|Friday, 02 December 2011 02:55|
The year was 1854 and the place was The Bowery in lower Manhattan. A wise man (though some would call him a wise ass) told us that during that period of time you couldn’t fall down in the neighborhood without falling into a tavern, a bar, or a pub. And it was in this Neighborhood that John McSorley, an Irish immigrant, opened a tavern called “The Old House At Home.”
The Two Histories:
The history of McSorley’s is a bit of a mystery. If you talk to the bartenders and look at their website it claims that John McSorley (the founder) was born in 1827, arrived in the U.S. in 1851 (making him 23 years of age upon arrival) and opened his bar in 1854.
But contradicting these claims is the New York Times Article “Streetscapes” by Christopher Gay. In the article Christopher points out three issues with McSorley’s claims. Firstly John McSorley didn’t appear in city directories until 1862, secondly the building the bar occupies was built no earlier than 1858, and lastly a census taker who visited McSorley in 1880 recorded 1855 as the year McSorley arrived in the U.S.
Regardless of the questionable dates we can tell you that a few things are true beyond a shadow of a doubt. The bar is old and was around at the turn of the century, the building is old and was built sometime before 1860, it has more history than just about any place we have been to date (including some museums,) and the place oozes character that simply can’t be replicated. In a nutshell, this is the place we here at Drunken History dream about.
The History as we were told….
A year after opening the tavern John married Honora Henley who he had three children with until her untimely death in 1968. In 1875 John apprenticed his son Bill McSorley in the running of the bar. Bill took over the bar in 1905 only to have his father step in and take control again when he gets word his son has introduced liquor. John's attitude was that if Ale wasn't good enough for you then you weren't good enough to drink in his bar. In 1910 John McSorley died on the second floor of the building which he had purchased in 1888 as a home for his family to live in.
When prohibition began in 1920 McSorley’s survived Prohibition by serving what they refer to as Near Beer. Near Beer was created during prohibition and was supposed to have an alcohol level below .5%. We still have it today and it can be found in most stores referred to as non-alcoholic beer. (Something tells us that “Near Beer” at McSorley’s during this period of time was really just a different name for the ale still served today. The name change was simply to keep the authorities at bay.)
In 1936 Bill McSorley sold the bar to Daniel O’Connell, a patron and NYC policeman, who was the first non-McSorley to own the bar. Bill passed away in 1938 shortly followed by O’Connell in 1939 who left the bar to his Daughter Dorothy. Dorothy had made a promise to her father to not change or manage the bar, much to the patrons relief, and her husband, Harry Kirwan, stepped in and managed the bar until his death.
In 1964 while visiting Ireland Harry Kirwan’s car broke down and he was picked up by a good Samaritan by the name of Matthew Maher. Harry told Matthew that if he ever decided to come to America and is in need of work to come by the bar, he will always have a job for him. Matthew takes him up on the offer shortly after their fateful meeting in Ireland and works as a bartender, waiter, and manager at McSorley’s until 1977. In 1977 Matthew buys the place from Harry Kirwan’s son Danny and he still owns the bar today. You will still find Matthew from time to time sitting in the back of the bar enjoying a liverwurst or corned beef sandwich and laughing it up with his employees.
No Woman Allowed…..
McSorleys was founded with the philosophy of “Good Ale, Raw Onions, No Women”, a philosophy that stood the test of time for over 100 years. It was so ingrained into the culture of the bar that not even the female owner in 1954 would go into the bar during normal business hours. It is said she would only set foot in the establishment on Sundays when the bar was closed.
That all changed when on January 9th 1969 two women, Karen DeCrow and Faith Seidenberg, attorneys and members of the National Organization for Women (“NOW”) entered the bar, seated themselves, had multiple requests for service denied, and were escorted out by the bartender. According to Karen DeCrow in the article titled “Ladies Night” in the March 2009 New Yorker Magazine a man at the bar initially bought them a round when their requests were ignored. She stated that while the patrons did not turn on them they did in fact turn on the gentleman who bought them a round. She claims he was escorted out bodily and his face was covered in blood.
The case against McSorley’s went all the way to federal court and in 1970 DeCrow and Seidenberg won. Shortly afterwards the New York mayor signed a bill barring discrimination in public places which would have ended McSorley's run of no women allowed without the help of the lawsuit. McSorley’s did seriously consider becoming a private club but decided against it and on August 10th, 1970 the bar officially opened to women. Rumor has it that then owner Danny Kirwan wanted his mother to be the first woman served but she refused saying she would not break the promise made to her father.
The food at McSorley’s is not only reasonably priced, especially for New York City, but it is delicious as well. We tried their two staple dishes, Liverwurst and Corned Beef, and were pleased with both. The Corned Beef was outstanding, though not quite as good as what we found at The Green Door in Chicago, and the Liverwurst sandwich is in our opinion the truly unique dish. Served on Jewish Rye with thick slices of liverwurst and thin slices of raw onion it is tasty, filling, and the perfect start to an evening of heavy drinking or for a quick bite for lunch. Included in the eating experience at McSorley’s is their spicy house Dijon mustard. We recommend you spoon some onto almost anything as it has great flavor and a nice finishing kick.
You choice is Ale, light or dark. That is about all the options you have here. McSorley’s has continued to stay true to its roots and serve only ale. The original recipe was created and brewed by John McSorley himself but as demand for his Ale increased and he could no longer keep up with it he sold the recipe to a brewery called Fidelio. From there the brewery itself and recipe changed hands numerous times. Breweries such as Rheingold, Schmidt’s, and Stroh, brewed McSorley’s Cream Stock Ale and Lager until finally finding its home today at Pabst Brewing Company. (Don’t worry though, the Ale at McSorley’s is a few steps above Pabst.)
Hanging from one of the light fixtures above the bar you will find a bunch of old and dusty wishbones. The story goes that McSorley would give an ale and turkey dinner to soldiers preparing to head off to war. When the soldiers returned they would return to the bar and remove their wishbones. The ones hanging there today are from soldiers who never returned to remove their bones. In a way, these bones are a memorial and represent the soldiers who have left to war only to never return.
Some Rumors About The Bar:
Following are some of the rumors we have been able to dig up both from patrons and from the internet. We are in no way standing behind the truth or accuracy of these, but figured we would present them to our readers and viewers simply as entertainment.