Before taking up lodging at 84 Carmine St, before meeting Billy the Gink and well before being beaten to death by him one January morning, Deaf Lilly was a familiar face in McGurk’s Saloon where she was known as Big Barney’s pretty young wife.
An Avalon condominium complex sits on the scene today, where the morbid history of 295 Bowery is indiscernible. There, the evening security guard will bat his eyes in confusion when asked his thoughts on McGurk’s Saloon and Suicide Hall, oblivious to the little-known fact that McGurk’s was one of the first to employ an armed guard, Jack “Eat ‘Em Up” McManus. This roguish and violent bouncer was charged to maintain (at least some semblance of) order within the popular saloon—a cesspool for illicit conduct.
The now-vanished five-story building of 295 Bowery, first erected to house Civil War veterans, was purchased by Irish immigrant John McGurk in 1895 and immediately converted to a bar and brothel which catered to the lower class. The dive was not the first for McGurk, who had established three previous bars and clip-joints, all prematurely shut down due to violations.The saloon, his last venture, featured one of the first electric signs in New York City, luring sailors, gamblers, and prostitutes of the lowest order into McGurk’s ominous realm. It was there that the prostitutes Blond Madge Davenport and Big Mame agreed to end their lives by drinking carbolic acid: Davenport met a painful success but Big Mame melted her face in what must have been a nervous and trembling deed.
Although the total number of McGurk suicides is unknown, 1899 alone yielded six reported suicides and seven attempts, some opting for carbolic acid while others flinging themselves from McGurk’s windows. The pattern became such that waiters were able to identify suicide-prone customers and turn them away. Still, the ever-pragmatic McGurk did not resist the craze and renamed his haunt “McGurk’s Suicide Hall” to attract curious customers.
The nefarious activities gravitating around McGurk’s business warranted subsequent police raids that threatened to close the infamous “disorderly house”. In 1900, Judge Newburger of the Court of General Sessions resolved to make the Bowery as safe at night as it was in the daytime. By 1902, McGurk’s was shut down.
In 2005, Avalon Contractors demolished the structure after a controversial eviction of its residents in 1999. Many argued the building’s landmark status, but the Landmarks Preservation Commission claimed that McGurk’s didn’t have “sufficient historical, cultural or architectural merit.” Still, it’s hard to dismiss a spot of such action, violence, and fugitive appeal wherein a band of waiters would sing “The Curse of an Aching Heart” to the ever-gloomy and attentive customer.