Two youths, victims of the cocaine habit, were brought before Magistrate Kernochan, in the West Side Court, yesterday morning. One was a mere boy of 16, anxious to have his mother send him away where he couldn’t get the drug. The other was a confirmed user of cocaine, and when sentenced to six months on the Island, begged for “just a little ‘coke,’ please.”
— The New York Times, September 3, 1907
Bernard Mulroy, age 23, the older of the two young men in court that day, “writhed as he begged the court to give him some of the drug before sending him away” to the New York Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island. The prison, now gone, was located on what is currently called Roosevelt Island, a strip of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. The Jersey City-born son of Irish immigrants told the magistrate that he’d been a cocaine user since the age of 18.
He’d been arrested the previous Sunday near the Hudson River and 59th Street, in Hell’s Kitchen, a rough neighborhood known for violence and disorder. He was warming his hands at a small fire he’d built when he was taken into custody. It’s possible that building a fire outdoors was illegal by then in New York City and that was why Bernard was hauled in to court. Or maybe the cops figured he was a vagrant and they wanted him off the streets.
It couldn’t have been his cocaine habit that brought him into court. Cocaine was legal then in America, though by the time Bernard was arrested in 1907 there was increasing recognition of cocaine’s tendency to turn its users into desperate addicts. If he had the money Bernard could have purchased coke at the corner drug store without a prescription. It was getting the money that was the crux of his problem.
Bernard’s Bertillon photos, measurements and personal details were recorded six months before his September arrest, after he was hauled in for burglarizing an apartment in the city.
A year later, on November 21, 1908, with winter about to descend on New York City, Bernard again found himself on a boat headed to the prison on Blackwell’s Island. This time he’d been convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to six months incarceration. It must have been comforting to know he’d be warmer in prison than he would have been on the streets. However there was a downside — Bernard got addicted to heroin during his second stay in the island’s prison.
The German drug company, Bayer, developed diacetylmorphine in the late nineteenth century. Between 1898 and 1910 diacetylmorphine was marketed under the trade name “Heroin” as a morphine substitute and cough suppressant, supposedly without morphine’s addictive side effects. Its sale wasn’t regulated in the United States until 1914, when it became available only by prescription. In 1924, with better understanding of its addictive properties and the tolerance that develops in users, Congress banned the sale, importation and manufacture of heroin. These laws came too late to help Bernard.
After he was arrested in midtown Manhattan on April 15, 1915 for trying to sell heroin to passersby, Bernard was quoted in an article for The Evening World newspaper titled “Sing Sing is Popular Summer Resort Now.” He claimed he wanted to be convicted and sent to Sing Sing Penitentiary.
“Movies and baseball for mine,” said Bernard Mulroy at Police Headquarters to-day. “I’m a sick bum in New York, but in Sing Sing I’ll be a person of some consequence, get my meals and recreation regularly and regain my health…New York is no place for a drug fiend these days. I want to get cured and go to Sing Sing and learn to be a telegraph operator.” Bernard was not alone — the news report noted that ten young men who’d been arrested within the previous three days had also asked to be sent to Sing Sing, supposedly because they wanted to play baseball in the prison yard.
Bernard’s wish to sojourn in the notorious prison in Ossining, New York wasn’t granted. Instead he was sent to a prison on Hart’s Island in the Bronx that was used to house overflow prisoners from the city jails.
On August 24, 1916, Bernard died in Manhattan at the age 29. Details of his death are not known, but his final resting place may be on Hart’s Island, where he spent time as a prisoner. The island is now uninhabited and it’s the site of a massive potter’s field cemetery. More than a million people who died penniless in New York have been buried there over the years. Bernard might easily be one of them.
Featured photos: Bertillon photos of Bernard Mulroy taken March 5, 1907, collection of the author.