January 15, 2018
The Townsend (1123 Broadway) and St. James (1133 Broadway), built in 1896, have had lots of time to collect unusual stories, but this has to be one of the oddest.
Between 2:00 and 3:00 o’clock on July 31, 1922, employees in The Townsend and some surrounding buildings started to fall sick. Before long, 50 or 60 people were feeling seriously ill. As The New York Times put it, employees “. . . fell over on the floor or cried out in agony. Panic prevailed on some floors in the Townsend Building as one employee after another turned pale, then blue and began to complain of intense pain.”
The suddenness of the crisis was such that the lobby of The Townsend had to be turned into a makeshift hospital. At first, personal physicians were called, but soon, they could not handle the flow of patients. Tenants in the building became temporary nurses, helping doctors work eight or ten stomach pumps simultaneously. Soon offices in the building had to be turned into emergency rooms. It must have been quite a scene.
Finally, completely overwhelmed, the doctors summoned ambulances from Bellevue and New York Hospitals. Due to the urgency and number of ambulances clambering through the New York City streets, quite a stir was raised judging by the Times article.
What was the matter? It seems that everyone who was ill had eaten either blackberry or huckleberry pie in a local restaurant at lunchtime. There clearly was something wrong with the batter and police suspected that plaster of Paris had been “mistaken” for flour. Right.
While most of the treated recovered and were sent home, eleven were treated by ambulance surgeons and two victims who were suffering acutely were taken to New York Hospital. The real mystery was how so many could have taken in a “poisonous” substance of some sort without detecting it.
The New York Times article never mentioned the name of the restaurant, but we trust it is no longer around.
You can read the original Times article here.