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Friday, August 26, 2011

The Great September Gale of 1815

As we wait for Hurricane Irene to arrive this weekend--the governor has already declared a state of emergency, and the city is preparing to take the unprecedented step of shutting down the entire bus and subway system--let's take a look back at an earlier storm that ravished the area. The most famous hurricane to come ashore in our region is undoubtedly 1938's "Long Island Express," a Category 3 storm that hit on September 31, 1938, wreaking havoc throughout New York and New England.

However, while that hurricane and its aftermath are well documented, an equally strong storm arrived on September 23, 1815, that is now largely forgotten. Known as the "Great September Gale of 1815" (the word hurricane was not yet in popular use), it very likely also a Category 3 storm. The storm originated, as many Atlantic storms do, in the warm waters of the Caribbean, striking the Bahamas before moving northward.

When the storm hit Long Island, it was probably packing 135-mph winds. Though wave heights aren't known, it seems likely that it matched the effect of the 1938 storm, which had a highest recorded wave height of 50 feet. The storm was so strong that it literally rewrote the landscape: before 1815, the Rockaways and Long Beach were connected as one, long barrier island. It was the Great September Gale that rent them asunder, permanently creating the inlet between them.

The worst of the storm's damage came in New England. An 11-foot storm surge rolled up Narragansett Bay, destroying over 500 homes, dozens of ships, and flooding Providence, Rhode Island.

Perhaps the most important after-effect of the gale was to cause Harvard mathematician John Farrar to realize that these types of gales were "moving vortexes," an essential first step toward the modern definition of a hurricane.

Stay safe everyone!

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Friday, August 19, 2011

The Death of Anne Hutchinson

If you happen to be driving up the Hutchinson River Parkway tomorrow, you might pause a moment to think about the road's namesake, religious dissenter Anne Hutchinson, who was killed on August 20, 1643, somewhere in the vicinity of Split Rock, where the parkway meets the New England Thruway.

Anne Hutchinson, born in England in 1591, came to Massachusetts in 1634 with her husband, William. A "woman of ready wit and bold spirit" (as John Winthrop called her), Hutchinson's religious views soon ran afoul of the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Among other things, she promoted the role of women in the church--a challenge to the male-oriented orthodoxy of Puritan religion--as well as deviating from their teachings. Most importantly, she challenged the Puritan establishment over the age-old conflict of grace vs. works. Hutchinson believed that the Puritans were teaching people to achieve salvation through "good works," which made them little different in her eyes than Roman Catholics. Hutchinson argued that it didn't matter whether those who were saved did good works or not--they were members of the body of the elect no matter what. Hutchinson also claimed that she could tell who those saved souls were.

Branded a heretic, she was banished from Massachusetts and she and her followers moved to Portsmouth, Rhode Island. But soon after her husband's death, Hutchinson moved farther south to what was then New Netherland and settled in the Bronx near the Split Rock, a giant glacial erratic that had calved in two sometime during the last Ice Age.

On August 20, 1643, Hutchinson's family was attacked by a group of Native Americans. This was during the era in Dutch Colonial history known as Kieft's War. Not so much a war as a series of skirmishes between the Dutch and the Native Americans, it was a bloody period marked by a high number of civilian deaths. Hutchinson and her family, living in an isolated area, were likely easy targets. Only one of Hutchinson's daughters survived--legend has it by hiding in the split of the Split Rock--and she was taken and raised by the Natives.

Today, it is difficult, but not impossible, to visit the site of the massacre. Blake Bell gives instructions on his informative Historic Pelham blog.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Capture of Son of Sam

“You got me. What took you so long?”

Those were the words uttered 34 years ago tonight when the police finally caught up with and arrested David Berkowitz—aka the “Son of Sam”—perhaps the most notorious serial killer to ever stalk New York City.

Berkowitz, also known as the .44 Caliber Killer (for his preferred choice of weapon), had grown up in the Bronx to adoptive parents. His adoptive mother died when he was thirteen and he had restive adolescence.* He joined the army in 1971, was discharged three years later, and returned to New York where over the next few years he began to fall deeper into mental illness. He began setting fires; when the police searched his house on August 10, 1977, they found a diary claiming credit for hundreds of arsons. Some experts believe he may have set over 1,000 fires.

In 1975, he turned from arson to more personal attacks. On Christmas Eve, he stabbed and injured two women with a hunting knife, the beginning of a murderous crime spree that would last almost two years and culminate in eight shootings and six fatalities. It is too easy in retrospect to glamorize killers like Son of Sam—the American public seems to have a morbid fascination with murderers—but let’s take a moment, instead, to remember his known victims:

  • Michelle Forman (stabbed with hunting knife; survived)
  • Unknown victim (who was with Forman, survived)
  • Donna Lauria (murdered)
  • Jody Valenti (survived)
  • Carl Denaro (survived, but with a metal plate in his skull)
  • Rosemary Keenan (survived)
  • Donna DeMasi (survived)
  • Joanne Lomino (survived, but rendered a parapalegic)
  • Christine Freund (murdered)
  • John Diel (survived)
  • Virginia Voskerichian (murdered)
  • Alexander Esau (murdered)
  • Valentina Suriani (murdered)
  • Sal Lupo (survived)
  • Judy Placido (survived)
  • Stacy Moskowitz (murdered)
  • Robert Violante (survived, but blinded)

The summer of 1977 was a volatile one in New York not only because Berkowitz had eluded capture. As we write in Inside the Apple:
[T]he city was plagued by countless other problems. For one, it was nearly out of money. The famous 1975 headline in the Daily News—“Ford to City: Drop Dead”—summed up the city’s problem in trying to secure a federal bailout. Even the election of New York-friendly Jimmy Carter in 1976 hadn’t helped much. The lack of funds meant that necessary city services were always on the verge of being cut. When John Lindsay was mayor, he’d tried to brand New York “Fun City.” When the city vowed to cut the police force, cops handed out flyers at the airports telling tourists it was now “Fear City.” The flyer recommended they not go out after dark and that they not ride the subway at all. The city made cuts to the NYPD nonetheless. Thousands of other jobs were lost, too. When city sanitation workers were furloughed, the entire department went on strike, causing massive amounts of garbage to pile up on city streets. Despite building projects like the World Trade Center, which were supposed to provide a new economic stimulus, the city had lost a record number of jobs since the early 1970s, with little end in sight.
The subways, strewn with litter and covered in graffiti, were the only affordable option for many New Yorkers. However, the budget gap meant that token prices shot up from 35 to 50 cents, a move necessary just to keep the trains running.
In the Bronx, five thousand apartments burned down every year, the result of persistent arson. The theaters along 42nd Street, once home to some of Broadway’s greatest theaters, had instead become XXX movie parlors; indeed the number of places to buy pornography had gone up by 2000% in a decade. 
Then, on the night of July 13—just as the city was beginning a terrible heat wave—the power failed, plunging the city into darkness. That night, portions of the city erupted into looting and arson: over 1,000 fires were lit and more than 1,600 shops were looted. It was the worst disturbance in the city since the Civil War Draft Riots and the most widespread. No borough was exempted—from the Bronx to Bensonhurst the burning and robbery lasted well into the night. In the end, a congressional committee estimated the damage at $300 million dollars, though some guessed the real toll had been closer to $1 billion. By the time the power was restored a day later, over 3,700 people had been arrested.

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