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Monday, July 16, 2012

Harry Hill – Saloon Fighting’s P.T. Barnum

by Fred Buchstein
Copyright ©2012. All rights reserved by the author

Harry Hill
courtesy of the New York Public Library,
 image ID: th-20952
P.T Barnum, Thomas Alva Edison and Diamond Jim Brady flocked to Harry Hill's legendary 19th century saloon in New York City for the prizefights and other popular entertainments. Boxers included the future heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan, the first female boxing champion Nell Saunders, and famed wrestler and later New York City boxing commissioner, William Muldoon. Future Black world champion boxer, George Godfrey, made his first professional appearance at Hill's saloon.

Moral reformers considered Hill's saloon a hotbed of vice and debauchery --a portal to the gates of Hell and a well-known resort for criminals and prostitutes. In his obituary, The New York Times (August 28, 1896) described Hill's saloon as a gathering place for "the most desperate and criminal persons of the city."

Hill (1827-1886), an English horseman, immigrated to New York to manage a wealthy industrialist's stables. He eventually became a very rich saloon keeper, sportsman and showman. In his obituary, some newspapers said Hill was " one time the best known sporting man in the United States, and up to 12 or 15 years ago the wealthiest." The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, reported in an April 6, 1896 article, that "...the receipts of the place averaged $6,000 a day, and more than half of it was clear profit." Then, he was worth close to $1,000,000; a statement he said was only half true. At times, he owned two hotels, horses, steamboats, and a large art collection. He was well connected with the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine in New York City, which was noted for corruption and graft. He also wrestled, wrote poetry and rhymes, collected expensive art, published a souvenir songster, and held religious services in his place.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

‘Street Arabs, Gutter Snipes, Waifs’: The Problem of Wayward, Abandoned and Destitute Children in New York City, 1840-1920

Copyright ©2012. All rights reserved by the author

“The ‘street Arab’ is a very Bedouin in the midst of the thronging city multitude,” observed George C. Needham, a prominent evangelist, in his 1884 study of wayward children, the “neglected and destitute,” of America’s cities. Needham was one of a handful of social reformers, driven by Christian principles and a strong sense of civic responsibility, who called attention to the plight of the abandoned and destitute youngsters and who were involved in programs to combat this growing phenomenon.[1] Already in February 1853, three decades prior to the publication of Needham’s book, a group of New York City reformers, led by Charles Loring Brace, established the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) to combat precisely this problem.[2] Compelled by the belief that “something be done to meet the increasing crime and poverty among the destitute children of New York,” Brace had observed the poor and homeless who clustered on streets in various parts of the city and whose numbers were continuously being replenished by the ships arriving daily with immigrants. Some youths came as stowaways.[3] Those disembarking from the over-crowded vessels, the CAS asserted already in its Third Annual Report, fed the “poor and criminal classes,” and Brace’s organization took a harsh view of the immigrants. “These miserable creatures of Europe, the scum and refuse of ill-formed civilizations, or the victims of oppress and public neglect, have been scattered over our land,” but many remained in New York City, the CAS concluded in the 1856 report. Here, and in other cities, “the most idle and unenterprising, the most needy and dependent of these emigrants, the unprincipled and those who have been the lowest degraded by the inequalities of European society, have settled themselves.”[4] The rapidly growing numbers of urban poor, the abandoned children, and the accompanying crime and disease, plagued American and European cities throughout the late 19th century. In New York, the landing port of vast numbers of immigrants, the issue was particularly acute. Some contemporaries referred to New York City as “a boiling caldron of crime.”