It's adventures like the following that make running this blog occasionally rewarding. I was wandering aimlessly around the border of Chinatown and Little Italy when I decided to give a good look-see at the Most Precious Blood Church on Baxter near Canal, a gaudy Roman Catholic edifice I'd never given much thought. It's official address is 109 Mulberry (and most people enter that way, too), but the church faces onto Baxter. Inside, a half dozen ancient Italian woman were saying Mass. The place was renovated in the mid-90s is a particularly garish, vulgar manner, so the architecture and interior design isn't much to look at.
Outside, on either side of the entrance, I noticed two sculpted depictions of events from the life of Christ. Under each were the words "Charles Bacigalupo. Sexton Undertaker. 26 1/2 Mulberry St.—208-210 Spring St."
My first thought was that this was a rather brazen credit-grab by Bacigalupo, who obviously donated the money for the sculptures. Not only did he insist on having his name attached (and the way it sits below the artwork, the attribution gives the impression that he might have been the artist who executed the work), but he also put his profession and the addresses of his business. Nothing but an advertisement for his funeral parlor.
My second thought was that Bacigalupo's greed and vanity unwittingly provided me, a century later, with a historical clue. I was near Mulberry, so I decided to walk south on the street until I got to 26 1/2 and see what was there.
I walked until the street bent near Columbus Park—that area of Mulberry that, in the mid-19th-century was a notorious slum called Mulberry Bend. I reached the address. Indeed, it was still a funeral home, but one by a different name: Wah Wing Sang Funeral Corp. As with much of Little Italy, this section was some time ago swallowed and subsumed within the growing borders of Chinatown.
The awning was yellow and plastic. But the plaster cornice above was suitably classical in theme, and very likely put up there by Bacigalupo, I thought. I crossed the street, went under the awning and looked up (I trick I often use when searching for scraps of an address' old history). And there I saw it.
Bacigalupo. Etched in the stone above the entrance. Clear as day, but sadly covered by the ugly awning.
I did a little research and found that Charles (Carlo) Bacigalupo was a great man in his day. From Genoa, he founded the funeral home in 1888 and quickly because famous in his trade. He had four branches in the area, as well as stables for his horses. He reportedly drove the second carriage in the funeral of Ulysses S. Grant. A charitable man, he buried many poor souls at his own expense, making himself beloved by the local population. He is also credited with introducing dirge music to Italian-American funerals in New York.
He died in 1908. The Times wrote, in a rather long article, "Charles Bacigalupo, who for thirty years has buried the rich and poor of Mulberry Bend and Chinatown, was himself buried yesterday, and no funeral of such a scale of grandeur has ever been offered to the reverent if color-loving and emotional people of that section. Bacigalupo died in Brooklyn in one of those comfortable, old-fashioned mansions in Second Place... There were more than 200 carriages and seemingly endless processions of Italian societies with banners draped in crepe and bands sonorously sounding dirges that kept the mourners' tears welling to their eyes.
"After the services at the house the coffin was brought to the hearse—not the famous automobile hearse, but the finest that was ever built to go behind horses. Then six jet black horses, draped in white netting that flowed over the pavement, started toward the Brooklyn Bridge with six attendants holding their bridles. Behind the hearse were nine open carriages piled high with the flowers that the dead undertaker's hundreds of friends had sent."
There was much, much more pomp and circumstance. The coffin was brought to Church of the Precious Blood, of course. (By the way, when I died, that's how I want to be sent off.)
After Carlo's death, his wife ran the business, along with Carlo's sister and her husband. Mid-20th-century, the home was still famous enough that it was mentioned in Louis Prima songs and Lou Costello jokes. "Bye-Bye Bacigalupo" was a popular expression. The funeral home retained the name Bacigalupo until fall 1976, when it became the Ng Fook Funeral Home.