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
When his father died back in England, his family clearly tried to notify John Ambrose in New York, by advertising in the foreign press; but he does not appear to have got the news, and even if he had, as a pedlar on a very limited income, he was highly unlikely to have been able to afford the passage back home. The irony of this is that his father had left him, with his siblings, an equal share in his estate, and so if he had remained in England, he would have prospered. His siblings certainly did well for themselves; two brothers - Thomas and Francis - were dental surgeons with homes and offices in salubrious parts of central London, both marrying middle-class, affluent women, while back in Oxford, his sister Susanna married one of the city’s pioneering photographers while brother Henry became assistant librarian of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.
|Pearl Street, 2016 (credit Nell Darby)|
Pearl Street was prone to violence, a perhaps inevitable consequence of living in close confines with others, including strangers, in dire conditions. In 1871, two boarders at number 532, Joseph Ulding and John Hagewick, had quarrelled whilst drunk. Ulding stabbed Hagewick in the shoulder and neck, and was promptly removed to the Franklin Street Police Station.
John Ambrose Harper lived, at various times, at numbers 506 and 508 Pearl Street. 508 Pearl as a particularly notorious building – in 1877, its landlord, the ‘Reverend’ Paul Valentine, went on trial for sexually abusing the children who lodged at number 508. Valentine referred to his cheap boarding house as a ‘college for children, dormitory and eating house’, in order to make it sound more respectable; but it was really just another doss house, and also a cover for his nefarious activities. Valentine, an Italian, had a whole series of cheap eating-houses aimed primarily at Italian immigrants, but also had prior convictions for immorality against children. In 1877, he was again found guilty and sent to the State Prison for ten years with hard labour.
|THE TOMBS. THE PLACE OF DETENTION FOR CRIMINALS AWAITING TRIAL - (photo in public domain)|
One resident, born in France, gave his occupation as ‘author’, which is particularly interesting. During the late 19th century, many writers were attempting to live in slum areas for a short duration in order to write about ‘how the other half lives’, an extension of the slum tourism that saw middle-class men and women come to gawp at the poor; was this man living in a Pearl Street boarding house to use it as the basis for a book, or newspaper articles? It is unlikely that he would have been staying there otherwise – unless he was really a writer who had fallen on extraordinarily hard times. There is an image of the basement of 508 Pearl Street in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of March 18, 1882, showing the conditions of those who were reduced to lodging there. Bunks were set up on two sides of the room, two rows on each side, with one set of men sleeping just above those below them. Washing was strung up above them, while the centre of the room saw many more bodies lying where they could, with little space between them - and zero privacy. Even in an illustration, the room looks cold, crowded, and noisy; men are shouting while those without bunks try to sleep sitting up, leaning against the bunks or each other.
|Image of 508 Pearl Street referred to in the above paragraph is attached; this is from 1882 and in public domain (and has been used elsewhere accordingly); copy obtained from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division|
John Ambrose was living in this, and other local boarding houses, for at least 20 years. This was a period when the area was causing great concern to the press and public. In 1877, a piece in the New York Times referred to the cheap lodging houses locally as ‘shelter for the idle’, where ‘many honest poor have to mingle with lazy tramps’. Although it was recognised that many of the poor were simply the victims of fate, ‘driven hurriedly by misfortune, social or business, or both, from honourable positions to the bitterness of poverty’, others were seen simply as ‘hopeless drinkers, confirmed vagrants, professional beggars, or desperate tramps’. Winter was seen as a particularly grim time, and the time of the year that saw record numbers of ‘tramps and professional vagabonds applying for relief’, with the ‘entitled’ sent to the almshouse.
John Harper was one of these hopeless drinkers and vagrants – he fit the stereotype perfectly in these respects. Any spare dime he had went on drink, and by the spring of 1888, he had lost his accommodation, becoming completely destitute. The records of the Blackwell’s Island almshouse state that John was admitted there on 10 March 1888. He was described as a destitute vagrant suffering from old age and intemperate habits. At this point, he was still aware of his background, and stated that he was the son of an accountant from Oxford, England, was English, and could read and write. He also spent time that year in the neighbouring workhouse, due to his status as a pauper. The policy of the authorities was to commit tramps and vagrants to Blackwell’s Island for only a few weeks if possible – ‘the workhouse authorities keep the healthier ones for as short a time as possible’. John, though, was not one of the healthy ones, and had a few spells on the island. Life there was little better than on Pearl Street; in 1889, complaints were being made about the overcrowding of both almshouse and workhouse, with there being 1,841 residents – 893 men and 948 women – in the almshouse, which had been built in 1846 to house a maximum number of 1,500. There were too few ‘cells’ for these people, and so around 450 of them were sleeping on the floors on straw beds. 250 were bedbound with diseases, and 92 were blind; all of them were ‘comparatively old and decrepit’, and looked after by just 31 members of staff. The workhouse, built in 1852, was similarly overcrowded and also regarded as ‘entirely unfit for use’, with at least four people occupying each cell, with some cells having between 12 and 24 occupants. Some of the elderly paupers were being housed in the workhouse – with those who were regarded as being ‘some of the most degraded men and women of the city’ - simply because there was no room for them in the almshouse.
 Anon, “Liverpool and Emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries”, Liverpool Maritime Archives and Library, accessed on March 9, 2017. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/archive/sheet/64
 Anon, “Enterprise on the Water”, On The Water, The National Museum of American History, accessed March 9, 2017. http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/2_3.html
 Anon, “Liverpool and emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries”, Liverpool Maritime Archives and Library, accessed March 9, 2017. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/archive/sheet/64
 Tyler Anbinder, Five Points (New York: Free Press, 2001), 119.
 Paul Foos, A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair: Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 5.
 Anon, “Shelter for the Idle”, New York Times, February 12, 1877.
 Anon, “An Ex-Clergyman Convicted”, New York Times, April 20, 1877.
 Anon, “A Stab and a Broken Arm”, New York Times, November 24, 1879.
 Anon, “City and Suburban News”, New York Times, June 23, 1879.
 Anon, “City and Suburban News”, New York Times, March 18, 1876.
 Tyler Anbinder, Five Points Tyler Anbinder, Five Points (New York: Free Press, 2001), 113.
 Included in Tyler Anbinder, Five Points (New York: Free Press, 2001), 79; also at “Teeming, reeking and swealtering filthy New York tenements”, PP’s Blog, accessed March 8, 2017. https://reotokate.wordpress.com/2014/06/16/tenements/. Original is in the Collection of the Library of Congress.
 Anon, “Shelter for the Idle”, New York Times, February 12, 1877.
 Anon, “More Room Needed”, New York Times, February 3, 1889.
 “City Cemetery, 1881-1950s”, New York City Department of Records, accessed on March 8, 2017. http://www.nyc.gov/html/records/html/archives/collections_cemeteries.shtml; Dan Bloom, “The Island of Lost Souls: The heartbreaking New York cemetery where the poor and the anonymous are buried on an industrial scale”, Daily Mail, April 30, 2014.