True crime

Are this Halloween's haunted houses too fake? Try our tour of real-life Manhattan mayhem.

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  • 247 Mulberry Street, 2009

  • The Tombs, 1896

  • The Tombs, 2009

  • Joe Gallo Crime Scene

  • 129 Mulberry Street, 2009

247 Mulberry Street, 2009

1. Before it was the stomping grounds of wide-eyed NYU students, drunk frat-tards and artistic types hoping to glean inspiration from sipping fancy coffee in hip cafs, downtown Manhattan was home to a rougher, and in some cases more homicidal, crowd. To walk through sites loaded with true-crime history, start in Tompkins Square Park (Ave A between 7th and 10th Sts), once the stomping ground of Daniel Rakowitz, also known as “The Butcher of Tompkins Park.” In 1989, the 28-year-old East Village resident, who walked around carrying a live chicken, chopped up his girlfriend Monika Beerle, later serving her in a soup to the Tompkins Square homeless population.

2. Not all local killers are crazed cannibals—some even had literary pretensions (not that one necessarily cancels out the other). As you make your way past what used to be the Binibon Caf (87 Second Ave at 5th St), now an empty storefront, know that you are in the midst of novelistic greatness. This is the spot where Norman Mailer’s onetime protg, Jack Henry Abbott, stabbed a waiter to death in the summer of 1981 (after being told that the bathroom was unavailable). Only six weeks earlier, Mailer had helped the author, who had penned the critically acclaimed In the Belly of the Beast, earn parole for a murder he had committed while serving a sentence in a Utah prison.

3. Make your way to Mulberry Street. Now home to fancy boutiques, the street was once a bloodstained thoroughfare, with bodies frequently turning up in Dumpsters. Note first the former headquarters of mafia kingpin John Gotti Jr. (247 Mulberry St between Prince and Spring Sts), where the progenitor of Growing Up Gotti used to conduct his “business” affairs, which included racketeering, more than a dozen murders, gambling, extortion and other unsavory pastimes. When his youngest son, Frank, was accidently struck by a car driven by his neighbor John Favara, Gotti allegedly had this poor fool murdered and his remains dissolved in acid (or so the story goes). Stop at Mulberry Street Cigar Co. (140 Mulberry St between Grand and Hester Sts; 212-941-7400, mulberrystcigars.com) for a stogie big enough to double as a blunt object.

4. Gotti is far from the only gangster to have made this area his own. As you walk through Little Italy, feast your eyes on what used to be Umberto’s Clam House (129 Mulberry at Hester St), where Crazy Joe Gallo—a violent gangster who attempted to poison rivals while serving prison time—was shot to death while celebrating his 43rd birthday. Today, it’s home to Ristorante Da Gennaro (212-431-3934), where you can enjoy a lovely scaloppini alla caprese ($19.50), provided there are no gangsters out to get you as you sup.

5. Go south on Centre Street until you get to White Street, where you’ll see a series of Orwellian buildings known as The Tombs (125 White St between Centre and Lafayette Sts). Police have processed criminals here for almost 170 years. Over time, the buildings may have changed (they have been periodically torn down, rebuilt and renamed), but the clientele has not. Convicts were actually hanged from the gallows here—including members of the Daybreak Boys gang in 1853—until the electric chair was invented and executions were outsourced.

6. Head back up to Houston Street and go east to Allen Street. Near this intersection, in the early hours of a June day in 1993, serial killer Joel Rifkin picked up his last victim, a prostitute whom he killed in the New York Post parking lot down by its old headquarters at 210 South Street. He kept the body in his car until police pulled him over in Long Island. It turned out that Rifkin had been killing women for years—by his count, he murdered 17 (though not all were found). Rifkin was on the loose for years, which brings us to a disquieting thought: You could have passed a killer while walking today—without even knowing it.

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