Crime, Amusement And Oddities In 1888 Queens
Welcome to August 1888!
It was a sweltering August day, the gentle breezes and cool Atlantic waves provided scant relief to the crowds gathered at Brosnahan’s Seaside House on Rockaway Beach. Their gazes were fixed skyward on a small speck a mile above their heads. A nervous anticipation settled over onlookers as they awaited what happened next: a small, barely discernible human form emerged from a hot air balloon and leapt from the basket, plummeting toward the ocean depths as young and old, man and woman alike gasped in horror. Professor Hogan, who came all the way from Michigan for the stunt, pulled the ripcord on his parachute and coasted safely earthward, much to the relief of spectators. The summer of 1888 was in full swing in Queens. It was a time of innocent fun, spectacular stunts and serendipitous discovery.
Professor Hogan made his daring leaps twice weekly that summer, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Long Island Weekly Star touted his death-defying plunges as “The most thrilling leaps ever made!” New Yorkers flocked to the beaches, yacht clubs and beer halls of Queens seeking escape from the August heat and the monotony of a six day work week. Young men strolled with ladies on their arms, hoping for summer romance. The laughter of children filled the never ending days.
In August, the employees of the Sohmer & Co. piano factory enjoyed a well-earned respite from their toil in the new Sohmer Piano factory on Jamaica (today 31st) Avenue. Sohmer himself treated his workers and their families and friends to a lavish summer picnic and festival at Scheutzen Park. Reporting on the gathering, the Star proclaimed, “The spacious park was literally thronged with happy families and young men and their sweethearts who enjoyed themselves to their hearts content until quite late in the evening.”
The timeless call of the outdoors lured many not content with mere picnicking and beach going. Sport filled the summer days of many youngsters in Queens. A four-oared crew from the Astoria Athletic Club proudly represented the borough in the Long Island Regatta, while the Williamsburg Yacht Club renovated its clubhouse for its members, who spent their summer days sailing in the waters near College Point. In baseball, the Comets of Queens bested Harlem’s Lafayette squad by a score of 11 to 7, breaking a 14 game win streak for the Harlem nine.
Other locals took a much less wholesome approach to summer fun. For three unruly teenagers, a night of drunken rowdiness led to an altercation with police and a trip to the county jail. The young ruffians boarded a horse-drawn “blue” car in Dutch Kills, one of them then asking a fellow passenger for a light as the car approached Schwalenberg’s Park on Academy Street. The passenger, a local sheriff named Mitchell, gladly obliged. Instead of offering thanks, the teenager saucily replied, “If I had a penny, I’d pay you for the light.” Not taking the offense lightly, a fight soon ensued, with the sheriff himself applying the driver’s whip over the back of one hoodlum. The police arrived on the scene and gave chase, with the Weekly Star providing a blow by blow account of what happened next. “The rascals were quickly overhauled and after a free use of the club were brought into submission and taken to the Second Precinct station house.”
For one Flushing lawyer, however, the summer was all business. William H. Secor’s client, a Mrs. Hynes, claimed to be the widow of William R. Hynes. The late Mr. Hynes was killed in an accident in 1874 while in London on business, and the case had been in the courts for 14 years. That August, the deceased’s estate was settled in favor of Hynes. For his efforts, the Queens attorney earned a handsome $31,582 fee, nearly $1 million in 2012 dollars.
In the days before movies, residents of Astoria were treated to Hollywood-style suspense and intrigue, complete with white collar crime and police pursuit through the streets. On August 23, Secret Service detectives staked out the house of Joseph Raffono on Crescent Street. Raffono, along with an accomplice named Bettini, were suspected of printing counterfeit money to sell or spend in local stores. When officers Sullivan and Higgins of the First Precinct happened upon the scene, they arrested the undercover detectives thinking they were about to break into the house. After sorting out the case of mistaken identity at the precinct, the police and Secret Service returned to the scene in full force and arrested Raffono. Bettini fled the scene only to be captured at the 92nd Street Ferry, about to board a boat for Manhattan. He was found armed with a .44 caliber Bulldog revolver, the same type of weapon used to shoot President James Garfield seven years earlier.
For some in Queens, the summer of 1888 was a time of remembrance. On August 28, the Grand Army of the Republic Queens chapter held its first reunion at Grotz’s Willow Grove on Rockaway Beach. The Long Island Rail Road and the New York Woodhaven and Rockaway Beach Rail Road offered reduced rates to veterans, who gathered to swap Civil War stories and relive the camaraderie that bound them together through four years of bloody conflict. Founded in 1866, the GAR was disbanded in 1956 with the passing of its last member.
For one Jamaica man, a stroll in the woods on a beautiful August day became a journey through time. Peter Prinz came across a turtle in his path with some curious markings on the shell. The Weekly Star relates Prinz’s story. “On the back …. was an eye, as if the person had started out to represent a human face. He changed his plan, however, and made a star in the centre, under which he cut the date 1862. The other side represents an army encampment, with figures of a cannon, a tent and a musket, all of which are cut with a great deal of care. The word “Union” appears across the shell, cut in bold letters.”
That’s the way it was in August 1888!
We are open to the public, Saturdays, noon until five at “Quinn’s Gallery”, 4th Floor, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City. Additional hours Monday and Wednesday two to five! Visit our gift shop on line. For further information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit our Web site at www.astorialic.org.