Bordering the southern boundaries of Chinatown, on the edge of what was once the infamous hive of poverty and villainy known as Five Points, there is a small, red brick house that was once home to one of the era’s more barbaric entertainments.
Madison Street runs for 16 blocks through the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and is still dominated today by tenement buildings and housing projects. Lodged between two such tenements is number 47-49 Madison Street, a building that visually seems to pre-date it’s surrounding neighbors, and has a gruesome history to go with the looks.
Today the former home is used as a prayer hall for the St. James church around the corner, but 160 years ago this small building was one of Manhattan’s infamous “rat pits.” An advertisement in the March 2, 1853 issue of The Herald summed up what went on in these cruel dens, crowing, “Rat Killing, and other sports, every Monday evening. A good supply of rats kept constantly on hand for gentlemen wishing to try their dogs, with the use of the pit gratis, at J. Marriott’s Sportsman’s Hall, 49 Madison Street.”
Rat killing was the premiere gentlemen’s betting sport of the mid-19th century. The boys of the Bowery were paid 5-10 cents for each rat collected, and spectators crowded into the hall to bet on how many rats the fighting dogs could kill in a given time span. Nearby on Water Street, Kit Burns, one of the last original Dead Rabbits gang, ran a similar infamous octagon rat pit. Behind closed doors all over the area, the debauched pastime thrived, with politicians and well-to-do society members coming downtown to gamble amid the saloons and slums of the Five Points.
In 1850 the house on Madison was bought by an English ex-pat named Harry Jennings, who ran the saloon and kept up its barbaric sport until he was sent to Riker’s Island for robbery. Upon his release Jennings turned somewhat respectable, becoming one of the cities pre-eminent rat catchers, providing extermination services for such lofty locales as the Plaza Hotel.
Despite the history of blood sport, the former saloon is now home to a prayer hall which is much beloved by the locals. Recently in danger of closing and being sold for real estate, the parishioners lobbied for the funds to save their aging church and its adjoining little building with the checkered past. And now when the church doors close at night, the faithful retire around the corner to the small brick house on Madison Street to meet and pray, providing a rather redemptive end to the story of a building soaked in the blood of rats.
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