Skid Row Deaths Of 1963 Echoes Today’s Opioid Crisis

 

The Darien Hotel on Philly’s old Skid Row (in 1973) where four of 31 Sterno poisoning victims, William McTide, Thomas Burns, Nathan Stevens, and Robert Lance, were staying when they died during Christmas 1963 . | Image courtesy of Temple University Special Collections Research Center

The bodies started showing up two days before Christmas 1963. As the holiday passed, the death count went up to 12. By New Year’s Day, the tally had reached 31. During this time, daily newspaper headlines updated what the Philadelphia Daily News called the “alky toll,” as all had been found dead in Skid Row rooming houses and cage hotels with empty cans of Sterno cooking fuel littered about. The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the cause of the deaths as methanol (wood alcohol) poisoning.

On Skid Row, empty Sterno cans were the calling cards of the “pink lady.” Also known as “squeeze,” this is the drink made by first straining the gelatinous “canned heat” through a piece of cloth to isolate the pinkish liquid methanol, and then adding water or soda to make a cheap, potent cocktail that is almost palatable. The usual Sterno fuel contained 3.5% methanol, but this industrial strength, Christmas batch had a 57% methanol content. At that concentration, a tablespoon was enough to kill. Lesser doses led to convulsions and blindness.

Two weeks after the last fatality, the police traced the retail source of this industrial strength Sterno to a cigar store on northeast corner of 8th and Vine Streets and its proprietor, Max Feinberg. Feinberg had gained notoriety in 1947 when, as the operator of a Germantown ice cream parlor, he was linked to a gun used by William Hallowell to kill two police officers. He beat that rap when Hallowell refused to testify against him. In the current situation, all agreed that Feinberg inadvertently sold the industrial strength product, but no one believed that he thought the purchases were for cooking purposes. This, according to then District Attorney James Crumlish, was tantamount to involuntary manslaughter. With that, Feinberg entered the Philadelphia record books as (with the possible exception of Kermit Gosnell) the city’s most prolific killer.

Canned heat killer. Example of a can of Sterno can from 1964. | Image courtesy of Temple University Special Collections Research Center

8th and Vine was the besotted heart of Philadelphia’s Skid Row, the intersection, in the words of Temple University sociologist Leonard Blumberg, of “liquor and poverty.” Skid Row, during the 1950s and 60s, was a 20-square block holding pen for Philadelphia’s homeless population. It ranged east to west from 6th to 11th Streets and south to north from Arch to Callowhill Streets, within which were a range of establishments that catered to the homeless man’s residential, material, spiritual, and libational needs. A heavy police presence maintained Skid Row’s boundaries with the implicit threat of a vagrancy charge or worse to any derelict who strayed into the Independence Hall or downtown areas.

Liquor and poverty were the building blocks of Skid Row’s ecology. During the 1963 holiday season, Skid Row’s homeless population was about 2,800. Despite this relatively small number, Skid Row accounted for one-fourth of all Philadelphia public intoxication arrests. According to a study by sociologist Earl Rubington, the area had an alcohol outlet per capita rate (not including cigar stores) for Skid Row that was about four times that of the overall city. Researchers estimated that a substantial minority, between one-fifth and one-third, of this population met diagnostic criteria for alcoholism, while a 1961 Temple University survey of Skid Row found 85% of the population disclosed drinking at least occasionally, and 45% reported having been arrested for public intoxication or vagrancy. Economics dictated that Skid Row amenities, including the alcohol, be cheap, as only 37% reported any type of employment and the median annual income for 1959 was just under $1,000 ($8,360 in 2017 dollars).

Max Weinberg’s former cigar store on the northeast corner of 8th and Vine Streets in 1966, approximately two years after his arrest. | Image courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

Beyond numbers, however, was the near universal perception, stated best by sociologist Samuel Wallace, that the drunk was “the only fully acculturated member of Skid Row subculture.” Alternately, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Bill Speers once observed, “I thought at first that the [Skid Row] men lived for the next drink. But I’m certain now that they only drink to fill the space. In fact, they are engaged in long-term suicide.”

While researchers and journalists amply demonstrated the misery that hung over the intersection of 8th and Vine Streets, they paid less attention to the economic opportunities available to Skid Row businesses like Max Feinberg’s cigar store. A 1961 Temple University survey reported that 12% of respondents would at least occasionally drink Sterno or other “non-beverage” alcohols. This indicates a niche market for this use of Sterno; easy money for Feinberg and at least four other outlets who were willing to facilitate access to this high-risk, low-cost means to obliteration. Customers would ask Feinberg to “make one,” upon which Feinberg would reach under the counter and procure the “shoe polish.” Inventory records presented in Feinberg’s trial showed that, in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, he sold 390 seven-ounce industrial strength Sterno cans at two cans for 29 cents. He admonished customers to conceal the Sterno under their coats when leaving his store. Although Feinberg sold the heat with apparent impunity, getting caught on Skid Row in possession of Sterno meant a 30-day drying-out bid at the Philadelphia House of Correction.

Philadelphia Daily News clipping recounting Max Feinberg’s arrest. | Image: Newspapers.com

Indeed, it was only upon making the deadly switch of Sterno grades that Feinberg faced legal consequences. Even then, the 31 poisoning deaths translated to five convictions of involuntary manslaughter and violating the Pennsylvania Pharmacy Act, stemming from his lack of credentials for dispensing the methanol for personal use. Subsequent appeals upheld four manslaughter convictions, but dismissed the Pharmacy Act violations. For the manslaughter convictions he received four, stacked 1-to 5-year sentences. Feinberg was paroled in 1970 after four years in prison. As for his erstwhile surviving customers, after the poisoning deaths canned heat had drawn too much heat, so they switched to drinking witch hazel.

Philadelphia Daily News reporter Ron Avery, in a 1997 recollection, observed that these poisoning deaths “were sort of a deadly farewell to Philadelphia’s seedy, but compact Skid Row.” Indeed, in the decade following what Avery called the “canned heat wave,” Skid Row was paved over by the Vine Street Expressway and urban renewal. During this process, the question about whether Skid Row would relocate to another area drew considerable consternation, and concern erupted into a vehement neighborhood outcry in 1969 after a State highway department official made an offhand suggestion that some South Philadelphia sites would be suitable for such a move.

In retrospect, if there is a modern-day Skid Row, it now lies at the intersection of opioids and poverty. With 8th and Vine Streets now buried under the Vine Street Expressway, a plausible stand-in for this intersection would be Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street, the “cop-free heroin zone” under the El tracks at the center of an area in North Philadelphia known as the “Badlands.” This area of Kensington is qualitatively very different from old Skid Row, but, like Skid Row, its built environment shares its identity with an economically marginalized, socially stigmatized, and addiction-based subculture.

Locations of 907 overdose deaths in Philadelphia, 2016. The area surrounding Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street is under the cluster to the center right of the map. | Image: 2016 CHART report, Philadelphia Department of Public Health

An account by economist Daniel Rosenblum and his colleagues illustrates this, explaining how, “Up through the 1950s, this area was Philadelphia’s largest and most concentrated industrial neighborhood. Today it has morphed into an approximately 800+ square block territory of decaying row homes clustered tightly around huge abandoned red-brick factories. Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of housing abandonment of all large cities in the United States and this neighborhood’s exceptionally large, abandoned factories, derelict railroad tracks, vacant lots, and decaying rowhomes offer a devastated, but still heavily-inhabited infrastructure that has fomented a high-risk environment facilitating public narcotics sales and use. A spatially concentrated and highly flexible, but efficient structure of hierarchically-controlled open-air drug markets has emerged out of these de-industrialized ruins.”

If Max Feinberg were around, there would be a place for him in the Badlands. The 31 deaths, when they are remembered, still shock. In comparison, however, Philadelphia saw over 900 overdoses in 2016, with the highest concentration in the Badlands and occasional clusters resulting from particularly toxic or pure batches of heroin, sometimes laced with fentanyl. There have been calls that, like Feinberg, implicated dealers should face manslaughter charges. But in such an environment, be it Skid Row or the Badlands, such ill-fated players would draw some fleeting attention, but then would hardly be missed.

About the author

Over his career, Steve Metraux has done extensive research on homelessness and related topics. He is currently a recovering professor and an analyst for the VA’s National Center for Homelessness Among Veterans. He has called West Philadelphia “home” since 1995, and has learned most of what he needs to know about Philadelphia from morning runs and twenty years of walks with his three children. More information about him is available at www.stephenmetraux.com



4 Comments


  1. Certainly a worthwhile subject in light of today’s drug crises, though it’s painful to read.

  2. I have often wondered why people do drugs and I do remember the Sterno deaths back then. That really made me wonder why in the world would someone do that! It’s as if with the drugs and the Sterno…..these people just wanted to commit suicide. Good article thank you.

  3. its never going to change even goinng back to laudanum use in the 1800″s

  4. Good story. I wrote almost the exact same story two months ago and submitted it to the Inquirer. For unknown reasons it was not used.
    Interestingly, just six months prior to our canned heat deaths, New York City had more than 50 dead derelicts who somehow drank a type of paint or shellac thinner. Again, there was a change in the wood alcohol content of the stuff.

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