Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Strange Tale Of The Gowanus Canal, The Tragic Death Of A Boy, Dueling Undertakers And The Sale Of Wood Alcohol...in 1915

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If reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, as they say, than this New York Times newspaper article from August 1915 illustrates that point perfectly.

It documents the tragic drowning death of an 8 year old boy in the Gowanus Canal and the subsequent fight of two undertakers and their posse over the funeral business. So very strange, so very Gowanus.
One would be hard pressed to come up with a better story for a novel.

But wait, there is more. Additional information surfaced as I was researching the characters involved.


The instigating and surviving undertaker John Romanelli of 271 Third Avenue, who was also known as "The Mayor Of Brooklyn's Little Italy", obviously never went to jail for the incident. But just years later, during prohibition, he was accused and arrested for selling poisonous liquor, which blinded and killed many.


According to another New York Times article from 1919:
"The authorities have not been able to trace the wood alcohol further than Romanelli. It is known that undertakers use wood alcohol in embalming fluid and have a license issued by the Collector of Internal revenue to make purchases of wood alcohol in connection to their business."
I am sure he was put in prison for a very long time for that crime.

That, my friends, is indeed a tale stranger than fiction. Wouldn't you agree?



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To read the rest of the article in the New York Times, click here


11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff! Thanks for sharing.

Matthew said...

South Brooklyn was certainly less boring then. 100 shots and only two wounded? Phew!

Do we know where Holy Family Hospital was? Is it the Cobble Hill geriatric center now?

Now, what about the flipper-babies in the Gowanus? I've never seen them, but I've heard some weird plopping and flopping sounds in there...

BestViewInBrooklyn said...

Wonderful photos and story. Thank you.

Rick said...

GREAT articles.

Matthew: Apparently Holy Family Hospital (aka Hospital of the Holy Family) was at 151 - 155 Dean Street (at Hoyt Street). Now that site is the Bishop Mugavero Center for Geriatric Care. From what I can find, it seems that Holy Family essentially moved to Bensonhurst in the 1970's, where it now exists as Holy Family Home.

There's a description in the 1919 book, "History of Medicine in New York: Three Centuries of Medical Progress", which you can view on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=9v4oAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_v2_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=&f=true (go to page 816)

Anonymous said...

Makes me glad I didn't live in Gowanus back then.

Melissa Sarno said...

I just stumbled upon your blog today and am fascinated by this story! Looking forward to reading more posts...

Katia said...

Hi Melissa,
Welcome to PMFA.

It is an amazing tale, isn't it?
Something right out of a movie.

I'll do more research on this as soon as I have time.

Anonymous said...

Holy Family Hospital was torn down in the in the mid 90's and Bishop Mugavero Center for Geri Care was constructed by Catholic Medical Centers of Brooklyn & Queens, which merged into St. Vincents Catholic Medical Centers of NY in 2000. Holy Family Nursing Home is a separate facility in Bensonhurst which has been in operations dating back to the early 80's. Both facilities are part of the St. Vincents system and they are both up for sale as St. Vincents is in Bankrupcy.

Kristin Barbella said...

Just stumbled upon this article while researching my great great grandfather, John Romanelli. Would love to hear more, but I do know he only went to jail for a year after the alcohol situation...

baa said...

I remember Holy Family in the 60s

baa said...

I remember Holy Family Hospital in the late 50s/60s, it wasn't a hospital my mother would bring me to. in fact she wouldn't bring me to LICH if anything happened. I lived on Warren bet Smith and Court 1951-1986, I was born in the Brooklyn Hospital as my older sibs were. I spent a few days at Brooklyn at age one when I had the Whooping cough, then at age five a boy hit me with a board that had a nail and my parents got a cab and bye passed LICH and Holy Fam that had a bad rep in those days and headed for Brooklyn Hospital. even Holy Family's ambulance was scary looking in those days.