My idea of a fun activity doesn’t include riding around in the backseat of a hearse. But when Downtown Traveler was contacted by the director of Dead Apple Tours with an invitation to “Take the Ride of Your Life in a Hearse,” we jumped at the chance.
On a sunny Friday morning in February, Leslie and I piled into a vintage hearse and embarked on our first death tour of Manhattan.
As we passed famous landmarks– the Empire State Building, Washington Square Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, among others– we heard lurid tales of death and carnage that spanned from the colonial era to the present day.
Some might consider this morbid, but we discovered that a death tour is a fascinating and original way to learn about the city.
“It’s not just about the death, it’s about the moment in time,” explained Drew Raphael, the owner of Dead Apple Tours and the creator of this unique New York City tour.
Drew’s comic style and knowledge of local history makes this a fun excursion for both tourists and locals.
Our tour began in midtown Manhattan, where Drew, dressed in a black suit and hat, sat in the driver’s seat of a 1960 Cadillac Superior Crown Royale. This combination hearse, known as Desdemona, is one of only 468 ever produced.
Desdemona has undergone a full restoration and has a leather interior, comfy red velvet seats, and flat screen videos. (The monitors flash historical photos of the sites and have details on each crime).
Adding to the experience, pipe organ music plays in the background, and a gold-plated box of tissues is available in case your emotions get the best of you.
A word of caution: when you ride around Manhattan in a glossy black hearse, be prepared to be gawked at and photographed by wide-eyed travelers. We enjoyed feeling like celebrities as we became a tourist attraction in our own right!
The tour starts on East 36th Street near the Empire State Building. The famous skyscraper is a classic New York landmark and is now the city’s tallest building. However, the focus here is on the three dozen people who’ve plummeted to their deaths from the upper floors.
** WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTO BELOW **
One of the more famous “jumpers” was Evelyn McHale; a photograph of her landing on the hood of a car below inspired Andy Warhol to create a print called Suicide.
After proceeding south down Fifth Avenue, we stopped at Madison Square Park. Famed architect Stanford White was killed by the husband of a jealous former lover at this site. Drew noted that the spurned gal pal was the “Megan Fox of her day.”
Other stops included the Chelsea Hotel, the site of the grisly murder of Nancy Spungen, allegedly by Sid Vicious. Later we passed the Village brownstone where Sid himself overdosed and died just a few months later.
We learned as well about the notorious past of Washington Square Park, formerly a burial ground and execution site where over 10,000 bodies remain to this day.
Additional highlights included mafia hits in Little Italy, theater patron riots in Astor Place, suicides at the Brooklyn Bridge and a cannibal who handed out soup made from human body parts in Tompkins Square Park.
The story of Samuel Morse was a rare miss. We pulled over in Chelsea outside of the building where Morse found out his wife died. Since this was not an actual death location, the stop seemed a bit forced.
Overall, we really enjoyed learning the secret history of landmarks we pass every day. As long-time New Yorkers, it was surprising to find out how many crimes occurred right outside of our doorstep.
Drew’s attitude and sense of humor make the death tour a classic New York experience. A native New Yorker, he interrupts his script to mumble at jay-walking pedestrians and cabbies who dart in front of the hearse.
Drew deftly navigated a series of obstacles– closed streets, bike messengers and potholes– without missing a beat. He was a wealth of knowledge and always had “fun facts” on hand when we got stuck in traffic jams.
You never know what you might see when you crisscross New York City on a weekday. As we traveled through the narrow streets of Chinatown, we passed a couple of butchers carrying pig carcasses on their shoulders!
History and humor
A Manhattan resident, Drew knows a great deal about the city and his subject matter. When discussing rock’s most tragic duo, Sid and Nancy, for example, he revealed he was a punk in the Sid Vicious era and frequented CBGB’s.
He also offered suggestions for local lunch spots and bars when we finished the tour in South Street Seaport.
Despite having a background in sales, Drew is a natural comedian. He labeled a tough-to-kill Mafioso “the 50-Cent of his day” and he deemed the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch “the first of New York City’s shady real estate deals.”
In the near future, Drew plans to add a second route covering midtown and upper Manhattan. Eventually, he hopes to expand Dead Apple Tours to cover the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.
What: Dead Apple Tours visits the sites of Manhattan’s most famous deaths
Where: The ride begins at the corner of East 36th Street and Madison Avenue, near the Empire State Building, and ends in lower Manhattan near the South Street Seaport.
When: Tour times are 11:00am Monday-Thursday, 11:00am & 7:00pm Friday, and 10:00am & 7:30pm Saturday.
Cost: The tour costs $45 per person and lasts approximately 2 hours. Private events and car rental are also available upon request.
Tour size: The hearse can seat up to 7 people.