Inwood 1931: The Dyckman Street Madonna

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Squatters colony for unemployed workers (Camp Dyckman)  Just north of Dyckman on the Hudson River, 1934.
Squatters colony for unemployed workers (“Camp Dyckman”) Just north of Dyckman on the Hudson River, 1934.

In 1931 Inwood was two years into the throes of the greatest economic downturn this nation has ever seen.   Heads of household were out of work.  A barter system was established.

And, while some sought solace in the speakeasies hidden neatly beneath the commercial strips along Broadway, Dyckman and 207th Streets, others prayed for a miracle—some ray of hope to lift the spirits so beaten down by the crash of 1929.

Candles at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
Candles at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
Depression era Inwood. 4740-46 Broadway at Thayer Street, 1936.
Depression era Inwood. 4740-46 Broadway at Thayer Street, 1936.

As the New Year dawned that ray of hope appeared in the most unlikely of places.

Inside a lingerie shop on Dyckman Street, just east of Broadway, a young girl had a vision.

Peering into the darkened storefront of a shop called La Femme, the youngster claimed to have caught a glimpse of the Virgin Mary.

What follows, pulled from the pages of the New York Sun, is the story of the Dyckman Street Madonna.

New York Sun, January 5, 1931
New York Sun, January 5, 1931

New York Sun
January 5, 1931
Dyckman Street Has a Vision
Residents Tell of Seeing Inage of Madonna On Wall of a Hosiery Shop
By Edwin C. Hill

All through today a crowd lingered in front of a shop at 202 Dyckman Street—a shop which sells women’s stockings.  The composition of the crowd changed continually, although its size and numbers remained constant, probably about 300 persons.  All of these people gazed steadily at the boarded-up windows of No. 202, blinded windows which gave the shop the look of a man with a patch over one eye.

Site of La Femme today.
Site of La Femme today.

There was nothing whatever to look at save the most ordinary appearing shop front and the slabs of wood nailed over the window frames in which the panes of glass had been shattered, yet the people who stood there were obviously stirred, some by lively curiosity, others by what seemed to be a kind of reverential awe.  Newcomers, adding themselves to the fringe of the crowd, inquired as to what was going on.  Getting unsatisfactory answers or no answers at all, they addressed themselves to shopkeepers of the immediate neighborhood.  One of these shopkeepers was Maurice Meyer, owner of a cleaning and dying establishment at 200 Dyckman Street, next door to the stocking shop with the patch over its eye.

They have seen the Virgin Mary,” said Mr. Meyer, himself somewhat excited. “That is, some of them have seen the vision.  I myself have seen it.  Yes, it is true.  I saw it last night just before the big crowd came and smashed the windows.  Well, I thought I saw it.  That’s all a man can say.  You think you see a thing or you think you don’t see it, if you get what I mean.

People Got Excited

Me?   I’m a Hebrew, of course, but that doesn’t make any difference.  I can stand right with a hundred Catholics of this neighborhood who say they looked through those boarded up windows of La Femme Hosiery Company at 202 Dyckman and saw a picture of the Madonna on the back wall of the store, a picture made by bright light and nothing else but bright light.  That’s exactly what I saw early last night before the whole neighborhood was overrun and the cops had to clear the streets, people got so excited.

Detail from window of Botanica shop in Inwood, New York City.
Detail from window of Botanica shop in Inwood, New York City.

That’s right.  I was taking a walk—I don’t live a great ways from the store—when somebody told me that something funny was going on here, so I headed this way about 6 o’clock when there was something like seventy or eighty people trying to climb over each other to get at the La Femme windows.  They were all pop-eyed with excitement and some of them were making religious signs and saying prayers and some of the women were crying—you know.  All worked up over whatever it was.  They weren’t acting normally at all.

Pretty soon I got me a foothold at the window and a good look at the interior of the hosiery shop.  There was a light or two burning, making a faint illumination in the store—though you wouldn’t call it an illumination.  Just a dim light.  On the back wall, where there is a door painted black, or something that looks from outside like a door painted black, was the figure of the Virgin, bright and shining.  Believe me, mister, that’s the way it looked to me.

It Looked Sorrowful

It looked like the Madonna was standing, about three-quarters facing to the front—full figure.  She was standing there about life size.  Her hands were clasped in front of her, arms almost straight down, a little crooked at the elbow.  Her gaze was cast down, thoughtful like, or sorrowful.  That’s just exactly the way it looked to me, as it looked to hundreds of others, according to their own say so.

Real?  Don’t ask me, mister.  I can only tell you what I saw.  Some people say it was caused by light reflection of some kind, or by the play of light and shadow.  I don’t know.  Whatever it was and whatever caused it, it looked like the picture of the Virgin that I have seen on colored cards and in the books.  No, there wasn’t any Child—just the Madonna.

I heard a little girl started all the excitement yesterday afternoon.  Seems that she looked in a window at La Femme as she was going by.  Next minute, she was running like a scared rabbit, screeching her head off, and people were coming from every direction.

Portrait of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Inwood, New York City.
Portrait of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Inwood, New York City.

The kid began to yell that she had seen the Virgin Mary, and it wasn’t any time at all before other people were backing her up and saying that they too had seen the vision and that it must mean something very big was going to happen.  You know how people get worked up over a thing like that.

It was just about then that I came along and got an eyeful, but the big going on was later, the crowd kept growing and growing, and the shoving and pushing got worse and worse, until finally the jam against the store front got so bad that the window was smashed.  Women got to screaming that they were being killed.  Around 9 o’clock there must have been 3,000 people trying to get close enough to the smashed windows to get a glimpse of the vision.  That’s when the police showed up from the Wadsworth Avenue station, and it didn’t take them long to scatter the crowd, board up the broken windows and get things quieted down generally.  Still the people keep coming, for hundreds say they saw just what I think I saw.

Not All Agree

That’s the story of the Dyckman Street Madonna, up to date.  Not everybody agrees with Maurice Meyer.  Ed Roshberg, dealer in boys’ clothing and furnishing at 206 Dyckman, two doors away from La Femme, say’s he got a good look through the window and couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary.  Some of his customers asserted that they had seen the vision, though.  He didn’t know what to think.

Stained glass window from Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
Stained glass window from Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.

The Rev. William C. Ryder of the Church of Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs, in Arden Street, near Broadway, the Catholic church nearest the hosiery shop which magnetizes the interest of so many, said that he had heard the talk that was going through the neighborhood.  He wasn’t much impressed by it.  Several persons had told him that a smock left hanging on the back wall of La Femme had created the illusion.  Or it may have been an odd play of lights and shadows.  Something of the sort.  That was all he knew about the matter.

The police were totally unimpressed.  Lieut. Bolsenski of the Wadsworth Avenue station consulted last night’s blotter.

9:05 P.M.—Patrolman Timothy Mulqueen reported that a plate glass window had been broken in a store front at 202 Dyckman Street by people crowding.  Crowd dispersed.’

But what about the vision of the Virgin?  Hadn’t Patrolman Timothy Mulqueen reported what was behind the breaking of the plate glass window in the store front at 202 Dyckman Street?

Lieut. Bolsenski said firmly that Patrolman Timothy Mulqueen had reported nothing of the sort.  According to regulations patrolmen must stick to the known facts in reporting for the blotter.  The lieutenant had heard about the talk in the neighborhood, but hadn’t paid much attention to it.  Some people were always seeing things.  Things that weren’t always there.  Anyway that’s all the police knew about it.

So that’s the chronicle of the Dyckman Street Virgin.  Take it or leave it.

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