I've been re-reading "Low Life" by Luc Sante. Fascinating, and much of the physical world (the stage set, if you will) that he writes about is still to be seen:
"By popular accord, the very worst dive on the Bowery in the 1890’s was McGurk’s Suicide Hall, on the East Side just above Houston Street (the building is still standing), and it did not conduct its business in secrecy, since it possessed one of the first electric signs on the avenue. . .
. . .Entertainment consisted of singing waiters and a small band; the customers were, as ever, mostly sailors. “It was said,” noted a contemporary, “that his business card reached every seaport in the world.”"
Low Life by Luc Sante.
The Hall, owned by a John McGurk, got its nickname because conditions there were so bad that its female employee's (and contract workers) resorted to on-the-job suicides. In “1899, there were at least six, as well as more than seven attempts.” The victims were mostly the prostitutes who seem to be the main reason for the Hall’s existence.. It was a desperate place: none the less it became a morbid tourist attraction.
I don’t know if the skull graffiti is a tribute to it’s past. I doubt it.
Nysonglines says this. (scroll down to 1st street and bowery).
UPDATE: As of Summer 2005 this site is now an empty lot, soon to be built on.