose through the ranks of New York’s Police Department. If only Becker had a Tiny Tim to elicit the remorse and kindness that set Scrooge straight. When Lieutenant Becker was appointed to head the department’s Special Duty (a.k.a. Strong Arm) Squad in 1911, he wasted little time establishing an extensive extortion ring. Defenders of the 16 NYPD officers recently arrested for ticket-fixing suggested that misconduct was not only sanctioned, it was condoned. A closer look back to the way that Becker controlled the gambling and gangsters found throughout Manhattan’s “Satan’s Circus” will reveal how he set the precedent for police corruption. Becker’s undeniably lucrative, but ultimately illegal activities landed him in Sing Sing’s electric chair.

Collyer Brothers Park, opened in 1998, on Fifth Avenue and East 128 St. It is situated not too far from the brownstone the Collyer brothers both perished in. Photo by Jim Henderson.

#5. Langley Collyer (1885-1947): The Jerk Most Likely to Have Dead Bodies in His Attic

Not even the Ghost of Christmas Past could have saved Langley Collyer from the consequences of his own actions. Found in his Harlem brownstone, his body being eaten by rats, buried in one of his own booby traps he set up to protect a lifetime of loot from possible intruders. Collyer is one of history’s greatest recluses, whose eccentric habit of hoarding is the stuff of legend:  The New York Times ran pages of photos depicting his filth as it spilled from his home;  E.L. Doctorow was so captivated with having seen the Collyer’s home as a youth that, in 2009, he published “Homer and Langley,” a fictionalized account of Harlem’s mysterious brothers; and now millions of viewers can get their Collyer-fix by tuning in to A&E’s “Hoarders.”  Langley Collyer was a self-appointed caretaker to his blind older brother, Homer, who starved to death in their house as he awaited an already dead Langley to bring him food. Bah humbug! It looks as if there is no one to blame for the Collyer brothers’ deaths but their very own nutty younger brother.

Kara Hughes was born and raised a Buckeye, but now calls Brooklyn home.  She graduated with a B.A. from Harvard University and earned an M.F.A. from the University of Pittsburgh.  She holds a number of jobs, including writing and teaching.

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