N.Y.C.’S Five Points America’s First Toxic Industrial Ghetto
Part III of III
By: Tom Frascella April 2016
The Organ Grinder and Monkey
I would start this article by saying that most Italian Americans of a certain age are familiar with the old disparaging stereotype of the swarthy “southern Italian” immigrant “street” musician. In cartoons, movies and newspapers of a certain day images of an Italian” organ grinder depicted as cranking a portable mechanical organ, accompanied by a trained animal usually a monkey and often a young child assistant were common. In movies the organ grinder would be depicted cranking out tired tunes on urban American streets while the monkey solicited coins from passersby supervised by the child. In the late 19th century and early 20th century it was a stereotype that most Italians disliked. It also has a little known very dark history associated with it. For Italians of that day the negative connotations associated with the stereotype had much in common with the way Africa- Americans felt about the stereotype “black-faced” minstrel. These stereotypes come out of events and conditions that are more similar than many today would suspect.
While many Americans and Italian-Americans are familiar with this stereotype and its’ negative, demeaning connotations, what is less known is that the stereotype of such a southern Italian “street musician” is incomprehensible to actual southern Italians especially rural southern Italians. Since about 80% of Italians who immigrated to the U.S. were southern Italians It is important to recognize that the stereotype is not a part of their southern culture. Southern Italians generally don’t understand the depiction, and feel that it has no basis in reality to their regional experience. The stereotype as it developed in the United States in the late 19th century actual arose with conditions, activities and events that were more prevalent here and coming from a dark, suppressed and hidden from public scrutiny, part of Italian history.
Southern Italians have a long tradition of music and music-playing. In the south music is generally conducted using simpler instruments requiring personal skill not mechanical devices. So, it is interesting to discuss how the stereotype developed and what was behind that development. To answer both those questions we are brought to the Five Points section of Manhattan in the mid-1800’s for the answers. In the preceding Part II article I cited a 1854 New York Times article that was already describing Italian immigrants to the Five Points as organ grinders with monkeys so the imagery was already established here, and in parts of Europe by that early date.
For those interested in this subject and the larger question of early Italian immigration we are fortunate to have the well-researched work of an Italian-Canadian scholar available to us. In the 1980’s a book was published which came out of the thesis of Canadian McGill University doctoral candidate, John E. Zucchi, titled “The Little Slaves of the Harp”. I will get to why the Title was chosen later. I highly recommend this book even though it is thirty-forty years past its original first printing it remains a master work on the subject and a valuable research tool. It is a very well documented study on the lives of many young 10-14 year old, Italian immigrant children. It focuses primarily on the 1840-1880’s time frame. That focus helps build a profile on some of the children who got caught up, often against their will in the early immigration issues of the 19th century. This book helps explain the origin and development of the Italian “street musician” scene. Part of that scene was the organ grinder act described above. The organ grinder became symbolic of the plight of these children and to a lesser degree adults who were involved. This is especially true as the scene became increasingly dark and sinister in the later part of the 19th century, especially after 1860.
In talking about the “organ grinder” Prof. Zucchi does an excellent job laying out the history of the travelling Italian musician in general and is careful to point out that it was only one part of a larger migration of Italian workmen in the 17th thru 19th century.
Interestingly, the portable organ was developed in northern Italy in the late 18th early 19th century and tended to be manufactured and associated with the northern region of Italy exclusively. It was a heavy, limited, pre-“recorded” tune player operated from a crank. It was expensive for the time and something of a novelty which contributed to its original popularity in Europe and the U.S. However, the instrument itself was not the cause of the street musician enterprise or its only manifestation.
In a previous article I discussed how climate change, mini-ice age, in the late 18th century encouraged increased farming in the warmer climate of northern Italy which in turn feed a rural population explosion. That same change also encouraged more farming for export in southern Italy. However, in the south unlike the north large land areas were owned by wealthy landlords who rented out farm land to tenant farmers. To increase crop production in the south the landlords began to deforest ancient woodlands to plant cash crops. As the deforestation increased rural farming in the south increased, this in turn caused a farming population to increase there as well. As a result there was a significant population increase in Italy although the timing of population growth in the south lagged about 15-20 years behind the north.
The entire Italian peninsula has literally been exporting talent for thousands of years. Often history only records those talented Italians at the top of their professions or the arts. However, skilled craftsmen/tradesmen in many areas of commerce, construction and service have found open employment markets throughout Europe to ply their skills for hundreds of years. So there has always been a network of export for hire. Prof. Zucchi book illustrates among other things that there was a regional nature of the migrant workers craft for much of this time;
“the immigrants from the Appenines surrounding Lake Como were known in the cities around Europe and in the United States as barometer-makers and fabricators of optical instruments such as telescopes and binoculars...
Almost all the inhabitants of the Val d’Intelvi, between Lake Como and Lake Lugano, worked in the building professions throughout Italy, and in Germany and Switzerland. By the mid-nineteenth century the mosaic-workers from the plains of southern Friuli, and especially from the towns of Fanna and Sequals, set mosaics in public buildings and palaces in France, Austria and Russia… Sbianchini or whitewashers and house-painters, were the most important group of workers to emigrate from the towns at the head of Lake Maggiore…
Between these two areas lie the towns of Craveggia, Malesco, and Villette. Emigrants from these towns, like the Savoyards, had been spazzacamini, or chimney-sweeps, in France since the sixteenth century…
Farther south, around Lake Orta, most migrants worked as servants, waiters, or small hotel-keepers. Some of these men established prestigious hotels in Seville, Cadiz, and Montreal…
The towns of Sambuco, Demonte, Bersezio, and Pietraporzio in the province of Cuneo had sent their people to Paris as street-sweepers since the mid-eighteenth century. Emigrants from towns near Ivrea… worked as miners and stonecutters in mines and on railways in France. The seventeen vilages in the Val Renena, near Trento, sent knife-grinders with their apprentice boys and barrows across Europe and to the Americas… The book peddlers from Pentremolo in the Tuscan Appenines were famous for selling cheap editions…
The most notable migrants in the south in the early part of the century were probably the shepherds from the Basilicatan Appenines who directed the annual transhumance to the mild Adriatic coast. However, some tradesmen and peasants with small holdings began migrating from the same region late in the eighteenth century most notably the street musicians. From at least the mid 1800’s emigrants from Laurenzana, a town of about 8,000 located thirty Kilometers south of Potenza, travelled to Barcelona and Marseilles to work as shoemakers and jewelers. Coppersmiths travelled from other towns in the area, primarily from Lagonegro, to Spain and the Americas, peddling their pots, pans, and other copper goods. By the late 1860’s people in one of these towns Maratea, were predicting a shortage of agricultural labourers…” (The Little Slaves of the Harp) pages 24 &25.
So as can be seen from the above sampling craftsmen in various trades routinely travelled from Italy in search of employment opportunity. Italian art and craftsmanship has truly influenced the world for thousands of years. A fact that tends to be overlooked or under appreciated.
So while there had always been a labor outflow from Italy at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe there was a shortage of trained northern European craftsman due to the high death tolls experienced from England to Russia in the wars. Italy experienced just the opposite and had a population surge. Enterprising Italian craftsman, roofers, coopers, tinsmiths and musicians etc. travelled the European circuits plying their trades in increasing numbers. These travelling craftsmen continued to be accompanied, as was the time honored tradition, by young children who supplied labor in a sort of formal or informal apprenticeship. Many of these master craftsman would, as was also traditional, enter formal contracts with rural farmers in northern and southern Italy to hire and train their sons for a period of time in exchange for some schedule of payment for the child’s services. The payment would be then due to the parent but the child would learn a marketable skill from which to earn supplemental income in the future. Well into the 19th century to learn a skill or profession under the tutelage of a master was not unusual.
So socially and professionally this practice of bringing child “apprentices” with the master was not looked down upon in the early part of the 19th century. Child labor laws were nonexistent and young children were apprenticed off within most of Europe. Also due to the immediate shortage in labor, such travelling craftsmen filled a much needed renewed labor need throughout northern Europe. So the practice was accepted, even welcomed in many northern European countries until the 1830’s.
However, there did come a significant social change in attitude thereafter. In part this was due to the increasing nationalism in Europe but also by the 1840’s and 1850’s populations were growing throughout Europe. There was also a general global warming which continues today and climate conditions again warmed in northern Europe. With this change there was a shift in public sentiment against these foreigners who often undercut the wages of locals. As less work became available to foreigners, especially for the construction related craftsmen the number of such travelling craftsmen leaving Italy to go to parts of Europe decreased.
However, some less trained entertainers/musicians still attempted to earn additional income from European and American communities. They continued putting on basic shows or modest music acts despite the fact that they were generally less welcome as the mid-19th century approached.
As early as the 1820’s some street acts, especially those originating from northern Italy began adding features liked trained dogs, parrots, monkeys, bears etc. to attract street crowds/patrons. This tended to be a northern Italian thing and often included a mechanical instrument for accompaniment. The lighter smaller organs generally could only play one or two songs and so were very repetitive.
Mechanical instruments and animals carried expensive purchase and maintenance costs. Prof. Zucchi gives an interesting description of how the trade in mechanical instruments and trained exotic animals worked in the early 1800’s;
“Although some of the exhibitors were from Grezzo, a frazione of Bardi, most were from the compianese, especially the villages surrounding Bedonia. They had no money to purchase their own animals. They obtained capital from a proveditore, or provider, who himself was or had been an animal exhibitor. He obtained the animals from other middlemen abroad, and then resold or leased the animals to the exhibitors. One man by the name of Rossi from the town of Compiano made a fortune as a middleman; he was “the greatest speculator in his line.” In fact, until the mid-1820’s almost all the Italian animal exhibitors on the continent obtained their animals from Rossi, who imported them directly from Africa. Others who did not wish to go through Rossi, but could not afford to buy a bear or elephant, bought “una zampa per uno” (a paw each). In other words, four men put up the capital for four equal shares in the animal: two of the partners took the animal across Europe in campagna (literally on campaign). The profits were then split four ways, and the two conductors received extra compensation for their duties.” (The Little Slaves of the Harp, page 29).
From Dr. Zucchi’s research we can obtain some interesting background on these “street musicians” of the 1830’s thru the mid-1850’s. In the earliest part of the 19th century most of the child entertainers originated from the northern Appenine Mountain region of the Parma-Genoa area. In several European countries these children were referred to as “Savoyards” after the name given to Italian child chimney sweeps that had been known in Europe since the 17th century. According to Dr. Zucchi;
“The street organists and animal exhibitors were mostly from the mountain districts of the Duchy of Parma, especially the villages and towns between Bardi and Borgotaro: Grezzo, Bedonia, Compiano and Bardi. A significant number also came from the contiguous hills in the hinterland of Chiavari in the province of Genoa: especially Mezzanego, but also Santo Stefano d’Aveto, Ne, and Zoagli.” The Little Slaves of the Harp” pages 18 & 19.
Street musicians, as previously said, also ventured throughout Europe as well as other far flung locations, including the Americas and Asia. Trained musicians also contemporaneously began plying their talents from southern Italy as well. In the late 18th century and early 19th century the most notable of these musicians from the south came from Basilicata. Prof. Zucchi identified these musicians in the following;
“although some street musicians came from other parts of the country, the two most important migrations began contemporaneously. The street organists from the Appenines of Parma and Chiavari probably encountered their southern counterparts, the harpists from Viggiano, in the late eighteenth century in Marseilles or Paris…
The musical emigration from Viggiano originated not with harpists but with pipers who played the zampogna, a type of bagpipe used in rural areas in southern Italy. At Christmas the performers would stroll from town to town in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies…Although the migrants played a number of instruments, including the clarinet, violin, and mandolin, they were primarily known as harpists. Pages 32 &33
Prof. Zucchi explains the range that some of the Viggianesi achieved as follows;
“The Viggianesi used those harps to accompany clarinets and especially violins throughout most of the world. After consulting with the Mayor of the home town, to ensure that he would provide for their families in difficult times on a promise of repayment on return, the musicians went off for one or more seasons on one of a number of routes… page 33
The following poem illustrates;
“Oggi d’Italia mi ride il cielo, Today the Italian sky smiles down on me
Doman di Russia calpesto il gelo; Tomorrow I trample over the frost of Russia;
In ogni terra e’ la vita del viggianese, Every land is my home town;
Questa e’ la vita del viggianese, This is the life of the viggianese,
Acielo aperto dormer l’esta, Sleeping out in the open during the summer.
Scaldarsi il verno per carita.” Page 33 Begging for warmth during the winter.
Initially welcomed, by the 1840’s even foreign street musicians were eventually resented in most European cities. Apparently, it was the northern “organ grinder type street musician that initially and primarily became the target of locals’ negative views;
“The viggianesi had a docile reputation; they were seen as peaceful minstrels, “dispensers” of peasant tunes and the music of a higher Italian culture around the world. Their Parmesan cousins also had been viewed as quaint individuals earlier in the century, but the monotonous, irritating sound of the street organs had alienated many middle-class Europeans by mid-century.” Page 35
The organ grinders and their animal acts became viewed as socially undesirable. They tended to live a nomadic life style, living out in the open or in poor inexpensive housing. They eventually were viewed more as vagrants and beggars. They were considered a part of the lowest social strata of the community and prone to criminal activities associated with petty larceny and deceit. The children were viewed not as apprentices in music but as exploited homeless orphans and a future generation of unwanted potential criminals. By the late 1840’s and 50’s most European countries began passing laws designed to discourage these street activities. Some of the laws were directed specifically to curb the exploitation of these children and the legality of the padrones’ contract with the children’s parents.
The United States had far fewer “street entertainers” in the first half of the 19th century than European countries and therefore they were not as noticeable or initially viewed so negatively here. Nevertheless, they were here. A number of those Italians that plied the “organ grinder” tradition had settled in New York, primarily the Five Points, around Crosby Street because of the cheap housing. These street musicians were almost exclusively in the 1840’s- 1850’s northern Italians. So the Italian organ grinder street musician was a known entity even this early in the Italian-American story. Also by the 1850’s the negative European attitudes regarding these vendors had begun to filter across the ocean as well.
Again the U.S. seems to have adopted the European social attitude toward this type of street activity by the padrones and by early 1850 the use of children in the venture was viewed as exploitive. As I wrote in one of the earlier Five Points articles, American social reformers lead by people like Pease and Brice began to introduce “work” based social relief institutions in New York City by the mid 1850’s. The theory being that employment was the way out of the social conditions that were affecting the inhabitants of U.S. ghettos especially the Five Points.
Since the “organ grinder” scene was a part of the culture and conditions existing in the Five Points the reformers focused on the young. Reformers, with the help of wealthier Italian immigrants who had immigrated with other 1848 ers, to New York City began to seek out the relatively few children employed by these organ grinder street musicians. It should be noted that a number of prominent
Italian ex-pats in New York also tried to encourage and seek sponsorship for poor adult Italians in the city to relocate to farming communities.
For the northern Italian child of the early 1850’s his activity as an apprentice to a street musician was part of a commercial endeavor that he hoped would bring income to his family back home. Not surprisingly when Italian reformers sought these children out they found them in tenements on Crosby Street in the Five Points area. They enticed the children to leave their “masters” padrones, with offers of learning higher paying skills. Essentially, the “reformers” offered sponsoring them enrollment in trade schools where they could acquire better skills and earn more money. The Italian reformers were apparently quite successful in their endeavors. Many of these northern Italian children left their padrones, taking up the offer of learning more lucrative trades. That success however, caused problems for their padrones who lost their cheap labor, young apprentices and their anticipated replacements for the lease of their equipment and trained animals in the future.
The Sinister Turn
As it turns out the northern Italian based padrones solved the problem of losing their young northern Italian protégés in the most sinister of ways. To highlight and examine this shift in the acquisition and employment of children in the street musician trade one only needs to look at the way the New York press began to refer to the Italian music street children before 1860 and then after 1860 thru 1880. By way of background in France in the early 1800’s these contracted children were called according to the research of Prof. Zucchi “les Savoyards”. This reflects the century old practice of foreign skilled labor and its’ apprenticeships. In London around the same time they were called “Italian organ boys” or simply “the Italian children” a reflection of either the music or their place of origin. Early on in New York before 1860 they were called similarly “Savoyards or Italian organ boys”, a reflection of the influence of the major European attitudes of the 18th and early 19th century toward the practice Page 18. However, after 1860 the New York press began referring to these children as “Italian slave children”, “Italian Harpers” and “little slaves of the harp”. Page 18. From the later Prof. Zucchi obviously drew the title of his work.
Obviously something changed that repositioned these children not as exploited child labor which is onerous enough but even more degrading these later arriving immigrant children were now considered for some reason “slaves”. For part of the reason for the change we can look to where and why these later arriving immigrant children were coming from on the Italian peninsula. As we stated pre 1860 most of the children associated with this street trade came to the U.S. under contract with a padrone. They originated in the rural towns and villages of northern Italy, specifically near Parma. This was at the time a traditional, permitted and parentally sanctioned arrangement in the Italian culture of the time.
Again thanks to the research done by Prof. Zucchi he found a few interviews that newsmen of the post 1860 period managed to get from the actual children plying this street craft. A list of some of their home towns can therefore be made for the children that arrived 1860-1880. This is by no means a complete list of where these children came from as few were asked. The towns that the children indicated and reported they were from according to Prof. Zucchi were; “Potenza, Brienza, Calvello, Laurenzana, Marsicoveter, Corleto Perticara, Viggiano and Saponara di Grumento”. To those familiar with these towns it is readily apparent that these children were arriving here starting around 1860 from the heart of Basilicata/Lucania. It should also be apparent to those who have read my previous articles that this center region of Basilicata has come up in reference to major events occurring between the years 1850-1860.
To refresh the memories of those that read some of the previous articles in this history and to aide those that have not, a brief recall of the important events from the Basilicatan perspective is in order. First the mountainous and sparsely populated area had offered those who opposed the Bourbon regime a desolate hiding area beyond the easy reach of Bourbon patrols. From the 1848 revolt thru the mid-1850’s those seeking refuge in the Basilicatan Mountains grew to nearly a thousand lightly armed men. The government considered the insurgents not rebels but outlaws or brigandi. The state of lawlessness in the mountainous region was more inconvenient to the government in Naples than a threat. For the average peasant who may have had no great love for the wealthy absentee landlords or the King that owned the land he worked they generally keep to their own ways trying to avoid conflict.
Serious conflict and natural disaster however, found the region starting in 1858, the year of the so-called Great Neapolitan Earthquake. Earthquakes are commonly referred to as “Great” when in fact they mean massively catastrophic. They are also in modern times named for the area near the earthquakes epicenter. In 1858 however this was not the case, the epicenter of this Great quake was in central Basilicata near Potenza not Naples. As may be recalled this quake resulted in approximately 20,000 people being killed and at least twice that seriously injured mostly with crush type injury from fallen and collapsed buildings. The earthquake struck at night in December when most of rural Basilicata was home in bed.
90-95% of all of the fatalities and injuries from the quake occurred in central Basilicata within a thirty mile radius of the Capitol city of Potenza. Along with the staggering casualty count was added that in central Basilicata in the dead of winter 70-90% of the building were instantly rendered unsafe or uninhabitable. 80% of the buildings in Potenza, Basilicata’s capitol and only city had to be demolished.
Basilicata, a poor primarily agricultural region with little in the way of civic resources was completely devastated in just one horrific night of destruction. Day break and the winter months that followed brought the reality that there would be no aid to the victims coming from the central government or international relief. To the extent that any help was given it arrived only as far as the fringes of the area. Thousands of young Basilicatan children became orphans that night and tens of thousands of Basilicatan children were rendered homeless. Since most of the meager winter supplies meant to sustain the population through the cold months were destroyed along with the buildings, starvation became the order of the day, and for the many months to come.
Not surprising orphaned children and some children of injured or single parent households were sent out of the devastated region on the hope that agencies, institutions and authorities in other parts of the region and beyond could provide shelter and food in exchange for labor. If they remained in the devastated area many if not most would have died of exposure, starvation, or disease. The resources and organization to “vet” and confirm the placements of these “lost” children was impossible for the people of the devastated area. Many of these children became commodities, brokered by unscrupulous men and trafficked on the Italian and European market, never to be heard from again. It is with this background that some Basilicatan children began arriving in New York City brokered to serve their padrones. These children had in fact become slaves or indentured servants to their new masters. The original Padrone tradition had quietly and without much notice at first changed. The Padrones were not these children’s mentors but rather had become Slave Masters of a new and helpless class of arriving immigrants. These children 8-12 years old arrived traumatized by the events of the earthquake, the loss of their homes, communities often even their parents must have been overwhelming to them. To this they had also suffered in their yet young lives the indignity of being uprooted and brokered by strangers like goods and shipped on long sea journeys to this foreign land. In America they found a wildly hostile environment where the people spoke an unknown language, and the sights, sounds and smells were nothing like their rural Italian homeland. Once picked up by their padrones they were placed in cold, disease infested tenements under the watchful eye of a padrone interested only in making back his investment and a profit.
Drawing of a “street” padrone followed by his young “helper”.
Many of the earliest of these “orphaned” Basilicatan/Lucanian children, as is documented in Prof. Zucchi’s book, were treated very harshly by their padrones. If they did not earn enough, they could be beaten, refused food, or be locked out of their squalid tenement room to sleep in the muddy unpaved streets of the Five Points. If they threatened or attempted to run away they were tied or chained for long periods in their rooms. Many of the children had lead erring markers attached to their ear lobes with the name of their masters on them. This in case they tried to run they would be returned to their proper master.
I mentioned these children are among the earliest of arrivals of what would become a massive wave of Italian immigrants. So Lucania’s introduction to America was through its most vulnerable and helpless. Their arrival, was not voluntary and was instead an indirect result of the incredible devastation of the 1858 earthquake coupled with the greed and perversion of humanity. This explains only the arrival of the first few. However the arrival of trafficked children, “orphans” from this region continued for almost two decades. Later “orphaned” children were made orphans as a result of the horrific events of the next two decades of civil war, in Basilicata.
In response to the devastation and abandonment felt by the people of Basilicata, especially central Basilicata, acts of civil disobedience began to rise almost immediately after the quake. This is, in fact common in areas so affected by disaster which are not provided with humanitarian relief. The rise in understandable civil unrest however was met by greater military enforcement not relief. This in turn fostered even greater unrest. By the time 1860 rolled around there were already over two thousand Basilicatan anti-Bourbon insurgents fighting from the Hills and mountains. These fighters had the support of most of the ordinary citizens of the region. By the time Garibaldi landed in Sicily to start his southern campaign, civil war had already, and independently come to Basilicata. Events that followed rather than solving the problems, unfortunately escalated them as the rebellion intensified even after the successful overthrow of the Bourbon regime. Thousands of widows and orphans were made by the 100,000 occupying troops of the Piedmont regime in the 15-20 years of civil strife that followed.
So this type of trafficking and an abundance of available victims continued well into the 1870’s. America was slow to understand the dynamics of these children’s plight. The above cited quotes from Prof. Zucchi’s book indicating the New York press had found and were reporting these children as slaves does not happen until almost two decades into the practice began in the 1860.
In that time gap there is a sad irony. Just as the United States is approaching the Civil War which will ultimately end slavery in this country for several million African Americans who had endured this humiliating condition for several centuries, a new and vulnerable group is arriving to the same fate. More sadly, there was no Emancipation Proclamation that applied to them, even after the conclusion of the American Civil War. In fact, because of the legal status of minors in the U.S. at the time it would take the passage and extension of laws originally drafted for the prevention of cruelty to animals to be applied to children in the U.S. together with laws designed to stop Padrone based indenture before their plight would be addressed.
Photograph dated 1879 of children rescued from a Padrone named Ancarola in New York City.
Ancarola was the first person convicted in New York City of a crime under the Padrone Act passed in 1874. In looking at these young children in the above photograph it must be appreciated that these are Lucania children. Further, that in all likelihood their native towns were within twenty miles of San Fele. Prof. Zucchi’s book “The Little Slaves of the Harp” is in fact a story about a part of the early Lucanian immigration story to the U.S.
History of course is full of ironies and what ifs. One of those what ifs involves President Abraham Lincoln. Of course Lincoln is a major figure in American history from his election in 1860 thru to his assignation just after the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. As a result of the victory of the union forces and Lincoln’s leadership slavery was abolished in the United States. As I mentioned above for a number of reasons the Lucanian children and later even some adults who came to this country under the later Padrone system were being trafficked in what is a form of slavery or indentured service. This practice was not wholly recognized for what it was until the 1870’s. The unanswered question is would President Lincoln and his administration have recognized the issue and its connection to slavery earlier than 1870 if his second term in office had not been cut short? If it had so recognized the condition an opportunity for hundreds perhaps thousands of unfortunate southern Italian children and adults to be spared the horrors of this forced indenture might have occurred.
This may seem like an odd query, however I don’t think it is based on the historical record. President Lincoln certainly never had a formal policy on what was taking place in the immigrant laden Five Points. The only Civil War era event of significance that is written about in the Five Points of that time were the Draft riots of 1863. But it is clear that Lincoln was aware of some of the social issues at play in the community and the reformist attempts at addressing them.
In early 1860 then potential and largely unknown Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln visited New York City twice. He made the stops as a part of a preliminary political tour of the mid-Atlantic and New England States testing the Republican Party elite base for support for his Presidential bid. His true political purpose for the trip was hidden within an agenda said to be a visit with his oldest son. His oldest son was at the time attending private boarding school in New England.
After making several stops at various cities between Illinois and the New York border he arrived in New York City in February. There he attended what was a pre-arranged speaking engagement/introduction set up for him on his arrival. On February 27, 1860 the as yet non-declared candidate Lincoln addressed some of New York wealthiest elite and more importantly major newspaper editors at an event held at New York’s Cooper Union. Among the editors present were Horace Greely of the Tribune, Henry Raymond of the New York Times and William Cullen Bryant of the Post. Apparently he was well received. Thereafter he continued the visit to his son, making stops throughout New England and meeting more influential Republicans and newspaper editors.
He arrived back in New York on his return journey. He again stayed two days arriving on March 10, 1860. His pre-arranged plan on this visit was to attend two church services on Sunday and in the company of Republican activist Hiram Barney to visit the Five Points and in particular the Five Points House of Industry. Mr. Lincoln spent several hours at the school and attended one of its classes where he addressed the children. The Five Points was by 1860 a highly/nationally publicized slum with which even Lincoln from Illinois was familiar. A visit to two Church services and with the Urban Reformists at work in the Five Points was clearly calculated to impress his Republican Abolitionist base. But it did introduce Lincoln first hand to some of the issues at work in the community. Further upon leaving Lincoln was presented with the book “The Lost and Found: Or Life Among the Poor” recently written by then Superintendent of the school Samuel Halliday. Perhaps Lincoln can be forgiven for not focusing on the urban conditions he witnessed that day as the occasion of the Civil War was obviously distracting. However, it has been reported that Lincoln spoke on several occasion of his visit to the school and had read the book and shared it with his wife.
The following year the Five Points House of Industry celebrated its tenth anniversary. As part of that celebration the New York Times gave a summary of the institutions endeavors of the preceding year. That summary may be interesting to readers here as this institution continued to operate at the location for about fifty years.
“The annual report of the Institution shows that 1,633 persons have received partial or entire support from this charity during the past year, 835 of whom were children; 285,215 meals have been distributed, gratuitously during the year, at an average cost of 2.5 cents per meal; 864 children have been enrolled on the school register, and the average daily attendance has been 254. The number of children lodging at the House now is 87; the number admitted during the year 720. A large portion of those admitted have been provided with comfortable homes in different parts of the country. The expenditures of the year have been $19,640.31, out of which several thousand dollars of debts have been canceled.” New York Times May 11, 1861.
The article also mentions that the proportion of male and female children serviced was roughly equal. The disbursement of children to “other parts of the country” is part of the Orphan Train action.
So I guess, that Lincoln may have had time to begin to focus on issues associated with urban poor especially children if he had lived. However that is interesting but just speculation, obviously.
Photograph of the six story Five Points House of Industry.
© San Felese Society of New Jersey
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