Review: Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City

I love reading about New York and life there both past and present. I often go searching the internet for books that might be of interest and sometimes, just sometimes I hit the jackpot. If there is a little quirkiness to the tales told then that’s even better.

This book is the result of one of those searches and I am very happy I stumbled across it. 

Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City is as the title suggests – a book with 15 chapters, each one detailing an odd, forgotten, tragic and sometimes outright bizarre episodes in the history of New York spanning many many years. 

They range from a feud between two Shakespearean actors, a possible cross dressing former Governor, a food fight between celebrated guilds and a war on pigs. However they also include some darker moments such as the hysteria surrounding a supposed slave revolt, the aftermath of a botched abortion and the battle for better care for the mentally ill.

My two favourite chapters had me experiencing emotions at polar opposite to one another – great mirth and real sadness.  

‘Mark Twain Takes New York by Storm and Spirit’ had me laughing out loud at certain points as the celebrated author’s battle against hypocrisy, bureaucracy and corruption (no matter how small) during his short stay in New York is chronicled. I found Twain’s court battle against a cabbie who overcharged him by 50 cents (and insulted him in the process) to be very amusing indeed. He really did deplore such things and I must say I found myself agreeing with him quite a lot of the time. I enjoyed this chapter so much that I am now curious about the rest of Mr Twain’s celebrated life. I might just have to try to learn some more about him.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, ‘The Rise and Fall of Little Germany’ had me holding back the tears as it describes how a once thriving ethnic community of New York virtually died overnight in the aftermath of a terrible boating tragedy. Over 1000 members of the Lower East Side German population – otherwise known as Little Germany – including many women and children lost their lives when the steamship General Slocum caught fire. The author states that it was the largest loss of life in a single event in New York up until 9/11. The stories of heroism shown by other residents as they tried to save victims were very moving and contributed to the drama and tragedy of the whole affair. A very sad and somewhat forgotten part of New York’s history.

Each of the tales is related to the reader in a very light and conversational manner, not too formal or academic, which makes them very accessible while not detracting from what is being described. In fact, it almost feels as if you’re sitting, listening to someone verbally telling you the story and the teller is gifted enough to change their tone to suit the various types of subject matter. The chapters are not too long, which means that one or more can be consumed in one sitting and if you had a whole day uninterrupted you could probably finish the book in its entirety. I can’t help but think it would make a great audiobook. 

While I don’t think it would ever be described as a great work of literature, I thoroughly enjoyed Strange and Obscure Stories of New York City. It was exactly what I was looking for at the time. It kept my interest from beginning to end, it tugged at my emotions and I learnt things as a result of reading it.

A great success I would say. 

A highly recommended read.

(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)

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