Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Madonna of Cherry Hill

I don't do it that much anymore, but for many years I made a point of going to as many used book sales as I could get to, and over time I suppose I bought hundreds of books -- maybe more than a thousand -- that way, some of which I still own, most of which I read once or twice and then culled out of my shelves years ago.

The thing about buying second-hand books is that as a rule you generally don't know anything about their previous owner or owners. Once in a while there might be a name scrawled on the endpapers, but outside of a handful of occasions when I bought a copy that had coincidentally belonged to someone I knew or had heard of, the books came to me with their past histories and prior associations stripped away, just as the volumes in my own library, should they escape the dumpsters and landfills that are fated to be the last resting places of countless millions of other forgotten books and go on to live a further life, will likely tell no stories of me.

This book is an exception. When I bought it, some two decades ago, I didn't just purchase a fairly ordinary volume about a turn of the century mission in lower Manhattan, I became the guardian of a memory as well. For one of its previous owners -- perhaps the original owner from the time it was published in 1903 -- had filled the endpapers and available blank pages of the book with his own recollections of the neighborhood in which the mission was located. Though it appears that he was never as badly off as the indigents and alcoholics who made up the majority of those who were fed and ministered to there, he often attended services at the mission, almost certainly in this room:

According to an 1897 notice in The New York Times, "the mission was established by Jerry McAuley, ex-convict, river pirate, and desperado, for religious work especially among the lowest class of outcast men and women of the city." It stood at 316 Water Street, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Down in Water Street, written by one of McAuley's successors, contains more than two dozen illustrations, but sadly most are rather uninteresting portraits of the worthies who were active in the running of the mission. The photo below is a notable exception. The mission is the building at the extreme left, with the large white sign on its side; the building in the center of the frame, ironically, may be a saloon, as it is festooned with signs advertising lager beer.

The creator of the handwritten account in the book's endpapers was named William Siemes or perhaps Siemis, which suggests that his parents may have been among the millions of German immigrants who arrived in New York City in the 19th century, an influx even exceeding that of the Irish. At least one set of grandparents were already resident in the city by 1845, as he mentions their having formerly owned a grocery store in lower Manhattan. Siemes worked as a fireman, assigned to a firehouse just blocks from the McAuley Water Street Mission, but lived in High Bridge, miles away in the Bronx; his father was apparently also a fireman at the same house. New York City firefighting had once been a rough-and-tumble occupation dominated by competing private companies that were little more than gangs, but that had all been done away with by the time of the events he describes.

In the following transcription of Siemes's account I have tidied some of the punctuation and spelling, but have made no effort to form complete sentences where there were none. At a few points, which I have indicated, the handwriting is not legible.
While attached to Engine Co. 12, William St. near Pearl St. 1902-1904 I often attended meeting at the mission, too tired to travel home to the Bronx for a meal I ate in different restaurants in vicinity of Brooklyn Bridge, sometimes in very clean Chinese restaurants also, along the water front for a fish dinner, and in Nassau restaurant famous for its ham, corned beef, and beans, custard cocoanut pie, and delicious coffee — coffee I've supped and sipped and poured it while in firehouse, and at fires in heavy winter weather, an old battered 4 quart tin can, blacked by gas light smoke, was the container, coffee from the bakery looked like spilled gasoline on a wet pavement — all colors of the rainbow, a medical officer of the Department, Dr Ransdale [?] in 1903 said “you firemen should be the healthiest men in the city, the coffee you drink looks like a disinfectant, and just as potent.”

The Water St. mission in the early 1900 [illegible] was crowded with worshippers and often disturbed by hostile groups.

Living in High Bridge [in the Bronx] in the early days, among bright sunshine, green fields, birds, and flowers, it was a revelation to see the contrast — narrow streets, shabby buildings, squalor, poverty, and crime.

To tell of experiences I witnessed would be hard to believe. Of course, girls of all types I came in contact with, some vicious, others victims of ignorance and misfortune. I vividly recall the little 13 year old Cassie Burns first noticed her one bitter winter night rationing strong tea to the grateful firemen, who soaked and chilled, drank with grateful hearts, Cassie was apple cheeked [?], rosy as the dawn, her lovely Irish dark blue eyes looked straight into yours. We called her the madonna of Cherry Hill.

I learned her brother Lawrence was ill, “T.B.,“ so several of us visited him, corner of New Chambers [?] near Cherry St.

I later learned with interest the building was once occupied by my Grandfather's grocery store in 1845.

A 3 story triangle with fire escape hanging from iron straps [in?] the rotted brick mortar of lime. Well we built a large flower box, placed it on the escape, sad to say in violation of law, but who cared. The box filled with colored asters, petunias, and geraniums bloomed all seasons, and concealed in the soil were tulip and hyacinth bulbs taken from my garden. Lawrence died before the tulips bloomed, a year later his mother also T.B. Years later I learned Cassie had married a “foreigner” and was the mother of 9 children. Every time a fire [illegible] in the vicinity Cassie [illegible — “mother”?] brewed a large water pail of tea and Cassie did the rest at all hours, in the snow and cold she could be seen comforting the men with her drinks that “cheers but not inebriates.”

One night in her home building a fire occurred in the bakery in store floor and cellar, wrecking the place. Cassie's old grandmother was bellowing like an East River fog horn as she stood on the fire escape near the flower box, her language was expressive of the neighborhood. A ladder was quickly raised and grandma reached the ground in safety a fireman laughing as he told how he lifted the frail old lady of 80, over the fire escape rail, when she said “I'll slap you if you drop me.”

After the fire apparatus left for quarters, I was in charge of a watch line hose “just in case,“ the weather was cold, and the store [illegible] basement were not pleasably [?] placed [?] to occupy — about 4 AM a salvage patrolman on duty said “Do you hear a noise“ all I heard was the drip of water from charred wood.

Then it happened, little Cassie and a 10 yrs old brother carrying a 4x4 ft apple dumpling pan filled with soggy smoky dumpling; struggling [?] to carry its [?] tray up to their room.

The patrolman laughed and said “come back here wid them [?] dumpling[s?].” They came back all right, one at a time as Cassie and her brother threw them at him, sad to say, the dumplings were apple sauce centres and hits in his neck and face smeared him.

Later, down they came again and carted to the regions above whole ferkins of butter, smoky and charred, then several cases of eggs some cracked, roasted, etc. [?] I was relieved at 6 AM learned later the bakery goods were moved to Cassie's flat for safe keeping or for what ever purpose only the children knew.

We humans have much to account for, I remember an incident at 9 Bowery. A small fire summoned us to the cheap, wooden partitioned floor above the street, found our services were not needed, except for a woman lying on a cot worn and thin she begged our captain Michael E. Graham to take her out, said she had been a prisoner for several years and she had no hope of escape.

Capt. Graham summoned an ambulance to carry her to Bellevue Hospital. Our Captain Graham of Engine Co 12 lived in [illegible], we respected him and admired him greatly. I recall the time he was promoted to Batt. chief, how [?] his last night with us was more like a wake than a time of congratulations. My Dad fried three large top sirloin chunks into steaks first in butter and served on toasted bread. Several months later I attended his funeral, a fireman [?] had fallen and our beloved chief and friend was no more. His aged mother said “he was my first born,“ and she soon found rest beside him.
Pasted inside the volume is a newspaper clipping reporting the demolition of the original mission building (the Water Street Mission relocated and in fact still operates.) The clipping is dated, by hand, July 28, 1948, and the ink and penmanship match the fireman's account, so he must still have been alive at that time. On the title page there is a note in another hand stating that the book was "given to Grandpa M[...] by neighbor Mr. Siemis in Ardsley, NY." There is also another owner's name, which I can't make out, in pencil at the top of the page.

(I have since discovered a Social Security Death Record for a William L. Siemes, b. 27 March 1878, d. October 1971 in Ardsley, NY. I've also found a New York Times entry, dated July 9, 1913, recording the transfer of a William L. Siemes from Engine 82 of the New York City Fire Department to Engine 48. Both departments are located in the Bronx. Federal census records for 1920 show a firefighter named William Siemes, age 42, living with his parents and sister on West 166th Street in the Bronx.)

Also see postscript.


Anonymous said...

you remind me of me. that's a nice copy to have of that book. i really look forward to the rest of your site. david orenge

Chris said...

Thanks, David. Welcome.