Nicholas: Report on the Five Points
The Five Points is a neighborhood in New York that was the shock slum of antebellum America. The neighborhood epitomized the licentiousness, intemperance, and godlessness that antebellum reformers were trying to eliminate. Gregory Christiano’s article, “Where ‘The Gangs’ Lived” affirms that the name Five Points evokes images of “poverty, rampant crime, decadence and despair .” According to Christiano, the Five Points was a geographical cancer due to its dilapidated and unlivable housing, gang extortion, corrupt politicians, and houses of prostitution, gambling, and drunkenness.
Christiano goes on to describe the location of the Give Points. The district that the Five Points was located was known as the Sixth Ward. The Five Points was named in the 1830’s based on the fact that it was a convergence of five streets: Mulberry, Anthony (now Worth), Cross (now Park), Orange (now Baxter), and Little Walter Street, which no longer exists. The neighborhood was built on top of old Collect Pond and was surrounded by swampland. In the 1820’s, the landfill began to decay and the area became infested with mosquitos and disease. Residents that remained in the area were impoverished people who were victims of slumlords, gangs, and corrupt politicians who lobbied for votes.
The relationship between the Irish and African Americans as described by Christiano is interesting. The two groups would meet in the many dancehalls in the area and the combination of the Irish jig and African-American shuffle created Tap Dancing. In America, such concepts of Tap Dancing, ballot-box stuffing, and stealing elections began in the Five Points. In the 1850’s, Protestant religions sects attempted to clean up the area and by 1860, violence had decreased. Furthermore, also in 1860, President Lincoln visited the area and reluctantly gave a speech to school children. Both Lincoln and Charles Dickens, who visited earlier, were appalled at the poverty and terrible living conditions of the Five Points. Nonetheless, with the influx of Italian and Chinese immigrants, conditions crumbled in the 1880’s. Interestingly enough, Christiano affirms that multi-ethnic America was born out of the Five Points slum although no one respectable came from the Five Points.
In his semi-annual report, Chief of Police, Geo. W. Matstell wrote that, “In connection with this report, I deem it the duty, to call the attention of your Honor to the deplorable and growing evil which exists amid this community, and which is spread over the principal business parts of the city. It is an evil and a reproach to our municipality, for which laws and ordinances afford no adequate remedy.” According to Matsell, citizens of the Five Points can be divided into five categories:
1.) Those who congregate around piers where merchandise is handled – they steal
large quantities of cotton, sugar, spirits, coffee, teas, etc.
2.) Youthful vagrants who are “crossings sweepers.” They are clothed in filthy
clothes and often look like innocent children from impoverished families. They
retrieve money from citizens and use the money at night for drinking, at the
theaters, or other acts of debauchery.
3.) Girls of tender age who are dressed neatly and moderately. They sell fruits, socks,
etc. and use the sales to gain access to various places where they submit their
persons for the miserable bribe of a few shillings. They money is given to the
parents who fully know what their child sacrificed in order to get that money.
4.) Boys who are “Baggage Smashers.” They congregate around places where
parcels arrive and steal when they have the opportunity.
5.) Boys who have homes and come from respectable parents but fall into a life of
criminal carelessness, fighting, wrangling, and other propensities.
The following is a copy of the map of the Five Points area:
* The Five Points intersection.
- The Old Brewery. It was torn down in 1852, and replaced by the Five Points Mission in 1853. The triangle across the street is Paradise Square.
- St. Philips African Episcopal Church, destroyed in the riots of 1834.
- African Society for Mutual Relief.
- 65 Mott St, location of the first NYC tenement in 1827.
- Chatham Square. Used as a huge open air market up until 1820.
- The Tombs prison, erected 1838.
- Five Points House of Industry, built 1856.
- The Bowery Theatre.
- Cow Bay.
- Mulberry Bend. It was considered one of the worst slums in NYC. The entire block was demolished in 1896 and turned into a park.
- Bottle Alley, and
- Bandit's Roost were two of the many alleyways inside the Mulberry Bend.
- The Tea Water Pump was a natural spring fed well that supplied much of Manhattan with water up until the end of the 18th century. NYC would be without a reliable water supply until 1842 with the opening of the Croton Aqueduct.
In the brief commentary "The Five Points" by Gregory Christiano, he explains the five points in New York over the course of the 19th Century. He says that the name itself "evokes images of poverty, rampant crime, decadence, and despair". He says that this area was a "lurid geographical cancer" that was filled with "dilapidated and unlivable tenement houses, gang extortion, corrupt politicians, houses of ill-repute and drunkeness and gambling". Every type of crime flourshed here, over the span of many decades throughout the 19th century. In New York, this area called the Five Points was known as the Sixth Ward, where the ground structure of there area was not suitable to build tall structures because of the lack of bedrock underground. The land caused the wood framed houses to sink, and the area became one infected with mosquitos and diseases. Most residents left, but those who stayed because they couldnt afford to leave or otherwise became "impoverished" and "victims of slum lords, gangs, and ruthless politicians looking for easy votes". There was no personal safety, because getting robbed or worse was a very common event.
It was very common for large buildings to become converted into apartment houses. "The floors were partitioned into small flats, and rented to poor and seedy characters. Each room had whole families, cooking, eating, and sleeping in this one room. It was a ghastly sight with squalid living conditions. The same situation prevailed throughout the district – the lower floors usually for drinking, dancing, gambling, and riotous behavior. Many people were robbed, beaten or shanghaied. In the cellars (they were called “cellar dwellers”) were the “oyster saloons,” which were kept open all night luring fresh, unsuspecting victims. This neighborhood was a dangerous place to live in and visit." Many dancehalls brough Irish and African Americans together, creating a combination of an Irish jig with the African American shuffle. This is known as tap dancing, which became a popular trend and has been forever put into American culture.
In 1842 Charles Dickens wrote--
"This is the place, these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?"
In "1857-- A Year to be Forgotten", the author begins by saying : A year best forgotten because of its painful consequences. Not only were the two police forces battling each other, gang warfare broke out in July. Police battled police, police battled gangs, gangs battled gangs, and gangs attacked pedestrians, shopkeepers and residents. It was an incredible scene of mayhem and unrest. The author then goes on to explain one of the big gang riots that had taken place:
"On the Fourth of July (just two days after the Municipal Police Force was disbanded ), the Dead Rabbits, Plug Uglies and other minor gangs from the Five Points banded together to do battle with their arch rivals, the Bowery Boys. They attacked the Bowery Boys’ headquarters using every weapon at their disposal – knives, pistols, clubs, iron bars. The battle raged along Bayard Street – it was a desperate free-for-all. The Metropolitans tried to intervene but were beaten off.
The bloodshed continued unabated spreading to Mulberry, Elizabeth and Baxter Streets. While this was going on and the police were distracted, other gangs found this to be a golden opportunity to loot and pillage the neighborhoods. Shopkeepers, pedestrians, and residents were all fair game. The pedestrians were most vulnerable. The storeowners and residents barricaded themselves in their buildings employing shotguns, pistols, brick-bats or any other weapon to protect themselves. It was total anarchy run rampant!
The police made another fruitless attempt to clear the streets, sometimes driving the thugs into buildings, up to rooftops, into back alleys. One criminal fell off a roof, or was pushed, and fell to his death. Some were trampled by the cops, but the police were forced to retreat with only a few prisoners. It was a pathetic scene. Subsequently, three regiments of militia were ordered to restore order, which they did and by July 5th regained control of the streets. Some isolated fighting continued for a week afterwards, but the rioting was essentially over.
There was a public outcry over this utter chaos. Both the Metropolitan and the defunct Municipals filed suit against Mayor Wood for the city riot. A judgment was awarded and the Mayor had to pay $250, but never did pay it! The number of dead will never be known. Gang members buried many of their dead in secret."
Over the decades, the neighborhood changed a bit. It was extremely bad in 1830s-40s, and by 1860 the Five points were less violent but still bad. It was so bad in fact, that people like Abraham Lincoln and Charles Dickens were appalled at the poverty and the horrible living conditions. Conditions improved until the 1880s, but crumbled again with the large number of Italian and Chinese immigrants. By 1897, the houses were demolished and District Six took on a brand new look. "To many uptown New Yorkers no one was “respectable” that came from the Five Points. But multi-ethnic America was borne out of that slum."
The Five Points section of New York City was the epitome of crime, and poverty of the 19th century. All buildings were run down, families would live in one room germ-infested apartments, stealing was a way of life, and the people of this area struggled to live day to day. Prostitution, gambling, drinking, and gang life was a norm at the Five Points area between the 1830’s up till the turn of the century. With the increase of immigrants from Europe the Five Points area became a crossroad for many different nationalities leading to racism and gang life. Most children did not work and were forced to steal and become prostitutes to try and help their families to survive.
The Five Points was a slum that was infested with trash, pigs to eat the trash, corrupt politicians, and many poor people with a sad story to tell. People of the day would be drawn to the Five Points and they would become hooked on the drinking, gambling, and prostitution life style. Many respectable people would lose themselves in the Five Points and throw their lives and family away. Many married men would cheat on their wives and drink the nights away.
The children of the Five Points were forced to do whatever they could to survive and help their family survive in the hostile lifestyle that was the Five Points. Children could be placed in five categories: the first was the dock stealers, kids would work down by the docks and would grab whatever they could get their hands on taking a little at a time so the missing goods could not be detected. The second group was the “crossing sweepers”; these children would go around the Five Points each day stealing and begging for their family. The third category was mostly young girls who would sell things like fruit, socks, and toothpicks so that they could sell their bodies only to bring home two to three dollars for the family. The fourth group was called “baggage smashers”; these kids would hang out around the docks or train stations waiting for people to leave their bags unattended and swipe them when the moment was right. The final group was boys who rebelled against their family and would hang out in the Five Points looting and reeking havoc amongst the community. Parents knew about the lifestyle their children were living and they encouraged it because they had no choice; life was about survival in the Five Points.
It is estimated that 2,955 children can be categorized in one of these five and none of them attend school at this time of the 19th century. “Two thirds are females, between eight and sixteen years of age. The estimates, I believe, to be far short of the number actually thus engaged.” I find this number to be astonishing and it goes to show exactly how hard life was for these people in this time period. It also makes me realize that these children had no chance to get out of this lifestyle, none were educated and they were going to be struggling for money their entire lives, this is all they know of life. It makes you think how tough life must have been that the parents of these children condoned the activity of their children. The Five Points seems to be a place that a person can easily become trapped in the awful struggling lifestyle because of all the temptations the place offers. It goes to show how easy it is to throw ones life away just by reading the story of Gough, how he went on a week long binge of gambling, drinking, and sex when he had a family worried about him at home, and that is only one story from the Five Points.
In a way the Five Points reminds me of a more run down crime infested Las Vegas. Both places offer the same temptations that people have to deal with, and many people today find themselves losing it all in Las Vegas throwing their lives away. However the Five Points is also a slum in the middle of New York where extremely poor people struggle to make ends meat. These people are forced to live a life of crime just to survive.
People of the Five Points was a mixture of many races and this fact seemed to add more to the Five Points causing gang life between the races. The gang life was just another thing to pile on top of the many things wrong with life on the streets of the Five Points. Between the gambling, prostitution, drinking, looting, children not in school, and corrupt politicians the Five Points was not a place you would want to find yourself the 19th century with many of its temptations and poor lifestyle the people of the Five Points were doomed from the day they were born into the lifestyle they would never have a chance to work their way out of that lifestyle, it would be all they would know of life.
“Astounding as it may seem, there are many hundreds of parents in this city who absolutely drive their offspring forth to practices of theft and semi-bestiality, that they themselves may live lazily on the means thus secured. Selling the very bodies and souls of those in whom their own blood circulates, for the means of dissipation and debauchery.”
“First, Those who congregate around the piers, &c., where merchandize is chiefly landed. Cunning and adroit in these operations, they daily pilfer immense quantities of cotton, sugar, spirits, coffee, teas, &c, from the bales, hogsheads, casks, bags, chests, &c,, with which the wharves are generally more or less loaded, and in the absence of other articles of plunder, they wrench the knobs from the doors, steal building hardware from unfinished buildings, lead and copper pipe, and even tin roofing.”
“To guard all the property exposed along our docks would require a policeman upon each pier in the lower wards, a disposition of the force which the present state of the department will in no wise warrant, and which indeed would not, in my opinion, be advisable under any circumstances.”
“The second class of youthful vagrants are the "crossings sweepers." They are entirely different from those first mentioned, and in regard to moral degradation, they occupy a still lower position. Clothed in rags, filthy in the extreme, both in person and in language, it is humiliating to be compelled to recognize them as a part and portion of the human family.”
“The third class are also sufficiently well marked to present distinctive features. They likewise, are mostly girls of tender years, and frequently neatly dressed and modest looking. Their ostensible business is the sale of fruits, socks, toothpicks, &c., and with this ruse they gain ready access to countingrooms, offices and other places, where, in the secrecy and seclusion of a turned key, they submit their persons for the miserable bribe of a few shillings, to the most loathsome and degrading familiarities.”
“The fourth class are boys; they are termed "Baggage Smashers"; they congregate around steamboat landings and railroad depots, apparently for the purpose of carrying parcels, for persons arriving in the city. A large proportion of them have no homes whatever; they will not hesitate to steal when opportunity offers, and lead idle and dissolute lives, generally sleeping in the markets, under sheds, and occasionally in cheap lodgings, but the luxury of a bed, however, they seldom indulge in.”
“A fifth class consists of boys similar to those last mentioned, with this exception, they have homes, and many of them, are the children of respectable parents, but through a mistaken leniency, or a criminal carelessness, they are suffered to spend their evenings and sabbaths in small gatherings on the corners of the streets, annoying the neighborhood and passers by with their wrangling and fighting propensities, and with the most reckless oaths and blasphemies.”
“The name Five Points evokes images of poverty, rampant crime, decadence and despair. That’s true. The Five Points was a lurid geographical cancer filled with dilapidated and unlivable tenement houses, gang extortion, corrupt politicians, houses of ill-repute and drunkenness and gambling.”
“When the landfill started to decay in the 1820’s the wood frame houses began to tilt over and sink. It became infested with mosquitoes and disease; the decent residents moved out, those who remained became impoverished and victims of slum lords, gangs and ruthless politicians looking for easy votes.”