The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

The house of Dagger John

with 12 comments

– photo by Mitch Waxman

When you first enter the place, your pupils are narrowed, as the burning thermonuclear eye of god itself stares down upon you. This is hallowed ground, one of the places where the modern nation cast off its caul. You are in Manhattan, but the builders of this place called the island New York, and this is their Cathedral.

In 1815 New York City was Manhattan only, and it only extended from the Battery to fourteenth street, by 1865 paved and graded roads went as far as Forty Second Street.

On June, 8th, 1809- the cornerstone of this building was laid down, and it was dedicated on April 14, 1815.

from wikipedia

In the 19th century, the city was transformed by immigration and development. A visionary development proposal, the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, expanded the city street grid to encompass all of Manhattan, and the 1819 opening of the Erie Canal connected the Atlantic port to the vast agricultural markets of the North American interior. Local politics fell under the domination of Tammany Hall, a political machine supported by Irish immigrants. Public-minded members of the old merchant aristocracy lobbied for the establishment of Central Park, which became the first landscaped park in an American city in 1857. A significant free-black population also existed in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Slaves had been held in New York through 1827, but during the 1830s New York became a center of interracial abolitionist activism in the North. New York’s black population was over 16,000 in 1840. The Great Irish Famine brought a large influx of Irish immigrants, and by 1860, one in four New Yorkers – over 200,000 – had been born in Ireland.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The king of France himself commissioned stained glass windows to adorn this structure, but those artifacts ended up at Fordham university, which is just as well because they would have been consumed in the 1866 fire that gutted the place.

Hellfire, however, was no impediment to Dagger John’s flock which feared it not.

During the 1830’s and 40’s, large tracts of Manhattan building stock were converted from domestic to industrial usage, and the flood of arriving immigrants- largely from Catholic Germany and Ireland, and overwhelmingly single young men, crowded into certain neighborhoods walking distance from the new factories.

This building was designed by Joseph Francois Mangin, and beneath the place is a labyrinth of mortuary vaults.


In the 17th century, the Dutch City Hall was in the old City Tavern on Pearl Street. A new City Hall was built in 1700 at Wall and Nassau Streets. It was renamed Federal Hall when New York became the first capital of the United States. The 1833-1842 Federal Hall National Memorial is now on this site. The Common Council talked about a new City hall as early as 1776 but the Revolutionary War intervened. A site was chosen, the old Common at the northern limits of the City, now City Hall Park.

In 1802, a competition was held for the new City Hall and twenty-six proposals were submitted. First prize of $350 was awarded to John McComb, Jr. and Joseph Francois Mangin. John McComb’s father repaired the old City Hall in 1784. John McComb, Jr. was a New Yorker while Joseph Mangin was trained in his native France. McComb designed the landmark Hamilton Grange on Convent Avenue, Castel Clinton in Battery Park and the James Watson House on State Street. Joseph Mangin was City Surveyor in 1795 and published an official City map with Casimir Goerck in 1803.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

When anti catholic “nativist” mobs from the nearby “Lower East Side” river fronts approached the place in 1842, they found that Dagger John had great walls erected about his church after similar riots in 1835, and that those walls and the surrounding streets were manned by the hated Irish.

By the late 1840’s, the word tenement had become a familiar term to refer to the crowded warrens in New York, and an official City census by the Council on Hygiene reported some 500,000 people living in just over 15,000 buildings.

In 1866, a conflagration consumed the place, and it was rebuilt in 1868.

from wikipedia

Anti-Catholic animus in the United States reached a peak in the nineteenth century when the Protestant population became alarmed by the influx of Catholic immigrants. Some American Protestants, having an increased interest in prophecies regarding the end of time, claimed that the Catholic Church was the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation. The resulting “nativist” movement, which achieved prominence in the 1840s, was whipped into a frenzy of anti-Catholicism that led to mob violence, the burning of Catholic property, and the killing of Catholics. This violence was fed by claims that Catholics were destroying the culture of the United States. The nativist movement found expression in a national political movement called the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, which (unsuccessfully) ran former president Millard Fillmore as its presidential candidate in 1856.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

They thrust rifles through and over the walls, brandished pistols and brickbats, and in the end- the Irish Squad of Dagger John called the Hibernians battled the riot away from this place. Honored even today for their courage, these Hibernians showed the so called “English” that in America, things would be different for their people.

The political map of the time was drawn around this district, whose death rate was six times that of the rest of the city, and where the principal form of garbage collection were a population of roaming hogs.

Incidentally, this is where the baptism scene from the Godfather film was filmed.


Anti-Catholic bigotry, cloaked in the guise of American patriotism, emerged in a nativist prejudice against immigrants –– especially the Irish, who began arriving in large numbers. A period of extreme intolerance was launched in the early 1800s that began with social segregation, resulted in discrimination in hiring, and reached its climax in the formation of nativist gangs such as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, the True Blue Americans and others bent on violence against the Irish Catholic immigrant population. These gangs would coalesce in 1854 into the American Party or ‘Know Nothings’.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

When you’ve been inside for a minute or two, your eyes adjust to its permanent twilight interior, and reflect on what it must have been like in the 1870’s and 80’s to enter this space after having experienced the surrounding neighborhood, described by Charles Dickens as “leprous houses where dogs would howl to lie”.

The “ward”, which translates into a modern political term roughly as “district”, was once the worst slum on earth according to contemporaries- who actually did factor Calcutta, Shanghai, and London (from personal experience, mind you) into their opinion.

This is the Bloody Sixth Ward, just north of the “Mulberry Bend” and “Five Points”.


The district was known as the Sixth Ward bounded, south, by Reade Street; west, by West Street; north by Canal Street; east by Broadway. The Five Points so named in the 1830’s from the convergence of the intersection of five streets: Mulberry, Anthony (now Worth St.), Cross (now Park), Orange (now Baxter), and Little Water Street (no longer exists).  This neighborhood was built over the Collect Pond and its adjacent swampland north of City Hall and the Courthouse, between Broadway and the Bowery.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Lords and ladies of the Newtown Pentacle, welcome to the progenitor and founder of Calvary Cemetery, the stage of Dagger John Hughes and the birthplace of modern New York. This is St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, we’re in Manhattan for a change, and we’ve come here to figure out where the other half lived.


Her sidewalls rise to a height of 75 feet, and the inner vault is 85 feet high. The church is over 120 feet long and 80 feet wide. Near the west wall stands the huge marble altar surrounded by an ornately carved, gold leaf reredos.

At the opposite end of the church in the choir loft is a historic organ, an Erben 3-41, in its original condition. The organ was built by Henry Erben in 1852, and is one of less than a dozen such great instruments surviving in New York City. The organ is still used in liturgies today.

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 18, 2010 at 12:05 am

12 Responses

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  1. […] early development of the City of Greater New York was occasioned on the day when I went to “The house of Dagger John“. Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral satisfies both my continuing fascination with the […]

  2. […] A meeting was hastily arranged at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Manhattan’s Mulberry street, and your humble narrator scuttled off to the Bloody Sixth Ward and the House of Dagger John. […]

  3. […] to the throne of Ireland rest within the ground consecrated by the legendary prelate called “Dagger John” alongside the “Fighting 69th” and “the 21” and the […]

  4. […] the west lies Calvary, First Calvary, where Dagger John consecrated the soil of Protestant Newtown for the use of the Roman Catholic church. The elevation […]

  5. […] Here lie kings, gangsters, soldiers, governors, and the huddled masses whose yearnings carried them to this ultimate destination. Untold multitudes are interred in this hill of laurels, which may truly be called a home to the tomb legions of Dagger John. […]

  6. […] guess Dagger John knew how to pick a piece of […]

  7. Hi, Mitch – too bad I wasn’t there the day you visited the Old Cathedral – I would have showed you around, and gave you a tour of the burial crypts below the old church – by the way, the organ in the church is an Erben 1868 version, as the 1852 Erben was totally destroyed in the 1866 fire. I need to tell the webmaster to fix that page!

    Jim Garrity, Historian of The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral

    Jim Garrity

    November 3, 2012 at 8:19 pm

  8. […] As detailed in the past, the first service conducted here, for Esther Ennis in 1848, was conducted by the legendary Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes. […]

  9. […] era surrounding this cathedral lent a certain nervous excitement to my task. This was the “House of Dagger John“, after all, and its connections with Calvary Cemetery along the Newtown Creek have given it […]

  10. […] the west lies Calvary, First Calvary, where Archbishop Dagger John Hughes consecrated the soil of Protestant Newtown for the use of the Roman Catholic Church as a […]

  11. […] Opportunity to capture this year’s event presented itself, so I got on the train from raven tressed Astoria to the Shining City and headed over to the House of Dagger John. […]

  12. […] thing you’ll pick up on is that this year is that the House of Dagger John – St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral – looks a bit different. There is an enormous […]

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