The Alienist

the-alienist    The advertisement for this book was shocking enough, a bunch of boy prostitutes turn up dead in Old New York, then Teddy Roosevelt enters the case, along with a criminal profiling psychologist named Kreizler. Couple that with the sleaze and vice of the era, and you know it’s going to be disturbing. The book’s famous cover, with the lone cloaked figure walking in the snow, makes things look eerie. Who is he, I wonder, and why does he appear so confident? When I first saw this book I got a feeling that this would be New York’s Jack-The-Ripper, and I was right. As for the term “alienist,” that’s what psychologists were called in those days. Even the title sounds creepy.

Caleb Carr weaves a creepy historical thriller set in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. In a creative turn of revisionism, Carr makes Gilded Age New York look like a three-ring circus with a lot of creepy sideshows. Young girls and boys are lured into prostitution, all of them are addicted to morphine, and the police are corrupt. An alcoholic gambling reporter gets an invite from Teddy Roosevelt (his Harvard classmate) and a Hungarian-born psychologist (also a former classmate) to catch a serial killer. The victims aren’t the kind of people anybody would miss; they’re all boy prostitutes from immigrant families, turning up dead near the river, and the families make little effort to know their whereabouts. The only reason that Roosevelt wants to stop the killer is that the media may soon catch on, and as Police Commissioner, the bad publicity would ruin his career. There are others who want to avoid bad publicity, but their way involves squashing the story.

Carr inserts plenty of historical characters in here, making most of them look bad. Anthony Comstock appears in all his evil glory, along with evil Archbishops and a patronizing racist photographer named Jacob Riis. My apologies to those of you who put him on a pedestal, but I loved Carr’s portrayal of the guy. He makes the famous “social reformer” look like a nasty, stuck up, racist prima donna, who has his own preconceived ideas about how people should all behave. Roosevelt isn’t made out to be such a great guy either; he’s portrayed as a pompous blowhard, and a bit of a bully too. The funniest characters are the Isaacson Brothers, fat Jewish intellectuals who Roosevelt has brought in to be detectives. Though they’re totally unsuited for police work, they do have amazing detection skills.

In the past decade, we’ve had so much nostalgia for the old New York. Old movies that portray the 1970’s grit and sleaze are more popular than ever, and people reminisce about the old East Village punk rock scene. What people often ignore is that New York City was always rough and dirty, even in the 1890’s. When I read this book, I really got a sense of being in a creepy, dark place, where the street lights are dim and trouble lurks behind every corner.

The Alienist was published way back in the 1990’s, and still read today. I read it in 1999, back when I was living in the city in my first apartment, before New York nostalgia was all the rage. Unlike today, you didn’t have all the amateur historians with their blogs about Old New York, so the information on the city’s past life was limited to the few books here and there, and they all got the facts different. This book was like a murder mystery, horror movie, and museum display all rolled into one.


Boy Detective

51erxatebvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Roger Rosenblatt breaks the E.B. White rule of the New York writer, by being born and raised in New York City. Yet unlike the recent memoir Trying to Float, this New York born and raised writer has a terrible book. There are few, if any, strong anecdotes and no surprises. He was born to privilege in Gramercy Park, occasionally passed Washington Irving High School (rough, even in the 1960’s), and didn’t seem to observe much about the area. He mentions a little about St. Marks Place, and the Sleepy Hollow Bookstore on Irving Place, now a cheese store and Japanese restaurant. Other than that, nothing.

To sum up, this book stinks.

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital

bellevue    Dr. David Oshinsky is a history professor specializing in medical history. He did a previous book on the Polio epidemic in the USA, and this book tells you a lot about how medicine in the USA changed over the years, on both social and scientific levels. He begins with Washington Square, originally a potter’s field until around 1830. While I was aware of the park’s origin as a dumping ground for the indigent dead, I didn’t know how much the plagues had to do with it. In 2009, when the park was redone, workers found a headstone from a 1799 Yellow Fever victim, which was unusual because none of the interred would’ve had the money for a headstone. The plague must have been so extensive that the regular cemeteries were full, otherwise a man of means would not have wanted to be buried there. It was the Yellow Fever and Malaria outbreaks that brought about the need for a public hospital at the city’s expense, and it ended up at an old alms-house in Kip’s Bay. Since medicine was not much good in those days, it wouldn’t cost much.

One of the most interesting chapters is on the Civil War and how it became a proving ground for a lot of the physicians who would go on to work at Bellevue. The Draft Riots became a test of how the city could handle a mass emergency, thanks to all the injured police and National Guard that had to be treated. The superintendent Frank Hamilton saw how badly things went on the battlefield, where the best a surgeon could do was amputate a leg (few had the skill to remove a bullet or properly stitch the cuts.) There was little use for a hospital if there was nothing that the doctors could do anyway, and since there were no antiseptics at the time, you were likely to die of infections.

Medical ethics are heavily covered in this book, because Bellevue’s doctors used have absolutely none. There would be improvements to the building, like a new mental patient wing, that quack doctors would use to experiment with insulin shock treatment and electroconvulsive therapy. Dr. Loretta  Bender, their head of juvenile psychiatry, used ECT with reckless abandon, finding it a convenient way to deal with massive numbers of patients. It wouldn’t end until the 1970’s when there was more advocacy for medical rights. While medical improvements happened throughout the USA, the massive number of indigent patients meant that Bellevue was a great place to do experiments.

The author doesn’t mince words about the 80’s. The crack epidemic would flood the hospital’s mental wards with addicts, along with all the mental health problems associated with drug use. A doctor was raped and murdered in 1989 by a mentally ill crack addicted homeless criminal, living in a utility closet and sneaking in and out undetected, thanks to a stolen uniform. 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy would further test the hospital’s capabilities, thanks to the power outages and patient influxes. Unlike the days of old, patients are more likely to seek medical help now that they know they won’t be experimented on or have limbs amputated. While 9/11 brought a sudden patient influx, Hurricane Sandy made it harder to manage what the hospital already had. The patients had to be carried down the stairs, and fuel brought in for the generators.

The author does an amazing job with his research and he uncovers all kind of bizarre and shocking things about the city that I hadn’t known. He ends with an acknowledgement of all the previous books about Bellevue, including some that are still in print. I would recommend reading this book along with two earlier ones; A Finger In Lincoln’s Brain, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Both are about how medicine changed in the USA over the years, and how doctors often used patients as Guinea pigs.

Bellevue is a piece of NY history that you can use to tell if the city is functioning or not. There was a time when more patients left dead than alive. It was once filthy, then got cleaned up, then came drug addicts, then came improvements. The infamous hospital is a something of a measuring device for how the city of New York manages things. Despite the terrible reputation, Bellevue saves more lives than ruins them. When asked how the hospital handled all those patients on 9/11, I heard a doctor say it was easy compared to the hordes of heart attacks that they handle daily. Huge influxes of patients are a regularity at the hospital, and you’re more likely to die of a heart attack than a cut from flying glass. But for decades, Bellevue, like most US hospitals, was not a place to go if you got sick.


The Bowery Boys Adventures in Old New York

bowery-boys   New York City was once a functioning seaport, both for cargo and passenger vessels. At Number 1 Broadway there’s a coat of arms for Melbourne, Australia, because the Melbourne shipping company had offices there (even though few Australians ever came to the USA in the old days.) Nearby is Fraunce’s Tavern, where the American Revolution began, and ended. It was hit by cannonfire in the Revolution, then bombed by Puerto Rican terrorists in 1975. There are kooky houses, like the white farmhouse at 121 Charles Street in Tribeca, trucked there from the Upper East Side in 1967. Nearby is Weehawken Street, named after the boats that brought food from New Jersey farms to the local market. I’m already familiar with this street, because there’s a bike store on the other side by the West Side Highway. Weehawken Street is kind of like a “back street” for the highway, with a tiny house that might receive protected status.

The problem with this book is that there isn’t really anything new. A lot of the information has already been posted on long-established websites like Forgotten NY and . Some of the locations discussed here, like 121 Charles Street, could be extended into in-depth studies. Whose idea was it to bring the house downtown? Why not the other wooden houses on the Upper East Side? Who were the original owners?

There is much to learn about old New York, and though this is a new country (at least in relation to England) the city is relatively old compared to others in the USA. The Bowery Boys could turn this book into a much more extensive portrait of the city’s history.


serpico-newFrank Serpico was definitely a smart, dynamic, and ambitious police officer, if everything in this book is true. History treats him as a martyred hero, with all the praise for risking his life and being brave enough to do what others didn’t. However, I find some holes in the story, with regard to how much he really accomplished. Despite being a working class Italian cop from Brooklyn, he doesn’t come off as street smart. Throughout the book he seems to go out of his way not to be trusted by his peers, and that’s not a way to accomplish anything. He cultivates the most bizarre image and persona, hiding behind a beard and funny clothes, constantly trying to reinvent himself. It’s one thing to adopt the look of a shabby hippy in order to go undercover, but Serpico wanted to be a hippy and a cop at the same time. He does things that undermine his credibility, and complains constantly instead of taking care of things himself. After reading this book, I have to wonder if Serpico is really worthy of all the praise that he received.

serpico-old For some reason it took Serpico a decade to become a detective, despite having a college degree, multiple languages, a great arrest record, and top marksmanship skills. He was accused of being a peeping tom, which may or may not have been true, but even without an accusation like that, he comes off as a troublemaker. He’s always complaining about the other cops, but never makes any effort to improve things for his fellow officers. There’s a part where he finds all the night shift officers camping out in a basement (known as “cooping”) so he goes out on patrol by himself. That’s good, he takes the initiative and makes an arrest. But he could have tried to convince one of them to go along with him. He takes issue with the corruption in the plainclothes division, but he could have asked to be reassigned to uniform. Not the best way to become a detective, I agree, but he could still have accomplished great things. It was a waste for him to stay in a division for which he had nothing but disdain.

More outrageous and bizarre incidents follow. He shoots a fleeing suspect in the back (without knowing if he’s armed or not) then patrols his own neighborhood (a big no-no) while disguised as an old man and carrying a sword cane (not allowed.) His superiors aren’t happy, and no wonder, because he’s violating the rules to arrest a mugger (and the charges would probably be dropped anyway.) He spends half his time complaining about corrupt cops, but what does he expect? These cops were paid crap, the bookies never got sent to prison, so why would the vice cops make any effort? It’s no wonder the cops serico-originalwere all taking payoffs from numbers runners, pimps, drug dealers, and professional burglars. It wasn’t cops like Serpico that destroyed the numbers racket, but the legalization of the New York Lotto.

History credits Frank Serpico with exposing police corruption, and that’s how we’ll all remember him. Whenever we hear the name, we’ll think of the Knapp Commission, and the lone honest cop versus the dirty pigs, and all of his hippy heroics. However, a lot of what he’s credited with was done by another cop named David Durk, and that’s where things get weird. Durk was older than Serpico, had fewer years on the force, but somehow got promoted faster. The two of them were certainly an “odd couple” in every sense of the word; Durk was the tall blonde Jewish guy, and Serpico was the scruffy little Italian-American hippy. A lot of readers, not just myself, think that the media focused on Serpico exactly because of that – he was an Italian – and they needed him to the be the big hero! The Valacci Papers and The Godfather had hit the bookstores, furthering the stereotype Italian-American criminal, and in Officer Serpico the media found a more positive role-model. As for Durk, who risked his career to expose corruption, he’s only a footnote in this book. Even the movie skips him over, turning him into a waspy character named “Blaire.”

After the events of this book, things didn’t go well for Serpico. He got shot in the face and it left him partially deaf, then he left the force and lived in Europe for a while, came back to the USA in the early 80’s. In the 1990’s he was in the spotlight again, thanks to the Abner Louima case and the new debate on police brutality, but few really cared about his opinion. As for David Durk, he got promoted to Lieutenant, but the NYPD stuck him in boring jobs he didn’t like, and when he retired he got screwed on his pension. Like Serpico, he left the city for upstate New York, but spent the rest of his life trying to bring attention to police corruption, and his efforts were mostly ignored.

After reading this book, and a few others about this topic, I wonder if Serpico and Durk are some kind of little-and-large comedy act? You have the scruffy little working class Italian American hippy weirdo, and the well-dressed straight-arrow upper-class Jew. When I wonder why both of them ended up with less-than-ideal ends, it dawns on me that they had issues to begin with. Both of them seem deluded and unable to face reality. They both had fantasies of making some radical change to American life, which everyone knows doesn’t happen overnight, and certainly can’t be accomplished by only two men. They would have to have been crazy to do what they did, taking the risk that their fellow cops would mark them as rats.

It was the same crazy attitude that led to their undoing.