Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Five Points

A couple of years ago I did a post on a famous photo showing the Italian immigrants of New York's Mulberry Street on a warm day in 1900. Since then I've done a few more posts on the same topic,[1] but not having yet exhausted it or myself, I'll do a few more.

This is about one of the most notorious of the city's noxious slums, called Five Points, which Mulberry bounded on the east.

This 1832 map shows the path of Mulberry St. and the location of Five Points.

I first noticed the existence of the place in a news item from the New York Times, Independence Day, 1853. It said, in full:
An Italian named John Boese, was arrested yesterday by Officer Kelly, of the Tenth District Police, for soliciting alms in Grand-street. He had a card pinned on his breast on which was printed, "The bearer is blind, and also very poor and unable to support his three small children; his wife is dead, and he is now left alone to protect them." The officer searched him, and found safely stowed away in his clothes the sum of $30.04. On being examined, he stated that he was blind only in one eye; that he had no children in this country, but had three in Leghorn, Italy, and that he lived in the Five Points. He was first sent to the Alms-House, and afterward to the Work-House, for 6 months.
-- New-York City. Arrest of a beggar New York Times, July 4, 1853, Wednesday, Page 6
A bit more research showed that John Boese's home base, Five Points, was a favorite topic for nineteenth-century news reporters, editorial writers, and authors of magazine articles and even books. It was home to beggars like himself as well as gamblers, con men, thieves, burglars, gangsters, corrupt politicians, and others out to cadge a quick buck. It was also home to multitudes of the poorest of the poor — rag pickers, seamstresses, scavengers, day servants, and prostitutes.

Although New York had numerous pockets of crime and poverty, Five Points was distinguished for the extravagance with which it put them on view. At a time when mixing different sorts of people together was apt to be considered promiscuous rather than desirable, Five Points was also notorious for its mixtures of people of different race, religion, and national origin. New York had freed its black slaves in 1827 and many came to settle on the swampy and disease-ridden land out of which Five Points evolved. Even before the potato famine beginning in 1845 came those dirt poor Irish peasants who could afford to live nowhere else. Others drifted there from the Italian enclaves around Mulberry St. and still others were attracted by the relative freedom from enforcement of laws.

In 1842 the great Charles Dickens came to observe and write up what he saw:
Let us go on again, and ... plunge into the Five Points ... We have seen no beggars in the streets by night or day, but of other kinds of strollers plenty. Poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife enough where we are going now.

This is the place — these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with, dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lien of going on all-fours? And why they talk instead of grunting?

So far nearly every house is a low tavern, and on the bar-room walls are colored prints of Washington, and Queen Victoria of England, and the American eagle. Among the pigeon-holes that hold the bottles are pieces of plate-glass and colored paper, for there is, in some sort, a taste for decoration, even here ...

-- American notes for general circulation by Charles Dickens (Harper & Brothers, 1842)
Al Capone got his start there; when he was convicted for tax evasion in 1931, he was quoted in newspapers saying, "I shoulda never left Five Points."

Dickens was not the only tourist to go there. New Yorkers themselves and visitors from other places came to observe with, as one writer puts it, both "moral indignation and prurient fascination."[2] Many, like Dickens, sought the company of a police officer (he brought two with him).

Men also flocked to Five Points by night for the entertainment. There they would find "sporting events," such as gamblers' pit-contests between dogs and rats, taverns and brothels in abundance, and dance halls where Irish and African-American dance would be merged into an entirely new style.

There is much here to interest: extreme poverty and its excruciating results; underworld figures preying on the poor and also doing battle with the forces of the ruling establishment; and, in an atmosphere of freedom and license — a freedom from the oppressive social controls of self-appointed moral guardians — an explosion of creative energy evident in the dance halls.

There is more of interest specifically to me. A number of coincidences connect the history of Five Points to other stories I've been telling. There are connections to the Croton Aqueduct, about which I've written numerous posts, to my family's own history, and even to the family of Diary of Sophia Carteret, Lady Shelburne, whose diary I've reproduced at length.

I'll write about these connections as time permits in coming weeks.

Here are some images of the place:

{New York City - "Doing the slums" - A scene in the Five Points / from a sketch by a staff artist - 1885 - Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 61, (1885 Dec. 5), p. 245. Wood engraving. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division}

{End of the poor Funeral from a tenement house in Baxter Street, Five Points, New York - from a sketch by our artist - 1865 - Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 20 (1865 July 1), p. 225. Wood engraving. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division}

{New York City - Among the poor - 1873 - A Summer evening scene at the Five Points / sketched by Matt Morgan, from Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 36, (1873 August 26), p. 357. Wood engraving. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division }

{Life sketches in the metropolis - Our homeless poor - Early morning in Donovan Lane, near the Five Points - 1872 - Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 34, (1872 March 16), p. 5.. Wood engraving. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division}

{The Old Brewery. Lithograph of Five Points, New York; source:}

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