Most discussions around the origin of the name center on whether "Hell's Kitchen" was first applied to a tenement, a rookery, a street, or a gang. But why "Hell's Kitchen" at all? When you read the history carefully, and put everything in place--literally--a rather gruesome but hard to ignore fact stares you in the face. I relied heavily on Richard O'Connor's Hell's Kitchen: The Riotous Days of New York's West Side for this entry.
The narrowest, and possibly earliest, description of the neighborhood's boundaries were suggested by Theodore Dreiser in The Color of a Great City. Dreiser writes that when he first arrived in New York City in 1894 "it was a whim of the New York newspapers to dub that region on the West Side which lies between thirty-sixth and forty-first streets and Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River as Hell's Kitchen." Indeed, this was the dark heart of the greater area that would eventually adopt the name.
Within this area were the most infamous tenements and rookeries (single family homes, often dilapidated wooden shanties, converted to multi-family dwellings). It was an area of destitution infused with whiskey and prostitution; living quarters had names like Battle Row, The Barracks, Sebastopol, and the House of Blazes where, for fun, residents would invite strangers in to drink and then douse them with flammable liquids and set them aflame. During the Draft Riots of 1863, 8th Avenue between 39th and 41st Streets, one block east of Dreiser's description but his exact same north-south boundaries, was blockaded by rioting residents. Within these few blocks were sparked the race riots of 1899 and 1900, a major impetus for the African American move uptown to Harlem.
And, near the northeast corner of 39th Street and 10th Avenue was the eponymous rookery dubbed "Hell's Kitchen."
Here is a picture of the Sebastopol tenement at 40th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. It was around the corner from the Hell's Kitchen rookery, but across the street from the House of Blazes (that may be its shadow in the street). The picture is said to be circa 1890. Notice the shanties (aka rookeries) nestled in the rock outcropping.
The Viele map below (1865, but depicting an earlier terrain), shows the confluence of a number of rivers draining into the Hudson around 42nd Street.
Double red line: The blockaded section of 8th Avenue during the Draft Riots of 1863.
X: July 20, 1899 incident that sparked a race riot along 10th Avenue.
Y: August 12, 1900 slaying that sparked a much worse race riot.
(Expect a future post on the African American community's experience and how and why they came to Harlem).
To give you an idea of this area today, here is the same map showing the Port Authority and the Lincoln Tunnel. The Lincoln Tunnel is not a monolithic structure like the P.A., but a complicated network of ramps that go over and under the streets. Relatively few tenements survived its construction. The Jacob Javits Center is located where the the "Lincoln Tunnel" label is positioned.
So why "Hell's Kitchen?"
First, the theories with the least traction.
1. Hell's Kitchen was named for a tenement on West 54th Street.
Well, there seems to be no further information than just that; and West 54th Street is an outlier, nearly a mile from the center of the original Hell's Kitchen area.
2. Hell's Kitchen was adopted from a similarly violent and depraved quarter of London.
3. Hell's Kitchen is a corruption of Heil's Kitchen, a German lady who ran a restaurant near the docks.
OK, but let's see if there's a more cogent explanation that doesn't require mispronouncing someone's name.
4. The name was bestowed on the area by residents of New Jersey who, seeing the the smoke rising from the vendors' cooking on the waterfront, in combination with the sweltering heat, thought it an appropriate appellation.
Possible, but weak. More likely they thought they came up with the name.
The most oft repeated theory says that it originated the night that Dutch Fred, a veteran police office, was on patrol with a rookie cop on West 39th street near 10th Avenue (suspiciously close to the rookery of the same name). The two cops were witnessing a small riot and purportedly the rookie said to Dutch Fred, "This place is Hell itself," to which the veteran cop replied, "Hell's a mild climate. This is Hell's Kitchen, no less."
Heat as a metaphor for violence. Not unreasonable. There's no record of when the two officers had their conversation, which probably happened as it would explain the long legs of the story. But did Fred Dutch really coin the term on the spot? Could it be that the veteran cop, provided with the right segue, introduced the rookie cop to a name already in circulation? Could it then have taken on a life of its own, spreading outside the area with a different meaning than the residents understood it to mean? Let's suppose, regardless of whether Fred Dutch coined the term or not, it means what he implied, a place "hotter than hot."
Kenneth Jackson's indomitable Encyclopedia of New York City (1st ed.) states, "The name Hell's Kitchen was perhaps taken from that of a gang that formed in the area in 1868, or adopted by local police in the 1870s." Fine, but it doesn't add anything to what we already know, a place "hotter than hot."
The Blue Guide (2nd ed.) states the same thing, just a bit differently. "An urban legend, probably apocryphal, suggests that two policemen watching a street fight on a muggy summer night gave the district its name. Said one, 'This neighborhood is hot as hell.' 'Hell is cool,' corrected the other. 'This here's Hell's Kitchen.'"
It was, though, when a New York Times reporter went to the scene of a murder that "Hell's Kitchen" first appeared in print as it referred to this part of town. In reading the September 22, 1881 piece, it is evident the reporter did not coin the term.
Hell's Kitchen--a most appropriate name--is situated on west thirty-ninth-street between ninth and tenth avenues, on the north side of the street. It is built on a rock which serves as a portion of the floor and side wall in some of the apartments. Vice in its most repulsive form thrives here, despite the efforts of the police to root out the hordes of vagrants, petty thieves, and utterly depraved prostitutes who make the locality their headquarters. Mrs. Livingstone, whose husband is now serving a term in Sing Sing, met the visitors [the reporter and his officer chaperon] to this particular den of infamy. Filthy beyond description, with bleared eyes, bloated face, had a breath that rivaled the odors of the soap factory, Mrs. Livingstone poured forth a volley of blasphemous and obscene epithets....
Soap factory; in essence, a fat rendering plant. Earlier in the piece the author says that The Barracks (around the corner) were "in the midst of a collection of soap factories and fat-boiling establishments, the sickening odor from which is enough to create nausea in the strongest and the healthiest...the entire building was permeated with the nauseating odor from the neighboring soap factories."
When the Hudson River Railroad was laid down some 30 years earlier along 11th avenue in 1851, industries followed: lumberyards, gas companies and slaughterhouses. Slaughterhouses. O'Connor references Fitz-James O'Brien's apt, rather gruesome, description of the area.
This tract of land is perhaps the most melancholy and mysterious spot in the whole city. The different streets that cross the island pull up, as it were, suddenly on reaching this dreary place, seemingly afraid to trust themselves any further. The buildings that approach nearest to its confines are long, low ranges of fetid slaughter-houses, where on Sundays bloated butcher-boys lounge against the walls; and on week-days one hears through the closed doors the muffled blow, the heavy fall of the oxen within; the groan, and the hard-drawn breath; and then a red, sluggish stream trickles out from under the doorway and flows into the gutter, where hungry dogs wait impatiently to lap it up. The murderous atmosphere, these smells of blood, seem appropriate enough as one approaches this desolate locality.Of a health inspector's report of the area, O'Connor writes, "He spotted forty-six slaughter-houses, which drained blood and offal into the gutters instead of sewers. Children by the droves splashed in these same gutters."
And, while the soap factories and fat-boiling plants were closest to The Barracks on 38th street, O'Connor says, "By 1859, West Thirty-ninth Street was known as Abattoir Place, and the bawling of cattle being herded to the bludgeons and knives of the butchers, not to mention the special aroma of the stockyards, filled the once sweet and quiet air of Bloomingdale."
Now, look at Abattoir Place with its dozens of slaughterhouses, and its proximity to the rookery dubbed "Hell's Kitchen" (I labeled it "tenement" by mistake).
At the doorstep of the denizens of a rookery called "Hell's Kitchen" was literally a block-long kitchen from Hell, where the sights of butchers in bloody aprons, blood running in the gutters, and the sounds of death permeated the residents' every sense. What sits right is that the reason no one can pin down the original source of the name is that it was such an obvious depiction of the place that it went, to use a word, viral, among the residents of the immediate area. Perhaps it was left to Dutch Fred and his partner to spread the name beyond the original borders.
Here is the area today:
Just to be completely thorough, in 1835 Davy Crockett, commenting on the gangs of Five Points (today's boundary between Chinatown and the court district), said, "In my country, when you meet an Irishman, you find a first rate gentleman; but these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell's kitchen." He was, however, neither referring to the place that is today's Hell's Kitchen, nor bestowing a name on any place.
And finally, just to add to the confusion, I found a reference to Hell's Kitchen in a Letter to the Editor of The New York Times that predates the 1881 article. Abattoir Place had been in existence for 18 years on 39th Street prior to this citizen's complaint, miles across town, in 1877. (Mostly I'm including this because it is a bit entertaining, and a long time ago...)
Hell's KitchenTo the Editor of The New York Times:
On ninetieth-street, between Lexington-avenue and Fourth-avenue [today's Park Ave.] are a row of tenement houses and a disreputable whisky [sic] den known as Hell's Kitchen. Undisturbed by the police, the frequenters of this den and the inmates of these houses indulge in almost nightly fights, sometimes in the streets, sometimes within doors, and often in both places at the same time. The noise occasioned by these brawls can be heard, generally, two blocks off, and the blasphemy and vulgarity of these brawlers, both male and female, is shocking in the extreme. On the evening of Thursday, the 26th inst., [sic] the disturbance in and around Hell's Kitchen commenced at 11 o'clock, and lasted until 1 o'clock, when it was stopped, not by the police, but by the weariness of those who took part in it. During this time invalids, aged people, and young children were deprived of sleep, while those who should have protected the peace were--well, no one within the vicinity of the disgraceful row knew where they were. The fact is that these frequent disturbances have become an unbearable nuisance, and, if the police captain of the precinct ornamented with Hell's Kitchen is unable to keep it in order, is it not about time that the Police Commissioners said something to the captain?
CITIZENNew-York, Friday, July 27, 1877.
Just one more strand in the Gordian's Knot of a hunt for the origin of a name.
Sorry for such a gruesome post so near Thanksgiving. Here are some pictures of the area today to take your mind off it...
North side of 39th Street, looking toward 10th Avenue. Part of the Lincoln Tunnel complex of ramps. Somewhere around the yellow wall was where the Hell's Kitchen rookery was located.
Abattoir Place today, further west on the same street, 39th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. At the end of the block in the middle are the ventilation shafts for the Lincoln Tunnel.
Approximate site of the Battle Row tenements, just east of the Hell's Kitchen rookery. It looks like a gallery but it's actually a clothes store...
Approximate site of the Sebasopol tenement. This building is 405 West 40th Street, and is not the old tenement building.
The day I went was the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market...
Today's Port Authority looks like a modern day Thunderdome on the cusp of the old...
Finally, to show how in the midst of a place with such a dark and nefarious past the greatest good can come, here is the Metro Baptist Church, across from the old Sebastopol and next to the House of Blazes.
This is where Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter stayed in 1985 during the launch Habitat for Humanity. They spent a week here, and the Secret Service slept on the bottom bunk in the men's dormintory. It's so incredible because here was where a president changed everything for what could/should be expected of future former presidents. And the Carters chose housing as their example. Happy Thanksgiving!