As New York City nightlife moved from lower Manhattan further north to the Tenderloin in the last decades of the 1800s, the Bowery area lost its dance halls and the “slummers” who came to spend their money. In Chapter XIV, Section 4 of The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury provides a roster of the low dives that replaced them, that came to typify the changes to the neighborhood:
“Probably no American city has ever been able to boast of resorts as depraved as the Doctor’s, the Plague, the Hell Hole, the Harp House, the Cripples’ Home, and the Billy Goat, all in Park Row; the Dump, the Princess Cafe and Johnny Kelly’s dive, in the Bowery; the Inferno in Worth street; the Workingman’s Friend in Mott street; Union Hall in Elizabeth street; the Cob Dock in Hester street; and Mother Woods’ in Water street. Of only a slightly higher class were Chick Tricker’s Fleabag and McGuirk’s Suicide Hall, both on the Bowery. McGuirk’s and Mother Woods’ were the favorite haunts of the prostitutes and women thieves of the Bowery and water front districts…”
It is true that prostitutes and women criminals could be found at Hannah Woods’ house at 390 1/2 Water Street (near James Slip, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge), from 1885 until 1910. Police made weekly visits to the house, in search of particular women wanted as suspects or witnesses. However, it was not a dive; it was a refuge. Mother Woods offered nothing other than a roof to her clients, who often could not pay her. The New York Sun of May 1, 1905 provided a more sympathetic perspective:
Hannah Sullivan was born in Ireland in 1845, came to America, and married an Irish shoemaker named Felix McCarthy. They raised a family of several children. Mr. McCarthy died, and Hannah remarried a man named Woods, about whom nothing is known. He apparently left Hannah with a healthy account in a Bowery bank; and her son lived nearby at 314 Water Street.
Why Hannah Woods decided to open her house as a shelter for the city’s neediest women is not known. Had there been some event in her own past that prompted an impulse for charity? Did she do so out of a sense of spiritual reward? Did she enjoy the company of her lodgers, and hearing their woeful stories?
On the evening of July 4th, 1910, Hannah sat outside on her door step with a lodger and a neighbor, enjoying the warm summer evening and the sounds of revelers celebrating Independence Day. Bangs were heard up and down the street. Hannah coughed and moved to get up to go inside, but then collapsed. A doctor was summoned, and those she had been talking to thought she had suffered a heart attack. The doctor came and pronounced her dead; it was noticed that blood stained the front of her dress. Further examination revealed that she had been killed by a bullet to the breast. Police later concluded that she had been hit by a stray bullet from one of the irresponsible Fourth of July celebrants. The shooter was never found.
Hannah Woods was martyred by a celebration of America, the same America that left behind the human wrecks that she took in and gave shelter to. Asbury listed her among many sinners and places of sin, but clearly she was a saint.