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Thursday, March 30, 2017

From Riches to Rags: One man’s experience in the slums of New York

By Nell Darby

When you think of the emigrant experience in New York, and the reasons individuals had for coming to America in the 19th century, what do you think of? In England, the focus is on the poverty-stricken coming to the ‘new world’ to start again, to seek their fortunes, and to escape the miserable conditions of their old homes. Of course, the experience for many on reaching the ‘promised land’ was not what they hoped for; by the end of the 19th century, the Danish-born reporter and photographer Jacob Riis was talking to emigrants who now lived a wretched life in the slums of the Five Points area, only a step away from complete destitution. Many of these were immigrants, and their lives were lived on a day-to-day basis, wondering where the next meal was coming from. Riis noted the peripatetic nature of some families’ lives, shuttling between lodging house, police station and workhouse - where at least they knew they would get fed. Many of the area’s early immigrants had fled the famine that devastated so many lives in Ireland, and throughout the mid to late 19th century, a substantial proportion of the area’s residents continued to be either Irish-born or of Irish origin. These were people who had little left for them in their homeland, where poverty was what they had known before, and where America represented the possibility of improving themselves. These are the people who have been written about and studied. Yet one man left his home country as a middle-class, educated, 19-year-old, and ended up dying in New York as a destitute, drunken, broken man. His experience showed that America could break as many dreams as it made.

In 1856, the local newspapers in Oxford, England, recorded the death of an 83-year-old accountant, who had been active in local politics. John Harper was a Londoner by birth and ancestry, his family living in the same square as Dr Samuel Johnson, the creator of the modern English dictionary. He had a long life, dying at 83 years old, after breaking his leg. But what was significant about his death was that a reference was made in the death notices to ‘publish this in the Colonial newspapers’. This was the death of an elderly man who had spent his entire life in England; why was his family keen to ensure that the death was publicised overseas? The reason lay with his second son, John Ambrose Harper.

Harper family (credit: Nell Darby) – this image shows the author’s grandfather, John Harper, as a boy 
(front row) and behind, in the bow tie, is his father Seth. John Ambrose Harper was Seth’s uncle

New York State White Caps of 1905

by Richard White


“We have portrayed, in Motion Pictures, in a most vivid and realistic manner, the methods employed by the ‘White Caps’ to rid the community of undesirable citizens.” This was a statement from an advertisement in the New York Clipper on October 14, 1905 for a new movie called “The White Caps” which depicts graphically a husband’s drunken attack on his wife, and the tactics of these moral crusaders and nighttime raiders used to deter him from making another attack. Since the late 1800’s, this movement produced locally organized vigilante squads—usually men but on occasion women -- who wore white hoods when they operated outside of the law as shown in the movie. While the movie was art imitating life, the reality in New York in 1905 was that White Caps were actively engaged in missions of morality in the small towns of Darien Center, Rhinecliff, Penfield, and East Syracuse.

In the quiet hamlet of Darien Center in Genessee County in early February it appears that there were no White Cap operatives. The arrival of one or two families from Batavia prompted their quick formation. According to Batavia’s The Daily News on the 27th, the newcomers “were too lazy to work and were begging through the neighborhood.” On two occasions they were “white-capped,” or confronted in person, by the newly formed band, and “ordered to leave town.” Although these White Caps were recently organized, the movement’s methods were well-known, and the new people left in a hurry. This appears to be the only case of the year in which legal action was taken against the rioters. Two of them who were somehow recognized were “arraigned on a charge of riot” but were released when no one appeared to testify against them. A few months later another White Cap morality foray materialized in a Hudson Valley village.

In July in Rhinecliff in Dutchess County, a mob of White Caps was formed to deal with a wife-beater. The Rhinebeck Gazette observed on July 8 that “there comes a startling tale from Rhinecliff that the picturesque little station village has a band of ‘whitecaps’ duly and properly capped and all its own.” Their solution to this public shame was a beating of the man, Thomas McElroy. One week later, the newspaper published a letter that summed up the situation when the author wrote “Rhinecliff is noted for its peaceful and quiet citizens, and there is no danger of any person being molested in any manner if they behave themselves.” As usual, White Caps sought a solution outside of the law in the form of summary punishment as they would near Rochester in the Fall.

The White Caps of Penfield in Monroe County knew that Allen Decker had acted badly when he induced a married woman in late October to leave town with him—in fact, she brought along her two children. They went to Niagara Falls where Decker was arrested - apparently on a warrant from a judge in Penfield—on a charge of petit larceny for stealing the children’s clothes. Upon his return to face the judge he was fined and released. Vigilante justice awaited him on February 28 when the town’s White Caps dragged him out of the house where he hid. According to the Monroe County Mail, Allen suffered two humiliations. First, he received “a liberal coating of warm tar” (other sources indicate that feathers were then applied). Second, he was “conveyed to the village mill pond, where a rope was tied about his body to prevent his escape, and he was then thrown into the water and given a good sousing. Pulling him out of the water he was ordered to leave town and he obeyed the order with alacrity.” Within a matter of days in a small village in Onondaga County, there would be a reason for action by the self-appointed morals marauders.

In East Syracuse, there was one planned, and one unplanned, attack by the locale’s White Caps. Their intention was to thrash a husband for wife beating after he became indignant when she tried to dissuade him from seeing another woman. On November 9, The Syracuse Journal described how they gave Frederick John Smith a beating that “he will not likely soon to forget.” However, circumstances arose that spurred another beating when the “other woman,” Mrs. Clark Teft, became involved. Teft rushed to the scene carrying a club, and a few of the White Caps turned on her which resulted in “severe injury to her nose.” These brave, hooded men forcefully stoppeda woman from interfering with their operation.

In 1906, there was no sequel to “The White Caps,” although groups of them in real life continued their reign of terror in New York for a few more years. In August, for example, they covered a man with green paint and feathers due to his relationship with a married woman in East Syracuse. Other communities where they organized and operated that year include Jordan, Tonawanda, and Milton.

About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.