No other building in America, and perhaps even the world, had as many murders committed within its walls as the 19th century New York tenement known as the “Old Brewery.” With a total of more than 5000 dead, police estimate the building averaged almost one murder a day for more than 15 years.
Situated in what is now the intersection of Park, Worth and Baxter Streets, the Old Brewery was once the iconic center of a slum known as the Five Points of lower Manhattan.
Originally opened as Coulters Brewery in 1792, the factory once churned out beer for most of New England.
After the brewery was condemned in 1837, the five story building was transformed into a 100 room tenement of more than 1000 people. With windows on only two floors, most rooms had no natural light and no fresh air. Some children born there never saw the outside world until they were teenagers.
A lack of indoor plumbing made the building stench and disease ridden and, in this nightmarish existence men, women and children committed murder and were, in turn, killed and stuffed into the walls or left to rot on the floor.
Occupants were divided equally between blacks and newly arrived Irish with the blacks segregated to the basement. On the first floor was a large room called the Den of Thieves where more than 75 people lived without even basic furniture even though many of the women were prostitutes who entertained their customers there.
While the slum was home to some, outsiders found Five Points threatening and fodder for ridicule. Describing a visit in 1842, Charles Dickens wrote: "This is the place: these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking every where with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? And why they talk instead of grunting?"
Every floor of the Old Brewery held some of the worst criminals in the city – thieves, pickpockets, whores and murderers. Twenty four hours a day their were fierce fistfights and drunken orgies as screams of starving children and alcoholics writhing on the floor in delirium tremens reverberated through the walls.
The fifth floor was the worst. That’s where a long corridor ran along the top floor - aptly named “Murderers Alley” the hallway led off to individual rooms no more than 150 square feet where it was not uncommon for 26 or more people to be in one room.
In 1850 an investigator discovered one room where none of the occupants had left in over a week – the men just stood in the doorway and killed whoever happened to be drunk enough to come down the hall with food.
Police knew what went on inside the Old Brewery however, as long as it was confined, they didn’t do much about it. Not to mention the danger they themselves would face if they ever entered the building. When they did have to enter the always went in with at least fifty or sixty officers – smaller groups risked going in and never coming out.
Just as the law could not enter, inhabitants couldn’t leave unless it was through a secret tunnel. So hated were the residents that any time one would come out the front in the daylight, angry mobs would drive them back inside with bricks, bats and sometimes even gunfire.
Occasionally Protestant church missionaries would try to help the residents inside the Old Brewery however they were almost always driven out by the Irish who considered them heathens.
Finally, the Missionary Society raised sixteen thousand dollars to buy the building and tear it down. On the day it was supposed to be dismantled, police showed up in force and engaged in heated close quarter battles inside the building. When it was over more than twenty wanted murderers were arrested and a number of bags of bones were removed from its walls. As the cleanup was going on, a number of children were lead outside screaming in terror having never seen sunlight.
The destruction of the Old Brewery was a small step forward in improving the living conditions of the slums of New York City. However, other areas such as Hells Kitchen would later become breeding grounds for some of the largest gangs in the history of the United States.