Captain Huntsinger And The Gowanus Canal

“She was so melancholy that her neighbors were frightened.”

– Brooklyn Eagle newspaper article on October 15, 1915.

(The weather forecast for this issue simply stated:  Probably Rain)

* * *

Trigger warning: A family murder-suicide.

Joseph and Anna Huntsinger had been saving to buy a little farm in upstate New York. They were not poor and had been happily planning for this future upon Joe’s retirement from the river service. He was a barge captain, and Anna took care of the children at their Brooklyn apartment. They had saved up what is the equivalent today of thousands of dollars in two different bank accounts.

The old Gowanus Creek was widened by the Army Corps of Engineers in a project that started in 1849. This new canal was nearly two miles in length and by as early as 1860, barges lined its banks with traffic due for the harbors of New York City: “the industrial sector around the canal grew substantially over time to include: stone and coal yards; flour mills; cement works, and manufactured gas plants; tanneries, factories for paint, ink, and soap; machine shops; chemical plants; and sulfur producers, all of which emitted substantial water and airborne pollutants.”

Gowanus Canal - Modern day photo.

Gowanus Canal – Modern day photo.

Over the next fifty years, the canal and its environs languished in filth and dangerous toxins. It was also very narrow, with factories and other industries side-by-side on her banks. By 1911, the problems of this waterway were still not solved. A hundred years later in 2010 there was still no reliable way to flush it, so the canal dilemma – forever unresolved – was declared a Superfund Cleanup Site by the federal government.

Vintage photo. "It smelled like shit since time immemorial."

Vintage photo. “It smelled like shit since time immemorial.”

It was in this body of water that barge Captain Joseph Huntsinger lost his life – which in turn, ended four others.

When Joseph did not return home from work on Monday, Anna and her oldest child, Alice – 13, went to all of the hospitals to look for him. They also asked police for help. After not finding Joseph at the hospitals, they were directed to the morgue on Thursday, October 14, 1915. The mother and daughter found him there. He had drowned in the infamous Gowanus Canal; the filthy waterway in western Brooklyn so polluted that it is still treacherous and contaminated as of 2016. Although Joseph drowned, there is no way to know how this happened, and how contaminated that water was way back in 1915. There are no details in Joseph’s death, and unless privately employed one would think his employer or barge-mates would have notified the family before nearly five days of silence and anguish. But that was a different time and all of this is unknown, as is the possibility of foul play.

And so at 8pm on Thursday, October 14, Anna called the children in from the front steps of this red apartment building in Brooklyn:


Mrs. Huntsinger talked to neighbors of dying as a way out of her sorrow. When brother-in-law Peter Connell came by at 10pm on Thursday evening, having also heard the news of Joseph’s death, all was quiet in the home. Assuming everyone was alseep, he came back the next morning. Peter smelled gas emitting from the front door and ran to get the maintenance man. They then kicked in the door…

The family could now all be buried together: Joseph, Anna, their two daughters, Alice, 13; Elizabeth, 8 and the little boy, Emmett, 3. The newspaper, out of nothing but sympathy, had reported that Anna was found in her bed, a photo of Joseph on the nightstand. But in reality, she was found fully dressed on the living room floor.

The family is buried at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.


The Brooklyn Eagle, October 15, 1915.

Imaging the City, by Virginia Terry.