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Glamour and Grime: The Dark Past of Greenwich Village

By Megan Messana   New York City’s Greenwich Village has a reputation as being a bohemian mecca, an artist’s haven and the home of the...

By Megan Messana

 

New York City’s Greenwich Village has a reputation as being a bohemian mecca, an artist’s haven and the home of the modern LGBTQ+ movement. Beneath this bright image of the Village lies a darker and grim history.

 

Chapter  7 – The Ghosts of the Future

It was 6:30 a.m. when the 911 call came in. Hedda Nussbaum told the dispatcher that her adopted daughter Lisa had recently stopped breathing. She left out that Lisa had been unconscious for nearly 12 hours at that point.

Nussbaum had been mostly home alone with the 6-year-old since 7:00 pm the night before, when Nussbaum’s partner Joel Steinberg had hit the child on the head. In and out of the apartment since, smoking cocaine with Nussbaum when he was present, Steinberg finally told her to call 911 in the morning after his attempts to wake Lisa failed. The couple’s other adopted child, 14-month-old Mitchell, was also home.

Police officers and paramedics arrived at 14 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village on the morning of November 2, 1987 to find Lisa still alive, but unconscious and unresponsive, Mitchell tied to a chair drinking spoiled milk, Steinberg high and Nussbaum with two sunken eyes, one blackened, in a swollen face, along with a split lip and a swollen and inflamed leg. The police offer who wrote up the report described the apartment as “filthy and unkept.” The police knew as much about Nussbaum and Steinberg as the public did at that point, which was not much.

 

The block where they lived on West 10th was a quiet, well-kept one – not like other parts of the Village in those days, where the Mafia owned gay bars and hordes of people were dying from HIV/AIDS and crack use.

The Village was first developed as a residential area in the late 19th century, though some records of its name date as far back as the 17th century. It was fairly wealthy and upper-class in its early days, but over time large parts of it became home to lower-income artists and immigrants. Certain blocks – such as West 10th Street – managed to stay staunchly middle-class.[1] In the days before 14 West 10th was converted from a single-family home to apartments, Mark Twain lived there for a year when he was in his 60s. There is a plaque on the front of the building commemorating the author’s brief stay.[2]

Until the morning the cops showed up, Steinberg 46, and Nussbaum, his 45-year-old common-law wife, fit the respectable ambience. He was a defense attorney. She was a children’s book editor. They had two children. No one else had known they were adopted, certainly not that the adoption was illegal. The couple went out a lot to parties. No one had thought any more about any of it.

 

Decades earlier, Jan Bryant Bartell and her husband moved into 14 West 10th Street in 1957. They stayed there for only seven years, as she claimed the house was haunted. She documented her experiences in her book, Spindrift: Spray from a Psychic Sea, published shortly before she died in 1974. In it, she describes every paranormal interaction she believed to have had living there, and how they eventually caused her to go from being an aspiring actress to a psychic medium.

In 1969, a few years after Bartell left West 10th Street, Greenwich Village was designated as a historic district, with every building in the neighborhood earning landmark status, including 14 West 10th Street. In the designation report, the building is described as a “handsome Italianate house.”[3]

Bartell was not the first person to make claims of hauntings at 14 West 10th Street. Before her, others claimed they saw Twain’s ghost lingering about, although he did not die in that house. Even Twain himself allegedly claimed he once saw a wood plank moving on its own by the fireplace in the house, leading him grab a pistol and shoot at it.[4]

Perhaps what these residents were seeing were not ghosts from the past, but things that would take place in the not-too-distant future.

 

Four days after the 911 call, Lisa died of a brain hemorrhage at St. Vincent’s Medical Center. Steinberg and Nussbaum were charged with murder.[5] Mitchell was briefly placed in New York City foster care before his biological mother, 18-year-old Nicole Bridget Smigiel, was awarded temporary custody. Less than a month later, Smigiel won full permanent custody of her son.

 

There were over 1,000 murders in New York City in 1987. The crack epidemic had brought with it a slew of homicides, especially in the poor neighborhoods where crack, the cheap form of cocaine, was most heavily used. One possible explanation for the secondary plague of murders is that the drug itself can make users paranoid and or aggressive. Besides that, it leads to dangerous interactions with drug dealers, other users and police officers. Most of the arrests for crack were of low-income people of color.[6]

The original powder form of cocaine was far more expensive. It had the reputation of being the drug of stockbrokers and lawyers, and arrests for it were much less common. [7] Sentences for possession of 500 grams of cocaine would carry a minimum 5 year federal prison sentence, while only 5 grams of crack would warrant the same sentence.[8] Yet they are the same substance and could have the same effect on users’ personal life.

After Lisa’s death, Steinberg’s history of drug abuse emerged. As an attorney, he had often defended clients facing drug charges. Two such clients, John and Donna Novak, who were convicted of selling drugs in 1982, claimed afterward that Steinberg demanded they supply him with drugs during the trial and that he was using cocaine during the proceedings. These allegations were the basis for their appeal of their conviction in 1983. The allegations against Steinberg were dismissed and their appeal was denied.[9]

On the morning that the ambulance took Lisa away, the police searched Steinberg and Nussbaum’s apartment. They found hashish, marijuana, five medicine bottles filled with cocaine, five plastic vials of cocaine and 25 crack pipes, according to the police report. They also found about $25,000 in cash.[10]

Neighbors started to come out with complaints against Steinberg, though they involved nothing that would have been noteworthy prior to Lisa’s death. Things such as his unpleasant demeanor, or the loud dog he supposedly owned at one point.[11]

As Steinberg’s façade of a respectable middle-class lawyer started to collapse, Lisa’s biological mother, Michele Launders, worked on tearing down the façade of the neighborhood as a whole. In a 1988 civil suit, she claimed that everyone knew Lisa was being abused, yet no one stepped in or tried to help.[12] Neighbors claimed otherwise – that they had heard screams coming from the apartment and had seen bruises on Lisa and Nussbaum, that they had called the police at least twice and had also tried to contact child-welfare services, but that no one on the other end of the line was able or willing to assist.[13]

Launders proceeded to sue the Board of Education, the Human Resources Administration, the New York City Police Department, and the Infirmary Downtown Beekman Hospital where Lisa was originally treated, claiming that they all knew she was being abused.

Launders’ civil suit also dealt with the illegal adoption of Lisa by Steinberg and Nussbaum. As a pregnant, single 19-year-old she had asked her doctor, Michael Bergman, to help her arrange for adoption of the baby. Bergman had referred her to Steinberg. Launders paid him $500 under the impression that he would place the baby in a stable home.

Instead he and his Nussbaum kept the baby girl and named her Elizabeth, but would mostly refer to her as Lisa. The adoption was de facto, without any legal procedure. Later, they illegally adopted Mitchell soon after he was born.

The heirs of the since-deceased Dr. Bergman, along with his assistant Jean Liebrader, Steinberg and Nussbaum were all in the list of respondents in Lauder’s suit about her lost daughter.

 

After Lisa’s death, Harold J. Reynolds, the then-chief clerk of the Appellate Division of New York Supreme Court, First Judicial Department, decided to take a closer look at Steinberg’s history. Back when he attended New York University Law School in the 1960s, an exemption from the bar exam was available to students whose studies were interrupted by military service. According to the rules set by the New York State Court of Appeals, the exemption applied to someone who left law school for military service after completing at least two-thirds of the graduation requirements.[14]

Steinberg, it turned out, had barely completed one-third of the requirements before joining the Air Force. He had actually been “dropped for poor scholarship” from N.Y.U. in March 1964 after having failed several courses. He did eventually return to school in 1968 and graduated in 1970, but the fact remained that he never qualified for the exemption that he was granted. It appears that he managed to receive it thanks to a letter written on his behalf from Professor Charles L. Knapp, the acting associate dean of N.Y.U. Law School in 1970 when Steinberg put in his exemption application. Knapp’s letter to the Board of Bar Examiners seemed to state that Steinberg met all of the qualifications, though he admitted in a personal letter to Steinberg that he did not specifically tell the Board that was the case. Nonetheless, Steinberg was admitted to the bar.

Within three weeks of Lisa’s death, disbarment proceedings began, and Steinberg was disbarred less than a year later.

 

Steinberg and Nussbaum were originally charged with second-degree murder. The trial began at the end of October 1988.

Less than a week later, all charges against Nussbaum were dropped. Her attorney, Barry Scheck, successfully presented the “battered woman” defense, arguing that Steinberg had abused her to such an extent that she could not be held at fault for what occurred that night.

The battered woman defense had emerged in the previous decade in cases of women who killed or attempted to kill their husbands. The argument was that that abuse at the hands of these men led the women to kill the abusers in a form of self-defense.[15] In Nussbaum’s case, Scheck cited the ongoing abuse to explain why she did not do more to help Lisa, and why she mostly just listened to everything Steinberg told her to do.[16] Nussbaum’s battered appearance on the morning that she and Steinberg were arrested supported this defense.

Nussbaum helped her position by agreeing to testify against Steinberg. On the night of November 1, 1987, she told the court, Lisa entered Steinberg’s bedroom to ask if he was planning on taking her with him to a dinner meeting that evening. A few minutes later, he left the bedroom with the girl unconscious in his arms.

“The staring business had gotten to be too much,” he told Nussbaum, according to her testimony. Lisa kept staring at him, he had said. Trying to hypnotize him, just like Nussbaum was doing. Lisa also used negative words, like “can’t” and “won’t,” and it bothered him. He could not take the staring, so he knocked her down and she simply just did not want to get back up.

Steinberg left, attending parties throughout the night, coming home sporadically to smoke cocaine with Nussbaum and to remind her of the “staring.” Nussbaum claimed that she was frantic the entire time – consulting medical dictionaries and trying to find ways to save Lisa.

They finished their drugs at around 4:00 a.m. Lisa was still unconscious. Steinberg put her on the bed, Nussbaum claimed, while she told him to call 911. “Just give me a chance,” he said, and tried to resuscitate her.

By the time the call was made, it was too late.

Steinberg tried to argue that he loved Nussbaum and his children, and that he never intended to hurt any of them. At one point, he claimed that he and Nussbaum were involved in a sadomasochist relationship – hence her bruises.

After Nussbaum testified, Steinberg’s attorney, Ira D. London, decided to pursue an insanity defense for his client.

London claimed he could and would provide evidence that Steinberg was delusional, and on the night of November 1 he truly believed that he was helping Lisa, not hurting her.[17] Steinberg believed that Lisa was in a cult, Steinberg explained, and that she was staring at him to try and put him in a trance to join the cult. He thought that the blow to the head would break her out of the trance and, in the long run, save her.

The defense was rejected.

On Jan. 30, 1989, Steinberg was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in the death of 6-year-old Lisa Steinberg. The jury decided that the prosecution had not proved that he had intentionally killed her, so he could not be convicted of murder.

 

In March of that year, during a jailhouse interview, Steinberg showed a reporter pictures of Nussbaum taken the night of their arrest in an attempt to prove his innocence. In his mind, Nussbaum’s swollen and bruised face looked perfectly normal, and he could not understand why anyone would see things any differently.[18]

In 1999, Launders accepted a settlement of $985,000 from all defendants in her civil suit but Steinberg.

In 2004, Steinberg was released from prison for good behavior. He still maintained his complete innocence in Lisa’s death. The most recent records available state that he is living in Harlem and working in construction.[19]

Around the same time, the house in which he killed her became known as “The House of Death.” It eventually became a stop on haunted-house tours throughout the city, even earning its own blog post on the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s website.[20] To this day, residents of the brownstone claim some paranormal activity in the building, though no one has been said to see Mark Twain in quite some time.[21]

“I think it’s all part of the lore. You know, that’s the Village,” Sarah Apmann, director of research and preservation at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said of the notoriety of the house. “I think people would so much rather hear salacious details about their houses than that Mark Twain lived there, frankly … It’s not like out in the suburbs where you’d shy away from the house where the murder took place.”[22]

 

 

 

[1] Apmann, Sarah (Director of Research and Preservation, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation), interviewed by Megan Messana, Brooklyn, N.Y. March 2018

[2] Pollack, Michael. “New York’s Huckleberry Friend.” New York Times, August 10, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/27/nyregion/27twain.html

[3] Landmarks Preservation Division. Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report. Volume 1. New York, NY: New York City Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, 1969. http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/downloads/pdf/reports/GV.pdf#page=73

[4] “The House of Death.” NYC Ghosts (blog). November 1, 2015. https://nyghosts.com/the-house-of-death/

[5] Sullivan, Ronald, “Lisa’s Staring Said to Lead to Beating.” New York Times, December 3, 1988, 29-30. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/12/03/nyregion/lisa-s-staring-said-to-lead-to-beating.html

[6] “New York Crime Rates 1960-2016.” Disaster Center. http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/nycrime.htm

[7] Palamar, Joseph J. et al. “Powder Cocaine and Crack Use in the United States: An Examination of Risk for Arrest and Socioeconomic Disparities in Use.” Drug & Alcohol Dependence, Volume 149 (2015): 108 – 116. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4533860/

[8] Vajins, Deborah J. et al. “Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law.” ACLU (2006). https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/cracksinsystem_20061025.pdf

[9] Glaberson, William, “Chief of Steinberg Ethics Investigation Quits.” New York Times, January 5, 1989, 26. https://www.nytimes.com/1989/01/05/nyregion/chief-of-steinberg-ethics-investigation-quits.html

[10] Henican, Ellis et al. “Death Unveils Parent’s Troubled Path, Couple’s Life of Decay.” Pound Pup Legacy (blog). November 10, 1987. http://poundpuplegacy.org/node/25857

[11] Ibid.

[12] LAUNDERS, MICHELE vs. STEINBERG, JOEL (June, 2014) (WebCivil Supreme, Dist. file).

[13] Cohen, Richard. “The Death of Elizabeth Steinberg,” The Washington Post, November 10, 1987. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1987/11/10/the-death-of-elizabeth-steinberg/3abdd42f-e5d8-4aae-abe9-35bf82874156/?utm_term=.8a0a1d68b342

[14] Shipp, E.R. “Steinberg Disbarred Over Law Exam Exemption,” New York Times, May 20, 1988, 39. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/20/us/steinberg-disbarred-over-law-exam-exemption.html

[15] Walker, Lenore E.A., “Battered Women Syndrome and Self-Defense,” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy 6, no. 2 (2012): 321-334. https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1476&context=ndjlepp

[16] Russo, Francine. “The Faces of Hedda Nussbaum,” New York Times Magazine, March 30, 1997. https://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/30/magazine/the-faces-of-hedda-nussbaum.html

[17] Sullivan, Ronald. “Steinberg’s Lawyer Decides To Pursue Insanity Defense.” New York Times, December 10, 1988, 31. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/12/10/nyregion/steinberg-s-lawyer-decides-to-pursue-insanity-defense.html

[18] Gross, Ken. “Denying His Guilt, Joel Steinberg Tells How He Cared for the Child He Killed and the Lover He Beat.” People, March 13, 1989. http://people.com/archive/denying-his-guilt-joel-steinberg-tells-how-he-cared-for-the-child-he-killed-and-the-lover-he-beat-vol-31-no-10/

[19] Fenton, Reuven, Bruce Golding and Elizabeth Rosner. “Notorious Child Killer still living in Harlem – and shows no remorse.” New York Post, November 1, 2017. https://nypost.com/2017/11/01/notorious-child-killer-still-living-in-harlem-and-shows-no-remorse/

[20] Morowitz, Matthew. “The House of Death.” Off the Grid: The Blog of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (blog). October 19, 2016. http://gvshp.org/blog/2016/10/19/the-house-of-death/

[21] Donnelly, Tim. “Terror on 10th Street.” New York Post, October 28, 2012. https://nypost.com/2012/10/28/terror-on-10th-street/

[22] Ibid.