Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

New York City's Other Subway

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For many, the story of subterranean travel in New York begins in October 27, 1904, when the first underground line of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company began to operate from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway. But in reality, underground transit in New York began 34 years earlier—in a stranger-than-fiction saga that involves a secret dig, a massive success, and unheard-of political corruption.

The year was 1869, and a man named Alfred Ely Beach had a big idea. At the time, Beach was best known as the publisher of Scientific American, which he purchased from its founder with a friend just 10 months after it was first printed. (Beach was also known for running a school for freedmen after the Civil War and patenting an early typewriter.)

Like most New Yorkers before and since, Beach hated the city’s notorious traffic. The streets were crowded with horses, carts, and hordes of frustrated people, including the inventor. Beach was familiar with London’s new Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground subway system. But building the subway had been a huge investment of time and a gigantic disruption of the city—not exactly something that seemed viable for cash-strapped New York.

This directly conflicted with Beach’s grand vision, which involved the relatively new concept of pneumatic tubes. The idea was already being used to push capsules containing letters at the London Stock Exchange, and Beach wanted to turn the technology into a game changer for New York. He became a bona fide pneumatic tube pusher, proposing their use for businesses in New York and, eventually, public transit. The idea was almost deceptively simple. “A tube, a car, a revolving fan!” he wrote breathlessly. “Little more is required.” 

Soon Beach was convinced that pneumatic tubes were the solution for New York’s traffic problem. But Boss Tweed, the head of the political machine that was the city’s Tammany Hall, disagreed. When Beach applied for a permit, Tweed turned it down (likely because he was involved in building an above-ground transit system—and collecting huge amounts of graft in the process). So Beach did what any intrepid inventor would do: He got permits to build pneumatic mail tubes instead, then set about building a full-blown demonstration subway under the guise of a piddly mail delivery project. 

Fifty-eight days after construction began, Beach’s secret tunnel was ready to unveil to the public. It was only about a block long, but it was long enough. It also almost unleashed a public firestorm when newspapers claimed that the pneumatic tube people were causing Broadway to sink. Beach created a distraction and avoided a PR catastrophe by holding a star-studded reception underground. He entertained guests in an elaborate waiting room complete with a fountain filled with goldfish, chandeliers and a grand piano, then whisked passengers about 300 feet on a subway car. 

It was nothing less than a sensation. Not only did Beach collect 25-cent fares from over 400,000 passengers in the first year, but he demonstrated that it was possible to move passengers safely beneath the city. Beach’s next step was to try to extend the line, but political interference from Tweed and other legislators and waning public interest sucked the life out of the plan like, well, a pneumatic fan in the years that followed. (Read Joseph Brennan’s epic account of the ins and outs of the political drama and technical challenges of the system here.) 

Though Beach’s vision of a pneumatic underground subway system never went further than a few hundred feet, another one of his concepts lasted much longer. Beach himself didn’t build the underground pneumatic mail system [PDF] that ran beneath the city from 1897 to 1953, but he surely helped inspire it.

The Beach Pneumatic Station was soon forgotten and periodically rediscovered, then annihilated when the City Hall subway station was built in 1912. The system’s closed car and tunnel shield were initially preserved, but have since been lost. How would New York transit look today if his idea hadn't flopped? We'll never know—but it's fun to dream about an alternative timeline filled with Beach's underground, undercover pneumatic trains.

A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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