Breaking news! Atlanta’s seedy past!

1 Jul

You guys, let’s get real about our roots. Atlanta has not always been the wholesome, safe hometown we love and respect. There was once a tainted time in our genteel city before the Clermont Lounge, before the Ying-Yang Twins, before the basement dungeon at the Atlanta Eagle – this was a long, long time ago, but it existed nevertheless.

The other day I discovered (on what appears to be the blog of the Wigwam building) this excerpt from the 1889 tome History of Atlanta by Wallace P. Reed:

Picture 3

East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia is the railroad company that in the very late 19th century became Southern Railway and eventually Norfolk Southern. These shops were later known as the Pegram Shops. Snake Nation is now Castleberry Hill, but lives on as the name of the neighborhood’s kickball team.

More on this area from the DeKalb Sheriff’s website:

By 1851, two sections of Atlanta, known as Murrel’s Row and Snake Nation, inhabited by the criminal element, had grown in size and reputation. The first Atlanta jail was not very suitable. Prisoners would either dig their way out, or wait until enough people had been incarcerated, at which time they would simply turn the structure over, and crawl out. It was in this year that law abiding citizens started their own war against crime, and completely destroyed Murrel’s Row and Snake Nation, scattering their inhabitants.

“Murrel’s Row?” (Also spelled Murrell’s Row.) “What’s that?” you ask. From Archival Atlanta:

Named for the notorious Tennessee murderer, John A. Murrell, this section of town was a favorite hangout for thieves, gamblers, cutthroats, and prostitutes. Drunken brawls and cockfights were common and expected here. Before the Civil War, Murrell’s Row was the preferred meeting place for those who wanted to fight and concoct schemes. This notorious area north of Decatur Street between Peachtree and Pryor faded away shortly before the Civil War.

John Thrasher, as quoted in Pioneer Citizens’ History of Atlanta, 1833-1902, agrees: “Decatur street was called ‘Murrel’s Row’, and it was a great place for cock-fighting.”

According to one source, “Atlanta had begun as a collection of shanties, whorehouses, and saloons.” My, how little has changed! This time, about 15 years before the Civil War, was one of ill repute for Atlanta. “The period was noted for its corruption,” says Reed’s history. “Bad institutions of every sort were scattered about the place.” He describes Murrel’s Row geography as “the block starting at the juncture of Line, Decatur and Peachtree streets, and running back towards Pryor on Decatur street.” (Basically, right at Five Points.)

The rise and fall of Murrel’s Row and Snake Nation, like Atlanta’s own Sodom and Gomorrah, from Atlanta and Its Builders (1902):

Picture 4Picture 5

“White Caps” isn’t a euphemism for the KKK, but I think some sort of vigilante moral police. According to Atlanta’s now-defunct ward system, Murrel’s Row fell in – guess where? The red light old Fourth Ward. (Slabtown is the area where Grady Hospital now stands.)

While digging all this stuff up, I found out why the neighborhood called Pittsburgh got its name – and it’s not very flattering to the original Pennsylvania city (via the Southeastern Railway Museum):

During that time, smoke from Pegram [Shops] and other industries centered around Windsor and Love streets in south Atlanta causing the area to be called “Pittsburgh.”

Here’s a longer history of Pittsburgh, if you’re interested. It’s not as colorful as Snake Nation and Murrel’s Row, though!

11 Responses to “Breaking news! Atlanta’s seedy past!”

  1. Ben K Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 11:59 am #

    I find the Murrell’s Row tidbit interesting – by 1906, Decatur street downtown was referred to in the New York Times (in an article about the race riots):

    Decatur street, which in a way is Atlanta’s Bowery, being thickly studded by negro saloons and restaurants, was swept away by a great mob.

    No idea if there was a racial angle to the Murrell’s Row stuff – it is quite possible that in the aftermath of Murrell’s Row, Decatur Street had a hard time rehabilitating its image, thus the “negro” saloons.

    Also worth mentioning in this post – in the late 19th century, Thompson Street downtown was changed to Madison Street because of the “seedy” association of Thompson Street. Where is Madison Street? It is now Spring Street at the Norfolk Southern building – it got its name changed again when the viaduct was built in the 1920s.

  2. Lain Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    I would like to write my own history of Atlanta keeping everything the same except for the Ying-Yang twins — they will become the Romulus and Remus of the ATL.

    • pecanne log Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 6:03 pm #

      And all the prostitutes who were shipped out of Murrel’s Row and Slabtown into Decatur went on to start Agnes Scott College.

  3. Rusty Tanton Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 1:02 pm #

    Interesting info, thanks for posting. I love all this stuff and wish there was a blog dedicated to digging up Atlanta history tidbits like this.

    Lain,
    If this was Facebook I would “Like” your comment.

  4. Mark Davis Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    This is related, sort of, to Rusty’s reference to digging up Atlanta history: Today I spent an hour or so at the Atlanta History Center, where I came across photos taken in Atlanta during the New Deal. A lot of the images detailed crews as they worked to replace Atlanta’s aged sewer system.

    Now, those pipes, put in the ground seven decades ago, are coming to light again as crews work to replace Atlanta’s aged sewer system.

  5. ray henderson Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

    I have just finished a book on the Pony Club in West Atlanta from about 1826-38. It covers Gwinnet, Dekalb, Henry, Fayette, Campbell , and finally Fulton Counties, where Sandtown was located at one time or another. Sandtown was the first stop for the 50 related family members from Tennessee who moved here for the specific purpose of Operating a “pony club”. Also covered is Alabama, where the club stole horses from both Creek and Cherokees, prompting local “slicks’ to converge on Carroll County to get justice. The club moved to Paulding county in 1832 and had its HQ at Clean town, in Polk County. They operated over Tennessee, North and South Carolina and had some activity in Florida as well. Their activities opened up a whole genre of early 19th century literature…the “border romance”..with books like “Guy Rivers” that told tales of the Pony Club in NW georgia.

    I hope to have this in print this year and think many will discover just how lawless this area was until the 1840s.

  6. atlpaddy Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

    I think the histories of Murrell’s Row and Slabtown would also converge nicely with the history of the Irish in Atlanta.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] Now that we are firmly ensconced in Atlanta, jostling for space between cars on our bikes, sampling restaurants to soothe our California palettes, and working to make The Boxcar Grocer a reality, it is time to reference the community into which we decided to build our business. Because everyone seems to want to know why two die-hard San Franciscans decided to open a business on the other side of the country in a neighborhood few people have ever heard of. […]

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