Gymnastics Venue Known as the Turnverein Ignited Athletic Movement in 19th Century
Do sports and politics mix?
In New York, the question is older than American football and the Republican Party.
Consider 1848, when a new type of athletic venue — the turnverein — came to the city. German for gymnastics club, the turnverein had been created in German-speaking countries more than 30 years earlier, to develop strong bodies to fight Napoleon’s conquering armies.
Turnverein operations were established in Greater New York by German immigrants, who regularly made the clubs the social center of their communities. Known as Turners, the American turnverein members were tied to progressive ideology at the same time they ignited a sports participation movement still being felt today.
In 1866 at a turnverein in Manhattan, Turners started the nation’s first teacher’s school for physical education, which later moved and today is the Indiana University School of Physical Education. In addition, Turners are credited as the inspiration for the formation of physical education programs in New York schools and the creation in Manhattan of the nation’s first school sports league.
But for many, Turners were seen as advocates for political beliefs that had been espoused for years by various turnverein leaders in Germany. Indeed, the turnverein ran into opposition within the New York State senate and some other strongholds because of the perceived political views, which included liberal expansion of personal liberties, support of socialism, and opposition to slavery and nativism.
The subject of one of dozens of brief documentaries that have been shown exclusively to guests of New York Sports Tours‘ sports history tour experiences, the turnverein has an enduring Greater New York story.
The documentary examines Brooklyn turnverein members who served to calm the 1863 New York City Draft Riots. New York’s most deadly street protests, the event targeted members of the Black community and cost more than 100 lives.
Fourteen months later, as part of a multi-day event called a turnfest, Turners from more than three dozen cities from the East Coast to New Orleans hosted a string of activities, including gymnastics competition and exhibitions at what is now the Lenox Hill neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The New York Times reported that on the turnfest’s fourth day, the Turners adopted a platform that included “setting forth that Slavery was objectionable to every Turner.”
By 1860, some 150 turnverein outposts in America were in operation, with about 10,000 Turners. In New York, the German community grew rapidly in the Upper East Side’s Yorkville section, and in 1897 a four-story turnverein was opened there at 85th Street and Lexington Avenue.
Among the Yorkville Turners was Heinrich Gehrig, a working-class German immigrant. After Gehrig’s pre-teen son Lou was regularly ridiculed for being overweight, and nicknamed Fat by Yorkville kids, Heinrich Gehrig took Lou to the Yorkville turnverein to get in shape.
During workouts at the turnverein that continued into his high school years, Lou Gehrig developed a solid athletic build. He would become known as baseball’s Iron Horse, a New York Yankees star and for many years the Major League Baseball record holder for the most consecutive games played.
The history of the turneverin in New York opens in November 1848 at a house on Forstyth Street northeast of City Hall, when the city was Manhattan. That first New York turnverein was a step forward for sports. Previously, the region’s gyms were standalone businesses, independently operated for fencing, boxing or gymnastics instruction but not tied in to a larger movement.
“Prior to 1848, no club or society for the promotion and pursuit of physical education was, to my knowledge, in existence in the city of New York,” Henry Metzner, a New York turnverein administrator, wrote in 1896 in American Physical Education Review.
The first New York turnverein founded the first American turnverein association. In 1850 in Philadelphia, association members from more than half a dozen turnverein groups participated in an inaugural gathering called the First Congress of the German Gymnastics of North America. At the event, the New York Turnverein was chosen as the association’s home seat.
The New-York Daily Tribune reported that the New York representatives at the first congress had formed their turnverein, “for only gymnastic purposes… not to be willing to unite any social or political principles.” Accordingly, the New York contingent voted against political resolutions. Some of the measures they opposed were passed, including “the furtherance of Socialism” and “the Emancipation of the Human race.”
Less than a month after the turnverein congress, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that slaves be returned to their owners, even from free states. Many Turners spoke out against the decision and against United States president Millard Fillmore, a former New York State senator and a member of the Whig political party.
Within four years, the New York state senate addressed a request by a Brooklyn turnverein to become incorporated. A front page story in the New York Herald reported that in Albany, Whig state senator Samuel Backus of Brooklyn, “rose in opposition… The Turn Verins was an association of infidel liberals, established in Germany, ostensibly for gymnastic purposes. It being a secret organization, [Backus] could not, of course, speak distinctly of their purposes but he believed… that they were a political organization.” The incorporation application was rejected, but later passed.
The incorporated turnverein was on Meserole Street, where it would remain until relocation in 1901. The Meserole Street site was on a stretch in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section that would become known for its breweries. When the Civil War started, the turnverein fielded a two-company military regiment, and was among the first to voluntarily enter battles on behalf of the Union.
In July 1863, the war was into its third year when a five-day reign of terror known as the New York City Draft Riots raged in Manhattan. The civil unrest centered on the east side of what would become bustling Midtown Manhattan. The violent protests were the result of the United States Congress’ passage of legislation to draft men into the war.
Thousands were enraged, with Irish laborers among the most outspoken. Some resented the provision of the law that allowed any man to pay $300 to hire someone to fight on his behalf. Of course, only those with certain means could afford the fee. Others did not support fighting the war to end slavery. Many believed that freed Blacks would migrate north and take their jobs as cheaper labor.
As a manifestation of the latter sentiment, many of the city’s Black residents were attacked. Colored Orphan Asylum, a four-story orphanage for more than 230 Black children on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, was burned to the ground on the first day of the rioting. The orphanage would be rebuilt miles away from the horrific memory.
Many regarded Ye Olde Willow Cottage, a drinking establishment on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets across the street from the orphanage, as the rioters’ headquarters. A converted frame house, the place was named for the willow tree outside. Some historical reports have boxer Tom Hyer having served as a manager of the tavern. A native New Yorker and, by many accounts, the first major sports celebrity in America, Hyer in 1849 had won the unofficial national heavyweight championship.
During the course of the 1863 rioting, police, soldiers, and military were attacked, as was government property. On the third day, rioting expanded to Brooklyn and Staten Island. In addition to more than 100 deaths, the riots wold leave thousands injured and about 3,000 Black citizens homeless.
Sympathetic members of the Brooklyn turnverein on Meserole Street took action when thousands of Blacks looked for safety. In the turnverein then known locally as the Turn Hall, hundreds of Blacks found sanctuary. The Turners saved the lives of their temporary guests by successfully holding off mobs outside.
The turnverein members also calmed the rioting. A 1906 story in Brooklyn’s The Chat notes, “When in 1863 the draft riots in New York City broke out and great disorder existed, the Williamsburg Turners succeeded in maintaining absolute order in the streets of the old city of Williamsburg by rendering militia service.”
By 1871, 20 years before basketball was invented, New York newspapers were proclaiming that more of the indoor turnverein venues were needed to get men in shape, and as a leisure-time upgrade over pool halls. Turners put on many gymnastics exhibitions to show how athletics should be part of schooling.
The turnverein also underscored the need for female athletic participants. In 1871, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported of a “gymnastic school for girls, held under the auspices of the Turnversein, in their hall on Meserole street.”
Turnverein venues spread, with staging inside for gymnastics and other sports events, including the long jump and pole vault. By 1880, the turnverein community declared its primary goal was the introduction of physical education training in all American schools.
The effort brought physical education at schools mainstream. On May 17, 1879, the first interscholastic sports competition, a track meet, was held on the eighth-of-a-mile cinder-ash track of the Manhattan Athletic Club, at Eighth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets in Manhattan.
After the meet, students from participating private boys’ secondary schools gathered to create the nation’s first school sports league. They did so before the formation of the first college athletic league, with adult supervision from the year-old Manhattan Athletic Club.
Called the Interscholastic League, the association helped give footing to the fledgling Manhattan Athletic Club. Within seven years, the club was able to build its first clubhouse. Located on the western side of Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, the structure was across the street from Ye Olde Willow Cottage, on the former grounds of the Colored Orphan Asylum.
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