The 1850s

The 1860s

The 1870s

The 1880s

Early 20th Century

The 1920s

The 1930s

Post World War II

The 1960s

The 1970s

The 1980s

All text from:
The Park and the People

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Reshaping Park Politics   |   Modifying the Park Landscape
Easing the "Iron Rules"   |   Sex and Sex Crimes in the Park

Sex and Sex Crimes in the Park
Courting had long been a part of the park scene, but nineteenth-century observers noted with increasing frequency that the park had become a "trysting place" for "young people who work in the factories and shops." [Ch1238] One report on an early Sunday concert observed that a mechanic's sixteen-year-old daughter and her friend from the upstairs tenement had "at the first opportunity slip[ped] away to mingle in the crowd and pick up more congenial companions from the male friends they [were] ... sure to find." [Ch1239]

But where women found freedom, some male observers sensed danger. The sensational National Police Gazette wrote luridly of the "perils of the park," which included "murderous attacks upon the chastity of pure-minded young females" -- apparently a reference to men exposing themselves. The Police Gazette was especially distressed that this "crime of a most revolting nature has left its ordinary haunts in some of the streets and byways of the city and established its headquarters in Central Park." [Ch1241]

The fragmentary police records of the period bear out to some extent the Gazette's alarm over new sexual behavior and assaults in the park. In the 1860s crimes relating to "decency," or sexuality, did not even rate a separate listing in the park arrest statistics, although a few such arrests may have been counted among the "other offenses." By the late 1870s and the 1880s, "indecent exposure," "indecent conduct," "indecent assault," "crime against nature," "cohabiting," "sodomy," "attempted rape," and "rape" all appeared in the arrest classification scheme. Still, the arrest levels for such crimes were considerably lower than the sensational coverage would suggest. They accounted for fewer than 6 percent of arrests in all city parks between 1879 and 1886; in those same years, only one man was arrested for rape in a city park. [Ch1242]

Prostitution, illicit sexuality, and violence against women were far from unusual in late nineteenth-century New York, but as far as we can tell, the demimonde flourished in downtown streets, saloons, and brothels, not in uptown parks. And -- as is true today -- women faced as much danger from assault by their husbands and others in their homes as by strangers in the parks. Perhaps Central Park's only attempted murder in the 1880s was Bertram Rodway's shooting of his estranged wife in the bushes near the southwestern Playground. [Ch1243]

If "public" threats in the park were less grave than newspaper reports implied, why was there so much talk about peril? Was Central Park "no longer a safe place for women and children"? Editors expected Central Park, unlike the city, to be free of crime. Moreover, journalists recognized the public fascination with the seeming paradox of urban dangers lurking in a pastoral pleasure ground. In 1872 when an out-of-town-visitor became the first person murdered in the course of a robbery in the park, the Times mourned that "murder has actually stained the turf of that green fairy land." [Ch1244]


Reshaping Park Politics   |   Modifying the Park Landscape
Easing the "Iron Rules"   |   Sex and Sex Crimes in the Park