Volume 75, Number 22 | October 19 - 22, 2005

Evelyn Nesbit Clara Lemlich Shavelson Polly Adler

From activists and authors to madams and madwomen: The prisoners of Sixth Avenue

By LindaAnn Loschiavo

Hollywood is embracing an armful of women’s history attached to the crooked elbow of W. 10th St. west of Sixth Ave. In April, “House of D” by David Duchovny commemorated the Women’s House of Detention, which overlooked Village Square (now Ruth Wittenberg Triangle) until the prison was razed in 1973. A movie musical “Hello, Sucker” due out this year revisits the same location during the 1920s with Madonna as diamond-draped “Texas” Guinan, a Village resident and rodeo queen whose speakeasies landed her behind bars at Jefferson Market Jail. Sandwiched between those two premieres, the 30th anniversary of a garden established on that very site was celebrated this April.

During Abe Beame’s mayoralty, a group led by W. Ninth St.’s Gerri Mindell founded the Jefferson Market Garden. Its earliest incarnation rose from rubble, baptized by sprinklers and wrapped in a coat of topsoil. Meanwhile, skeletons refused to vacate. Jailhouse artifacts — like keys used by the warden — turn up during fertilizing.

History resists decomposing. Gardening’s marvels buy the passerby’s attention but the Sixth Ave. site can’t quite make it pay. Despite the willpower that fashioned an urban oasis around this inglorious core, there is a parallel structure in which, even as seedlings take root, the experiences of the courthouse complex’s past stay evergreen in imaginations, demanding not to be silenced, shrouded under scaffolding or reduced to an undocumented heap.

Peek at a bit of what’s been preserved about memorable females and fictions associated with Jefferson Market Jail, which stood on the spot of the current garden from 1878 to 1929, or the Women’s House of Detention, which replaced it and occupied the spot from 1932 to 1973.

When Stephen Crane (1871-1900) wrote “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” published in 1893, a sympathetic study of an innocent, abused slum girl’s descent into prostitution and her suicide, Crane may have been inspired by Village court drama. Later on, Crane testified in Jefferson Market Court on behalf of Dora Clark, unjustly arrested for prostitution.

In January 1901, The New York Times opened many eyes with an article, headlined, and subheadlined: “Murray Hall Fooled Many Shrewd Men — How for Years She Masqueraded in Male Attire — Had Married Two Women — Was a Prominent Tammany Politician and Always Voted — Senator Martin Astonished.” Known as the poker-playing, cigar-smoking Murray H. Hall, a licensed bail bondsman at Jefferson Market Court, Celia Lin Hall’s femininity was revealed to Dr. William C. Gallagher, a W. 12th St. physician who treated her breast cancer. John Bremer, proprietor of The Fifteenth Ward Hotel (at W. Ninth St. and Sixth Ave.), was one of many who did business with Hall, “a shrewd, bright man in my estimation.” Somewhere between the age of 60 and 70, Hall died in her Sixth Ave. office, steps from the courthouse.

Afeni Shakur in front of a stained-glass portrait of her son, Tupac Shakur
During 1906, when Harry K. Thaw was tried at Jefferson Market Court for murdering Stanford White, actress Evelyn Nesbit (1884-1967) gave such a good performance in the witness box that Thaw was judged to be “insane” and sent to an asylum and later freed in 1915. E.L. Doctorow’s novel “Ragtime” landmarked the era. In the 1981 film “Ragtime,” Nesbit was portrayed by Elizabeth McGovern; Norman Mailer played Stanford White. Evelyn Nesbit was a technical consultant to a 1955 movie “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,” starring Joan Collins. Lucy Maud Montgomery used Evelyn Nesbit’s photograph as the model for her title character in “Anne of Green Gables.”

In 1909, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on Washington Pl. “sweated” laborers with low wages, long hours and oppressive fines. Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1887-1982), who lived at 279-283 E. Third St., organized a huge gathering of ladies’ garment workers at Cooper Union to protest the sweatshop’s unfairness. They demonstrated on Nov. 26, 1909, and those arrested were taken to Jefferson Market and tried in Night Court, a tactic meant to intimidate strikers through association with the prostitutes whose cases filled the dockets. Shavelson appears in Herb Gardner’s play “I’m Not Rappaport,” in Kevin Baker’s novel “Dreamland” and other works.

By 1926, Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan (1884-1933) was earning $700,000 as a hostess whose speakeasies were raided often. She would breeze through Jefferson Market Jail in a few hours, after which she returned home to 17 W. Eighth St. to freshen up in her solid-gold bathtub. She portrayed herself in “Queen of the Nightclubs” (1929) and “Broadway Through a Keyhole” (1933). She has been portrayed in many films, including “Lady for a Day” (1933), “Incendiary Blonde” (1945), “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) and “Hello, Sucker” starring Madonna, which will be released this year.

During the 1920s, Russian-born bordello owner Polly Adler (1900-1962) was arrested repeatedly and escaped conviction until 1935, thanks to police precincts that cherished her bribes. Brothels she ran were located at 30 E. 55th St. and elsewhere in Midtown. In May 1935, Polly scrubbed floors for 30 days at the Women’s House of Detention. Relocating to California, she penned a memoir with a ghostwriter. “A House Is not a Home” became a 1953 bestseller. Shelley Winters portrayed her onscreen, and Burt Bacharach supplied the title song for the 1964 movie.

On Aug. 11, 1950, housewife Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg (1915-1953) was arrested and held in the Women’s House of Detention. Found guilty of espionage (with her husband Julius Rosenberg), on June 19, 1953, she died in the electric chair.

Incarcerated often for civil disobedience, Dorothy Day (1897-1980), founder of the Catholic Worker movement, gave a firsthand account of inhumane Jefferson Market justice during the 1950s in “On Pilgrimage - December 1975” (The Catholic Worker, December 1975). After being locked up there with Judith Malina for protesting the Korean War, Day wrote: “Why not say outright that it is a common thing for young students arrested on demonstrations to be raped by other prisoners?” Day was speaking about female-to-female rape. No doubt this would include a form of forced penetration (by fingers or an object), and it was in the Eisenhower era, when being a virgin and having an intact hymen were still prized.

“Texas” Guinan at Chumley’s when it was a speakeasy.
When the two children of Alice Burke Crimmins (born 1938) were nabbed and killed, police fingered her as their suspect. After the guilty verdict in 1968, she was taken to the Women’s House of Detention when she was hospitalized. From 1965-1977, the case grabbed headlines and fueled a flood of titles. “Landscape of the Body,” John Guare’s Crimmins-inspired play with music and a Greenwich Village setting, opened at the Public Theater in 1977. During the same year, Neal Bell’s dark two-character Crimmins-fantasy “Two Small Bodies” was staged; in 1994 it was made into a film by Beth B. Two true-crime bestsellers appeared: George Capozi Jr.’s “Ordeal By Trial” (1972) and Kenneth Gross’s “The Alice Crimmins Case” (1975). Two novelists weighed in. “The Investigation” by Dorothy Uhnak appeared. Another thinly veiled fictionalization of the case, “Where Are the Children?” by Mary Higgins Clark, her first published mystery, launched her prolific career in that genre; in 1986, a movie of the same title starred Jill Clayburgh. In 1978, Tuesday Weld starred in a made-for-TV movie, “A Question of Guilt,” based on the Crimmins affair.

During a 1965 Vietnam War protest, author Andrea Rita Dworkin (1946-2005), then an 18-year-old coed, was sent to the Women’s House of Detention. She was sexually assaulted there by the male physicians examining her via an instrument called a speculum. Dworkin was left with such severe bleeding and scarring that she became sterile. Her testimony about sadistic physicians and inmates at grand jury hearings before a Senate committee made international news and brought about the closing of the “House of D.” The Camden, N.J., native recounted these events in a memoir, “Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant” (2002).

From the 1960s and 1970s, Grace Paley (born in 1922), a lifelong socialist raised in the Bronx, was focused on civil rights and antiwar demonstrations. In 1966, when she served a six-day sentence for blocking the annual Armed Forces Day parade, her stay in the Women’s House of Detention triggered her published account, “Six Days: Some Rememberings.” Following Paley’s account was an exposé by Sara Harris, “Hellhole: The Shocking Story of the Inmates and Life in the New York City House of Detention for Women” (1967), as well as other books bringing to light the abuses inside this institution.

Daydreaming of a “Society for Cutting Up Men,” Valerie Solanas (1936-1988) penned two nonfiction titles: “The SCUM Manifesto” and “Up Your Ass.” On June 3, 1968, Solanas, convinced that Andy Warhol was blocking her success, confronted the artist in his studio and opened fire. She was sent to the Women’s House of Detention and, subsequently, to a psychiatric ward. Texts on radical feminism, such as “Women, Politics, and Change” (1990), include her.

Born in North Carolina in 1947, Alice Faye Williams came to New York and attended Bronx High School of Science. At 21, Afeni Shakur joined the Black Panthers. On April 2, 1969, she was arrested with party members and charged with conspiracy to bomb public areas. In February 1971, when she was remanded to the Women’s House of Detention, she was pregnant with Tupac Amaru Shakur (1971-1996).

Premiering on Oct. 20, 1971, “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” a hit musical by Melvin van Peebles, ran for a year on Broadway. Beatrice Winde (1924-2004) snagged a 1972 Tony nomination for her role as the black woman fervently yelling, “Hey, Doro-thy...!” to her lover, incarcerated within Sixth Ave.’s Women’s House of Detention.

Inspired by actor David Duchovny’s mother’s memories of the facility, “House of D,” which premiered in April 2005, was marketed with a romantic tagline: “You never know who your angel’s gonna be.” In Duchovny’s script the inmate Lady Bernadette (singer Erykah Badu) is associated with the celestial realm. Incarcerated high above in a tower (the 69th Regiment Armory on E. 26th St. was used for the scene), Lady is an anonymous invisible guide to 13-year-old Tommy Warshaw, who solicits her advice from the pavement. She even serenades him.

Author Fran Lebowitz described more realistically, in a New York magazine interview, the pimps, lovers and relatives who would congregate outside the prison, screaming back and forth, mainly in Spanish. They’d yell all night and throw contraband back and forth, recalled Lebowitz.

Today, here’s a new prisoner on Sixth Ave. Shackled to waterlogged scaffolding, handcuffed to a City Hall bureaucracy too stingy to save her, ignored by local politicians and abandoned by preservationists, this noble beauty has been deteriorating every day for over two years, hooded by a rotting wooden shroud since 2003. Who will rescue Jefferson Market Library? Brother Bloomberg, can you spare a dime?

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