Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Nikola Tesla and The Alienist

While researching the neighborhood surrounding Tesla's laboratory at 175 Grand I found he had something in common with a main character in the 1994 thriller, The Alienist. First, some background.

From 1889-1891, Nikola Tesla worked out of a laboratory at 175 Grand Street in Manhattan. It was here that he did much of his seminal work on the radio and invented the Tesla coil.

The location of Tesla's laboratory at 175 Grand. The address is highlighted in light green near the upper left corner. From: Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. "Atlas 107. Vol. 1, 1894." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1884- - 1894.



I strove to understand who were the immediate neighbors of Tesla's laboratories and what sort of neighborhood it was. The 1890 edition of Trow's Business Directory of Manhattan is available online. Although it does not list anyone at 175 Grand, these are the neighboring businesses to either side.

173 Grand, McKee & Harrington (Joseph McKee and Charles F Harrington), p. 180 (Trow's Directory)
173 Grand, Panse & Gnadt (Frederick W Panse & John G. Gnadt), p. 234
173 Grand, Saulson Designing Co (Joseph Samuelson proprietor), p. 265

177 Grand, The New York Brass & Wire Works Company (Kopankiewicz & Dobrowski proprietors) p. 217
177 Grand, Pomeroy Mfg Co. (Pomeroy & Hall proprietors) p. 243
177 Grand, Standard Rubber Co. (Lena Levi proprietors) p. 286


Tesla moved his operations to South Fifth Avenue in 1891. Directories are not available for the years 1891 to 1893, but here is a glimpse of the businesses listed at 175 Grand in the 1894 City Directory.

175 Grand, Handel Louis sawyer, h 1060 Halsey, Brooklyn, p.573
175 Grand & 155 Baxter, Klein Fred A. cutler, h 228 Garden, Hoboken, p.754
175 Grand, Reinhorn David bands, h 42 Delancey, p.1155
175 Grand, Bliem William, plater, h 1022 Summit av., p.124
also listed as: 175 Grand, J. C. BLIEM & BECKER, platers, p.124.
and: 175 Grand, Bliem William, plater, h 64 Paterson, J. C., p.89

1896 and The Alienist

Tesla's Grand Street laboratory also had a notorious, albeit fictional, neighbor.

Caleb Carr wrote a wildly popular thriller set in 1896 Manhattan called The Alienist. Near the end of the book, the killer, Japheth Dury (aka John Beecham), is traced to his home at 155 Baxter Street. This address is two doors away and just around the corner from 175 Grand. Fred Klein, cutler (above) is listed at both addresses in the 1894 directory. In fact, the two buildings touched, a detail made more significant considering that the killer moved between rooftops.

Here is the description of the arrival of the investigators at Dury's building.

"Number 155 Baxter Street was an unremarkable New York tenement, though in any other neighborhood the women and children who were hanging out its windows on that seasonable night would have been laughing or singing or at least screaming at one another. Here they simply sat with their heads in their hands, the youngest of them looking as worldly and tired as the oldest, and none of them exhibiting any interest in what occurred on the street. A man who I placed at about thirty was seated on the stoop, swinging a nightstick that looked to be authentic police issue. It wasn't difficult to judge after getting a glimpse of the man's blow-twisted features and surly grin just how he'd laid hands on the trophy."
page 422, The Alienist, Caleb Carr, copyright 1994, Random House Paperbacks.

Was Tesla's Grand Street laboratory in a rough neighborhood? This location borders the areas where Jacob Riis documented Manhattan's poverty in the 1890s. In the broader map shown above, Tesla's laboratory was four blocks from the Bowery, famous for its vice and crime. He was three blocks from the famously vicious area known as Mulberry's Bend. Interestingly, at the same time that Tesla worked here, he lived at the Astor House, perhaps the most luxurious hotel in Manhattan at the time.

The above map cropped. Tesla's laboratory was located at the site of the light green block in the upper left corner. Dury's residence on Baxter Street is highlighted in forest green.

Rag-Picker's Row at 59 Baxter Street (c. 1898 Jacob Riis) about three and one half blocks south of the corner of Grand and Baxter.

Bandit's Roost by Jacob Riis, photographer (ca. 1890). At Mulberry Bend, three and one half blocks south of Grand and Mulberry.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, will be available from Rook's Page Publishing, March 30, 2016. It features Nikola Tesla as detective. (More details soon.)
His recent mystery, Never Kill A Friend, is available from Ransom Note Press. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at mdhillortiz@gmail.com.


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