The Moral Geogaphy of the City


"The Points at Midnight," from George G. (Gaslight) Foster, New York by Gaslight (New York, 1850), No. VII.


Thomas Carlyle, the great Scotsman, looked up to the starry midnight and exclaimed with a groan, "Tis a sad sight!" What would have been his exclamation had he stood, reader, where you and I now stand--in the very center of the "Five Points,"--knowing the moral geography of the place,--and with that same midnight streaming its glories down upon his head! This is, indeed, a sad, an awful sight--a sight to make the blood slowly congeal and the heart to grow fearful and cease its beatings. Here, whence these streets diverge in dark and endless paths, whose steps take hold on hell--here is the very type and physical semblance, in fact, of hell itself. Moralists no longer entertain a doubt that the monster vice of humanity is licentiousness--the vice teeming with destruction and annihilation to the race itself--pervading all classes,--inextinguishable either by repressive laws or by considerations of personal safety.

The question how to recombine the elements of society so as to do away with this frightful evil, and thus at one blow abolish half the crime and horror of life, is not to be discussed in these pages--nor perhaps has the time yet arrived for discussing it at all. At any rate, before it is or can be profitably debated, we must be fully in possession of all the facts evolved from the present social relations, and must be enabled to view licentiousness and prostitution in all their aspects. It is mainly for this purpose that the present book is written: and to avoid the dryness of mere statistic or the tedious pomposity of a parliamentary report, we have chosen to throw the result of our observations into a series of pen and ink pictures, which will interest while they instruct.

So, then, we are standing at midnight in the center of the Five Points. Over our heads is a large gas-lamp, which throws a strong light for some distance around, over the scene where once complete darkness furnished almost absolute security and escape to the pursued thief and felon, familiar with every step and knowing the exits and entrances to every house. In those days an officer, even with the best intentions, was often baffled at the very moment when he thought he had his victim most secure. Some unexpected cellar-door, or some silent-sliding panel, would suddenly receive the fugitive and thwart the keenest pursuit. Now, however, the large lamp is kept constantly lighted, and a policeman stands ever sentinel to see that it is not extinguished. The existence of this single lamp has greatly improved the character of the whole location and increased the safety of going through the Points at night. Those, however, whose purposes are honest, had better walk a mile round the spot, on their way home, than cross through.

Opposite the lamp, eastwardly, is the "Old Brewery"--a building so often described that it has become as familiar as the Points themselves--in print. We will not, therefore, attempt another description of that which has already been so well depicted. The building was originally, previous to the city being built up so far, used as a brewery. But when the population increased and buildings, streets and squares grew up and spread all around it, the owner--shrewd man, and very respectable church deacon--found that he might make a much larger income from his brewery than by retaining it for the manufacture of malt liquor. It was accordingly floored and partitioned off into small apartments, and rented to persons of disreputable character and vile habits, who had found their inevitable way gradually from the 'Golden Gate of Hell,' through all the intermediate haunts of prostitution and drunkenness, down to this hell-like den--little less dark, gloomy and terrible than the grave itself, to which it is the prelude. Every room in every story has its separate family or occupant, renting by the week or month and paying in advance. In this one room, the cooking, eating and sleeping of the whole family, and their visitors, are performed. Yes--and their visitors: for it is no unusual thing for a mother and her two or three daughters--all of course prostitutes--to receive their "men" at the same time and in the same room--passing in and out and going through all the transactions of their hellish intercourse, with a sang froid at which devils would stand aghast and struck with horror.

All the houses in this vicinity, and for some considerable distance round--yes, every one--are of the same character, and are filled in precisely the same manner. The lower stories are usually occupied as drinking and dancing rooms; and here, soon as evening sets in, the inmates of the house, dressed in the most shocking immodesty, gather. The bar sends forth its poisonous stream--the door is flung wide open, if the weather will permit it; and the women, bare-headed, bare-armed and bare-bosomed, stand in the doorway or on the side-walk, inviting passers-by, indiscriminately, to enter, or exchanging oaths and obscenity with the inmates of the next house, similarly employed. The walkers in these haunts are mostly sailors, negroes and the worst of loafers and vagabonds, who are enticed and perhaps even dragged in by the painted Jezebels, made to "treat" and then invited to the dance--every room being provided with its fiddler, ready to tune up his villainous squeaking for sixpence a piece and a treat at the end of the figure. The liquor is of course of the most abominable description, poison and fire; and by the time the first dance is concluded, the visitor feels his blood on fire--all his brutal appetites are aroused, and he is ready for any thing. The first object is to produce stupefying intoxication. More drinking is proposed--then more dancing--then drink, and so on, until the poor victim loses what little human sense and precaution he is endowed withal, and hurries his partner off in a paroxysm of drunken lust. Of course if he has any money or valuables on his person he is completely robbed. If his clothes are decent they are stripped off him and a pair of tattered trousers put on, when he is kicked into the street by a back door, and found by the policemen just in time for the loafer's reveille at the Tombs, at day-light. Sometimes the victim is not quite so drunk as is supposed, and doesn't submit quietly to the touching operation. Another glass--or if he refuses, a good "punch" on the head--settles the question for him, with speediest logic, and the problem is solved at once.

In the cellars of these houses are the "oyster saloons," &c. &c. for the accommodation of thieves, burglars, low gamblers and vagabonds in general, who haunt these quarters, and whose "pals" are up-stairs carrying on the game of prostitution. They are usually kept open nearly all night, because the population forming the principal class of their customers burrow in their secret holes and dens all day, and only venture out at night. Indeed, this is mostly true of all the inhabitants in this region. They are the obscene night birds who flit and howl and hoot by night, and whose crimes and abominations make them shun the light of day--not merely because they fear detection, but because day is hateful to them. Dropping in from their expeditions of the night--some from picking pockets at the theatres, some from general prowling after what they can pick up about town, and others from more important and regularly-ordered expeditions of robbery or burglary or arson,--they recognize each other with a sullen nod or gather in noisy riot, as the humor takes them. If a stranger enter, they immediately reconnoiter, and if they conclude that he is worth picking, they immediately commence their game. The most usual one is to get up a pretending dispute and call upon the stranger to decide. Often card-tricks or thimbles are introduced, and the conspirators bet carelessly and largely against each other--pulling out and showing pocket-books well crammed with counterfeit or worthless bills. If the stranger is not fully aware of the character of those among whom he has fallen, he is a "goner." If none of the ordinary tricks will answer, as a last resource they get up a sham row and fight, in the course of which general scramble the pigeon is pretty sure of being plucked to the last feather, and most likely left bleeding and senseless in the street.

Leading off easterly from the big gas-lamp we have mentioned, is a little three-cornered piece of ground about the size of a village potato-patch, enclosed in whitewashed palings, containing half-a-dozen stunted trees. This is the "Regent's Park" of that neighborhood, and the walk by which it is surrounded is continually crowded in pleasant evenings by couples chaffering and carrying on their infamous bargains--reminding one of the reversal of rural life with all its innocent blandishments and moonlight love-walks beneath the whispering trees. Indeed throughout the entire realm of metropolitan degradation one is incessantly struck with the ghastly resemblances to the forms of virtue and purity, everywhere starting out before him. There is no virtue nor innocence of a beauteous life which is not reflected in the dark sea of licentiousness and dissipation--though in an inverted position, like the images of green shores and pleasant trees in the turbid waters of the wild-rolling river.

A few steps from the Points is a little alley terminating in a blind court or cul-de-sac, into which is constantly pouring a stream of mephitic air which never finds an outlet nor an escape, save into the lungs of those who inhale it. This alley is called "Cow Bay," and is chiefly celebrated in profane history as being the battle-field of the negroes and police. Of course the negroes form a large and rather controlling portion of the population of the Points, as they bear brutalization better than the whites, (probably from having been so long used to it!) and retain more consistency and force of character, amid all their filth and degradation. They manage, many of them, to become house-keepers and landlords, and in one way and another scrape together a good deal of money. They associate upon at least equal terms with the men and women of the parish, and many of them are regarded as desirable companions and lovers by the "girls." They most of them have either white wives or white mistresses, and sometimes both; and their influence in the community is commanding. But they are savage, sullen, reckless dogs, and are continually promoting some "muss" or other, which not unfrequently leads to absolute riot. Two memorable occasions, at least, have recently occurred in which "Cow Bay" was rendered classic ground by the set fights which took place within its purlieus between the police and the fighting-men among the Ethiopian tribes. Both commenced at dusk and lasted for over an hour,--giving occasion for the display of individual prowess and feats of arms before which the Chronicles of the veracious Froissart sink into insignificance. But as we do not aspire to the historian's bays, we must leave the details to the imagination of our readers, in the good old-fashioned way of those who attempt a description to which their powers are unequal. It is related, however, that the police were for a long time unable to make headway against the furious onslaught of the blacks, who received the official clubs so liberally rattled about their heads, without flinching, and returned the charge with stones and brickbats, so gallantly that several of the protectors of the city had already knocked under, and the whole body began actually to give way--when the renowned Captain Smith bethought him that Cuffee's tender point was not the head, but the SHIN. Passing the word in a whisper to his men to strike low, he himself aimed at the understandings of a gigantic negro who led the assault upon his wing, and brought him instantly, with a terrific yell of agony, to the ground. A shout of triumph, and a simultaneous movement of the police, as if they were mowing, soon decided the contest, and covered the shores and gutters of "Cow Bay" with the sprawling forms of the tender-shinned Africans. Once afterward the very same thing happened, with precisely similar results: and since, the woolly-heads are kept in tolerable subjection. If they ever become troublesome let but a policeman grasp his club tightly and take aim at the shins, and the ground is cleared in a twinkling.

Another peculiar and description-worthy feature of the Five Points are the "fences," or shops for the reception and purchase of stolen goods. These shops are of course kept entirely by Jews, and are situated in a row, in Orange street, near the Points. One who has never seen the squalid undercrust of a fine city would be at a loss to derive any adequate idea, even from the most graphic description, of the sort of building in which the great business of living and trafficking can be carried on. If the reader is a farmer, however, we shall succeed tolerably well in conveying some notion of what we mean. Let him imagine forty or fifty cow-sheds got together in line, furnished with dismal-looking little windows, half broken in and patched up with old newspapers--let him imagine half a hundred of these establishments, we say, standing in a row, with a dark paved street and an uneven narrow brick sidewalk in front, and he will not be far behind the reality of the place where we now stand.

These beggarly little shanties all have pretensions to being considered shops, and in each the front window is heaped up with an indiscriminate indescribableness of wares. Here is a drug-store, with a big bottle of scarlet water in the window, throwing a lurid glare out into the dark. The next is a clothing-store, another hardware, another gentlemen's furnishings, &c. &c. They are all, however, devoted to the one branch of trade, in all its varieties--the purchase of stolen goods. Whatever may be the sign in the window, the thief who has grabbed a watch, prigged a handkerchief or robbed a store, brings his booty confidently in and receives his money for it. Perhaps not at a very high figure--but then, you know "de peoplesh ish very poor in dis neighborhood, and we can't kif much--and besides we don't really want 'em at all." The felon, of course, anxious to have them off his hands, sells them at any price. Whatever may be the article purchased, the first care is naturally to destroy its identity, rub out its ear-marks, and thus prepare it against being claimed by the owner and the purchase of stolen goods fastened upon the "fence." If it is a coat or garment of any kind, the seams are carefully ripped open, the facings, linings, &c. &c. changed, and the whole hastily stitched together again and disposed to the best advantage on the shelves or in the window. If the article purchased is jewelry, it is immediately melted, and converted into bullion,--the precious stones, if there be any, carefully put aside. The most troublesome and dangerous articles are watches--and these the "fence" generally hesitates to have anything to do with, recommending his customer to the pawn-broker, who usually is not much less a rascal than himself. From particular customers, however, whose delicate organizations and long experience render them peculiarly successful in the watch business, the "fence" is willing to receive these dainty wares--although at a terrible sacrifice, and even then never keeping them on hand longer than is necessary to get safely to the pawn-broker's.

In the rear of each of these squalid shops is a wretched apartment or two, combining the various uses of sleeping, eating, cooking and living, with the other performances necessary for carrying on the operations of the front shop. They are generally densely inhabited--the descendants of Israel being as celebrated for fecundity as cats or Irish women. And here it is proper to state one of the most remarkable facts we have encountered in the course of our metropolitan investigations. However low the grade or wretched the habitation--and the latter are generally filthy to abomination--of the Jew, the race always retains the peculiar physical conformation constituting that peculiar style of beauty for which his tribe has been celebrated from remotest antiquity. The roundness and suppleness of limb, the elasticity of flesh, the glittering eye-sparkle--are as inevitable in Jew and Jewess, in whatever rank of existence, as the hook of the nose which betrays the Israelite as the human kite, formed to be feared, hated, and despised, yet to prey upon mankind.

We could not expect to convey any tolerable idea of the Five-Points were we to omit all attempt at describing one of their most remarkable and characteristic features--the great wholesale and retail establishment of Mr. Crown, situated on the corner opposite "Cow Bay." A visit of exploration through this place we regard as one of our most noteworthy experiences in life. The building itself is low and mean in appearance, although covering a good deal of ground. It contains three low stories--the upper one being devoted to the same species of life and traffic as all the other houses in the neighborhood. It is with the two lower stories, however, that we have at present to do--these being occupied as the store. The entrance is on both streets; and, although entirely unobstructed by any thing but the posts that sustain the walls above, it is not without difficulty that we effect an entrance, through the baskets, barrels, boxes, Irish women and sluttish house-keepers, white, black, yellow and brown, thickly crowding the walk, up to the very threshold--as if the store were too full of its commodities and customers, and some of them had tumbled and rolled out-doors. On either hand piles of cabbages, potatoes, squashes, egg-plants, tomatoes, turnips, eggs, dried apples, chestnuts and beans rise like miniature mountains round you. As the left hand as you enter is a row of little boxes, containing anthracite and charcoal, nails, plug-tobacco, &c. &c. which are dealt out in any quantity, from a bushel or a dollar to a cent's-worth. On a shelf near by is a pile of firewood, seven sticks for sixpence, or a cent apiece, and kindling-wood three sticks for two cents. Along the walls are ranged upright casks containing lamp-oil, molasses, rum, whiskey, brandy, and all sorts of cordials, (carefully manufactured in the back room, where a kettle and furnace, with all the necessary instruments for spiritual devilment, are provided for the purpose.) The cross-beams that support the ceiling are thickly hung with hams, tongues, sausages, strings of onions, and other light and airy articles, and at every step you tumble over a butter-firkin or a meal-bin. Across one end of the room runs a "long, low, black" counter, armed at either end with bottles of poisoned fire-water, doled out at three cents a glass to the loafers and bloated women who frequent the place--while the shelves behind are filled with an uncatalogueable jumble of candles, allspice, crackers, sugar and tea, pickles, ginger, mustard, and other kitchen necessaries. In the opposite corner is a shorter counter filled with three-cent pies, mince, apple, pumpkin and custard--all kept smoking hot--where you can get a cup of coffee with plenty of milk and sugar, for the same price, and buy a hat-full of "Americans with Spanish wrappers" for a penny.

Groping our way through the back room where the furnace and other machineries are kept--and which may be appropriately termed the laboratory of the concern--we mount a short ladder, and squeeze our way amid piles of drying tobacco, cigar-boxes, tubs, buckets, bales and bundles, of all imaginable shapes and uses, into a little room, similarly filled, but in a corner of which room has been dug for a single cot, upon which lie a heap of rags that evidently have never been washed nor disturbed since they were first slept under, save by the nightly crawlings in and out of the clerk of the premises, and the other inhabitants. Here too is a diminutive iron safe, containing the archives and valuables of the establishment--perhaps silver spoons, rings, watches, and other similar properties--who knows?

One thing is at least certain--the proprietor of this store has amassed a large fortune in a few years, by the immense per centage of profit realized on his minute sales. His customers, living literally from hand to mouth, buy the food they eat and even the fire and whisky that warms them, not only from day to day, but literally from hour to hour. Of many commodities a large proportion sticks to the measure, and on others the profit is incredible--often reaching as high as five or six hundred per cent. No credit--not for a moment--is given to any one, and everything is brought for cash and at the cheapest rates and commonest places.

Well--it is nearly dawn, and we might still prolong our stay upon the Points, there being no lack of subjects well worth our investigation and study. But this is enough for once. To-morrow night--should the fancy take us, for we bind ourselves to nothing--we will return and look in at some of the regular dance-houses and public places in this neighborhood--especially the well known "Dickens' Place," kept by Pete Williams, which, like other more aristocratic establishments, was shut up during the summer, "on account of the cholera." Before we leave this dreadful place--at once the nucleus and consummation of prostitution--we will state a fact or two and make a few reflections bearing generally on the subject. The great source whence the ranks of prostitution are replenished is young women from the country, who, seduced and in the way of becoming mothers, fly from home to escape infamy, and rush to the city with anguish and desperation in their hearts. Either murdering their infants as soon as born, or abandoning them upon a doorstep, they are henceforth ready for any course of crime that will procure them a living,--or, if they still have struggling scruples, necessity soon overcomes them. As an instance of this we were recently informed of a case where thirteen unmarried mothers came from Canada to New York a few weeks before their confinement, and were all sent to the Asylum. Of the thirteen poor, deserted, heart-broken creatures, eleven are now inhabitants of the Five Points or the immediate neighborhood. How has society punished the respectable seducers and destroyers of these women?

Another fact is that those who once enter into this diabolical traffic are seldom saved. The poison is active as lightning, and produces a kind of moral insanity, during which the victim is pleased with ruin and rejects the hand outstretched to save her. We have avoided no pains nor labor in our researches on this subject, and we wish all virtuous and benevolent men and women to mark well our words:--After a woman once enters a house of prostitution and leads the life of all who dwell there, it is too late. The woman is transformed to a devil and there is no hope for her. There may be, and doubtless are, exceptions to this rule, but we are convinced they must be rare. When a woman has once nerved herself to make the fatal plunge, a change comes over her whole character; and sustained by outraged love transmuted to hate, by miscalculating yet indomitable pride, by revenge, and by a reckless abandonment to the unnatural stimulus and excitement of her new profession, her fate is fixed. Take heed, then, philanthropists, and fathers and mothers, and husbands, whose wives and daughters have drank deeply of that damning draught of ambition for dress and display, that makes so many prostitutes! Expend all your watchfulness and tenderness and care upon your charges before they fall. Lay open to them with a bold and faithful hand the horrors of the career which lies before them, unless they learn to unlearn vanity and to learn content. For one whose hair is gray, and whose heart has often bled for grief at sight of so many beautiful creatures wrecked and cast away forever, in the wild pursuit after admiration, tells you that vanity and a love for social distinction are the rocks upon which these noble vessels, freighted with the wealth of immortal souls, have foundered. Strive, oh young woman! whose heart pants with envy at the gay equipages and fine dresses of the more fortunate or more guilty sisters who glitter by you--strive to win to your bosoms the sweet and gentle goddess Content. So shall memory and hope embalm your life and time shall crown you alone with blessings.


Discussion Points:
1. Based on this description, what can you determine about the author and who would you expect would be his audience?
2. Many nineteenth-century Americans attributed behavior to environmental causes. What does Foster believe to be the cause of crime, sin, and human degredation? What posible factors (e.g. macroeconomic, governmental) does he fail to consider?
3. Foster's caricatures of the people of the Five Points--African Americans, Irish, Jews, and others--is striking, alarming, reprehensible. But the important question is: how representative of white nineteenth-century New Yorkers is the attitude he expresses?


Recommended Readings:
Stuart Blumin, "Introduction: George G. Foster and the Emerging Metropolis," in New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches by George G. Foster, ed. Stuart Blumin (Berkeley, 1990), pp. 1-61.
Stuart Blumin, "Explaining the New Metropolis: Perception, Depiction, and Analysis in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York City," Journal of Urban History 11 (Nov. 1984): 9-38.
Tyner Anbinder, Five Points (New York, 2001).
Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New York (New York, 1872)


F&M College/American Studies/David Schuyler/Sept. 16, 1996