Scary tales of New York: life in the Irish slums

In the 19th century, Irish people fled poverty at home for dirt, disease and danger in the American city’s overcrowded tenements

Sat, Mar 23, 2013, 06:00

In 19th-century New York, even tenements were ranked. Some were considered too good for the Irish, who were relegated to densely packed hovels in the urban shanty town of Five Points, on the Lower East Side. Here families huddled together, with several hundred people in one building.

In the 1860s, almost 300,000 people lived within one square mile. Rear structures were appended and floors were added, stacked precariously one on top of another. Rooms were divided and subdivided. It was not uncommon for five families – about 20 people – to share one room that measured 12ft by 12ft and had two beds and no table or chairs. There was no ventilation or sanitation inside, and human and animal waste piled up in the courtyards outside. Swine roamed freely, and dead horses posed a major problem on the streets. The ordure and stench caused not only physical disease but what Jacob Riis, the pioneering photojournalist who recorded the slums of the city in the late 19th century, described as a “deadly moral contagion”.

As people were degraded by their living conditions, the levels of drunkenness and violence soared and became synonymous with the Irish. And, of course, corruption was rife. Public neglect was a major factor, but so too was private greed. Rents in the area were often higher than in decent housing uptown. Riis argued that “proprietors frequently used the filthy habits of the tenants as an excuse for the condition of their property, utterly losing sight of the fact that it was the tolerance of those habits which was the real evil”.

The Irish might have fled from oppression, poverty and hunger, but, perceived as importing disease, popery and intemperance, they were not warmly welcomed. The cartoonist Thomas Nast produced some of the most vitriolic images: The Day We Celebrate , published in Harper’s Weekly , on April 6th, 1867, depicts simianised Irish celebrating St Patrick’s Day as apes. The male stereotype, Paddy – stupid, drunken, violent and corrupt – was somewhat softened by the female stereotype, Bridget – hardworking, Catholic, decent and upwardly mobile – although Irish female drunkenness and prostitution were also noted.

And still they came. Between 1845 and 1852, a million Irish emigrated, followed by a further two million by the end of the century. In the 19th century, one in four people in New York was Irish.

The remarkable Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side tells the story of the only Irish family who lived at 97 Orchard Street, a tenement of five floors, with four apartments on each floor, housing 20 families with an average of six people per family; more than 10,000 people lived at this tenement between 1870 and 1915.


Sparse accommodation
The sparse accommodation was palatial in comparison with the living conditions of many Irish in the city at the time.

In the immediate neighbourhood, known as Klein Deutschland (Little Germany), the ethnicity was German; this tenement housed saloonkeepers, sweatshop workers, seamstresses, laundresses and shop workers. There was a German beer saloon in the cellar, and Prof Dora Meltzer, a palmist and mind reader who had recently arrived from Europe, practised her charms upstairs. Among the people who lived in the house was one Irish family who were intent on improving their lot.

The house at 97 Orchard Street was built in 1863 and boarded up from 1935 until 1987. When the building was reopened, everything was as it had been when the tenement was sealed. During the restoration, more than 1,500 artifacts were found: kitchenware, toys, medicinal products, letters, newspapers, coins, scraps of clothes and so on. Lincrusta wallpaper, tin ceilings, tiled floors and painted medallions were preserved, revealing 70 years of city dwelling. Indeed, the museum is an extraordinary exercise in urban archaeology. As the layers of three-quarters of a century are peeled back, the social history of one building tells myriad stories about the people and the place at that time.

Visitors can opt for various experiences: tours of the tenement with different ethnic emphases, walking tours of the area, re-enactments, or food tours of the Five Points. Through primary-source research – census returns; police records; medical reports; and immigration and public health records – the museum reconstructs the lives of real people in remarkably moving ways.

On the Irish tour, the experience of living here is brought to life by songs that recall home, denounce employers who would not hire the Irish, and warn mothers to avoid milkmen selling swill.

On April 21st, 1869, a five-month-old baby, Agnes Moore, died of malnutrition. A wake was almost certainly held, presided over by the priest who had baptised the baby, and by a representative from Tammany Hall, the city’s political organisation, who paid for the funeral, in exchange for votes. Agnes’s father, Joseph Moore, earned about $20 a month as a bartender, and paid about $10 in rent. That did not leave enough to pay for the decencies of death, which would have amounted to about $25.

Joseph and his wife, Bridget Moore, would have invited their German neighbours in the building, friends from Five Points, and colleagues from the saloon where Joseph worked to mourn her passing. Whiskey would have been drunk and keening heard in the small room where the little whitewashed coffin was displayed, with rosary beads on top.

Research indicates that Agnes died of malnutrition brought on by drinking swill. This was milk, from diseased cows, which street vendors sold from dirty vats, often camouflaging the offensive smell and colour with chalk or ammonia. It was exacerbated by herbal remedies, such as pokeweed and bottles of alcoholic patent medicines, that appeared to help her suffering but actually hastened her death. The mortality rate for Irish immigrant children was 25 per cent.

According to a report in 1865, “in the tenant-house districts a worse than Spartan fate awaits all children, and cholera infantum, convulsions, scrofula, and marasmus hover with ghoul-like fiendishness about the dismal and crowded tenant-houses of the great mass of infantile lives in the city.”

Four of the Moores’ eight daughters reached adulthood; this was a better-than-average survival rate. Mrs Moore died in 1882, aged 36, shortly after giving birth to her last child.

The names, dates and occupations of the Moores, and other inhabitants, have been established and their lives have been reconstructed in a fascinating way.

Each flat measured about 325 sq ft. The standard bedroom, 8ft by 6ft, was cut off from fresh air and natural light. There was no toilet or bath, and water had to be fetched by hand. Each kitchen had a stove that burned coal or wood, and fires erupted with alarming regularity.

Rubbish in the area, according to the New York Tribune in 1863, was “composed of potato-peelings . . . night-soil, rancid butter, dead dogs and cats . . . one festering, rotting, loathsome, hellish mass of air poisoning, death-breeding filth”. The superintendent of buildings of New York City reported that “the greatest amount of profit is sought to be realised from the least amount of space with little or no regard for the health, comfort, or protection of the life of the tenants”.

Disease was rampant. The newly formed Council of Hygiene and Public Health noted that tenant houses were “nests of fever infection, and the poisoned abodes of physical decay”. And an 1865 report questioned that “the entire tenement house population [was] not devastated by the domestic pestilences and infectious epidemics that arise from overcrowding and uncleanness.”

Just under 500,000 people, more than half the population of the city, lived in tenements; such density was unequalled, and the inhabitants were therefore prone to “domestic pestilences and infectious epidemics that arise from overcrowding and uncleanness”.

The Irish made up the largest immigrant group in the US at the time. Americans of Irish descent now amount to some 10 times the population of Ireland; that is, 40 million Irish-Americans, including Scots Irish. People also emigrated to the US from Germany, escaping the 1848 revolution, and from China, as trade restrictions relaxed. But they also came from other parts of the US, slaves or former slaves from the southern states. And they converged on the notorious Five Points district, the most violent, poor, dirty and unhealthy part of New York City. In the 1840s, the population increased by more than 60 per cent, to 515,547; in the following decade, it soared by another 58 per cent, to to 813,669. Thus, the most unlikely combinations of people found themselves sharing some of the worst living conditions in the world.


Racial hierarchy
Whether they arrived by coffin ship, to escape famine, or by “underground railroad”, which were secret routes used by slaves to escape bondage, blacks and Irish were joined by Chinese and Italians and pressed into close proximity. Inevitably, from this ethnic mix, a racial hierarchy emerged.

But the Irish would not take their ranking lying down. White in colour but not in status, they were determined to make it out of the ghetto. Irish-Americans and African-Americans competed for the same low-status jobs, as ditch-diggers and street pavers, coal-carriers and cartmen, and they were labelled alcoholic, violent, ignorant and lazy.

In a bizarre perversion of colour blindness, the Irish were not seen as white by Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent, and fought to distinguish themselves as such. Irish immigrants figured that whiteness was not actually defined by colour but had to be achieved strategically, and at the expense of others. This resulted in many Irish being pro-slavery and anti-black.

Paradoxically, until emancipation, the value placed on slaves exceeded that accorded the Irish. Slaves were considered too valuable to be allowed to do dangerous work whereas the Irish, who were perceived as dispensable, worked in the mines and on the railroads, and this led to many deaths.

The Conscription Act (1863) brought things to a head, as well-off white men could evade the Union Army draft, in advance of the civil war, by paying for deferral or substitution, and this resulted in heightened racial tensions. On June 11th, 1863, more than 100 people were killed in an outbreak of racist violence, in which many Irish people were involved.

But Irish-black relations were polyvalent, resulting in conflicting behaviour from riots and lynching to socialising and intermarriage. And although the connections were myriad, and the breakdown complex, 40 per cent of African-Americans have some Irish ancestry. Indeed the Irish tour, conducted by Daryl Hamilton, a black Nigerian-Senegalese-Irishman, whose great-grandfather Augustus Flynn emigrated from Limerick in 1898, embodies the spirit of the museum.

Although they competed economically, they shared many community values, coexisting more peacefully than many historians allow. Graham Hodges argues that “contact was as harmonious as could be in a tough, urban slum, while night-time leisure produced a syncretic culture”.

And when Charles Dickens toured the saloons and “leprous houses” of Five Points, escorted by two policemen, he was scandalised to note that Irish and black men and women drank, danced and made love together. In the late 1860s, only 203 black people lived in the sixth ward, and almost 12,000 Irish, yet there were 11 inter-racial marriages, known as “amalgamations”.

Traditionally, downtrodden people do not see their interests preserved in museums. With the evolution of social history from the mid-20th century, it was only a matter of time before a museum of working-class life would be developed. This has led to important research into people and how they lived. Bridget and Joseph Moore would have been astonished to know that their story made history, 150 years later.

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