Hard Times

As the city’s shattered labor force headed into its first depression winter, Horace Greeley—publisher and editor of the New-Yorker, a weekly paper—warned that at least ten thousand of the jobless were “in utter and hopeless distress” and not likely to survive the frigid season. Greeley had urged the poor to “fly, scatter through the country, go to the Great West, anything rather than remain here,” but few had heeded him. Now he believed that only massive charity stood between the poor and utter calamity.

Many New Yorkers agreed. As in prior downturns, civic relief groups sprang up in each ward. In December 1837 a Central Committee for the Relief of the Suffering Poor was organized to coordinate these volunteer efforts, the mayor serving as chair. The committee raised money by sponsoring lectures and concerts, solicited donations in kind or cash, and established depots for receiving and dispensing aid. Greeley himself was active in the Sixth Ward’s Citizens Relief Committee, and it was there that he discovered both the terrible suffering of the poor and the hopeless inadequacy of eighteenth-century measures for dealing with nineteenth-century problems.

The relief committees were quickly overwhelmed by the numbers of the needy. Twenty-five hundred requested and received aid in the Seventh Ward (roughly one in every ten residents). In the Fifth, six thousand were assisted, approximately a third of the ward’s population. Soon hundreds were being turned away each day. Provisions dwindled at local soup kitchens. In mid-February, the Fifth Ward’s money gave out. Almsgiving stopped. People starved, froze, or contracted fatal diseases through exposure and privation. The ad hoc, civic-minded approach was discredited. In the subsequent hard winters of 1839-42, ward committees were not revived.

Some of the relief burden was picked up by the churches, especially evangelical Presbyterians. Even during good times, American Tract Society visitors, horrified by slum conditions, had begun to offer “temporal goods” along with tracts and prayers. Acting as individuals, they had paid the rent for families about to be evicted, brought clothing and food to the hungry and ill clad, and sought jobs for those without work. When hard times struck, tractarians continued and expanded these efforts. But the dimensions of the crisis engendered a growing sense of helplessness and a hardening of old convictions that most of the poor had only themselves to blame for their misery.

In February 1838 the evangelical ladies of the New York Female Moral Reform Society, having discovered the great and growing destitution among the laboring classes, began distributing charity to those deemed virtuous and receptive to the word of God. But most of the poor proved neither, in their judgment, being either intemperate or Catholic. As one visitor to Ann Street put it that year: “Alas! few were found deserving of relief, [as] nearly all were reduced to their present suffering by a course of vice.” Their mid-1830s optimism about the perfectibility of man gave way to renewed pessimism about the intractability of poverty, a gloom deepened further by the bankruptcy of many of their staunchest supporters. The Protestant Episcopal City Mission Society also found donations hard to come by. Saddled with debt for churches built and clerics hired in the halcyon thirties, it soldiered on through the depression years—growing more and more convinced that the poor were an alien and inferior class, mostly incapable of salvation—and by 1843 it was facing bankruptcy.

In July of that year the New York City Tract Society, also buckling under its charitable burdens, decided to spin off almsgiving to a separate organization. After investigating contemporary European approaches to poverty, it established, at the end of 1844, an Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP). The new organization proposed a centralized and scientific approach to managing the city’s now seemingly permanent underclass of indigents. (A Brooklyn AICP was established the same year, with Seth Low as president and a plan of operation identical to Manhattan’s.)

The directors, who included some of the richest bankers, merchants, and industrialists in New York, were only too aware of the devastation wrought by the depression. They insisted nevertheless that poverty was caused not by failures of the economic system over which they presided but by deficiencies of the poor themselves, in essence reviving the analysis and strategy adopted nearly three decades earlier by the Society for the Prevention of Poverty (a continuity underscored by the prominence in the AICP of Dr. John H. Griscom, son of SPP founder John Griscom).

To direct the new association’s work the managers chose Robert Milham Hartley as executive secretary. The English-born Hartley, a devout Presbyterian, had served from 1833 to 1842 as secretary of the New-York City Temperance Society; like most of the directors, he believed poverty bespoke depravity. As “pauperism” was the problem, Hartley wrote, and “the chief cause of its increase among us is the injudicious dispensation of relief,” the AICP’s “primary” goal would be “to discountenance indiscriminate almsgiving.”

What Hartley advocated instead was “scientific philanthropy,” by which he meant not only rationalizing the distribution of relief citywide but also using it as an incentive to better behavior. The AICP would visit the poor in their homes to “inspire them with self-reliance and self-respect; to inculcate habits of economy, industry and temperance; and whenever it shall be absolutely necessary, to provide such relief as shall be suited to their wants.” Under Hartley’s leadership, the AICP divided Manhattan into several hundred sections with approximately sixty poor families apiece. Each section was assigned a visitor who would regularly canvass his charges and assess their condition and character. To discourage the poor from shopping around for handouts, Hartley had AICP visitors file their reports with a central registry; he also warned residents not to give money to panhandlers, advising them instead to disburse tickets bearing the address of the nearest AIGP visitor.

The point of establishing this moral credit-rating agency was to sort out the poor, deciding who was truly needy and who was idle or depraved; it would act, Hartley said, as “a vast sieve” to separate “the precious and the vile.” If the visited were victims of temporary illness or adversity, the visitor would get them medical help and dispense relief, judiciously, until health and employment returned; if they suffered from drink or other vices, the visitor could hold out the promise of assistance as an incentive to reform. Persons deemed unable to support themselves because of age, chronic illness, or physical handicap would be dispatched to the appropriate municipal institutions. Ever wary of creating temptations to fraud, Hartley warned that people confined inside such places should never live better than the laboring poor outside; inmates who gained weight, he said, should have their daily rations cut back. “Paupers” and “vagrants”—the idle and dissolute poor—should be put to hard labor in a workhouse until ready to become productive members of society. For the hopelessly “debased” and “depraved,” there was no choice except a sentence to the penitentiary, where they must suffer “exemplary punishments as a warning to the community.”


The decline of civic volunteerism and the curtailment by evangelicals of “indiscriminate almsgiving” left the primary burden of aiding depression casualties to the city itself. New York would indeed succor many of the poor, but with ill grace and limited funds, its reluctance a function of penury, ideology, and a transformed political system.

Hard times reshaped the electoral landscape. Since the 1820s New York had been a Democratic town. The Whig Party, born during the Bank War, had lapsed into somnolence at its conclusion. After the crisis of 1837, Whiggery was born again, and over the next few years its candidates rode the depression first into Gty Hall, then into the governor’s mansion, and finally into the White House itself.

The parties had different core constituencies and policies. The Democrats, who cast their Whig opponents as aristocrats, drew upon new immigrants, antibank radicals, merchants trading with the South, workers tied to the port economy, and, thanks to Tammany’s long command of municipal patronage, a small army of grateful contractors, thankful work crews, and appreciative officeholders. Democrats opposed high tariffs, a smart strategy in a city with five times as much capital invested in trade as in manufactures; they also aimed to divorce government from banking, curb speculation, and reduce government expenses.

Whigs could usually count on evangelical and Episcopalian merchants, bankers, and businessmen, master craftsmen and the middling classes, and working-class voters hard hit by the depression. Whig planks backed governmental underwriting of internal improvements and stronger oversight of banking while defending the credit system. The party promoted itself as a bastion of “order, morals and religion” and portrayed Democrats as agrarians, Fanny Wrighters, and people associated with “infidelity, anarchy, the riot, butchery, and blood of the French revolution.”

In 1837 Aaron Clark, the Whigs’ mayoral candidate, won office in part because Loco Foco radicals ran an independent candidate and siphoned off votes from Tammany’s man. When President Van Buren adopted the Locos’ approach to currency questions, the disaffected Democrats trooped back to Tammany Hall, only to see the Conservative Democrats, many of them bankers or bank stockholders, decamp en masse, make common cause with Whigs, and get Clark reelected in 1838. A brief economic upturn helped Democrat Isaac Varian squeak into City Hall in 1839 and 1840, and Democrat Robert H. Morris proved able to hold the mayoralty for three successive terms (1841—43), though again by slender majorities. Meanwhile the Common Council teetered back and forth, Whigs winning control in 1837—38, Democrats in 1839—41, Whigs in 1842, Democrats in 1843. At the state level, the governorship passed in 1838 from Democrat William Marcy to Whig William Seward, who was reelected in 1840 (though he lost in the city); then Democrats recaptured Albany in 1842 with William C. Bouck.

Whigs scored heavily among those who blamed the governing party for the depression, but they also did well because they finally turned to a new breed of professionals: Whig politicians who had mastered the art of Tammany-style electioneering. Thurlow Weed, an Albany newsman turned full-time politico, was a robust and florid fellow, a man who liked his oysters and wine. He was also shrewd, manipulative, and determined to whip the hitherto disparate elements of Whiggery into a cohesive party. Weed tapped New York City’s community of rich Whig and Conservative Democrat merchants for campaign contributions and amassed a sixty thousand dollar war chest his first year out. Spending cash as effectively as he raised it, he made use of promotional techniques invented by the penny press. In 1838 Weed rescued Horace Greeley, whose New-Yorker was foundering in choppy depression seas, and hired him to edit a party sheet, the jeff-ersonian, which contributed substantially to Seward’s victory.

Weed could play political hardball too. In the 1838 campaign Whig agents were dispatched to Philadelphia, where they hired two hundred lowlifes at thirty dollars a head. These “floaters,” conveyed to New York City, were trooped from poll to poll, casting fraudulent ballots. Once Whigs gained power they happily deployed Tammany tactics to keep it, giving prison inmates one-day passes contingent on their voting the anti Tammany ticket, and marching almshouse paupers to the polls en masse, their gray uniforms temporarily exchanged for new clothing. Whigs also embraced the spoils system with delight and, when they captured the municipal government in 1837, handed out jobs and contracts to party members only. To block Tammany’s penchant for mass naturalizations, Whigs passed a state law—applicable to New York City only—that required voter registration. They also cut the length of elections from three days to one.

In the 1840 presidential race, Weed again drew upon Greeley’s skill as political publicist. New York Whig magnates opened their purses as never before, allowing Weed and Greeley to spend fabulous sums transforming patrician William Henry Harrison into a Man of the People. When Democrats incautiously charged that General Harrison had, since retirement, been guzzling hard cider in a log cabin in Ohio, Weed and Greeley transformed both wooden house and apple drink into badges of honor. New York imagemakers contrasted Harrison-as-backwoodsy-pioneer to a putatively aristocratic Van Buren. Greeley’s new subsidized sheet, the Log Cabin, was also chock-a-block with woodcuts, cartoons, large-type slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”), and the words and music for campaign songs. A smash success, its circulation soon topped eighty thousand.

Weed and Greeley took their presidential campaign to the New York streets as well, advancing an urban politics of spectacle. A totemic log cabin, capable of holding four to five hundred, was erected on MacDougal Street across from Washington Square; another went up near Prince Street. Tippecanoe Clubs paraded up and down the town with portable log cabins, ploughs, and barrels of hard cider, shouting, “Van, Van is a used-up man.” Despite the hoopla—diverting fare for a depressed populace—Van Buren held the city, in part because Tammany could still deploy superior force at the polls.

Amid the clash and uproar of electoral combat, it was easy to miss the fact that while these realigned and oscillating parties in general presented New York voters with real alternatives on the issue of governmental responsibilities, when it came to depression-era relief they had worked their way, from opposite directions, toward a convergent position.

In 1838, when a group of citizens petitioned the Whig Common Council to restore the assize on bread—to put the city back in the business of regulating its price and quality—the supposed governmental activists refused. Indeed they continued to chip away at any regulations that hampered freedom of action in the marketplace.

Democrats, having long equated government intervention with special privilege, also adopted laissez-faire policies when they were in power. Democratic administrations cut expenses, sold off city-owned lands (at bargain prices) to reduce the debt, and in 1841 and 1843 repealed centuries-old privileges of cartmen and butchers, declaring that such market laws “no longer are observed and do not serve the people’s interests.” Some zealots proposed shuttering the city’s markets altogether and selling off the municipal docks, but neither side was prepared to go to such extremes.

A similar convergence marked their attitude toward aiding the unemployed. On the surface, the municipality’s response seemed munificent. The number receiving relief in New York City leapt from under thirty thousand in 1837 to over eighty thousand in 1838. Most of this aid took the form of outdoor relief: provision of food, fuel, and money to the impoverished in their own homes. In addition, the population of the almshouse jumped by a third, to over twenty-five hundred, with immigrants outnumbering native-born for the first time. The amount of money appropriated, however, as distinct from the numbers of people assisted, increased only marginally—though enough to hit a record level of $281,000 by 1839. Conditions in public institutions worsened accordingly; almshouse commissioners found “neglect, and filth and putrefaction, and vermin.” The Bridewell, city hospital, and penitentiary were also crammed way beyond their physical capacities.

Mayor Clark nevertheless claimed in 1838 that Manhattan was being too generous. Clark worried that New York would get a reputation for liberality that would attract desperate out-of-towners. Even at present aid levels, he fretted, “New York is likely to become the general rendez-voux of beggars, paupers, vagrants and mischievous persons.” Tammany men pointedly busied themselves in private relief efforts, dispensing baskets of cakes, pies, and meat to the needy, but when they assumed power, their position was much the same.

Both parties, to be sure, confronted declining municipal revenues, a function of the falling assessed real estate values, and when the rate of taxation was compensatorily increased by 38 percent in 1842, bellows of protest arose from propertied Whigs and Democrats alike. Indeed large landowners demanded municipal retrenchment and threatened to move to Brooklyn, which publicized itself as a refuge from onerous impositions.

City fathers of both parties justified limits on relief by insisting, in tandem with the directors of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, that healthy and able-bodied men and women seeking public assistance were not depression victims. The 1838 Whig Common Council committee harrumphed that charity would only “increase pauperism” and “promote a lamentable dependency.” In 1840 Democrat William Cullen Bryant’s Evening Post said the managers of public charity “were so grossly lavish and so careless of the consequences, that to them we must attribute a great deal of the demoralization, improvidence and misery that exists.”

In 1841 Mayor Morris called for isolating able-bodied paupers in a separate workhouse on Black well’s Island and assigning them to productive labor. The 1843 City Council agreed that this might well discourage “our dissolute and idle population” from seeking public aid in the first place.

Zealots urged more ruthless measures. One 1843 letter writer to the Tribune called for the complete elimination of any public aid that would keep paupers alive, fulminating in fine Malthusian fashion that “they who will marry and beget children in dirty cellars are a curse to the world.” Such sentiments remained beyond the pale of decent opinion, but so did Horace Greeley’s assertion that it was the depression that had made it impossible for many who wanted work to find jobs. During his relief stint in the Sixth Ward, Greeley had heard “stout, resolute, single young men and young women” pleading, “Help us to work, we want no other help; why is it we can have nothing to do?” What New York needed, Greeley declared, was not a workhouse but a “House of Industry” that could provide temporary employment in hard times. The elite consensus, however, followed Mayor Morris and his counterparts at the AICP, and before the decade was out, a workhouse would be up and running on Blackwell’s Island.

Dominant opinion was equally opposed to government’s providing public works jobs for the unemployed, as had been done in the embargo crisis. When petitions were submitted in 1837 “in behalf of the unemployed operatives, for relief,” a Common Council committee conceded that the petitioners were “not paupers” and “merely ask for employment to enable them to procure food for their wives and little ones”; nevertheless, it declared its general opposition to work relief. The council did authorize a few street and sewer projects (in part to take advantage of low wages) but established such stringent conditions for contractors that no bids were submitted, and no work provided.

At the statewide level Whigs did support internal improvements. Whig Assemblyman (and Gramercy Park developer) Samuel B. Ruggles proposed an ambitious program of state-backed canals and railroads. Governor Seward, who had written an admiring biography of his hero De Witt Clinton, supported one such project after another, running up an unprecedented state deficit of eighteen million dollars.

Democrats denounced Whigs for increasing the state’s debt and endangering New York’s standing with its creditors. The principal bankers of New York City, including many Whig paladins, agreed that further borrowing would be “highly inexpedient and improper” (especially as their institutions held nearly $750,000 of shaky state obligations). Democrats demanded that all public construction be halted. Seward, Greeley, and Ruggles argued this was short-sighted and inhumane and would flood the state with perhaps four thousand new unemployed. But Democrats took power in 1842, and New York’s grand program of public works came to a complete halt.1


With one magnificent exception. The Croton Aqueduct had been authorized before the panic struck, and powerful backers would sustain the gigantic state undertaking throughout the depression. Its construction would serve as New York’s de facto jobs program.

By early 1837 the Corporation had wrested control of the municipal water supply from Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company, purchasing its works, pipes, and water rights. Lawsuits by Westchester County dwellers protesting land confiscations by big-city interests were overcome, as was opposition from northern Manhattan landowners. Albany authorized issuance of $2.5 million in stock, and despite the panic, so sterling was the state’s Erie Canal track record that the Rothschilds and others were able to round up investors. Eventually an unprecedented twelve million dollars was raised.

Government-appointed commissioners took charge of the project and selected John B. Jervis as chief engineer. Jervis had learned his craft on the Erie Canal—working his way up over eight years from axman to surveyor to Resident Engineer—and honed his skills further on the Delaware and Hudson Canal and the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad. Now Jervis managed construction of the forty-one-mile aqueduct, parceling out the work to private contractors in half-mile sections. Fierce competition kept bids low. To clear a profit, builders had to keep wages down, which they easily accomplished by recruiting their labor force from the port’s vast reservoir of unemployed workers. Eventually three to four thousand were employed, including many mechanics from the devastated construction trades and large numbers of recently arrived Irish immigrants.

Laborers who resented the rock-bottom wages and strict work rules periodically launched violent strikes. In April 1840, when men working in upper Manhattan demanded higher pay, the city called out the reliable Twenty-seventh Regiment. The troops traveled to 42nd Street by railroad, dispersed the strikers, and returned to the city by late evening. There were further labor protests, which halted progress until slight raises were extended, as well as riots between immigrants from different Irish counties, each determined to channel precious jobs to their own community.

Despite this, progress was rapid. By the spring of 1840, work crews had run the masonry conduit, over eight feet high and seven feet wide, down to the city’s edge, while others were laying pipes and constructing reservoirs in Manhattan itself and launching the spectacular 1,450-foot granite High Bridge that would span the Harlem River.

On June 23, 1842, water was successfully conveyed—along with a four-person boat, the Croton Maid—from the dammed-up Croton River to the giant receiving reservoir bounded by 79th and 86th streets and Sixth and Seventh avenues—a basin capable of holding 180 million gallons. Fifteen to twenty thousand New Yorkers traveled by foot, horse, carriages, or trains to Yorkville for a preliminary celebration, as the Croton Maid came sailing out of the great aqueduct to cheers, cannon salutes, and toasts of the “sweet, soft, clear water.” On July 4 water flowed through three-foot-diameter pipes down Fifth Avenue to the distributing reservoir at Murray Hill. Located at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, this fortress-like container, whose embankments rose thirtyeight feet above street level, was topped by a railed promenade, reachable by a stone staircase. It held twenty-four million gallons and fed water down to the 13th Street tank, and thence into the network of underground piping that supplied the heart of the city.



Croton Water Celebration, October 14, 1842. As the huge procession came down Broadway and swung into Park Row, it passed the new fountain in City Hall Park. The prominence of fire engines in the line of march reflected the importance of the new water system for fire protection as well as health and sanitation. (© Museum of the City of New York)

On October 14 New York gave itself over to one of its most extravagant Festivals of Connection, on the order of those celebrating the Federal Union and the Erie Canal. In what the Commercial Advertiser called “the largest procession ever known in the city,” a parade five miles long marched through town with noisy jubilation, every bell pealed, and a hundred-gun salute honored the eruption of a fifty-foot plume of water from a fountain in City Hall Park. “Nothing is talked of or thought of in New York but Croton water,” Philip Hone recorded. “Fountains, aqueducts, hydrants, and hose attract our attention and impede our progress through the streets. . . . Water! water! is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.”

Charles King, president of Columbia College, hailed the new system as “the crowning glory and surpassing achievement of the latter part of the half century,” and the Croton Aqueduct was indeed one of the era’s great engineering achievements. But it proved to be the last gasp of New York’s governmental activism. By 1842 the great enthusiasm for state-supported internal improvements had run dry. Governmental underwriting no longer seemed so necessary, nor state control so appropriate. City mer­chants and bankers would not hesitate to demand government aid for themselves whenever it suited their purposes, even while ritually denouncing government meddling in the economy. But for now, Croton would be the culmination—and conclusion—of a grand tradition of municipal enterprise.


The depression galvanized an outpouring of the holy spirit as well as of water in New York City. Upper- and middle-class worshipers flocked to Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches to hear ministers declare the panic to be God’s punishment for the sin of greed and the evil of reckless speculation. Plebeian Protestants, too, filled churches as workshops emptied. In the mid-1830s most artisans had resisted evangelical blandishments and devoted themselves to labor organizing. Now, their unions in ruins, artisans packed into Methodist and Baptist tabernacles and feasted on fiery sermons.

Brand-new sects appeared. William Miller, a modern-day prophet, predicted the end of the world would arrive on April 23, 1843, and be followed promptly by the Second Advent of Christ. Miller’s New York disciples met in a large hall on Chrystie Street. Led by Joshua Himes, a brilliant publicist dispatched to the country’s communications capital to spread the good news, Manhattan’s Millerites helped blanket the nation with four million prophetic charts and pamphlets. In the city itself, believers put out a weekly, the Midnight Cry, and roamed the sidewalks auguring doom. As the final day neared, some gave away their possessions. Many garbed themselves appropriately for their impending transformation into angels by purchasing the “White Muslin for Ascension Robes” advertised in Bowery dry-goods stores. When the end failed to arrive, Miller announced an error in calculations; a revised forecast postponed Judgment Day until October 23, 1844. After a second disappointment, the leadership recanted and the movement dispersed.2

Born-again workers seeking strength and solace also created a working-class temperance movement. In the flush years of the 1830s, most artisans and laborers had spurned the evangelicals’ calls to give up drink, and hard times had driven many more to hard liquor. Yet within a year of the panic, journeymen and day laborers had formed the Temperance Beneficial Association, which set up street-corner pulpits from which reformed drunkards testified that alcohol made bad times worse, not better.

In 1841 journeymen and small masters launched the New York Washington Temperance Society, opening a mission on Chatham Street. Many in the panic-strengthened sects took the temperance pledge hoping Washingtonianism would bring order and self-respect to depression-buffeted lives. With elites insisting that poverty was a sign of dissoluteness, sobriety was a way of attesting respectability. The Washingtonian movement spread swiftly. In six months, it claimed twenty thousand male members in fifty chapters. Thousands of working-class women joined the Martha Washingtonians: wives who watched their husbands squander precious wages or savings on drink had their own reasons for being drawn to the movement.

Washingtonian temperance became the largest popular movement in New York City’s history. While merchants, professionals, and masters held some leading positions, the movement sustained an egalitarian tone, rejected pious coercion, and refused to insist on conversion in Christ. Aware of drinking’s key role in male working-class sociability, Washingtonians sought alternatives to the saloon. They sponsored weekly experience meetings—confessional self-help groups—and offered alcohol-free amusements like steamboat excursions, picnics, dances, bazaars, and concerts. The evangelical American Temperance Union criticized these vulgar innovations; at their meetings, also burgeoning, people listened decorously to clergymen and doctors expound on the evils of liquor. But it was precisely the Washingtonians’ ability to foster individual survival skills within a congenially communal context that made them popular.

Communalism had its downside, however. Temperance helped respectable Anglo Protestant artisans distinguish themselves from the (putatively dissolute) Catholic poor, a source of psychic comfort at a time when the line dividing the two communities had become thinner than ever. But the depression had also galvanized New York’s Irish Catholics. They too pursued consolation in consolidation and asserted an ever greater cultural and political presence in the city. In a context of frightening economic insecurity, heightened communal sensibilities could and did easily degenerate into urban tribalism. Soon the mid-thirties dream of working-class solidarity would be drowned in a sea of ethnic and religious bitterness.


The depression had badly battered the Catholic Church. Father Varela’s Transfiguration was in particularly grim shape. Back in prosperous 1836 he and the lay trustees had borrowed tens of thousands of dollars, in small sums, from the poor people of the parish to buy a vacated Presbyterian church on Chambers Street. Now desperate parishioners, many of them out of work for months and “in the utmost distress,” implored him to return their money lest landlords seize their few pieces of furniture as payment for rent. Transfiguration itself was on the verge of being auctioned off, however, and only managed to stave off creditors by mortgaging its organ.

Bishop John DuBois was not prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. Now seventy-four, he had been a priest for nearly fifty years and head of the diocese since 1826. Even before the panic, the aging Frenchman, long resented by the Irish community and hierarchy, had signaled his readiness to pass power to the immigrant-strengthened Gaels. The American bishops, accordingly, now dispatched John Hughes, a priest in Philadelphia, to aid DuBois and his flock.

Hughes was himself an Irish immigrant. The son of poor farmers, he had arrived in the United States back in 1817, aged twenty, and supported himself as a gardener while studying for the priesthood. More than ethnicity distinguished him from DuBois. Where the bishop had shied away from controversy, fearing to raise the profile of an outnumbered community, Hughes thrived on conflict and had long urged Catholics to fight for political and civil rights. With his stern mouth, muscular body, and intimidating presence, Hughes looked like a fighter. His nickname of “Dagger John” rested on more than his penchant for inscribing a stiletto-like cross next to his signature.

Two weeks after Hughes arrived in 1838, DuBois suffered a paralytic stroke, and the newcomer took effective control of the diocese. In 1842, on DuBois’s death, Hughes would become bishop, the first prelate to be consecrated in St. Patrick’s, and his elevation would mark the ascendancy of the Irish in the New York church. The dethroned French, perhaps by way of consolation, were awarded their own parish of St. Vincent de Paul in 1841.

In the fall of 1839 Hughes sailed to Europe seeking aid from wealthy Catholics. He did receive funds from the Austrian Leopoldine Society, but these were earmarked for a college and seminary—the future Fordham—and for recruiting priests and teachers for Catholic schools. The troubled New York church would have to make it on its own.

With Catholics still a small minority—the diocese had only eight of the city’s 150 churches—Hughes was convinced the community had to rally round its faith, as various Protestant sects had been doing. In 1840 Father Varela founded the New York Catholic Temperance Association; hundreds took the pledge at Transfiguration gatherings, and within a year the group had five thousand members. Hughes, however, decided to focus on the schools.

Missionary protestantism still permeated Public School Society classrooms. The King James Bible—which Catholics would not accept even when the American Bible Society gave them away free—remained required reading. Schoolbooks slurred Catholicism. Teachers derogated Irish culture. And the PSS refused to open branches for Five Points immigrants, as “it is not thought proper to associate them with the respectable and orderly children who attend the Public Schools.” The Church had expanded its own schools, but with public funding having ceased in 1825, they were overcrowded and understaffed. Thousands of Catholic children received no education at all.

Hughes wanted to restore public funding for church schools. This would relieve depression-aggravated poverty and end Catholics’ second-class status in the city. The bishop soon discovered an ally in Governor Seward. An ardent advocate of Irish freedom and Irish immigration, Seward believed education was crucial for assimilating and elevating the arriving poor. Less high-mindedly, the governor knew that if Whigs were to sustain their depression-era victories, they would have to break Tammany’s grip on the city’s Catholic Irish.

In January 1840 Seward recommended funding for schools in which children “may be instructed by teachers speaking the same language with themselves and professing the same faith.” Catholic leaders promptly applied to the Common Council, which controlled distribution of school monies. They promised, if funded, to limit religious instruction to after-school hours and to require parental approval. A Hebrew congregation and a Scotch Presbyterian church joined the appeal.

Cautious aldermen arranged a debate. A battery of Protestant lawyers and divines supported the current arrangements as a satisfactory separation of church and state. Hughes, standing alone, gave a three-and-a-half-hour speech arguing that Catholics’ religious liberties could be upheld only in Catholic institutions. Appealing to Loco Foco antimonopoly sentiments, Hughes also cast the PSS as unacceptably authoritarian, paternalistic, and undemocratic—a “complex monopoly, of mind, and money, and influence, in the city of New York.” Nevertheless, a nervous Democratic council turned him down.

Hughes appealed to Albany, where the Whig legislature and governor backed a school decentralization plan giving each ward authority to decide what kind of schools it wanted. The PSS countered that—given the city’s shifting population—New York needed more, not less, uniformity in its schools. Besides, the Catholic claim was unconstitutional. Also it was unrepublican, one Protestant paper said, to train up children “to worship a ghostly monarchy of vicars, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and Popes!” Renascent nativists formed (in May 1841) the American Protestant Union (led by S. F. B. Morse) to back candidates in the upcoming November elections who were deemed safe on the school issue.

With Tammany waffling and city Whigs backing away from Seward, Hughes decided to enter politics directly. Days before the election, he called a meeting in Carroll Hall, which endorsed ten of the thirteen Democratic nominees for the Assembly but ran independent Catholic candidates for the three remaining slots. All ten joint selectees won, but the Carroll Hall ticket drew sufficient Democratic votes away from the contested trio to let three Whigs win. Hughes had demonstrated two things conclusively to the Democrats (who had regained both houses of the legislature): given the roughly equal strength of Whigs and Democrats, Catholics held the balance of political power in New York City, and they would not hesitate to wield that power against Tammany.

Democrats, accordingly, passed the Maclay bill on April 9, 1842. It authorized each ward to elect commissioners who would supervise local schools and, acting together, constitute a citywide Board of Education. It also barred the teaching of any sectarian doctrine. Seward signed the bill. For the first time in its history, New York City had an education system financed entirely from the public treasury and directly controlled by the people.

Some of the people were less than pleased, however. On the night Seward signed, crowds stoned Hughes’s home, forcing authorities to call out the militia. The editor of a new twopennny paper, the Aurora, applauded the attack. Already known for his diatribes against “villainous priests” and “Irish rabble,” Walter Whitman now declared that if the missiles had been directed against “the reverend hypocrite’s head, instead of his windows, we would hardly find it in our soul to be sorrowful.”

Protestant die-hards quickly won control of the new Board of Education and ruled that classroom readings from the King James Bible were not precluded by the ban on sectarianism. Catholics also lost the battle for funding of their church schools. So Hughes returned to the task of building up a parochial school system, staffed primarily by nuns, that would parallel the city’s network. At Hughes’s request Mother Madeleine Sophie Bar at founded the Convent of the Sacred Heart in 1841 and opened an academy on Houston and Mulberry, near the cathedral.


Bishop Hughes’s brief foray into politics, combined with the pressures of hard times, had reawakened New York’s slumbering nativist movement, which now dramatically asserted its power.

At first, the panic had actually soothed anti-immigrant anxieties by diminishing the influx of Irish. “Times is hard and wages low,” an Ulster-American warned his relatives back home, and the word got around. In 1837 forty-eight thousand crossed over; in 1838 only eleven thousand did. Still, the stream of new arrivals helped swell relief rolls, increase taxes, and heighten competition for scarce jobs and housing. Hughes’s Carroll Hall gambit of 1841 raised fears of Catholic political ambitions, and in spring 1842 newly reelected Mayor Morris rewarded Irishmen for their support by giving them jobs and licenses in the public markets.

Enraged Anglo-Protestant butchers, suddenly facing Irish competitors, spearheaded an anti-immigrant offensive. By August an American Republican Party was up and running, and in November its candidates received an astounding 22.9 percent of the vote for local offices. Spurred by this showing, a wide variety of New Yorkers clambered aboard the new party. Merchants, professionals, editors, and shopkeepers—furious at high taxes, financial profligacy, patronage abuses, outright corruption, and the yielding of Democrats and Whigs to Catholic pressure—hailed the American Republicans as a party of municipal reform. Small masters and journeymen in as yet unindustrialized trades like building, butchering, blacksmithing, and shipmaking signed on as well, in hopes that halting the immigrant flow might forestall the capitalist reorganization of work that had devastated the tailors, printers, and shoemakers. The new party also exalted the artisanal republican values of manly independence, Christian brotherhood, and craft solidarity and promised to restore the Trades to prominence.

What tied these disparate groups together was a shared Protestant culture, a nostalgic belief that New York City had been a far better place just after the Revolution, and a conviction that the evils now afflicting it—rising rates of crime, pauperism, and immorality—were foreign imports. The party’s platform reflected these premises. The American Republicans wanted to extend the naturalization period to twenty-one years, effectively eliminating foreigners from politics and reserving government offices and market licenses to citizens. The nativists aimed to repeal the 1842 school law to guarantee preservation of Bible reading and “nonsectarian” religion in the schools. The party also promised budget cuts, tax reductions, law and order, sobriety, bipartisan appointments, and an end to corruption.

In 1844 the American Republicans ran publisher James Harper for mayor. An ideal candidate, Harper was native born and a devout Methodist, head trustee of the John Street Church. He was staunchly anti-Catholic: his firm had brought out Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures. He was a temperance man, a Washingtonian. Harper cast himself as “a mechanic”—he was a member of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen—and evoked the old artisanal town. He was also the city’s largest employer, in command of its most technologically sophisticated plant, and thus appealed to propertied taxpayers and the men forging an industrial metropolis.

Many city Whigs deserted their party to support Harper’s candidacy—some openly, most tacitly, given Governor Seward’s opposition. With their support, American Republicans swept the spring 1844 elections, placed James Harper in City Hall, and won control of the Common Council.

Harper set out to forge a new civic order. On the Fourth of July, the Mayor banned the sale of alcohol, offering up instead a large basin of iced Croton water in City Hall Park. He enforced tavern laws prohibiting Sunday liquor sales (though he exempted the downtown hotels patronized by more elite clienteles). Foreigners disappeared from the city’s payroll. Apple women and other vendors were driven from the streets. Some salaries were cut, though taxes and expenditures continued to increase. Plans were launched for reforming the almshouse. In the end, however, Harper’s crusade went nowhere: partly because under the charter the mayor lacked real power; partly because his moral fervor was transparently class-partial; partly because he was inept at governance; but primarily because a sequence of shocking events discredited his nativist movement.

In May 1844 word arrived that Philadelphia, which had also been riven by debates about schools and Bibles, had exploded in violence, with frenzied nativists hunting down Irishmen by the light of burning homes and churches. Excitement spread through New York. Some local nativists were eager for combat; an hours-long battle with Irishmen had broken out in Brooklyn a few days before Philadelphia erupted. Now they called for a giant rally on May 9, to greet a delegation of Philadelphia nativists.

Bishop Hughes stationed a thousand armed Irishmen around each Catholic church and told his community to keep the peace but defend their property at all costs. Hughes met with the mayor, who asked if the bishop was afraid for his churches. “No, sir,” he replied, “but I am afraid that some of yours will be burned.” Hughes went on to make it utterly clear to the nativist administration that “if a single Catholic church were burned in New York, the city would become a Moscow.” The authorities, fearing a bloodbath, pressed their Protestant allies to abandon their mass meeting, a request to which they reluctantly acceded a scant few hours before it was to take place.

The riots in Philadelphia and New York’s near brush with Armageddon deeply shocked many citizens. Nativists, now associated with riot and lawlessness, lost sympathy. In the 1845 mayoral election, the Seward wing recaptured control of city Whiggery and refused to back Harper’s bid for reelection. Deserted by their allies, the American Republicans managed to win only a single ward constableship. The Democrats elected respected sugar merchant William Havemeyer Mayor on a reform ticket. Within two years the American Republican Party was dead, and with it, for the moment, nativism as a political force.


Before receding, nativism contributed to an increase in street gangs, many of them ethnically based. “The city is infested by gangs of hardened wretches,” Philip Hone told his diary in 1839. They “patrol the streets making the night hideous and insulting all who are not strong enough to defend themselves.”

Gangs were no novelty in New York City. Citizens had complained of them since the early eighteenth century, and evanescent constellations of rowdy young men had been common enough after 1800. The Chichesters, perhaps the first gang with staying power, had commanded attention during the 1830s boom years, particularly for its assaults on brothels. But during the depression scores of gangs crystallized, each distinctively named and garbed.

The grocery-groggeries in the heart of the Five Points became headquarters for turf-based Irish gangs like the Forty Thieves, Kerryonians, Shirt Tails (from their shirts-out sartorial style), and Plug Uglies (from their enormous plug hats, which they stuffed with wool and leather and drew down about their ears like helmets when entering battle). The Roach Guards were conspicuous in their blue-striped pantaloons, and the Dead Rabbits, snappy in red stripes, adopted a name that meant “seriously bad dudes” in Points argot.

The Bowery was another gang locus. Here resided the Bowery Boys, O’Connell Guards, Atlantic Guards, American Guards (of nativist bent), and True Blue Americans (Irishmen, whose costume consisted of long black frock coat and stovepipe hat—a send-up, perhaps, of the outfits favored by dandified young merchants and clerks). African Americans coalesced as well, a phenomenon one of Frances Grund’s local informants blamed on Arthur Tappan and his colleagues: “Our black servants are getting worse and worse every day ever since that bigoted scoundrel T*** has commenced preaching abolition,” he fulminated. “Those black devils have always been a nuisance; but now ‘a respectable white man’ can hardly walk up and down Broadway of a Sunday afternoon without being jostled off the sidewalk by one of their desperate gangs.”

Some gangs were pacific and merely took in the theater or circus together, but many were fiercely territorial. They guarded (as the names of many groups implied) particular pieces of city turf or invaded those of nearby bands. Neighborhood frontiers crackled with border wars. Combatants fought with bludgeons and brickbats, clubs and hobnail stomping boots, and occasionally, though still rarely, knives and pistols. At times, local rivals would league together into a giant horde and sally forth to challenge a gangcombine from some other part of town. Such combat was a customary entertainment in Ireland and England but increasingly frowned upon by the authorities over there. Over here, immigrants found, they could indulge in donnybrooks with virtual impunity; indeed spectators massed on rooftops or gathered at windows to cheer the scrappers on.

Gang members also latched onto volunteer fire companies and transmuted their traditional tussles into increasingly nasty confrontations. In 1839 over a thousand men and boys battled with sticks and brickbats. More and more often, such fire fights ended with stabbings or broken skulls. In January 1840 the mayor and Common Council found that “a great excitement prevails in this community, in consequence of frequent breaches of the peace, alleged to have been committed by a large number of dissolute and profligate young men.”

Tribalism provided camaraderie, protection, identity, and also a sense of being in charge, something increasingly hard to come by in the workplace. Many gang members were technically “apprentices” or “journeymen,” but few harbored any hope of becoming a “master.” Jobs seldom gave a worker status or a chance to display skill. And if being a waged employee diminished one’s sense of autonomy and control, being fired devastated it. The panic had made painfully clear that the new economic order could pitch a worker into desperate poverty, virtually overnight.

Security and self-esteem were best pursued elsewhere. After work a butcher, tailor, or cartman could doff his smock, apron, or overalls, don colorful gang regalia, rendezvous with his comrades, and regain at least the illusion of being in control of his life, of being a man among men. Rude lads esteemed precisely those qualities the emerging bourgeoisie devalued: muscular prowess, masculine honor, swaggering bravado, and colorful display. Uptown precincts exalted domesticity and sanctified femininity, but the lower wards were dominated demographically by single young men, most of whom, given their limited prospects, married late or not at all, and there, rowdy masculinity ruled. Women might assist in battle by bringing stones to frontline fighters but were seldom full-scale participants. There were, however, some spectacular exceptions, like the Dead Rabbits’ Hell-Cat Maggie, whose teeth, filed to points, and fingers, embellished with brass nails, made her a welcome companion on forays against the Bowery Boys.

Gang warfare reflected and exacerbated conflicts between old-timers and newcomers. Some groups took ethnic chauvinism or blustering nativism as a raison d’être. Others avoided straight-out trials of strength with evenly matched opponents, prefer­ring to prowl the streets singling out victims to bash (as in an 1840 assault on German immigrants).

The emergence of a vigorous two-party system drew the gangs into politics as well. Democrats, especially, sought the services of well-organized and well-muscled groups. Many Tammany ward and district leaders were on familiar terms with gang members, being proprietors of the Bowery saloons where they congregated. It was easy enough, therefore, especially in straitened times, to hire men to strong-arm party opponents and to guard, steal, or stuff ballot boxes.

Some of these outfits had political ambitions of their own. Mike Walsh, brought over from Ireland as a child, was a lithographer and journalist by trade. A militant defender of the city’s workers, Walsh was hugely popular for his vitriolic and hilarious speeches excoriating assorted elites as “curs,” “grub-worms,” and “vultures.” An effective fighter as well as eloquent speaker, Walsh formed the Spartan Band, one of the city’s most effective gangs, in 1840. In elections that year, he and his men, forty or fifty strong and armed with clubs, invaded Whig headquarters, assaulting all present. In the November 1841 election, Walsh’s Spartan Band, with three hundred members, became something of a loose cannon when he and his shoulder-hitters strong-armed their way into Tammany’s precincts and forced the Democratic General-Committee to put Walsh’s name on their ticket.

Captain Isaiah Rynders, for whom politics was strictly a business, was more typical of the new breed of gang leaders who tied up with Tammany. The Captain had earned his tide commanding a Hudson River sloop, then headed west, where he became a celebrated gambler and knife fighter, working the Mississippi River steamboats. Back in New York by the late 1830s, he opened half a dozen groceries and Bowery saloons. In 1843 Rynders organized the Empire Club, a group of bruisers who operated out of the Arena saloon at 28 Park Row—recruiting immigrants, breaking up Whig meetings, doing whatever Tammany called for.

At the same time some gang leaders were forging fateful partnerships with New York politicians, others were dedicating their energies to criminal enterprise. Complaints of robberies and muggings increased rapidly during the depression years. “The property of the citizen is pilfered, almost before his eyes,” declared a special committee of the Common Council in 1842. “Dwellings and warehouses are entered with an ease and apparent coolness and carelessness of detection which shows that none are safe.”

“A civic ARMY”

New York’s patriciate had long tolerated crowds rather than maintain a “standing army” of professional police. As late as the rowdy Callithumpian processions of the 1820s, some gentlemen had still considered the occasional civil disorder to be compatible with civic order. No longer. Crowds had gotten too big, too unruly, too organized, too Irish, and (Hone feared) “will ere long be difficult to quell.”

They were already difficult to quell. In the riots of the 1830s, mayors attempting to overawe crowds with the majesty of their office had been unceremoniously trampled on. Nor, given existing instrumentalities for maintaining law and order, did reliance on physical force work much better than relying on social deference.

The police force was not inconsequential, to be sure. Jacob Hays, appointed high constable back in 1802, was a seasoned enforcer of the law. During the 1830s distur­bances he had plunged gamely into the thick of a crowd, armed only with his staff of office, and seized rioters with a viselike grip. Hays, moreover, was backed by an expanded cadre of peace officers. By day these consisted of two dozen elected constables (two per ward) and scores of mayorally appointed marshals. By night hundreds of watchmen roamed the streets; though primarily on the lookout for fires, they were empowered to arrest any criminals they caught in the act. By 1834, indeed, New York’s constabulary was among the largest and most efficient in the United States.

But not efficient enough. Old Hays, as he was known, was in his sixties. The daytime men were unsalaried and often corrupt political appointees, more interested in earning fees than preventing crime. The “leatherheads” (as watchmen were jeeringly known, after their leather helmets) were poorly paid moonlighters, scantily trained and ill respected. In the big upheavals of the 1830s civil authorities had been repeatedly forced to resort to the militia—usually the elite Twenty-seventh—but frenzied lastminute responses to street turbulence no longer seemed acceptable.

After the shipworkers’ strike of February 1836—an affair that underscored the vulnerability of the city’s commercial core—an elite consensus had emerged in favor of strengthening the forces of law and order. The Twenty-seventh was issued standing orders to be ready to deal with street violence, and the state legislature (in March 1836) specifically authorized the mayor to order out the militia to “quell riots, suppress insurrection, to protect the property, or preserve the tranquillity of the city.” Yet widespread sentiment still held reliance on the military to be inappropriate for a republican government. In 1836, accordingly, Mayor Lawrence had asked Police Justice Oliver M. Lownds to consider ways of reorganizing the police department.

Lownds proposed that New York establish a twenty-four-hour professional police force, modeled on the one created in London by Robert Peel back in 1829. Lownds’s “System of Police” envisioned the creation of multiple stationhouses, each armed with alarm bells. It won the approval of Mayor Lawrence, but opponents killed it by rousing old fears of a standing army and playing on new antigovernment sentiments, distrust of professionals, and fears that political parties might control the police. Besides, the Twenty-seventh Regiment had done such a sterling job suppressing riots. “Six hundred strong,” one paper noted, and “composed entirely of the respectable young men of the city,” they “may be considered the most efficient police we have, and we believe the Mayor and Common Council look upon them as such.” So, apparently, did the federal government, which in 1839 allowed the Twenty-seventh to drill at Fort Hamilton (making it the first National Guard training camp in the nation); in 1840 granted the fort twenty thousand dollars for additional armaments; and in 1841 dispatched Captain Robert E. Lee for a five-year stint as post engineer, charged with improving the fort’s defenses along with those of other military installations in the area.

The council did agree that New York needed a new jail. The old Bridewell was a nuisance, and the Bellevue Penitentiary was too distant from the downtown courts. In 1835, accordingly, construction commenced on a Hall of Detention and Justice. Situated on the grounds of the old Fresh Water Pond, along Centre Street between White and Leonard, the structure had a highly distinctive appearance. John L. Stevens of Hoboken had returned from the Holy Land with illustrations of an Egyptian tomb that caught the fancy of the Common Council. Completed in 1838, the new and imposing city prison became popularly (if mordantly) known as the Tombs.

In the depression, the propolice movement revived. The Twenty-seventh no longer seemed quite so potent a weapon since the panic had bankrupted many of its officers and men, and each passing year had underscored the inadequacy, inefficiency, and outright corruption of the existing force. The daytime marshals and constables, unsalaried, were compensated by fees, supplemented by privately offered rewards. The officers, not surprisingly, concentrated on crimes that seemed most likely to generate emoluments, such as thefts from a rich merchant’s warehouse. With New York in effect having evolved a system of privatized justice, some enterprising detectives went a step farther. They actively colluded with thieves by “recovering” stolen property, then splitting the reward with the perpetrator. Hearings in 1840—the first of many and many to come—produced shocking accounts of organized police corruption.

The night watchmen—“postmen” at fixed stands and “roundsmen” patroling the streets—were equally problematic. As their numbers expanded from 512 in 1830 to 1096 in 1845, their reputation declined. Many leatherheads were elderly retirees or working a second job: “While the city sleeps,” New Yorkers quipped, “the watchmen do too.”

In 1839 Mayor Clark pushed for a municipal “military arm,” on the grounds that having “the character of a riotous city fastened upon us would be truly calamitous.” Editors called for a force that would prevent crime, not just catch criminals after the fact. Yet reluctance to expand police powers stalled further action until the sensational death of Mary Cecilia Rogers generated a demand strong enough to overbear all objections.

Mary Rogers, known as “the Beautiful Cigar Girl,” had come to New York from Connecticut in the panic year of 1837. In 1838 she took a job selling cigars and tobacco at John Anderson’s popular Broadway haunt for journalists and politicians. (This too was a depression-era phenomenon: as an 1838 story in the Sunday Morning Atlas noted, “times are so hard” that out-of-work young women were taking jobs in cigar stores despite the potential threat to their virtue from rakish young customers.) Early one Sunday morning in the summer of 1841, Mary Rogers left the boardinghouse her mother ran at 126 Nassau Street and went missing. Three days later, her bruised and waterlogged body was found floating in the Hudson River near Hoboken.

The penny press turned Rogers’s death—like that of Helen Jewett—into a sensational event. Initial reports had it that Rogers had been gagged, tied, beaten, and raped by several men, then strangled and dumped in the water. Many assumed, with Philip Hone, that Rogers had “no doubt fallen victim to the brutal lust of some of the gang of banditti that walk unscathed and violate the laws with impunity in this moral and religious city.” James Gordon Bennett blamed a gang of “fire rowdies, butcher boys, soaplocks, and all sorts of riotous miscreants,” or perhaps a “gang of negroes.”

When police made no headway in solving the crime, the press, led by Bennett, escalated Mary’s death into a metaphor of New York’s social and moral disintegration. In a scathing editorial on August 12, 1841, Bennett denounced “the apathy of the great criminal judges, sitting on their own fat for a cushion bench—and the utter inefficiency of their police.” Such incompetence was “leading fast to reduce this large city to a savage state of society—without law—without order—and without security of any kind.”

Hysterical rhetoric about the proliferation of crime was seriously overdrawn, as an 1842 district attorney’s report demonstrated, but sentiment proved more compelling than statistics. Governor Seward, citing the Rogers case, called for improving the police in his 1842 Annual Message. Local influentials now swung round and reached a consensus, as one advocate put it, about “the necessity (as in London) of a civic ARMY, a numerous Municipal Police.”

In 1843 the state legislature passed a New York Municipal Police Act, which the governor signed on May 7, 1844. The new law abolished the Watch Department and the offices of marshals, street inspectors, health wardens, fire wardens, dock masters, lamp lighters, bell ringers, and inspectors of pawnbrokers and junk shops. All these responsibilities and more were turned over to a semimilitary “Day and Night Police,” not to exceed eight hundred men.

New York’s force was closely modeled on London’s, with one crucial difference. London’s Metropolitan Police was an arm of the national government, divorced from local control. New York’s was totally decentralized. Each ward became a patrol district, with its own stationhouse. And each ward nominated its own candidates for police officers; if accepted by the mayor, they were required to live and serve in that ward. New York’s police, beholden to politicians, would be inextricably enmeshed in local politics.

The new policemen were salaried—all fees were abolished—and each was expected to make policing his only and full-time job. Preventing crime became as important as apprehending criminals. Officers assigned to surveillance were required to report “all suspicious persons, all bawdy houses, receiving shops, pawn brokers’ shops, junk shops, second-hand dealers, gaming houses, and all places where idlers, tiplers, gamblers and other disorderly suspicious persons may congregate.”

The 1844 state law, however, was merely permissive legislation. It was up to the city to accept it. Mayor Harper’s nativist administration, which took power after Albany acted, refused to ratify it. Instead, leaving the old system intact, the American Republicans added a body of two hundred men—native born and strictly temperance. Officially called the Municipal Police, they were known informally as “Harper’s Police,” as the mayor, not the wards, selected each man.

Harper also chose their wardrobe. The state law had explicitly rejected uniforms as a sign of despotic government, requiring only a star-shaped copper badge (hence “copper” or “cop”). Mayor Harper demanded a blue frock coat with covered buttons, a dark vest, blue pantaloons, and a standing coat-collar with the letters M.P. and a number in woolen embroidery. The men bitterly opposed the uniform, which they felt made them look like butlers. The public booed them in the streets, denouncing them as “liveried lackeys” of the nativists.

In 1845, when Democrats retook the city, they scrapped Harper’s Police and adopted the state law. Mayor Havemeyer, striving to establish a bipartisan department, appointed a political opponent, George W. Matsell, to be the first chief of police. Tammany men on the Common Council, having no such high-minded compunctions, promptly parceled out the eight hundred new positions to Democratic activists (some of them members of the new strong-arm gangs).


Hard times had a golden lining for more than newly minted policemen. Indeed, the depression laid or strengthened the foundation for several of Manhattan’s foremost fortunes.

On May 14, 1837, August Belmont, aged twenty-three, arrived in New York City. His intention was to take the next boat to Havana, where he was to check on the Cuban interests of his employer, the House of Rothschild. Belmont immediately noticed the idle docks, the subdued streets, the general air of a city suffering from plague. He walked over to Wall Street to enquire of the Rothschilds’ American agents what was happening, only to discover that the House of Joseph and Company had folded its tent. An ambitious young man—he had worked his way up with the Rothschilds from errand boy to confidential clerk to private secretary—Belmont decided on the spot to set up as the Josephs’ replacement. Canceling his Havana trip, he rented a small room at 78 Wall Street and established August Belmont and Company, gambling on his employers’ approval. When the Rothschilds’ blessing arrived—along with a salary of ten thousand dollars a year, a fortune in shattered New York—he used Rothschild credit to buy up banknotes, securities, commodities, and property at severely depressed prices. With building lots going for a tenth of their former value, he could hardly help but flourish.

Unto those who already had, even more was given. Jacob Little, the notorious short seller, positively thrived during the crisis, reaping vast returns as the market plunged. John Jacob Astor, profiteer of calamity, snapped up land and houses at fire sale prices, spending over $224,000 in 1838 alone. At the same time, Astor ruthlessly foreclosed on hundreds of property owners who fell behind in their mortgage payments. Cornelius Van Shaack Roosevelt also accumulated land all over Manhattan during the panic years, betting it would rebound in value. Henry E. Pierrepont, whose proposed cemetery had been stymied by high land prices, now found old Dutch farmers willing to sell out for far less. Green-Wood was incorporated in 1838; the first lots went on sale in 1839. At the opposite end of the opportunity spectrum, James Weeks, an African-American stevedore, purchased land in 1838 from the Lefferts family estate, site of the future Bedford Stuyvesant’s Weeksville.

Bottomfeeding was not the only route to success. Alexander Turney Stewart, born in 1803 near Belfast (where he was educated for the ministry), emigrated to New York in 1818 and found work as a schoolteacher. In September 1823 he opened a tiny drygoods store on lower Broadway just north of City Hall Park, offering Irish linens, French cambrics, damask, and similar items “on reasonable terms.” The business flourished, and over the next twenty years Stewart moved from one location to another, each one a little bigger and fancier than the last. By 1837 his five-story, double-width emporium at 257 Broadway was one of the city’s largest. In the panic, Stewart bought up great amounts of distressed merchandise from bankrupt wholesalers and resold it at lowprice high-volume, emerging as one of the city’s first millionaires.

Lewis Tappan fashioned a new industry out of hard times. At first, he and his brother, Arthur, had concentrated on simply staying afloat. Prevailing on their creditors to let them to stay in business, they cut expenses to the bone—Arthur moved into a boardinghouse and slashed his aid to abolitionists—and in eighteen months repaid all outstanding obligations, an amazing accomplishment. Still, the silk business remained a day-to-day struggle, and in 1840 Lewis departed to launch the Mercantile Agency, the country’s first credit rating firm (and ancestor of Dun and Bradstreet). Even in good times, New York wholesalers had lacked information about the solvency and reliability of the far-flung country storekeepers to whom they annually entrusted goods worth millions of dollars. The depression had underscored the problem, as unscrupulous (or merely desperate) retailers used evasion or fraud to escape their liabilities. Tappan’s solution was to establish a network of trustworthy informants—recruited from abolitionists, evangelical clerics, and solid young lawyers like Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois—who forwarded to New York confidential reports on the merits of local storekeepers. These communiques assessed net worth, liquidity, and “character.” They flagged storekeepers who had intemperate habits, led a sporting life, or were “mixed up with a bad woman” (marriage was deemed essential to good credit, though having too many children was thought to cut into capital). From these raw files Tappan fashioned reports he sent to subscribers twice each year, just in time for the fall and spring seasons, when inland storekeepers descended on the city. He thus secured his own fortune and strengthened New York’s position as a commercial center and haven for creditors.


Clearly, New Yorkers’ responses to the drawn-out depression varied widely. Some failed, others made fortunes; some gave charity, others accepted it; some plunged into politics, others into religion, others still into crime. But one reaction was well-nigh universal: a search for diversion, something to drive one’s cares away. For all but the rich, this dictated a search for inexpensive pleasures. At first, the panic had sandbagged the city’s entertainment trades, but it quickly became apparent to a new breed of entrepreneurs that substantial profits could be made in hard times by providing cheap amusements to mass markets.

In 1837 popular papers had suffered along with their working-class readers. The panic killed off most of the penny dailies, including the Transcript. Even pioneer Benjamin Day lost heart. Facing declining circulation and advertising revenues, Day sold the Sunto his brother-in-law, Moses Yale Beach, another Connecticut Yankee. Soon, however, it became clear that working people considered penny papers an excusable indulgence in difficult days. Beach infused the Sun with capital, jettisoned what remained of its insurrectionary character (though retaining its democratic air), and filled its pages with romantic fiction, racy crime, theatrical and sporting news, and such “Help Wanted” notices as came along, making it popular with the unemployed. By 1843 the Sun was shining brightly, with a claimed daily circulation of thirty-eight thousand, and twelve thousand for the weekly edition.

Bennett’s Herald, aimed at a more middling market niche, flourished too. Readers enjoyed his misanthropic maunderings, scathing editorials, accounts of scandals, and attacks on deceitful politicians and venal financiers. On March 2, 1840, Bennett broke new ground yet again, when he devoted his front page to the “Grand Fancy Dress Ball, at Brevoort Hall.” The story, mixing fawning society reportage with expose, recounted a tale of outrageous extravagance amid widespread suffering. Nearly six hundred costumed gentry had partied from eight in the evening until five the next morning at the Brevoort mansion on Fifth Avenue and Qth Street. (The article included a layout plan of the first two floors.)

Philip Hone—who attended as Cardinal Wolsey, garbed in scarlet merino robe and ermine cape—was delighted with the event. “Never before,” he told his diary, “has New York witnessed a fancy ball so splendidly gotten up, in better taste, or more successfully carried through.” But the racy reportage—which aroused both fascination and fury among the city’s middle and working classes—led the old mercantile elite to declare total war on James Gordon Bennett.

“This kind of surveillance is getting to be intolerable,” Hone fumed, “and nothing but the force of public opinion will correct the insolence.” He, along with leading merchants, bankers, and civic notables, worked to have “respectable people withdraw their support from the vile sheet.” Genteel readers and advertisers boycotted the Herald, rooted it out of homes, clubs, hotels, and coffeehouses, and ostracized Bennett. To no avail. The so-called moral war cost Bennett a quarter of his readership and a chunk of his ad revenue, but he soon bounced back, and voyeuristic society columns, offering mass audiences a window into elite sanctums, became a permanent feature of New York journalism.

The “moral war” was, however, a great opportunity for any publisher willing to step in as a champion of respectable values, and Horace Greeley seized the moment. On April 10, 1841, backed by the Whig magnates who had underwritten his log cabin journalism, Greeley founded the New York Tribune. His entrant in the penny press sweepstakes, Greeley declared, was intended for the “cultivated and influential families of the city,” those a notch above the Herald’s and two notches above the Sun’s. To penetrate “the parlors or sitting rooms of the uptown residents,” the Tribunewould eschew the “immoral and degrading Police Reports, Advertisements and other matter which have been allowed to disgrace the columns of many of our leading Penny Papers.” Greeley’s efforts to win “the hearty approval of the virtuous and refined” soon garnered him a circulation of ten thousand a day.

Like the penny papers, city book publishers fared poorly at first. Prices and profits plummeted; so did the number of titles the houses issued. Even the largest were imperilled. Unable to transact business or secure credit in London, Harpers considered bankruptcy in 1837, before opting for retrenchment. The industry recovered, however, and even flourished, when eager newcomers, deploying penny press techniques, revolutionized the book trade.

Park Benjamin had been literary editor of Horace Greeley’s New-Yorker until, as Greeley wrote later, “the Commercial Revulsion of 1837 swept over the land, whelming it and me in the general ruin.” Benjamin then tried publishing the American Monthly Magazine, it collapsed in 1838. Finally, in 1839, he devised a publication suited to an era of cutthroat competition. Brother Jonathan, a weekly magazine, combined news with serialized novels pirated from England. It was printed cheaply, on a single giant sheet of paper, then folded but not bound; because of a postal regulation loophole, it could be mailed at cheap newspaper rates. Given the excess capacity of New York’s depressionidled presses, Brother Jonathan could be priced at six cents, an attractive bargain.

With Brother Jonathan launched, Benjamin departed to start up a rival, the New World. Each now vied to include the most material. The sheets grew larger and larger, winning the name “mammoths.” The New World, eventually six-feet-seven by fourfeet-four, comprised forty-eight columns of small type and was best read on the floor. The mammoths also issued “extras” or “supplements,” which crammed entire books into this format. They offered melodramas and high romances, English novels and French fiction in translation, as well as books by local authors, such as Franklin Evans, a temperance novel by the journalist Walter Whitman. Newsboys hawked them on the streets and delivered them to subscribers’ doors, offering premiums (Bibles) for quick renewals. Profit margins were slim, but volume was enormous. Circulation soared past that of all other magazines, even that of most penny papers, forcing book prices ever lower.

Suffering publishers loudly protested the ruinous competition. In 1842, Harpers decided to do battle. Slashing prices on its own English knockoffs, it overcame the attendant deficits with steady profits from schoolbook sales. Then, in 1843, postal authorities ruled that the mammoths’ “supplements” had to be mailed at the more expensive book rate. The newcomers—undercapitalized and overextended—collapsed, succumbing at last to the depression they had up till then ridden so masterfully. What remained was a meaner, leaner New York book trade, geared more than ever before to low-cost, high-volume production.

A similar trajectory characterized the development of New York’s theatrical life in these years. The panic devastated city playhouses. Ticket prices plunged, without attracting patrons. Some smaller theaters closed their doors; larger ones cut wages sharply. At the Bowery Theater, manager Hamblin hoped spectacular effects might improve attendance. In an 1840 drama, The Pirates’ Signal, he replaced the stage with a tank of water, upon which a full-rigged ship sailed from rear to footlights, actors declaiming on deck. Equestrian spectacles followed, among them The Battle of Waterloo, which boasted fifty horses, two hundred supernumeraries, and cannons. Neither fared well; both were too expensive.

Elsewhere along the Bowery and Chatham Street new approaches were percolating. Taverns and small hotels provided free entertainment to draw in drinkers. These venues—known as “free and easies” or “varieties” or “vaudevilles”—offered an everchanging if incoherent assortment of music, dance, magic, ventriloquism, comedy, skits, and tall tales, frequently provided by the audience itself. Hamblin discovered that his Bowery Theater, too, did best when it ran circus shows, comic routines, and lowbudget acts appropriated from the streets and marketplaces. William Mitchell followed suit, halving his Olympic Theater’s admission prices and focusing almost exclusively on what he called “tragico-comico-illegitimate” productions: travesties of local events, topical commentaries, and Shakespearean burlesque (Julius Sneezer and Dars-de-Money).

Shipbuilders and cartmen, butchers and firemen, tradesmen and laborers, domestics and launderers—the vast numbers of single men (and growing numbers of single women) who lived in nearby boardinghouses—began packing their way into such shows. New theaters (the Franklin, the Chatham) went up to house the overflow. The plebeian fare fit comfortably into the expanding spectrum of Bowery entertainments, which included scores of cheap dance halls, dime museums, brothels, billiard rooms, bowling alleys, saloons, oysterhouses, and amphitheaters offering bare-knuckle prizefights or cockfights. At the district’s northern end, the shabby but genial Vauxhall Gardens, one-eighth its former size, still offered substantial food at reasonable prices, and its promenades, deserted by toffs, were thronged with toughs.

The Bowery came into its own during the depression as a plebeian recreation zone, one that rivaled, even outshone, the constellation of patrician venues around City Hall. Working people gravitated there after hours, attracted by the life and color, the array of services (including pawnshops, stage offices, butcher and grocery shops, and livery stables), and above all the vitality of crowds of people determined to have a good time.

The neighborhood was not all-inviting, however; the audiences at most festivities were white-only. The New York Zoological Institute, at 37 Bowery, had a sign reading: “The proprietors wish it to be understood, that PEOPLE OF COLOR are not permitted toenter, EXCEPT WHEN IN ATTENDANCE ON CHILDREN AND FAMILIES.” When one African American challenged the edict by driving up with his own family in a hired carriage, he was barred, punched, and ejected. The Emancipator, an abolitionist paper, seethed at “these savage proprietors and managers,” these “sordid knaves,” and wondered if they would “allow animals of color in their institute!”

Blackness, barred from the audience, remained near the heart of the Bowery’s art. “Negro delineations”—brief bits of burlesque, comic relief, and entr’acte songs and dances—grew ever more popular. At the Bowery Theatre, Hone noted, Jim Crow “is made to repeat nightly, almost ad infinitum, his balderdash song, which has now acquired the stamp of London approbation to increase its eclat.” In February 1843 these solo performances evolved into the depression era’s most remarkable innovation.

Four unemployed musicians, living in a Catherine Street boardinghouse, decided to pool their talents and work up a marketable routine. All had performed as blackface entertainers with circuses. Hoping to ride the coattails of a successful touring company, the Tyrolese Minstrel Family, the quartet called themselves the Virginia Minstrels. Their act featured presumed southern slave culture (“Virginia Jungle Dance”) and employed a heavy “nigger” dialect. Their eccentric movements, wild hollers, infectious music, captivating dancing, rollicking humor, and earthy jokes set Bowery audiences to whistling, shouting, and stomping their feet. From the second they strutted onstage at the Branch Hotel, the Virginia Minstrels were a sensation. They soon departed for an English tour, leaving behind a swarm of imitators. New York City had birthed the minstrel show—a baby that would soon reshape American popular culture.

Race was central as well to the career launch of the titan of the New York entertainment world, the era’s (and arguably the century’s) most important impresario, the master of humbug himself, the one, the only, Phineas Taylor Barnum. Barnum was yet another Connecticut Yankee who, loathing life on the family farm, had cast about for alternatives. He clerked for a time in a country store, learning the local arts of hard bargaining and sharp practices. He opened his own fruit and confectionery store. He became a lottery manager. In 1834 he moved to New York City, where he ran a boardinghouse, then a grocery on South Street. Finally, in 1835, Barnum discovered his true calling.

Barnum learned that in Philadelphia a Yankee showman was exhibiting a gnarled black woman who claimed she was 161 years old and had been George Washington’s slave nurse (with a 1727 bill of sale for herself to prove it). Joice Heth, toothless and totally blind, offered affecting stories about “dear little George,” but only meager audiences came. Barnum, convinced he could repackage Heth into a paying proposition, sold his grocery store, borrowed more money, and bought the rights to her for a thousand dollars.

Barnum quickly displayed a genius for promotion. He got up a promotional pamphlet, festooned New York with posters, and persuaded the papers to discuss Heth. Most intriguing, he invited doubt about the truth of her story, even hinted she was a fraud, sure that audiences would be as interested in testing their ability to discover the truth as in the real facts of the matter. He was right. After exhibiting Heth at a coffeehouse on the corner of the Bowery and Division Street, he moved her up to Niblo’s Garden, eventually clearing fifteen hundred dollars a week.

Joice Heth died within a year, and Benjamin Day reported in the Sun that an autopsy showed her age to be half what Barnum claimed. By then the showman was on the road. For much of the next four years he traveled the country with a blackface dancer and a juggler, ran an entertainment steamboat on Mississippi, and sold Bibles. Then he abandoned itinerancy, returned to New York, and launched his career as impresario.

In May 1840 Barnum leased Vauxhall Gardens. Rather than assemble the usual (and costly) summer stock company, he brought in performers by the night. His “variety shows,” like those up and down the Bowery, drew on popular plebeian entertainments (“grand Trials of Skill at Negro Dancing”). They featured familiar city types (“the Fireman,” “the Fulton Market Roarer”). They redeployed street activities (like amateur slack-rope walking). In effect the self-styled Director of Amusement’s variety show had appropriated the natural (and low-budget) theatricality of the street and market and made it pay.

The format proved popular. Its zestful novelty and continual change suited an audience quickly and easily jaded, and its miscellaneity mirrored metropolitan diversity. An ad in the Herald noted the performances “are exceedingly various, and full of life and merriment. This is what we want. The public have enough to groan and sigh about at home these times, they go out to such places as Vauxhall to ‘laugh and grow fat,’ and Barnum is determined they shall not go in vain.”

“Blackness” remained central to Barnum’s formula, though the tricky conventions of popular racism could present problems for a fledgling cultural entrepreneur. In 1841 his star performer, a white blackface dancer who specialized in “negro break-downs,” struck out for greener pastures. Barnum (as editor Thomas Low Nichols of the New York Aurora later remembered) scouted the dance houses of the Five Points. He soon found a lad who could do the dance even better, “but he was a genuine negro; and there was not an audience in America that would not have resented, in a very energetic fashion, the insult of being asked to look at the dancing of a real negro.” Barnum rose to the occasion. “He greased the little ‘nigger’s’ face,” Nichols recalled, “and rubbed it over with a new blacking of burnt cork, painted his thick lips with vermillion, put on a wooly wig over his tight curled locks, and brought him out as the ‘champion nigger-dancer of the world.’ Had it been suspected that the seeming counterfeit was the genuine article,” Nichols chuckled, “the New York Vauxhall would have blazed with indignation.”

By 1841, when Barnum was ready for a grander venue, he learned that the old Scudder’s Museum was up for sale. Scudder’s had a great location, on Broadway at Ann Street, near to both plebeian quarters and patrician precincts (the Astor House Hotel and City Hall were just across the way). Barnum took over the building and its collections, renamed it the American Museum, and made it the nucleus of New York popular entertainment.

Barnum stocked his American Museum, as he had Vauxhall, with jugglers and ventriloquists, curiosities and freaks, automata and living statuary, gypsies and giants, dwarfs and dioramas, Punch and Judy shows, models of Niagara Falls, and real live American Indians. (Barnum advertised the latter as brutal savages, fresh from slaughtering whites out west, though privately he groused that the “D——m Indians” were lazy and shiftless—“though they will draw.” Animal acts had their problems too: when his orangutan got sick in 1843, Barnum pinned his hopes on a goat but soon realized that “he shits so I can do nothing with him.)” After 1842 attendees could also see a two-foot, one-inch midget named Charles Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, whom crowds adored (especially after Barnum took him to Europe in 1844, where he performed for royalty). And, of course, he featured blackface dancers, Ethiopian melodists, and the new minstrel shows.

One key to Barnum’s success was his mastery of the art of imposture. Hoaxes had been a staple of the penny press since 1835, when Benjamin Day’s Sun had run its series reporting life on the moon. The failure of so many oversold speculations during the panic and the subsequent exposure of deceptions by swindling businessmen had lessened the public’s appreciation for plausible rogues, to be sure. But Barnum’s brand of humbug was neither malicious nor costly. In offering up such forgeries as the Fejee Mermaid he sold his audiences the sheer fun of debating truth or falsity, of outmaneuvering the hoaxer, of discovering how the deception was done. “The public,” as Barnum observed, “appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.”

Barnum was also a brilliant promoter. “It was my monomania to make the Museum the town wonder and town talk,” he wrote in his autobiography, and he developed merchandising into a daring new art form. Barnum deployed all the familiar tactics—extensive ads in the papers, lithographs, pamphlet biographies, posters, flags, bright banners—and a slew of new ones. He installed the first “Drummond lights” in New York City, which illuminated Broadway with limelight “from the Battery to Niblo’s.” He stationed a band on his balcony. He covered the entire building with five-foot-high transparencies depicting over a hundred species of animals. He hired street performers and sent “bulletin wagons” with their sides plastered with ads rolling through the metropolis. Barnum imposed his institution on New York City with much the same flair and fanfare Thurlow Weed had used to hawk William Henry Harrison. And with even greater success, for by the mid-1840s, Harrison was in his grave, but P. T. Barnum’s Museum had become the boast of city guidebooks, a shrine for visiting tourists. More than anyone else, Barnum had realized and seized upon the essential compatibility of hard times and high times. His triumph would stand as an inspiration to countless successors in New York’s world of entrepreneurial entertainment.

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