Tall tales





The only way is up in Manhattan, and has been for quite some time. Building a metropolis on an island of finite size means all the sprawl is upwards, not outwards. That's why Manhattan is a high-rise forest of skyscrapers, why population density and land prices are through the roof. The side-effect to this development is that buildings and plots of land are continually recycled, meaning every neighbourhood, every street has a story to tell and secrets to share about its past. All the events that have moulded the culture and colour of New York City over the past 400 years have transpired within a few blocks of one another.





In his book A Guide to Gangsters, Murderers and Weirdos of New York City’s Lower East Side, Author Eric Ferrara provides a bloody example of this phenomenon, commenting that the Lower East Side of Manhattan “was arguably the most murderous neighbourhood in the United States… over the last two hundred years, there was a murder on almost every single property I researched – and many times there were multiple incidents in the same building throughout the years.”



When stories are everywhere you turn, however, they can be easily twisted by memory or rumour, and even dinner with friends can lead to a fascinating but confused history lesson.




The Public is a up-scale restaurant in Lower Manhattan at 210 Elizabeth Street; a century ago this street and those surrounding it were the heart of Little Italy. Now there's barely a few blocks of pizzerias and tourist tat; Chinatown has sprawled to claim some streets while others have been consumed by the hipster boutiques of SoHo.




Inside, the Public hosts well-to-do New Yorkers enjoying Michelin Star dining, a few first dates going well or otherwise, and, on the night in question, me being treated to a meal by some very kind friends. There are two dining areas in the restaurant; one is broad with an arched roof lined with white tiles. The other room is the ground floor of the building next door, and runs long from the street to a study in the back where a log fire and cocktails are enjoyed. Candles, lamps and darkness dress the beautiful clientele.




"What did this place used to be?" I asked our host as we were seated at our table.




"This half," replied the host as she waved to the arched, tiled ceiling above us, "used to be a muffin bakery, the shape of the ceiling and the tiles used to retain the heat while baking."




Interesting, I thought, but nothing spectacular.




"The other half," she said, pointing to the doorway into the longer dining room, "used to the laboratory of Thomas Edison." Our host leaned in closer. "He would buy horses from nearby stables and electrocute them in his experiments with electricity!"




Our dinner party wasn't expecting such a shocking denouement - one of the world's most iconic inventors used to kill horses in the restaurant? Now that was interesting, if a little macabre. Proof that everywhere you turned in New York City, there was a story waiting to be discovered. And there is. Except on this occasion, our host's revelation turned out to be a tale taller than the skyline outside.




Rooting through the history books, it transpires Thomas Edison didn't electrocute horses, or any other animals. Three associates did, however. At a time when the dangers of electricity were yet to be understood, an electrician called Harold P. Brown sought to prove whether alternating or direct current was more lethal. Along with two colleagues, Brown approached Edison to borrow equipment so they might perform experiments with AC and DC currents. Instead, Edison provided the trio with the use of his personal laboratory. Over the course of a year, from 1887 to 1888, Brown and the others used Edison's laboratory to electrocute dogs, bought from children in the streets for 25¢ each.




While Edison supported the experiments for his own agenda (including the development of the electric chair), he wasn't directly involved. Besides which, Edison's laboratory wasn't in New York, it was in West Orange, New Jersey, and is now a national park. Edison's former employee and world famous scientist Nikola Tesla did have several laboratories in New York, but none of them were on Elizabeth Street.




So is there any connection between Thomas Edison and 210 Elizabeth Street? If there is, it's tenuous at best. The address was used by the Brush Electric Illuminating Company as an electric light station around the time of the experiments, providing power to electric lamps in the neighbourhood. And Harold P. Brown did work for Brush Electric in the early 1880s, but several years before any experiments were conducted.




Still, our dinner party lapped up the revelations about Edison (along with the soup), ignorant to the facts at the time. After all, we all love stories and New York, it's fair to say, is a place with plenty of them to tell. But in a city with its head in the clouds, you should always expect to hear a tall tale or two.

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