Jacob A. Riis (18491914). The Making of an American. 1901.
XI. The Bend is laid by the Heels
IF there be any to whom the travail through which we have just come seems like a mighty tempest in a teapot, let him quit thinking so. It was not a small matter. To be sure, the wrong could have been undone in a day by the authorities, had they been so minded. That it was not undone was largely, and illogically, because no one had a word to say in its defence. When there are two sides to a thing, it is not difficult to get at the right of it in an argument, and to carry public opinion for the right. But when there is absolutely nothing to be said against a proposed reform, it seems to be human nature American human nature, at all events to expect it to carry itself through with the general good wishes but no particular lift from any one. It is a very charming expression of our faith in the power of the right to make its way, only it is all wrong: It will not make its way in the generation that sits by to see it move. It has got to be moved along, like everything else in this world, by men. That is how we take title to the name. That is what is the matter with half our dead-letter laws. The other half were just still-born. It is so, at this moment, with the childrens playgrounds in New York. Probably all thinking people subscribe to-day to the statement that it is the business of the municipality to give its children a chance to play, just as much as to give them schools to go to. Everybody applauds it. The authorities do not question it; but still they do not provide playgrounds. Private charity has to keep a beggarly half-dozen going where there ought to be forty or fifty, as a matter of right, not of charity. Call it official conservatism, inertia, treachery, call it by soft names or hard; in the end it comes to this, I suppose, that it is the whetstone upon which our purpose is sharpened, and in that sense we have apparently got to be thankful for it. So a man may pummel his adversary and accept him as a means of grace at the same time. If there were no snags, there would be no wits to clear them away, or strong arms to wield the axe. It was the same story with the Mulberry Bend. Until the tramp lodging-houses were closed, until the Bend was gone, it seemed as if progress were flat down impossible. As I said, decency had to begin there, or not at all.
The Mulberry Bend as it was.
Before I tackle the Bend, perhaps I had better explain how I came to take up photographing as a no, not exactly as a pastime. It was never that with me. I had use for it, and beyond that I never went. I am downright sorry to confess here that I am no good at all as a photographer, for I would like to be. The thing is a constant marvel to me, and an unending delight. To watch the picture come out upon the plate that was blank before, and that saw with me for perhaps the merest fraction of a second, maybe months before, the thing it has never forgotten, is a new miracle every time. If I were a clergyman I would practise photography and preach about it. But I am jealous of the miracle. I do not want it explained to me in terms of HO2 or such like formulas, learned, but so hopelessly unsatisfying. I do not want my butterfly stuck on a pin and put in a glass case. I want to see the sunlight on its wings as it flits from flower to flower, and I dont care a rap what its Latin name may be. Anyway, it is not its name. The sun and the flower and the butterfly know that. The man who sticks a pin in it does not, and never will, for he knows not its language. Only the poet does among men. So, you see, I am disqualified from being a photographer. Also, I am clumsy, and impatient of details. The axe was ever more to my liking than the graving-tool. I have lived to see the day of the axe and enjoy it, and now I rejoice in the coming of the men and women who know; the Jane Addamses, who to heart add knowledge and training, and with gentle hands bind up wounds which, alas! too often I struck. It is as it should be. I only wish they would see it and leave me out for my sins.
But there! I started out to tell about how I came to be a photographer, and here I am, off on the subject of philanthropy and social settlements. To be precise, then, I began taking pictures by proxy. It was upon my midnight trips with the sanitary police that the wish kept cropping up in me that there were some way of putting before the people what I saw there. A drawing might have done it, but I cannot draw, never could. There are certain sketches of mine now on record that always arouse the boisterous hilarity of the family. They were made for the instruction of our first baby in wolflore, and I know they were highly appreciated by him at the time. Maybe the fashion in wolves has changed since. But, anyway, a drawing would not have been evidence of the kind I wanted. We used to go in the small hours of the morning into the worst tenements to count noses and see if the law against overcrowding was violated, and the sights I saw there gripped my heart until I felt that I must tell of them, or burst, or turn anarchist, or something. A man may be a man even in a palace in modern New York as in ancient Rome, but not in a slum tenement. So it seemed to me, and in anger I looked around for something to strike off his fetters with. But there was nothing.
I wrote, but it seemed to make no impression. One morning, scanning my newspaper at the breakfast table, I put it down with an outcry that startled my wife, sitting opposite. There it was, the thing I had been looking for all those years. A four-line despatch from somewhere in Germany, if I remember right, had it all. A way had been discovered, it ran, to take pictures by flashlight. The darkest corner might be photographed that way. I went to the office full of the idea, and lost no time in looking up Dr. John T. Nagle, at the time in charge of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the Health Department, to tell him of it. Dr. Nagle was an amateur photographer of merit and a good fellow besides, who entered into my plans with great readiness. The news had already excited much interest among New York photographers, professional and otherwise, and no time was lost in communicating with the other side. Within a fortnight a raiding party composed of Dr. Henry G. Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence, two distinguished amateurs, Dr. Nagle and myself, and sometimes a policeman or two, invaded the East Side by night, bent on letting in the light where it was so much needed.
At least that was my purpose. To the photographers it was a voyage of discovery of the greatest interest; but the interest centred in the camera and the flashlight. The police went along from curiosity; sometimes for protection. For that they were hardly needed. It is not too much to say that our party carried terror wherever it went. The flashlight of those days was contained in cartridges fired from a revolver. The spectacle of half a dozen strange men invading a house in the midnight hour armed with big pistols which they shot off recklessly was hardly reassuring, however sugary our speech, and it was not to be wondered at if the tenants bolted through windows and down fire-escapes wherever we went. But as no one was murdered, things calmed down after a while, though months after I found the recollection of our visits hanging over a Stanton Street block like a nightmare. We got some good pictures; but very soon the slum and the awkward hours palled upon the amateurs. I found myself alone just when I needed help most. I had made out by the flashlight possibilities my companions little dreamed of.
The tenants bolted through the windows.
I hired a professional photographer next whom I found in dire straits. He was even less willing to get up at 2 A.M. than my friends who had a good excuse. He had none, for I paid him well. He repaid me by trying to sell my photographs behind my back. I had to replevin the negatives to get them away from him. He was a pious man, I take it, for when I tried to have him photograph the waifs in the baby nursery at the Five Points House of Industry, as they were saying their Now I lay me down to sleep, and the plate came out blank the second time, he owned up that it was his doing: it went against his principles to take a picture of any one at prayers. So I had to get another man with some trouble and expense. But on the whole I think the experience was worth what it cost. The spectacle of a man prevented by religious scruples from photographing children at prayers, while plotting at the same time to rob his employer, has been a kind of chart to me that has piloted me through more than one quagmire of queer human nature. Nothing could stump me after that. The man was just as sincere in the matter of his scruple as he was rascally in his business dealings with me.
There was at last but one way out of it; namely, for me to get a camera myself. This I did, and with a dozen plates took myself up the Sound to the Potters Field on its desert island to make my first observations. There at least I should be alone, with no one to bother me. And I wanted a picture of the open trench. I got it, too. When I say that with the sunlight of a January day on the white snow I exposed that extra-quick instantaneous plate first for six seconds, then for twelve, to make sure I got the picture,1 and then put the plate-holder back among the rest so that I did not know which was which, amateur photographers will understand the situation. I had to develop the whole twelve to get one picture. That was so dark, almost black, from over-exposure as to be almost hopeless. But where there is life there is hope, if you can apply that maxim to the Potters Field, where there are none but dead men. The very blackness of my picture proved later on, when I came to use it with a magic lantern, the taking feature of it. It added a gloom to the show more realistic than any the utmost art of professional skill might have attained.
So I became a photographer, after a fashion, and thereafter took the pictures myself. I substituted a frying-pan for the revolver, and flashed the light on that. It seemed more homelike. But, as I said, I am clumsy. Twice I set fire to the house with the apparatus, and once to myself. I blew the light into my own eyes on that occasion, and only my spectacles saved me from being blinded for life. For more than an hour after I could see nothing and was led about by my companion, helpless. Photographing Joss in Chinatown nearly caused a riot there. It seems that it was against their religious principles. Peace was made only upon express assurance being given the guardians of Joss that his picture would be hung in the gallery at Police Headquarters. They took it as a compliment. The gallery at Headquarters is the rogues gallery, not generally much desired. Those Chinese are a queer lot, but when I remembered my Christian friend of the nursery I did not find it in me to blame them. Once, when I was taking pictures about Hells Kitchen, I was confronted by a wildlooking man with a club, who required me to subscribe to a general condemnation of reporters as hardly fit to be flayed alive, before he would let me go; the which I did with a right good will, though with somewhat of a mental reservation in favor of my rivals in Mulberry Street, who just then stood in need of special correction.
What with one thing and another, and in spite of all obstacles, I got my pictures, and put some of them to practical use at once. I recall a midnight expedition to the Mulberry Bend with the sanitary police that had turned up a couple of characteristic cases of overcrowding. In one instance two rooms that should at most have held four or five sleepers were found to contain fifteen, a week-old baby among them. Most of them were lodgers and slept there for five cents a spot. There was no pretence of beds. When the report was submitted to the Health Board the next day, it did not make much of an impression these things rarely do, put in mere words until my negatives, still dripping from the dark-room, came to reënforce them. From them there was no appeal. It was not the only instance of the kind by a good many. Neither the landlords protests nor the tenants plea went in face of the cameras evidence, and I was satisfied.
Lodgers at Five Cents a Spot.
I had at last an ally in the fight with the Bend. It was needed, worse even than in the campaign against the police lodging-houses, for in that we were a company; in the Bend I was alone. From the day I think it was in the winter of 1886 when it was officially doomed to go by act of legislature until it did go, nine years later, I cannot remember that a cat stirred to urge it on. Whether it was that it had been bad so long that people thought it could not be otherwise, or because the Five Points had taken all the reform the Sixth Ward had coming to it, or because, by a sort of tacit consent, the whole matter was left to me as the recognized Mulberry Bend crank whichever it was, this last was the practical turn it took. I was left to fight it out by myself. Which being so, I laid in a stock of dry plates and buckled to.
The Bend was a much jollier adversary than the police lodging-houses. It kicked back. It did not have to be dragged into the discussion at intervals, but crowded in unbidden. In the twenty years of my acquaintance with it as a reporter I do not believe there was a week in which it was not heard from in the police reports, generally in connection with a crime of violence, a murder or a stabbing affray. It was usually on Sunday, when the Italians who lived there were idle and quarrelled over their cards. Every fight was the signal for at least two more, sometimes a dozen, for they clung to their traditions and met all efforts of the police to get at the facts with their stubborn fix him myself. And when the detectives had given up in dismay and the man who was cut had got out of the hospital, pretty soon there was news of another fight, and the feud had been sent on one step. By far the most cheering testimony that our Italian is becoming one of us came to me a year or two ago in the evidence that on two occasions Mulberry Street had refused to hide a murderer even in his own village.2 That was conclusive. It was not so in those days. So, between the vendetta, the mafia, the ordinary neighborhood feuds, and the Bend itself, always picturesque if outrageously dirty, it was not hard to keep it in the foreground. My scrap-book from the year 1883 to 1896 is one running comment on the Bend and upon the official indolence that delayed its demolition nearly a decade after it had been decreed. But it all availed nothing to hurry up things, until, in a saggering moment, after four years of that sort of thing, one of the City Hall officials condescended to inform me of the real cause of the delay. It was simply that no one down there had been taking any interest in the thing.
Bandits Roost a Mulberry Bend Alley.
I could not have laid it out for him to suit my case better than he did. It was in the silly season, and the newspapers fell greedily upon the sensation I made. The Bend, moreover, smelled rather worse than usual that August. They made the peoples cause their own, and shouted treason until the commission charged with condemning the Bend actually did meet and greased its wheels. But at the next turn they were down in a rut again, and the team had to be prodded some more. It had taken two years to get a map of the proposed park filed under the law that authorized the laying out of it. The commission consumed nearly six years in condemning the forty-one lots of property, and charged the city $45,498.60 for it. The Bend itself cost a million, and an assessment of half a million was laid upon surrounding property for the supposed benefit of making it over from a pig-sty into a park. Those property-owners knew better. They hired a lawyer who in less than six weeks persuaded the Legislature that it was an injury, not a benefit. The town had to foot the whole bill. But at last it owned the Bend.
Instead of destroying it neck and crop, it settled down complacently to collect the rents; that is to say, such rents as it could collect. A good many of the tenants refused to pay, and lived rent free for a year. It was a rare chance for the reporter, and I did not miss it. The city as landlord in the Bend was fair game. The old houses came down at last, and for a twelvemonth, while a reform government sat at the City Hall, the three-acre lot lay, a veritable slough of despond filled with unutterable nastiness, festering in the sight of men. No amount of prodding seemed able to get it out of that, and all the while money given for the relief of the people was going to waste at the rate of a million dollars a year. The Small Parks Act of 1887 appropriated that amount, and it was to be had for the asking. But no one who had the authority asked, and as the appropriation was not cumulative, each passing year saw the loss of just so much to the cause of decency that was waiting without. Eight millions had been thrown away when they finally came to ask a million and a half to pay for the Mulberry Bend park, and then they had to get a special law and a special appropriation because the amount was more than a million in one year. This in spite of the fact that we were then the in Christmas holidays with one year just closing and the other opening, each with its unclaimed appropriation. I suggested that to the powers that were, but they threw up their hands: that would have been irregular and quite without precedent. Oh, for irregularity enough to throttle precedent finally and for good! It has made more mischief in the world, I verily believe, than all the other lawbreakers together. At the very outset it had wrecked my hopes of getting the first school playground in New York planted in the Bend by simply joining park and school together. There was a public school in the block that went with the rest. The Small Parks Law expressly provided for the construction of such and so many buildings for the comfort, health, and instruction of the people, as might be necessary. But a school in a park! The thing had never been heard of. It would lead to conflict between two departments! And to this day there is no playground in the Mulberry Bend, though the school is right opposite.
Bottle Alley, Mulberry Bend. Headquarters of the Whyo Gang.
It was, nevertheless, that sort of thing that lent the inspiration which in the end made the old Bend go. It was when, in the midst of the discussion, they showed me a check for three cents, hung up and framed in the Comptrollers office as a kind of red-tape joss for the clerks to kow-tow to, I suppose They were part of the system it glorified. The three cents had miscarried in the purchase of a school site, and, when the error was found, were checked out with all the fuss and flourish of a transaction in millions and at a cost, I was told, of fifty dollars worth of time and trouble. Therefore it was hung up to be forever admired as the ripe fruit of an infallible system. No doubt it will be there when another Tweed has cleaned out the citys treasury to the last cent. However, it suggested a way out to me. Two could play at that game. There is a familiar principle of sanitary law, expressed in more than one ordinance, that no citizen has a right to maintain a nuisance on his premises because he is lazy or it suits his convenience in other ways. The city is merely the aggregate of citizens in a corporation, and must be subject to the same rules. I drew up a complaint in proper official phrase, charging that the state of Mulberry Bend was detrimental to health and dangerous to life, and formally arraigned the municipality before the Health Board for maintaining a nuisance upon its premises.
I have still a copy of that complaint, and, as the parting shot to the worst slum that ever was, and, let us hope, ever will be, I quote it here in part:
The Bend is a mass of wreck, a dumping-ground for all manner of filth from the surrounding tenements. The Street-cleaning Department has no jurisdiction over it, and the Park Department, in charge of which it is, exercises none.
The numerous old cellars are a source of danger to the children that swarm over the block. Water stagnating in the holes will shortly add the peril of epidemic disease. Such a condition as that now prevailing in this block, with its dense surrounding population, would not be tolerated by your department for a single day if on private property. It has lasted here many months.
The property is owned by the city, having been taken for the purposes of a park and left in this condition after the demolition of the old buildings. The undersigned respectfully represents that the city, in the proposed Mulberry Bend park, is at present maintaining a nuisance, and that it is the duty of your honorable Board to see to it that it is forthwith abolished, to which end he prays that you will proceed at once with the enforcement of the rules of your department prohibiting the maintaining of nuisances within the citys limits.
If my complaint caused a smile in official quarters, it was short-lived, except in the Sanitary Bureau, where I fancy it lurked. For the Bend was under its windows. One whiff of it was enough to determine the kind of report the health inspectors would have to make when forced to act. That night, before they got around, some boys playing with a truck in the lots ran it down into one of the cellar holes spoken of and were crushed under it, and so put a point upon the matter that took the laughter out of it for good. They went ahead with the park then.
When they had laid the sod, and I came and walked on it in defiance of the sign to keep off the grass, I was whacked by a policeman for doing it, as I told in the Ten Years War.3 But that was all right. We had the park. And I had been moved on before when I sat and shivered in reeking hallways in that I did not mind. The children who were dancing there in the sunlight were to have a better time, please God! We had given them their lost chance. Looking at them in their delight now, it is not hard to understand what happened: the place that had been redolent of crime and murder became the most orderly in the city. When the last house was torn down in the Bend, I counted seventeen murders in the block all the details of which I remembered. No doubt I had forgotten several times that number. In the four years after that during which I remained in Mulberry Street I was called only once to record a deed of violence in the neighborhood, and that was when a stranger came in and killed himself. Nor had the Bend simply sloughed off its wickedness, for it to lodge and take root in some other place. That would have been something; but it was not that. The Bend had become decent and orderly because the sunlight was let in, and shone upon children who had at last the right to play, even if the sign keep off the grass was still there. That was what the Mulberry Bena park meant. It was the story it had to tell. And as for the sign, we shall see the last or that yet. The park has notice served upon it that its time is up.
The Mulberry Bend as it is.
So the Bend went, and mighty glad am I that I had a hand in making it go. The newspapers puzzled over the fact that I was not invited to the formal opening. I was Secretary of the Small Parks Committee at the time, and presumably even officially entitled to be bidden to the show; though, come to think of it, our committee was a citizens affair and not on the pay-rolls! The Tammany Mayor who came in the year after said that we had as much authority as a committee of bootblacks about the City Hall, no more. So that it seems as if there is a something that governs those things which survives the accidents of politics, and which mere citizens are not supposed to understand or meddle with. Anyway, it was best so. Colonel Waring, splendid fellow that he was, when he grew tired of the much talk, made a little speech of ten words that was not on the programme, and after that the politicians went home, leaving the park to the children. There it was in the right hands. What mattered the rest, then?
And now let me go back from the slum to my Brooklyn home for just a look. I did every night, or I do not think I could have stood it. I never lived in New York since I had a home, except for the briefest spell of a couple of months once when my family were away, and that nearly stifled me. I have to be where there are trees and birds and green hills, and where the sky is blue above. So we built our nest in Brooklyn, on the outskirts of the great park, while the fledglings grew, and the nest was full when the last of our little pile had gone to make it snug. Rent was getting higher all the time, and the deeper I burrowed in the slum, the more my thoughts turned, by a sort of defensive instinct, to the country. My wife laughed, and said I should have thought of that while we yet had some money to buy or build with, but I borrowed no trouble on that score. I was never a good business man, as I have said before, and yet no! I will take that back. It is going back on the record. I trusted my accounts with the Great Paymaster, who has all the money there is, and he never gave notice that I had overdrawn my account. I had the feeling, and have it still, that if you are trying to do the things which are right, and which you were put here to do, you can and ought to leave ways and means to Him who drew the plans, after you have done your own level best to provide. Always that, of course. If then things dont come out right, it is the best proof in the world, to my mind, that you have got it wrong, and you have only to hammer away waiting for things to shape themselves, as they are bound to do, and let in the light. For nothing in all this world is without a purpose, and least of all what you and I are doing, though we may not be able to make it out. I got that faith from my mother, and it never put her to shame, so she has often told me.
Neither did it me. It was in the winter when all our children had the scarlet fever that one Sunday, when I was taking a long walk out on Long Island where I could do no one any harm, I came upon Richmond Hill, and thought it was the most beautiful spot I had ever seen. I went home and told my wife that I had found the place where we were going to live, and that sick-room was filled with the scent of spring flowers and of balsam and pine as the children listened and cheered with their feeble little voices. The very next week I picked out the lots I wanted. There was a tangle of trees growing on them that are shading my study window now as I write. I did not have any money, but right then an insurance company was in need of some one to revise its Danish policies, and my old friend General C. T. Christensen thought I would do. And I did it, and earned $200; whereupon Edward Wells, who was then a prosperous druggist, offered to lend me what more I needed to buy the lots, and the manager of our Press Bureau built me a house and took a mortgage for all it cost. So before the next winters snows we were snug in the house that has been ours ever since, with a ridge of wooded hills, the backbone of Long Island, between New York and us. The very lights of the city were shut out. So was the slum, and I could sleep.
Fifteen summers have passed since. The house lies yonder, white and peaceful under the trees. Long since, the last dollar of the mortgage was paid and our home freed from debt.4 The flag flies from it on Sundays in token thereof. Joy and sorrow have come to us under its roof. Children have been born, and one we carried over the hill to the churchyard with tears for the baby we had lost. But He to whom we gave it back has turned our grief to joy. Of all our babies, the one we lost is the only one we have kept. The others grew out of our arms; I hardly remember them in their little white slips. But he is our baby forever. Fifteen happy years of peace have they been, for love held the course.
It was when the daisies bloomed in the spring that the children brought in armfuls from the fields, and bade me take them to the poors in the city, I did as they bade me, but I never got more than half a block from the ferry with my burden. The street children went wild over the posies. They pleaded and fought to get near me, and when I had no flowers left to give them sat in the gutter and wept with grief. The sight of it went to my heart, and I wrote this letter to the papers. It is dated in my scrap-book June 23, 1888:
The trains that carry a hundred thousand people to New Yorks stores and offices from their homes in the country rush over fields, these bright June mornings, glorious with daisies and clover blossoms. There are too many sad little eyes in the crowded tenements, where the summer sunshine means disease and death, not play or vacation, that will close without ever having looked upon a field of daisies.
If we cannot give them the fields, why not the flowers? If every man, woman, or child coming in should, on the way to the depot, gather an armful of wild flowers to distribute in the tenements, a mission work would be set on foot with which all the alms-giving of this wealthy city could not be compared.
Then why not do it? Ask your readers to try. The pleasure of giving the flowers to the urchins who will dog their steps in the street, crying with hungry voices and hungry hearts for a posy, will more than pay for the trouble. It will brighten the office, the store, or the schoolroom all through the day. Let them have no fear that their gift will not be appreciated because it costs nothing. Not alms, but the golden rule, is what is needed in the tenements of the poor.
If those who have not the time or opportunity themselves will send their flowers to 303 Mulberry Street, opposite Police Headquarters, it will be done for them. The summer doctors employed by the Health Department to canvass the tenements in July and August will gladly coöperate. Let us have the flowers.
If I could have foreseen the result, I hardly think that last paragraph would have been printed. I meant to give people a chance to discover for them-selves how much pleasure they could get out of a little thing like taking an armful of flowers to town, but they voted unanimously, so it seemed, to let me have it all. Flowers came pouring in from every corner of the compass. They came in boxes, in barrels, and in bunches, from field and garden, from town and country. Express-wagons carrying flowers jammed Mulberry Street, and the police came out to marvel at the row. The office was fairly smothered in fragrance. A howling mob of children besieged it. The reporters forgot their rivalries and lent a hand with enthusiasm in giving out the flowers. The Superintendent of Police detailed five stout patrolmen to help carry the abundance to points of convenient distribution. Wherever we went, fretful babies stopped crying and smiled as the messengers of love were laid against their wan cheeks. Slovenly women courtesied and made way.
The good Lord bless you, I heard as I passed through a dark hall, but you are a good man. No such has come this way before. Oh! the heartache of it, and yet the joy! The Italians in the Barracks stopped quarrelling to help keep order. The worst street became suddenly good and neighborly. A year or two after, Father John Tabb, priest and poet, wrote, upon reading my statement that I had seen an armful of daisies keep the peace of a block better than the policemans club:
Peacemakers ye, the daisies, from the soil
Upbreathing wordless messages of love,
Soothing of earth-born brethren the toil
And lifting een the lowliest above.
Ay, they did. The poet knew it; the children knew it; the slum knew it. It lost its grip where the flowers went with their message. I saw it.
I saw, too, that I had put my hand to a task that was too great for me, yet which I might not give over, once I had taken it up. Every day the slum showed me that more clearly. The hunger for the beautiful that gnawed at its heart was a constant revelation. Those little ones at home were wiser than I. At most I had made out its stomach. This was like cutting windows for souls that were being shrunk and dwarfed in their mean setting. Shut them up once the sunlight had poured in never! I could only drive ahead, then, until a way opened. Somewhere beyond it was sure to do that.
And it did. Among the boxes from somewhere out in Jersey came one with the letters I. H. N. on. I paid little attention to it then, but when more came so marked, I noticed that they were not all from one place, and made inquiries as to what the letters meant. So I was led to the Kings Daughters headquarters, where I learned that they stood for In His Name. I liked the sentiment; I took to it at once. And I liked the silver cross upon which it was inscribed. I sometimes wish I had lived no! I do not. Thats dreaming. I have lived in the best of all times, when you do not have to dream things good, but can help make them so. All the same, when I put on the old crusaders cross which King Christian sent me a year ago from Denmark, and think of the valiant knights who wore it, I feel glad and proud that, however far behind, I may ride in their train.
So I put on the silver cross, and in the Broadway Tabernacle spoke to the members of the order, asking them to make this work theirs. They did it at once. A committee was formed, and in the summer of 1890 it opened an office in the basement of the Mariners Temple, down in the Fourth Ward. The Health Departments summer doctors were enlisted, and the work took a practical turn from the start. There were fifty of the doctors, whose duty it was to canvass the thirty thousand tenements during the hot season and prescribe for the sick poor. They had two months to do it in, and with the utmost effort, if they were to cover their ground, could only get around once to each family. In a great many cases that was as good as nothing. They might as well have stayed away, for what was wanted was advice, instruction, a friendly lift out of a hopeless rut, more than medicine. We hired a nurse, and where they pointed there she went, following their track and bringing the things the doctor could not give. It worked well. At the end of the year, when we would have shut up shop, we found ourselves with three hundred families on our hands, to leave whom would have shout up shop, we found ourselves with three hundred families on our hands, to leave whom would have been rank treachery. So we took a couple of rooms in a tenement, and held on. And from this small beginning has grown the Kings Daughters settlement, which to-day occupies two houses at 48 and 50 Henry Street, doing exactly the same kind of work as when they began in the next block. The flowers were and are the open sesame to every home. They were laughed at by some at the start; but that was because they did not know. They are not needed now to open doors; the little cross is known for a friend wherever it goes.
We sometimes hear it said, and it is true, that the poor are more charitable among themselves than the outside world is to them. It is because they know the want; and it only goes to prove that human nature is at bottom good, not bad. In real straits it comes out strongest. So, if you can only make the others see, will they do. The trouble is, they do not know, and some of us seem to have cotton in our ears: we are a little hard of hearing. Yet, whenever we put it to the test, up-town rang true. I remember the widow with three or four little ones who had to be wheeled if she were to be able to get about as the doctor insisted. There was no nursery within reach. And I remember the procession of baby-carriages that answered our appeal. It strung clear across the street into Chatham Square. Whatever we needed we got. We saw the great heart of our city, and it was good to see.
Personally I had little to do with it, except to form the link with the official end of it, the summer doctors, etc., and to make trouble occasionally. As, for instance, when I surreptitiously supplied an old couple we had charge of with plug tobacco. The ladies took it ill, but, then, they had never smoked. I had, and I know what it is to do without tobacco for the doctor cut my supply off a long while ago Those two were old, very old, and they wanted their pipe, and they got it. I suppose it was irregular, but I might as well say it here that I would do the same thing again, without doubt. I feel it in my bones. So little have I profited. But, good land! a pipe is not a deadly sin. For the rest, I was mighty glad to see things managed with system. It was a new experience to me. On the Tribune I had a kind of license to appeal now and again for some poor family I had come across, and sometimes a good deal of money came in. It was hateful to find that it did not always do the good it ought to. I bring to mind the aged bookkeeper and his wife whom I found in a Greene Street attic in a state of horrid want. He had seen much better days, and it was altogether a very pitiful case. My appeal brought in over $300, which, in my delight, I brought him in a lump. The next morning, when going home at three oclock, whom should I see in a vile Chatham Street dive, gloriously drunk, and in the clutches of a gang of Sixth Ward cutthroats, but my protégé, the bookkeeper, squandering money right and left. I caught sight of him through the open door, and in hot indignation went in and yanked him out, giving him a good talking to. The gang followed, and began hostilities at once. But for the providential coming of two policemen, we should probably have both fared ill. I had the old man locked up in the Oak Street Station. For a wonder, he had most of the money yet, and there after I spent it for him.
On another occasion we were deliberately victimized the reporters in Mulberry Street, I mean by a man with a pitiful story of hardship, which we took as truth and printed. When I got around there the next morning to see about it, I found that some neighborhood roughs had established a tollgate in the alley, charging the pitying visitors who came in shoals a quarter for admission to the show in the garret. The man was a fraud. That was right around the corner from a place where, years before, I used to drop a nickel in a beggar womans hand night after night as I went past, because she had a baby cradled on her wheezy little hand-organ, until one night the baby rolled into the gutter, and I saw that it was a rag baby, and that the woman was drunk. It was on such evidence as this, both as to them and myself, that I early pinned my faith to organized charity as just orderly charity, and I have found good reasons since to confirm me in the choice. If any doubt had lingered in my mind, my experience in helping distribute the relief fund to the tornado sufferers at Woodhaven a dozen years ago would have dispelled it. It does seem as if the chance of getting something for nothing is, on the whole, the greatest temptation one can hold out to frail human nature, whether in the slum, in Wall Street, or out where the daisies grow.
Everything takes money. Our work takes a good deal. It happened more than once, when the bills came in, that there was nothing to pay them with. Now these were times to put to the test my faith, as recorded above. My associates in the Board will bear me out that it was justified. It is true that the strain was heavy once or twice. I recall one afternoon, as do they, when we sat with bills amounting to $150 before us and not a cent in the bank, so the treasurer reported. Even as she did, the mail-carrier brought two letters, both from the same town, as it happened Morristown, N.J. Each of them contained a check for $75, one from a happy mother in gratitude and joy, the other from one stricken by a great sorrow that had darkened her life. Together they made the sum needed. We sat and looked at each other dumbly. To me it was not strange: that was my mothers faith. But I do not think we, any of us, doubted after that; and we had what we needed, as we needed it.