The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

unending steps

with 5 comments

– photo by Mitch Waxman

By email, I was contacted by a personage who claimed that the long desired location of a certain interment at First Calvary Cemetery in Queens- the burial site of “he who must not be named“- was in his possession. Further, it was asserted that while anonymity and certain other odd conditions were required, the occluded information so long sought would be mine for the taking.

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.

What greeted me was not to my liking.


The recent elevation of New York as an Episcopal see with its own bishop inspired the increasing Catholic population to build the original Cathedral of New York under the name of Ireland’s patron saint, Saint Patrick. The site chosen belonged to the corporation of Saint Peter’s Church and was located on Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan. The cornerstone was laid in June 1809.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As is habit and curse, an early arrival was attempted and achieved, and a hidden vantage point amongst the venerable pews was attained. The odd fellow who had contacted me described his aspect and appearance accurately, and recognition was instant when he strode confidently into the ancient church. He did not arrive alone, as he had implied in his missives, however.

The disturbing aspect of his companions, leathery creatures best described as men, and the hushed instructions he seemed to be offering them, brought me to a peak of nervous excitedness and a panic set in upon me. Stupidly, I had walked directly into a spiders web, lured in by forbidden fruit.

Had some sort of diabolical plot, hatched by those malign forces whose secretive occupations and desires and unguessed at existence has been inadvertently hinted at and offended by this- your Newtown Pentacle, been set in motion to snare and silence me?

from wikipedia

Until 1830, the Cathedral was the ending place of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. After that, it ended on Ann Street at the Church of the Transfiguration, whose pastor, Father Varela, was Cuban, but was a fervent nationalist and the chaplin of the Hibernian Universal Benevolent Society. Eventually, the parade moved uptown to pass in front of the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

In 1836, the cathedral was the subject of an attempted sack after tensions between Irish Catholics and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing nativists led to a number of riots and other physical confrontations. The situation worsened when a brain-injured young woman wrote a book telling her “true” story – a Protestant girl who converted to Catholicism, and was then forced by nuns to have sex with priests, with the resulting children being baptized then killed horribly. Despite the book being debunked by a mildly anti-Catholic magazine editor, nativist anger at the story resulted in a decision to attack the cathedral. Loopholes were cut in the church’s outer walls, which had just recently been built, and the building was defended from the rioters with muskets.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As previously described, vast physical inadequacy and cowardice are my hallmarks. The least of all men, my only recourse is flight, and I seem to have descended into some sort of fugue state.

I remember leaving the sepulchral darkness and unnatural cool of the old Cathedral, but from the moment that the burning thermonuclear eye of god itself shone upon me, it’s a total blank.

My next conscious memory is that of having arrived back at HQ in Astoria some hours later with blistered feet and chafed thighs, and an odd crusty residue around my eyes reminiscent of the dehydrated tears which adorn the occulum of a recently awakened sleeper.

During this multi hour episode, I seem to have been taking hundreds of pictures as I scuttled instinctually and inexorably homeward.

I’ve pieced my somnambulist route together from the shots on my camera card and for some reason, seemed to be subconsciously following an ancient street car route, the one that went to Calvary via Williamsburg as I later scried.


In 1850 a line of two horse stages was running from Grand Street ferry past the Dutch Church on the Old Woodpoint Road out to Newtown. Grape arbors extended from Leonard Street to Humboldt Street.

Martin J. SUYDAM ran a stage from Peck Slip and Grand Street. Ferries through Grand Street and Metropolitan Avenue to Newtown.

The Grand Street and Newtown Railroad Co., was chartered in 1860. At the foot of the street was the office of the Houston Street Ferry Association and later of the Nassau Ferry Co. A long wooden stairway led from the ferry to the American Hotel, latter, #2 & 4, kept by Jackson HICKS.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Some sort of odd symmetry presents itself, of course, in this dreamt of photowalk. The vast numbers who lie within the emerald devastations of Laurel Hill made the same journey themselves, although most did not take the Williamsburg Bridge- rather a connecting ferry and streetcar line which would have joined some forgotten 19th century Manhattan pierage (near its own Grand Street) with the gentry of Brooklyn. Don’t forget, in the 19th century, Manhattan was a pestilential hell hole of factories and open sewers populated by a starving horde of refugees- Brooklyn was in it’s own golden age.

The Bridge didn’t come along until 1883 after all, and First Calvary was nearly full by then.

from “An East-Side Ramble” William Dean Howells Impressions and Experiences (New York: Harpers & Brothers, 1896) courtesy

I suppose there are and have been worse conditions of life, but if I stopped short of savage life I found it hard to imagine them. I did not exaggerate to myself the squalor that I saw, and I do not exaggerate it to the reader. As I have said, I was so far from sentimentalizing it that I almost immediately reconciled myself to it, as far as its victims were concerned. Still, it was squalor of a kind which, it seemed to me, it could not be possible to outrival anywhere in the life one commonly calls civilized. It is true that the Indians who formerly inhabited this island were no more comfortably lodged in their wigwams of bark and skins than these poor New-Yorkers in their tenements. But the wild men pay no rent, and if they are crowded together upon terms that equally forbid decency and comfort in their shelter, they have the freedom of the forest and the prairie about them; they have the illimitable sky and the whole light of day and the four winds to breathe when they issue into the open air. The New York tenement dwellers, even when they leave their lairs, are still pent in their high-walled streets and inhale a thousand stenches of their own and others’ making. The street, except in snow and rain, is always better than their horrible houses, and it is doubtless because they pass so much of their time in the street that the death rate is so low among them. Perhaps their domiciles can be best likened for darkness and discomfort to the dugouts or sod huts of the settlers on the great plains. But these are only temporary shelters, while the tenement dwellers have no hope of better housing; they have neither the prospect of a happier fortune through their own energy as the settlers have, nor any chance from the humane efforts and teachings of missionaries, like the savages. With the tenement dwellers it is from generation to generation, if not for the individual, then for the class, since no one expects that there will not always be tenement dwellers in New York as long as our present economical conditions endure.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As evidenced in the shot above, I seem to have proceeded south along Mulberry Street, past the high walls of the Old Cathedral which were erected by Dagger John and the Hibernians to protect the sanctuary from the violent attentions of Nativist rioters during those starry years when this neighborhood was known as “the bloody sixth ward”.

from History of the Second company of the Seventh regiment By Emmons Clark, courtesy google books

The Sixth Ward was noted for its disorderly character, and the frequent skirmishes which took place within its borders, with the consequent black eyes and bloody noses, gave it the well-known sobriquet,—”the Bloody Sixth.” On the first day of the election, in the spring of 1834, it was said that the anti-bank, Democratic, and Irish citizens of the Sixth Ward, had blockaded the polls and prevented the Whigs from voting. On the second day, the Whigs from other districts rallied in large numbers to the Sixth Ward, resolved to break the blockade and give their friends an opportunity to cast their ballots. The result was a series of engagements, in which both parties maintained their positions in the field until the polls closed for the day. A ship, mounted on wheels and adorned with Whig banners, was drawn through the ward, and used to convey voters to the polls, and this insulting invasion of the Democratic stronghold increased the excitement.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This grand walk carried me, in a seemingly dream like state, through the lower Manhattan neighborhoods known to Dagger John and his compatriots as either “Jewtown” or “the Ghetto”, over the Bridge, into Williamsburg, through Bushwick and then Maspeth in Brooklyn and Queens respectively, into Berlin and then Blissville in the Creeklands, and ultimately Calvary Cemetery itself. Over the next few days, and from the comfort and safety of a well fortified Newtown Pentacle HQ (which sports a cadre of Croatian Varangians dedicated to my health and well being, should these malign forces decide to visit… as well as other… more esoteric defenses) I’ll be presenting the fruits of this journey. As mentioned, I somehow kept shooting the whole way.

from wikipedia

Basil II’s distrust of the native Byzantine guardsmen, whose loyalties often shifted with fatal consequences, as well as the proven loyalty of the Varangians, led him to employ them as his personal bodyguards. This new force became known as the Varangian Guard (Greek: Τάγμα των Βαράγγων, Tágma tōn Varángōn). Over the years, new recruits from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway kept a predominantly Scandinavian cast to the organization until the late 11th century. So many Scandinavians left to enlist in the guard that a medieval Swedish law from Västergötland stated that no one could inherit while staying in “Greece”—the then Scandinavian term for the Byzantine Empire. In the eleventh century, there were also two other European courts that recruited Scandinavians: Kievan Rus’ c. 980–1060 and London 1018–1066 (the Þingalið). Steven Runciman, in The History of the Crusades, noted that by the time of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos, the Byzantine Varangian Guard was largely recruited from Anglo-Saxons and “others who had suffered at the hands of the Vikings and their cousins the Normans”. The Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic peoples shared with the Vikings a tradition of faithful (to death if necessary) oath-bound service, and after the Norman Conquest of England there were many fighting men who had lost their lands and former masters and looked for a living elsewhere.

Additionally, for those who might be interested in a FREE boat tour of Newtown Creek on City of Water Day – which is Saturday, July 16th- this web page bears monitoring.

5 Responses

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  1. Isn’t that church supposed to be haunted?


    July 5, 2011 at 5:01 pm

  2. […] the “Grand walk” whose beginnings on the Lower East side of Manhattan at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral were discussed in two prior postings… And as a note, the external shots of the Williamsburg […]

  3. […] in my apprehensions about this unremembered walk- which began at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, continued down Delancey Street, went over the Williamsburg Bridge, staged into Williamsburg, and […]

  4. […] the last posting describing this “Grand Walk” from Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral to Astoria in Queens, the section of modern day Maspeth which lies between the Grand Street and […]

  5. […] Walk”, a panic induced marathon which carried your humble narrator across the East River from St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan into Williamsburg and up Grand Street to Maspeth and the baroque intrigues of the […]

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