Jacob A. Riis (18491914). The Making of an American. 1901.
IX. Life in Mulberry Street
IT was well that I stopped to make explanations before I took hold in my new office. Mighty little time was left me after. What the fight was about to which I fell heir I have long since forgotten. Mulberry Street in those days was prone to such things. Somebody was always fighting somebody else for some fancied injury or act of bad faith in the gathering of the news. For the time being they all made common cause against the reporter of the Tribune, who also represented the local bureau of the Associated Press. They hailed the coming of the Dutchman with shouts of derision, and decided, I suppose, to finish me off while I was new. So they pulled themselves together for an effort, and within a week I was so badly beaten in the Police Department, in the Health Department, in the Fire Department, in the Health Department, in the Fire Department, the Coroners office, and the Excise Bureau, all of which it was my task to cover, that the manager of the Press Bureau called me down to look me over. He reported to the Tribune that he did not think I would do, But Mr. Shanks told him to wait and see. In some way I heard of it, and that settled it that I was to win. I might be beaten in many a battle, but how could I lose the fight with a general like that?
And, indeed, in another week it was their turn to be called down to give an account of themselves. The Dutchman had stolen a march on them. I suppose it was to them a very astounding thing, yet it was perfectly simple. Their very strength, as they held it to be, was their weakness. They were a dozen against one, and each one of them took it for granted that the other eleven were attending to business and that he need not exert himself overmuch. A good many years after, I had that experience as a member of a board of twelve trustees, each one of whom had lent his name but not his work to the cause we were supposed to represent. When we met at the end of that season, and heard how narrow had been the escape from calamity due to utter lack of management, a good Methodist brother put in words what we were each and every one of us thinking about.
Brethren, he said, so far as I can make out, but for the interposition of a merciful Providence we should all be in jail, as we deserve. Let us pray!
I think that prayer was more than lip-service with most of us. I know that I registered a vow that I would never again be trustee of anything without trusteeing it in fact. And I have kept the vow.
Tribune Police Bureau.
But to return to Mulberry Street. The immediate result of this first victory of mine was a whirlwind onslaught on me, fiercer than anything that had gone before. I expected it and met it as well as I could, holding my own after a fashion. When, from sheer exhaustion, they let up to see if I was still there, I paid them back with two or three beats I had stored up for the occasion. And then we settled down to the ten years war for the mastery, out of which I was to come at last fairly the victor, and with the only renown I have ever coveted or cared to have, that of being the boss reporter in Mulberry Street. I have so often been asked in later years what my work was there,1 and how I found there the point of view from which I wrote my books, that I suppose I shall have to go somewhat into the details of it.
The police reporter on a newspaper, then, is the one who gathers and handles all the news that means trouble to some one: the murders, fires, suicides, robberies, and all that sort, before it gets into court. He has an office in Mulberry Street, across from Police Headquarters, where he receives the first intimation of the trouble through the precinct reports. Or else he does not receive it. The police do not like to tell the public of a robbery or a safe cracking, for instance. They claim that it interferes with the ends of justice. What they really mean is that it brings ridicule or censure upon them to have the public know that they do not catch every thief, or even most of them. They would like that impression to go out, for police work is largely a game of bluff. Here, then, is an opportunity for the beats I speak of. The reporter who, through acquaintance, friendship, or natural detective skill, can get that which it is the policy of the police to conceal from him, wins. It may seem to many a reader a matter of no great importance if a man should miss a safe-burglary for his paper; but reporting is a business, a very exacting one at that, and if he will stop a moment and think what it is he instinctively looks at first in his morning paper, even if he has schooled himself not to read it through, he will see it differently. The fact is that it is all a great human drama in which these things are the acts that mean grief, suffering, revenge upon somebody, loss or gain. The reporter who is behind the scenes sees the tumult of passions, and not rarely a human heroism that redeems all the rest. It is his task so to portray it that we can all see its meaning, or at all events catch the human drift of it, not merely the foulness and the reek of blood. If he can do that, he has performed a signal service, and his murder story may easily come to speak more eloquently to the minds of thousands than the sermon preached to a hundred in the church on Sunday.
In which lay dying a French nobleman of proud and ancient name.
Of the advantages that smooth the way to newsgetting I had none. I was a stranger, and I was never distinguished for detective ability. But good hard work goes a long way toward making up for lack of genius; and I mentioned only one of the opportunities for getting ahead of my opponents. They were lying all about us. Any seemingly innocent slip sent out from the police telegraph office across the way recording a petty tenement-house fire might hide a fire-bug, who always makes shuddering appeal to our fears; the finding of John Jones sick and destitute in the street meant, perhaps, a story full of the deepest pathos. Indeed, I can think of a dozen now that did. I see before me, as though it were yesterday, the desolate Wooster Street attic, with wind and rain sweeping through the bare room in which lay dying a French nobleman of proud and ancient name, the last of his house. He was one of my early triumphs. New York is a queer town. The grist of every hopper in the world comes to it. I shall not soon forget the gloomy tenement in Clinton Street where that day a poor shoemaker had shot himself. His name, Struensee, had brought me over. I knew there could not be such another. That was where my Danish birth stood me in good stead. I knew the story of Christian VII.s masterful minister; of his fall and trial on the charge of supplanting his master in the affections of the young and beautiful Queen, sister of George III. Very old men told yet, when I was a boy, of that dark day when the proud head fell under the executioners axe in the castle square dark for the people whose champion Struensee had tried to be. My mother was born and reared in the castle at Elsinore where the unhappy Queen, disgraced and an outcast, wrote on the window-pane of her prison cell: Lord, keep me innocent; make others great. It was all a familiar story to me, and when I sat beside that dead shoemaker and, looking through his papers, read there that the tragedy of a hundred years before was his family story, I knew that I held in my hands the means of paying off all accumulated scores to date.
Did I settle in full? Yes, I did. I was in a fight not of my own choosing, and I was well aware that my turn was coming. I hit as hard as I knew how, and so did they. When I speak of triumphs, it is professionally. There was no hard-heartedness about it. We did not gloat over the misfortunes we described. We were reporters, not ghouls. There lies before me as I write a letter that came in the mail this afternoon from a woman who bitterly objects to my diagnosis of the reporters as the highest and noblest of all callings. She signs herself a sufferer from reporters unkindness, and tells me how in the hour of her deep affliction they have trodden upon her heart. Can I not, she asks, encourage a public sentiment that will make such reporting disreputable? All my life I have tried to do so, and, in spite of the evidence of yellow journalism to the contrary, I think we are coming nearer to that ideal; in other words, we are emerging from savagery. Striving madly for each others scalps as we were, I do not think that we scalped any one else unjustly. I know I did not. They were not particularly scrupulous, I am bound to say. In their rage and mortification at having underestimated the enemy, they did things unworthy of men and of reporters. They stole my slips in the telegraph office and substituted others that sent me off on a wild-goose chase to the farthest river wards in the midnight hour, thinking so to tire me out. But they did it once too often. I happened on a very important case on such a trip, and made the most of it, telegraphing down a column or more about it from the office, while the enemy watched me helplessly from the Headquarters stoop across the way. They were gathered there, waiting for me to come back, and received me with loud and mocking ahems! and respectfully sympathetic toots on a tin horn, kept for that purpose. Its voice had a mournful strain in it that was especially exasperating. But when, without paying any attention to them, I busied myself with the wire at once, and kept at it right along, they scented trouble, and consulted anxiously among themselves. My story finished, I went out and sat on my own stoop and said ahem! in my turn in as many aggravating ways as I could. They knew they were beaten then, and shortly they had confirmation of it. The report came in from the precinct at 2 A.M., but it was then too late for their papers, for there were no telephones in those days. I had the only telegraph wire. After that they gave up such tricks, and the Tribune saved many cab fares at night; for there were no elevated railroads, either, in those days, or electric or cable cars.
On the other hand, this enterprise of ours was often of the highest service to the public. When, for instance, in following up a case of destitution and illness involving a whole family, I, tracing back the origin of it, came upon a party at which ham sandwiches had been the bill of fare, and upon looking up the guests, found seventeen of the twenty-five sick with identical symptoms, it required no medical knowledge, but merely the ordinary information and training of the reporter, to diagnose trichinosis. The seventeen had half a dozen different doctors, who, knowing nothing of party of ham, were helpless, and saw only cases of rheumatism or such like. I called as many of them as I could reach together that night, introduced them to one another and to my facts, and asked them what they thought then. What they thought made a sensation in my paper the next morning; and practically decided the fight, though the enemy was able to spoil my relish for the ham by reporting the poisoning of a whole family with a dish of depraved smelt while I was chasing up the trichinæ. However, I had my revenge. I walked in that afternoon upon Dr. Cyrus Edson at his microscope surrounded by my adversaries, who besought him to deny my story. The doctor looked quizzically at them and made reply:
I would like to oblige you, boys, but how I can do it with those fellows squirming under the microscope I dont see. I took them from the flesh of one of the patients who was sent to Trinity Hospital to-day. Look at them yourself.
He winked at me, and, peering into his microscope, I saw my diagnosis more than confirmed. There were scores of the little beasts curled up and burrowing in the speck of tissue. The unhappy patient died that week.
We had our specialties in this contest of wits. One was distinguished as a sleuth. He fed on detective mysteries as a cat on a chicken-bone. He thought them out by day and dreamed them out by night, to the great exasperation of the official detectives, with whom their solution was a com- mercial, not in the least an intellectual, affair. They solved them on the plane of the proverbial lack of honor among thieves, by the formula, You scratch my back, and Ill scratch yours.
Another came out strong on fires. He knew the history of every house in town that ran any risk of being burned; knew every fireman; and could tell within a thousand dollars, more or less, what was the value of the goods stored in any building in the dry-goods district, and for how much they were insured. If he couldnt, he did anyhow, and his guesses often came near the fact, as shown in the final adjustment. He sniffed a firebug from afar, and knew without asking how much salvage there was in a bale of cotton after being twenty-four hours in the fire. He is dead, poor fellow. In life he was fond of a joke, and in death the joke clung to him in a way wholly unforeseen. The firemen in the next block, with whom he made his head quarters when off duty, so that he might always be within hearing of the gong, wished to give some tangible evidence of their regard for the old reporter, but being in a hurry, left it to the florist, who knew him well, to choose the design. He hit upon a floral fire-badge as the proper thing, and thus it was that when the company of mourners was assembled, and the funeral service in progress, there arrived and was set upon the coffin, in the view of all, that triumph of the florists art, a shield of white roses, with this legend written across it in red immortelles: Admit within fire lines only. It was shocking, but irresistible. It brought down even the house of mourning.
The incident recalls another, which at the time caused me no little astonishment. A telegram from Long Branch had announced the drowning of a young actor, I think, whose three sisters lived over on Eighth Avenue. I had gone to the house to learn about the accident, and found them in the first burst of grief, dissolved in tears. It was a very hot July day, and to guard against sunstroke I had put a cabbage-leaf in my hat. On the way over I forgot all about it, and the leaf, getting limp, settled down snugly upon my head like a ridiculous green skullcap. Knowing nothing of this, I was wholly unprepared for the effect my entrance, hatless, had upon the weeping family. The young ladies ceased crying, stared wildly, and then, to my utter bewilderment, broke into hysterical laughter. For the moment I thought they had gone mad. It was only when in my perplexity I put up my hand to rub my head, that I came upon the cause of the strange hilarity. For years afterward the thought of it had the same effect upon me that the cabbage-leaf produced so unexpectedly in that grief-stricken home.
I might fill many pages with such stories, but I shall not attempt it. Do they seem mean and trifling in the retrospect? Not at all. They were my work, and I liked it. And I got a good deal of fun out of it from time to time. I mind Dr. Bryants parrot story. Dr. Joseph D. Bryant was Health Commissioner at the time, and though we rarely agreed about anythingthere is something curious about that, that the men I have thought most of were quite often those with whom I disagreed ordinarily about everythingI can say truly that there have been few better Health Commissioners, and none for whom I have had a more hearty respect and liking. Dr. Bryant especially hated reporters. He was built that way; he disliked notoriety for himself and his friends, and therefore, when one of these complained of a neighbors parrot to the Health Department, he gave strict orders that the story was to be guarded from the reporters, and particularly from me, who had grieved him more than once by publishing things which, in his opinion, I ought to have said nothing about. I heard of it within the hour, and promptly set my wit against the Doctors to unearth the parrot.
But it would not come out. Dig as I might, I could not get at it. I tried every way. while the Doctor laughed in his sleeve and beamed upon me. At last, in desperation, I hit upon a bold plan. I would get it out of the Doctor himself. I knew his hours for coming to Sanitary Headquarters from his clinics, I suppose. He always came up the stairs absorbed in thought, noticing that passed. I waylaid him in the turn of the dark hall, and before he had time to think plumped at him an
Our Office my Partner, Mr. Ensign at the Desk, I in the Corner.
Oh, Doctor! about that parrot of your friend er-er, oh! what was his name?
Alley, said the Doctor, mechanically, and went in, only half hearing what I said. I made for the city directory. There were four Alleys in it. In an hour I had located my man, and the next mornings Tribune had a column account of the tragedy of the parrot.
The Doctor was very angry. He went to Headquarters and summoned me solemnly before the assembled Board. The time had come, he said, to have an explanation from me as to who it was that gave me information against orders and the public interest. Evidently there was a traitor in camp, by whatever means I had procured his treachery.
In vain did I try to show the Doctor how unprofessional my conduct would be in betraying my informant, even how contemptible. He was inexorable. This time I should not escape, nor my accomplice either. Out with it, and at once. With a show of regretful resignation I gave in. For once I would break my rule and tell on my informant. I thought I detected a slight sneer on the Doctors lip as he said that was well; for he was a gentleman, every inch of him, and I know he hated me for telling. The other Commissioners looked grave.
Well, then, I said, the man who gave me the parrot story was you, Dr. Bryant.
The Doctor sat bolt upright with a jerk. No bad jokes, Mr. Riis, he said. Who gave you the story?
Why, you did. Dont you remember? And I told how I waylaid him in the hall. His face, as the narrative ran on, was a study. Anger, mirth, offended pride, struggled there; but the humor of the thing got the upper hand in the end, and the one who laughed loudest in the Board room was Dr. Bryant himself. In my soul I believe that he was not a little relieved, for under a manner of much sternness he had the tenderest of hearts.
But it was not always I who came out ahead in the daily encounters which made up the routine of my day. It was an important part of my task to be on such terms with the heads of departments that they would talk freely to us so that we might know in any given case, or with reference to the policy of the department, where we were at. I do not mean talk for publication. It is a common mistake of people who know nothing about the newspaper profession that reporters flit about public men like so many hawks, seizing upon what they can find to publish as their lawful prey. No doubt there are such guerrillas, and they have occasionally more than justified their existence; but, as applied to the staff reporters of a great newspaper, nothing could be farther from the truth. The department reporter has his field as carefully laid out for him every day as any physician who starts out on his route, and within that field, if he is the right sort of man, he is friend, companion, and often counsellor to the officials with whom he comes on contact always supposing that he is not fighting them in open war. He may serve a Republican paper and the President of the Police Board may be a Democrat of Demo crats; yet in the privacy of his office he will talk as freely to the reporter as if he were his most intimate party friend, knowing that he will not publish what is said in confidence. This is the reporters capital, without which he cannot in the long run do business.
I presume he is sometimes tempted to gamble with it for a stake. I remember well when the temptation came to me once after a quiet hour with Police Commissioner Matthews, who had been telling me the inside history of an affair which just then was setting the whole town by the ears. I told him that I thought I should have to print it; it was too good to keep. No, it wouldnt do, he said. I knew well enough he was right, but I insisted; the chance was too good a one to miss. Mr. Matthews shook his head. He was an invalid, and was taking his daily treatment with an electric battery while we talked and smoked. He warned me laughingly against the consequences of what I proposed to do, and changed the subject.
Ever try these? he said, giving me the handles, I took them, unsuspecting, and felt the current tingle in my finger-tips. The next instant it gripped me like a vice. I squirmed with pain.
Stop! I yelled, and tried to throw the things away; but my hands crooked themselves about them like a birds claws and held them fast. They would not let go. I looked at the Commissioner. He was studying the battery leisurely, and slowly pulling out the plug that increased the current.
For mercys sake, stop! I called to him. He looked up inquiringly.
About that interview, now, he drawled. Do you think you ought to print
Wow, wow! Let go, I tell you! It hurt dreadfully. He pulled the thing out another peg.
You know it wouldnt do, really. Now, if He made as if to still further increase the current. I surrendered.
Let up, I begged, and I will not say a word. Only let up.
He set me free. He never spoke of it once in all the years I knew him, but now and again he would offer me, with a dry smile, the use of his battery as very good for the health. I always declined with thanks.
About that interview, now, he drawled.
I got into Mulberry Street at what might well be called the heroic age of police reporting. It rang still with the echoes of the unfathomed Charley Ross mystery. That year occurred the Stewart grave robbery and the Manhattan Bank burglary three epoch-making crimes that each in its way make a sensation such as New York has not known since. For though Charley Ross was stolen in Philadelphia, the search for him centred in the metropolis. The three-million-dollar burglary within the shadow of Police Headquarters gave us Inspector Byrnes, who broke up the old gangs of crooks and drove those whom he did not put in jail over the sea to ply their trade in Europe. The Stewart grave robbery ended the career of the ghouls, and the Charley Ross case put a stop to child-stealing for a generation, by making those crimes unprofitable. The public excitement was so great that it proved impossible for the thieves to deliver the goods and effect the change for ransom. At intervals for years these cases kept turning up in one new phase or another. You could never tell where to look for them. Indeed, I have to thank the Stewart ghouls for the first public recognition that came to me in those early years of toil. Of all the mysteries that ever vexed a reporters soul, that was the most agonizing. The police, most of the time, were as much in the dark as the rest of us, and nothing was to be got from that source. Heaven knows I tried. In our desperation we caught at every straw. One stormy night in the hottest of the excitement Judge Hilton, who had offered the $50,000 reward for the stolen body on behalf of Mrs. Stewart, went to Headquarters and stayed an hour in the detective office. When he came out, he was attended by two of the oldest and ablest detectives. Clearly something big was on foot. They were just like so many sphinxes, and went straight to the carriage that waited at the Mulberry Street door. I do not know how it ever entered my head; perhaps it didnt at all, but was just done mechanically. The wind had blown out the lamp on the steps, and the street was in pro found darkness. As they stepped into the carriage, I, with only the notion in my head that here was news which must be got somehow, went in last and sank down in the vacant seat, pulling the door to after me. The carriage went on. To my intense relied, it rounded the corner. I was undiscovered! But at that moment it came to a sudden stop. An invisible hand opened the door, and, grasping my collar, gently but firmly propelled me into the street and dropped me there. Then the carriage went on. Not a word had been spoken. They understood and so did I. It was enough.
The carriage went on.
But, as I said, I had my revenge. It came when the opposition reporters, believing the mystery to be near its solution,2 entered into a conspiracy to forestall it and deliberately invented the lines of the coming dénouement. Day by day they published its progress upon the authority of a high official who never existed, announcing that behind each one of the grave-robbers stood a detective with uplifted hand ready to arrest him when the word was given. It was truly the dawn of yellow journalism. With such extraordinary circumstantiality were the accounts given that for once my office wavered in its faith in Ensign and me. Amos Ensign was my partner at time, a fine fellow and good reporter. If we turned out to be wrong, we were given to understand our careers on the Tribune would be at an end. I slept little or none during that month of intense work and excitement, but spent my days as my nights sifting every scrap of evidence. There was nothing to justify the stories, and we maintained in our paper that they were lies. Mr. Shanks himself left the city desk and came up to work with us. His head, too, would fall, we heard, if his faith in the police office had been misplaced. The bubble burst at last, and, as we expected, there was nothing in it. The Tribune was justified. The opposition reporters were fined or suspended. I have still the bulletin in which Mr. Shanks spoke of me as the man whose work had done much to make the Tribune police reports the best in the city. Sweet comfort for the Dutchman! My salary was raised, but that was of less account. We had saved the day and the desk. After that it was not all pulling upstream in Mulberry Street. Nothing in this world succeeds like success.
Before that I had been once suspended myself for missing something in this very case. I was not to blame, and therefore was angry and refused to make explanations. That night, as I sat sulking in my home in Brooklyn, a big warehouse fire broke out down town. From our house on the hill I watched it grow beyond control, and knew that the boys were hard put to it. It was late, and as I thought of the hastening hours, the police reporter got the better of the man, and I hurried down to take a hand. When I turned up in the office after midnight to write the story, the night editor eyed me curiously.
I thought, Riis, you were suspended, he said. For a moment I wavered, smarting under the injustice of it all. But my note-book reminded me.
I am, I said, and when I am done with this I am going home till you send for me. But this fire can I have a desk?
The night editor got up and came over and shook hands. Take mine, he said. There! take it!
They send for me the next day.
It is not to be supposed that all this was smooth sailing. Along with the occasional commendations for battles won against the mob went constant and grievous complaints of the editors supplied by the Associated Press, and even by some in my own office now and then, of my style. It was very bad, according to may critics, altogether editorial and presuming, and not to be borne. So I was warned that I must mend it and give the facts, sparing comments. By that I suppose they meant that I must write, not what I thought, but what they probably might think of the news. But, good or bad, I could write in no other way, and kept right on. Not that I think, by any manners of means, that it was the best way, but it was mine. And goodness knows I had no desire to be an editor. I have not now. I prefer to be a reporter and deal with the facts to being an editor and lying about them. In the end the complaints died out. I suppose I was given up as hopeless.
Perhaps there had crept into my reports too much of my fight with the police. For by that time I had included them in the opposition. They had not been friendly from the first, and it was best so. I had them all in front then, and an open enemy is better any day than a false friend who may stab you in the back. In the quarter of a century since, I have seldom been on any other terms with the police. I mean with the heads of them. The rank and file, the man with the nightstick as Roosevelt liked to call him, is all right, if properly led. He has rarely been properly led. It may be that, in that respect at least, my reports might have been tempered somewhat to advantage. Though I dont know. I prefer, after all, to have it out, all out. And it did come out, and my mind was relieved; which was something.
Speaking of night-sticks reminds me of seeing General Grant in his to my mind greatest hour, the only time he was ever beaten, and by a policeman. I told his son, Fred Grant, of it when he became a Police Commissioner in the nineties, but I do not think he appreciated it. He was not cast in his great fathers mould. The occasion I refer to was after the Generals second term in the Presidency. He was staying at the Fifth Avenue Hotel when one morning the Masonic Temple was burned. The fire-line was drawn halfway down the block toward Fifth Avenue, but the police were much hampered by the crowd, and were out of patience when I, standing by, saw a man in a great ulster with head buried deep in the collar, a cigar sticking straight out, coming down the street from the hotel. I recognized him at sight as General Grant. The policeman who blocked his way did not. He grabbed him by the collar, swung him about, and hitting him a resounding whack across the back with his club, yelled out:
Whats the matter with you? Dont you see the fire-lines? Chase yourself out of here, and be quick about it.
The General said never a word. He did not stop to argue the matter. He had run up against a sentinel, and when stopped went the other way. That was all. The man had a right to be there; he had none. I was never so much an admirer of Grant as since that day. It was true greatness. A smaller man would have made a row, stood upon his dignity and demanded the punishment of the policeman. As for him, there was probably never so badly frightened a policeman when I told him whom he had clubbed. I will warrant he did not sleep for a week, fearing all kinds of things. No need of it. Grant probably never gave him a thought.
It was in pursuit of the story of a Breton noble man of hoped-for ancient lineage that I met with the most disheartening set-back of my experience. The setting of the case was most alluring. The old baron for he was nothing less, though in Minetta Lane he passed for a cats-meat man who peddled his odd ware from door to door had been found by the police sick and starving in his wretched cellar, and had been taken to Bellevue Hospital. The inevitable de suggested the story, and papers that I found in his trunk papers most carefully guarded and cherished told enough of it to whet my appetite to its keenest edge. If the owner could only be made to talk, if his stubborn family pride could only be overcome, there was every promise here of a sensation by means of which who could tell but belated justice might even be done him and his family apart from the phenomenal trouncing I should be administering through him to my rivals. Visions of conspiracies, court intrigues, confiscations, and what not, danced before my greedy mental vision. I flew rather than walked up to Bellevue Hospital to offer him my paper and pen in the service of right and of vengeance, only to find that I was twenty-four hours late. The patient had already been transferred to the Charity Hospital as a bad case. The boat had gone; there would not be another for several hours. I could not wait, but it was a comfort, at all events, to know that my baron was where I could get at him on the morrow. I dreamed some more dreams of happiness as I went back, and was content.
As it happened, I was very busy the next day and for several days after. The week was nearly spent when I found myself on the boat going up to the island. At the hospital office they reassured me with a queer look. Yes; my man was there, likely to stay there for a little while. The doctor would presently take me to see him on his rounds. In one of the big wards I found him at last, numbered in the row of beds among a score of other human wrecks, a little old man, bent and haggard, but with some of the dignity, I fancied, of his noble descent upon his white and wrinkled brow. He sat up in bed, propped by pillows, and listened with hungry eyes as, in French which I had most carefully polished up for the occasion, I told him my errand. When at last I paused, waiting anxiously for an answer, he laid one trembling hand on mine I noticed that the other hung limp from the shoulder and made, as it seemed, a superhuman effort to speak; but only inarticulate, pitiful sounds came forth. I looked appealingly at the doctor.
Dumb, he said, and shook his head. Paralysis involving the vocal organs. He will never speak again.
And he didnt. He was buried in the Potters Field the next week. For once I was too late. The story of the last of my barons remains untold until this hour.
And now that this chapter, somewhat against my planning, has become wholly the police reporters, I shall have to bring up my cause cèlébre, though that came a long while after my getting into Mulberry Street. I shall not have so good an opportunity again. It was the occasion of the last of my many battles for the mastery; but, more than that, it illustrates very well that which I have been trying to describe as a reporters public function. We had been for months in dread of a cholera scourge that summer, when, mousing about the Health Department one day, I picked up the weekly analysis of the Croton water and noticed that there had been for two weeks past a trace of nitrites in the water. I asked the department chemist what it was. He gave an evasive answer, and my curiosity was at once aroused. There must be no unknown or doubtful ingredient in the water supply of a city of two million souls. Like Cæsars wife, it must be above suspicion. Within an hour I had learned that the nitrites meant in fact that there had been at one time sewage contamination; consequently that we were face to face with a most grave problem. How had the water become polluted, and who guaranteed that it was not in that way even then, with the black death threatening to cross the ocean from Europe?
I sounded the warning in my paper, then the Evening Sun, counselled the people to boil the water pending further discoveries, then took my camera and went up in the watershed. I spent a week there, following to its source every stream that discharged into the Croton River and photographing my evidence wherever I found it. When I told my story in print, illustrated with the pictures, the town was astounded. The Board of Health sent inspectors to the watershed, who reported that things were worse a great deal than I had said. Populous towns sewered directly into our drinking-water. There was not even a pretence at decency. The people bathed and washed their dogs in the streams. The public town dumps were on their banks. The rival newspapers tried to belittle the evil because their reporters were beaten. Running water purifies itself, they said. So it does, if it runs far enough and long enough. I put that matter to the test. Taking the case of a town some sixty miles out of New York, one of the worst offenders, I ascertained from the engineer of the water-works how long it ordinarily took to bring water from the Sodom reservoir just beyond, down to the housekeepers faucets in the city. Four days, I think it was. Then I went to the doctors and asked them how many days a vigorous cholera bacillus might live and multiply in running water. About seven, said they. My case was made. There was needed but a single case of the dreaded scourge in any one of a dozen towns or villages that were on the line of travel from the harbor in which a half score ships were under quarantine, to put the metropolis at the mercy of an inconceivable calamity.
There was in all this no attempt at sensation. It was simple fact, as any one could see for himself. The health inspectors report clinched the matter. The newspapers editorially abandoned their reporters to ridicule and their fate. The city had to purchase a strip of land along the streams wide enough to guard against direct pollution. It cost millions of dollars, but it was the merest trifle to what a cholera epidemic would have meant to New York in loss of commercial prestige, let alone human lives. The contention over that end of it was transferred to Albany, where the politicians took a hand. What is there they do not exploit? Years after, meeting one of them who knew my share in it, he asked me, with a wink and a confidential shove, how much I got out of it. When I told him nothing, I knew that upon my own statement he took me for either a liar or a fool, the last being considerably the worse of the two alternatives.
In all of this battlesome account I have said nothing about the biggest fight of all. I had that with my self. In the years that had passed I had never forgotten the sergeant in the Church Street police station, and my dog. It is the kind of thing you do not get over. Way back in my mind there was the secret thought, the day I went up to Mulberry Street, that my time was coming at last. And now it had come. I had a recognized place at Headquarters, and place in the police world means power, more or less. The backing of the Tribune had given me influence. More I had conquered myself in my fights with the police. Enough for revenge! At the thought I flushed with anger. It has power yet to make my blood boil, the thought of that night in the station-house.
It was then my great temptation came. No doubt the sergeant was still there. If not, I could find him. I knew the day and hour when it happened. They were burned into my brain. I had only to turn to the department records to find out who made out the returns on that October morning while I was walking the weary length of the trestlework bridge across Raritan Bay, to have him within reach. There were a hundred ways in which I could hound him then, out of place and pay, even as he had driven me forth from the last poor shelter and caused my only friend to be killed.
Speak not to me of the sweetness of revenge! Of all unhappy mortals the vengeful man must be the most wretched. I suffered more in the anticipation of mine than ever I had when smarting under the injury, grievous as the memory of its is to me even now. Day after day I went across the street to begin the search. For hours I lingered about the record clerks room where they kept the old station-house blotters, unable to tear myself away. Once I even had the one from Church Street of October, 1870, in my hands; but I did not open it. Even as I held it I saw another and a better way. I would kill the abuse, not the man who was but the instrument and the victim of it. For never was parody upon Christian charity more corrupting to human mind and soul than the frightful abomination of the police lodging-house, sole provision made by the municipality for its homeless wanderers. Within a year I have seen the process in full operation in Chicago, have heard a sergeant in the Harrison Street Station there tell me, when my indignation found vent in angry words, that they cared less for those men and women than for the cur dogs in the street. Exactly so! My sergeant was of the same stamp. Those dens, daily association with them, had stamped him. Then and there I resolved to wipe them out, bodily, if God gave me health and strength. And I put the book away quick and never saw it again. I do not know till this day who the sergeant was, and I am glad I do not. It is better so.
Of what I did to carry out my purpose, and how it was done, I must tell hereafter. It was the source and beginning of all the work which justifies the writing of these pages; and among all the things which I have been credited with doing since it is one of the few in which I really bore a strong hand. And yet it was not mine which finally wrought that great work, but a stronger and better than mine, Theodore Roosevelts. Even while I was writing this account we together drove in the last nail in the coffin of the bad old days, by persuading the Charter Revision Commission to remove from the organic law of the city the clause giving to the police the care of vagrants, which was the cause of it all. It had remained over in the Charter of the Greater New York in spite of our protests. It was never the proper business of the police to dispense charity. They have their hands full with repressing crime. It is the mixing of the two that confuses standards and makes trouble without end for those who receive the charity, and even more for those who dispense it. You cannot pervert the first and finest of human instincts without corrupting men: witness my sergeant in Church Street and his Chicago brother.