Popular culture often uses images like hot dog stands, tough Brooklyn mobsters, and the flashing lights of Times Square to show New York, the most populous city in the U.S.A. Obviously, there is much more to the city that never sleeps than those tropes would suggest, but few know just how much more.
The iconic urban jungle is actually hiding some pretty dark secrets about its past. Some of them are weird, while others are just downright nightmare-inducing. Whatever the case, most people weren’t aware of the scariest facts about NYC’s history that hide in plain sight.
1. Everyone is familiar with LA’s Hollywood Walk of Fame — you know, the glitzy stars emblazoned into a stretch of the celebrity-addicted city. But few were aware that New York City has one of its own, albeit slightly less polished than the one in California.
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In 1971, a theater owner got some of his closest starlet pals to place their hand-prints into wet cement on the notoriously gritty St. Marks Place sidewalk. Famous people including Myrna Loy, Gloria Swanson, and even Joan Crawford participated. Many of the historic markings still remain.
2. There are tons of skeletons buried underneath the city. One of these mass graves was discovered in 1991 when workers digging near city hall happened upon the remains of one African Burial Ground — a place freed slaves had been laid to rest for centuries. The memorial in their honor is pictured below.
But this isn’t the only place where skeletons lie. Recently, construction workers installing pipes under Washington Square Park stumbled upon some bodies of their own. Apparently these ones had been placed there centuries prior, likely by the former Cedar Presbyterian Church.
Angel Franco / The New York Times
3. It’s a little-known fact that Aaron Burr, Vice President to Alexander Hamilton, actually died alone in a Staten Island hotel. Certainly tragic circumstances for the famed politician, but the events that transpired after he had passed are even eerier.
After people became aware of the specific room that he died in, many guests specifically requested to stay in it (like, are you trying to be haunted?). The place doesn’t shy away from the publicity either, even posting a plaque outside saying “Aaron Burr died here.”
4. The World Trade Center (rest in peace) used to be a center for literal trade. Called Washington Market, tons of vendors would set up stalls, hawking items such as produce and dairy as well as odder items, including llama and bear paws.
Library Of Congress
The bustling market lasted a ways into the 20th century, even as competition from other businesses grew. It was only once the 1960s came along that the city demolished the popular spot to make way for the ill-fated Twin Towers.
US Air Force
5. The iconic New York Public Library used to dish out something vastly different from books. In the 19th century, it was actually a huge reservoir that served as the main source of water for over half of the city’s population.
New York Historical Society
The situation went downhill for the water source when a second reservoir opened in Central Park and the first had started leaking. This all led to its demise, allowing the city to begin construction on its famous lion-guarded library in 1895.
6. Starting in 1897, much of New York mail was delivered through large tubes that shuttled letters and packages into canisters that were located around the city. Unfortunately, while this system seems super cool, it reached its end for a sad reason.
Library Of Congress
At the tube system’s highest point, at least 30% of city-dweller’s letters were being sent through this odd machinery. However when World War I came around, officials decided they just couldn’t afford the cool gadgets anymore and shut them down for good.
7. While it seems like a no-brainer that the Statue of Liberty is green, it actually wasn’t always that way. Its creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, built it from copper, giving the statue a warm penny-colored hue. The reason behind its transformation is pretty wild.
Over time, the then-iconic shade faded due to natural weather conditions and simple aging. The craziest part is that by the time color photography had been invented, Lady Liberty was already the hue it is today—we have no true records of its original appearance.
8. Believe it or not, Brooklyn almost wasn’t even a part of New York City at all. In the 1890s, residents of the iconic borough were not yet consolidated with the rest of the city — and due to concerns over taxes and maintaining their independence, many didn’t want to be.
(Photo by © Joseph Schwartz/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
It was an intense battle between those for and against consolidation, and when voting day came the results were so close that had the anti-consolidationists won, the city as we know it today would be completely altered. Thankfully, a mere 278 people swung the vote in favor of keeping Brooklyn.
9. In New York City, ethnic enclaves abound. From Chinatown to Little India, there are a plethora of culturally diverse neighborhoods. But few realize that one well-known area of the city actually used to be its own “Little Germany.”
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During the mid-1800s, the Lower East Side was flooded with German immigrants. But most residents fled following the fiery Slocum Disaster on the East River. They were replaced by a predominately Jewish community who maintain a huge presence there to this day. You never know what you’ll see in the Big Apple…
10. In December of 1960, two commercial planes tragically collided mid-air. One of them crash-landed in Staten Island, and the other right in the center of the now picture-perfect Park Slope. Six pedestrians and all passengers were killed. But the saddest part?
Photo by © Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive
To this day, no official memorial or plaque for these victims has been placed in the neighborhood. The only sign that anything ever went awry is discolored bricks on a nearby building — the previous ones had to be replaced due to damage from the crash.
1. In 2010, a man named Salvatore LaRosa walked into Brothers Pizzeria with a gun and demanded that the owner, who was holding a large white sack, give him “all the dough” he had. He figured the sack was full of money.
However, LaRosa didn’t discover his mistake until he had grabbed the sack and fled the scene. During what he probably thought was a moment of victory, Salvatore opened the sack to find…pizza dough. At least he got what he asked for!
2. Nowadays, walking up to a guy wearing a straw hat and violently knocking it off his head would be frowned upon, but back in the ‘20s, such an act was all the rage — and the hat-snatching delinquents didn’t stop there.
In 1922, a band of hat-snatching hooligans took over New York during a three-day-long straw hat riot. Using sticks covered in nails, they terrorized any man wearing a straw hat…but only if he was wearing one during the winter months.
New York Tribune
3. In 2013, three Staten Island geniuses decided to do whatever it took to get Grand Theft Auto V before everyone else, even if it meant bending the law. The teens all impersonated police officers in order to cut the line at GameStop…
The way they were caught is like something from, well, Grand Theft Auto: The police pulled them over for driving recklessly. Imagine the police’s surprise when they peered through the car window and saw three “officers” wearing baggy cop costumes!
DH News Vancouver
4. A 1950s gangster named “Crazy” Joe Gallo tried to live up to his name when he kept a lion in a bar. Believe it or not, the most dangerous part wasn’t the lion that Gallo walked through the streets.
See, he kept the lion in the basement of the notorious Mondo, the mafia “dwarf” gangster. Legend has it that Mondo walked the streets of Manhattan with a pistol in one hand and a lion in the other!
Mob Candy Magazine
5. A Clinton Avenue family returned home to a grisly sight one day in 2008: A robber had sneaked through the backyard and broken into their garage. Though their valuables remained untouched, they soon discovered something horrific in the pantry.
All of their expensive, gourmet snacks — gone. Shelves that once held canned salmon, balsamic vinegar, high-end boxes of crackers, and four jars of Grey Poupon were totally empty, and despite the police’s best efforts, the Grey Poupon was never seen again.
6. Antoine Yates showed up to the hospital with peculiar wounds covering his body, and it didn’t take long for the hospital staff to realize that the gashes weren’t from a cat. Well, not a cat specifically, anyway.
The doctors realized that Antoine’s injuries were from a jungle cat…in the middle of Harlem. Turns out, Antoine had kept a tiger named Ming as a pet in his apartment. But Ming wasn’t alone — Al the alligator was there to keep him company!
7. In 2008, two men wheeled their dead friend down the streets of Manhattan in an office chair. Why, you ask? The friends believed it was the dead guy’s final wish to cash his $355 Social Security check…
They even got all the way to the Pay-O-Matic before they were stopped. “I said, well, this is a dead guy,” a police officer recalled. They were arrested, each claiming that their dead friend would’ve laughed at the whole thing.
8. In 1880, Trinity Church’s Reverend Dix started getting hundreds of threatening letters from a mysterious source. Local tradesmen even started showing up at his house, claiming that he sent for them personally. The Reverend was baffled…until his tormentor revealed his name.
Trinity Church Archives
“Gentleman Joe” eventually tried to extort the Reverend. When the police tracked him down, what they found was an unclear motive and an indifferent prankster. “I really do not know why I did it,” he told a reporter. “It’s a mania.”
9. A man managed to steal 30 products from a Bronx store in 2019, and he managed to commit the crime in broad daylight while being chased by employees. But that’s not even the weirdest part…
What’s weird is what the man stole and how he got away: After sneaking 30 bars of soap into his bag, the man escaped two employees who saw him commit the crime by spraying an “unknown substance” into their faces.
NY Daily News
10. In 2015, a Bushwick teen was charged with making terrorist threats and for endangering the life of a police officer with firearms. The weird part? All of the threats, danger, and firearm-wielding happened in the most unlikely place: Facebook!
NY Daily News
The teen was in trouble for posting a police officer emoji next to two gun emojis on social media. It apparently caused “fear for [police officers’] safety” and “for public safety” in one of the teen’s Facebook friends, who alerted the authorities.
Absurd crimes don’t start and stop with New Yorkers. Animals are known to cause trouble, too. Canuck the Crow stole anything shiny, so no one was surprised when he swiped a knife from a crime scene, then fled investigating officers on foot for about 20 feet. He relinquished the knife eventually.
2. Sir Whines-A-Lot lived in a marketing office in Tulsa. Bored locals saw him and played with the kitten by taunting him with a dollar shoved through the door seam. Sir thieved every dollar bill he saw. Now, it’s become a bit of a local game.
3. A sneaky sloth shirked stereotypes—proving she was anything but lazy—when she broke into Café Milagro in Costa Rica on Christmas Night. Security cameras caught her stealing, which prompted the guards to toss her out and into an animal rescue.
4. After a monkey illegally crossed the border between India and Pakistan, locals accused him of spying. They alerted the wildlife authorities who captured the monkey and placed him permanently into the Bahawalpur zoo.
5. A rooster with a knife strapped to his leg stabbed California’s Jose Luis Ochoa while the 35-year-old watched an illegal cockfight. Someone cuff that rooster for murder, because, sadly, Jose died two hours after the attack.
6. A bear committed car theft and property damage when he knocked into the gear shift while pillaging the car for any scraps of food. He crashed into a mailbox, pulled out the steering wheel, and pooped on the passenger seat.
7. As part of Project Nim, experts taught Nim the chimpanzee sign language and sent him to live with a human family. The ape later bit a volunteer’s cheek, however. As the volunteer bled, screaming, the chimp signed “I’m sorry.”
8. Russian police detained a cute kitten, below, after intercepting him delivering a cellphone and charger into a Russian prison. They spotted the equipment when the cat took a break from sneakin’ to sit on a fence.
9. Authorities launched a criminal case against the Indian elephant Ramachandran after the 45-year-old beast trampled three people to death. Ultimately, the courts banned Rama from public events for 3 months and fined his owner 30 lakh rupees—about $0.43.
10. Lorenzo the parrot, below, warned cartel members when the police were coming to raid their headquarters. Police nabbed the bird, and with him found 200 weapons and drugs. But he never squawked on associates.
11. During the morning rush hour in the Australian city of Barnstaple, a frightened emu tore down the sidewalks, trying to enter people’s homes. The dedicated officers eventually forced the bird into a cruiser’s backseat.
12. When two Nigerian men committed an armed robbery and stole a Mazda 323, some citizens made a curious claim: one of the suspects magically turned into a black and white goat. So the cops arrested the goat.
13. Mookie the capuchin monkey, below, earned 30 days of house arrest after he bit someone who only wanted to pet him. Worse, the monkey’s owner was forced to cancel Mookie’s 20th birthday beach celebration.
14. Balew, right, disabled the safety on his owner Richard Remme’s gun while the two played, and then fired it accidentally. Afterward, the pooch showed remorse when he laid down and cried beside his bleeding owner, left. They made up after a hospital trip.
15. Somehow, sperm whales—the ocean’s largest predator—discovered life is simpler if they just steal black cod off the Alaskan fisherman’s lines. According to the fisherman, every year, the whales get better at their sneaky dealings.
16. Monkeys overrunning an Indian village climbed through the windows of a new mother’s home and snatched her baby from his crib. In the ensuing raucous, they killed the child and dumped his body in the backyard.
17. In Janapur, a black Bengal goat named Babli landed himself and his owner in jail after he ate flowers from the district magistrate’s yard. They met bail, but authorities warned the repeat offender of serious consequences if he did it again.
18. In Chiapas, Mexico, authorities held a local donkey in a drunk tank overnight after he kicked and bit two men visiting his farm. Police held the donkey until his owner paid $420 for the two assaulted men’s medical bills.
19. When someone stabbed 24-year-old Azeez Salako to death with a bottle, Nigerian police found only one suspect in the area: a cow. Everyone else had fled the murder scene. Police brought the cow to the station while the real murderer fled.
20. A mysterious fat cat kept fighting one family’s felines, so they put out a cat trap. When they nabbed the large cat, police, no joke, brought him down to the station for a day until his family picked him up.