Death, Debauchery, and Destruction on the Bowery: McGurk’s Suicide Hall

Dive bars and dead prostitutes! While these could be plot points in any Hollywood movie, back in the late 19th century these unwholesome characteristics gave the infamous McGurk’s Suicide Hall its name.  Originally located at 295 Bowery (between Houston and East 1st Street) and opened in 1893, McGurk’s was the latest in a string of saloons opened by John McGurk, each prior one having been shut down by the police.  Even before it became the “Suicide Hall,” McGurk’s already had a reputation as being the lowest place even the most degraded of society during that time could end up.  However, McGurk’s already low reputation would descend further in 1899 after a string of 6 suicides and 7 attempted suicides by the girls that frequented the establishment.

Article talking about McGurk's.  Image courtest of the NY Herald, March 12, 1899.

Article talking about McGurk’s. Image courtest of the NY Herald, March 12, 1899.

These girls, all prostitutes, either threw themselves out from the 5th story window or, in a more grizzly turn, ingested carbolic acid.  This acid, which had started recently been adopted by surgeons as a method of disinfectant, played a role in the famous suicide of Blond Madge Davenport and the disfiguring of Big Mame.

Both were prostitutes who were regulars at McGurk’s, and both decided to commit suicide by ingesting carbolic acid.  But where Blond Madge succeeded in her attempt, Big Mame ended up spilling the acid on her face instead, leaving her permanently disfigured and barred from McGurk’s establishment.  As a result, McGurk decided to capitalize on these and the other suicides by renaming his establishment “McGurk’s Suicide Hall.”

In the book, Low Life, by Luc Sante, which deals with the dives of the Bowery, Sante includes a quote by McGurk that sums up how he felt about his hand in his clienteles’ suicidal tendencies:

“Most of the women who come to my place have been on the down grade too long to think of reforming.  I just want to say that I never pushed a girl downhill any more than I ever refused a helping hand to one who wanted to climb.”

John McGurk.  Image courtesy of Adam Woodward.

John McGurk. Image courtesy of Adam Woodward.

Yet, because of the establishment’s reputation and shady dealings, McGurk faced pressures from the police, community leaders, City Hall, and even New York City Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt.  Eventually, with a $1000 bail on his head, McGurk and his wife and daughter skipped town and went to California with half a million dollars in cash.

Though he left his notorious establishment behind, McGurk’s reputation nevertheless caught up with him — his daughter was eventually barred from a Catholic school once the nuns found out about her father.  McGurk himself died in 1913 at the age of 59 due to heart failure.

The “Suicide Hall” closed down as a bar in 1902 and became a hotel that also catered to ‘Bowery bums.’  In the 1960’s, it was taken over by a co-op of female artists, who held the space for over 40 years.  However, in the 1990’s, the property entered the sights of developers who, after a failed attempt to get the space landmarked by the artists living within the building, demolished the structure in 2005.  Now, the Avalon Bowery Place, a steel and glass building, stands at the former site of the suicide hall.

Though this rough and tumble place in the history of the Bowery is now gone, the Bowery Alliance of Neighbors is planning on installing a plaque in the area to commemorate the “Suicide Hall” and its history.  So stay tuned!

295 Bowery.  Image courtesy of Curbed.

295 Bowery before demolition. Image courtesy of Curbed.

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Matthew Morowitz