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63 It was a bitter cold night of February, 1871, when at the corner of Owen House and Pennsylvania Avenue, at about 11 o’clock, where I found a squad of little Italian wandering musicians, two boys and girl from 7 to 8 years of age, crying, suffering from the cold, hunger, and fear of their cruel padroni . . . if they should go home without the sum of money fixed, one dollar, that they ought to bring each of them every night to their padrone after wandering all day through the streets, squares, alleys, bars, beer saloons, and other worse places playing their instruments, singing, and begging. . . . The two boys playing the violin , whose arms being too short, placed it against their stomachs, and the girl playing the triangle . . . the pitiful story of . . . the three little creatures . . . was heartrending and made me cry with them.1 Moreno, the bold sea captain, the lusty lover, the battle-scarred warrior, the forceful entrepreneur, reduced to tears at the plight of exploited “little creatures”? Here, another persona in Moreno’s repertoire stepped onto the stage, the compassionate protector of the weak and helpless. Eschewing the pious rhetoric of the time, he used vivid prose based on personal observations. Accompanying the children to a shanty, there Moreno found c h a p t e r 4 The Little Italian Slaves 64 The Little Italian Slaves two “ferocious looking padroni playing cards and drinking beer . . . waiting for their little slaves . . . to bring them the money they had earned and begged.” Questioning the padroni, he learned that they were from Marsico Vetere in Basilicata and had twelve children in their care. Insisting on seeing their sleeping quarters, he entered a stable in which boys and girls were lying, pell-mell, on dirty straw full of vermin and covered with rags. “At such a sight,” Moreno wrote, “my forehead became red with shame and my heart full of indignation, and from that very moment I made up my mind to do all in my single person against a compact multitude.” In this heartfelt language, Moreno described his “discovery” of Italian child slavery in America. With the energy and zeal that characterized all of his endeavors, he undertook his crusade against the “great wrong,” which would last for the rest of his life. Italian street musicians, both those who played musical instruments and others with hand organs, had been familiar figures for centuries in Rome, Naples, and Genoa as well as Paris and London.2 It was one of many ambulatory trades that enabled hill folk from the Apennines to eke out a miserable existence. While children often accompanied relatives or paesani, an increasing number of very young street performers were indentured to padroni by the 1860s. Formal contracts specified the terms of service. The parents received modest annual payments, and the master was obligated to provide food, shelter, and clothing and to teach the children to play an instrument. In towns where miseria reigned, families with too many mouths to feed found this tempting. For money and, perhaps, the belief that the child would learn a trade and live a better life, young ones were entrusted to the padrone. Contrary to the provisions of an apprenticeship, the system lent itself to abuse, cruelty, and neglect. By the 1860s, the growing presence of Italian child musicians in European cities caused outrage, inspired philanthropic initiatives, and resulted in ameliorative legislation in several countries. The plight of the “Italian slave children” made good copy for newspapers and models for picturesque paintings that appealed to the Victorians’ sentimental humanitarianism. In Italy, the nationalists, exalting in the triumph of the Risorgimento, were perplexed by the international outcry surrounding their little compatriots. They, too, raised their voices in protest, more often out of concern for the honor of Italy rather than for the children’s fate. In 1868, several publications raised the level of public concern. A report by the Società Italiana di Beneficenza in Paris drew attention to the “shameful speculation” in “petits italiens” in France. The Little Italian Slaves 65 That year, Ferdinando De Luca, the Consul General of Italy in New York, sent a detailed report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs describing, in detail, the modus operandi of the padroni’s system and the horrendous suffering it entailed for the children. De Luca expressed his personal distress at the plight of these “small musicians,” so poorly fed and abandoned “that the most neglected of domestic animals receive better...


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