Wednesday, December 01, 2010


Just after the Civil War, my great-grandfather, Louis Windmuller, bought some land and built a house in Woodside, Queens. It was then a brand new locality within the very old Town of Newtown.[1] Regarded as a "pleasantly situated country village," it came into being when a newsman named John A.F. Kelly published a series of short reminiscences which he called "Letters from Woodside," in allusion to the Kelly estate where he had spent much of his youth. In time other German-born New York merchants would follow his lead in making their homes there. Other newcomers tended to have Irish roots as did the Kellys themselves. In 1827, John A.F.'s father, John Andrew Kelly, had bought a large farm from the Sacketts, a family that was among the first to farm the area.[2]

To some, the area that became Woodside was a "sleepy little village, ... a picturesque locality, ... a mere cluster of houses built of stone or logs." One author says "It used to be worth a walk of many miles to ramble through here in the early morning or evening about blossom time, when the scent of myriads of blossoms was on the damp air and the surrounding woods were just beginning to show their first tints of green."[3] Another writer says, "as early as 1849 it was conspicuous for the beauty of its villas, [possessing] a pure atmosphere and delightful scenery." The local farms produced cereals, dairy produce, and meat, but also flowers. A local market garden, begun in 1864, specialized in "China azaleas, camelias, japonicas, and roses."[4]

The area did not have such pleasant associations in the minds of others. Known as "suicide's paradise,"[5] it was seen as swampy, snake-infested, and full of dangerous wild animals; a lawless place in which for burglary was common and murders hardly unknown; a weekend hangout where young men from Manhattan would come to drink, to gamble, to organize illegal cock fights, and, generally, to make trouble.[6] A writer who signed himself P.S.J. wrote the Newtown Register, December 11, 1884, to say "We have dog fights, cock fights, the open and unhindered selling of liquor on the Sabbath day, and several other luxuries denied other less favored communities. Rowdyism is rampant and license of all descriptions goes unchecked. 'What are you going to do about it?' is the watchword of our liberties and we grovel under the heel of a political despotism which every year holds our noses closer to the grindstone."[7]

These contrasting accounts of bucolic peace and quiet on the one hand and dank, frightful, and roistering outrages on the other tend to show Woodside's sometimes painful century-long evolution from rural farmland to working-class urban neighborhood. Its transition is marked by what were almost universally regarded as signs of progress: in 1864 a post office; in 1869, a train stop on the Long Island Rail Road; in 1870, the village's first general store, run by the man who was then postmaster; in 1872, a public school, located first in a private house, and then, in 1878, in its own building, located on a corner of the Windmuller estate.

This photo shows the heart of Woodside Village around 1905. The Windmuller estate is about half a mile out of view to the left.

{Kelly Ave — now 61st St. — From Woodside Ave Looking North; source: Old Queens, N.Y., in early photographs}

Taken a few blocks to the west, this undated photo seems to have been taken at roughly the same time. It shows the area of Woodside to the southeast of the Windmuller estate and it could be that the wooded hillside at left is part of that estate.

{Roosevelt Avenue — Intersection-Woodside Av — view to northwest; source: NYPL Digital Gallery}

I've marked this detail from a map of 1922 to show the location of the estate and the places from which the photos were taken.

{Rand McNally Queens: from Rand McNally metropolitan map of New York City; you can access the full map here; source: Library of Congress}

Most reports of rowdyism and larceny appeared in the local press. This particular event was unusual for attracting the attention of the New York Times:

{New York Times, April 14, 1884}

More typical was this local report of a foiled burglary, as it happens, of Windmuller's own home:

{Newtown Register, November 11, 1880}

And then again, every now and then an especially juicy crime would attract great attention. Perhaps the greatest was the celebrated Guldensuppe-Nack murder trial of 1898. New York reporters breathlessly reported all aspects of the case, with news appearing every few days from first discovery of the crime up to the execution of the murderer and beyond. According to one modern account, news hacks used carrier pigeons to carry fresh tidbits from Queens to their Manhattan newsrooms as fast as possible. The account says the birds made the trip in eight minutes.[9]

Here's a short account of the long drawn-out story, from the same source: "In 1897, barber Marrin Torczewski (alias Martin Thorn) and Giuseppe "Bath House Willie" Guldesuppe, a masseur [that is to say a 'rubber' in a bath house], boarded with Mrs. Augusta Nack, a midwife, in Manhattan. Mrs. Nack was sexually involved with both men. She and Thorn determined to murder Guldensuppe, which they accomplished by luring him to Woodside, Queens, where Mrs. Nack had rented a cottage. Thorn shot him and, after dismembering the body in a bathtub, disposed of it in several parcels scattered across the city. When body parts began to turn up, the crime unraveled. Mrs. Nack testified against Thorn, receiving a light sentence in return, and Thorn was executed at Sing Sing. The case is perhaps best known for an anecdote in which police, hoping to shock a confession our of Mrs. Nack, confronted her with a pair of severed legs and asked her if they were Guldensuppe's, 'I wouldn't know,' she demurred. 'I never saw Willie's legs.'" Here, from the Times, is a bit more of Mrs. Nack's testimony:

{New York Times, November 11, 1897}

There's a full account of the trial in The Northeastern reporter, Volume 50 (National reporter system: State series, West Publishing Company, 1898).


Some sources:


The Founding Families of Woodside, Queens, New York

Long Island Genealogy

Pioneers of Woodside, New York Times, August 1, 1897, p. 7 (pdf)

Community Information: Woodside

Old Queens, N.Y., in early photographs by Vincent F. Seyfried and William Asadorian (Courier Dover Publications, 1991)



NEWTOWN article in HISTORY OF QUEENS COUNTY (New York: W.W. Munsell & Co.; 1882)

The annals of Newtown, in Queens county, New-York, containing its history from its first settlement, together with many interesting facts concerning the adjacent towns; also, a particular account of numerous Long island families now spread over this and various other states of the union by James Riker (D. Fanshaw, 1852)



[1] NEWTOWN in the Long Island Directory (1925) -- "This town was originally called Middelburgh, and was known in 1663-1664 as Hastings. An earlier settlement in this town, known as Mespat, had been started in 1642 and was destroyed in the Indian War of the following year. Population estimated in 1923: 229,000. Newtown is now known as the Second Ward of the Borough of Queens. Villages: Corona, Elmhurst, Winfield and Woodside. Forest Hills and Jackson Heights are settlements of more recent origin." Also see: Woodside of Long Ago in the Woodsider, March 1983 (pdf)

[2] The History of the Sackett/Kelly/Howell Estate -- "Woodside got its name from John A.F. Kelly, part owner of a Brooklyn newspaper, whose father had moved to the Woodside area in 1826. He used to send to his paper for publication chatty little dispatches from his rural home, entitled "Letters from Woodside." When Benjamin Hitchcock bought in to the Kelly farm for a development, he adopted the name Woodside for his proposed village. In 1867 he filed his plan and began selling lots at $100 each." -- Old Queens, N.Y., in early photographs by Vincent F. Seyfried and William Asadorian (Courier Dover Publications, 1991)

[3] Woodside of Long Ago, Woodsider, March, 1983 (pdf), NEWTOWN article in HISTORY OF QUEENS COUNTY (New York: W.W. Munsell & Co.; 1882), The annals of Newtown, in Queens county, New-York, containing its history from its first settlement, together with many interesting facts concerning the adjacent towns; also, a particular account of numerous Long island families now spread over this and various other states of the union by James Riker (D. Fanshaw, 1852). Riker tells of "the swamps [which] echoed, through dismal glades, the nocturnal howlings of rapacious wolves, as they pursued to death some ill-fated victim."

[4] NEWTOWN article in HISTORY OF QUEENS COUNTY (New York: W.W. Munsell & Co.; 1882)

[5] "The area that is now known as Woodside began as one of the earliest European settlements in West Queens. It had been occupied by the Lenape Native Americans, who were displaced by the Dutch colonialists after Governor Kieft’s War in 1640 and the Peach War in 1655. It did not experience substantial development until the 1800s, and was described as an 'isolated area of snake-infested swamps and wolf-inhabited woods'. In the time before it was developed, the area of Woodside was plagued by high infant mortality, high rates of suicide, and overall short life expectancy. This was because of illness, attacks from Native Americans, and other characteristic troubles of living in the wild. Early Woodside was known as ‘suicide’s paradise’ because of the many colonialists that would go to Winfield Woods (once a part of the area of Woodside) to commit suicide, and because of the of cemeteries in the area, namely Mount Zion and New Calvary. In the 19th century, he area was part of the Town of Newtown." -- Woodside

"Woodside is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Queens. Although it was inhabited by European settlers in the early years, it did not grow substantially until the 1800s because it was a dangerous and isolated area of snake-infested swamps and wolf-inhabited woods." -- Woodside

[6] Woodside -- Historical Background of Woodside

[7] Newtown Register, December 11, 1884, p. 5. A writer calling himself "X.Z." offered a response the following week:
The Town of Newtown may undoubtedly embrace within its corporate limits as much public order and public virtue as any other town on the Island, and it would be a rare and phenomenal state of affairs if such things as dog fights and cock fights never occurred within its extensive boundaries. Although individually an unflinching advocate of "Law and Order," I have, long since learned that mankind have not yet arrived at that much desired state of absolute perfection in which sin, sorrow and wickedness are banished from the world. There are invariably two sides to human nature, as existing in the world, the good and the bad; and it is one of the blessings we should be profoundly thankful for, that the former predominates by a large majority.
That Newtown should be subject to lawless incursions, from the rougher elements of society is surely not to be wondered at when we take into consideration its close proximity to two large and populous cities [i.e., Manhattan and Brooklyn], whose crimes and iniquities it is natural to suppose find their way like a polluted stream, into the more virtuous and orderly rural districts.
-- Newtown Register, December 18, 1884.
[8] My source:
The first store at Woodside was opened in 1870 by Thomas Way, and in 1873 Narcisse Pigeon began the manufacture of wine and vinegar here.

A floral establishment started here in 1864 by Gabriel Marc has grown to considerable proportions. He purchased thirteen acres and has some twenty thousand feet of ground covered with glass. A specialty is made here of China azaleas, camelias, japonicas, and roses.

A post-office was established at Woodside in 1864, in the depot of the Long Island Railroad; John Fargo postmaster. In 1873 Thomas Way was appointed postmaster. He died in 1875, and was succeeded in the office by his widow, with Samuel Clark as deputy.

The Woodside School District. No. 10, was organized in 1872, and the school was held in a private house, refitted for the purpose, until July 1878, when a school building was completed and occupied. It is a neat wooden structure containing rooms for two teachers on the lower floor, the second floor being used for public amusements until the growth of the school may require its use. ... The attendance this year [1881] has averaged ninety.

-- NEWTOWN in HISTORY OF QUEENS COUNTY, with illustrations, Portraits & Sketches of Prominent Families and Individuals (New York: W.W. Munsell & Co.; 1882) pp. 329-408.
[9] The "double indemnity" murder: Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray, and New York's crime of the century by Landis MacKellar (Syracuse University Press, 2006)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

wow! i love this blog. do you know anything about the old shaw hotel at 39-73 64 st., woodside? it was built circa 1840 and still looks pretty much as it did. check out page 42 of the WOODSIDE history book by catherine gregory. this great old house is now for sale and might be demolished. what a tragedy! i discovered it still stood about 2 years ago. i am on the board of the queens historical society and would like to meet you.