Seven Sisters – and a Row [updated post]

“Seven Sister’s Row,” was mentioned by Asbury in Chapter IX, Section 1 as the “most celebrated single group of these places [bagnios]” in 1860s New York City. He lifted this piece of information from one of his listed sources, James Dabney McCabe’s 1868 book, Secrets of the Great City. It’s worth quoting McCabe’s text on this, considering that what he claims has been unconfirmed for over 150 years:

THE SISTER’S ROW — This is the name given to a row of first-class houses in West Twenty-fifth street, all fashionable houses of prostitution. A woman came to this city from a New England Village, and was enticed into one of the fashionable dens. She paid a visit to her home, dressed up in all her finery. Her parents believed her a Broadway saleswoman, but to her sisters, one by one, she confided the life of gayety and pleasure she led, and one by one the sisters left the peaceful village, until, at last, the whole seven sisters were domiciled in the crime-guilt palaces in West Twenty-fifth street. Thus, one sister ruined six in her own family; how many others in the same place is unknown.

Asbury embellished this somewhat, adding that each of the houses were adjoining and that they were “near Seventh avenue”; that they were the most exclusive and expensive bordellos in the city, accepting only gentlemen visitors attired in evening dress; and that they donated Christmas Eve proceeds to charity. Additionally, Asbury indicated the seven houses “were opened” by the sisters, implying that they were the proprietresses–an assertion not made by McCabe.

Despite all attempts at discreetness, one would think such a remarkable landmark would have become common knowledge. However, “Sister’s Row” isn’t mentioned in any New York newspapers either prior to or following McCabe’s 1868 book. It also isn’t mentioned in any other books until Asbury rediscovered McCabe in 1928. During the same period, many other notable houses of ill-repute were often chronicled.

The brownstone row-houses on the streets of the West Twenties were built in the 1840s, and by the 1860s were selling for between $4000 and $17,000 each. The odds that seven sisters coming to New York from a New England village would be able to afford such an investment (regardless of their talents!) boggles the mind.

Seven Sister’s Row, for these reasons, could be dismissed as a total myth…but there appears to be more than a little truth in the tale.

A row of adjoining houses-of-ill-repute did exist on West 25th Street. In 1864, a special council of physicians conducted a survey of the area, and their notebooks still exist at the New York Historical Society. The NYHS Reference Librarian, Mariam Touba, pointed out page 49 of one of the notebooks, on which it is noted that Numbers 55 1/2, 57, 59, 61, 63, 65, and 67, “The seven houses of ill-fame.”

The streets were renumbered in the late 1860s. In 1870, a little pamphlet called the Gentlemen’s Companion (a guide to bordellos, also held by NYHS) was published. In it, the same houses (minus one, No. 107), now re-numbered, are described, along with the names of the madams: 103 run by Mrs. [Jane E.] Prescott; 105 run by Mrs. Kate Wood; 109 kept by Nettie Smith; 111 kept by Mrs. Jolly; 113, Mrs. King, and 115, Mrs. Bennett.

Mrs. Prescott, 42, and Kate Wood, 40, were listed in the 1870 as both hailing from Connecticut. Mrs. Bennett, 26 from England, had two young women, Lillie Bennett (16) and Martha Bennett (19) living in her house. Mrs. Jolly was listed as Margaret Jull in the 1870 census. Mrs. King was Emma King, 40, of New York.

Very close, but not seven sisters. But there was a “Seven Sisters!”

On November 18, 1871, the New York Herald published a short piece, “The Infamous Dens of Twenty-Sixth Street.” Note that McCabe, Asbury, and all citations since their time have always mentioned Twenty-Fifth Street (between 6th and 7th), whereas this article speaks to the situation one block north:

Of all the streets in the city, neither Greene nor Wooster street excepted, West Twenty-sixth street is the worst in moral infamy and quiet dark crime. It was here the notorious Seven Sisters located after being hunted out of the Eighth ward, and here they still remain. Their success uptown has excited the envy of several brazen strumpets who traffic in the prostitution of young girls. Some time ago a woman named Adelaide Beaumont, residing in this street, was sent to the Penitentiary for enticing girls of ten years and under into her place for purposes of prostitution, and now another depraved female named Emma Walters, of 139 West Twenty-Sixth street, is arrested for a similar offence…

A more specific reference was made in 1872, during a heated political spat between Representative C. C. Bowen of South Carolina and the state’s Governor, Robert K. Scott. Scott was a former Union officer, and was viewed by former Confederates in South Carolina as a corrupt carpetbagger. Scott’s behavior as Governor–including an affair with actress Pauline Markham, questionable state contracts, and missing funds–provided Bowen with plenty of material. Speaking in a session at the State Capital, Bowen declared, “If you want to see moral nakedness, go to Williard’s Hotel in Washington. On the hotel books you will find Scott’s name in connection with a notorious woman, from Philadelphia, who occupied the same room with him. Follow him from Washington to New York and go to No. 112 West Twenty-sixth street, (a noted house called the Seven Sisters, or Palmetto House) and learn his doings there.”

[Bowen’s “Palmetto House” remark was meant to convey that Scott was such an enthusiastic patron of the establishment that it was unofficially renamed in honor of the State he governed.]

These two items place the Seven Sisters on Twenty-Sixth Street between 6th and 7th, a notorious section of the Tenderloin. Nearby were Adelaide Beaumont’s bagnio at No. 127; Dr. Henry D. Grindle’s abortion clinic at No. 120; and Mrs. Doran’s baby farm at 148, where infants carried to term were left for her to sell (and where unsold tiny bodies were found in the basement.)

No. 112 West 26th was sold by order to the NY Supreme Court in January 1874, and later became a Baptist Temple.

Was there ever a set of seven sisters involved? Sisters had been known to follow each other into the sex trade, but seven is an unlikely number. The phrase “Seven Sisters,” however, was high in the public consciousness in the 1860s. This was the title of a burlesque musical production presented by Laura Keene, which premiered in New York in 1860 and ran for years, before touring the country and experiencing multiple re-stagings. It was known for the singing and dancing of its titular figures, young woman clad in low-cut dresses, and dismissed by many as immoral.

The Devolution of the Hudson Dusters

Herbert’s Asbury’s primary source for his remarks on the Hudson Dusters gang of Greenwich Village (found in Chapter XII, Section 2) was a long feature article in the January 18, 1914 edition of the New York Sun, entitled “Inside Life of a New York Gang.” The author, listed only as “One Who Was Among Them,” dated the founding of the gang to about 1905 (whereas Asbury suggested the late 1890s) and the originators to be “Kid York” and “Circular Jack.” These two names appear in none of the dozens of other newspaper articles written about the Hudson Dusters between 1910 and 1925, but reappear in Asbury’s text. Since Asbury’s publication, these two nicknames have been accepted as real, when in likelihood they were merely aliases invented by the Sun reporter to protect his sources. [In newspaper archives, “Kid York” was an East Boston boxer of the early 1900s, and “Circular Jack” was the name given to an unknown writer of politically embarrassing flyers in Hartford, Connecticut, also in the early 1900s.]

The first mention in New York newspapers of the gang named the “Hudson Dusters” occurred in February 1912, reporting on their wild gun-battle against a neighboring gang, the Marginals. A different article appearing later that same month described them as idle youths, frequenting the Abingdon Square area of Greenwich Village. They were accused of robbing steamship passengers, local stores, and stealing from passing merchant wagons. They had some protection from prosecution by the area’s political clubs, for whom they provided polling station intimidation. Patrolmen had been beaten or shot at by them; but complaining officers were reprimanded by their superiors due to those political connections. Officer Dennis Sullivan was beaten, had his badge and weapon stolen, and then was mocked in a flyer spread in the neighborhood, an incident that Asbury relates. Asbury didn’t go far beyond the 1914 Sun article, although there are other interesting aspects to this gang.

Searching for the original mentions of the Hudson Dusters leads one down a fascinating rabbit hole, suggesting that its founding members were tutored in the fine art of letter-box stealing and check-forging pioneered by one of the most successful criminals of the late 19th-early 20th century, Charles Tischer, aka Charles Fisher. The knowledge of how to run a check-forging ring was passed down to a first generation of Hudson Dusters, but with their arrests the gang devolved into just another juvenile delinquent street turf gang.

Just a month after their shoot-out with the Marginals, another newspaper article appeared in the March 14, 1912 edition of the New York Times announcing the arrest of Joseph Devine (aka Joseph Elliott) and Willa Harris (aka May Smith) for check forgery. Devine was noted as a member of the Rough Ocean gang of forgers, but was formerly a Hudson Duster. According the the Herald, both Rough Ocean and Hudson Dusters had been forgery gangs led by James Ford, now in Sing Sing. Ford’s leadership of the forging ring was inherited by William Boland (aka Little Nemo), also now in prison. Joseph and his brother James Devine were Boland’s lieutenants.

James Ford, born in 1887, first was noticed by authorities in 1905 (age 18), when he was caught trying to pass a forged check in Brooklyn. That episode earned him a five year sentence in the Elmira Reformatory. He was released early, but was arrested again in 1908 for forgery among his gang members at their pool hall at 112 Greenwich Ave., in the heart of what would become Hudson Duster territory. Among those others arrested were Joseph Devine and William Boland. That earned Ford six years at Sing Sing, which he was still serving in 1912. William Boland, who was arrested with Ford in 1908 but was later released, was caught in 1910 by authorities in New York and was accused of running a nation-wide forging ring. He was, at that time, 22 years old. The police grabbed Joseph Devine with Boland, but could not press charges against him, leaving him free to run the ring until March, 1912.

So how did these young men learn how to operate a sophisticated forgery ring, which involved making duplicate keys to mailboxes, chemical alteration of check forms, and a talent for handwriting imitation? A 1910 article on Boland’s arrest offers the only clue. The Brooklyn Union of July 1, 1910 notes: “[Boland] is a pupil of James Ford, alias ‘Rough Ocean,’ now serving six years in Sing Sing. Ford learned the forgery business from associates of Charles Fisher, an old-time professional, now with two associates awaiting trial in the Tombs for extensive forgeries.”

This is the only documented link between the first Hudson Dusters and the forgery mastermind Charles Fisher [sic Tischer], but the techniques used by Ford/Boland/Devine were the same as those pioneered by Fisher in the 1880s and 1890s. But there is an additional fact that is impressively weird. Back in 1895, Charles Fisher and three associates, including his alleged spouse, “Sheeny” Rachel Hurd, were captured for running a letter-box forgery operation in Baltimore. When arrested, police found Fisher was using two aliases: “J. B. Ford” (noted in some articles as F. B. Ford) and “William Boland.” In 1895, the real James Ford and William Boland would have both been 8 or 9 years old. Coincidence? Hardly. But still mysterious.