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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

John Ambrose was born on April 14, 1818 in London, England. After his mother died in the late 1820s, his father relocated his family 60 miles north to Oxford. A decade later, in 1837, at the age of 19, John Ambrose abruptly left not only Oxford, but England too, making the long journey across the Atlantic to New York. He was used to a certain lifestyle in England, and presumably thought he would have the same kind of life in the US – only there would be more opportunities there for him to shine, to have an exciting and rewarding time. He was an attractive man, just under 5-foot 10-inches, with black hair and eyes – perhaps he might even find a wife, too. So at some point that year, he set off - probably from Liverpool, on the west coast of England and itself a long journey from London in a carriage. He would be one of over nine million people who emigrated from Liverpool to the US, Canada or Australia in the century following 1830.[1] He would have travelled from Liverpool in a packet ship, a boat that carried mail and other cargo as well as passengers. Only a few lucky (and well off) passengers would have been able to afford a cabin; the vast majority of passengers would be crowded into the steerage area. This would have been below deck, and thus dark, damp, and unpleasant.[2] The journey would have taken over a month, and to survive it without becoming seasick, or catching a disease such as cholera or typhus in the confined conditions of steerage would have been an achievement in itself.[3]

Of his first decade of life in New York, little is known, but he was certainly working as a peddler by the mid 1840s – not a skilled occupation or one that suited his background, but presumably the only paid work he had been able to gain. As Tyler Anbinder has noted, peddlers enjoyed the independence offered to them by this kind of work, but faced ‘constant rejection by potential customers, harassment by children on the street, and miles of trudging through all sorts of weather.’[4] It was a hard job, and did not guarantee a regular income. Presumably desperate to improve his lot, on October 16, 1847, at Fort Columbus, he enlisted as a private in the US Army, to serve in the Mexican War, which had, at that point, been underway for nearly 18 months. He served until June 30, 1848, when he was discharged – some four months after the end of the war.[5] Paul Foos has described the ‘naked opportunism’ that the war offered some Americans, but it is unlikely that Harper benefited from, or perhaps even understood, the opportunism and propaganda of the conflict from his perspective as a fairly recent immigrant.[6]

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.

But for the black sheep brother of the family, the downhill spiral continued. He moved into a large lodging house on Pearl Street, where the other residents were primarily rag pickers. Peddling was his primary occupation, earning just enough to keep him in the lodging house, and off the streets. But Pearl Street was not one of New York’s salubrious residential streets; it was within the notorious Five Points district, and home to some of the city’s most hardened residents. In the 1870s, one house on Pearl Street had been described in the New York Times as having originally been a merchant’s house, then a ‘genteel boarding-house’ in the 1840s, but which had ‘become a common boarding-house, going continually lower and lower in the scale. It was shamefully pillaged.’[7] By the time of the Times’ piece, it was operating as a boarding house for Irish immigrants, as well as a beer saloon.

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.[8]

Two years later, two men, Henry Bowling and Francis Connolly, had a fight in the same building, during which Connolly had his arm broken. Bowling was locked up for the assault. As neither man was a resident of the boarding house, they had presumably in the ‘cheap eating house’ downstairs at the time.[9] The same year, another assault took place at 508 Pearl Street, when John West and FJ Fowler started a verbal argument that escalated until West hit Fowler, and Fowler retaliated by biting his nose. Although he was arrested and taken to The Tombs (the unofficial term for the New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention), Fowler had no money to pay bail, and so was committed to stand trial ‘for mayhem’.[10] Meanwhile, at number 506, one of its residents, James Sheridan, had been stabbed in his groin with a pen-knife wielded by John Caslin as they fought in a local saloon.[11]


In 1880, John was listed as a lodger at 508 Pearl Street, one of nine English immigrants there at the time. The building was home to those from across the US and Europe; there were twenty Irish-born residents, two from Italy, six from Germany, and others from Wales, Switzerland, the West Indies, Scotland, as well as from other US states. Although there were several there who gave their occupations as beggars, peddlers, or rag-pickers, others claimed to be printers, cooks, carpenters, and blacksmiths. However, it’s not known how many of these titles were jobs they had once had, as opposed to ones they were currently doing. Anbinder has commented on the relatively high percentage of skilled male workers there were in the Five Points area earlier in the 19th century, with one’s country of origin being a factor in how you were employed; printers and building tradesmen were more likely to be American-born, whereas German immigrants were more likely to be tailors. But the predominantly Irish population worked mainly in higher-status occupations – but despite the respectability that their job titles gave them, they were also among the lowest-paid jobs.[12]

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.[13] 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’.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

On May 11, 1891, John Ambrose was admitted, for the final time, to the overcrowded almshouse, ‘due to destitution and old age’. By this time, he was unable to give any account of his parentage or origins. Three days after being admitted, at 5am on 14 May 1891, he died there from pneumonia and oedema of the lungs, and his body was taken to the New York morgue to be examined by the coroner. He was buried the following day at the City Cemetery, the burial organised by the New York Protestant Episcopal City Mission Society.[17] This was the end of this one man’s American dream – a dream that had turned into a half-century long nightmare, and finished in a pauper’s grave on Hart Island, where the poorest members of New York society were buried and forgotten.[18]

About the author: Dr Nell Darby is an English historian and writer, who specialises in 19th century criminal and social history. Her latest book, Life on the Victorian Stage, will be published in August 2017 by Pen & Sword Books (

[1] Anon, “Liverpool and Emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries”, Liverpool Maritime Archives and Library, accessed on March 9, 2017.
[2] Anon, “Enterprise on the Water”, On The Water, The National Museum of American History, accessed March 9, 2017.
[3] Anon, “Liverpool and emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries”, Liverpool Maritime Archives and Library, accessed March 9, 2017.
[4] Tyler Anbinder, Five Points (New York: Free Press, 2001), 119.
[5] “US Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914”, Ancestry, accessed March 8, 2017.
[6] 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.
[7] Anon, “Shelter for the Idle”, New York Times, February 12, 1877.
[8] Anon, “An Ex-Clergyman Convicted”, New York Times, April 20, 1877.
[9] Anon, “A Stab and a Broken Arm”, New York Times, November 24, 1879.
[10] Anon, “City and Suburban News”, New York Times, June 23, 1879.
[11] Anon, “City and Suburban News”, New York Times, March 18, 1876.
[12] Tyler Anbinder, Five Points Tyler Anbinder, Five Points (New York: Free Press, 2001), 113.
[13] 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.  Original is in the Collection of the Library of Congress.
[14] Anon, “Shelter for the Idle”, New York Times, February 12, 1877.
[15] “New York, Census of Inmates in Almshouses and Poorhouses, 1830-1920”, Ancestry, accessed on March 8, 2017,
[16] Anon, “More Room Needed”, New York Times, February 3, 1889.
[17] “Episcopal Diocese of New York Church Records, 1767-1970” on Ancestry, accessed on March 8, 2017.
[18] “City Cemetery, 1881-1950s”, New York City Department of Records, accessed on March 8, 2017.; 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.

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