Entertainment for the Masses: Harry Hill's Dance Hall

Late one night in June of 1867, a young Mark Twain was out on the town when some of his friends suggested that they make a stop at Harry Hill's. A combination of dance hall, theater and saloon, located on Houston and Crosby streets, Hill’s was just one of a number of similar establishments that had sprung up in New York City in the second half of the 19th century.

Touted as, “the best of the worst places,” it attracted people from all walks of life.1 Lawyers, judges and businessmen rubbed shoulders with the riffraff from Five Points and women of dubious moral character. Thomas Edison was a frequent visitor and Hill's was


among the first private buildings to be illuminated by his light bulb. Among the polite society of New York it was said that Harry Hill's “is a place in which no virtuous woman is ever seen, and in which an honest man ought to be ashamed to show his face.”2

Pretending that they were going to a place of high moral repute, Twain and his group proceeded down to Houston Street where they were greeted by a large red and blue lantern attached to a dingy two story building. A small side door next to the main entrance led up the stairs and was used only by the female patrons, who were admitted free of charge. Men had to pay twenty-five cents at a downstairs window to gain admittance.

Harry Hill, the proprietor, was omnipresent in the dance hall, his sharp eye always able to discern whenever something was amiss. Short and thick-set, Hill was unafraid to, "use his fists if necessary," to remove unruly guests.3

Guests, who knew what Hill was like when he got angry, were quick to obey his commands.4 But if Hill enjoyed a patron's company, he saw to that person's welfare while he or she was at the dance hall.5 This made for good business, and by 1872, after fifteen years of operation, Hill was making $50,000 a year.6

Hill had little tolerance for impropriety, and proudly boasted that no one was ever killed or robbed on his premises. A contemporary author, writing a travel guide to New York in 1872, told a different story, warning that Harry Hill's was a place where pick-pockets, murderers and other criminals would hatch their plans and choose their victims.

While it is true that no murders took place within the confines of the establishment, thieves would often befriend an intoxicated patron of means, pretend to take him home, and then proceed to rob him. On occasion, the bodies of the luckless victims would be found washed up on the shores of the East River the following morning.7

Once in a while, the danger lurking just outside would make its way in. One night, a shot fired through the window, precipitating an assault on a patron by a gang of men. When Harry tried to intervene, he was also badly beaten.


Drunkenness inside the establishment was not tolerated and Twain would have clearly seen a large sign on the wall: PEOPLE WHO ARE DRUNK MUST LEAVE THE PREMISES.8 Those unable to hold their liquor were promptly ejected.

In 1874, Harry Hill went even further. A female temperance group asked for permission to rent out his venue for a Sunday sermon. Hill offered his theater free of charge, and announced a personal conversion to their cause. In a published reply to their request, Hill wrote: “What is more nauseating and offensive than the presence of a drunkard? Men lose their senses, their money, and dignity, and surrender every trait of glorious manhood. Twenty years in the business forces me to shun the presence of a drunkard as I would a leper – the worst pariah of society. Let us arrest, this growing and fatal evil.”9

Unlike other dance halls, Harry Hill did not keep any girls attached to his venue other than the waitresses. Other dance halls were preceded by their horrific reputations. They were famed for the drunken fighting that went on inside them, and the prostitutes who often lived in slum-like rooms on the top floor of the establishment. The women in these places were often, "kick[ed] about by the brutal owner of the place…and suffer[ed] greater violence…in drunken brawls."10 Women did not frequently approach the dance halls looking for this kind of life, rather they were often enticed and tricked into the situation by the proprietors.11

Although they did not live above the establishment, women of questionable character often visited Harry Hill's and men were required to show them the utmost respect and, “to treat them as ladies, even if they weren’t.”12 Men were expected to buy drinks for the female patrons and be liberal in their expenditures.

Twain got a taste of these expectations the night he visited Hill's, when he had a memorable exchange with a woman.

"Oh, if you want to shoot your gab," the woman said. "Take me up to the bar, and pizen me, and then you can yelp till you rot."

Twain wrote that he, "never felt so badly in my life. I purchased her a drink - it was nothing more harmful than soda-water - and then she wanted me to buy her an orange, which I did; next she desired me to waltz with her, but I excused myself because I began to have some suspicions about her; and finally she asked me to see her home, which I refused to do.13

Twain left Harry Hill’s as soon as he discovered the nature of the place. The next day he sailed away aboard The Quaker City on a five month excursion to Europe, Africa and the Holy Land. This adventure would make him a household name after he recorded and published his humorous experiences in the book Innocents Abroad.14

Had Twain come in later years, he would have been able to see some of the greatest sport matches held in New York. Boxing and wrestling bouts were a frequent spectacle in


Harry's hall with men from all over the world coming to fight championship matches there. In 1876 the manager had the idea of staging the first female fight.

A tempting prize of $200, plus a silver-plate immediately produced two volunteers. Nelly Sauders, twenty-four years old and five-foot-six, was set to fight twenty-five year old, five-foot-seven inch Rose Harland, both dancers and dilettantes. On the day of the fight the house was packed. The paper wrote that both fighters, “appeared exceedingly nervous, were very pale, tried to blush and partially succeeded.”15 After three rounds, some of which were “lively and hard,” Nelly Saunders was declared a winner and both boxers left the stage arm in arm. It wasn’t a total loss for Rose Harland who was awarded $10 as a consolation prize.

In the mid-1880s, with growing pressure from the temperance and moral crusades, it became harder and harder to keep the business open. When Hill’s liquor license came up for renewal, he was denied. Refusing to continually subject himself to shakedowns by police, Hill threw in the towel and folded up shop. He died in poverty a decade later.

Although gone, Harry Hill’s was in many ways a harbinger of what was to come, and its demise did not herald the end of the dance phenomena. The population of New York City, increasing exponentially, clamored for entertainment and by 1910 more than 500 dance halls were active throughout the metropolitan area.16


Anbinder, Tyler, Five Points, New York, NY: 2001.

Every, Edward Van, Sins of New York, As “Exposed” by The Police Gazette, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1930.

Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Ammusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1986.

Martin, Edward Winslow, The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City. Philadelphia, PA: Jones, Brothers & Co.,1868.

McCabe, James Dabney, Lights and shadows of New York life: or the sights and sounds of the great city. Philadelphia, PA: The National Publishing Co., 1872.

Ravitch, Diane, The Great School Wars. Second Edition. Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Dane, Erza G and Frankilin Walker, collectors and eds. Mark Twain's Travels with Mr. Brown: Being Heretofore Uncollected Sketches Written by Mark Twain for the San Francisco Alta California in 1866 and 1867, Describing the Adventures of the Author and His Irrepressible Companion in Nicaragua, Hannibal, New York and Other Spots on Their Way to Europe. New York: Russell & Russell, 1971. 270-274.

The Cambridge history of English and American literature: An encyclopedia in eighteen volumes, ed. by A.W. Ward, A.R. Waller, W.P. Trent, J. Erskine, S.P. Sherman, and C. Van Doren. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons; Cambridge, England: University Press, 1907–21. Volume XVII, Later National Literature Part II, Section VIII Part 5.

The New York Times, November 1, 1870, 1; April 11, 1873, 5; August 8, 1873, 8; February 26, 1874, 8; February 27, 1874, 1; February 28, 1874, 7; March 2, 1874, 5; March 17, 1876, 8; December 8, 1882, 8; April 19, 1884, 8; February 3, 1886, 1; February 17, 1886, 8; September 26, 1886, 8; October 6, 1886, 3; October 20, 1888, 8; June 21, 1894, 1; August 31, 1896, 6.

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"Harry Hill's Variety Theatre." ephemeralnewyork.files.wordpress.com.

"A Scene at Harry Hill's Dance Hall." theboweryboys.blogspot.com.

Women Boxing. fscclub.com.

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