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Posts Tagged ‘furnished room’

Our article “Disorderly Houses: Residences, Privacy and the Surveillance of Sexuality in 1920s Harlem” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of the History of Sexuality. It will appear in 2012/2013.

The article argues that despite overcrowding, Harlem’s residences  provided privacy, due to the regular, extended absence of residents at work, the willingness of those not bound by familial ties to look the other way, the ability to pass as married or as heterosexual, and the limited surveillance conducted by public and private authorities.  Residents used that privacy not simply for the marital sexuality that reformers promoted, but for homosexual, extramarital and premarital sexual activity, ranging from casual relationships to informal unions, and to operate venues that commodified privacy and gave others space for the same kinds of sexual expression.

There are several maps already posted on this blog that are related to the article’s arguments.  The police focus on street prostitution rather than what happened inside residences is evident in the map of prostitution arrests.  Divorce raids, which offer a glimpse of the privacy that unmarried couples could obtain in residences, are mapped in this post.  The night life venues that residents operated in their homes for a black clientele, away from the nightclubs and speakeasies frequented by whites, can be found on the map of Harlem’s nightlife.

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Search Event, Type="Murder-domestic", Particpant="Hoyer"

The shots with which twenty-five-year-old William Hoyer killed his wife Jennie and five-year-old daughter Sylvia were fired at 430 St Nicholas Avenue, but the events leading up to those murders wove through the spaces of Harlem.  Rich evidence of this case survives because Hoyer was ultimately executed for the crime, one of ten black residents of Harlem to receive the death penalty in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

William Hoyer's residences

William and Jennie had been married for six years, the first five of which they spent living with his mother, half brother and stepfather at 564 Lenox Avenue.  William’s inheritance from his father, a successful businessman in their native Danish West Indies, ensured that the relationship started in grand style, financing a lavish courtship and wedding.  His own income was more modest; although he had learned to paint during a stint as a seaman, William worked primarily as a porter for a shirt company in downtown Manhattan.  A year before Jennie left, the couple moved to two rooms of their own in an apartment in 158 West 129th Street.  In the two rooms behind them lived another couple, the Reubens; the two women became friends, intimate enough that they left open the connecting doors between their homes. Their friendship, at least according to William, also introduced conflict into the Hoyer’s marriage.

On June 22, 1925, while William was at work, Jennie took their daughter Sylvia and joined the Reubens in relocating to a four room apartment on the fourth floor of 430 St Nicholas Avenue.  No one questioned by the police and prosecutors offered any explanation for Jennie’s decision to leave her husband other than William himself.  He blamed the influence of Mrs Reuben, and Jennie’s attendance at the Holy Utopia Spiritualist Church, which met in an apartment on the first floor of 208 West 134th Street. Although she had been married and had Sylvia baptized at St Mark the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, according to William, Jennie had begun attending spiritualist services early in 1925,  Concerned that she was out 4 nights a week, William claimed to have confronted Jennie, who told him that the church’s leader, the Reverend T. O. Johns was in love with her.  A week later she moved out.  Somehow William found her, and took custody of Sylvia, who he placed in his mother’s care.  He himself had taken up residence with his wife’s cousin, for who he sometimes worked as a painter, at 222 West 139th Street.  But ultimately he wanted to reestablish a household with Jennie. William offered different accounts of how he went about trying to do that.  In one version he starting attending the Holy Utopia Church to meet with Jennie, enlisting the Rev. Johns to assist him.  In the other, he regularly visited her new home.  It is certain that on July 16th he approached the priest at St Mark’s seeking his aid in convincing Jennie to return, but the priest did not have time to speak to him.

That evening, William once again visited Jennie.  But first he met a friend, Joseph Clarke, an elevator operator, at the West Indian Cricket Club to which they both belonged and asked for a gun so he could go hunting.  They went together to an apartment in 117 West 138th St, to get a pistol Clarke had left there in the care of James Perry, with whom he had lodged for fourteen years.  Hoyer then walked half a block east to Lenox Avenue, picked up his daughter from his mother’s apartment, and took her with him to see his wife.

430 St Nicholas Ave, Apartment 4th floor South (rear of the building) (Record on Appeal, People v William W. Hoyer)

Arriving at 430 St Nicholas Avenue, William found Jennie in the living room helping Mrs Leslie White remodel a dress; the Reubens were in the South, visiting a sick relative. The room was sparsely furnished, but comfortable: the sewing machine sat on a trunk, in front of which was a chair; on the opposite wall was a couch; a mantle on which stood glasses occupied much of the outside wall, next to which stood part of a bed; and a table occupied the wall that backed on to the public hallway and stairs.  Leslie White was a neighbor, living with her husband and son in the two front rooms of the apartment.  Soon after William arrived, Mrs White left to go to a shoemaker.  He then made another effort to restore his marriage, but Jennie would not return to him.  William’s response was to shoot both her and their daughter.  Sylvia died instantly, Jennie several days later, living long enough to identify William as her assailant.

The rain was so heavy that night that Mrs White, sheltering at the foot of stairs, did not hear the shots, and so simply watched William leave. Upstairs in their rooms, her husband and son did hear what they thought were firecrackers, but on investigating discovered the woman and child on the floor of the apartment. By then William was on his way uptown, to the basement apartment of an aunt, on West 156th Street, beyond the boundaries of Harlem.  Uncomfortable, he soon returned to the neighborhood, spending time on the roof of West 140th Street, before appearing at the door of a friend in 67 West 140th Street saying he had been drinking and needed a place to sleep.  Sleep he did until that afternoon, when the friend and an acquaintance returned.  Worried the men had learned of his crime, Hoyer again fled Harlem for his aunt’s apartment, but that night police, acting on a tip off, appeared to arrest him.

At his trial, William testified that the shootings had been accidental. After an argument, he claimed Jennie attacked him with a pair of scissors, and then, after the pistol fell out of his trousers, fought with him for the weapon, causing it to go off four times. The first and fourth shots hit Jennie, the third hit Sylvia, who William claimed was holding on to her mother. The medical evidence appeared to contradict this account, indicating that the girl was shot at point blank range, and would have died instantly, yet she was found on the opposite side of the room to where her parents had fought. The all white, all male jury deliberated for just over an hour, and, after seeking  guidance from the judge about premeditation, convicted William.  Four days later the judge sentenced him to death.  The execution took place on August 19, 1926, with the New York Times reporting William Hoyer’s last words as, “I wouldn’t take ten years instead of execution, let alone consider serving a life sentence so I could be saved from the chair.  I deserve to go, I ought to go, and I want to go.”


  • Record on Appeal, People v William W. Hoyer, June 4, 1926 (NYS Archives)
  • “Two Die in Chair; De Maio Goes First,” New York Times, August 20, 1926, 2
  • “Child Used as Intercessor With Wife By Father Pleading For Renewal of Marital Relations, Is Killed By Shot,” New York Age, July 25, 1925, 1.

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Search People, First Name="Frank" + Surname="Hamilton"

Frank Hamilton*, a twenty-three-year-old born in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in Arkansas, and educated at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, was placed on probation in 1928 after stealing three suits from the midtown clothing store where he worked as a porter. (*This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives) He had resorted to theft in an effort to support an expensive lifestyle.  Hamilton rented what his probation officer described as a “luxuriously outfitted” apartment, with walls adorned with photographs of beautiful women, in a “high class apartment building with every modern convenience,” where he entertained young men and women from “good circles,” dressed stylishly.  Rather than helping pay for this lifestyle, the theft made it even less sustainable: Hamilton was required to pay $500 in restitution, which meant that even though he found a new job as Pullman porter, he had less to live on.  Nonetheless, in September 1929, he married Alice, a woman he had met in Atlanta before coming to New York, and set up a home for them in a ‘high class building’ at 582 St Nicholas Avenue.

(The trolley icons linked to 582 St Nicholas Ave indicate the stores to which Hamilton was in debt)

Hamilton had bought the radio and furnishings for his new home on installment plans, putting himself almost $1000 in debt, a sum equal to almost six months wages for a Pullman porter — a fact his new wife discovered only after he was arrested in November 1929 for failing to make restitution payments. That debt was owed to white-owned businesses, including two large stores on West 125th Street, the major retail district on the southern edge of Harlem still dominated by whites.  Hamilton was not satisfied with devoting all his income to clearing those debts, instead looking to Harlem’s underground economy to get ahead.  He gambled fifty cents a day playing numbers, insisting that the odds of winning were too good to refrain (actually one in a thousand), and talked of buying an interest in a speakeasy or running a dice game, working briefly in two nightclubs.

Pawn Brokers (Search Place, Location type="Pawnbroker")

Hamilton also used Harlem’s pawnshops to go even further in debt.  In July 1931, he showed his probation officer $200 of tickets for pawned clothing and jewelery. Such a collection horrified the officer, who could only attribute it to a need to pay gambling debts.

Pawnbroker's sign, Lenox Avenue (Detail from "A Harlem street scene in the 1920s" © New York Daily News)

However, Harlem residents, like other working-class Americans, did not pawn goods only out of desperation, as the officer imagined, but as a survival strategy, a means of obtaining cash to tide them over to pay day, or to pay rent or other bills that had become due, circumstances that recurred in the economic rhythm of the lives of individuals only able to obtain intermittent work.  Banks did not accept personal property as collateral, and rarely made loans to blacks; in fact, few, and in some periods, none, operated in Harlem. But at least sixteen pawnshops did, owned by Jews, providing modest access to white capital.

Barber Shops (Search Place, Location type="Barber Shop")

Large Barber Shop In Harlem c. 1929, © Bettmann/CORBIS

Hamilton’s refusal to pursue a respectable, middle class life led to fights with his wife; once he lost his job in June 1930, the relationship quickly fell apart.  Alice left to live with relatives in Long Island, and he moved into a furnished room, incurring further debt to put his furniture into storage.  The forwarding address Hamilton left, for many weeks the only means his probation officer had of trying to locate him, was a barber shop on 7th Avenue. Centers of sociability, barber shops fostered a male world less concerned with respectability than the fraternal orders and churches frequented by other, older Harlem residents like Perry Brown, while still providing similar services, like help finding work. Even as Hamilton immersed himself in that world, and relocated frequently, his wife’ eviction, unemployment and illness led her to re-establish a home with him four times in the twenty-two months after they separated, until a particularly violent fight led her to leave permanently.

To support herself, Alice became a domestic servant, giving up an ambition, nurtured by two years of study at a junior college, to be a social worker.  For Hamilton, by contrast, a middle-class life remained within reach.  At end of his probation, he had a permanent position as a porter for Russell Sage Foundation, was using their library to prepare to finish high school and contemplating studying sociology, and had joined the YMCA and St James Presbyterian Church — and still owed several hundred dollars to two furniture stores, $288.33 in restitution,  $70 to the storage company, and $87 for a radio he had long since sold.

A more detailed account of Frank Hamilton’s life in Harlem can be found in our article, “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s,” which appears in the Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of Social History.

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(Search People="First Name=Roger" + "Surname+Walker")

Roger Walker* was a nineteen-year old native of North Carolina and restaurant worker placed on probation after being convicted of trying to burgle a drug store in 1930, when he was unemployed and without money for food (*This name is a pseudonym, used at the request of the Municipal Archives).

The map of Walker’s life during the four years he spent on probation reveals an experience quite unlike that of Morgan Thompson* and Fuller Long*, two other men whose lives feature in our article “This Harlem Life” who have been the subject of blog posts. In the first place, Walker changed residence far more often than they did, living at fourteen different addresses in four years.  He did not set up his own household, but rented furnished rooms in apartments.

Lodgers such as Walker were a ubiquitous and growing population in 1920s Harlem, present in perhaps half of all households by 1930 (including that of Morgan Thompson).  Many were related to their landlords; Walker lived for his first two years in Harlem with an aunt and uncle who resided on West 153rd Street.  When they returned to the South, he retained some ties to family by sharing a room with a cousin, with whom he entered into an agreement that in the event that one was out of work, the other would pay the entire rent.  After 19 months of living together the two men quarreled, and from then on he shared rooms with unnamed friends — with his cousin occasionally helping with rent and bills — until he married.  Even then, Walker was not able to set up his own household; he and his wife lived with her married sister and husband. His mobility in the interim sometimes reflected an inability to pay rent, but on other occasions simply the unstable nature of relationships with roommates and landlords and his life in general. Observers, particularly white social reformers, worried that lodgers threatened the stability and morality of the families with who they lived; Walker, however, appeared to have little to do with his landlords.  He spent most of his leisure time outside his residences.

Aaron Siskind - Harlem Document (1940/41) (George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive)

Certainly, furnished rooms did not offer attractive places to do anything other than sleep, usually being equipped with no more than beds, a stove for heating, a chair, lamp, and perhaps a bureau.  For lodgers, the streets and businesses of the neighborhood functioned as part of their home: restaurants and chop suey joints were their dining rooms; speakeasies, pool halls and movie theaters their parlors and sitting rooms.  Walker preferred to spent his time at the movies, attending four or five shows a week, a fairly typical activity for Americans in these years, even as the Depression hit.

The map of Walker’s life is also strikingly different from those of Thompson and Long because employment did not take him outside Harlem, as it did in the case of the other two men, and almost all residents of the neighborhood.  Rather than laboring, Walker worked as a kitchen hand, counterman or soda dispenser in restaurants and drug stores (with soda fountains), which were found in abundance the length of Lenox and Seventh Avenues.  He often worked 12 or 13 hours a day in these positions, and even overtime beyond those hours; in other cases he worked the night shift. While he worked in Harlem, Walker,  like Thompson and Long, would still likely have been employed by whites, who controlled almost all the businesses in Harlem.

Harlem Soda Fountain (no date) (Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS)

Service work was not by nature as itinerant as was the laboring work done by Thompson, but Walker changed jobs repeatedly, holding nine different positions during his four years on probation. He lost some of those positions due to cutbacks resulting from the Depression, but more often he quit or was fired as a result of disputes about unpaid or inadequate wages and taking days off.  In October 1933, Walker’s fortunes took a turn for the better, and he secured one of the best jobs available in his line of work, as a waiter in a Pullman dining car traveling between New York City and Chicago.

A more detailed account of Roger Walker’s life in Harlem can be found in our article, “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s,” which appears in the Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of Social History.

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