The 1966 September Night A Gay Teen From East Harlem Was Killed On The Christopher Street Pier
For decades gay men have used Pier 45 at the end of Christopher Street in Greenwich Village as a cruising spot. Of course, the scene could be dangerous. Harassing cops, fag bashers and sometimes even fellow queers were threats. On September 9, 1966 at about three in the morning Charles Ball, an 18-year-old gay black man from East Harlem, was knocked into the Hudson River from the bulkhead of the pier after apparently rejecting the sexual advances of James Ryan, a 36-year-old gay white man who earlier had been drinking at the nearby Keller Bar. Unable to swim, the teen drowned. Ryan was indicted for manslaughter in the second degree (reckless homicide), convicted after a jury trial and sentenced to a prison term of 2 ½ to 5 years.
Charles Ball had arrived in the Village about midnight with his best friend Mark Weeks. Weeks also was an 18-year-old gay black man, and lived on Tinton Avenue in the Bronx. During the day Weeks was a stock clerk for S. Stein & Company, and at night he attended Morris Evening School to earn his high school diploma. The two had been friends since they were 15. They decided to venture into the Village, a regular haunt for them, after enjoying the day together. They had gone shopping in Times Square where Weeks bought a pair of shoes, seen a movie which got out at six P.M. and hung out at Ball’s apartment at 106th Street and First Avenue until it was time to go out for the night. The teens were itching for the scene. Ball loaned Weeks a pair of shorts for him to wear. They began around ten o’clock at a gay club on 83rd Street and Second Avenue, and then took the train down to the Village.
The gay scene at Pier 45 was as much social as sexual for many folks, and over the hours Ball and Weeks spent time hanging out with their friends including Frankie Figueroa, an 18-year-old from Timpson Avenue in the Bronx, and Lennie from Prospect Avenue in the Bronx. However, the action did not escape their notice. Several large truck trailers were parked along the shoreline bulkhead or retaining wall which was perpendicular to the jutting pier. The swing doors to some were open, and inside the trailers men were going at it. Several individuals, including Ball and Weeks, watched the man-on-man sex from outside. Ball “always liked to watch these exhibits and everything like that” said Weeks, and it was hard to pull him away.
Meanwhile, James Ryan arrived at the Keller Bar about 1:30 A.M. Ryan was a Village resident on Bleeker Street, and somewhat of a regular. Ryan had moved to New York City from California where he still had family, and in the Big Apple he worked as a waiter and enjoyed the opera. The street-level bar was in the Keller Hotel which once housed merchant marines and longshoremen who worked on the waterfront. Keller Bar had been a queer joint since the mid-1950s. On this night Jose Neira from Christopher Street was tending bar, John Bordeaux was the floor manager and owner Harvey Goldstein was on the premises. John Bordeaux was a convicted felon who went on to operate the International Stud on Perry Street, immortalized by playwright Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy, and O.K. Corral at 835 Washington Street which later housed the Mineshaft. Ryan drank Rheingold beer alone at the bar but from time to time other patrons whom he knew came up to chat with him.
By three in the morning Ryan was on his fourth beer, and told the barman he was going out for some fresh air. Ryan walked to the truck trailers where Ball was standing on the shoreline bulkhead. There were no witnesses to what was said but Weeks observed Ryan say something to Ball, and then saw Ball shake his head no. In response Ryan struck Ball across the chest with his forearm which knocked him off the beam into the water. The teen was 5’ 9” tall and weighed 141 pounds, and it did not require great force to push him off balance. The entire encounter transpired in two minutes. There was no evidence that the two previously had met, and given the circumstances Ryan presumably was miffed that he had been rejected. After Ryan was convicted the trial judge reviewed the pre-sentencing report, and characterized the tragedy as “under the influence of alcohol, or in a fit of pique with respect to another homosexual.”
Ryan casually left the scene and went back to Keller Bar for another beer where he shortly later was arrested. Meanwhile, it was high tide, and Ball was floundering in the 14-feet-deep water. Weeks — characterized as “a young homosexual of the effeminate type” who “play[ed] the female part” — was “in a somewhat hysterical state.” He ran to the edge of the bulkhead and screamed out: “Somebody help my friend. My friend is in the water, somebody help him. He’s in the water. He’s going to drown.” Weeks could not jump into the water because, like Ball, he did not know how to swim.
The queens in the trailers were useless, and they all pulled up their pants and scrammed. However, two gay men in the area responded to the “great commotion.” Robert Young, a 34-year-old junior high school teacher who lived on Christopher Steet was out for a stroll, and William Seward, a 33-year-old who lived on Bleeker Street was bicycling home from his job at a commercial printer. Both men had reasons not to become involved. Seward “did not like police because he felt victimized by them” after six arrests and convictions for homosexual solicitations, and Young “said that he hoped this type of involvement in this situation would not jeopardize his job.” However, they did what they could to aid Ball and later cooperate with the investigation.
Young advised Ball to make his way to a piling around which he could wrap his arms but the teen only flailed. Seward twice jumped into the water in an effort to save Ball:
I then quickly took off my sweater and removed my wallet and keys from my pockets and asked Young to watch them and I jumped into the water. As I was doing this, the person in the water started sinking. By the time I was swimming in the water, he had disappeared from view . I then went under water and attempted to grapple for the person in the water. I made repeated attempts of going under water to find him but was not successful. I became winded and decided that I had better get out of the water. I swam to the shore line and asked Young to help me up. Young reached down but after trying to pull me up the embankment we realized that he could not do so. I then swam south along the shore line until I reached a point where I could pull myself up, and I did so.
After regaining his strength Seward jumped again into the water: “I swam to the point where I had last seen the person in the water. I went down under water a few times until I decided that I could not reach the bottom.”
Finally, harbor patrol arrived, and from a small boat the first responders grappled for and finally retrieved Charles Ball. His lifeless body was placed on the floor in a storage building between the truck trailers and Pier 45, and an NYPD detective photographed the gay boy who did not even make it out of his teens to witness the Stonewall riots which would occur three years later just a few blocks from where he was killed. James Ryan served out his sentence at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York.