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On Christmas-day (1866) a woman with five children -- the oldest three our pupils -- coming from church, fell, breaking her arm and giving premature birth to a sixth. Hearing of this sad case, I took a few yards of red flannel and went to see her. I found the poor woman in the deepest agony and almost frantic from suffering. Her husband kept a fruit-stand in Nassau Street, but this accident, as she expressed it, had entirely stupified him, and she suffered to a great extent, also, morally, from the hopeless condition of her young family. The stove was as warm (or cold) as every piece of furniture in the room, and the poor patient and the two smallest children had to manage to keep warm by lying on the same bed, with a pile of old clothes and carpets over them.

Presently, however, the three elder children came in, half-frozen and barefooted, scarcely able to talk, and discharged near the store the contents of their aprons and bags, the result of their coal-picking tour. Leaving to their father the care of reviving the fire, they, as of a common consent, started for a closet, and drawing out a good-sized tin pan full of boiled corn-meal, commenced a furious onslaught thereon. The outer room measured some twelve by fourteen feet, and had no beds, but its floor afforded sleeping accommodations to the five children. The inner room was scarcely large enough to admit a middle-sized bedstead used by the parents. When I left, the young ones had taken their places for the night, and the man, having made a good fire, proceeded to assort a barrel of apples, and his wife said it was the fourth time 'that stupid man had gone through the same process without having done anything.'

Among guardians, especially, the custom was prevalent of fixing the amount the boy or girl had to bring home in the evening. But not seldom fathers were prompted by avarice to act still more cruelly against their own offspring, and while the former punished the shortcomings of their wards by furnishing them with meals of microscopic proportions, the latter, on the presumption, I suppose, of paternal right, went so far as to whip and even expel from home the son or sons who failed to come up to their greedy expectations. At present, however, such cases are almost unknown, owing to the sense of independence felt by the growing generation and to our influence on the parents.

But as late as three years ago I had observed that a boy of twelve, who was very anxious to learn, now and then was absent. One evening I called on him for explanations, and he related that he was 'taxed' for eighty cents a day, and every cent short of that amount was balanced by a proportionate dose of cowhiding on his bare body. He entreated me most earnestly not to say a word to his father on the subject, otherwise he would fare still worse. Whenever, therefore, he failed to earn the eighty cents by his boot-blacking vocation, he would not go home. This unnatural father did not stop here; he did not care in the least how long his son would remain out sleeping under market-stands and in newspaper rooms, but he insisted on the boy paying over to him, when he would return, at the rate of eighty cents per day for all the time of his absence, without any allowance for food, etc.

The case was really heart-rending, especially as the boy was developing fine moral and intellectual qualities, and had to be treated with uncommon prudence. At first I told the boy to call on me for whatever he was short, and he did so on two occasions; but somehow or other the transaction was reported to the father, who, rather than desist from his pretension, as any other man would certainly have done, increased the tax to one dollar, with the remark that 'it would make no difference to the teacher, twenty cents, more or less.'

The very same night this happened, seeing the impossibility of curing this man in any other way, I paid him a visit, which seemed to have surprised him to a great extent. I spoke to him calmly but determinedly, as I never had occasion to do before, but without eliciting any answer, and I left him with the assurance that if he did not desist at once from the vile abuse of parental authority I would have him arrested. After a few days he moved to Laurens Street, and in about six months from this occurrence returned, with the whole family, to Italy. I never could learn anything afterward concerning his interesting son.

The filth prevalent in some of their abodes is really appalling, and in some cases incredible. In  Baxter Street there is a bedroom, nine by twelve feet, occupied by four children and their parents. The door, hindered by the bed behind it, opens scarcely enough to give admittance to a person of ordinary size. At the foot of the bed there is, and was, and will be as long as they stay therein, a red-hot stove, between which and the window stands an old chest; opposite the stove a table. The fetid air inside I would have thought to be beyond human endurance. The woman, at my request, opened the window, remarking 'that she did not see the use of burning coal inside, if the freezing air was to be permitted to come in freely.' The children sleep on the floor; that is to say, one nearly under the bed, another under the table, a third by the stove, and the fourth is at liberty to roll over any of her sisters. I could not help noticing an old greasy piece of print, of no distinguishable color, hanging around the bed, and performing, as I learned with satisfaction, the function of a curtain to keep out of view its occupants.

During the last ten years some fifteen of our girls, and nearly as many boys, married--mostly, I ought to say, intermarried--and as the greater portion of them have children, say from four to eight years of age, in our school, I visit also occasionally among them, the new generation.

And how different in their habits of cleanliness! Floors, walls, ceiling, windows, everything faultlessly clean, their persons neat, so that their rooms are really an oasis in that desert called tenement-houses; and the cordial civility they extend to me carries still farther the comparison by making me realize in their apartments, after a visiting tour at the Five Points, all the satisfaction the traveler derives by the fertile spot after a fatiguing journey across the burning sand.

I will omit many sad scenes witnessed at the death-bed of several of our pupils, it being my aim to dwell only on such facts as may convey an idea of the nature of the difficulties we had to overcome. But the monotonous scenes of suffering under its various forms are, however, succeeded now and then by others peculiarly exciting.

Often, of my own choice, but sometimes entreated by the pupils' parents, I paid visits to billiard-rooms. Those are placed in the back-room of groceries, of which there are three in that neighborhood, and have, therefore, communication with the yard. Whenever I deemed it necessary to go on such errands, I had to organize previously an expedition of ten or twelve of our oldest scholars, who, in accordance with my instructions, would at a signal prevent all means of egress from windows and doors.

I would then go in from the front, and a wild rush for the rear would ensue; but, finding themselves surrounded, all the boys I was looking for, had no other choice but to follow us to school, escorted as deserters. Now, it is more than probable that ninety-nine out of one hundred of billiard-keepers in New York would not allow such proceedings against their interests, for our descents did not particularly improve their profits. Still, those Italian grocers not only countenanced and aided my endeavors, but gave me also all the information I previously demanded. Little by little, by repeated expeditions and an occasional peeping in these places before going to school, I succeeded in nearly breaking up their vicious habits in this respect, and it is only a rare occurrence that one of our boys on Saturday nights will go in to look on a game.

In corroboration of which success I may mention that early last winter (1867), one Saturday evening, the police made a regular and truly formidable descent on these billiard-saloons, arresting, among others, in all twenty-seven Italians, I believe, of whom eleven were boys from seven to fifteen. Next evening I had an application to interfere for their release, as it is usual for me to do whenever circumstances warrant it, and in looking into the subject carefully I found that of them only two--namely, the youngest and the oldest--belonged to our school, and that both had gone to buy groceries, and, while the grocer was weighing and wrapping the provisions, they had walked to the door between the store and the saloon to look in, and were under that circumstance arrested. Upon my conviction that such was really the case, I applied for and obtained their discharge. The other boys mostly belonged to families newly arrived from Italy and directed for California, to which State these people generally move if unable to make a living in New York.

Now I will only add that the Maestro (teacher) at the Five Points has become an indispensable personage among them. He is assumed to be a lawyer, medical doctor, theologian, astronomer, banker--everything as well as a teacher. A boy is arrested for throwing stones in the street; the Maestro is applied to and the boy is released. One has fifty dollars to deposit; the Maestro is consulted as to the soundness of the savings-banks--and so on. But, to better appreciate their feelings on this subject, it must be known that these poor foreigners have for a long while been victimized by the grossest impositions. I have heard of as much as one thousand dollars lost by one family, through the sharp practice of a man (an Italian) who, taking advantage of their ignorance of the English, and of their confidence, deposited and drew in his name the money which was intended as part payment for a farm they had bought in Massachusetts, and gave them to understand that the bank had failed.

And this is one of the many cases they had related to me on the subject. Nor less shameful imposition they suffered at the hands of the "shysters" whenever some juvenile delinquent was arrested for trifles. They had to pay from fifty to one hundred dollars, and, what was worse, often without obtaining their release. In order to explain the process by which poor people possess such cash amounts, I must say that in extraordinary circumstances they help each other with the most disinterested and prompt liberality.

Some of those who go to California, having borrowed the money here, remit it generally in drafts payable to order of lenders, who, being unknown to the bank, are refused payment. The Maestro then, of course, is applied to, and for the first two or three cases I found it hard to make them understand that I did not do it for money. They would insist on my receiving something for my trouble in procuring payment by the drawees, and one, especially, on having paid a draft of one hundred and sixty dollars gold, followed me for a block, with a coin piece in his hand, insisting that I should take it. 'My dear man, keep your money,' I would say; 'I am very glad to have been able to render you this service.' 'No, Maestro, no. Well, take _at least_ these five dollars' (gold). That _at least_ struck me that he must have been laboring under the impression that my services were worth considerably more, and I addressed him in that sense. In answer, he explained that an Italian, who has gone away from New York, charged him and others ten per cent, for cashing drafts to order.

In conclusion, the Maestro is called upon for every emergency; Questions undecided between two or more dissentient parties are referred to my arbitration. Family quarrels are submitted to my adjustment. It is no exaggeration to say that the good which could be effected by thus visiting among this class is immense--in fact, far beyond the expectation of those who might take as a basis of comparison the result of visiting among the low classes of other nationalities.


Charles Loring Brace, "The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years' Work Among Them", 1872


 "Baxter Street Alley, Rag-Picker's Row" In the February 12, 1898 issue of the New York Sun, Jacob Riis wrote, "At 59 Baxter Street . . . is an alley leading in from the sidewalk with tenements on either side crowding so close as to almost shut out the light of day. On one side they are brick and on the other wood, but there is little difference in their ricketiness and squalor." -Jacob Riis