Life In The Slums 1869 Part II

On reaching the ground in our descent to the street our ears were saluted by a wild howl, for it certainly was nothing else a wild, prolonged, frenzied sort of howl which issued from a tenement in the rear. The distance between the two houses was about fifteen feet; and on looking out of a back window, we saw, to our astonishment, seated conspicuously in one of the windows of the rear tenement, a rather oldish woman, with an enormous muslin cap upon her head, whose border was a perfect marvel of frills. She sat rocking herself to and fro with a quick, restless motion, uttering the same barbarous howl that we had first heard a long, loud torrent of inarticulate noises pausing now and then to wipe her eyes with her apron, or to hold before her at arms' length a pair of much-worn, much-patched pantaloons, at the contemplation of which her grief so overcame her that she had recourse each time to a suspicious-looking black bottle, which stood somewhere beside her in the room, after which she would invariably howl again louder, longer, dismaller, dolefuller, if possible, than before. "

Sure an' it's Mrs. Maloney," said our entertainer in explanation. " It's only two days since she lost her son, as fine a lad as ever was seen ; it 'ud be long until yez saw his likes."

As if these words of condolence and approval had somehow been overheard and touched anew a more sensitive chord in Mrs. Maloney's breast, a howl surpassing all previous ones issued from the healthy lungs of that lady ; the trousers dropped into her lap ; the bottle was elevated to her lips, and the rocking resumed at such a pace as to cause each separate and individual frill in the poor woman's cap to flap and flutter like the sails of a windmill.

Reaching the sidewalk, with Mrs. Maloney's lamentation still -ringing in our ears, we found ourselves the centre of a circle of ragged, wonder-stricken children, with here and there a grown man or woman on the outskirts, staring at us with wide-open eyes and mouths, vainly endeavoring to conjure up some probable reason for our presence within the house. Various were the surmises indulged in all of them more or less wide of the truth in relation to our visit ; but utterly regardless of these, as the crowd opened before us, we made our way out of it and down the dirty, foul-smelling street to a house somewhat inferior outwardly, but of the same general pretensions within as that we had just quitted. We met with nothing here worthy even of a passing notice, with the exception, perhaps, of a small dog-fight which was progressing in the back yard, aided and abetted by half a dozen ragged urchins, who, at sight of the officer, and as if actuated by a single impulse, beat a hasty and ignominious retreat, leaving the dogs to fight it out on that line all the year round if they felt so disposed.

It was on leaving this last tenement that we concluded to postpone all further research until after dark; and about half-past eight o'clock started on a second inspection. On this round we visited a house in Baxter street, very far worse, both in appearance as well as the condition of its occupants, than those in Mulberry street. Through the vile street, reeking with filth and abounding in horrid stenches, our ears ringing with the Babel of voices issuing from a hundred throats at once, we picked our way till we came in front of a tall house that in the broad light of day must have presented a scaly, leprous appearance on its unsightly front. Judging from the glimpse we had of it by the dim gaslight, the stoop was crowded with people of both sexes the men smoking, the women gossiping, the children wrangling among themselves, while from the windows above the shadowy outlines of sundry heads and shoulders were visible, thrust half-way out over the sills. There appeared to be something more than usual under discussion, for the men conversed while smoking.' with almost as much interest as the women some mysterious and low, others loud and excited. As we stopped close to the foot of the steps, all eyes were turned upon us, and a silence fell upon each lip at sight of the officer's uniform. In reply to his inquiry as to what all the loud talking meant, a large, portly woman, with arms akimbo, who seemed to be the centre of the female group, made answer as follows :

"Shure an' it's about Misthress O'Flannigan's baby that was hung up by the neck this mornin' in one of the rooms above by its father, an' he ravin' mad with delirium ; and Misthress O'Flannigan herself, poor cratur, that sick she couldn't stir nor move a hand, as yourself well knows."

"What have they done with the woman ?" asked the officer.

They took her to Billevue this mornin', where she will be cared for and nursed ; and the husband, him they took away to the Tombs, which is the place for the loikes of him, bad luck to 'em !"

What Mr. O'Flannigan's reason may have been for thus performing the part of hangman to his infantine progeny, except that he was laboring under a severe attack of delirium tremens, did not appear. ln that house there were upward of forty families. The front basement was occupied as a small grocery, while the apartment back of it served as kitchen, sleeping-room and living-room for the grocer and his family. The first-floor front was tenanted by the woman who had imparted to us the information respecting the hanging of O'Flannigan's baby. This woman had a sort of supervision of the premises, and was the wife of a one-legged man, who sat smoking on the lower step, making very fair time with the assistance of a stout crutch which lay beside him where he sat. There was an organ-grinder in one of the rooms up stairs, with a wife and four children three girls and a boy. The youth, it appeared, had essayed the boot-blacking business, but owing to his foreign origin had been driven off by the other boys, who nicknamed him Maccaroni, in derision of his nationality. Next to these was a Frenchman and his family, who were all chiffonniers or rag-pickers.

Leaving this house, we visited one farther down the street, where around the basement door were gathered a group of children that every now and then scattered and fled, shouting, screaming and laughing, some of them, at the approach of a man from within a short, thick-set, evil-looking fellow, with a coarse, bristly beard and a bushy head of hair, and a very hairy breast visible beneath his open shirt of thick gray wool, who invariably, from accident or intention, fell upon his hands on reaching the top step and uttered noises somewhat resembling the bellowing of a wild bull, his eyes flaming with rage and his teeth gleaming like those of some hungry animal In this house there was about an equal number of families with the one we had just left. If anything, the building itself was a little worse than the other, which was rotten and rickety enough, in all conscience. The children of one family, four in number, were all street-sweepers, and were looking forward to the approaching winter with a view to a brisk business. We found here two young married couples, the brides claiming to be sisters, occupying the same apartment, with only a torn screen separating their domains. They were street-singers and musicians. There was an organ in one corner of the room and a couple of tambourines hanging upon nails driven into the wall. In this house there were also several Chinamen. We were conducted over the premises by a woman who was in charge a small, shriveled-up old creature, rather neat in appearance, by comparison with' others, who occupied the lower floor.

We might rehearse at greater length our travels through the slums of New York, and the sights and scenes of misery and degradation which are everywhere to be witnessed, but it would be the same old story. Everywhere vice in its lowest form, filthy surroundings, bad associations and vile and wicked people, with apparently no redeeming trait in their characters and no sweetness of nature or kindness of heart. The poor of New York are so situated that vice cannot help but flourish and grow amongst them, and, unless those who have the power see to it and improve this state of affairs, we may expect to see crime flourish to the detriment of all classes of society, whether good or bad.

Website: The History
Article Name: Life In The Slums 1869 Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Women of New York; Or, The Under-world of the Great City. by George Ellington; The New York Book Company. 1869
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