CSI: Very Old New York

By David A. Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

It was a good day to visit a crime scene, chilly and overcast. On a recent Saturday morning, I made my way to Manhattan's Bowling Green, near the Old Custom House and the modern Financial District. Five of us gathered to go over an extremely cold case: Manhattan's first documented murder. Bowling Green was once the Dutch settlement of Fort Amsterdam. Now dominated by a bronze charging bull and soaring skyscrapers, a wedge of green remains where you can imagine two Dutch settlers approaching the fort's gate with knives drawn one afternoon in 1638. One of them wouldn't survive the day, and a city's rich history of misdeeds was begun.

This walking tour through the Crimes of Old New York is one of a handful of specialized explorations that take you into city crevices far more interesting than the Empire State Building or Times Square. You can drink inside former speak-easies, track some wickedly witty literati and learn how to forage in Central Park (or, easier, in out-of-the-way shops and delis).

The offbeat tours draw locals as well as tourists. My comrades on the crime tour included a couple from Brooklyn and a woman from the Upper West Side in a leather jacket. Marilyn Stults, our guide from Street Smarts N.Y., has been giving this tour for 20 years.

For $10 (no reservations needed), you stroll through crime scenes and suspenseful tales of Lower Manhattan -- two hours through landmarks of murder, mayhem, corruption and gang warfare. Everything from Captain Kidd's stint as a Wall Street financier to the 1841 murder of a Nassau Street shop clerk that inspired Edgar Allan Poe's grisly imagination.

Stults described how the two Dutch gunners fell to blows, and how the killer knocked his victim over the palisades. "The devil shall take you for this," the victim reportedly growled before expiring. But New York's first killer skipped town and escaped punishment.

Bowling Green saw lesser crimes later when colonists, after hearing the Declaration of Independence read aloud on July 9, 1776, erupted in a riot of "patriotic vandalism" that toppled a statue of King George III, which supposedly was melted into bullets and used against British soldiers during the Revolution.

We walked past Fraunces Tavern, linked to an alleged attempt on George Washington's life, then doglegged up a cobbled block to Wall Street. We paused before the marble facade of the Morgan building, pocked by an unsolved 1920 bombing that shook the Financial District. (Anarchists remain the leading suspects.)

In front of a Petland store on Nassau Street, we heard how a young shop clerk named Mary Rogers disappeared in 1841 and was later found in the Hudson River, murdered. The case triggered a media frenzy of that pre-cable news day. Poe transplanted the crime to Paris for "The Mystery of Marie Roget," which included all the forensic details and the remorseful fiance driven to suicide. Poe even not-so-humbly offered a solution to the real crime. (The "Edgar Allan Poe Reader" helpfully translates the fictional sites to the Manhattan originals.)

Eventually we ended up on Broadway in front of a furnishings store that was once Stanwix Hall, the saloon where William "Bill the Butcher" Poole met his death. Poole was leader of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings and inspiration for the character Bill Cutting in the 2002 movie "Gangs of New York." His murderer went free after three juries failed to convict.

Bill the Butcher became a martyr; thousands turned out for his funeral, with brass bands and a procession down Broadway.

We turned to look down Broadway, the early afternoon now sunny and sidewalks full of life. It was a good time to warm up in a hidden dive. I hoofed it over to Chumley's, a famous speak-easy and bar at 86 Bedford St., established in 1928. It's allegedly the source of the phrase "eighty-six," meaning "nix."

Back in the day, Chumley's catered to Greenwich Village literary rebels. On the walls hang photos of such famous habitues as Orson Welles, Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller. The exposed beams and water-damaged ceiling are original. The old phone booth and hatcheck station ooze the atmosphere of another era.

The best feature is a faux bookcase, packed with faux book spines, that conceals a quick exit to the alley, one of at least four that helped patrons to "eighty-six it" in a hurry.

Tour groups file through, with guides explaining that this was one of 400-plus speak-easies in a 1 1/2 -mile radius.

The drinks, legal now, are cheap, and the food is surprisingly good. In cold weather, you can warm up by the fireplace with tales of evil long past.

Street Smarts N.Y. runs a variety of walking tours in the city each weekend and offers its Crimes of Old New York tour once a month or so. Others include ghost tours of Greenwich Village and far West Village, the saloon culture of the Bowery and the speak-easies of SoHo. The cost for each tour is $10 a person. 212-969-8262, http://www.streetsmartsny.com.

Chumley's, at 86 Bedford St., offers a classic burger, tasty shepherd's pie, fish and chips, omelets and other bar fare. There's brunch on Saturday and Sunday, $13 for an entree and coffee or juice. (Cash only except for groups of six or more.) 212-675-4449.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company