John Allen’s Water Street dancehall, with its bevy of gaudily dressed prostitutes, was the most notorious dive in New York’s Fourth Ward in the 1850s and 1860s. Allen’s career as a saloonist, procurer, thief, drunkard and possibly murderer earned him the title of “Wickedest Man in New York.” But Allen never lost his faith, and when not employed by the devil he worked to bring religion to the Waterfront.
Allen was from a pious family from upstate New York. Two of his brothers became Presbyterian ministers and a third became a Baptist minister. John Allen was also preparing for the ministry at the Union Theological Seminary when he decided that, in the long run, sin might pay better. He moved to the Fourth Ward in New York City and opened a dancehall and house of prostitution staffed with “twenty girls who wore low black bodices of satin, scarlet skirts and stockings, and red-tipped boots with bells affixed to the ankles.” The dive soon became a popular recreation center for Fourth Ward gangsters.
There are several versions of how religion found its way into John Allen’s dancehall. One version says that three days a week, an hour before opening, he would gather the harlots, barmen and musicians and read them scriptures, and that he made sure there was a Bible and religious tracts at each of the cribs where the women took their customers.
In another version, there was no religion in the dance hall until an article in Packard’s Monthly called Allen the “Wickedest Man in New York” and gave the address of his dive. Allen was happy for the attention and when clergymen began flocking to him bent on reform, he saw an opportunity to continue it.
In any case, on May 26, 1868, a detachment of six clergymen led by the Reverend A. C. Arnold of the Howard Mission persuaded Allen to open his dancehall to regular prayer meetings. For several months the meetings attracted the faithful and a fair number of curiosity-seekers, but they drove away all of Allen’s regular customers. At midnight on August 29, 1868, the dancehall closed its doors for the first time in seventeen years. The next morning this notice was found hanging on the door:
THIS DANCEHOUSE IS CLOSED
No gentlemen admitted unless accompanied by their wives,
who wish to employ Magdalenes as servants.