Even though it was the 1924 Christmas season, Prohibition was in full swing in Queens. On Dec. 6, four men were arrested in Sunnyside and six stills and 1,000 gallons of alcohol were seized. The men were caught red-handed dipping the alcohol from the stills into one-gallon and five-gallon cans.
On Dec. 16, the Star reported that nine deaths from poisonous liquor in only two days brought the December death list from bad booze to 25. Twelve liquor poison victims were close to death in Bellevue Hospital, while 20 others faced permanent blindness. New York medical authorities warned against “taking one’s life in one’s stomach” by drinking holiday rum concoctions. Dr. Frank Monaghan, commissioner of Health, warned against home brewing, pointing out the dangers of faulty distillation.
In the late 19th century, Ragged Dick was one of the most famous literary icons of his age, ranking right up there with Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Unlike the latter two, however, he was modeled after a real person — John Downie. Dick was the creation of Horatio Alger, the biggest author of the time who published dozens of titles and sold an incredible 200 million books.
Alger, who was trained as a minister, left a comfortable life of teaching and moved to New York in 1866. There he encountered the ‘street urchin,’ a familiar figure of the time. They were an army of 60,000 neglected and abandoned kids that were the byproduct of families torn apart by immigration and the Civil War. He decided his life’s work was to ease their plight by publicizing their lives.
In 1877, Alger befriended Downie, then an orphaned newsboy living in the streets, and wrote about the youngster’s adventures in a series of books. Although famous in his time, Downie never got rich on the wildly popular series about his life as he averaged only $100 a month in royalties. The young lad grew up, married, fathered children, and was a 30-year veteran of the New York Police City Department. He retired and spent his last years at 23-12 121 St. in College Point. Downie died in Flushing, at age 78, in December 1945.
Critics regard Alger’s sketches of Downie as ‘Ragged Dick’ as a successful experiment in social reform, which encouraged generations of poor kids to take advantage of America’s social mobility.
Save the Date: Dec. 10, first edition book signing, “Postcard History Series: Long Island City,” the latest edition from the Greater Astoria Historical Society’s library of local histories. Hundreds of postcards depicting the communities of old Long Island City: Astoria, Ravenswood, Dutch Kills, Hunters Point and Blissville and Sunnyside.
The Greater Astoria Historical Society is open to the public Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. at Quinn’s Gallery, 4th Floor, 35-20 Broadway, Long Island City.
For further information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at (718) 278-0700 or log on to its Web site at www.astorialic.org.