23 May 2019

Only the Dead Know Brooklyn

A friend who knows me well sent me the following article -  Weegee's New York City by Christopher Bonanos - in New York Magazine, chock-full of crime-scene photographs from the 1930s.  (Thank you, Betty!)

April 18, 1937: Spurned Suitor Clubs Violinist to Death!  (The trail of blood is where the body was dragged...)  

May 5, 1937: The corpse everyone is checking over is that of Stanley Mannex, a 47-year-old Turkish immigrant, found in the ivy behind the New York Public Library.  (I'd love to know that backstory.)

April 20, 1937: Tony Benedetti was a single father of four from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, underemployed in New York during the Depression. Under a newly passed New York law looking to reduce the number of public charges, his family became the first in the state to be deported — put on a train at Penn Station back to Fayette County, where they were received by local welfare officials.

Two points:  the kids are crying, but dad is smiling.  Is that to cheer them up or what?  And I'd love to know what the local welfare officials did with him and his kids when they got there...

Date unknown, person unknown, location unknown.  But it's New York.  Everyone's wearing hats, and no one looks surprised.  I'm still amazed at how the corpse's hat ended right side up and in apparently perfect condition...

These are a few of the photographs taken by Weegee, a/k/a Arthur Fellig, the legendary crime-and-mayhem photographer of mid-century New York. In 1938, he became the only New York freelance newspaper photographer with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio. Weegee worked mostly at night; he listened closely to broadcasts and often beat authorities to the scene. When other photographers asked him about his technique he supposedly answered, "f/8 and be there".  By the '40s he had pictures in the Museum of Modern Art and had been curated by Edward Steichen.  (Wikipedia)

Weegee's first book of photographs was Naked City. Film producer Mark Hellinger bought the rights to the title from Weegee and made the movie The Naked City in 1948 - which I have not seen - and the police drama of the same name - which I have seen.  I remember all the episodes ended with "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."  BTW, here's the opening of the episode "The Fault in Our Stars" starring a very young Roddy McDowall:

But back to Weegee's photographs - they're everywhere on the internet, from the above to this site where they have been colorized to add to their gruesomeness:  

Pre-Weegee, someone also took these photos from 1910s New York City, and if you continue to scroll down, more Weegee:  

And Paris has more than Murders in the Rue Morgue here:

Now, I'm not into gore, I admit it.  I don't watch autopsies, gory movies, or read torture porn.  But there's more than one way to look at a photograph.  Like the last photo above, the hat lying by itself, looking perfectly fine despite the fact that the dead guy's face was either bashed in or shot and there's blood everywhere.  The other thing that struck me about it, was how the uniformed cop and the detective (?) with the flash camera are leaning, trying to see what the other detective is showing them as he straddles the body.

Straddles:  "See?  Someone came up on him, and shot him, point-blank range, and he took a step or two before he fell."
Uniform:  "What're ya talking about?"
Straddles:  "Look at the trail of blood.  He moved after he was shot, ya blind bat!"
Flash:  "Want me to hit it with a little more light?"

Another aspect of all the dead body shots I've shared here is that there's a lot of bending over in police work.  None of this Sam Spade looking down at his partner's dead body and pointing around.  No, these guys are all getting their faces right in the action, talking with their hands and their mouths.  I'm sure that at least one of them has a flask in his hip or coat pocket, and that they're all smokers.  And I still can't get over how they all manage to keep their hats on.

There also aren't any women standing around.  Which makes sense, because back then, the only woman around at the scene of the crime would be the victim.  And there are a lot of those.  From the woman lying in bed, back to her beloved (?) who just blew her brains out before killing himself, to the girl who was found lying looking calm and drained as if a vampire had shown up moments before...

All of these snapshots are a trip back in time - except that the only thing that's changed is the clothes.  Murder stays the same.  The motivation stays the same (love, jealousy, greed... same old, same old).  The blood stays the same.  The fascination with the crime stays the same.  And that's why we're all here.

BTW, click here to read "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" by Thomas Wolfe, the New Yorker, June 7, 1935.  Maybe the big guy was Weegee.


  1. Weegee had an eye for capturing the dark side of the city. There's a movie, sort of based on him, called The Public Eye with Joe Pesci. Until there's one about Weegee, I think that one will have to do. It's not great, but I like it.

  2. Weegee was great and your piece brings back the old days of the New York Daily News- Dick Tracy and Weegee together!

  3. Terrific! Weegee is one of the great witnesses of New York's underground.

    "Naked City" (the movie) is one of the last pictures Jules Dassin made in the U.S. before he was blacklisted and went to Europe. A lot of it was locaton shot, unsual for the time, and it won an Oscar for cinematography. Weegee was a consultant.

    "Naked City" (the series) originated with Stirling Silliphant, which by definition made it a class act. He didn't write the Roddy McDowall episode, however, which I remember for an amazing scene where McDowall - the character's an out-of-work actor - is doing improv in a nightclub, taking suggestions from the audience, and Paul Burke's cop calls out to him, "Do the cab killer!" McDowall IS in fact the cab killer, and he proceeds to act out a murder from the POV of one of his victims. Utterly chilling. Very smartly written show, and done on location in New York, with an astonishing list of episode guest stars.

  4. Thanks everyone. Weegee was great. And I wish "Naked City" was streaming somewhere other than YouTube - I'd re-watch a lot more of it.

  5. What a find that collection is! Fascinating, Eve, and chilling.

    The Naked City advertising Kentucky Kings Cigarettes… I'd never heard of them, despite their innovative all-tobacco filter. Isn't that just a longer cigarette? At least one can wash one's mouth out with Listerine.

  6. So many pictures, so many stories. Great last paragraph, Eve. I bet you'd like James Ellroy's LAPD '53. He presents a selection of crime scenes photos from that year and tells their tales.

  7. Leigh, yeah - it's just a longer cigarette, but they did that stuff back then.
    Lawrence, I'll check out LAPD '53.

  8. Here is an article about the discovery of a lost cache of Weegee's photos fromhis formative period. Very interesting. https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/visual-arts/seattle-man-finds-a-cache-of-historic-photos-by-famed-crime-photographer-weegee-in-his-kitchen-cabinet/

  9. Two of my pieces above are about art. Here's another: In today's Seattle Times there is an article about Weegee, the crime photographer that both Eve and Paul have written about here. A man now lviing in Seattle recently discovered a batch of crime photos he purchased in a junk shop in Philadelphia for two bucks back inthe 1970s. Turned out they are from Weegee's formative period and he should make considerably more than 2 bicks off them... https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/visual-arts/seattle-man-finds-a-cache-of-historic-photos-by-famed-crime-photographer-weegee-in-his-kitchen-cabinet/

  10. Isn't it great? More source material for us all!


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