Sunday, May 14, 2017

Who Blew Up Gotham’s Macy & Jenkins — and Why?


New York, according to the Harper’s Weekly of April 11, 1857, was “…A huge semi-barbarous metropolis...not well-governed nor ill-governed, but simply not governed at all — with filthy and unlighted streets, no practical or efficient security for either life or property, a police not worthy of the name, and expenses steadily and enormously increasing.”

Charles B. Macy and Francis Jenkins might have agreed with that harsh assessment. They had been involved in liquor sales for more than a decade in Manhattan at 149 Fulton Street as Macy & Jenkins when on March 4, 1857, an attempt was made blow their establishment to smithereens.  Who was behind the blast — and why were they targeted?

The year 1857 was one of extreme unrest in Gotham City.  Two major riots had rocked the scene.  One occurred in June when New York Municipal Police clashed violently with Metropolitan Police over the Mayor’s allegedly corrupt appointment of the city’s Street Commissioner.  Shown above, the spectacle of cops fighting cops was concluded only by the intervention of the New York State militia. 
Much more serious was a melee that consisted of widespread violence and looting called the “Dead Rabbits Riot” after one of the Irish gangs involved.  A newspaper illustration above caught the mayhem.  This altercation, lasting July 4 and 5, accounted for at least eight deaths, multiple serious injuries and extensive property damage.  The fighting was stopped only by a second intervention by  regiments of the New York State Militia who marched on the rioters with fixed bayonets.  With police help they were able to intimidate gang members to retreat back to their hideouts.

This was the environment in which Macy and Jenkins did business.  The first floor of their Fulton Street store typically was crowded with barrels and casks of whiskey and other items.  Just after dark on an otherwise quiet Sunday evening when the store was closed a tremendous explosion rocked the building.  It blew out the doors and windows front and back.  The rear windows that had been secured by iron shutters were blown open by the violence of the concussion as were windows in the cellar.  Fragments of the front doors were thrown across the street. 

An investigation afterward revealed that an effort had been made to blow up the building with gunpowder and, in the estimate of officials, to cause a raging fire.  The explosive material had been been placed between a barrel of whiskey and a stairway and lighted with a slow match, seemingly designed to burst the cask, ignite the whiskey and throw flames in every direction.  In reality, the resulting blaze was negligible.  A policeman and a fire fighter — known in those days as “an insurance patrolman”    were nearby, ran to the scene and extinguished the fire with a few buckets of water.

The proprietors quickly were called to the scene.  They found their safe untouched, nothing of value missing, and their stock largely in the same condition as it was before the blast.   The total damage was estimated at not more than fifty dollars.  Macy and Jenkins had gotten off lightly.  If the partners had an idea who had perpetrated the explosion and why, they did not share it with the press.  Before long, however, they moved their enterprise to a more staid neighborhood at 67 Liberty Street, a five story building between Broadway and Nassau Street in the Financial District, next to the New York Chamber of Commerce.

How these partners came to link their fortunes is unclear. Charles Macy was the oldest, born in Hudson, Columbia County, New York, in 1807, the first of six children of Benjamin and Lydia Bunker Macy.  Members of the Macy family had a habit of dying young.  Before he reached 20, Charles had experienced the death of his father and two younger sisters.  Jenkins was eight years Macy’s junior. He was a native New Yorker who, according to the census, still lived with his elderly father, Jonathan, and other siblings at the age of 32.  He would marry later and raise a family.


Having survived the blast and moved to more prestigious quarters, the partners saw their business thrive.  At the new location with additional space they were able to operate as “rectifiers,”  that is, blending their own whiskeys to achieve color, taste and smoothness.  They called their flagship brand, “Old Club House,”  a name initially they never bothered to trademark.  Their advertising promised that this brand was “warranted pure and softened by age only.”

The company bottled Old Club House in a distinctive glass bottle with a handle, giving the appearance of a jug or decanter.  Their names appeared on embossing on the base of the container, which came in varying shades of amber.   A paper label overlay the glass.  Shown below the label referenced the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, a common and meaningless ploy by wholesalers.

By 1906 the original owners were gone from the company, taken by death. Macy was the first to pass, in February 1869 at the age of 61.  He was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, shown here.  In the years that followed Francis Jenkins carried on alone, eventually bringing a son, William B. Jenkins, into the business.  Francis died at the age of 77 in October 1893, leaving William thereafter to guide Macy & Jenkins.  Francis too was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery.

Under William Jenkin’s guidance, the liquor house moved into the 20th Century and continued to thrive.  The American Carbonator and Bottler publication hailed it by writing:  “Bottlers who want find wines and liquors for the holiday trade or for family or office use will find just what they want in the superior stock of wine and liquors kept by the famous old house of Macy & Jenkins, 67 Liberty Street, New York.”  The firm continued to feature Old Club House whiskey as its flagship brand.  With the strengthening of trademark laws in 1904, William Jenkins saw the benefit of registering the name with the federal government for the first time in 1905.  
The last New York City directory listing for the firm that I can find is for 1918.  As a result of the onset of National Prohibition, the next year Macy & Jenkins would be forced to shut down after almost 80 years in business  To the end the liquor house was located at 67 Liberty Street in Manhattan. 

This brief history of Macy & Jenkins fails to shed definitive light on why in 1857 someone tried to destroy their store.  Assessing the lawlessness that ran rampant over New York City during that time, my guess is that the partners were targeted for refusing the blandishments of gang members to buy “protection.”  Gotham gangs like Dead Rabbits, Bowery Boys, Atlantic Guards and Roach Guards were known to engage in those kinds of extortion schemes.  When Macy and Jenkins apparently refused to play ball with the thugs, they put their business in jeopardy.   

Note:  Earlier in this century the Macy & Jenkins building was turned into residences and additional stories placed on top.  Here is a picture of the structure as the construction progressed and how it was expected to look at the end.  One writer put it this way:  “Something wacky this way comes at 67 Liberty Street in the Financial District, where a boarded up five-story commercial building is quickly adding floors….And that rooftop addition?  Oh, it’s just going to be 15 stories.”  Only in New York City.




























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