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Around here, we think there's nothing quite so discouraging as a pair of closed library doors. Especially when, as in our case, those closed doors are glass, allowing you to see, from afar, all the wonderful books, maps, prints, and photographs that you can't get to! We try to put as many of our materials as is possible online, so that you can look up your ancestors in city directories, search for old pictures of your neighborhood, or read through 19th century newspapers from the comfort of your home at all hours of the day. Still, nothing beats a visit to the library for in-depth research and a hands-on understanding of history. For that reason, we are happy to announce that we are extending the hours in the Brooklyn Collection reading room!
Starting Tuesday, September 4th, we will open during the following hours:
Tuesday: 12:30pm - 7:30pm
Wednesday: 12:30 - 6pm
Thursday: 12:30 - 7:30pm
Friday: 10am - 2pm
Saturday: 1pm - 5:30pm
We hope to be seeing more of you!
By my latest reckoning, the Brooklyn Collection has so far uploaded more than 15,000 photograph records to our catalog. It's a sliver of the more than 200,000 images in our holdings, to be sure, but it is nonetheless no small feat, especially when you consider that the meticulous description of these images (in numerous MARC fields including title, author, date, physical description, summary, notes, subject headings, etc) is handled by just two catalogers, Ron and Stephen. Whenever I've prepared a new collection for the catalog, I hand it over to either of them and a few weeks later, like magic, all the photographs are thoroughly described in individual records in our catalog. At least, it seems magical to me, since I'm not the one with the difficult job of teasing out the details in some of our less than forthcoming images. While most photographs from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle sport an informative newspaper caption on the back that includes all the details a cataloger, or patron, could want, many of our older images from other sources are annoyingly baffling in one or multiple ways.
Who is the handsome man with the tennis racket? Who took the photograph of him? When was it taken? So many questions...
One such bewildering collection is a slim file of photographs and negatives of the former Knickerbocker Field Club in Flatbush, taken sometime in the early 1900s by an Edwin Roberts. While the Knickerbocker Club is a known entity, the photographer of the series, Edwin Roberts, is not. All we have for him is a name. Furthermore, there is little information on the provenance of these images, so I couldn't work my way back from the donor to the source. To answer our cataloger's pressing questions (i.e., "Who was Edwin Roberts, and when did he take these photographs?"), I had to leap headfirst into the rabbit hole of biographical research.
First, some historical background. The Knickerbocker Field Club sprang up in the late 1880s adjacent to real estate developer Richard Ficken's Tennis Court houses between East 18th Street and Ocean Avenue in Flatbush, as a grounds for, fittingly, outdoor tennis and croquet matches.
A membership card from 1900, part of our ephemera collection.
Membership grew robustly, and by 1892 the club opened a grand new clubhouse, designed by the Parfitt Brothers architecture firm, which boasted four bowling alleys, a library, an assembly hall, a billiard room, running track, and a ladies' parlor. The fancy new digs served the club and the borough as a hub of social and sporting activity for Flatbush's comfortable middle class. On an October evening in 1900, one might catch a performance of traditional Scandinavian dances by the Ladies' Swedish Quartette and a few nights later enjoy a dramatic staging of the one-act play, The Persecuted Dutchman, with a few rounds of golf in the days between (unless the caddies were on strike), as evidenced by our collection of ephemera from the club.
Above, a ticket to a performance of The Persecuted Dutchman. Below, a group photograph of the club's 1905 bowling team.
Club members trade tips in this Eagle photo from September 22, 1952.
The club continued to host tennis matches and bowling tourneys through the 20th century, and was eventually listed as a New York City Landmark in 1978. Four years later it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. By this time, as noted in two articles in the New York Daily News from the late 1970s, the club had declined somewhat from its former glory. By the 1980s membership had dwindled from several hundred to around 70 souls, and most of these were long-standing family memberships and senior citizens who had joined in the 1910s and '20s. The club was showing its age. As reporter Stewart Ain noted in a January 8, 1978 article, "Indeed even the American flag that stands to the left of the stage in the auditorium has only 48 stars!" A fire swept through the building in 1988 and what remained was demolished in 1990. One remnant of the club lives on -- five tennis courts remain tucked behind an apartment building on East 18th Street -- but its hallowed hall is gone.
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Compare the Google satellite shot of the club's tennis courts alongside the tracks of the B and Q train lines, above, with Roberts' photograph of the courts, below.
So we know the story of club, but what about the man? I started my hunt for Edwin Roberts as any reasonably intelligent person would, with a Google search. To my delight, my very first hit took me to the University of New Hampshire's guide to a collection of negatives from an Edwin Jay Roberts.
The biographical note in their finding aid informed me that Edwin Jay Roberts taught at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute from 1914 to 1918, and moved back to his native New Hampshire upon his father's death that year. The news gave me goosebumps. I even found an image of Edwin Jay Roberts that ran in the Eagle on September 23, 1914 (left), during his first semester at Polytechnic. This had to be our Roberts, I thought. He lived in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, and he was a photographer! And how wonderful it would be if it was our Roberts, coming as he did with an authoritative biography courtesy of the University of New Hampshire. Oh, my catalogers were going to be so pleased with me! Everything fit together perfectly, or at least, I wanted it to.
A search on the genealogy website ancestry.com revealed an Edwin J. Roberts (same middle initial) living at... 8 Tennis Court! That is, right across the street from the Knickerbocker Field Club. All was going swimmingly until I looked at the date of the census record -- 1920. Two years after Edwin Jay Roberts, the Polytechnic professor, had left Brooklyn. A comparison of the family member names between the census record and the university's finding aid further deflated my hopes. I had two entirely different Edwin J. Roberts, and the one who I really wanted to be the photographer of our Knickerbocker Field Club collection was almost certainly not.
A particularly haunting image from Roberts' Knickerbocker series.
I knew Edwin Roberts wasn't, but who was he? From what I could glean from ancestry.com, the Edwin J. Roberts who lived across the street from the Knickerbocker Field Club (still my most likely candidate) was a native New Yorker, born in 1880 to John E. and Nannie B. Roberts. Our city directories show him living with his parents and siblings on Tennis Court through his adolescence and adult years, working as a clerk. A draft card indicates that he likely served in World War I. In 1922, the trail stops cold, with this:
The obituary, printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, is unfortunately short on details. At the very least, however, it gives us the lifespan of Roberts, which will lend an air of authority to the catalog records that document his lasting contribution. Like the vestigial tennis courts hidden behind an apartment complex in Flatbush that speak to the long-gone Knickerbocker Field Club itself, Roberts' photographs are all that remain to tell of one man's life in Brooklyn. Maddeningly lacking in detail they may be, but we're happy to have them just the same. Down the road we may turn up more details about Roberts, but even without knowing much about the photographer, the photographs themselves provide an arresting and candid portrait of Brooklyn at play at the dawn of the 20th century.
Some pictures cry out to be shared, and this is one of them:
TRIPLE PLAYERS--The Yerves triplets, Tommy, Denny and Gerry, age 2 1/2...Brooklyn Eagle, Mar 9, 1953
The Yerves triplets were born in the Bronx, but we do notice a Dodgers banner on young Denny's chest (or is that Gerry, or Tommy?) The fact that they are all wearing pinstripes might indicate a subtle preference for the Bronx Bombers. In any event, this photograph got me thinking about our Brooklyn multiples, of whom we see more and more--and more. Twins, triplets and the rare quadruplets have always drawn press attention for one reason or another, and Brooklyn has certainly had its fair share of multiples, many with their own peculiarly Brooklyn stories. Here's one set of triplets: the Grodsky boys, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of 697 Gates Ave, celebrated their Bar Mitzvah together on April 11, 1925 at Congregation Sons of Abraham.
In 1922 the Kiolmowitz triplets of 433 Hopkinson Ave, Stella, Catherine and Isador attracted the attention of a well-heeled lady who offered their father $10,000 to adopt Isador. Philip Kiolmowitz, a baker by trade, refused the money.
The 1920s seem to have been a big decade for triplet reports. The Blickendorfer triplets of 59 Bushwick Pl, born in October 1921, added three to a brood already five strong. Their father "sighed...when he thought of the high price of shoes and clothes, for now he had eight children to support."
The Pagano triplets of 646 Hicks St (Brooklyn's "young Italian settlement") were born in August 1920. After the birth of two boys, their father summoned Dr. Joseph Belinda, who then delivered their sister, Concetta. Dr. Belinda, perhaps overwhelmed, called for help from Nurse Hannah O'Connell of the Baby Health Station at 49 Carroll St, who soon had the three infants nursing and in ship shape condition.
There's more! The Caporale triplets of 359 Rutland Rd, born in February 1937, made their appearance on Valentine's Day. Their father, a grocery clerk, remained optimistic in the face of this sudden addition to his existing family of three. "I'm sorry it wasn't four or five," he said. Their mother on the other hand said firmly, "There'll be no more."
DOUBLE TALK--The Twin Mothers Club of Brooklyn ...Brooklyn Eagle, Jun 19, 1949
Parenting multiples brings its own challenges, and seeking support from other parents going through the same travails is not a new idea. The Twin Mothers Club of Brooklyn, evidently a thriving group, held their annual picnic in Owl's Head Park in baby-booming 1949, attended by no less than 25 sets of twins. Twins, it seems, are a dime a dozen around here, and tales of the extraordinary accrete around them. The Yinger twins, for example, were born in Coney Island Hospital, on either side of midnight, New Year's Eve 1949. So Donnie Gene and Patti Jean might have been like as two peas in every other respect, but one was born in 1949, the other in 1950.
TWINS--BUT A YEAR APART...Brooklyn Eagle, Jan 3, 1950
Mrs Frances Cain, 23, of 604 Humboldt St, gave birth to twin boys a day apart in 1925. Mrs Cain was herself a twin, her mother, Mrs Theresa Bruetsch was a twin, and her grandmother too was a twin--four generations of twins in an unbroken line!
The tendency of twins, even separated ones, to lead strangely parallel lives is highlighted in the story of twins Mrs Katherine Donahoe and her sister Mrs Winifred Murphy, both of 760 49th St, who gave birth in Prospect Heights Hospital on the same day in July of 1947. The attending physician had also delivered the mothers 33 years before.
Vincent Calicchio pictured below, of 87 2nd Place, is shown celebrating the birth of his third pair of twins.
FATHER AND TWINS DOING WELL...Brooklyn Eagle, Feb 17, 1946
And Mrs Jennie Gabel (below) looks ecstatic in 1945 after giving birth to her second pair of twin girls within 11 months. We can only hope that the mood lasted into the terrible twos and beyond. Mrs Mary O'Donnell had already paved the way for her the year before, producing two pairs of twin boys within the year. The O'Donnells, who lived near Ebbets Field, joked that they were starting a rival baseball team.
TWO SETS OF TWINS IN 11 MONTHS--Brooklyn Eagle, Nov 26, 1945
While multiples draw press attention mainly as children, one pair of twins from East New York lived to cut their 90th birthday cake together, on Feb 11, 1952 (coincidentally, the very day on which a singleton we know drew her first lonely breath.) Mrs Kate Noteboom and Mr Michael Dulk were born in the Lower East Side but spent their childhood at 168 Schenck Ave in New Lots. "Uncle Mike" remembered a time when Schenck Ave was the only street in the area, cutting through grazing grounds and farmland.
SHARING A BIRTHDAY--...East New York's oldest living twins are shown...celebrating their 90th birthday...Brooklyn Eagle, Feb 11, 1952
Our very own Brooklyn Collection twins, Jordan and April, began their tenure as assistants to the Outreach Librarian on June 5, 2002.
Photo: Kristin Stith
What a difference ten years makes!
Photo: June Koffi
Ask any long-time resident of Coney Island about Philip's Candy Store and you're bound to hear pleasant stories of the shop with red and white awnings, that welcomed visitors to the park's amusements. You'll also hear about the homemade salt water taffy, peanut brittle, cotton candy, and friendly staff welcoming customers year-round.
Photo: Irving I. Herzberg, 1974
Philip's candy store started as a small stand on Coney Island's boardwalk in 1916, owned and operated by Philip Calamaris. It remained a stand until 1930 when it reached its new home under the Stillwell Avenue train station, located at 1237 Surf Avenue.
In 1947, John Dorman, an energetic, 17-year-old Staten Island native, began working at the candy shop--commuting three hours each way to and from Staten Island. He worked as the counterperson until 1956, when he purchased the shop upon Calamaris' retirement. Dorman carried on the tradition of making homemade candy and continued to run the shop without the help of modern machines or an electric cash register.
Postcard, courtesy of John Dorman
After Dorman married his wife Audrey, whom he met while she was a counter person at a luncheonette next to the candy store, they moved across the street from Steeplechase Park. Audrey helped him perfect the recipes, as did his current shop partner Peggy Cohn, who began working at Philip's when she was 15, bagging salt water taffy.
Philip's was special: it was open year-round 11am-3am (4am on Friday's and Saturday's); customers received a free cookie with the purchase of a coffee; and people who walked by the shop could hear Dorman humming as he made the candy from scratch.
While there are many delicious treats in the shop, his chocolate covered strawberries are my favorite--while others crave his candied apples. Dorman's recipe for the candied apples has been replicated in The Brooklyn Cookbook.
His shop is also depicted in Charles Denson's Book, Wild Ride: A Coney Island Roller Coaster Family.
Denson interviewed Dorman about his shop in 2010.
In 1988, the MTA cleared most of the businesses under the Stilwell train terminal for a multi-million dollar remodeling project, however, Dorman refused to leave. Nevertheless, in 2000, he lost his battle with the MTA and Philip's was demolished.
Photo: C. Modica, 2012
In 2003, Dorman re-opened his candy store in Staten Island, and re-named it Philip's Candy of Coney Island. Now 82, he continues to operate the shop in the Port Richmond section of Staten Island on 8 Barrett Avenue. I am thankful because it is only two blocks away from my house and now I can enjoy the homemade specialties including chocolate covered fruits and his homemade fudge--and Mr. Dorman is still humming. Although his shop is no longer in Coney Island, you can still enjoy Philip's Candy simply by crossing the Verrazano Bridge.
Photo: Irving Hoffman, 1940s.
If you didn't know better, you might think that names like "Dimples" Wolinsky, "Bugsey" Goldstein, "Trigger Mike" Cupola or "Kid Twist" Reles belonged to characters in a gangster movie with all of the usual trappings--a crime syndicate, a murder ring, hard-faced New York gangsters and the city's D.A. going after them with a mission to convict. But before the movies dramatized the fight against organized crime, the prosecution of Murder Inc., one of Brooklyn's most famed crime syndicates in the late 1930's-40's, provided a model for these epic legal battles. Burton Turkus was the Assistant to the District Attorney who brought down nine suspects in the Murder Inc. trials, managing to convict them all of first-degree murder. They would all be sentenced to death.
As an intern at the Brooklyn Collection, I was lucky enough to process the personal papers of Burton Turkus. As a whole the papers reflect a hard-working, dedicated criminal lawyer who cared deeply about the welfare of Brooklynites and the community he defended. After rising to prominence for his Murder Inc. victory, Turkus worked tirelessly in his positions as Chief of the Homicide Division and District Attorney, campaigning as County Judge and for the presidential campaign of his mentor, Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 election. He was also a steadfast supporter of New York labor union workers, serving as a member of the board for the New York State Board of Mediation for ten years. He wrote columns for newspapers and magazines and spoke on radio segments on everything from Murder Inc. to juvenille delinquency, and lectured in every corner of the city as shown by the hundreds of promotional flyers left behind in his collection. He even had his own television show for a spell, entitled "Mr. Arsenic." In his day, Turkus was a New York celebrity of the most deserving kind--a real-life crusader and defender of the people of Gotham.
The Murder Inc. trial received considerable press attention. It was more than a murder case, rather, a complex web of crimes with numerous perpetrators and many victims. The syndicate was part of a national crime ring, with the "workers" serving as hitmen and leading racketeering schemes within labor unions. The men who came to be known as Murder Inc. were primarily Jewish gangsters based in Brownsville, Brooklyn which lent them their other alias, "The Brownsville Boys." The gang made its headquarters in a local candy store where they would play craps as they waited for the phone to ring, sending them out on their next job. Meanwhile, New York, Chicago, and other major metropolises were plagued with unsolved murders that baffled the police and law enforcement officials. It was Abe "Kid Twist" Reles who let the cat out of the bag in 1940, turning himself in and telling authorities including Turkus everything he knew about the syndicate, their activities and the more than a dozen murders he had participated in for them. A statement released to the New York Times in 1963 reads,
" ...it was [due to] the testimony, information and leads supplied by Reles...that the pattern of national organized gangland was exposed for the first time along with the technique of of murders contracted and performed to sustain the rackets in every industrialized city from coast to coast."
The contribution of these revelations to the case against the syndicate and the investigation of organized crime thereafter was invualable. Things did not end well for Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, Louis Capone, Mendy Weiss, Harry "Happy" Maione, Frank "The Dasher" Abbandando, Buggsie Goldstein and "Pittsburgh" Phil Strauss.
Neither did they end well for Reles, who "fell" out of a sixth-floor window in Coney Island's Half Moon Hotel.
After the Murder Inc. excitement died down, Turkus went on running a private law practice, which he began in 1946. Aside from campaigning, speaking in countless lectures and serving as a chairman of numerous Labor Relations Boards, he also headed the Advanced School for Detectives in New Jersey, which was the "first school of its kind in the nation for instruction in the latest techniques in the apprehension of criminals and their prosecution."
Turkus later contributed his experiences to a book about the famous trials entitled Murder Inc.--The Story of the Syndicate, which was a non-fiction bestseller and was turned into a film in 1960. After spending time with his papers, I understand the fascination. The story is incredibly compelling, and the archive reads like Dick Tracey meets Law and Order, filled with criminal statements, witness testimonies, trial records and the sensational headlines that inevitably followed. It's a Raymond Chandler crime novel meets A Bronx Tale except it's better--it's real, and so were the story's heroes.
Editor's note: Abby Rubin was a Brooklyn Collection Project CHART intern. Project CHART is an IMLS-funded initiative of Pratt-SILS in partnership with Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum, to prepare information professionals as Digital Managers of Cultural Heritage across Museums, Libraries and Archives.