New York City’s Red Light District of the 18th Century
During the mid 1700’s, New York City catered to the darker side of life with its many ‘disorderly houses’, ‘tipling shops’, and brothels. They were all located in a seething slum of shacks and portable houses on land owned and leased by the largest Anglican Parish in the city: Trinity Church. It was for that reason the district ironically became known as the Holy Ground. The 172 foot steeple of Trinity Church, largest structure in the city, bordered Holy Ground to the south; to the north of the area was the bastion of learning, King’s College. Thus, between two of the loftiest establishments of gentry lay a foul district of gin shops, bawdy houses, gambling halls where on any given evening over five hundred prostitutes plied their trade to sailors, laborers, soldiers, and college youths. If there was violence and thievery in New York after dark – it was nearly always in the Holy Ground.
The section of New York City that gave rise to the Holy Ground was at first a spacious farm of cultivated fields and pasture. The King’s Farm, as it was called, spread from the southwest tip of Manhattan Island north for about half a mile. It was bordered by the Hudson River to the west, swamps to the north and Broadway to the east. First leased to Trinity Church in 1698, it became the Queen’s Farm with the ascension of Queen Anne to the British throne. In 1705, the Queen gave the land to Trinity Church to strengthen the Anglican Church in the colonies. Locals then called it the Church Farm.
New York did not build wooden piers over the water. Instead, slips were constructed of land fill that created small deep inlets where tall ships could dock. When the inlets became choked with silt, cart-men leveled it with earth, oyster shells, and debris. New slips were built ongoingly, thereby slowly extending the island’s size. All this made Church Farm more desirable for development, as many laborers and artisans employed in the quickly-growing city needed housing.
For nearly thirty years Church Farm remained in agriculture with pristine pastures for livestock to graze. But that all changed in 1731, when church parishioners decided to lease the farm by dividing it into lots. Cart-men built roads in a newly designed grid and lots were leased for periods not to exceed forty years. In 1766, the church property was surveyed and mapped. Most of it was divided into 20 by 100 foot lots. These were advertised as 22, 42, and 63 year leases. The leases ran from one to four pounds per year, which was cheap when compared to rents further south and cross-town, which went for twenty pounds per year. Tenants built small wooden houses that they could move when their lease was up.
Because of their proximity to the wharves, Broadway Street and the Oswego Market, these lots attracted many of the working class: grocers, masons, stonecutters, butchers, rope makers, cart-men, including artisans of all varieties from shoemakers to hat makers to gunsmiths. Taverns became numerous, as laborers worked from dawn to dusk, then amused themselves with bull-baiting, gambling, drinking, and ultimately prostitution.
By the late 1760’s, the area festered into public squalor of ‘sinful and despicable’ activity. However distasteful the Holy Ground was to the ‘decent’ citizens of New York – it became its most popular destination each day with the setting of the sun. A short stroll for college students and wealthy gentlemen who resided in their lavish homes east of Broadway, the Holy Ground offered a reprieve for those eager to be entertained by the seedier side of life.
Lieutenant Isaac Bangs of Massachusetts was a soldier who was resident in New York City during the summer of 1776 along with his Massachusetts Regiment. A Harvard graduate with training in medicine, he toured the Holy Ground out of curiosity and concern for the health of soldiers within his regiment. He described the Holy Ground in the journal that he compiled during his stay. “When I visited them [prostitutes],” he wrote, “at first I thought nothing could exceed them for impudence and immodesty, but I found the more I was acquainted with them, the more they excelled in their brutality.” He went on to question how any man could have “intimate connections” with such “creatures”. More so was he baffled by the attraction to soldiers and officers alike “till the fatal disorder [syphilis] seized them.”
A week after the Continental Army occupied the city, the mutilated bodies of two soldiers were found hidden in a brothel within the Holy Ground. They were hideously murdered with one “castrated in a barbarous manner,” as Bangs wrote. Soldiers went on a rampage, tearing down the brothel and rioting in the streets. Days later, the remains of “an old whore” were found in a privy; “so long dead that she was rotten,” Bangs recorded.
Though Washington ordered a curfew and threatened any soldier found “disguised with liquor” to be punished, the business of providing drink and sex to those eager to part with their purse continued uninterrupted. William Tudor, Washington’s judge advocate wrote to his fiancée that “…every brutal gratification can be so easily indulged in this place that the army will be debauched here in a month more than in twelve at Cambridge [Boston].”
The Continental Army relinquished New York City on September 16th with the invasion of General William Howe’s British and Hessian forces. Within a week fate struck. On the night of September 21, 1776, a horrendous fire swept through the Holy Ground torching everything in its path. Estimates placed the complete destruction at over eight hundred residences including the towering Trinity Church.
The area remained in ruin thoughout the British occupation. It was not until after the Treaty of Paris and the removal of all British influence that the church lands were rebuilt. Reconstructed, those grounds never again reclaimed their bedraggled and iniquitous past.
Bliven, Bruce, Jr. Under the Guns, New York: 1775-1776. 1972: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. New York, NY.
Burrows, Edwin G. & Wallace, Mike. Gotham, A History of New York City to 1898. 1999: Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
McCullough, David. 1776. 2005: Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.
Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York. 2002: Walker Publishing Company, New York, NY