The Children of the Poor
Jacob August Riis

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The Children of the Poor
Jacob August Riis

Jacob A. Riis

The Children of the Poor


To my little ones, who, as I lay down my pen, come rushing in from the autumn fields, their hands filled with flowers “for the poor children,” I inscribe this book. May the love that shines in their eager eyes never grow cold within them; then they shall yet grow up to give a helping hand in working out this problem which so plagues the world to-day. As to their father’s share, it has been a very small and simple one, and now it is done. Other hands may carry forward the work. My aim has been to gather the facts for them to build upon. I said it in “How the Other Half Lives,” and now, in sending this volume to the printer, I can add nothing. The two books are one. Each supplements the other. Ours is an age of facts. It wants facts, not theories, and facts I have endeavored to set down in these pages. The reader may differ with me as to the application of them. He may be right and I wrong. But we shall not quarrel as to the facts themselves, I think. A false prophet in our day could do less harm than a careless reporter. That name I hope I shall not deserve.

To lay aside a work that has been so long a part of one’s life, is like losing a friend. But for the one lost I have gained many. They have been much to me. The friendship and counsel of Dr. Roger S. Tracy, of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, have lightened my labors as nothing else could save the presence and the sympathy of the best and dearest friend of all, my wife. To Major Willard Bullard, the most efficient chief of the Sanitary Police; Rabbi Adolph M. Radin; Mr. A. S. Solomons, of the Baron de Hirsch Relief Committee; Dr. Annie Sturges Daniel; Mr. L. W. Holste, of the Children’s Aid Society; Colonel George T. Balch, of the Board of Education; Mr. A. S. Fairchild, and to Dr. Max L. Margolis, my thanks are due and here given. Jew and Gentile, we have sought the truth together. Our reward must be in the consciousness that we have sought it faithfully and according to our light.

    J. A. R.

Richmond Hill, Long Island,

October 1, 1892.



THE problem of the children is the problem of the State. As we mould the children of the toiling masses in our cities, so we shape the destiny of the State which they will rule in their turn, taking the reins from our hands. In proportion as we neglect or pass them by, the blame for bad government to come rests upon us. The cities long since held the balance of power; their dominion will be absolute soon unless the near future finds some way of scattering the population which the era of steam-power and industrial development has crowded together in the great centres of that energy. At the beginning of the century the urban population of the United States was 3.97 per cent. of the whole, or not quite one in twenty-five. To-day it is 29.12 per cent., or nearly one in three. In the lifetime of those who were babies in arms when the first gun was fired upon Fort Sumter it has all but doubled. A million and a quarter live to-day in the tenements of the American metropolis. Clearly, there is reason for the sharp attention given at last to the life and the doings of the other half, too long unconsidered. Philanthropy we call it sometimes with patronizing airs. Better call it self-defence.

In New York there is all the more reason because it is the open door through which pours in a practically unrestricted immigration, unfamiliar with and unattuned to our institutions; the dumping-ground where it rids itself of its burden of helplessness and incapacity, leaving the procession of the strong and the able free to move on. This sediment forms the body of our poor, the contingent that lives, always from hand to mouth, with no provision and no means of providing for the morrow. In the first generation it pre-empts our slums;[1 - It is, nevertheless, true that while immigration peoples our slums, it also keeps them from stagnation. The working of the strong instinct to better themselves, that brought the crowds here, forces layer after layer of this population up to make room for the new crowds coming in at the bottom, and thus a circulation is kept up that does more than any sanitary law to render the slums harmless. Even the useless sediment is kept from rotting by being constantly stirred.] in the second, its worst elements, reinforced by the influences that prevail there, develop the tough, who confronts society with the claim that the world owes him a living and that he will collect it in his own way. His plan is a practical application of the spirit of our free institutions as his opportunities have enabled him to grasp it.

Thus it comes about that here in New York to seek the children of the poor one must go among those who, if they did not themselves come over the sea, can rarely count back another generation born on American soil. Not that there is far to go. Any tenement district will furnish its own tribe, or medley of many tribes. Nor is it by any means certain that the children when found will own their alien descent. Indeed, as a preliminary to gaining their confidence, to hint at such a thing would be a bad blunder. The ragged Avenue B boy, whose father at his age had barely heard, in his corner of the Fatherland, of America as a place where the streets were paved with nuggets of gold and roast pigeons flew into mouths opening wide with wonder, would, it is safe to bet, be as prompt to resent the insinuation that he was a “Dutchman,” as would the little “Mick” the Teuton’s sore taunt. Even the son of the immigrant Jew in his virtual isolation strains impatiently at the fetters of race and faith, while the Italian takes abuse philosophically only when in the minority and bides his time until he too shall be able to prove his title by calling those who came after him names. However, to quarrel with the one or the other on that ground would be useless. It is the logic of the lad’s evolution, the way of patriotism in the slums. His sincerity need not be questioned.

Many other things about him may be, and justly are, but not that. It is perfectly transparent. His badness is as spontaneous as his goodness, and for the moment all there is of the child. Whichever streak happens to prevail, it is in full possession; if the bad is on top more frequently than the other, it is his misfortune rather than his design. He is as ready to give his only cent to a hungrier boy than he if it is settled that he can “lick” him, and that he is therefore not a rival, as he is to join him in torturing an unoffending cat for the common cheer. The penny and the cat, the charity and the cruelty, are both pregnant facts in the life that surrounds him, and of which he is to be the coming exponent. In after years, when he is arrested by the officers of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for beating his horse, the episode adds but to his confusion of mind in which a single impression stands out clear and lasting, viz., that somehow he got the worst of it as usual. But for the punishment, the whole proceeding must seem ludicrous to him. As it is he submits without comprehending. He had to take the hard knocks always; why should not his horse?

In other words, the child is a creature of environment, of opportunity, as children are everywhere. And the environment here has been bad, as it was and is in the lands across the sea that sent him to us. Our slums have fairly rivalled, and in some respects outdone, the older ones after which they patterned. Still, there is a difference, the difference between the old slum and the new. The hopelessness, the sullen submission of life in East London as we have seen it portrayed, has no counterpart here; neither has the child born in the gutter and predestined by the order of society, from which there is no appeal, to die there. We have our Lost Tenth to fill the trench in the Potter’s Field; quite as many wrecks at the finish, perhaps, but the start seems fairer in the promise. Even on the slums the doctrine of liberty has set its stamp. To be sure, for the want of the schooling to decipher it properly, they spell it license there, and the slip makes trouble. The tough and his scheme of levying tribute are the result. But the police settle that with him, and when it comes to a choice, the tough is to be preferred to the born pauper any day. The one has the making of something in him, unpromising as he looks; seen in a certain light he may even be considered a hopeful symptom. The other is just so much dead loss. The tough is not born: he is made. The all-important point is the one at which the manufacture can be stopped.

So rapid and great are the changes in American cities, that no slum has yet had a chance here to grow old enough to distil its deadliest poison. New York has been no exception. But we cannot always go at so fast a pace. There is evidence enough in the crystallization of the varying elements of the population along certain lines, no longer as uncertain as they were, that we are slowing up already. Any observer of the poor in this city is familiar with the appearance among them of that most distressing and most dangerous symptom, the home-feeling for the slum that opposes all efforts at betterment with dull indifference. Pauperism seems to have grown faster of late than even the efforts put forth to check it. We have witnessed this past winter a dozen times the spectacle of beggars extorting money by threats or violence without the excuse which a season of exceptional distress or hardship might have furnished. Further, the raid in the last Legislature upon the structure of law built up in a generation to regulate and keep the tenements within safe limits, shows that fresh danger threatens in the alliance of the slum with politics. Only the strongest public sentiment, kept always up to the point of prompt action, avails to ward off this peril. But public sentiment soon wearies of such watch-duty, as instanced on this occasion, when several bills radically remodelling the tenement-house law and repealing some of its most beneficent provisions, had passed both houses and were in the hands of the Governor before a voice was raised against them, or anyone beside the politicians and their backers seemed even to have heard of them. And this hardly five years after a special commission of distinguished citizens had sat an entire winter under authority of the State considering the tenement-house problem, and as the result of its labors had secured as vital the enactment of the very law against which the raid seemed to be chiefly directed!

The tenement and the saloon, with the street that does not always divide them, form the environment that is to make or unmake the child. The influence of each of the three is bad. Together they have power to overcome the strongest resistance. But the child born under their evil spell has none such to offer. The testimony of all to whom has fallen the task of undoing as much of the harm done by them as may be, from the priest of the parish school to the chaplain of the penitentiary, agrees upon this point, that even the tough, with all his desperation, is weak rather than vicious. He promises well, he even means well; he is as downright sincere in his repentance as he was in his wrong-doing; but it doesn’t prevent him from doing the very same evil deed over again the minute he is rid of restraint. He would rather be a saint than a sinner; but somehow he doesn’t keep in the rôle of saint, while the police help perpetuate the memory of his wickedness. After all, he is not so very different from the rest of us. Perhaps that, with a remorseful review of the chances he has had, may help to make a fellow-feeling for him in us.

That is what he needs. The facts clearly indicate that from the environment little improvement in the child is to be expected. There has been progress in the way of building the tenements of late years, but they swarm with greater crowds than ever—good reason why they challenge the pernicious activity of the politician; and the old rookeries disappear slowly. In the relation of the saloon to the child there has been no visible improvement, and the street is still his refuge. It is, then, his opportunities outside that must be improved if relief is to come. We have the choice of hailing him man and brother or of being slugged and robbed by him. It ought not to be a hard choice, despite the tatters and the dirt, for which our past neglect is in great part to blame. Plenty of evidence will be found in these pages to show that it has been made in the right spirit already, and that it has proved a wise choice. No investment gives a better return to-day on the capital put out than work among the children of the poor.

A single fact will show what is meant by that. Within the lifetime of the Children’s Aid Society, in the thirty years between 1860 and 1890, while the population of this city was doubled, the commitments of girls and women for vagrancy fell off from 5,880 to 1,980, while the commitments of girl thieves fell between 1865 and 1890 from 1 in 743 to 1 in 7,500.[2 - Report of committing magistrates. See Annual Report of Children’s Aid Society, 1891.] Stealing and vagrancy among boys has decreased too; if not so fast, yet at a gratifying rate.

Enough has been written and said about the children of the poor and their sufferings to make many a bigger book than this. From some of it one might almost be led to believe that one-half of the children are worked like slaves from toddling infancy, while the other half wander homeless and helpless about the streets. Their miseries are great enough without inventing any that do not exist. There is no such host of child outcasts in New York as that. Thanks to the unwearied efforts of the children’s societies in the last generation, what there is is decreasing, if anything. As for the little toilers, they will receive attention further on. There are enough of them, but as a whole they are anything but a repining lot. They suffer less, to their own knowledge, from their wretched life than the community suffers for letting them live it, though it, too, sees the truth but in glimpses. If the question were put to a vote of the children to-morrow, whether they would take the old life with its drawbacks, its occasional starvation, and its everyday kicks and hard knocks; or the good clothes, the plentiful grub, and warm bed, with all the restraints of civilized society and the “Sunday-school racket” of the other boy thrown in, I have as little doubt that the street would carry the day by a practically unanimous vote as I have that there are people still to be found—too many of them—who would indorse the choice with a sigh of relief and dismiss the subject, if it could be dismissed that way; which, happily, it cannot.

The immediate duty which the community has to perform for its own protection is to school the children first of all into good Americans, and next into useful citizens. As a community it has not attended to this duty as it should; but private effort has stepped in and is making up for its neglect with encouraging success. The outlook that was gloomy from the point of view of the tenement, brightens when seen from this angle, however toilsome the road yet ahead. The inpouring of alien races no longer darkens it. The problems that seemed so perplexing in the light of freshly-formed prejudices against this or that immigrant, yield to this simple solution that discovers all alarm to have been groundless. Yesterday it was the swarthy Italian, to-day the Russian Jew, that excited our distrust. To-morrow it may be the Arab or the Greek. All alike they have taken, or are taking, their places in the ranks of our social phalanx, pushing upward from the bottom with steady effort, as I believe they will continue to do unless failure to provide them with proper homes arrests the process. And in the general advance the children, thus firmly grasped, are seen to be a powerful moving force. The one immigrant who does not keep step, who, having fallen out of the ranks, has been ordered to the rear, is the Chinaman, who brought neither wife nor children to push him ahead. He left them behind that he might not become an American, and by the standard he himself set up he has been judged.



WHO and where are the slum children of New York to-day? That depends on what is understood by the term. The moralist might seek them in Hell’s Kitchen, in Battle Row, and in the tenements, east and west, where the descendants of the poorest Irish immigrants live. They are the ones, as I have before tried to show, upon whom the tenement and the saloon set their stamp soonest and deepest. The observer of physical facts merely would doubtless pick out the Italian ragamuffins first, and from his standpoint he would be right. Irish poverty is not picturesque in the New World, whatever it may have been in the Old. Italian poverty is. The worst old rookeries fall everywhere in this city to the share of the immigrants from Southern Italy, who are content to occupy them, partly, perhaps, because they are no worse than the hovels they left behind, but mainly because they are tricked or bullied into putting up with them by their smarter countrymen who turn their helplessness and ignorance to good account. Wherever the invasion of some old home section by the tide of business has left ramshackle tenements falling into hopeless decay, as in the old “Africa,” in the Bend, and in many other places in the down-town wards, the Italian sweater landlord is ready with his offer of a lease to bridge over the interregnum, a lease that takes no account of repairs or of the improvements the owner sought to avoid. The crowds to make it profitable to him are never wanting. The bait he holds out is a job at the ash-dump with which he connects at the other end of the line. The house, the job, and the man as he comes to them fit in well together, and the copartnership has given the Italian a character which, I am satisfied from close observation of him, he does not wholly deserve. At all events, his wife does not. Dirty as he seems and is in the old rags that harmonize so well with his surroundings, there is that about her which suggests not only the capacity for better things, but a willingness to be clean and to look decent, if cause can be shown. It may be a bright kerchief, a bit of old-fashioned jewelry, or the neatly smoothed and braided hair of the wrinkled old hag who presides over the stale bread counter. Even in the worst dens occupied by these people, provided that they had not occupied them too long, I have found this trait crop out in the careful scrubbing of some piece of oil-cloth rescued from the dump and laid as a mat in front of the family bed; or in a bit of fringe on the sheet or quilt, ragged and black with age though it was, that showed what a fruitful soil proper training and decent housing would have found there.

I have in mind one Italian “flat” among many, a half underground hole in a South Fifth Avenue yard, reached by odd passage-ways through a tumbledown tenement that was always full of bad smells and scooting rats. Across the foul and slippery yard, down three steps made of charred timbers from some worse wreck, was this “flat,” where five children slept with their elders. How many of those there were I never knew. There were three big family beds, and they nearly filled the room, leaving only patches of the mud floor visible. The walls were absolutely black with age and smoke. The plaster had fallen off in patches and there was green mould on the ceiling. And yet, with it all, with the swarm of squirming youngsters that were as black as the floor they rolled upon, there was evidence of a desperate, if hopeless, groping after order, even neatness. The beds were made up as nicely as they could be with the old quilts and pieces of carpet that served for covering. In Poverty Gap, where an Italian would be stoned as likely as not, there would have been a heap of dirty straw instead of beds, and the artistic arrangement of tallow-dips stuck in the necks of bottles about the newspaper cut of a saint on the corner shelf would have been missing altogether, fervent though the personal regard might be of Poverty Gap for the saint. The bottles would have been the only part of the exhibition sure to be seen there.

I am satisfied that this instinct inhabits not only the more aristocratic Genoese, but his fellow countryman from the southern hills as well, little as they resemble each other or agree in most things. But the Neapolitan especially does not often get a chance to prove it. He is so altogether uninviting an object when he presents himself, fresh from the steamer, that he falls naturally the victim of the slum tenement, which in his keep becomes, despite the vigilance of the sanitary police, easily enough the convenient depot and half-way house between the garbage-dump and the bone-factory. Starting thus below the bottom, as it were, he has an up-hill journey before him if he is to work out of the slums, and the promise, to put it mildly, is not good. He does it all the same, or, if not he, his boy. It is not an Italian sediment that breeds the tough. Parental authority has a strong enough grip on the lad in Mulberry Street to make him work, and that is his salvation. “In seventeen years,” said the teacher of the oldest Italian ragged school in the city that, day and night, takes in quite six hundred, “I have seen my boys work up into decent mechanics and useful citizens almost to a man, and of my girls only two I know of have gone astray.” I had observed the process often enough myself to know that she was right. It is to be remembered, furthermore, that her school is in the very heart of the Five Points district, and takes in always the worst and the dirtiest crowds of children.

Within a year there has been, through some caprice of immigration, a distinct descent in the quality of the children, viewed from even the standard of cleanliness that prevails at the Five Points. Perhaps the exodus from Italy has worked farther south, where there seems to be an unusual supply of mud. Perhaps the rivalry of steamship lines has brought it about. At any rate, the testimony is positive that the children that came to the schools after last vacation, and have kept coming since, were the worst seen here since the influx began. I have watched with satisfaction, since this became apparent, some of the bad old tenements, which the newcomers always sought in droves, disappear to make room for great factory buildings. But there are enough left. The cleaning out of a Mulberry Street block left one lop-sided old rear tenement that had long since been shut in on three sides by buildings four stories higher than itself, and forgotten by all the world save the miserable wretches who burrowed in that dark and dismal pit at the bottom of a narrow alley. Now, when the fourth structure goes up against its very windows, it will stand there in the heart of the block, a survival of the unfittest, that, in all its disheartening dreariness, bears testimony, nevertheless, to the beneficent activity of the best Board of Health New York has ever had—the onward sweep of business. It will wipe that last remnant out also, even if the law lack the power to reach it.

Shoals of Italian children lived in that rookery, and in those the workmen tore down, in the actual physical atmosphere of the dump. Not a gun-shot away there is a block of tenements, known as the Mott Street Barracks, in which still greater shoals are—I was going to say housed, but that would have been a mistake. Happily they are that very rarely, except when they are asleep, and not then if they can help it. Out on the street they may be found tumbling in the dirt, or up on the roof lying stark-naked, blinking in the sun—content with life as they find it. If they are not a very cleanly crew, they are at least as clean as the frame they are set in, though it must be allowed that something has been done of late years to redeem the buildings from the reproach of a bad past. The combination of a Jew for a landlord and a saloon-keeper—Italian, of course—for a lessee, was not propitious; but the buildings happen to be directly under the windows of the Health Board, and something, I suppose, was due to appearances. The authorities did all that could be done, short of tearing down the tenement, but though comparatively clean, and not nearly as crowded as it was, it is still the old slum. It is an instructive instance of what can and cannot be done with the tenements into which we invite these dirty strangers to teach them American ways and the self-respect of future citizens and voters. There are five buildings—that is, five front and four rear houses, the latter a story higher than those on the street; that is because the rear houses were built last, to “accommodate” this very Italian immigration that could be made to pay for anything. Chiefly Irish had lived there before, but they moved out then. There were 360 tenants in the Barracks when the police census was taken in 1888, and 40 of them were babies. How many were romping children I do not know. The “yard” they had to play in is just 5 feet 10 inches wide, and a dozen steps below the street-level. The closets of all the buildings are in the cellar of the rear houses and open upon this “yard,” where it is always dark and damp as in a dungeon. Its foul stenches reach even the top floor, but so also does the sun at mid-day, and that is a luxury that counts as an extra in the contract with the landlord. The rent is nearly one-half higher near the top than it is on the street-level. Nine dollars above, six and a half below, for one room with windows, two without, and with barely space for a bed in each. But water-pipes have been put in lately, under orders from the Health Department, and the rents have doubtless been raised. “No windows” means no ventilation. The rear building backs up against the tenement on the next street; a space a foot wide separates them, but an attempt to ventilate the bed-rooms by windows on that was a failure.

When the health officers got through with the Barracks in time for the police census of 1891, the 360 tenants had been whittled down to 238, of whom 47 were babies under five years. Persistent effort had succeeded in establishing a standard of cleanliness that was a very great improvement upon the condition prevailing in 1888. But still, as I have said, the slum remained and will remain as long as that rear tenement stands. In the four years fifty-one funerals had gone out from the Barracks. The white hearse alone had made thirty-five trips carrying baby coffins. This was the way the two standards showed up in the death returns at the Bureau of Vital Statistics: in 1888 the adult death-rate, in a population of 320 over five years old, was 15.62 per 1,000; the baby death-rate, 325.00 per 1,000, or nearly one-third in a total of 40. As a matter of fact 13 of the 40 had died that year. The adult death-rate for the entire tenement population of more than a million souls was that year 12.81, and the baby death-rate 88.38. Last year, in 1891, the case stood thus: Total population, 238, including 47 babies. Adult death-rate per 1,000, 20.94; child death-rate (under five years) per 1,000, 106.38. General adult death-rate for 1891 in the tenements, 14.25; general child death-rate for 1891 in the tenements, 86.67. It should be added that the reduced baby death-rate of the Barracks, high as it was, was probably much lower than it can be successfully maintained. The year before, in 1890, when practically the same improved conditions prevailed, it was twice as high. Twice as many babies died.


I have referred to some of the typical Italian tenements at some length to illustrate the conditions under which their children grow up and absorb the impressions that are to shape their lives as men and women. Is it to be marvelled at, if the first impression of them is sometimes not favorable? I recall, not without amusement, one of the early experiences of a committee with which I was trying to relieve some of the child misery in the East Side tenements by providing an outing for the very poorest of the little ones, who might otherwise have been overlooked. In our anxiety to make our little charges as presentable as possible, it seems we had succeeded so well as to arouse a suspicion in our friends at the other end of the line that something was wrong, either with us or with the poor of which the patrician youngsters in new frocks and with clean faces, that came to them, were representatives. They wrote to us that they were in the field for the “slum children,” and slum children they wanted. It happened that their letter came just as we had before us two little lads from the Mulberry Street Bend, ragged, dirty, unkempt, and altogether a sight to see. Our wardrobe was running low, and we were at our wits’ end how to make these come up to our standard. We sat looking at each other after we had heard the letter read, all thinking the same thing, until the most courageous said it: “Send them as they are.” Well, we did, and waited rather breathlessly for the verdict. It came, with the children, in a note by return train, that said: “Not that kind, please!” And after that we were allowed to have things our own way.

The two little fellows were Italians. In justice to our frightened friends, it should be said that it was not their nationality, but their rags, to which they objected; but not very many seasons have passed since the crowding of the black-eyed brigade of “guinnies,” as they were contemptuously dubbed, in ever-increasing numbers, into the ragged schools and the kindergartens, was watched with regret and alarm by the teachers, as by many others who had no better cause. The event proved that the children were the real teachers. They had a more valuable lesson to impart than they came to learn, and it has been a salutary one. To-day they are gladly welcomed. Their sunny temper, which no hovel is dreary enough, no hardship has power to cloud, has made them universal favorites, and the discovery has been made by their teachers that as the crowds pressed harder their school-rooms have marvellously expanded, until they embrace within their walls an unsuspected multitude, even many a slum tenement itself, cellar, “stoop,” attic, and all. Every lesson of cleanliness, of order, and of English taught at the school is reflected into some wretched home, and rehearsed there as far as the limited opportunities will allow. No demonstration with soap and water upon a dirty little face but widens the sphere of these chief promoters of education in the slums. “By ’m by,” said poor crippled Pietro to me, with a sober look, as he labored away on his writing lesson, holding down the paper with his maimed hand, “I learn t’ make an Englis’ letter; maybe my fadder he learn too.” I had my doubts of the father. He sat watching Pietro with a pride in the achievement that was clearly proportionate to the struggle it cost, and mirrored in his own face every grimace and contortion the progress of education caused the boy. “Si! si!” he nodded, eagerly. “Pietro he good a boy; make Englis’, Englis’!” and he made a flourish with his clay-pipe, as if he too were making the English letter that was the object of their common veneration.

Perhaps it is as much his growing and well-founded distrust of the middle-man, whose unresisting victim he has heretofore been, and his need of some other joint to connect him with the English-speaking world that surrounds him, as any personal interest in book-learning, that impels the illiterate Italian to bring his boy to school early and see that he attends it. Greed has something to do with it too. In their anxiety to lay hold of the child, the charity schools have fallen into a way of bidding for him with clothes, shoes, and other bait that is never lost on Mulberry Street. Even sectarian scruples yield to such an argument, and the parochial school, where they get nothing but on the contrary are expected to contribute, gets left.

In a few charity schools where the children are boarded they have discovered this, and frown upon Italian children unless there is the best of evidence that the father is really unable to pay for their keep and not simply unwilling. But whatever his motive, the effect is to demonstrate in a striking way the truth of the observation that real reform of poverty and ignorance must begin with the children. In his case, at all events, the seed thus sown bears some fruit in the present as well as in the coming generation of toilers. The little ones, with their new standards and new ambitions, become in a very real sense missionaries of the slums, whose work of regeneration begins with their parents. They are continually fetched away from school by the mother or father to act as interpreters or go-betweens in all the affairs of daily life, to be conscientiously returned within the hour stipulated by the teacher, who offers no objection to this sort of interruption, knowing it to be the best condition of her own success. One cannot help the hope that the office of trust with which the children are thus invested may, in some measure, help to mitigate their home-hardships. From their birth they have little else, though Italian parents are rarely cruel in the sense of abusing their offspring.

It is the home itself that constitutes their chief hardship. It is only when his years offer the boy an opportunity of escape to the street, that a ray of sunlight falls into his life. In his backyard or in his alley it seldom finds him out. Thenceforward most of his time is spent there, until the school and the shop claim him, but not in idleness. His mother toiled, while she bore him at her breast, under burdens heavy enough to break a man’s back. She lets him out of her arms only to share her labor. How well he does it anyone may see for himself by watching the children that swarm where an old house is being torn down, lugging upon their heads loads of kindling wood twice their own size and sometimes larger than that. They come, as crows scenting carrion, from every side at the first blow of the axe. Their odd old-mannish or old-womanish appearance, due more to their grotesque rags than to anything in the children themselves, betrays their race even without their chatter. Be there ever so many children of other nationalities nearer by—the wood-gatherers are nearly all Italians. There are still a lot of girls among them who drag as big loads as their brothers, but since the sewing machine found its way, with the sweater’s mortgage, into the Italian slums also, little Antonia has been robbed to a large extent even of this poor freedom, and has taken her place among the wage-earners when not on the school-bench. Once taken, the place is hers to keep for good. Sickness, unless it be mortal, is no excuse from the drudgery of the tenement. When, recently, one little Italian girl, hardly yet in her teens, stayed away from her class in the Mott Street Industrial School so long that her teacher went to her home to look her up, she found the child in a high fever, in bed, sewing on coats, with swollen eyes, though barely able to sit up.

But neither poverty nor hard knocks has power to discourage the child of Italy. His nickname he pockets with a grin that has in it no thought of the dagger and the revenge that come to solace his after years. Only the prospect of immediate punishment eclipses his spirits for the moment. While the teacher of the sick little girl was telling me her pitiful story in the Mott Street school, a characteristic group appeared on the stairway. Three little Italian culprits in the grasp of Nellie, the tall and slender Irish girl who was the mentor of her class for the day. They had been arrested “fur fightin’” she briefly explained as she dragged them by the collar toward the principal, who just then appeared to inquire the cause of the rumpus, and thrust them forward to receive sentence. The three, none of whom was over eight years old, evidently felt that they were in the power of an enemy from whom no mercy was to be expected, and made no appeal for any. One scowled defiance. He was evidently the injured party.

“He hit-a me a clip on de jaw,” he said in his defence, in the dialect of Mott Street with a slight touch of “the Bend.” The aggressor, a heavy browed little ruffian, hung back with a dreary howl, knuckling his eyes with a pair of fists that were nearly black. The third and youngest was in a state of bewilderment that was most ludicrous. He only knew that he had received a kick on the back and had struck out in self-defence, when he was seized and dragged away a prisoner. He was so dirty—school had only just begun and there had been no time for the regular inspection—that he was sentenced on the spot to be taken down and washed, while the other two were led away to the principal’s desk. All three went out howling.

I said that the Italians do not often abuse their children downright. The padrone has had his day; the last was convicted seven years ago, and an end has been put to the business of selling children into a slavery that meant outrage, starvation, and death; but poverty and ignorance are fearful allies in the homes of the poor against defenceless childhood, even without the child-beating fiend. Two cases which I encountered in the East Side tenements, in the summer of 1891, show how the combination works at its worst. Without a doubt they are typical of very many, though I hope that few come quite up to their standard. The one was the case of little Carmen, who last March died in the New York Hospital, where she had lain five long months, the special care of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. One of the summer corps doctors found her in a Mott Street tenement, within stone-throw of the Health Department office, suffering from a wasting disease that could only be combated by the most careful nursing. He put her case into the hands of the King’s Daughters’ Committee that followed in the steps of the doctor, and it was then that I saw her. She lay in a little back room, up two flights and giving upon a narrow yard where it was always twilight. The room was filthy and close, and entirely devoid of furniture, with the exception of a rickety stool, a slop pail, and a rusty old stove, one end of which was propped up with bricks. Carmen’s bed was a board laid across the top of a barrel and a trunk set on end. I could not describe, if I would, the condition of the child when she was raised from the mess of straw and rags in which she lay. The sight unnerved even the nurse, who had seen little else than such scenes all summer. Loathsome bedsores had attacked the wasted little body, and in truth Carmen was more dead than alive. But when, shocked and disgusted, we made preparations for her removal with all speed to the hospital, the parents objected and refused to let us take her away. They had to be taken into court and forced to surrender the child under warrant of law, though it was clearly the little sufferer’s only chance for life, and only the slenderest of chances at that.

Carmen was the victim of the stubborn ignorance that dreads the hospital and the doctor above the discomfort of the dirt and darkness and suffering that are its every-day attendants. Her parents were no worse than the Monroe Street mother who refused to let the health officer vaccinate her baby, because her crippled boy, with one leg an inch shorter than the other, had “caught it”—the lame leg, that is to say—from his vaccination. She knew it was so, and with ignorance of that stamp there is no other argument than force. But another element entered into the case of a sick Essex Street baby. The tenement would not let it recover from a bad attack of scarlet fever, and the parents would not let it be taken to the country or to the sea-shore, despite all efforts and entreaties. When their motive came out at last, it proved to be a mercenary one. They were behind with the rent, and as long as they had a sick child in the house the landlord could not put them out. Sick, the baby was to them a source of income, at all events a bar to expense, and in that way so much capital. Well, or away, it would put them at the mercy of the rent-collector at once. So they chose to let it suffer. The parents were Jews, a fact that emphasizes the share borne by desperate poverty in the transaction, for the family tie is notoriously strong among their people.

No doubt Mott Street echoed with the blare of brass bands when poor little Carmen was carried from her bed of long suffering to her grave in Calvary. Scarce a day passes now in these tenements that does not see some little child, not rarely a new-born babe, carried to the grave in solemn state, preceded by a band playing mournful dirges and followed by a host with trailing banners, from some wretched home that barely sheltered it alive. No suspicion of the ludicrous incongruity of the show disturbs the paraders. It seems as if, but one remove from the dump, an insane passion for pomp and display, perhaps a natural reaction from the ash-barrel, lies in wait for this Italian, to which he falls a helpless victim. Not content with his own national and religious holidays and those he finds awaiting him here, he has invented or introduced a system of his own, a sort of communal celebration of proprietary saints, as it were, that has taken Mulberry Street by storm. As I understand it, the townsmen of some Italian village, when there is a sufficient number of them within reach, club together to celebrate its patron saint, and hire a band and set up a gorgeous altar in a convenient back yard. The fire-escapes overlooking it are draped with flags and transformed into reserved-seat galleries with the taste these people display under the most adverse circumstances. Crowds come and go, parading at intervals in gorgeous uniforms around the block. Admission is by the saloon-door, which nearly always holds the key to the situation, the saloonist who prompts the sudden attack of devotion being frequently a namesake of the saint and willing to go shares on the principle that he takes the profit and the saint the glory.


The partnership lasts as long as there is any profit in it, sometimes the better part of the week, during which time all work stops. If the feast panned out well, the next block is liable to be the scene of a rival celebration before the first is fairly ended. As the supply of Italian villages represented in New York is practically as inexhaustible as that of the saloons, there is no reason why Mulberry Street may not become a perennial picnic ground long before the scheme to make a park of one end of it gets under way. From the standpoint of the children there can be no objection to this, but from that of the police there is. They found themselves called upon to interfere in such a four days’ celebration of St. Rocco last year, when his votaries strung cannon fire-crackers along the street the whole length of the block and set them all off at once. It was at just such a feast, in honor of the same saint, that a dozen Italians were killed a week later at Newark in the explosion of their fireworks.

It goes without saying that the children enter into this sort of thing with all the enthusiasm of their little souls. The politician watches it attentively, alert for some handle to catch his new allies by and effect their “organization.” If it is a new experience for him to find the saloon put to such use, he betrays no surprise. It is his vantage ground, and whether it serve as the political bait for the Irishman, or as the religious initiative of the Italian, is of less account than that its patrons, young and old, in the end fall into his trap. Conclusive proof that the Italian has been led into camp came to me on last St. Patrick’s Day through the assurance of a certain popular clergyman, that he had observed, on a walk through the city, a number of hand-organs draped in green, evidently for the occasion.

This dump of which I have spoken as furnishing the background of the social life of Mulberry Street, has lately challenged attention as a slum annex to the Bend, with fresh horrors in store for defenceless childhood. To satisfy myself upon this point I made a personal inspection of the dumps along both rivers last winter and found the Italian crews at work there making their home in every instance among the refuse they picked from the scows. The dumps are wooden bridges raised above the level of the piers upon which they are built to allow the discharge of the carts directly into the scows moored under them. Under each bridge a cabin had been built of old boards, oil-cloth, and the like, that had found its way down on the carts; an old milk-can had been made into a fireplace without the ceremony of providing stove-pipe or draught, and here, flanked by mountains of refuse, slept the crews of from half a dozen to three times that number of men, secure from the police, who had grown tired of driving them from dump to dump and had finally let them alone. There were women at some of them, and at four dumps, three on the North River and one on the East Side, I found boys who ought to have been at school, picking bones and sorting rags. They said that they slept there, and as the men did, why should they not? It was their home. They were children of the dump, literally. All of them except one were Italians. That one was a little homeless Jew who had drifted down at first to pick cinders. Now that his mother was dead and his father in a hospital, he had become a sort of fixture there, it seemed, having made the acquaintance of the other lads.


Two boys whom I found at the West Nineteenth Street dumps sorting bones were as bright lads as I had seen anywhere. One was nine years old and the other twelve. Filthy and ragged, they fitted well into their environment—even the pig I had encountered at one of the East River dumps was much the more respectable, as to appearance, of the lot—but were entirely undaunted by it. They scarcely remembered anything but the dump. Neither could read, of course. Further down the river I came upon one seemingly not over fifteen, who assured me that he was twenty-one. I thought it possible when I took a closer look at him. The dump had stunted him. He did not even know what a letter was. He had been there five years, and garbage limited his mental as well as his physical horizon.

Enough has been said to show that the lot of the poor child of the Mulberry Street Bend, or of Little Italy, is not a happy one, courageously and uncomplainingly, even joyously, though it be borne. The stories of two little lads from the region of Crosby Street always stand to me as typical of their kind. One I knew all about from personal observation and acquaintance; the other I give as I have it from his teachers in the Mott Street Industrial School, where he was a pupil in spells. It was the death of little Giuseppe that brought me to his home, a dismal den in a rear tenement down a dark and forbidding alley. I have seldom seen a worse place. There was no trace there of a striving for better things—the tenement had stamped that out—nothing but darkness and filth and misery. From this hole Giuseppe had come to the school a mass of rags, but with that jovial gleam in his brown eyes that made him an instant favorite with the teachers as well as with the boys. One of them especially, little Mike, became attached to him, and a year after his cruel death shed tears yet, when reminded of it. Giuseppe had not been long at the school when he was sent to an Elizabeth Street tenement for a little absentee. He brought her, shivering in even worse rags than his own; it was a cold winter day.

“This girl is very poor,” he said, presenting her to the teacher, with a pitying look. It was only then that he learned that she had no mother. His own had often stood between the harsh father and him when he came home with unsold evening papers. Giuseppe fished his only penny out of his pocket—his capital for the afternoon’s trade. “I would like to give her that,” he said. After that he brought her pennies regularly from his day’s sale, and took many a thrashing for it. He undertook the general supervision of the child’s education, and saw to it that she came to school every day. Giuseppe was twelve years old.

There came an evening when business had been very bad, so bad that he thought a bed in the street healthier for him than the Crosby Street alley. With three other lads in similar straits he crawled into the iron chute that ventilated the basement of the Post-office on the Mail Street side and snuggled down on the grating. They were all asleep, when fire broke out in the cellar. The three climbed out, but Giuseppe, whose feet were wrapped in a mail-bag, was too late. He was burned to death.
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