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Archive for January 11th, 2010

Tales of Calvary 8- the Abbot

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

While wandering through Calvary Cemetery recently, I came upon a curious monument whose sculptural elements included a life sized portrait, and whose dedication was meant to honor a man named Florence Scannell. The stone additionally bore a curious screed- “The Abbot”. “Dedicated to the memory of Florence Scannell by his brother John J.” is displayed prominently on its face. This stirred a sleeping memory, and I tried to remember why the name Scannell is so important. I said it out loud- John J. Scannell?

Wait a minuteJohn J. Scannell was the first chief of the NYFD, grand sachem of Tammany Hall, and a notorious turn of the century raconteur who became “king of the hill” in the often violent political world of 19th century New York City politics.

Bare knuckled, the electoral system back then resembled modern gang wars. Bearded men were paid to vote, taken to a barber shop for a shave and a shot of whiskey, and then paid to vote again. Paid armies of volunteers rousted saloons and bars that supported their political enemies. With political bosses paying the tab, taverns became organizing points for local “get out the vote” efforts. The poor didn’t care, for a day they could drink enough to forget and even eat a real meal- with meat, and all they had to do was vote the way they were told. The bosses were the bosses, and your place in “the line” could be revoked at any time if you fell out of favor with them. There was no “safety net”, so you had to just “go along”. Sometimes the other party would send gangs of street toughs into their opponents establishments- “bar busting”.

For more on the milieu of political life for the working class of the 19th century, I would suggest a gander at “The Jungle” Upton Sinclair’s “progressive” propaganda piece, or taking a peek at Jacob Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives“.

The Scannell brothers are described as having been engaged in such “bar busting” activities in 1869, when brother Florence ran for Alderman from the 18th ward against a Tammany candidate. At 23rd st. and second avenue, on Dec. 3rd, a Tammany man named Thomas Donaghue ran afoul of the Scannells, who were employed to “clean out” and “bust” the saloon he owned and operated.


The year 1898 ushered in a new era of firefighting. On midnight of January 1, 1898, Greater New York was formed by uniting the five boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. The Board of Fire Commissioners was replaced by a single Commissioner, John J. Scannell, who had been head of the Board since 1894 and was appointed by Mayor R.A. Van Wyck. All of the area’s volunteer departments were to be replaced by the FDNY, and Chief Hugh Bonner assumed control of three paid departments: New York, Brooklyn, and Long Island; 121 engines, 46 trucks, one horse wagon, and a water tower; in all, 309 square miles of firefighting territory.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Scannells and a dozen of their men produced weapons and engaged in a fierce battle with Donaghue’s own crew of toughs. Gunfire erupted and Florence Scannel was shot in the back, the bullet embedding itself in his spinal column. Rushed to the nearby Bellevue Hospital, Florence suffered a lingering death, finally passing on July 10, 1870, with his brother John at his side. John J. Scannell swore an oath to avenge his brother, and kill the man who shot him in the back– the Tammany man, Thomas Donaghue.

Donaghue’s handlers fixed things up with the courts, and he returned to his familiar Saloon on 23rd st. and second avenue.

On Sept. 19th, at the corner of 17th and third, an odd looking man wearing a slouched hat and fake beard stepped out of the shadows and blasted a hole in Donaghue’s chest with a derringer pistol. Donaghue ultimately survived this attempt on his life, and Scannell discarded his disguise as he escaped his pursuers fleeing through Irving Place and Union Square. John J. later surrendered to a Police Sgt. after taking refuge on Long Island, and was indicted by a Grand Jury for the crime, but was never charged and released on $10,000 bail.

That’s $10,000 in 1870…

In November of 1872, Donaghue was attending an auction at the Apollo Theatre on 28th street, and a man wearing a cloak and slouch hat approached him. A large caliber pistol was produced and the middle of Donaghue’s face disappeared. Four more shots, three in the face, were pumped into the now prostrate Donaghue. The killer fled and was apprehended by a Police Captain named McElwain, who immediately identified the assassin as John J. Scannell. Such quick identification of Scannell was possible only because the arresting officer had been the one who arrested him for the the earlier attempt on Donaghue, when he was a Sgt.

The event was seminal, for as John J. Scannell sat in a gaol called “The Tombs”, another sat beside him. That night, John J. Scannell met Richard Croker. Someday, they would become “The Big Two” at Tammany Hall and rule over New York City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

John J. Scannell was born on the lower East Side of Manhattan and found early work as a horse dealer- moving on to Saloon Keeper and then Professional Gambler. Charged with the murder of Donaghue, he pled insanity, and after a 3 month stint in an asylum in Utica, returned to local politics. He owned horses and raced them on the national circuit, as did Richard Croker. Rising in Tammany with his partner Croker, Scannell ran the 25th electoral district in Manhattan for many years, and desired the post of NYFD commissioner in that newly unified pile of gold called “the City of Greater New York”. Protests were recorded citywide, but Mayor Van Wyck appointed him chief of the newly unified citywide firefighting brigades. He served in that capacity until 1901, and fought corruption charges associated with his appointment until 1906 in court. At 67, in 1907, Scannell was sued for $15,000 for kissing the daughter of his housekeeper 3 times without consent.

Scannell died at 78 in Jamaica, Queens- far from his retirement estate in Freeport, L.I.

The Abbot, as it turns out, is a Horse.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Scannell paid the scandalous amount of $26,500 at a Madison Square auction, the highest ever paid for a single Horse to that time, to purchase the Abbott.

That’s $26,500 in 1900…

The obituary for the Horse is actually longer than the one for the owner. The fact that Scannell engraved a Horse’s name on the monument to his dead brother, and his own eventual grave marker, shows the esteem felt by Scannell himself for the animal. Oddly enough, and this is a rare thing for Calvary Cemetery, The NYTimes once did an article on the raising of this monument which happened in 1914.

Hey, you never know what you’re going to find at Calvary Cemetery.

Written by Mitch Waxman

January 11, 2010 at 1:22 am

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