THE STORY OF ONE BLOCK

“The Man with the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block” provides an intimate look at the stories behind, and inside, seven buildings located on one Upper West Side block. Author Daniel Wakin is here to share the details on his new book that explores New York City history during the first 50 years of the 20th Century.

Aired on January 24, 2018. 

TRANSCRIPT

> THIS IS A TALE OF HOW HISTORY, CRIME AND ARCHITECTURE ALL COLLIDE ON ONE STREET ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE OF MANHATTAN.

THE LOCATION RIVERSIDE DRIVE BETWEEN WEST 105 AND WEST 106th STREET, WHAT IS IS SEEN AN ELEGANT ROW OF TOWNHOUSES, A HISTORY HIDDEN BEHIND THOSE BRILLIANT HALLS.

AN INTIMATE GLIMPSE INTO THE HISTORY OF NEW YORK CITY.

TITLED 'THE MAN WITH THE SAWED OFTEN LEG AND OTHER TALES ON THE CITY BLOCK.'

DAN, GREAT TO HAVE YOU HERE.

I WANT TO GET TO THE TIGHT UNTIL A MOMENT, BECAUSE IT'S FABULOUS AND WHAT IT REPRESENTS IS SO COMPELLING.

BUT, YOU KNOW, YOU'RE JOURNALISTS, YOU HAVE COVERED ALL SORTS OF STORIES, VERY INVOLVED IN CRIME JOURNALISM, HOW DID YOU DISCOVER THESE PLACES AND THE STORIES BEHIND THEM?

WELL, I HAD RECENTLY COME BACK FROM COVERING INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS.

I WAS BASED IN SOUTH AFRICA, AND ROME.

AND I HAD COME BACK TO NEW YORK AND MOVED BACK INTO THE APARTMENT I GREW UP IN.

AND RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER FROM THAT APARTMENT, THERE WAS THIS ROW OF TOWNHOUSE THAT I ALWAYS REALLY LOVED, WALKING PAST THEM TO GO TO THE PARK.

THEY'RE SO BEAUTIFUL.

I HAVE DRIVEN PAST THEM MYSELF.

THEY'RE ELEGANT AND THEY'RE BEAUTIFULLY ORIENTED AND THEY ALL KIND OF -- I DIDN'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT WHO LIVED IN THEM.

AND HERE I WAS LIVING IN MY BUILDING AND LOOKING BACK AT MY PAST, AND I WAS WONDERING WHAT ABOUT THE PAST OF THESE BUILDINGS.

AND IT REALLY TUGGED AT ME, THIS IDEA THAT YOU HAVE THESE STRUCTURES MADE OF BRICK AND LIMESTONE AND THEY EXIST AND THEY HAVE BEEN THERE FOR DECADES AND WILL BE THERE FOR DECADES BUT THEY'RE ALSO HUMAN BEINGS MADE OF FLESH AND BLOOD WHO CARRIED OUT THEIR LIVES BEHIND THE WALLS, INSIDE THE ROOMS.

GIVE ME AGAIN, BEFORE WE GET TO THAT, GIVE ME A GENERAL KIND OF A LIST.

I THINK MOST OF US, MORE THAN PROBABLY WELL TO DO TO VERY WELL TO DO PEOPLE WHO LIVED IN THIS BEAUTIFUL -- THESE BEAUTIFUL STRUCTURES.

BUT THERE'S A COLLECTION OF CHARACTERS GIVE ME A QUICK KIND OF A LIST OF WHAT YOU DISCOVERED.

THAT'S EXACTLY RIGHT.

IT'S A COLLECTION OF CHARACTERS.

AND THE BUILDINGS HAD WEALTHY PEOPLE BUT THEN THE NEIGHBORHOOD WENT THROUGH MANY CYCLES AND SEVERAL OF THEM BECAME BOARDING HOUSES OR APARTMENT BUILDINGS SO THERE WAS A REAL MIX OF ECONOMIC LEVELS.

FOR INSTANCE, ON THE CORNER, R.V. DAVIS, DAVIS IS THE INVENTER OF DAVIS BAKING POWDER, WHICH ANY NEW YORKER WHO GOES INTO THE SUPERMARKET SEES TO THIS DAY.

HE MADE A FORTUNE.

HE WAS A CIVIL WAR VETERAN.

HE WAS ENGAGED IN A VERY UGLY DIVORCE WITH HIS WIFE, IT WAS ALL OVER THE PAPERS, IT WAS REALITY TV OF THE DAY.

SHE TRIED TO HAVE HIM DECLARED AS INSANE SO SHE COULD TAKE OVER THE BUSINESS.

I FOUND OUT THAT THAT WASN'T QUITE THE TRUTH.

I GOT HOLD OF SOME FAMILY ARCHIVES.

AND ANOTHER ONE, MARION DAVIES.

SHE WAS A BIG NAME IN THAT ERA?

SHE WAS A HOLLYWOOD STAR.

THANKS IN LARGE PART TO HER NEWSPAPER BUILDING HER UP.

AND SHE WANTED TO HAVE A GRAND LIFESTYLE AS BEFITTING THE MISTRESS OF THE HEARSE.

OF COURSE, WHY WOULDN'T YOU?

SO THEN WE HAVE THE MAN WITH THE SAWED OFF LEG.

RIGHT.

TELL ME THAT STORY.

ONE OF THE STORIES IS THE STORY OF NEW YORK CITAND THE PEE THAT CAN LIVE TOGETHER ON A BLOCK.

THE OTHER STORY IS AN ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, THE PLANNING THE EXECUTION, THE INVESTIGATION AND THE TRIAL.

IT WAS CALLED THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY?

IT WAS CALLED THAT, YES.

ONE OF THE APARTMENT BUILDINGS, ONE OF THE TOWNHOUSES BY 1934 WAS A ROOMING HOUSE AND IT WAS USED FOR, YOU KNOW, IT WAS RUN BY THIS WOMAN WHO RAN ROOMING HOUSES IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD FOR, YOU KNOW, UNDER WORLD FIGURES, AS BROTHELS, ET CETERA, SO THE GANG USED THIS APARTMENT HOUSE AS THEIR HIDEOUT YES.

AND THE TITLE, IF YOU'RE READY FOR THIS ONE, AND MAYBE A VIEWER ALERT HERE, IT'S A LITTLE GRUESOME.

SO THE GANG ROBBED AN ARMORED CAR IN BATH BEACH BROOKLYN.

AND THEY MADE THEIR GET AWAY ACROSS GRAY'S END BAY.

THIS IS UNIQUE, YOU THINK ABOUT IT, TWO BOATS WITH CASH.

AND DURING THE JOURNEY, ONE OF THE GANGSTERS, HIS NAME WAS BENNIE 'THE BUM' McMAHON, ACCIDENTALLY SHOT HIMSELF IN THE KNEE WITH A SHOTGUN.

SO WHERE DID THEY TAKE HIM?

TO THEIR SAFE HOUSE.

THEY CALLED A DOCTOR WHO'S USED TO DEALING WITH THE UNDERWORLD.

THE DOCTOR AMPUTATED THE LEG, THERE WASN'T MUCH THEY COULD DO, SO POOR BENNY BLED TO DEATH, SO THAT'S THE MAN WITH THE SAWED OFF LEG.

IF I LIVED THERE, I WOULD BE, WHO KNEW?

IT'S A FASCINATING LOOK, A MICROCHASM OF NEW YORK CITY.

AND SOME REALLY COMPELLING STORIES, AGAIN, 'THE MAN WITH THE SAWED OFF LEG AND TOTHER TALES OF A NEW YORK CITY BLOCK.'

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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