Saturday, 14 March 2009

KING RAT

Capt. Joseph Rose built his first house at 273, Water Street in 1773 and the second - remnants of which stand to this day (above) - in 1780. Landfill had not yet changed the shoreline and the captain kept his brig, moored at a wharf outside his back door. The building is Manhattan's third oldest building but bears no plaque commemorating the captain or any subsequent occupant.

Just as well really as shortly before the Civil War, Christopher "Kit" Burns leased the building as "Sportsmen's Hall" ostensibly to run a tavern but as a side-line to promote, illegal but semi-tolerated bare-knuckle boxing matches.


However, Sportsmen's Hall was reportedly dedicated to "every variety of vice" particularly Burn's particular favorite, ratting; turning one terrier loose against up to 100 rats in his first floor amphitheatre (above illustration) before as many as 100 roaring spectators who wagered heavily on how quickly the dog would kill its prey. As James Dabney McCabe, writes in "Secrets of the Great City" (1868) "Rats are plentiful along the East River, and Burns has no difficulty in procuring as many as he wishes." He also staged regular dog fights (below) again for the benefit of crowds of baying sadistic gamblers. Burns was very proud of his dogs, and his cellar contained an awesome collection of the most frightfully hideous animals found in America.

Among the toughs who favoured Sportsmen's Hall was George "Snatchem" Leese, so called because he could steal almost anything from anybody. A "beastly, obscene ruffian, with bulging, bulbous, watery-blue eyes, bloated face, and coarse swaggering gait," Snatchem usually carried two revolvers in his belt, a knife in his boot top, and a bludgeon in his hand. One of the very worst scoundrels in New York City, at a time when there were thousands of miscreants, Snatchem would when not engaged in violent crime, provided half-time entertainment by jumping into the rat pit to bite off the heads of live rats for a quarter.
The building has now been converted into luxury apartments.



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