The old Five Points Brewery in Lower Manhattan
It was called the “most decadent building ever built,” and there is no doubt that the Old Brewery, located in the Five Points area of Lower Manhattan, was the quintessential den of iniquity.
The Old Brewery was originally what its name suggests: a brewery, built by Isaac Coulthard, just to the southeast of a body of fresh water called Collect Pond. After over a hundred years of being polluted by various industrial undertakings, including the Coulthard Brewery, Collect Pond was filled in during the period of 1811-1812. New streets arose on the old body of water and other existing ones were widened.
In 1812 Cross Street (then Park Street, now Mosco Street) ran past Coulthard’s Brewery, and Orange Street (now Baxter Street) crossed Cross just north of the brewery. At the intersection of Cross and Orange, Anthony Street originated, and soon two more streets intersected at this very point: Mulberry Street and Little Water Street (which no longer exists). This became the notorious area known as the Five Points, and Coulthard’s Brewery was the center.
After the financial panic of 1837, during which 363 American banks went out of business and thousands of businesses fell into financial ruin, Coulthard’s Brewery went bankrupt. It was converted into a residential building and renamed the Old Brewery.
The Old Brewery, which was divided into more than 100 small rooms that housed more than 1,000 people, was five stories high, but only the top three stories had windows. Most of the rooms had no sunlight or fresh air, and some of the babies born there did not see daylight until their teens. The exterior of the building was originally painted a bright yellow, but when it was converted into a dwelling, the outer walls were flaking and were now a sickly greenish color, resembling an old dragon about to die.
There was a narrow three-foot-wide alley on the south side of the building, which narrowed further, until it ended in a large room on the first floor called the “Den of Thieves.” More than seventy-five men, women, and children lived in the Den of Thieves without furniture or amenities of any kind. The women were mostly prostitutes, and they entertained their clients in this large room in full view of all who occupied the room with them.
The basement, which previously stored brewery machinery, was converted into twenty small rooms, occupied only by black men with their wives, who were mostly white. In a basement room of about fifteen square feet, twenty-six people lived in conditions that can best be described as squalor and misery. One day, a little girl was stabbed to death there, when it was discovered that she was in possession of a shiny new penny. The girl’s corpse lay in a corner for five days before her mother buried her in a shallow grave in the ground.
On the top three floors, which were occupied by Irish Catholics, ran a long corridor aptly named “Murderer’s Alley.” Along Murderer’s Alley were seventy-five rooms, occupied by murderers, thieves, pickpockets, prostitutes, and degenerates of every stripe known to man. Incest was common and fighting was a constant. During every hour of the day there was some kind of disturbance in Murderer’s Alley. The victims, who had been lured into the brewery with the promise of alcohol, sex, or both, were murdered and stuffed into the walls and under the floorboards. It was estimated that for the last fifteen years of its existence, at least one murder was committed per night at the Old Brewery.
Things were so dangerous that if just a handful of policemen entered the brewery to quell a riot, they were instantly attacked and killed, with their clothes stolen, before their bodies were buried in a small crevice in Murderer’s Alley. As a result, when the police stormed the building, they arrived in a full force of 50 to 75 men, armed with clubs, bats, guns, and knives.
Just as it was dangerous for people to enter the building, it was equally dangerous for the building’s inhabitants to venture outside into the open air. The Old Brewery’s inhabitants were so hated and feared by the general public that any human walking out of the brewery’s front door was immediately stoned and beaten with bats. This caused people who wanted to leave the brewery to do so through a maze of tunnels that meandered throughout the Five Points area.
Oddly enough, some of the Old Brewery’s inhabitants were once prosperous people of some importance. The Panic of 1837 had something to do with it, but most people who knew better sank to the level of the slimeballs around them. The last of the Blennerhassetts, the second son of Harman Blennerhassett, who conspired with Aaron Burr to form a Western dictatorship, was rumored to have died at the Old Brewery, along with other higher-minded families. They decided of their own free will that they would spend their last days entrenched in the violence, madness, drunkenness and promiscuity that was the daily way of life at the brewery.
The churches of that time expressed great anguish over what was happening at the brewery. However, they couldn’t make a dent in the myriad of brewery problems because those churches were mostly Presbyterian, while the brewery’s inhabitants were mostly Irish Catholics, who loathed Protestants because of the prosecution of Catholics in Ireland, where most of these wretched people were born.
In 1840, a Congregational church called the Broadway Tabernacle was built on Broadway near Anthony Street, just a short walk from the brewery. But although many attempts were made to do humanitarian social work at the brewery, nothing of significance was ever achieved.
In 1850, the Ladies’ Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church sent Rev. Lewis Morris Pease to Five Points, along with his wife, to open a mission on Cross Street, near the brewery. Pease was considered one of the great humanitarians of his time. But he soon realized that the brewery’s ills could not be combated unless the conditions that caused crime, vice, and poverty were removed. Pease opened schools for both adults and children, and also established workrooms in the brewery where clothing manufacturers sent clothing materials, so that Pease and his wife could make decent clothing for the brewery’s inhabitants. This did not please the Ladies Home Missionary Society, who insisted that it was Pease’s job to preach the word to God, not to engage in worldly pursuits.
Within a year of his work at the Old Brewery, Pease was succeeded by the Rev. J. Luckey, a noted evangelist. The reason Pease was fired was because a group of ladies from the Ladies Home Missionary Society visited Pease’s mission and discovered that since Pease and his wife were so busy making clothes for the poor, Pease had not given a religious sermon in more than two days. However, Luckey fared no better than Pease, and it was decided that for the misery and decay to end, the brewery had to be razed to the ground and replaced with a church.
In 1852 the Ladies Home Missionary Society, with money raised from a group of philanthropists headed by Daniel Drew, purchased the Old Brewery. The purchase price was $16,000 and the City of New York contributed $1,000 toward the purchase. On December 1, 1852, the Ladies Home Missionary Society asked the police to raid the brewery and evict the wretched people still living there. Dozens of armed policemen stormed inside and numerous fierce battles ensued at close range.
By the end of the day, the police had arrested twenty known murders, and the children, who had never seen sunlight, blinked in terror as the police led them out of the building.
The next day, the demolition of the Old Brewery began. As the building was being demolished, workers were seen carrying numerous sacks of human bones that had been found inside the walls, under the floorboards, and in the basement. In the days that followed, dozens of gang members raided the facility looking for buried treasure they heard was hidden there. However, nothing of value was ever found.
It cost $36,000 to build and on January 27, 1853, Bishop Jones laid the cornerstone for the Methodist Episcopal Church, which now stood on the site of the Old Brewery.
New York City rejoiced at the demolition of the Old Brewery and the creation of the church. The Reverend Thomas Fitz Mercein was so moved that he wrote a poem to celebrate the occasion. He said:
God knows it’s time for your walls to go!
through every stone
The blood of life, as through a heart, is flowing:
He mutters a strangled groan
Long years filling the cup with poison
Of gall leaves;
Long years a darker cup brewing
Of the withered hearts that fall!
Oh! This world is harsh and sad
Everywhere they wander;
God! Have you never called the weary
Don’t they have a home in you?
Disgusting shelter! A glorious resurrection,
springs from your grave!
Faith, hope and purified affection,
Praising the “Strong to save!”
God bless the love that, like an angel,
fly to every call,
until every lip has this gospel,
“Christ interceded for all of us!”
Oh! This world is severe and sad,
Everywhere they wander;
Praise the Lord! A voice has called to the weary,
In you it has found a home!