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10 Relics From the Horse-Powered City Hiding in Plain Sight

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The commerce and transportation of modern cities initially relied on the horse. While there are still places where they serve a vital role, on the whole the horse has disappeared from the urban environment as cars, trains, subways, and other hoofless transportation took over in the 20th century. Look closely enough, though, and you can still find reminders of this equine past in our infrastructure.

1. STABLES

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A city powered by horses needs shelters for them to rest and sleep. Stables and carriage houses thus once lined the streets, their arched doorways still recognizable even when converted into homes and businesses. Mews all over London still have rows of stables, often dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, which are almost entirely now housing. According to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, in just New York City, there were around 4500 stables by the beginning of the 20th century.

Artists were sometimes the first to take over stables after the horses had gone, appreciating their roomy floorplans. MacDougal Alley in Manhattan, for example, changed over from horses to sculptor and painter residents in the Gilded Age. Elsewhere, sculptures of horse heads still crane their necks from former stable façades, such as on 19th century stables in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and the 1906 stable for Schlitz brewery in Chicago. 

2. HORSE WALK

Some carriage houses incorporated "horse walks": interior passageways that allowed a horse to walk from the street to a stable. Dense urban areas like New York City still have evidence of these discrete entrances, such as at 7 Leroy Street in Greenwich Village, constructed in 1831, and 336 West 12th Street in the West Village, from the 1850s. Often they just appear as a door alongside the main entrance to the home, wide and tall enough for a horse to slip through.

3. EQUESTRIAN STAIRCASES

Riders' Staircase, Old Royal Palace, Prague. Image credit:Richard Mortel via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Equestrian staircases are most often found in old European cities, built into or alongside castles and other complexes as sloping steps for horses to access upper floors. A 16th century example in Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle, for instance, has a "rider's staircase" so knights didn't have to dismount to enter. In Bologna, the town hall contains a huge staircase designed by Renaissance architect Donato Bramante to accommodate carriages.

4. TROUGHS

Horses have to drink, but urban settings rarely have convenient streams with clean water. Organizations concerned with animal welfare—like the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, formed in 1859 in London—spearheaded the construction of troughs with freely available water. Henry Bergh with the ASPCA was particularly involved with installing troughs with fresh water around New York City, and a few are still visible, including a low granite one by the carriage horses that still give tourists rides in Central Park. The trough in Grand Army Plaza is one of the many funded by local Edith Bowdoin, and was rededicated in 2001 at its current site. The troughs weren’t the ASPCA’s only initiative for Manhattan steeds, however: They also offered free showers on the streets and gave out eye-shading straw hats for horses with specially designed ear holes. 

5. FOUNTAINS

Like troughs, horse fountains offered water for city stallions, but fountains were often incredibly elaborate. One with a clock and Shakespeare quotes from the 1880s can still be seen in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. The 1919 Gumbel Memorial Fountain in New Orleans is adorned with a dramatic sculpture by Isidore Konti, and the Temperance Fountain in Washington, D.C. has water flowing from the mouths of dolphins, the overflow of which was collected for horse drinking. As that one’s name suggests, many of these doubled as temperance fountains, built to encourage humans to drink water instead of beer. Others were simply donated by animal-loving philanthropists, like advertising agent John Hooper, who died in 1889 and left $10,000 for two fountains "whereat man and beast can drink." The 1894 Hooper Fountain in Manhattan has a monumental column topped with a lantern, with a broad basin below fit for horse muzzles. 

6. AUCTION HOUSES

Horses did not come into the cities through spontaneous generation. Auction houses were a common sight for the horse trade, with large entryways similar in structure to private stables. The grand Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in Manhattan, for instance, was erected in 1896 as the American Horse Exchange. Artists later converted these as well, including the Beaux-Arts 1904 Van Tassel and Kearney Horse Auction Mart at 126-128 East 13th Street in New York City. After it ceased sales in the 1920s, it was a candy factory and school before artist Frank Stella purchased it in 1978. He moved out in 2005, and it’s now a dance center.

7. HORSE BLOCKS 

Jochen Wolters, Flickr // CC by 2.0

To give carriage passengers and horseback riders a boost, mounting blocks were installed in locations of regular use. Basically just a block of stone or a tiny staircase, a few are still preserved in the sidewalks. London’s Waterloo Place has one from 1830, which, according to its plaque, was placed “by the desire of the Duke of Wellington” (see above). Another of these upping stones is inscribed with the initials "WW" in Camden, New Jersey, just outside the house of none other than poet Walt Whitman.

8. HITCHING POSTS 

Phil Roeder, Flickr // CC by 2.0

Hitching posts weren’t just a Western fantasy for cowboys in saloons—all cities with horses needed convenient tethering points to keep the animals from straying. Often just a pole with a ring, others were more elaborate, like the horse-shaped ones in Brooklyn’s 19th century Green-Wood Cemetery, and in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans. You can even find a combo version in Homer, New York, that’s both a hitching post and a mounting step.

9. TETHERING RINGS

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More integrated into the infrastructure than hitching posts but basically serving the same purpose, tethering rings are discreet metal loops embedded in walls, sidewalks, and curbs. They are sometimes ornate, like the one shaped like a dragon in Florence, Italy, that doubles as a sconce (above), but on the whole they are plain. Now mostly obsolete, some have found an unusual afterlife in Portland, Oregon, where they host ephemeral art installations, including tiny horses

10. HORSECAR TRACKS 

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Before there were trolleys and then buses, aboveground transportation often involved the horsecar. Omnibuses were pulled by horses on rails, and these tracks would often transition over to be used by electric cars. The horsecar tracks in Portland, Oregon changed over to electricity in the late 1800s, while the former horsecar tracks in Charlotte, North Carolina were turned electric and began operation in 1891. During the turn of the last century, horses and trolleys would sometimes be riding side-by-side. A photographer in Manhattan caught one of the last horsecars riding the rails in 1917, while the electric trolley raced alongside, and presumably overtook, the fading fixture of transportation.

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Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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