Apparently, Hell’s Kitchen Was Always “On The Rocks.?!”
Early History of Hell’s Kitchen, Mid-town West, New York City
In a world where the historic terms such as “heaven” and “hell” are slowly vanishing from our common lexicon of moral understanding, the term “Hell’s Kitchen” is not so commonplace in modern usage as it once was…unless, of course, you live in New York City. Developers have tried to change the name, the mavens of frump have employed new titles, others have even pretended, but we must face it, the name “Hell’s Kitchen” is here to stay. And while it is a very fashionable neighborhood, it isn’t the hottest in New York real estate, as it was quite literally the hottest part of hell in terms of crime prior to gentrification and “the sterilization of New York.” In fact, it’s an urban “quarter” notorious for over 100 years of its tradition in crime.
References to Hell’s Kitchen go much further back than in representation of a certain west-side neighborhood in mid-town Manhattan. As early as 1863, American newspapers referenced the Oley Valley in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania as “Hell’s Kitchen.” Also by the same time a crime-ridden restaurant in San Francisco, California had been given the name, but there would be none as notorious as what would develop and endure in New York City.
While historians of New York City attribute the name “Hell’s Kitchen” to crime ridden tenement houses of the West 30s and 40s in 9th, 10th and 11th Avenues as early as 1881, the real origins are slightly different, in fact, these beginnings are ”on the rocks.” While we are sure there are earlier references to the place, the first mention of “Bad Places In New York” was in the Omaha Herald on December 4, 1878 in which they reference the identify Hell’s Kitchen as being the following:
Between 1878 and 1879, several articles were published with reference to Hell’s Kitchen. In June of 1879, Officer Fredericks of the 20th Precinct encountered the body of Patrick Gettings, 80, in the rear of No. 525 West Forieth Street. Even though he was dead, we were happy to hear that he was lying on a wood shutter. After seeking assistance, Fredericks returned to find Delia (Gettings) Richards and John Gettings, Patrick’s children, moving the body in to their “…miserable abode.” Apparently, they were quite drunk, assuming that he was simply passed out as usual from drink. During the removal, the body fell to the ground and the 80 year old head split open. Patrick’s wife Bridget Gettings, and the others were taken to the Jefferson Market Police Court; however, far too drunk to realize the reasons for arrest.
“They have lived in a hovel on the rocks, known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” The miserable dwelling has no window; and no article of furniture in it. The son stated that he came from Belleville, N.J., Wednesday evening, to see the “old man,” they drank beer freely, and father going through the yard fell dead. The daughter and mother were discharged.” New York Herald-Tribune
Other sources of the late 1870s refer to “the rocks” as being known as Hell’s Kitchen not only because of the area’s high crime, but probably even more due to its miserable living conditions. The rocks of Hell’s Kitchen were eventually removed, probably by dynamite, to make more room for either commerce or more tenements. Nevertheless, by the 1880s, the term is used in the same “quarter” but in reference to several notorious tenements and streets in the upper 30s and lower 40s of the West-side between 9th and 11th Avenues.
Having spent many a reckless night in Hell’s Kitchen, we are glad to realize the trivial nature of these exertions compared to certain Irish-American troubles of the past. We also find it interesting that Hell’s Kitchen’s ancient and notorious history is rooted in being “on the rocks.” Pun definitely intended.