And besides our own neglected and depraved population, the tide of emigration, now setting in stronger every year, while it enriches our country, leaves much of its refuse in our city. Pauper families, and even felons, are not infrequently sent over to us as a cheap way of disposing of them, by selfishness or mistaken humanity of those whose duty it is to provide for them at home, thus swelling the number of houseless, friendless and lawless youth, drifting loose upon society, to become utterly shipwrecked, unless the active hand of benevolence is stretched to save them.

—Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, Twenty-Fourth Annual Report (1849).

I. Manhattan, Gateway to the New World (1825–55)

When she stepped off the steamboat at the port of New York in 1830, Mrs. Frances Trollope, an English lady known more for denouncing than praising American cities, remarked upon the exquisite beauty of New York City. As she rode down the length and breadth of Broadway, Mrs. Trollope, who had pinioned more than one American city with her pen, remarked on the beauty of that “noble street.” Its “handsome slopes, neat awnings, excellent trottoir [sidewalks], and well-dressed pedestrians” seemed to fill her soul with exhilaration. Unlike the frontier, New York City offered elegance and charm which few other places in America possessed. “Were it not so very far from all the old-world things which cling about the heart of an European,” she felt that she would find it unsurpassed as a place of residence.1

Charles Dickens, arriving a little over a decade later, seemed less entranced by New York City’s beauty. By contrast to Boston, New York seemed less tidy. Also, unlike Mrs. Trollope, who seemed to possess no nose for poverty, he could not ignore the notorious Five Points District, that quarter of the city near the old Collect marsh where Irishmen and Negroes were packed into rat-infested hovels and crime prevailed as a way of life. Even though Dickens, too, took his promenade down Broadway, remarking, “Was there ever such a sunny street as this …?” he could not refrain from commenting, when he visited Five Points, that “all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.”2

As Manhattan grew from 166,000 inhabitants in 1825 to 630,000 in 1855, it knew the pain of an expanding metropolis which had little room in which to expand. Poorly suited for a rapidly growing population, the small houses which had once been so quaint became overcrowded firetraps. Although the streets near the wharves became busy thoroughfares for commerce and crowds jostled one another on the way to gaily decked theaters, activity on the narrow streets, “running into and crossing each other at all sorts of angles except a right angle,”3 revealed more than the confusion of a growing metropolis. The sensitive visitor who listened and watched could sense that the American dream, chiefly fostered by agrarian aristocrats, was on trial in New York City. The days of Diedrich Knickerbocker represented a nostalgic echo of the past which jarred with the jumble of foreign sounds and sights. The people of the city were changing. Philip Hone, a businessman who had been mayor of the city in 1825, raised doubts about the future when he looked back on the changes in population due to immigration.

The boast that one country is the asylum for the oppressed in other parts of the world is very philanthropic and sentimental, but I fear that we shall before long derive little comfort from being made the almshouse and place of refuge for the poor of other countries.4

Had he known more about the disorderly element loose on his streets, Hone might have even been more frightened than he was. Not only had New York City become a dumping ground for European paupers, but it had also become a haven for a floating population of youths who had wandered away from the supposed bedrock of American virtue, the countryside. When Joseph Curtis, first superintendent of the New York House of Refuge, questioned a small boy named William about his background, he found to his dismay that the boy had originally lived in Brunswick, Maine. William had simply gone a-fishing, and from there he had signed onto coasting vessels which plied their trade from Bath, Maine, to Baltimore, Maryland. At various times, William had lived in Boston, Providence, New London, and New York.5

Others who walked the streets of the city also lamented the changing order. Unlike Philip Hone, they often pointed to the youth population as the symbol of onrushing doom. Many of the long-time residents of the city were appalled when they heard of the exploits of two “notorious little rogues” who had set up a thriving business in stolen goods right in the heart of their city.6 The city fathers were also disturbed by marauding gangs of boys who vandalized houses in Park Place.

Sympathetic activists such as Joseph Curtis tried to socialize the growing horde of ragamuffins by intruding into their company. When Curtis found a group of boys scuffling on the streets, he would break into the melee, separate the fighters, and lecture them on the subject of their morals.

The time-honored apprenticeship system appeared to hold little fascination for the youngsters. One boy, whose father had apprenticed him to a silversmith, kept running away. Initially, he had run away for several days to watch the ascension of a balloon. Finally, he had joined a gang of young thieves.7 Work, when it entailed scrubbing “in some of the large public houses for a basket of cold victuals for the family,” had little appeal for some of the young girls as well. One such girl, who preferred to “play the Strumpet” would “sell herself for a shilling if she could get no more.”8

During this period Manhattan seemed to project a confusing and conflicting image. The steeples of churches and the masts of stately ships along the river seemed to suggest the prominence of piety and commerce; the nightly debauches in the Five Points District and the marauding juvenile gangs along the waterfronts were an unseemly contrast. Who would be the New Yorkers of the future—substantial patrons of culture such as Philip Hone or rebellious hordes of violent paupers?

The ardent crusader for moral and social uplift and the frightened patrician could find common cause in seeking a solution to the situation. While the reformer might want to initiate a process which would transform the soul of society, the conservative elite would subscribe to almost any measure which might guarantee stability. Operating from different points of view, they would converge upon others whom they deemed in need of redemption—or a threat to their own security.

Although many reformers, seeking to alter the nature of the society in which they lived, looked upon social and economic unrest primarily as a crisis brought on by the inherent sinfulness of individual human beings, the more pragmatic spokesmen for change identified structural factors as central contributors to the situation. Stephen Allen, a child of the wharves himself, who had risen to prominence as a businessman, politician, and philanthropist, identified the immigration process as a source of evil. He felt that Irish families in particular suffered a great deal as they sought to adjust to the conditions of life in the new country.

Fathers who have to depend upon their labor for their support, very frequently leave their wives and children here, and seek employment on canals and railroads throughout the country. The change of climate, and frequently the unhealthy occupation, or employment in unhealthy situations, makes, orphans of their children. Sometimes, too, when in the interior, far from their wives and children, and perhaps unfortunate in accumulating anything for their support, they abandon them and do not return.9

Although he did not carefully document his contention, Allen had struck upon an important source of broken families. Irish fathers were caught in the process by which the family became tom and often destroyed. They hired out as laborers in constructing the many canals being built in the hinterlands, and many never returned. Urged on by unscrupulous contractors who stirred up gang warfare to avoid paying adequate wages, Irishmen often sapped their strength by brawling among themselves. Often hungry and poorly clad, they plodded through mosquito-infested swamps in mid-summer. Cholera, dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis all found ready targets among them; many finally died of what officials described as “canal fever.” If disease did not do its part, cave-ins and other accidents eventually contributed to the string of unmarked graves along the banks of the canal.

Perhaps immigrant fathers preferred to choose between the possibility of a violent death in the hinterland and the slower forms of death that plagued the city. Here, death often came from disease and starvation. Cholera, in particular, came to the door of the immigrant more often than to his affluent uptown neighbor. As the cholera season approached, the well-to-do fled the city, but the poor waited in their cellars and rooms.

Cholera, which often wielded its heaviest impact in highly concentrated populations, ran rampant in Irish neighborhoods. In 1850, out of the 2,742 persons who died of cholera in New York City, 1,086 were Irish. Thus, although the Irish-born represented 30 per cent of the population, they accounted for 40 out of every 100 persons who died of cholera in New York City. Foreign-born peoples, as a whole, constituted 55 per cent of the cholera deaths in the city.10

Death in any form always dwelt close to the immigrant family, and it often came as a welcome friend. It posed a more complex threat, however, for those who lived. Children, for example, suffered the fate of death in life—death could rob a child of his parents, sending him into the streets and eventually into the city’s prisons. If lucky, he might reclaim life through the auspices of the men who ran these institutions. When dealing with the young, the managers often viewed their functions as acting in loco parentis to the “perishing and dangerous classes.” Only four out of every ten children apprehended by the authorities could claim that both parents still lived. In two out of ten homes, the mother ruled alone. In one out of fourteen homes, the father had to manage his children without the assistance of a spouse. (See Table I, p. 189.) Death of one or both parents, whether it occurred in the countryside or on the city streets, clearly contributed more than its share to the total of disrupted immigrant families. The high incidence of death among the Irish, no doubt, created a type of dependency among them which did not occur among other cultural groups, but it could also have been explained, in part, by their migration pattern.

During the antebellum period, Ireland led the race to populate the whole of the United States, while Germany, England, Canada, and Scotland trailed behind. In New York City, Ireland, Germany, England (including Wales), Scotland, and France, in that order, led the immigrant parade. Although St. Louis and Baltimore, with their heavy German populations, departed from this configuration somewhat, cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit held to the New York City trend. Boston’s second largest group of immigrants was the English.11 In short, the huge numbers in which they came and the relative threat which they represented somewhat hampered Irish efforts at gradual assimilation. Theirs was a flight and not an orderly migration.

Although the Irish inundation of New York City increased rapidly as time went on, it never kept pace with commitment rates to institutions such as Stephen Allen’s own New York House of Refuge. The figures on commitments of delinquent and neglected children to this institution would become the source of his contention that the Irish were, by nature, an unmanageable crew. Native “Americans” had held their own in number of commitments to the Refuge in its earlier period, but by 1840, Irish immigrants contributed nearly half of its inmates. During the same year, Irish immigrants amounted to nearly 50 per cent of the total population arriving from abroad. As time went on, however, the Irish began to contribute more than their share of delinquents and neglected children. Between 1850 and 1855, when the Irish tide had begun to subside, Refuge intake of Irish children began to accelerate even further. Although the total immigration rate of the Irish amounted to about 40 per cent, Refuge commitments soared to 63 per cent. (See Table II, p. 190.)

The Germans, who had immigrated in the largest numbers during these years, did not show the same rate of increase in commitments; only one in twenty reformatory children were of German parentage. Observers, following Allen’s lead as they looked only at the intake data, reasoned that the Irish children were an unruly lot spawned in disorderly homes. The higher commitment rate of Irish children, however, might have been discerned from the circumstances which lay behind the Irishman’s coming to America and his trials during the uprooting process.

The Irish situation differed from that of more readily identifiable cultural groups. The Negro, for example, although he might be present in the Refuge, was never more than a minority. Although the ratio of Negroes to white inmates for the period from 1830 to 1850 was one to ten, during the period from 1850 to 1855 the figure dropped to one to twenty. As time went on, his numbers diminished, even though the Negro population in New York City continued to rise. According to statistics compiled by a “colored person” in the early 1830’s, 219 black children were committed to city institutions as “criminals and vagrants” and another 780 came into a great deal of contact with “dissipation and crime.” The bulk of these children probably resided in or near the Five Points District. According to the compiler of the figures, only about one-tenth of the city’s total black population of 13,000 were holding down “transient jobs.” The statistician listed an astounding figure of 3,250 children who possessed “regular employment.” This meant that, though large numbers of black children might be exposed to “dissipation and crime of the grossest kind,” and end up as “criminals and vagrants,”12 a much larger number of children never got into trouble with the law because they were working long hours. The jobs, however, were not of the kind which would provide them with mechanical skills. Because of their “color, and other circumstances, incident to their situation in this country,” even in New York City, blacks were mostly placed in service occupations. Despite their concern for black people, the chief target of the men who ran institutions such as the Refuge was Irish families, for the Irish, after all, seemed to represent the greatest threat to society. In time, the situation would change.

Wherever the Irish went, their very number weighed them down. As time went on, disrupted Irish families could be seen beyond the port cities. In 1851, along the Erie Canal, a group of ladies in Syracuse, New York, which had been incorporated only four years before, founded a home for indigent families. As they watched the influx of dependent families, they tried to seek out the causes of such penury. The rising cost of living and growing unemployment seemed to be factors in the increase of disorganized families. Only a well disciplined charity effort would serve to ward off destitution and death for the poor families which the ladies found huddling together in single rooms without furniture or heat. Imbued with the charitable impulse to aid families in which the father or breadwinner was missing through death or desertion, the ladies established the Syracuse Home Association. Worthy Irish families, as one would have anticipated, constituted the majority of the Home’s clients. In 1858, three out of four of the Association’s grants of assistance went to Irish families.13

A thorough study of the circumstances which had caused the Irish to emigrate from their homeland might have helped Stephen Allen and the good ladies of Syracuse to assess the economic circumstances of the Irish as they struggled to avert crime, death, pauperism, and a disrupted family system. They might have found that more than any other large immigrant group, the Irish had clustered in the crowded ports of entry along the seacoast. In 1850, foreign-born people were concentrated chiefly on either the Pacific Coast or the Middle Atlantic region. Together, these regions held nearly 40 per cent of the total foreign-born population of the United States.14 Even more than other immigrants, the Irish, in their first one or two generations, refrained from moving from their initial residence. Also, arriving in vast numbers and within a narrow time span, Irishmen tended to congregate in the shabbier sections of the city. Although some adventurous and affluent individuals journeyed inland, the bulk of the Irish families remained within the shelter of the city. Even though they had come from villages and farms, many of the Irish seemed to feel more at home in the presence of large numbers of countrymen than they would have in the countryside of America. Born and bred in rural areas, few of the Irish immigrants had the resources to leave the safety of the city streets, as the immigration process had taken its toll on their economic, physical, and spiritual state of being. Also, the Irishman seemed to be more content with his newfound place; whether or not it was in the country seemed to make little difference.

The tendency to ignore or forsake his agrarian origins forced the Irishman to be more eclectic in his occupations. In renouncing rural life he had to remain closer to urban areas where laboring jobs seemed available. Even those who sought the rural areas tended to gravitate to railroad work and other forms of manual labor. In most cases, rural or urban, the jobs which Irishmen filled tended to be those for unskilled laborers.

Both married and unmarried women found their easiest access to jobs in the cities. There, even though remuneration was small, they could always work as domestic servants. Irish women, most of whom were Roman Catholic, enjoyed a high birth rate. Although this was to some extent offset by a high rate of infant mortality, the Anglo-Saxon Protestant beholder could not refrain from a nativist suspicion that he was being systematically overrun by a horde of papist hellions. Truly, foreign mothers generally showed much greater fecundity than native groups, but nativist fears could have been dispelled somewhat by a closer look at survival figures. Irish mortality outstripped all others, the Irish being particularly susceptible to tuberculosis, heart disease, and pneumonia. A disproportionate number of Irish mothers also died in childbirth.15 The tendency toward a high birth and death rate reversed the pattern of the old country. Somehow, the change from a rural environment to city congestion proved detrimental to the physical health and well-being of the Irish family.

The Irish probably contributed a great deal to their economic and social instability by migrating in a pattern somewhat different from that of other groups. The Germans, for example, often set up businesses as family units; the family members pooled their skills and resources and established small industries. In many cases, German husbands constituted the first wave of migrants; they reconnoitered the situation, became firmly established, and then sent for their families.

Irish family heads inaugurated their New World careers in a less cautious and more hectic fashion; in contrast to the Germans, the Irish generally arrived with few belongings on their backs and their family surrounding them. Only a few of the Irish established extended family economic enterprises or began as bands of colonizers. Since they had never been property owners to any great extent, their meager savings were their only financial resources. Not until the 1850s did the Irish begin to form effective immigrant aid societies. When they finally created Hibernian protective associations and chose their own political leaders, they began to rise from their low social status and perilous existence. Until that time, most of the Irish migrated in the weakest possible units.

Small nuclear groups of mothers, fathers, and children or individuals, such as an orphaned lad named John who had no family at all, were unlikely candidates for stable family beginnings. John had traveled back and forth across the ocean several times before finding his way into New York City on a train. In his own words, he told the Superintendent that “if he’d know’d what sort of a place” New York was, he vowed that he “would niver have left auld Ireland.”16 Now that he had arrived, however, there appeared to be no choice but to stay. The Irish, by arriving in large numbers and possessing inadequate financial and familial resources, were in a poor position to counteract the many forces which threatened to overwhelm them.

Unlike certain other immigrant groups with whom they were compared in an offensive way, the ratio of Irish males to females was quite close. Irish women, both married and unmarried, existed in plenty. Crowded into the cities, women who lost their first husband en route had a far more difficult time of marrying new husbands than their rural counterparts. The frontier widow existed in a high-demand market. Single men on the American frontier vied for scarce widows or single girls. If they were willing, the women of the cities offered an alternative supply, but city women were not readily available to frontiersmen. Single men who either died or failed did not constitute much of a problem for America: they were never heard from again. The family of the deceased or deserting married man, however, would most likely end up as a public charge on the town pauper rolls.

German women seemingly had an easier time of finding and keeping husbands than did Irish women. The good Frau seldom accompanied her husband in his initial search for opportunities in the new land. If he made good, he would then likely send for his family, but some, of course, did not. Most of the statistics collected did not reveal this, since only a careful survey could have revealed the extent to which immigration helped to promote desertion.

In their adjustment to the ways of America, Irish families adopted new patterns of living. The larger families which they spawned disrupted family traditions which had existed in Ireland, by virtue of a low birth and death rate, for centuries. New means of maintaining the family had to be devised while it took up its new position. The high death and disappearance rate of parents exacted its own price in altering family roles.17

Disruption of families by death, desertion, and separation were not the only forces profoundly affecting the Irish family structure and the roles played by different members as they uprooted themselves from the land of their fathers. The cottiers,18 when they either had been driven from the land or, finding conditions so intolerable, had departed voluntarily, set in motion a whole series of changes in Irish family life. When the metamorphosis had come to virtual completion, neither the heads of families nor their children could look at life in the traditional way.

Some Irishmen themselves reflected on the implications of the immigration and its impact on Irish family structure. The vitriolic editor Thomas D’Arcy McGee articulated the Irishman’s distress when he wrote:

In Ireland every son was “a boy,” and every daughter “a girl” till he or she was married … they were considered subject to their parents till they became parents themselves…. In America, in consequence of the newness of the soil, and the demands of enterprise, the boys are men at sixteen … They will work for themselves, and pay their own board. They either live with the “boss,” “governor,” or “old man,” or elsewhere, as they please. They may respect,—they must have some natural deference for parents, but the abstract Irish reverence for old age is not yet naturalized in America…. Over half a dozen of these keen, hard, worldly young Yankees, an Irish father is to preside … they go to the public school. They are called “Paddies.” … They come home, and they want explanation; and here it is, precisely where the second generation breaks off from the first…. If … the family tie is snapt … our children become our opponents, and sometimes our worst enemies.19

It was a wonder that immigrant families did not show greater disorder than was actually the case. Occasionally, they broke out of their communities and rioted in the streets. Usually, however, they vented their distress upon each other. Few family controls contained them. The set of forces unleashed by migration, taken with other developments, made profound inroads upon their time-honored family structure. Prior to their immigration, they had lived in a somewhat primitive type of society where individual families, tied together by somewhat tribal affiliations, constituted the social order. Fathers held supreme power and grown sons were referred to as “boys.” Operating within a crude social fabric, in which the family was a stabilizing function, they were able, with a high degree of security, to sustain past traditions and to socialize their offspring. Most of the year, sons worked with their fathers in the fields and daughters worked with their mothers in the house. If a son were to defy the power of the father, he could expect a quick and violent reaction. If a father happened to be unable to control his sons, he would be considered a deviant. Although there was a type of extended family loyalty, most of the real social control and cohesiveness lay in the hands of the head of the nuclear family unit.

The Industrial Revolution and removal from their land and the company of their fellow peasants changed the established social order. Their sense of “place” became violated as they were driven from the soil. The further the family traveled from their original home, the more their sense of disruption increased; the immigrant had to alter his pattern of daily living. Now, in the United States, the immigrant was forced to relate as an individual to organizations and groups; most former loyalties dispensed with, he must bargain for wages and his family’s welfare. If his children worked apart from him or he himself was forced to work in some far field, he risked the possibility that alien organizations, acting in disapproval, would take his family from him. He might return to find his wife in the almshouse and his children in a home for indigent waifs.

To some extent, the Irish, with their low incomes and large families, complied with the picture of themselves created by Anglo-Saxon American elites. To the genteel Protestant merchant or minister perusing records in the penitentiaries and in the House of Refuge, Irish children appeared to have scattered to the four winds prior to their contact with law enforcement officials. Unruly older children ran away from harassed mothers who had to spend most of their time scraping money together and caring for the smaller ones. In cases where mothers remarried, boys often rebelled against the new father and ran away from home. Even the children who had not run away were likely to have vanished for a variety of reasons. The story of family chaos, however, had its origins in the immigrant’s economic situation. As he settled in the New World, the immigrant needed immediate employment. Even though the fathers had been drawn away on construction work, family finances improved little. Mothers had to leave their families while they worked. Occupational activity revealed the nexus of the Irish family’s problem, particularly for those families whose male breadwinner was missing. Even the situation of families where fathers were present showed the depressing facts of the case. The Irish father, if he lived, could count on only the lowest of occupations, in both pay or prestige.

Weighed down by the number of his fellows, the Irishman could not compete effectively in the existing job market. Although he came into the market when the need for laborers was very great, his huge numbers in concentrated areas and his ignorance of American economic life hampered the Irishman in taking advantage of the situation. Even in a high-demand market, the Irish laborer did not receive a just wage. When depressions struck, as they did frequently during the entire nineteenth century, the largest ethnic group usually felt the brunt of the disaster. The Irish work patterns fit the time-honored “last hired, first fired” adage.

Those who argued against the innate deficiency of the Sons of Erin would have spoken differently. What about the Germans? They asked this question with the full knowledge that the Irish and German migrations were of a markedly different character. Many Germans migrated after the European Revolution of 1848, and a large portion of them possessed educational and occupational backgrounds which placed them solidly in the middle class of American society. Their skills also worked in their behalf. Although some did not speak English well and were forced to serve in menial capacities for their own countrymen, more often than not the new migrants immediately filled positions where labor had previously been in short supply. Although a good many of the German fathers competed for low-paying laborer s jobs as soon as they got off the boat, and many, by serving as “scabs,” put militant Irish strikers out of work, most did not remain long as common laborers. Their skills were discovered or they created a demand for their own services. Since many of the Irish in the cities had formerly been rural dwellers and farmers, they found themselves at a disadvantage when competing for jobs with the more urbane Germans. By 1855, most of the Germans who had begun as common laborers had left those ranks. Even though the apex of their migration had occurred the previous year, they comprised only 5 per cent of the foreign-born labor force. The Irish, by contrast, amounted to 87 per cent of the total.20 Due to his heavy dependence upon construction work and reticence to leave the solace offered by urban society, the Irishman’s economic position remained tenuous throughout the period.

The Irish ran into great competition from Negroes when competing for service occupations. Because of the servile tradition which they had been forced to adopt on American soil, free Negroes who could gain work had gravitated into specialized service functions. By 1855, over half of the gainfully employed Negroes worked in service positions.21 To be sure, many Negroes could not find jobs, but those who could were often able to find preference over the Irishman for them. As coachmen, cooks, servants, and waiters, the Negroes traded on a historic reputation for docility. The Son of Erin, whose reputation was that of an uncouth, untamed, loutish, rebellious whiskey lover, was inevitably shown the door when asking for work. The Irish woman, however, was considered more tractable. In time, despite considerable anti-Irish sentiment, the Daughters of Erin found jobs as chambermaids, charwomen, cooks, housekeepers, laundresses, and slopwomen. The Irish husband often faced the frustrating proposition of no gainful employment for himself while his wife found plenty to keep her busy.

Mothers who had to struggle to support their families without male assistance fared even worse. The common laborer headed the list as parent of institutionalized children, but the washerwoman came in a close second. After these two came the skilled workers and service persons. Only one lawyer could be counted in any group of five-hundred parents; fellow professionals did not rank any higher.

A high incidence of working mothers who were the sole parent in the family existed among the Irish. Many had occupations where they could work at home. Besides washerwomen, cooks and domestic servants were also in great demand. These jobs did not call for a high order of skill and were expected to be in the repertory of any married woman. Because of the abundance of such positions, the Irish mother, if she had an older daughter to mind the young, might find it easier to manage things than her next door neighbor whose unemployed husband stayed home. For the mother with no employment, the almshouse eventually became her last resort.

In their search for some means to preserve what remained of their families, many immigrant mothers and fathers encouraged their older children to leave the home to help support the family. Not until the late 1840’s did the practice of children working and living away from home begin to decline. (See Table III, p. 190.) In many instances children lived with relatives or employers, but in some cases parents resided in prisons and almshouses while their children lived alone or roamed the streets. For the children, working meant additional unsettlement. Some children went continually from house to house and from job to job. One girl, for example, changed her situation over fifty times prior to coming to the Refuge.22 Thus, although families might be technically intact, children often received their guidance from someone else.

If the mother did not work, life might even be worse. The saga of an eleven-year-old boy named James illustrated the pattern of a youngster whose mother had chosen not to work and care for her children at the same time. His father was dead and his sister lived near the Bowery section of New York City. His “Mother lives, he knows not where,” wrote the Superintendent. He had been placed in an orphanage, but since he was regarded as “becoming thievish,” the orphanage officials had given up on him. They had turned him over to the police who in turn sent him to the Refuge.23 The circumstances of a young girl named Mary illustrated an even more wasted life. Mary’s father had died and her drunken mother had been shipped off to the Blackwell’s Island penitentiary. Later on, Mary died in childbirth at the almshouse.24

The dominant members in the community’s social structure tended to play a large role in defining the dependency of Irish families. In some cases it was indeed fortunate that they cared about children. Their seemingly abrasive actions, however, were taken because they often regarded poor children as a threat. Stephen Allen revealed his point of view when he noted that the “rising generation of the poor” constituted a menace to the republic.25 At other times, this elitist view of Irish families often took on overtones of cultural stereotyping. One of the Refuge superintendents, for example, accounted for a boy’s delinquency because “the lad’s parents are Irish and intemperate and that tells the whole story”; an Irish immigrant’s son could only be, at best, a poor risk.

The prevalence of such prejudgment on the part of the ruling class and its various subordinates led to early police apprehension of Irish youths. The case of two young boys who were imprisoned for filching a two-penny copy of the New York Herald illustrated the over-selection policy practiced throughout the police system. The fact that the two boys were young and had had no prior contact with the police was given little attention; if they were Irish, their home must be innately deficient.26 Any well-run institution, officials argued, provided a better home for such potentially dangerous youth. Those who ran the institutions engaged in a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, and intake procedures reinforced their prejudices concerning the Irish.

Little dialogue existed between organizations and the immigrant. The police and the Manager of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, for example, did not know the immigrant—the immigrant was ignorant of their whole mode of living, and they knew little of his. To him, they represented a real threat. Although they seemed to be able to circumscribe his actions, the Irishman saw no way in which he could influence the decisions of the Anglo-American elite. To some extent, his experience in Ireland seemed on the point of duplication in the United States.

The image which the largely Anglo-American leaders of New York City seemed to hold concerning Irish parents was that of slatterns and drunken hell-raisers. The authorities and the dominant ethnic group, somewhat dismayed at the thought of increased Irish influence, probably had little desire to see “Paddy Murphy” in any other light. To have argued that the Irishman was equal in ability to “Native Americans” would have been to point out that he had been somehow treated unfairly. Few chose this avenue of explanation. A far easier path lay in the direction of stereotyping the Irish family itself, since if it could be proven deficient, factors such as immigration and intemperance could be blamed for rising crime rates and increased pauperism.

No one seemed willing to point out that the pace of social and economic change in America had been tremendous. Even native-born families felt the brunt of rapid change. Stephen Allen and his colleagues, despite their limitations, saw the relationship between family disruption and immigration. For them, immigration was a causal factor of delinquency, and they sought to make it pay for supporting their institution. They did not, however, go the last mile with the Irishman. Although men such as Allen could see immigration as a debilitating and destructive experience, they would not go on to say that the United States used the Irishman badly. They would not acknowledge that life in the new land tended to eliminate past patterns of existence and rip apart old values. Instead, the leaders of the community defined the Irish family as chaotic and disorganized.

To be sure, the Irishman fled to crime-ridden slums such as those identified by Charles Dickens and others. This should not have been surprising. If no means of survival other than crime seemed plausible for the immigrant, it should have been understandable. Survival had already cost him much of his pleasant tradition, and all along the route others had stolen his savings and assaulted his body and soul. Arriving in the United States, he received several more disappointments—only the strong or the devious seemed to endure. To some extent, the ways of his Celtic ancestors might prove necessary to survival, and if by turning to crime and violence he had inconvenienced the more privileged members of New World society, the Irish immigrant scarcely cared. He knew that the dominant elements in society hated his religion. He knew that other groups despised his cheap labor. Often, the only way out seemed to be the bottle or the club.

Time and a growing concern for the welfare of the unfortunate would ease the lot of stricken Irish families. As they gradually gained political power through groups such as Tammany Hall, and as the fear of Anglo-Saxon Protestants subsided, the Irish fared better. Protective associations formed to assist dependent families and the Irishman could even hear of the achievements of his fellow countrymen. Also, as the Irishman adopted the strategy of intermarrying with a higher group, his position became enhanced. Social and religious animosities began to diminish. The Irish even began to see others take their place in the reformatories and poor houses of nineteenth-century America. Instead of the Irish, Italians, then Puerto Ricans, and Southern Negroes became defined as dangerous deviants, and other ethnic groups also came to be referred to as “disorganized families.” The Irishman, with almost a sense of smugness, blended into the populace; others who resembled him in their impoverished rural background now felt the brunt of exploitations and prejudice. By the mid-twentieth century, Irishmen would hold positions of power and privilege. Although a few jokes about shanty Irishmen and whiskey would still linger on, the Irishman no longer would have to be ashamed of his heritage. He could hold his heritage high as an example of the virtues of cultural pluralism in American society. Few employers would now say, as they once had, “No Irish need apply.” Neither could the Irish-American’s family life be described, whether or not both parents were present, as innately deficient. Nor would his children be likely to be picked up by police—after all, the Irish had become the chief ethnic group in the police force. As the burden of social stigma fell from his shoulders, the Irishman became a free man.

Community leaders did not spend all of their time inveighing against immigrant paupers. Men such as Stephen Allen frequently expressed concern over immigration, but often spent more time decrying the moral decline of their city. Even though Asa Greene, who wrote a book on New York City in 1837, might say that New York was “essentially a devout community,” Allen and others did not really think so. To them, immorality and vice, in the form of liquor and a host of other sinful substances, were winning the battle for men s souls in New York City. They agreed more with Greene when he remarked that there were many citizens who “seem to think of little else in the world but theatricals.”27 During the same year in which Greene described the behavior of theater-crazed New Yorkers, the officials of the House of Refuge took an informal census of inmates; they found that theaters played a dominant role in the “depravity” of 59 out of 130 children committed to the Refuge.28 One young boy, for example, had sold his father s Bible in order to obtain money for theater tickets.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect for the city’s elite was that the theater appealed to their own offspring. A handsome boy named George, whose father was a highly respected judge, had defected from his class by hiring on as a “Supernumery” at theaters.29 George had since fallen in with thieves and vagrants, the Refuge Superintendent righteously observed.

Another youngster named Edward demonstrated even further the evil effects of the stage. The boy could read Latin and Greek with great skill, and algebra posed no problems, but the theater became his undoing.

When about 9 years of age, by the influence of another boy he was induc’d to go to the Theatre & to raise the means he sold two of his School books. His thirst for this amusement became so strong that no opportunity was miss’d to go to the theatre, from that day to this, which has been his bane. —If he could not raise means fairly, he would by selling his, or his Father’s books—sell his Mother’s silver spoons, or something of the kind, to that extent, that the family had to lock up such articles as they thought it likely he would lay his hands upon—Once after returning from school he felt an inclination to sport pretty high—he having rising $30 in the Bank of Savings—watched an opportunity when his fathers desk was open—got his book—drew his money—purched [sic] a watch.30

When Edward’s father found out about the act, he tried to punish the boy, but it came to nothing. Using his father’s name, Edward even tried to get money away from the Church treasurer. “Thinking the boy must be crazy,” Edward’s father sent him to the Insane Asylum, where he remained for six weeks. Then, the father withdrew Edward and sent him to Brown University. He hoped that “the strict discipline” of Brown might alter his son’s errant ways. Nothing worked. The father would place Edward out as an apprentice, but the boy would quit and return to his old practices. Superintendent Hart of the House of Refuge advised the father to send him into the Navy. Once in, the youngster begged his father to get him out. Hart counseled against it. The rigors of sea life would, in his mind, do the rascal some good. But Edward seemed to be beyond help. On January 10, 1844, the Superintendent registered the last entry beside Number 827. “This day we see by the Public Prints, this poor fellow probably through an opiate closed his career in the city of Newark, New Jersey.”

In the case of females, the managers of the House of Refuge argued that the “relish for the amusements of the theater” created greater havoc than with boys. Tempted by the low price of admission and the seductive atmosphere, and urged on by the example of licentious and gay young women whom they saw on the arms of fashionable lovers, impressionable girls often succumbed to the wiles of the easy life. The managers of the House of Refuge, representing what they felt to be the appropriate moral stance, took a firm position on theaters. If the citizenry intended to be so lax as to allow theaters to exist, they should at least see to it that theaters paid for a portion of the damage which the managers felt they inflicted upon society. The managers wanted to see an amendment enacted “whereby a civil suit might be commenced against the managers and proprietors of theatres, in the name of the Treasurer of the House of Refuge.”31

European travelers such as Mrs. Frances Trollope, who had lauded New York City for its beauty, could not understand why the leaders of the community fulminated so over the subject of theaters. She finally decided that it was a matter of misguided morality: religious enthusiasm and narrow provincialism combined to freeze out cultural activities. Mrs. Trollope visited the Refuge in 1830 and praised its managers for their farsighted program. She did not realize, however, that the tendency of Americans to link theaters with immorality and vice helped to provide financial support for the Refuge program. Although Mrs. Trollope might have had cultural scruples had she known about the connection, the managers were glad to take the money. They drove a shrewd bargain. The keepers of dram shops, houses of prostitution, pawn brokerages, and theaters as well, would eventually be expected to pay for their transgressions by supporting the Refuge. The managers even suggested that public policy would require an extension of this principle in compelling the other sources of moral depravity to make similar contributions.

Charles Dickens and Mrs. Trollope did not think much of the behavior of American reformers. The fervor with which Americans attacked “vice” in any form alarmed European travelers. Yet, there was a sense in which men such as Stephen Allen and his fellow managers at the New York House of Refuge represented a distinct and essential ingredient in American life. Without them, the costs of rapid American expansion and industrialization would have been far greater in terms of human lives. To be sure, their motives were often misguided by a warped and pious paternalism. Also, men such as Allen did not realize the degree to which they themselves were responsible for human suffering. But their activity paved the way for a more humane response to the problems rapidly emerging in the new nation. Unlike many others, who lived during the period following the War of 1812, the founding fathers of the Refuge movement felt that the state had a responsibility to the casualties of social and economic change. The activities of the Refuge reformers represented a further extension of the forces set loose by the American Revolution. To some extent, they could be said to embody many of the characteristics of the dominant reform ideology in the antebellum period.

Additional Information

ISBN
9781684450084
Related ISBN
9780815627364
MARC Record
OCLC
1055851740
Pages
1-20
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-07
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-ND
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