Simon Gillis: A 3-time Olympian Who Accidentally Killed a Boy in Harlem in 1904.

The Lincoln Houses between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue, from 132nd Street to 135th Street, as they appear today (Google Maps)

The Lincoln Houses between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue, from 132nd Street to 135th Street, as they appear today (Google Maps)

Today, if you follow Park Avenue all the way north to its terminus at the Harlem River somewhere near 135th Street, you’ll find the brown-brick Lincoln Houses, built by the New York City Housing Authority in 1948. The towers hold some 3,000 residents, none of whom likely know the tragic story which unfolded on their block in 1904, when it was little more than a grassy field.

The block between Madison & Park from 134th to 135th as it appeared in 1916. It is mostly empty lots and wooden (yellow) buildings. (NYPL)

The block between Madison & Park from 134th to 135th as it appeared in 1916. It is mostly empty lots and wooden (yellow) buildings. (NYPL)

At 29 years of age, Simon Gillis was already an accomplished athlete. Six-foot-four and built like an ox, Simon was an up-and-coming star on the world’s track & field stage. His specialty event, the hammer throw, required him to hurl a 16-pound steel ball tied to a cable as far as he possibly could. And Simon could throw it very, very far: well over 100 feet, in fact. He qualified for the 1904, 1908, and 1912 Olympic Games in the sport, and was a regular champion of various city, state, and national events.

Simon Gillis depicted in the October 13, 1906 athletic special edition of the Evening World newspaper. (NY Times, July 27, 2012)

Simon Gillis depicted in the October 13, 1906 athletic special edition of the Evening World newspaper. (NY Times, July 27, 2012)

But through all of his successes, Simon Gillis was haunted by the memory of what happened in that 133rd Street lot in the Fall of 1904. Like he did many days, Simon walked from his apartment on 127th Street to the empty lot to practice his hammer throwing. As was his habit of safety, Gillis walked to the adjacent empty lot where young boys would often play baseball. But on that September afternoon, he found none, and carried on with his practice.

Gillis in 1912 NY Athletic Club Uniform NYT 7 27 2012

Simon Gillis with his hammer in 1912, depicted in his NY Athletic Club uniform (NY Times July 27, 2012)

He was in top form that day, sending hammers hurdling down the long field. Soon, a group of boys gathered  along the surrounding fence to watch and cheer him on. At some point, though, a few other boys had wandered into the adjacent lot to play ball, unaware of the potential danger next door. When an errant baseball flew over the fence into Gillis’s lot, 14-year-old Christian Koehler, who lived with his parents just west of the lot on 133rd Street, climbed over to fetch it. Simon Gillis, at the other end of the lot, was already in his windup spin. He never saw the boy until it was too late.

New York Times, October 1, 1904

New York Times, October 1, 1904

The 16-pound hammer left Gillis’s hands, and the audience of boys applauded the man, as it was obvious that this one was flying a tremendous distance. But applause turned to horror as everyone began to realize that Christian Koehler stood directly in the path of the hammer. They cried out, Gillis included, for him to get out of the way. But Christian’s focus was on his baseball. It is likely that he never felt a thing. The hammer smashed into his skull at lightning speed, knocking him to the ground, where went still in a pool of his own blood.

Evening World Report NYT 7 27 2012

A report in the Evening World depicting Gillis hitting Christian Koehler with his hammer. (NY Times July 27, 2012)

Simon Gillis raced down the field to where the boy’s body lay. He scooped him up and carried him to Harlem Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Heartbroken, Gillis turned himself into the police and was locked up pending investigation. Little else is known about the aftermath of Christian Koehler’s tragic death. The following day, at the New York Athletic Club games, the hammer throwers were given the field to themselves in silence during their competition, in seeming deference to the previous day’s tragedy. But otherwise, Christian Koehler and his death have been largely lost to history.

Irish American Athletic Club members in Sweden after the 1908 Olympic Games

Irish American Athletic Club members visiting Sweden after the 1908 London Olympic Games. Simon Gillis is at far left.

Life went on for Gillis. He was featured in various newspapers and magazines as his athletic star continued to rise. In 1908, he qualified for the United States Olympic Team traveling to London. On the ship ride across the Atlantic, Gillis and his teammates consumed such massive quantities of food that their exhasperated waiter exclaimed, “They’re not men; they’re whales!” Each day for breakfast, Gillis would order a dozen eggs, raw in their shells. He’d dollop each with mustard or some such garnish, and swallow them whole. “Eggs with the fur on,” as he called them. He went on to place 7th at the London Games, throwing his hammer 149 feet 6.5 inches.

July 4 1913 Gillis in tug of war against 6 men in Spain NYT 7 27 2012

Gillis in Spain on July 4, 1913. He played tug-of-war against 6 men. And he won. (NY Times July 27, 2012)

After the 1908 Games, Simon Gillis joined the New York Police Department, directing traffic at the corner of Broadway and Duane Street. In 1912, he and five other officers qualified for the Olympic Games in Stockholm. The men became known as “the Knights of the Nightstick,” and were featured in the New York Herald before they left for Sweden. Unfortunately, Gillis strained his leg and was unable to compete in the Hammer. But fellow Knight Matthew McGrath took Gold.

Gillis in 1917 Film NYT 7 27 2012

Gillis acting in a film, ca 1917 (NY Times July 27, 2012)

Back in New York, Officer Gillis bemoaned the low wages earned by city traffic patrolmen, and decided to take a contracting job in Spain. After some years of working (and competing) in Europe, Simon returned to New York, taking a job creating silent movie screen titles for Thomas Edison. He even played a policeman in at least one feature film, “Builders of Castles,” in 1917.

Gillis in 1932 NYT 7 27 2012

Gillis, still in athletic condition, in 1932. (NY Times July 27, 2012)

Gillis eventually left New York for good, traveling west to Montana, where he met his wife, Bridget. The pair settled in Phoenix, where their first daughter, Effie, was born in 1919. The family operated a boarding house there during the Depression, and Simon worked a series of other odd jobs around Phoenix over the following decades. He ultimately died in 1964 at age 88, the last survivor of his 1908 troupe of “Whales.” By all accounts, he lived a full life and forged an imposing athletic resume, despite the tragedy which befell him that fateful day in a lot on Park Avenue in 1904.

Gillis in Spain NYT 7 27 2012

Gillis in Spain, doing what he did best. (NY Times July 27, 2012)

About keithyorkcity

Name: Keith Age: 20-something Location: New York Passion: History You'll find a million blogs like mine, but mine is better.
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