Life In The Slums 1869 Part I

New York — more, perhaps, than in any other city in the world — poverty and wealth, luxury and want, stand in near proximity. It is a palace on one side and a hovel on the other ; and yet there are thousands of people in the great metropolis who know literally nothing by actual contact of the amount of squalor, misery and destitution they might encounter by turning only a little out of their habitual way.

Much has been written of the lodging-houses of New York, and their squalid filth has been depicted with fidelity and earnestness. There are places in the Fourth and Sixth wards where for the paltry sum of five cents a night's lodging may be obtained — the lodging consisting of a place on the floor, a dirty, filthy pallet, covered by a few old rags, to rest upon, shared in common with fifty others, in an atmosphere vitiated in winter by the heat of a red-hot stove and the breaths of the half hundred sleepers. In most cases the lodging-house is beneath the level of, the street, and to the other discomforts is added those of dampness and the additional foulness of the air. Is it any wonder that oftentimes some of the unfortunate lodgers are found dead on their wretched pallets in the morning ? These are bad enough off, but there are many who fare even worse : we refer to those who do not possess a cent, and are compelled to seek for shelter in the station-house. The lodging-rooms are generally in an apartment adjoining the prison, and differing from the latter only in the lack of comfort. In the centre of each of the two rooms is a large stove heated red hot. Around each room is a platform sloping toward the centre of the apartment ; and this is the only accommodation in shape of a bed provided for those seeking a lodging. These rooms are about twelve or fourteen feet square, and are assigned respectively to the males and females, the sexes being very properly separated for the time being.

The rooms are generally crowded with fifteen or twenty persons in them, and yet on very inclement nights not less than thirty or thirty-five persons are often put in each in many of the down-town precincts. It is a fearful thing to turn away a poor, shivering wretch who implores that he may be allowed to pass a night in the station-house ; and yet it is often done for the simple reason that the lodging-room is so overcrowded that there is no possible chance to crowd in any more. Those denied admittance are told to go to some other station-house to seek for shelter, the location of the one nearest being given them. Most likely, on applying there, the suppliant receives the same rebuff as at the other station-house.

The majority of female lodgers are, of course, of the lowest class, but occasionally a woman of evident respectability, although of course very poor, applies for a night's lodging. Fancy what must be her feelings at being compelled either to pass the night in such a filthy hole, or walk the streets and be subjected to the brutal insults of the ruffians who infest the thoroughfares.

Enter the sleeping-room devoted to the men. Here are about the same number, made up almost altogether of the lowest grade of life, or what is known as " bummers." But there are a few among the number of evident respectability, and these must feel it a torture to be compelled to pass a night in such a place, for, if anything, the men's room is worse than that of the women. The stench of woolen clothing long worn, dampened by rain and drying in the fearfully hot atmosphere, is horrible — apparently sufficient to breed a pestilence.

Many of the station-houses are not even so well provided with accommodations as the Fourth, the lodgers being placed either in the spare cells or occasionally in the space devoted to the storage of coal. Should there be a larger number of prisoners than usual, these lodgers must make room for them, and accordingly the unfortunate shelter-seekers are turned into the street. During the past winter a German shot himself in one of the German boarding-houses in the lower part of the city, and by direction of the coroner the body was removed to the Liberty street police station pending the inquest. There was no place in which to put the body but the lodgers' room, and consequently about twenty female lodgers were turned into the streets on a bitter cold night.

In the preparation of this work the author made a tour of inspection through the " slums" of the great city, visiting some of the streets inhabited by the poorer classes of the population, and made a close scrutiny into their means of livelihood and modes of living. We obtained the escort of an officer of the police force ; not that there was any danger connected with the tour of inspection proposed by us, but simply that the company of an official, like our friend, would be to us an "open sesame" when otherwise our right of admission would be questioned.

The first house we entered was a tenement in Mulberry street. This was about eleven o'clock in the forenoon, it not having occurred to us then that the best time for our visit would be after dark, when the male portion of the tenants — such as had employments — would be at leisure and at home. With what class to rank this house was a puzzle. It was very inferior to others in the same street, and yet not nearly so bad as several others that we entered the evening of the same day. It was of brick, four stories in height, with a flight of steps, six or eight in number, leading to the doorway. The hall and stairways were entirely bare, and much worn by the tread of many feet. As we ascended, the unsteady balustrades shook at every step, and a slatternly-looking woman entering by the back way caused us to pause for the purpose of interrogating her in reference to the occupants of the premises. "

An' it's meself that ought to know," she replied, in answer to our question of how many families were in the house, " for I've lived here now goin' on a twelvemonth. There's__let me see," said she, calling them by name and counting them off on her fingers — "there's — twenty —twen — twenty — four — five; twenty-five, and not a sowlless."

From the conversation of this female, who was of a communicative turn, and who, judging from her features as well as her brogue, was undoubtedly of Celtic origin, we learned that her husband contributed to the support of herself and children (two boys and a girl), ranging in years from five to eleven, all equally as frowzy as herself, and having the same soiled, begrimed appearance, by shoveling coal. In reply to our inquiry, whether she did nothing herself to aid her husband in his honest endeavors, she replied that she sometimes took in washing ; but how she ever managed to get the clothes clean, and how she kept them so after they were once washed, in that dirty room on the hall floor, and herself so typical of dirt, to say nothing of the three children and her husband a coal-heaver, was, to say the least, somewhat mysterious. "

It isn't much that I gets to do," she went on, somewhat apologetically ; " but what little I do, helps. But most of the people I works for are too poor to pay, and so either wash their own clothes or go dirty."

The front room on the same floor, she informed us, was occupied by a tailor, who was on a spree and away from home. We ascended the stairs, followed by the lady herself and her three children, she having offered to be our guide through the house and to introduce us to some of the tenants on the floors above. There was little or nothing to interest us in these — the same bare floors, the same blank walls, the same pine tables, broken chairs and ragged bedding; the same neglected-looking occupants; nothing save the usual accompaniments of that particular grade of poverty.

Website: The History
Article Name: Life In The Slums 1869 Part I
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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