Down in the heart of the East Village, tucked around the corner from the imposing Cooper Union, lies McSorley’s Old Ale House, arguably the greatest Irish pub in New York City.
Since its establishment in 1854, McSorley’s sawdusted floors and tchotchke-covered walls have beckoned countless New Yorkers and visitors alike. It’s been home to presidents and poets, scallywags and scribes—and just about everyone in between.
The bar is known for many things: its unchanging appearance (the last time its decorations were changed was in 1910 when the founder “Old John” McSorley died); its limited drinks selection (patrons are challenged with a choice of light or dark beer); its literary fame (New Yorker essayist Joseph Mitchell called it a “Wonderful Saloon” while e.e. cummings described it as “snug and evil”); and a certain magic that its communal tables seemingly conjure every night when they manage to turn strangers into close friends—if only for a fleeting moment or two.
But that’s what is commonly known about McSorley’s. After nearly two centuries of operation, the bar has compiled its own canon of secrets. Now, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to share of few of my favorites with you.
1. An original John Wilkes Booth “wanted” poster
High on the wall above the bar, angled a few degrees towards the ground, hangs an original wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth, the actor and Confederate sympathizer who murdered Abraham Lincoln in 1865. It offers a “$100,000 REWARD” for the capture of “THE MURDERER [o]f our late beloved President Abraham Lincoln.”
Old John McSorley was probably partial to Honest Abe. After all, in 1860, Lincoln reportedly went straight to McSorley’s to quench his thirst after giving a speech that later became known as the Cooper Union Address. That speech, in which Lincoln condemned the expansion of slavery, galvanized the city into a feverish excitement. Historians credit the Cooper Union Address as the turning point in Lincoln’s campaign. It helped him vault over his rival Stephen A. Douglas to secure the nomination as the Republican presidential candidate.
It is no wonder, then, that Old John began to collect Lincoln memorabilia immediately after the death of McSorley’s first celebrity patron.
2. Houdini’s handcuffs
Harry Houdini, the Hungarian-American escape artist and magician, was a regular at McSorley’s. To this day, a pair of his handcuffs can be seen dangling from the rafters by the front right window.
Sometime around the turn of the century, Houdini was performing one of his usual tricks for a few of the regulars. Houdini produced a pair of handcuffs, had someone else shackle him, and then—with a practiced flourish—twisted free. A police officer who happened to also be drinking at the bar was unimpressed. (Whether he was still on duty is anybody’s guess.) Sure, Houdini could get out of his own handcuffs, said the copper, but what about those of the NYPD?
Houdini good-spiritedly agreed to the challenge and let the police officer shackle him. In no time, the five-foot-six Houdini managed to escape. Triumphantly, Houdini clanged the handcuffs down on the rail below the bar—locking them into place forever. There they have remained ever since.
Except, a few years ago, a dedicated patron bent over to examine the handcuffs and noticed they were etched with a serial number that postdates Houdini’s death. In response to this discovery, McSorley’s made ceremonial coasters which joked: “Certainly, that would be [Houdini’s] greatest illusion—so far.” The discrepancy, however, has since been explained away. A while back the original pair were stolen, so McSorley’s replaced them with another pair.
But it seems like Houdini himself is not so easily replaceable. Legend has it that whenever a cat is seen in the window of McSorley’s it is a signal that Houdini’s ghost has returned to one of his favorite places on earth—or beyond.
3. Turkey wishbones
During World War I, Old John’s son, Bill, began a touching tradition. McSorley’s gifted a free turkey dinner and beer to all the neighborhood men who were leaving for the trenches. After the meal, the soldiers would place their wishbones on the lamp rail over the bar for good luck fighting in France.
When they returned from the war, the remaining soldiers celebrated by going to McSorley’s, ordering a hearty smattering of light and dark beers and taking down their wishbones.
However, about two dozen wishbones remain on that lamp rail over the bar—one for each of the neighborhood men who never made it back from France. They were left up by Bill as a poignant tribute to those patrons who made the ultimate sacrifice. For decades they lay there as relics, respectfully untouched, and collected dust.
That is, until the city’s health department came knocking in 2011 and demanded the bones be dusted. The then-owner, Matthew Maher, did the job himself. (His daughter, Teresa Maher de la Haba is the current owner.) He felt that he could not entrust the task to anybody else. One by one, he took down each wishbone, dusted it, and carefully returned it to its rightful place on the lamp rail.
Maher was equally respectful of the dust, which he boxed up and took home with him to Queens.
4. “No ladies”
For about the first 100 years of its existence, McSorley’s proudly adhered to its treasured mantra: “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies.” Even its first female owner, Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan, who took over in 1939, fiercely protected this tradition … until several women successfully sued McSorley’s in 1970.
The lawsuit compelled New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay to sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in bars and other public accommodations. At 3pm the next day, McSorley’s opened its doors to women for the first time. Kirwan was not present, explaining that she did not wish to break the bar’s tradition.
However, Lindsay’s order had a loophole. It stated that the subjected establishments had to provide “sanitary facilities” for their employees … but not necessarily for their customers. It would take another 16 years before McSorley’s would finally install a women’s restroom.
5. McSorley’s, forever
The glint of the well-worn taps behind the bar, which all feature Old John McSorley’s head, helps distract the casual observer from discovering the pub’s final secret. Nestled amongst a formidable collection of bric-a-brac lie three small vessels. Each contains the earthly remains of a McSorley’s regular whose final wish was to be laid to rest amongst the sawdust and tchotchkes.
Supposedly, the ashes of up to four other individuals are covertly housed at the near end of the bar, close to the main door. Why do some people get the honor of resting behind the bar forever while others get scattered amongst the sawdust? The standards for being laid to rest behind the bar are quite rigorous. You have to be a regular of the pub for over 40 years in order to be placed across from Old John’s likeness. Thus far, only three have earned the honor.
Of course, this list is only one page in the long and beer-stained history of McSorley’s. There are other secrets, more stories, and richer characters to uncover for yourself. Just make sure to answer the age-old question: light or dark?
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.