John Allen and son

Soon after the Civil War, reporter Oliver Dyer wrote that if all the bars, prostitution houses, and gambling dens of New York City ran along one street, it would stretch 30 miles. Each night on that street, he said, there would be a murder every half mile, a robbery every 165 yards, six outcasts at every door, and eight preachers barking the gospel. And Dyer pronounced barkeeper John Allen the “wickedest” of the city’s wicked.

A minister, reading the story, entered Allen’s bar on Water Street to witness to him. To his surprise, Allen, though not converted, was seized by pious pangs and offered to open his saloon to daily prayer meetings. Hundreds began flocking there. Newspapers puffed the story, and Allen became a media sensation. He soon announced his bar would become a house of worship, adding that since he was now famous he intended to join a church … someday.

Kit Burns’s Saloon

The success of the meetings led organizers to rent the nearby rat pit at Kit Burns’s Saloon, a makeshift amphitheater with seats rising above a pit in which scores of rats were released. Dogs were turned loose, and bets taken on the number of rats they could kill within a certain time. Burns’s son-in-law often ended shows by jumping into the pit and killing surviving rats with his teeth. Kit Burns cleaned the blood from the floor each day and rented out his pit for prayer. As soon as services ended each afternoon, rat shows resumed (to “ratify” the prayers, Burns quipped).

On September 17, 1868 John Allen, basking in publicity, prepared to leave on a “Lecture Tour” of New England. He made it to Connecticut before getting so drunk he was ejected. Public interest plunged, and within a month Allen took his saloon back. But Christians rented another building down the street, and it became the first home of the McAuley Water Street Mission.

That’s not all. Kit Burns’s place was eventually transformed into a home for reformed prostitutes, the bar becoming a chapel and the rat pit becoming … a kitchen.

Turn to the Lord! He can still be found.
Call out to God! He is near.
Give up your crooked ways and your evil thoughts.
Return to the Lord our God.
He will be merciful and forgive your sins.
(Isaiah 55:6,7)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Sept. 17.

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