Crime, Poverty and Childhood in Manhattan 1883

When I’m reading for background and research I make note of addresses I come across.  Patterns crop up, as you’ll see in this section of an 1883 map.  I found newspaper reports of crimes and police raids as was to be expected, given the fact that this neighborhood encompasses  Mulberry Bend, made famous by Jacob Riis‘s photography documenting the squalid living conditions available to new immigrants. Opium dens mentioned in the papers in 1883 (the ones I found, at any rate) are marked here in blue ovals; red stars indicate brothels or tenements occupied by prostitutes.  Just a block and a half west of the infamous Chatham Square you’ll see the Grand Duke’s Theater at 21 Baxter.

atlas-1885-plate-4-opiumThe Grand Duke’s Theater was attached to a stale beer joint, one of the lowest of the low taverns that sold the dregs from beer barrels, and were frequented primarily by the children who lived on the street and cobbled together a living by selling papers or flowers, shining shoes, running errands and petty larceny.

It used to be a familiar sight to see the saloons of Baxter, Mott and Mulberry streets filled with these [homeless] boys. It was only a few years ago that they had their own theatre,  “The Grand Duke’s Theatre,” at 21 Baxter street, in the cellar under a stale beer dive, where really clever performances were given of an imitative character, by a company of boys; and which, by the way, was the only theatre which for years defied the efforts of the authorities to collect the license. The admission fee was ten cents, and curiosity seekers came from all parts of the city to witness the really laughable and, in many cases, meritorious character-sketches given within its damp walls. It was subsequently broken up by the police.

This paragraph is from a book by William Howe and Abraham Hummel, two criminal lawyers who dealt in sensationalism and high fees. They called their little book (1885)  Danger! A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations. The Veil Lifted, and Light Thrown on Crime and its Causes, and Criminals and their Haunts. Facts and Disclosures.

Note the casual disdain  for the children, and worse, the way their survival is trivialized. No mention of disease or child prostitution,  maybe because they thought too much truth would be bad for sales.  In 1887 The Grand Duke’s Theater came down, according to the New York Times, to make room for a tenement. They provide a more sober short history:

NYT 28 July 1887

Degenerate Italian desperado: takes the money and refuses to use the knife

Have a look at this short article which appeared in the New York Times on 17 April 1885. I read this three times and I still cannot decide if it’s an editorial or some kind of satire.

Note the thesis: when Italians come to America their morals give way to greed. So for example, rather than charging a reasonable $10 to stab a man, the Italian in question was so greedy as to ask ten times as much. He finally agreed to a fee of $300, took the money and accepted a knife to actually carry out the assignment, and then simply did not do the work he had contracted to do. Took the money, took the knife, and snuck away. The cad.

So I’m at a loss. Any thoughts out there?


New York Times.
17 April 1885.

The Italian workman in his native land is a simple, honest person, who will work at low wages, and will do his work conscientiously and well. If, however, he emigrates to this country and lives here for any length of time he becomes demoralized. He is unwilling to work except at the highest attainable wages, and he loses his habit of conscientious, faithful labor.

Of this painful degeneracy the case of Mr. DOMINICO SPADO affords striking evidence. An Italian resident of this city, desiring to have his son-in-law stabbed, applied to Mr. Spado who has the reputation of being a skillful workman, to execute the job. In Naples no honest man would have the impudence to ask more than $10 for so simple an act as the stabbing of another man in the same rank of life. Mr. Spado, however, had resided for some time in this country and instead of charging for any specified job its fair value he preferred to charge the highest possible price. He actually demanded $1,000 for killing a single son-in­ law, and when he was indignantly called an extortioner, he cynically admitted the fact.

After much bargaining, however, he finally lowered his demand, and consented to perform the job for $300, the employer to furnish the tools. There is no possible defense for such conduct. Mr. Spado knew that he was charging an extortionate price, and that nothing but the necessities of his employer could induce the latter to give his consent. Even at this stage of the affair Mr. Spado showed that he had no conscience, and a little later he showed that he had no sense of shame. After taking the $300 and a new knife, Mr. Spado was bound by every sentiment of honor and decency to go and kill his man. His employer had put full confidence in him and unless full confidence can always exist between employers and bravos the trade of the latter must at no distant day prove a failure. Instead of justifying this confidence by stabbing the son-in-law in a workmanlike way, Mr. Spado actually went to him and agreed — doubtless for a consideration — not to stab him. Worse than all, Mr. Spado went further and betrayed his employer — an act that, had it been committed in Naples, would have caused his expulsion from the Camorrista and made him the scorn of every honorable bravo. Very likely Mr. Spado has benefited his pocket by coming to America, but in common with many of his fellow-immigrants he has unquestionably lowered his moral tone.

He is an extortioner for he demanded $1,000 for a job that he knew was not intrinsically worth more than $10; and he is a dishonest man, for he failed to do his duty and he betrayed his employer. Perhaps he is now priding himself on his superiority as a money maker to the modest Camorrista of Naples; but the day will come when this extortioner and traitor will envy the calm conscience of the humble and happy Neapolitan, who is contented with a fee of $10 and who faithfully stabs the man whom he has been hired to stab.

the brooklyn bridge, sans elephants

City Hall Park, ca 1910. The Brooklyn Bridge entrance to the far right.

The Brooklyn Bridge was an engineering feat of huge proportions, one that came to fruition in May, 1883 with a grand opening celebration. Barnum (the original Barnum & Bailey edition) offered to walk his elephants across the bridge (never missed an opportunity to advertise, astute business man that he was). The city turned him down, but he convinced them in the end and walked the elephants across the next year. You’ll note in the photo that the entrance to the bridge is nothing like it is today, and that’s because you couldn’t drive onto it (because really, most transportation was horse-drawn at that point). You paid your money and took a seat on a cable car.

the gilded hour, or, yes, there is a novel in the works

Julius-Munkwitz,-Design 1883

It has been a while since the sixth and last volume in the Wilderness series came out,  but I still get email almost every day from readers who have very specific questions. At the top of the list is: you haven’t stopped writing, have you?!?

So here I am to say that I am working on a novel, and making some progress. This is not a prequel to the Wilderness series, and while I understand there is great interest in such a thing, I have no plans to write one.  I hope that people won’t be too disappointed by this, especially as I have an alternative to offer. Specifically,  I’m working on a novel which has the tentative title of The Gilded Hour.

Savard Family Tree

click for a larger image

This novel is set in 1883, primary in Manhattan, and the main characters include two young women whose names will be familiar to readers of the Wilderness series: Anna  and Sophie Savard, who are distant cousins. The family tree below provides better background on exactly who they are and how they are related.

I’ll be posting now and then about the novel as it progresses, but let me anticipate a question: it may take me as much as a year to finish it, and then the whole technical/business end of things gets started. So please don’t hold your breath.