The Tenement Museum offers four different walking tours, where our visitors will take a stroll around the neighborhood with an experienced educator, and will explore the buildings and stories of the Lower East Side that residents of 97 Orchard Street would have experienced. One building on Orchard Street truly stands out from the rest – the building which once housed the Ridley and Sons Department Store, makes quite a statement with its large windows and bright pink paint job!
If the building itself seems a little wild, the story of the Ridley family will really knock your socks off. Edward Ridley, an English immigrant, founded a millenary and dry goods store in 1849 and by 1883, had acquired and converted many of the buildings on the block. In 1886, Ridley’s sons Arthur and and Edward commissioned a building that would span the entire block from Allen to Orchard Street on Grand. Grand Street was a bustling shopping district in the mid-19th century, with shoppers from other neighborhoods taking the Grand Street ferry (which left from Grand Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – do you see a theme here?) and streetcars to come to Ridley’s.
An ambitious five story building with copious window and floor space, Ridley’s was certainly the largest store on the Lower East Side and possibly the largest in New York City upon its completion. By the late 1880’s, Ridley and Sons employed about 2,500 workers – most of them young immigrant women from the neighborhood.
Edward Ridley senior died unexpectedly in 1883, and his sons Arthur and Edward took over the operations of the store until 1901, when business had slowed to the point where the store went out of business, and the building was sold to different businesses. Both sons went into real estate.
Edward the younger seems to have been a bit of a strange guy, and operated his real estate business out of the damp, dark subbasement of his family’s old department store. He took to wearing rain boots and carrying an umbrella at all times, and let his beard grow out, making him look rather unkempt. In January of 1931, Edward came into work one morning and discovered Herman Muench, his secretary of 51 years (who had been working with the Ridley family since the age of 9), dead in the cellar. At first, a doctor determined that Mr. Muench had died of natural causes, but when the body was taken to the morgue the coroner discovered two bullet wounds in Mr. Muench’s abdomen and chest! Robbery was the suspected motive, but Mr. Muench still had all of his money in his wallet. The case went cold.
Two years later in 1933, 88-year old Edward Ridley and his new secretary, Lee Weinstein, were found dead in the very same room where Muench was murdered in 1931! Weinstein was shot five times and Ridley had been beaten to death with a high stool. Robbery was not a motive, as both men had all of their money, and Edward’s gold watch had not been removed. A dispute with a tenant was a possible motive.
Things get much stranger when police reopened the Muench case in an attempt to shed some light on the two latter murders, and a ballistics report showed that Meunch and Weinstein were shot with the same gun!
The investigation did reveal that Weinstein had been living with his wife under an assumed name in a midtown hotel, and was bootlegging in a room in the garage where Edward kept his office, but neither of these pieces of information explained the murder. Police found Edward’s will in which he bequeathed $200,000 to Weinstein, but further investigation discovered that the will was a fake and Weinstein and two accomplices had already stolen over $200,000 from the old man. The thieves were indicted, but no murderer was ever punished. It remains one of the Lower East Side’s strangest cold cases.
Interested in more stories like this one? Check out our walking tours!
– Posted by Lib Tietjen