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White Wings and Dream Stuff

Jan 28, 2011 10:00 AM | 10 comments

In the summer of 1951 New York City was a marijuana jungle. From underpasses in the Bronx to empty lots on Avenue X, the razor-toothed fronds of 10 foot tall Cannabis sativa plants could be seen all around the city happily waving in the wind like any other innocuous and legal weed. But for all their persistence in invading the city's forgotten horticultural corners, these plants were likely waving farewell: New York was no friend to pot.

Over the course of the summer about 41,000 pounds of marijuana were uprooted and destroyed during a campaign to eradicate the psychotropic stuff from vacant lots in the city. After Queens, Brooklyn accounted for the largest haul -- about 17,200 pounds. Though the bust in the above article occurred in Greenwich Village, the leader of this group of "strikingly pretty girls" and musicians copped to finding his marijuana "somewhere in Brooklyn." As to what they were doing "sitting hobo style around a man preparing marijuana in a frying pan" is, however, anyone's guess.

Responsible for all this destruction was General Inspector of the city's Sanitation Department, John E. Gleason, who headed up a special "White Wing Squad" charged with harvesting and incinerating the dubious crop. Here we see him standing in a cornfield, arms akimbo, as his men lay the prized narcotic at his feet. The Eagle reported that the "drug plant" was growing here in "lush impudence."

Though sounding like a team of angelic superheroes, the "White Wing Squad" was in fact a group of run-of-the-mill sanitation workers. The term "white wing" was a nickname given to the city's Strongest in the 1890s when Colonel George Edwin Waring Jr., as head of the Sanitation Department, decided to dress his garbage men in white duck cloth uniforms with the aim of instilling some badly-needed martial order in what he saw as a rag-tag crew. As Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, authors of Gotham, relate, these white uniforms weren't the only regulations imposed upon sanitation workers at the time -- in addition to the pristine duds, Waring's troops were barred from entering saloons, using foul language, and neglecting horses. Far be it from me to presume knowledge of a 19th century garbage man's soul, but how were men charged with cleaning up the 2.5 million pounds of horse manure and the 60 thousand gallons of equine urine that collected in the city's streets supposed to refrain from profanity and drink? Who knows -- but as mysteries go I suppose it ranks right up there with the marijuana omlets those Beatniks were frying up in the Village.

Anyway, back to the naughty plants at hand. In our photo collection we have a number of photographs showing these White Wings (though now their outfits are a rather darker shade of drab) out picking plants as tall as Christmas trees, carting plants away, and burning great piles of prohibited plants. It was an epic battle of Man v. Nature and Man was showing Nature -- in this case, not Everest or the Atlantic but rather a scrawny weed -- who was boss.

In this photo, captioned Plenty of Dream Stuff, we see Inspector Gleason and Denis Healy, Sanitation District Superintendent for Greenpoint and Williamsburg, taking the measurements of one especially lofty specimen. At this point in the summer -- August 2nd -- the Sanitation Department had already dug up "millions of dollars" worth of plants from the "marijuana plantations" of Brooklyn. But just how many millions of dollars had these pop-up plantations disgorged? In an earlier Eagle article from July 28th 1951 detailing the "daring marijuana farmers" who had established a "farm" in a lot at the heart of Brooklyn's projected Civic Center, the estimated value of all the marijuana destroyed in Brooklyn was reported to be nearly $6,000,000. So by August 2nd the total value of pot destroyed in Brooklyn alone must have been well north of $6,000,000. Plenty of green dream stuff indeed.

The proposed site of the new Civic Center wasn't the only municipal hot spot for impromptu pot farms. Here we see inspectors from both the Sanitation and Police Departments overseeing a harvest in the shadow of the Brooklyn Federal Building. On the left we have Inspector Frank Creta from Sanitation and on the right a very nattily dressed Deputy Inspector from the Police Department, Peter E. Terranova.

But these high profile plantings were the exception. More often than not these so-called marijuana farms were found growing in anonymous vacant lots such as this plot on Livonia Ave. and Warwick St.

Or this one at 82 Butler St., where over 100 pounds of pot were hauled away.

After being felled and used like safari beasts for some photo ops, the plants would then be taken to Sanitation Department incinerators in Woodside, Queens where Chief Inspector Gleason was on hand to oversee the fiery eradication.

The 7 photos you see here in this post all come from a file labeled Crime: Drugs: Marijuana -- it's a pat taxonomy indeed, and constitutes a kind of shorthand for what was, and is, the law of the land.

And since laws, from the minute they are conceived, are both buoyed and attacked by supporters and detractors alike, I thought for sure we might find in these photos of Gleason's marijuana vigilantes some pro-pot faction, unintentionally caught by the lens of the Eagle photographer, standing by in the wings betraying in their expressions a softness in their hearts for the demonized plant.

And in looking closer, beyond the posturing of the suits and the cops, you can just make it out -- it's a certain sort of conspiratorial glimmer, a smile, a shadow of a smile, some flicker of dissent passing over the face...

maybe it's there in the grin of the white wing...

or in the fishy cigarettes of the laborers...

or in the full-on-bliss of the woman whose yard accounted for 100 pounds of the evil, malevolent, impudent, illegal, notorious dream stuff.

And though the story of marijuana in the summer of 1951 may end here, the story of crime didn't end for everyone involved in this crusade. Looking for a little more information on General Inspector John E. Gleason I dug up a photo file of him. At first glance it loooked like just more of the same -- Gleason standing beside a sanitation worker sternly appraising a freshly bagged pot plant -- but there on the back of one of the photos was glued an article from May 14 1953 headlined: Gleason Draws 3 1/2 Years in Probe of Fuel Extortion. Turns out our do-gooder Inspector was found guilty on four counts of lying to a Grand Jury which was trying to find out who succeeded James J. Moran as head of the $500,000-a-year fuel oil installers' extortion racket in the Fire Department.

The Demon Barber of Brooklyn

Jan 24, 2011 11:00 AM | 3 comments

He struck without warning, descending quickly upon unsuspecting adolescent girls and committing his dastardly deed with one efficient stroke.  Before the victims even had a chance to cry out, his evil work was finished, and the bandit disappeared deftly into the bustling Brooklyn street crowds with his prize in hand... a fistful of hair. 

In the late 19th century, the man who would be known as "Jack the Snipper" allegedly lopped off the braids and pigtails of nearly a dozen young girls in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  His bizarre crimes sparked a minor hysteria among the teenagers of the city who sang a new song on public school playgrounds that went, "Girls, beware, look out for your hair."  The saga played out on the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for the next three years, with prose and plot twists as gripping as those of Charles Dickens' own serial urban dramas.

This tale of villainy started innocuously enough, with the serial haircutter's first foray into criminality described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as merely an "unpleasant adventure" for its victim.  On the wintry afternoon of January 13, 1891, fourteen-year-old Lulu Hewitt was strolling to her classes at public school no. 15 when, seemingly out of nowhere, a strange man grabbed her, cut off her two long braids of hair, and dashed off.  It all happened so quickly that Lulu was unable to give the police much of a description of her assailant, saying only that he was "of medium height and wore a dark coat."  It could be anybody!  The incident may have been forgotten as one of the many random oddities of big city life, had it not been for a similar attack two days later:

It was a scenario unnervingly similar to Lulu Hewitt's experience only two days prior: seventeen-year-old Mamie McMurray was window shopping along Grand Street, near Leonard Street, when she felt "a slight tug at her locks, but paid no attention to it, as she supposed it was the mischievousness of some passing boy." She would soon discover that it was something far more sinister when, upon returning home, her sister cried out that Mamie's foot-long golden braids were missing.  Mamie grabbed at her hair, only to find that her beloved locks had been "ruthlessly shorn."

By the end of the month, two more girls reported attacks of a similar nature.  The Eagle catapulted the phenomenon into a full-blown crisis, and gave the anonymous criminal a catchy moniker, with their provocative January 28th headline:

The answer to that question, in fact, seemed to be "maybe not."  As the Eagle and police probed victims' testimony further, they found troubling discrepancies.  One girl in particular, Gertrude Breast, told a tale that was a bit too far-fetched to be believed.  She claimed that the Snipper had been following her for days before he struck, and that he had an accomplice; a woman who, after Gertrude's hair had been cut, gave the girl a ribbon that had fallen from her hair and told her to run along home.  Police searched every house in the neighborhood, but could find no such lady.  Gertrude also waffled on the appearance of her attacker, at one time saying he had no beard, then a black beard, then a light moustache.  Reports from friends and neighbors that Gertrude had been heard bragging about what she would do if the Snipper tried to cut her hair put the final nail in the coffin; the girl had cut her own hair!  Detective James Reynolds of the Tenth Precinct told Eagle reporters his conclusions--that a "hair-cutting mania has broken out among the school children," due to the recent crimes, and that, "a great number of them want to be heroines.  At this time, as the mania reached its height, Jack the Snipper (if there truly was a Jack the Snipper beyond the hyperactive imaginations of Brooklyn schoolgirls) appears to have taken a respite from his activities.  With little Gertrude Breast exposed as a fibber, the story lost the public interest even if it did live on as an urban myth on Brooklyn's playgrounds.  

Then came another complaint of braid-snatching some two years after the first attack in summer of 1893, this time from a young girl named Carrie Lund.  She went to the Twentieth Precinct to report the crime against her coif, but was largely dismissed by Captain Kitzer, who examined Carrie's hair and determined she'd done the cutting herself.  Her story would probably have been dismissed as another grasp at notoriety by an imaginative girl, had it not been for an exciting arrest made across the river just a month later:

This suspect was apprehended in Madison Square Park on July 6, 1893, after a Manhattan girl had reported her long blonde tresses stolen in a manner fitting the serial cutter's modus operandi. Police found damning evidence on the suspect, Frank Rogers:  a full set of hair-cutting utensils.  Rogers denied the charges, claiming that he was an out-of-work barber.  Rogers was eventually released, after none of his alleged victims would appear in court to identify him.  The story of Jack the Snipper would have most likely again sputtered out, had it not been for yet another arrest made just a few weeks later.  This time, the Eagle assured its readers, they really did have him:

The new Jack the Snipper was identified as Joseph Herzog, a married painter from Brooklyn whose mop of red hair was in keeping with recent descriptions of the Snipper from the numerous victims who were again popping up all over Brooklyn and Manhattan.  After being arrested as a suspect, he was positively identified by two young girls who had made complaints to the police.  It seemed that the puzzling case was finally wrapped up and that the girls of New York could again let their hair carelessly hang free... until the next day, August 1, 1893, when Herzog produced a solid alibi and sterling references from his boss and neighbors.  The real Jack the Snipper, if there ever was one, was still at large.  One last report came a year later, on June 6, 1894, when a Mary Zimmerman of Van Voorhis Street reported that a tall, sturdy man had accosted her at the Chauncey Street station of the Brooklyn Elevated railroad and snipped off a braid.  The Eagle reports that the girl didn't report the crime to the police or the railroad authorities.  Even if she had, it seems unlikely that anything would have been done, in light of the police's many thwarted attempts at catching a villain who may have been, after all that, a figment of the collective imagination.

And whatever happend to little Lulu Hewitt, the girl whose first report to the police ignited the Jack the Snipper legend?   


The Eagle published this sketch of the girl in February of 1896, when her divorce trial made front-page news.  At the tender  age of 19, Lulu was again a media sensation.  It had been five years since her first fifteen minutes of fame at the hand of Jack the Snipper.  That's plenty of time for her hair to have grown back, so we can only assume that she sported this hairstyle on purpose.


Pfizer Family Products--a Window Into The 1950s, by guest blogger Christine Modica.

Jan 21, 2011 12:00 PM | 0 comments

Recently a friend of the family, who was something of a collector, passed away. Among the items he had accumulated over the years, my mother found a box of Pfizer medicines in near perfect condition,  labeled “Family Products.”

Pfizer Family Products Sample Box

Sample box contents

The contents include: • Visine eye drops • Viterra vitamins and minerals. “A smaller capsule for your convenience’ • Terramucin Ointment for minor burns, wounds or abrasions • Candettes cough syrup • Candettes cold tablets • Candettes cough-jel • ACM “New Improved” • Bondadettes motion sickness preventative • Kidz Appetite Builders.  Knowing most of these products no longer exist, I was interested to find out when the "Family Products" box was manufactured. While I was unable to find a date for most of the contents, I did find an advertisement for Candettes cough-jel in the December 1, 1958 issue of Life Magazine. Cough-jel was a cough medicine in a jelly form that did not spill off a teaspoon. On November 29, 1972, the product was removed from shelves because of the difficulty in measuring it exactly.

‘Kidz’ appetite builders' was another intriguing product. While there are still products on the market today that promise increased appetites in children, the directions will probably not say "Tell your young man that Kidz Appetite Builders can help him grow up to be big and strong, or if she's a young lady, that Kidz Appetite Builders will help her to grow up healthy and beautiful." The appetite builders were a fruit flavored, chewable tablet, each tablet containing 20 mcg of vitamin B-12, 3 mg of vitamin B-6, 10 mg of vitamin B-1, 25 mg of vitamin C and 15 mg of L-lysine. Today, some studies suggest that Lysine could be used in the treatment of herpes.  "World's largest producer of antibiotics--Constant experimentation is conducted in laboratories of Brooklyn's chas. Pfizer & Co., seeking new wonder drugs to save lives." 1952.

In 1849, German cousins Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhart opened Charles Pfizer & Company. Pfizer was a chemist and Earhart was a confectioner. The company, located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, was started with $2,500 Pfizer borrowed from his father. One small building became the company's office, laboratory, factory and warehouse.

 Charles Pfizer & Co, 1949

Pfizer’s first mass production was an edible form of santonin, an antiparasitic used to treat intestinal worms, which was a common ailment in the mid-nineteenth century. The cousins devised a way to make the antiparasitic more appealing by mixing the santonin with almond-toffee and shaping it into a cone. The new medicine, cleverly combining chemistry with confectionery, became a huge success!


They even had a hygienic pig farm!

The company expanded during the Civil War because of the need for antiseptics and painkillers. With the advent of antibiotics in the 1950s, Pfizer became the world’s largest antibiotic producer. In 1961, Pfizer's headquarters moved to Manhattan. The company continued to grow into the twentieth century, opening up locations throughout the country and around the world.  In the 1980’s, Pfizer granted some land around their plant to the city. The area was cleaned up, new homes were built and Pfizer gave the city a four-story building and a million dollars to start the "Beginning with Children Charter School." (Students of this school are among the participants in our Brooklyn Connections program.)

In 2008 Pfizer closed its Brooklyn plant, laying off hundreds of workers.  While the company is no longer operating out of Brooklyn, it plans to convert the old headquarters in East Williamsburg into a community education center, and to work with the city to create a retail and housing plan for the ten acres it still owns.

In December 2010, my mother donated the "Family Products" box to the Brooklyn Collection where it joins many other items of printed ephemera, such as the trade catalogues of the E.W.Bliss Company, and the Menu Collection

Strange as it May Seem

Jan 13, 2011 10:59 AM | 0 comments

Long before "The Tonight Show" started featuring "Headlines", (the segment of the show running humorous advertisements and signs sent in from around the country), the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had a similar column.  "Strange as it May Seem" highlighted images the Eagle photographers had taken of amusing and peculiar signs around Brooklyn. Here are a few from the Fall of 1933. 


                            Maybe the O stands for oil. 


                       Their office is right down the hall from  Meaney and Ruff Esq.



                                                                                                                                                      Seen outside a Dry Cleaning Establishment 


And now, for the Dentists  



                                                                                                                                          That's gotta hurt 



When the Boro's Milk Vanished

Jan 11, 2011 11:45 AM | 2 comments

In the early 1950s, with post-war families booming across the United States, no single food item may have been as important as milk.  This was certainly the case in Brooklyn, where milk was needed to feed infants and supply children with necessary nutrients.  Milk was even a key ingredient in many housewives' favorite recipes--everything from meatloaf to tuna casserole to chicken pot pies to pound cake needed milk!

Demand for milk was so high that dairies had production and distribution plants right here in the borough.  Borden's, Sheffield's and other familiar names were responsible for not only supplying every corner store and supermarket, but also for delivering milk daily to most households.  Families relied on this door-to-door service--there was always milk in the house. 

But on October 26, 1953, when 13,000 milk plant employees and deliverymen went on strike, all of that changed.  Suddenly, the bottling, distribution and delivery of milk came to a halt.  The importance of milk was so great that the strike made the Eagle headline:

Eagle Headline, October 26, 1953.

The union had responsibly promised to continue service to those most in need--schools, hospitals and military bases--but everyone else was out of luck.

Knowing that a strike was possible, some families had begun to stockpile milk at home prior to the 26th.  This run on milk meant that by the time the strike actually began, stores and supermarkets were already displaying signs saying, "Sorry, no milk."  Early shoppers frantically grabbed the last few bottles left in their neighborhood stores.

Lucky housewives celebrate their good fortune in finding milk at a nearby supermarket.  Eagle, 1953.

The only remaining option was to purchase milk straight from the distributors.  Each morning, lines formed outside of distribution plants while picketers marched alongside.  On October 27 (the second day), a line of 3,500 people formed outside of the Borden's plant at 85 3rd Avenue.  Some waited up to three hours in the pouring rain to purchase just a single bottle of milk (the day's allotment per family) at the usual price of 23 cents. 

Families waited up to three hours outside Borden's Dairy.  Eagle, 1953.

That same day, the Eagle published advice about milk substitutes on the front page: "Sweetened condensed milk, nonfat dry milk solids and evaporated milk may all be substituted for fresh fluid milk," wrote the Eagle's food editor and "expert."  Meanwhile, other Eagle reports were warning that stores were already running low on substitute products too.

Walking the picket line outside of Borden's Dairy. Eagle, 1953.Each morning those families who ran out of milk scrambled to find a store or plant that still had a supply.  Families feared the worst, as reports from the contract negotiations were anything but promising.  The union was standing strong in their demand for a $15-per-week raise.  There were rumors that deliverymen represented by the union who had vowed to work were receiving threats of violence from their colleagues.  Luckily, no reports indicate that actions actually reached that level.


Finally, on November 2, the strike came to an end.  It had been only six days, but the impact had been felt.  The city's supply of milk and milk substitutes was practically depleted.  There was no time to lose in starting up business.
Borden began distributing milk immediately after the contract was signed.  Eagle, 1953.
As the Eagle noted, "The ink on the contract was hardly dry before the city's supply of milk began moving."  Or did they mean, "mooooooving"?