Photo Of The Day

Bandit's Roost, located in the notorious Mulberry Bend fifty-seven years after "Petition to Have the Five Points Opened," in 1831. Picture by Jacob Riis, 1888.

Bandit’s Roost, located in the notorious Mulberry Bend fifty-seven years after “Petition to Have the Five Points Opened,” in 1831. Picture by Jacob Riis, 1888.

How the Other Half Lived

Round Mulberry Bend …

In the old-timey days of New York’s Lower-East Side ‘down near what is now Federal Plaza, Mulberry Street used to bend leading you directly into the depths of the Five Points. Well-to-do city folk considered “the bend” to be the cut off, or point of no return as it were since beyond that elbow in the street a man might expect to lose much more than a pitiful rookerful of change.

During the mid-to-late 1800s, New York City was rocked by an epidemic of gang violence. Crime was especially rampant in Manhattan neighbourhoods like Five Points, Hell’s Kitchen, the Fourth Ward and the Bowery, where back alleys and tenements became infested with thieves, hustlers and street thugs. These groups trafficked in everything from robbery and prostitution to murder, and their names could strike fear into the hearts of even the most crime-hardened city dwellers. From river pirates to knife-wielding adolescents, get the facts on seven of 19th century New York’s most notorious street gangs.
There was ‘an unparalleled era of wickedness” in the last 25 years of the 19th Century, as ragtag street gangs matured into organized criminal enterprises. One was based in the teeming Five Points neighbourhood on Mulberry Bend — the same area that later became the Mafia’s haunt on Mulberry Street.

At Five Points’ “height,” only certain areas of London’s East End vied with it in the western world for sheer population density, disease, infant and child mortality, unemployment, prostitution, violent crime, and other classic ills of the urban destitute.

Five Points is alleged to have sustained the highest murder rate of any slum in the world. According to an old New York urban legend, the Old Brewery, an overcrowded tenement on Cross Street housing 1,000 poor, is said to have had a murder a night for 15 years, until its demolition in 1852.

Lower Manhattan’s district was a wretched place in pre–Civil War New York. As if poverty and disease weren’t bad enough, powerful gangs—backed by local politicians and ignored by a disorganized police department—ruled the neighbourhood.

Such a heavy gang presence meant that violence was a normal part of life. But the Great Gang Fight—also known as the Dead Rabbits Riot—that broke out on July 4, 1857 was something else.

That evening, groups of Five Points gangs, such as the Dead Rabbits and Plug Uglies, invaded a nearby Bowery Boys clubhouse. A vicious brawl with other street gangs continued the next day. About 1,000 gang members armed with paving stones, axes, and other weapons fought along Bayard Street between Baxter and the Bowery (as seen in the illustration below). Other thieves joined in, looting houses and keeping the police at bay.

A view of a fight between two gangs, the "Dead Rabbits" and the "Bowery Boys" in the Sixth Ward, New York City.

A view of a fight between two gangs, the “Dead Rabbits” and the “Bowery Boys” in the Sixth Ward, New York City.

The Dead Rabbits was a crew of Irish immigrants was one of the most feared gangs to emerge from Five Points, so named for its location at the intersection of five crooked, narrow, downtown streets. Throughout the 1850s, the Dead Rabbits excelled at robbery, pick-pocketing and brawling—particularly with their sworn enemies, the Bowery Boys. The group was made up mostly of young men, but it wasn’t unheard of for women to join in on the violence. According to legend, one of the most feared Dead Rabbits was “Hell-Cat Maggie,” a woman who reportedly filed her teeth to points and wore brass fingernails into battle. While the Rabbits mostly dabbled in petty crime, they were also famous for the event when one of their street fights with the Bowery Boys turned into a bloody riot.

The Dead Rabbits supposedly began as an offshoot of another gang called the Roach Guards, but some historians have suggested the two were actually one and the same. In fact, one popular theory argues that the term “dead rabbit” was simply a pejorative used by the Bowery Boys and the New York press in reference to members of the Roach Guards and other Five Points gangs.

Brick-bats, stones and clubs were flying thickly around, and from the windows in all directions, and the men ran wildly about brandishing firearms. Wounded men lay on the sidewalks and were trampled upon. Now the Rabbits would make a combined rush and force their antagonists up Bayard street to the Bowery. Then the fugitives, being reinforced, would turn on their pursuers and compel a retreat to Mulberry, Elizabeth and Baxter streets.

The New York Times, July 6, 1857.

Taking advantage of the disorganized state of the city’s police force, brought about by the conflict between the Municipal and Metropolitan police, the fighting would spiral into widespread looting and damage of property by gangsters and other criminals from all parts of the city. It was the largest disturbance since the Astor Place Riot in 1849, and the biggest scene of gang violence, unsurpassed until the 1863 draft riots. Order was only restored by the New York State Militia, supported by detachments of city police, under Major-General Charles W. Sandford. Twelve people were reported killed and more than 100 people were seriously injured.

Three young street arabs huddle together for warmth in an areaway, Mulberry St, New York.Photo by Jacob A Riis/Getty Images.

Three young street arabs huddle together for warmth in an areaway, Mulberry St, New York. Photo by Jacob A Riis/Getty Images.

Photographer/police blotter, Jacob Riis became obsessed with the terror and inhumanity that swarmed below the Mulberry Bend. The Five Points was said to be the deadliest intersection in the world. Riis, an immigrant and well on his way to becoming self-made, championed the cause of eradicating the Mulberry Bend.

In the last decades of the 19th century, lower Manhattan was a densely packed collection of slums. With waves of immigrants entering the city and land at a premium, landlords bought up buildings and subdivided them into ever smaller partitions, housing dozens of people together in squalid, dark, unventilated rooms. Buildings often covered 90% of a standard 25-by-100-foot lot, with windows and ventilation only at the front and back.

The Tenement House Acts of 1867 and 1879 attempted to impose standards of safety, ventilation and health on dwellings, which eventually led to the adaptation of a “dumbbell” design, where a narrow central shaft provided light and ventilation to the interiors of tenements.

Riis, a Danish-born immigrant who had spent periods of his life in utter destitution, was working as a police reporter in lower Manhattan, and wanted to find a way to better represent the squalor and abject poverty of the people and environments he encountered.

When  Riis, began his personal campaign to expose the misery of the underprivileged living in the crime-infested slums of the lower East side, he soon found that the printed word was not sufficiently convincing, and so he turned to photography by flashlight.

In 1888 the New York Sun published twelve drawings from his photographs with an article headlined “Flashes from the Slums” and told how “a mysterious party has lately been startling the town o’ nights. Somnolent policemen on the street, denizens of the dives in their dens, tramps and bummers in their so-called lodgings, and all the people of the wild and wonderful variety of New York night life have in their turn marvelled at and been frightened by the phenomenon.” What they saw was three or four figures in the gloom, a ghostly tripod, some weird and uncanny movements, the blinding flash, and then they heard the patter of retreating footsteps and the mysterious visitors were gone before they could collect their scattered thoughts and try to find out what it was all about.

The intruders were Riis, two amateur photographers, Henry G. Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence (members, be it noted, of the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York), and Dr. John T. Nagle of the Health Board. Their purpose, Riis stated, was to make a collection of views for lantern slides to show “as no mere description could, the misery and vice that he had noticed in his ten years of experience … and suggest the direction in which good might be done.”

In the 1880s facsimile reproduction techniques had not reached the point at which photographs could be printed in newspapers, and the column-wide drawings accompanying the article were not convincing. When Riis’s famous book How the Other Half Lives was published in 1890, seventeen of the illustrations were halftones, but of poor quality, lacking detail and sharpness. The remaining nineteen photographs were shown in drawings made from them: some of them are signed “Kenyon Cox, 1889, after photograph.”

The result was that the photographic work of Jacob Riis was overlooked until 1947, when Alexander Alland, himself a photographer, made excellent enlargements from the original glass negatives that the Museum of the City of New York, through his efforts, had acquired. The exhibition held by the Museum, and the subsequent publication of some of the best of the prints in U,S. Camera 1948, revealed Riis as a photographer of importance.

The photographs are direct and penetrating, as raw as the sordid scenes that they so often represent. Riis unerringly chose the camera stance that would most effectively tell the story. There are glimpses in his second book,Children of the Poor, of his experiences:

Yet even from Hell’s Kitchen had I not long before been driven forth with my camera by a band of angry women, who pelted me with brickbats and stones on my retreat, shouting at me never to come back…. The children know generally what they want and they go for it by the shortest cut. I found that out, whether I had flowers to give or pictures to take. . . Their determination to be “took” the moment the camera hove into sight, in the most striking pose they could hastily devise, was always the most formidable bar to success I met.”

Riis and his companions were among the first in America to use Blitzlichtpulver – flashlight powder – invented in Germany in 1887 by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke. Piffard had modified the German formula, which he had found extremely dangerous; lye sprinkled guncotton with twice its weight of magnesium powder on a metal tray and ignited the mixture.

Because it burned instantaneously – in a flash – it was an improvement over the magnesium flare, with its several seconds duration, which O’Sullivan had used in the Comstock Lode mines. Riis succeeded in its use; the blinding flash reveals with pitiless detail the sordid interiors, but deals almost tenderly with the faces of those whose lot it was to live within them.

He was always sympathetic to people, whether he was photographing street Arabs stealing in the street from a handcart, or the inhabitants of the alley known as Bandits’ Roost peering  consciously at the camera from doorways and stoops and windows. The importance of these photographs lies in their power not only to inform, but to move us. They are at once interpretations and records; although they are no longer topical, they contain qualities that will last as long as man is concerned with his brother.

“Five Cent a Spot” Unauthorized Lodgings in a Bayard Street Tenement. Photo: Jacob Riis.

“Five Cent a Spot” Unauthorized Lodgings in a Bayard Street Tenement. Photo: Jacob Riis.

“Elizabeth Street Police Station-Womans Lodgers.” Photo: Jacob Riis.

“Elizabeth Street Police Station-Womans Lodgers.” Photo: Jacob Riis.

“A Class in the Condemned Essex Market School, With the Gas Burning by Day.” Photo: Jacob Riis.

“A Class in the Condemned Essex Market School, With the Gas Burning by Day.” Photo: Jacob Riis.

Group of Men. New York. Photo: Jacob Riis

Group of Men. New York. Photo: Jacob Riis

Hell on Earth. Photo: Jacob Riis

Hell on Earth. Photo: Jacob Riis

“Bohemian Cigarmakers at work in their Tenement.” Photo: Jacob Riis

“Bohemian Cigarmakers at work in their Tenement.” Photo: Jacob Riis

In Poverty Gap, an English Coal-Heaver`s Home. Photo: Jacob Riis

In Poverty Gap, an English Coal-Heaver`s Home. Photo: Jacob Riis

Baxter Street in Mulberry Bend. Photo: Jacob Riis.

Baxter Street in Mulberry Bend. Photo: Jacob Riis.

Tenement Yard, How the Other Half Lives. Photo: Jacob Riis

Tenement Yard, How the Other Half Lives. Photo: Jacob Riis

“Mulberry Bend.” Photo: Jacob Riis

“Mulberry Bend.” Photo: Jacob Riis

Talmud School in Hester Street. Photo: Jacob Riis

Talmud School in Hester Street. Photo: Jacob Riis

“Shoemaker Working in a house in the Yard of 219 Broome Street, Which the Landlord Built When the Sanitary Police Put him out of the Basement. Clatterpol Sticks Up Through his House. Rent $ 12 a Month.” Photo: Jacob Riis

“Shoemaker Working in a house in the Yard of 219 Broome Street, Which the Landlord Built When the Sanitary Police Put him out of the Basement. Clatterpol Sticks Up Through his House. Rent $ 12 a Month.” Photo: Jacob Riis

“Home of an Italian Ragpicker.” Photo: Jacob Riis

“Home of an Italian Ragpicker.” Photo: Jacob Riis

“One of four Pedlars Who Slept in the Celler of 11 Ludlow Street Rear.” Photo: Jacob Riis.

“One of four Pedlars Who Slept in the Celler of 11 Ludlow Street Rear.” Photo: Jacob Riis.

Mulberry Bend – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Mulberry Bend | Atlas Obscura

BANDITS’ ROOST, NYC | AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON …

Mulberry Bend – History Of Mulberry Bend – Mulberry Bend Music

Masters of Photography: Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, Knee-Pants at Forty-Five Ce

 


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  • Brian Smaller

    Funnily I just watched a BBC America mini-series called “Copper” set in Five Points in 1864/65. I quite enjoyed it. Worth watching if you like cop shows, period pieces and mayhem.

  • cows4me

    Now that’s real poverty.

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