Coney Island

The Real Story: Crumbly Pete

Hey, it's my publication day!  I can hardly believe it.  Since this is a special day, I'm going to do a special "real story" post.  Meet Michael Wilson, the Illustrated Man . . . and the inspiration for Crumbly Pete.

Michael Wilson, photo by Dan Nicoletta.

Michael Wilson, photo by Dan Nicoletta.

It was the mid-nineties in NYC: I'd just rid myself of a terrible boyfriend; I'd abandoned one career plan but had yet to find another. Just kind of temp-ing around, being a bum, trying to figure out what was next.  (You could get away with that nonsense in the mid-nineties . . .  the rent wasn't so damn high.)

Back then, my friend A. and I used to waste our weekends on Coney Island fairly often. During the week, while she was off being a wage slave, I'd sometimes take the F train down alone. More often than not, we (or I) would end up at Sideshows by the Seashore, which was located right on the boardwalk.  In addition to the sideshow, they had a ragged excuse for a bar, where you could get bottles of beer for a couple bucks each. (The sideshow's current location on Surf Avenue, is much, much nicer . . . but there was something about being on the boardwalk that couldn't be beat.) 

The sideshow was (and remains) a 10-in-1, which refers to the fact that you pay one price for 10 acts.  The performers rotate all day; you can enter any time and watch the show. When you see somebody you've seen before, you'll know that you've seen the whole show, and you can be on your way.  Or not--watch it again, what the hell?  What have you got to do that's so important?

While they waited to go on, the performers used to linger around the bar area. From time to time the Illustrated Man would appear to cadge drinks off me, or A., or whoever else was around (I'm told he did this frequently, it was not personal to us).  It was, essentially, a little side service he offered: buy him a beer and the Illustrated Man will sit with you awhile, make you feel special and talk to you about life.

He complained a lot.  He hated doing the bed of nails act, that was a major gripe.  He despised the more bourgeois members of the audience.  It was strongly implied, by virtue of the fact that he deigned to have a drink with me, that I was not a bourgeois member of the audience. This pleased me enormously. 

It was with great sadness that I heard Michael passed on just a short while after this, in the summer of 1996.  It was a diabetic seizure, and he was a criminally young 44 years old.  When I started writing a Coney Island sideshow story, there was no question that Michael's ghost would haunt it somehow.  

Something important: the fictional character of Crumbly Pete is a thug, violent and untrustworthy.  I want to state very plainly that those aspects of the character in NO WAY came from the real Illustrated Man.  That's 100% fiction and is intended as no reflection on Michael Wilson whatsoever.  We clear?  Good.

But Michael had a surly charm that I tried to lend to Pete.  Making a personal connection with him--even if it was fundamentally transactional (beer for chitchat)--opened up my mind in a positive way. Diane Arbus famously wrote, "if you've ever spoken to someone with two heads, you know they know something you don't."  I was a 20-something white girl from Connecticut: the Illustrated Man knew a lot of things I didn't.

And if Crumbly Pete isn't the kindest member of the Magruder's tribe, well . . . he is among the smartest. Pete groks what's happening--and what's coming--far quicker than any other character.   So often, the farther outside society you stand, the more clearly you can see it.  And Crumbly Pete stands farther and sees more than basically anyone else.  

At one point in the book, the character of Rosalind says, "At Coney Island we learn to take each other as we are."  To me, that statement doesn't have much meaning if you only "take" the people who are easy to love.  You have to "take" the ones who are a little rough around the edges, the ones who are a little bit difficult.  And I hope, in that sense at least, I did justice to the memory of Coney Island's Illustrated Man.

From My Research Files...

One of the best things about writing MAGRUDER'S CURIOSITY CABINET was the excuse to spend ages staring at gorgeous photos like these, from turn-of-the-century Coney Island.  I have quite a photo file and there'll be much more to follow, so please come again!

The Helter Skelter ride at Luna Park, Coney Island. 1905.  (h/t,  Shorpy )

The Helter Skelter ride at Luna Park, Coney Island. 1905.  (h/t, Shorpy)

"Turning the tip" (which means, getting passersby to come see a show) at Dreamland, Coney Island, 1911 (h/t: Library of Congress).

"Turning the tip" (which means, getting passersby to come see a show) at Dreamland, Coney Island, 1911 (h/t: Library of Congress).

Dreamland (h/t Library of Congress).

Dreamland (h/t Library of Congress).

I loved this last photo so much, there is a whole bit in the book written about specifically this view, waiting to hurtle down the track and dive into the lake in the center of the park.  




The Globe Tower Scam

It was to be the largest steel structure in the world. At 700 feet tall, the building would be three times larger than any structure then-existing in New York City.  It was to house the world’s largest amusement park and the world’s largest ballroom.  It was to host a circus and a rollerskating rink, a bowling alley and a theater and the world’s largest rotating restaurant. 

 It was the Globe Tower.  And it was a total scam.


In 1906, an advertisement appeared in the pages of the New York Herald.  A developer named Samuel Friede was seeking investors for his ambitious Globe Tower project.  He acquired some land on Coney Island, next door to the popular Steeplechase amusement park.  

Friede promised his investors a 100 percent return on their money every year.  In retrospect, that probably should have been the first sign of a rat.  But thanks to Friede’s personal connections and some arm-twisting by Edward Langan, who was a corrupt elevator inspector in Brooklyn, more than $300,000 worth of stock was sold. 

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Tower was held in May 1906.  There were speeches and fireworks and a concert.  Strangely enough, nearly a year passed with no progress made on the site.

Investors got anxious, so Friede organized a second ceremony in early 1907.  He announced plans to install 800 concrete pilings for the tower’s base.  Each slab of concrete was 30 feet tall and 5 feet around, which probably looked very impressive to the investors.  Of course, nowadays, any good architect would question whether even pilings that size could hold up a building designed to hold 50,000 people.  There never were 800 pilings installed, anyway… the real number was closer to 30.

Then a man named Henry R. Wade, who had been the treasurer for the project, was convicted on unrelated embezzlement charges.  As part of his testimony, he confessed to a New York courtroom that the entire Globe Tower project had been a scam.  He claimed that Friede and Langan, along with the project’s architect and its bookkeeper, had divided the $300,000 between themselves and disappeared. 

Wade, the only involved party to serve any jail time, was only paid $4,000.  And the owner of Steeplechase Park was left with the problem of how to remove 30 useless concrete pilings from the property.