07 November 2011

On the Trail of Carlo Bacigalupo

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.


will hauff said...

Quite a Romantic discovery you unearthed. To paraphrase you, this is what makes coming to this blog so interesting. Also interesting is that the funeral parlour survived intact into the 1970's. Anyway, a marvelous bit of historical sleuthing on your part. Great photos too.

Travis Wilde said...

The Italian side of family used one of two LES funeral parlors when I was growing up.

Bacigalupo's was one of them and Vanilla's, not far away on Madison Street was the other. I'm not sure why we used those two, but the preferences for one or the other was definite.

The family originally settled on Mulberry Street, not far from Bacigalupo's; they later moved to Catherine Street and then into Knickerbocker Village. After I arrived, my parents moved to the newly-opened Al Smith Houses.

For some reason, we were also divided over the parishes to which we belonged: my grandmother attended St. James' (where the Hibernian Society was founded according to a plaque on the wall of the church) and her sisters went to St. Joseph's. This may have been due to intermarrage: grandma married an Irishman, while her brothers and sisters stayed with Italians.

In any case,I attended a few wakes at Bacigalupo's and from what I remember, it was an Italianate palace with velvet, and gilt, and cherubs - the style of which I encountered later in my life in the homes of Italian friends and relatives who "made it big." These were the people who had plastic on the parlor furniture.

Bacigalupo's was thought of as a fine place from which to send a relative to his or her final resting place (usually Calvary).

To my young eye, Vanilla's wasn't quite as opulent.

CityGirlWrites said...

Every time I stop in to visit your blog - that's what it feels like, like dropping into an old New York neighborhood place where people share tales - I come acros something smile, wonder, reminisce and want to share with everyone I know. This was such a great post - love how you followed the trail of clues through Chinatown and Little Italy to get the whole story. My mother-in-law will love this. She was the second generation to grow up on Mulberry and to this day she'll say - "Ay, he's a Baciagaloop!" for one thing or another.

Unknown said...

My Grandfather worked for Bacigalupo after immigrating from Genoa in 1879.

Went on to live up in the Bronx until his death and was buried in Gate of Heaven cemetery in our family plot given to him by the Bacigalupo family after his retirement.