Ask a historian: Did the Thunderbolt’s namesake once run a brothel?
Dennis from Sea Gate asks: Did Mike Norton [a New York politician of the late 19th-century Tammany Hall era] run a swanky brothel at Norton’s Point?
Not swanky, but that doesn’t give him a clean bill of sale.
Norton’s Point, today’s Sea Gate, evolved as one of the shadiest areas in rough old Coney Island. But prostitution wasn’t its biggest sin. Cheating the rubes was.
Before trains and roads, access to Coney Island was by boat through Coney Point.
Mike “Thunderbolt” Norton, born in Ireland, lived at 116 Varick St. in Manhattan. His nickname came from the roundhouse punch he administered to get doubters to see his point of view. As a teenager, he apprenticed as a cooper to a maker of wooden kegs. Then he lit out to sea as a sailor. A burly but genial gent, he volunteered in 1861 for the 25th New York Regiment in the Civil War and soon rose to captain. But then he resigned from the army — something you could do then — claiming he needed to look after his sick mother.
In 1864, he decided that politics would be a lark so he ran for office. “Boss” William Tweed, who headed Tammany Hall, liked him and appointed him alderman, today’s City Council. By 1867, when he was 28 years old, he was elected state senator. It helped that 30 of his friends voted from his address. Even though he never studied law, he was appointed justice after answering one question: “What would be your decision if a bill against the city came before you?” “I’d turn it over to the Boss.”
That’s when he opened a gambling hall and saloon on Bleecker Street, between The Slide, a gay bar, and the Black and Tan saloon, a place for white women who wished to meet men of other races. Norton’s establishment had rooms upstairs as well.
In 1872, Norton was indicted and arrested with “Boss” William Tweed. He jumped bail and headed for Coney Island. There he met Mike Murray, a gambler, and they leased Coney Island Point on the site of the old Coney Island Pavilion. Norton and Murray’s Pavilion, a large, open, windy frame building served meals but also encouraged gambling, prostitution and prize-fighting — illegal at the time — on the sands of Coney Island. It soon transposed into a hotel.
In 1876, Norton helped Tweed escape from Ludlow Prison and hide out in Coney Island. Eventually, The Boss was moved to Florida and then on a boat to Spain. There, a customs agent recognized Tweed from a political cartoon by Thomas Nast and sent him back to Ludlow.
Norton faced bankruptcy in his later life as a reward for his loyalty.
So, Norton’s reputation, as other leaders of Sodom By the Sea, was built as a swindler and a fraud. Today, he is remembered via a Coney Island roller coaster ride, the Thunderbolt.
Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below.
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