Time & Time Bomb Again

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Walter Scheele, a German scientist, had been living in the United States for more than twenty years. A former artillery lieutenant in the German army until 1893, he was assigned to America to study chemistry and report new advances to his superiors. These reports were found to be so valuable that he was paid $1,500 a year to remain in the US and continue studying…and plotting.

When World War I began, Scheele’s knowledge increased in value and he received $10,000 along with orders from the Kaiser to manufacture chemical bombs. The scientist was living in Hoboken and opened an office under the name New Jersey Agricultural Company. Amidst a room crowded with test tubes and vials he began constructing his first of many time bombs.

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The device was about the size and shape of a cigar and its outer shell was made of lead. Scheele divided the “cigar” down its middle with a copper disc which separated a mixture of sulfuric acid at one end and picric acid (it’s still uncertain what the combustible agent was) at the other end. The device would burst into flames when the acid dissolved the copper disc and conjoined the two chemical mixtures; if strategically placed near large quantities of  explosive or flammable materials, the results would be devastating.

German saboteurs placed Scheele’s incendiary bombs on ships and in smaller munitions depots around the country. Each success emboldened them towards bigger targets: Black Tom Island, the country’s largest munitions depot, became their biggest target on July 30, 1916.

Around midnight, three German spies planted numerous incendiaries in various supply boats, railroad cars and storage buildings containing shells and dynamite headed to the front and set the timers. Within a flash of moments flames were reaching for the sky turning New York Harbor into a battlefield.

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The Statue of Liberty was pelted with shrapnel, severely damaging its torch and arm, and the roof at Ellis Island caved in. Windows as far away as 42nd Street were shattered and people as far south as Maryland felt the ground shake. Police officers responding to the scene were killed by flying debris and barges along the river (as well as the immigrants living on them) were incinerated.  The Truth About Political Stuff

A recent study concluded that the blast would have been equal to a 5.5 magnitude earthquake, thirty times greater than the collapse of the World Trade Center‘s North Tower which was registered at  2.3. Miraculously, only seven fatalities were (officially) reported, including a barge captain, two policemen and a child tossed from a crib in Jersey City. Black powder, TNT and ammunition continued to “cook off” until dawn.

No traces of the bombs themselves were ever found and no one was ever prosecuted until 1939. On the eve of World War II, a commission found Germany liable for $95 million in damages that the then Nazi regime refused to pay. The case was settled in 1979.

Source: NY Times

A Simple Sign of Wonder

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The illuminated cross atop Deno’s Wonder Wheel is a 67-year holiday tradition started by the Garms family to mark the end of World War II and the troops return home. The new LED cross, which was made by DJ Vourderis, is on the wheel from Thanksgiving thru Jan 6. May your holidays be merry and bright!!  Source: Coney Island History Project

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Tattoos On The Island

Staten Island may not lay claim to many distinctions but can finally boast of one: Island Tattoo, New York City‘s first tattoo museum. This is certainly a radical move for that ignored borough (suspected of being a covert part of New Jersey), often dismissed as lacking in the finer graces of NYC’s bohemian dwellings, commuter anxieties and hipster frivolity. (The last time I was in Staten Island was when my car broke down while en route home.)

The Gothamist went so far as to allege that Staten Island was on the road to becoming “Williamsburg II,” one of Brooklyn‘s newfound realms, cleverly bustling with herbal tea liberalism. Tattoos are the latest craze sweeping a society endowed with an overabundant luxury for self-expression (no matter how strikingly self-mutilating) and it’s rather odd that Staten Island, by fact and fancy, dangly conservative in its ways should be the first to  accommodate a tattoo museum.

In any event, Island Tattoo is the source and repository for total tattoo creativity. Located at 203 Old Town Road in Grasmere on Staten’s Island’s East Shore, Island Tattoo, as reported last summer in the Staten Island Advance, has drawn Staten Islanders attention to “the world’s most intimate canvass” and has lofty goals to broaden its popularity and appeal.

“The owner, known only as Dozer, has plans to create three tableaux in the 500-square foot space, with automated mannequins depicting tribal, ancient Japanese and World War II-era tattooing methods. Video and sound elements will add explanation and atmosphere to each scene.”

According to my somewhat dependable spies in the field, all has gone as planned for Island Tattoo.

Beyond A Century Of NY Minutes

NYC’s oldest living resident has witnessed much history that has come and gone and faded off into infinity. She is 111 years old and has experienced more than a century’s worth of New York minutes and hours, days and nights, highs and lows, etc.

Jane “Jenny” E. Gilsenan was born on Amsterdam Avenue and 98th Street in Manhattan on May 8, 1898; the very year that the City of New York was established with the consolidation of its five boroughs.

The solemn, ill-fated William McKinley was then President of the United States, no one ever expecting that the supercharged Theodore Roosevelt was destined to succeed him. A New Age in America was, in fact, quickly approaching and Gilsenan would see the 20th century’s entire spectrum of hope and despair, dreams and nightmares, progress and destruction, unfold.

She was the second eldest of six siblings of an Irish-immigrant family; they lived in a two-bedroom Upper West Side apartment rented for $16 a month. While Jane’s father worked for Macy’s, her mother worked as a cook for the New York Herald Tribune (she once cooked a meal for Mark Twain).

Her memories date back to when she was 10.

“I remember learning to skate by holding the railing at St. Michael’s Church [in Manhattan] and skipping rope,” she said.

She’s similarly sharp with details on the following 10 decades. She can recall the belt-tightening during the Great Depression and her brothers serving in World War II.

Gilsenan never married (she claims that she “didn’t meet the right guy”) and remained a lifelong “working woman” well into her 80s as a legal secretary.  Her oldest sister lived to be 102, another died at 98, and her mother lived until she was 99.

Her age-defying genes may have been aided by a few habits. She has a soft spot for cream sherry and has swallowed a pharmacy’s worth of vitamins A and D over the course of her life. She also kept her mind sharp reading murder mysteries by authors Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark.

Now living in a convent on Staten Island, Gilsenan was recently asked about her longevity. She replied, “I can’t say I regret it, but I wouldn’t want to do this again.”

NY Post

(originally published: 02/09/10)

UPDATE: Jane Gilsenan died on March 8, 2010. Rest in Peace, Jane; you’ve earned it.

BIRTH OF BROOKLYN’S “EIFFEL TOWER”

What became known as Coney Island‘s “Parachute Jump” was originally a ride at the Life Savers Company exhibition at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. The fair was held in the Flushing Meadows section of Queens, New York (where the 1964-5 Fair would later be held); it was one of the 20th century’s most splendid yet most poignant marvels, inauspiciously occurring as it did amidst the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II. Billed as the “World of Tomorrow” by its optimistic promoters, the Fair displayed a past and present desirous of a peaceful future. Standing alongside testaments to human civilization’s Art and Science, Life Savers’ 262-foot tall Parachute Jump became one of the most popular attractions at the Fair.

Ironically, the Jump was not originally designed as a ride but rather as a training device for the military.  In the 1930s, air power and a more effective airborne infantry were given increased priority; an imminent war, unparalleled in its scope and intensity, was foreseen by military experts. Whereas actual jumps from airplanes were considered too risky for initial training purposes, a jump simulator could make them faster and safer.

Retired Naval Air Commander James H. Strong, while touring a Russian military base, observed a wooden tower being used to train paratroopers. Trainees were suspended by a cable and guided in a simulated jump off the apparatus, oftentimes crashing against the tower’s side.  In fact, several of these devices were being used throughout Russia…often as amusement rides.  While Strong dismissed the device he had viewed as being too dangerous, he saw in it the seeds for an improved design.

On 7 August 1936, Strong secured a patent and built a strong 250 foot, steel tower that included electric motors controlling 8 circularly arranged guide cables, these situated at angles that would avoid contact with the tower’s center. He built various versions of his Jump at his estate in Highstown, New Jersey. To his surprise, Strong discovered that soldiers weren’t the only ones interested in being paratroopers but, if only briefly, civilians as well. More and more motorists, on their way to elsewhere, spotted his Parachute Jump and were stopping to ask a ride.

Strong instantly perceived that while necessity was the “mother” of his invention, his invention was attracting more notice (and a better chance for profit) not from necessity but from a delighted public. Strong modified the Jump for general use: shock absorbers to ease landings, double and not single seats, broadening the overall diameter of the chute, etc.  After successfully debuting the Jump at Chicago’s Riverside Park, Strong obtained a concession at the 1939 World’s Fair and had the Life Savers Company sponsor his Jump for $15,000, dotting the tower with brightly colored lights resembling the candy rings it marketed.

When the Fair closed,  the Jump was purchased (for $150,000) by Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park and opened there in the summer of 1941.

The Jump, which attracted as many as half a million riders annually, was described as ‘flying in a free fall’. Occasionally, riders could get ‘stranded in mid-air or tangled in cables’, although sometimes this may have been for the amusement of operators. Nevertheless, the ride was fickle and subject to shutdowns on windy days, and was not very profitable.[7] During World War II, when much of the city adhered to a blackout, the ride stayed lit to serve as a navigational beacon .[5]   {Wikipedia}

While the war raged in Europe and in the Pacific, kids could feel like paratroopers; but when the war ended, the Parachute Jump’s appeal slowly waned. In the 50s and 60s, jet and rocket travel made a paratrooper ride seem less exciting and, while the Parachute Jump managed to struggle along, the ride closed in 1964 (coincidentally, the same year that the ’64 World’s Fair opened).

Nevertheless, it became one of Brooklyn‘s most beloved and familiar sights; a silent sentinel to New York City‘s simpler yet turbulent past as it entered upon the modern stage towards the present. In July 1977, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Parachute Jump a city landmark; the chairwoman of the commission calling it “Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower;” not as elegant as the original, but suitable for Brooklyn kids of all ages.

Source: Coney Island’s Parachute Jump

The Queen, The Crowns, The Mob

Brooklyn while not always unwavering in its sanctity is impressively rich in its churches. In addition to being called the “City of Trees” and “City of Homes,” it’s also been called the “City of Churches;” lately, it’s more inclusively referred to as the Borough of Homes and Churches.” Most of these churches are Roman Catholic, built in the spiritual image of mostly first- and second-generation Italian-Americans, and have always maintained a prominent position among the faithful; indeed, parishioners would often identify themselves more with their respective parishes than with their respective neighborhoods.

A very comprehensive and very majestic example of a Brooklyn church is Regina Pacis (“Queen of Peace”) located at the corner of 12th Avenue and 65th Street in Borough Park. The church is an architectural masterpiece reflective of Italian Renaissance design…a European shrine rather than a neighborhood church; the unlikely catalyst for what was almost certainly a mob hit.

While World War II was raging overseas, parishioners of the small and rather creaky St. Rosalia’s Church pledged that if the war came to an end they would erect “a lasting memorial to the ideal of peace.” Work began on one of Brooklyn’s greatest churches in 1948 with a price tag of $1,000,000 (by the time of completion, it rose to $2,000,000) and Regina Pacis Votive Shrine was dedicated in 1951.

It was a two-story building with 1,500 seats on the main floor and 1,200 more in the basement chapel.  It was the second Catholic church in the country to have air conditioning (at a cost of $70,000).  The 150-foot steeple was topped with four spotlights that illuminated an engraved bronze cross announcing “Pax”, or peace.  Two thousand tons of Italian marble were used in the building; sixteen stained glass windows told the story of the Virgin Mother, and fifteen Italian mosaics represented the Stations of the Cross. To preserve the artwork, reducing soot and dirt, the church was among the first to use electric candles; the originals are still in place today.

As a testament to the communal involvement of parishioners, Regina Pacis’ construction was financed, to a large degree, by contributions. Even though they were poor Italian immigrants, parish members donated whatever they had to build the church: wedding and engagement rings, other kinds of jewelry, small and large sums of money…whatever they had to give, they gave.

Father Cioffi

Some of the jewels collected were converted into the crowns that topped the heads of the Virgin Mother and Child. In 1952, less than a year after Regina Pacis’ dedication, the crowns (with an estimated worth of $100,000) were stolen. The crime not only shocked the parish but became a national story. While some people started collections, others wrote editorials in newspapers condemning the criminal(s); the children of St. Rosalia, the parish school, prayed each morning for their return.
Eight days later the church pastor, Father Cioffi, received a mysterious package…inside were the crowns almost perfectly intact. The pastor burst upon the next morning’s mass and announced the good news to a jubilant congregation. “Parishioners were overwhelmed:  some applauded, some prayed, some cried, and three fainted.”

Meanwhile, police were still searching for the thieves without any success. The outrage over the theft, unappeased by the safe return of the crowns, was driving the public wild. Indeed, the Brooklyn Eagle downplayed the recovery of the crowns; its headline read: “Shrine Gem Thieves Hunted.” The police had only one suspect by the name of Ralph Emminio, a 38-year-old jewel thief. Strangely coinciding with the return of the crowns was the discovery of Emmino’s body on a street in Bath Beach (Brooklyn); he had been shot to death.

Vincent Emmino, 18-year-old brother of Ralph ‘Buck’ Emmino, is restrained by police after identifying his brother’s body.

Many suspected that Emmino had either taken more than his fair share in a group crown heist or had been punished for stealing from a church — an off-limits zone for mob business.  Other leads developed from there: one man reported seeing Emmino’s car in the parking lot the night of the crime, and another claimed that two mysterious men asked him to deliver “a package” to Regina Pacis the day before the crowns appeared in the mail.  The Eagle reported that Catholic churches in Brooklyn refused to give Emmino, a suspect in the public’s eyes, a Catholic burial.  But no actual evidence was ever found beyond the package itself.  The case remains unsolved.

I grew up in Bensonhurst, which borders Regina Pacis’ parish in Borough Park; my parish being the less awe-inspiring Our Lady of Guadalupe, which borders it spiritually. Among the residents of that modestly intriguing neighborhood, traditional knowledge usually took hold where fact would end; that the Mafia had strong ties to Regina Pacis (as it did to Saint Rosalia, the church’s launch pad) was an accepted issue borne of traditional knowledge.

The Mafia never leaves one of its hits lying on a public street to be easily found; instead, it drives them to a New Jersey swamp to be found months or years later…except when it wants to make a statement.  Emmino’s body had been found on a Brooklyn street (photo/blog) on Bay 41st Street between Bath and Benson Avenues in Bath Beach), shot twice through the chest and once through the head (“execution style”); he was clearly left on display.

That the police had already suspected him for stealing the crowns, that his murder coincided with their return, tainted the magnificent holiness of Regina Pacis with an aura of criminality. The “Queen of Peace” may have had her crowns safely returned but they were forever tarnished by rumor and conjecture.

Brooklynology

A splendid Regina Pacis photo gallery can be found here at Bald Punk

(originally posted: o2/04/10)