The way in which Herbert Asbury embellished his source material–which often consisted of the embellishments of earlier writers–can be demonstrated in a story found in Chapter IX, Section 2. While discussing a dance hall saloon named the Black and Tan, Asbury tells the sad story of a regular customer, a woman known only as “Crazy Lou.” Asbury’s source for this story was George W. Walling’s Recollections of a New York Chief of Police, published in 1887. However, in contrast to the title of his book, Walling relied more on plagiarized newspaper articles than his own memory. Such was the case with the story of Crazy Lou, which first appeared in an unattributed article titled “In the ‘Black and Tan'” in the July 26, 1885 edition of the New York World.

To demonstrate how writers embellish, let’s look at all three versions: The World, Walling, and Asbury, starting with the earliest, the newspaper account from 1885 [ellipses within the quote indicate that some racist asides were removed]:

But here is a picture of an old woman who sat for two hours in the Black and Tan a night ago, and the story told of her might be attributed to a fanciful pen were it not actually witnessed.

She came into the dive at midnight, a frayed, worn shawl thrown around her shoulders and the ends clasped by her trembling fingers. She sat down at one of the round tables. No one spoke to her, and only once in a while a dancer said, “Crazy Lou.”

Ten years ago this woman came into the Haymarket. The habitues of Tom Gould’s must remember how her capricious will fashioned for years the customs of the women around her. She smoked opium in Pell street, danced at McGlory’s in Hester street, sang at The. Allen’s in Bleecker street, and last night sat in the Black and Tan. She was not forty years old. She looked seventy. A fortune had passed through the thin fingers clasping the shawl.

Two o’clock came and the woman arose, pulled her shawl around her, and went out…She had tottered up the three steps to the street and bent her course westward…The woman shuffled along. The sights had no magnetism for her. She had grown grey and wrinkled in their services.

She passed out of the thoroughfare and crossed West Broadway. Surely a strange place for one of her race to live in, the follower thought, but nothing is strange under the stars in Bleecker street.

When the woman crossed West street and walked out on one of the long, deserted piers the reason flashed across the brain why she had come so far. The recollection of the life she had led, beginning with the wine suppers at the Haymarket and finishing under the lamps of the Black and Tan made one think that, like many of her other fallen sisters, she had come to the river.

She sat down on a bulkhead and looked at the water. A watchman approached and tapped her on the shoulder. The woman started and dropped her shawl. She turned to big dark eyes up at his and said: “Don’t touch me. Leave me alone, do you hear? They have driven me out because I can’t pay my room rent, and I want to rest.”

“Now see here, lady,” the watchman answered, in an argumentative tone of voice, “you must find another place to rest.” She did not reply, but looked out at the water flowing by past the big and little vessels in the river. “I want to rest,” she finally said, and then suddenly: “Don’t you know me? Don’t you know Lou? Why everyone knows me. Everyone used to know me, but they don’t now.”

Crazy Lou was not at the Black and Tan last night.

George W. Walling took this article and shortened it, losing much of the pathos:

I am told that, until recently, there was an old woman with a pathetic history who used to frequent the Black-and-Tan. Her name was Crazy Lou, and she would come in promptly at midnight and go away at two o’clock. Her face was wrinkled with years of vice. She wore an old worn shawl, and shivered in the warm room as if she were cold. No one spoke to this woman more than to say: “Hello, Crazy Lou!” and her only answer was a smile.

She had began her career in the Haymarket, a beautiful, attractive girl of seventeen. She had sat at the tables in the Cremorne and at Tom Gould’s. She had danced at Harry Hill’s and Billy McGlory’s, and finally at the Black-and-Tan. One night while the winds were blowing chill she gathered her shawl about her and went out from the dance-hall into the street. Slowly she picked her way along, and then those who were watching her lost sight of her. The next morning a corpse was found floating in East River. Crazy Lou came to the Black-and-Tan no more.

Clearly, Walling’s account, when found by Herbert Asbury, needed to be built back up again:

For many years one of the regular frequenters of the Black and Tan was an old woman known as Crazy Lou, who was said to have been a daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. At the age of seventeen she was seduced, and coming to New York to seek the author of her shame, fell into the hands of procurers, who sold her to one of the Seven Sisters in West Twenty-fifth street. When her beauty faded she was dismissed, and thereafter became a frequenter of the Haymarket, the Cremorne, Harry Hill’s, Billy McGlory’s, and finally the Black and Tan. In her old age she lived on scrapings from garbage pails, and the few pennies she could beg or earn by selling flowers. But each evening she went regularly to the Black and Tan, arriving promptly at midnight and remaining for exactly two hours. She wore a faded, ragged shawl, and always sat at a certain table in a corner, where Stephenson [sic] in person served her with a huge tumbler of whiskey which cost her nothing. This she sipped until the time came for her to leave. But one night she failed to appear, and the next morning her body was found floating in the East River. Stephenson expressed his sorrow by setting a glass of whiskey on her accustomed table each night at midnight for a month, permitting no one to sit there until two o’clock in the morning.

Clearly, more than one “fanciful pen” lent itself to the legend of Crazy Lou! No other evidence of her existence can be found.

2 thoughts on “Crazy Lou, the Dive Denizen

    1. Exactly so. Walling and Asbury had her jump in the East River, but the original article said that she went to West Street, on the Hudson. So they couldn’t even agree on their fabrications.
      I guess stories of “fallen women” were more marketable than accounts of African-Americans enjoying themselves dancing at a rowdy bar.

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