City of Immigrants

Ireland, the summer of 1845: the air reeked with a sickly odor of decay as the potatoes blackened and died. Nearly a third of the crop rotted that year, nearly all of it the next. Starving men and women ate grass, then died along the roads. Skeletal children grubbed the fields in search of food, their faces “bloated yet wrinkled and of a pale greenish hue.” Before the famine ended five years later, as many as a million and a half people would perish, most of them poor laborers and cotters.

England, whose imperial exactions had led to the crisis, now worsened it. The British government required relief committees to sell rather than give food to the starving, lest charity foster dependency. It permitted cattle and grain to flow out of Ireland rather than tamper with the free market. It supported Protestant landlords in evicting over half a million tenants. (Soon, crowed the London Times, “a Celtic Irishman will be as rare in Connemara as is the Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.”) Of the two million sons and daughters of Eire who eventually escaped the devastation, perhaps three of every four headed for the United States. Crammed below decks in “coffin ships” by shipmasters bent on maximizing returns, more than one in every ten didn’t survive the journey.

Thousands of peasants in the southern and western German states also fell victim to the potato blight and made their way to Bremen, where they booked passage for the United States. Joining them were thousands of other Germans: small proprietors forced off the land by agricultural depression, spinners and handloom weavers unable to compete with English textiles flooding down the Rhine, skilled shoemakers and furniture makers facing proletarianization, and handfuls of merchants and manufacturers frustrated by economic stagnation and political repression.

Emigration from German states accelerated following the suppression of the short-lived revolutions of 1848. The recapture of Berlin by forces loyal to the Prussian monarchy precipitated a flight of craft workers, small shopkeepers, and intellectuals, all of whom had backed a program of radical social and economic change: universal suffrage, socialized workshops, a minimum wage, a ten-hour day. They too set their sights on America. Kein König da, said the republicans among them—no king there. “Since Capital so commands Labor in the Fatherland,” explained a group of radicals departing Baden, they would go to a new country “where the reverse relationship prevails.”

In the gray industrial towns and villages of England rose still another stream of emigrants, including unemployed handicraft workers, disgruntled factory hands, and defeated Chartists. A largely working-class movement, Chartism had hoped to secure economic justice through political reforms: universal manhood suffrage, secret balloting, and annual Parliaments. In 1848, after a decade of having their petitions rejected by Parliament, Chartists talked about linking up with European revolutionaries, but a combination of internal division and government suppression squelched their attempt to march on Parliament. Many fled to America, scant steps ahead of the police, beaten yet unrepentant. (Similarly defiant were the defeated Italian veterans of the 1849 war for independence from Austria, among them Giuseppe Garibaldi, who settled on Staten Island in 1850.)

Irish peasants, German craftsmen, English Chartists—America was their common destination, and it was New York, now the principal western terminus of transatlantic traffic, where they converged. Between 1820 and 1839, better than 667,000 immigrants had arrived in the United States. Some 501,000 (75 percent) of them entered at the Port of New York, a yearly average of around 25,000. Between 1840 and 1859, however, the total number of immigrants soared to 4,242,000. Forty percent were Irish, 32 percent were German, and 16 percent were English. Three out of every four entered at New York, approximately 157,000 per year on the average. In 1854 alone, setting a record that stood for decades, the United States accepted 428,000 immigrants. Of that number, roughly 319,000 (75 percent) descended on Manhattan—more than the entire population of the city in 1840!

Only a minority of these immigrants became permanent residents. Every year, as a general rule, perhaps three of every five departed immediately for the interior. Others moved on after a short stay. Of the more than three million immigrants who passed through the city between 1840 and 1860, maybe one in five or six remained—but this was enough to help drive the population of New York City from 313,000 to 814,000 and that of Brooklyn from 11,000 to 267,000, an aggregate increase of some 757,000 people. In 1845 Manhattan had been half the size of Paris; by 1860 it had over a million inhabitants and had pulled even with the French metropolis.

New York’s surging population wasn’t wholly the result of foreign immigration. The villages of New England, New Jersey, and Long Island continued to export men and women to the city, as they had since the 1790s. The pace of this migration quickened during the 1830s and 1840s as a ramifying network of canals and railroads brought New York’s older agricultural hinterlands into direct competition with more productive farmsteads around the Great Lakes and west toward the Mississippi. Thousands of marginal growers and stockmen left the land altogether and went to Manhattan in hopes of making new lives for themselves; others joined a burgeoning corps of farm laborers, wandering between town and country in search of seasonal employment, here successful, there obliged to subsist “on the good-nature of relatives, landlords, or grocers, so long as they can, and then make their choice between roguery and beggary.” Also on the move were numerous small-town craftsmen and retailers whose livelihoods had been destroyed by the expansion of urban manufacturing.

Although native migrants (sometimes called “buckwheats”) had a good deal in common with their immigrant counterparts—above all, the confusion and resentment of lives thrown into disarray by the advent of new capitalist economies—it was the immigrants, more alien and far more visible, who had the most profound impact on New York. By 1855 over half the city’s residents hailed from outside the United States: 176,000 from Ireland, another ninety-eight thousand from Germany, and thirty-seven thousand from England, Wales, or Scotland. Two of every three adult Manhattanites had been born abroad.

New York City was no novice at handling large-scale immigration, but never before had it confronted anything like this inundation. Where the English had overborne the Dutch in a century-long evolutionary process, this demographic revolution took but twenty years. It was as if a second city had sprung up, virtually overnight—not encamped across the river but superimposed atop the older metropolis. Newcomers in such numbers would not be stirred and dissolved in some metropolitan melting pot.


By the early 1840s up to forty passenger ships might drop anchor off Manhattan every day, the biggest carrying as many as a thousand men, women, and children in steerage. As lighters and steamboats shuttled their cargoes to shore, bedlam engulfed the waterfront. Clattering wagons careened around heaps of boxes and crates. Newsboys, peddlers, apple sellers, and hot-corn girls elbowed noisily through the crowds. Throngs of bewildered newcomers milled about, searching for friendly faces and familiar voices. “Runners” wearing bright green neckties and speaking in thick accents competed to channel their “fellow countrymen” to boardinghouses along Greenwich Street—charging them exorbitantly or robbing them outright—or booked them passage to points further west at rates that were the envy of swindlers everywhere. Hundreds, penniless and half starved, wandered into town, where they begged for food and hunkered in doorways.

Besides the din and disorder and sheer misery of it all, large numbers of those coming ashore had been exposed to typhus, cholera, smallpox, and other infectious diseases that ran rampant on immigrant ships. Under state legislation dating back to the 1790s, the visibly sick should have been dropped off at the marine hospital in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, until doctors certified their fitness to enter the city. Many captains regarded the law as a time-consuming nuisance and either ignored it altogether or surreptitiously landed passengers in places like Perth Amboy, New Jersey, from where they easily made their way to Manhattan.

When city authorities proved unwilling or unable to provide even minimal protection to the new immigrants, associations of older ones stepped forward. The German Society set up an office on Fulton Street, and the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick busied itself with its compatriots’ problems. Most notably, the Irish Emigrant Society (1841) offered information about jobs and lodgings, filed complaints against charlatans, protested shipboard conditions, remitted money and prepaid tickets back to Ireland, and in 1850 established an Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank.

For all their energy, the private German and Irish organizations were quickly over­whelmed, and they demanded and got greater state support. In 1847, overcoming bitter opposition from politicians and would-be predators, they prevailed on Albany to create a Board of Commissioners of Emigration. The panel included the mayors of Brooklyn and New York, the presidents of the German and Irish Emigrant Societies, and six gubernatorial appointees (six of the original ten were members of the Friendly Sons). The legislature empowered the new board to organize and reform the entire process: inspecting inbound vessels, helping immigrants find work, and arranging food, lodging, and medical care for those who had been in America for Jess than the five-year naturalization period. Funds to pay for it all were gathered by taxing the captain of each arriving vessel a dollar per passenger.

The commission would receive considerable criticism in the coming years. More than a few members had vested interests of one kind or another in the immigrant traffic, and periodic investigations turned up evidence of persons in their care being victimized by poor medical care, bad food, and dirty lodgings. But overall the commissioners accomplished a great deal, starting with a mammoth emergency medical relief program for the thousands of arriving sick and destitute. In 1847 they set up the Emigrant Refuge and Hospital on Ward’s Island, rapidly expanding it from a handful of temporary buildings until by the mid-1850s it was the largest hospital complex in the world.

In 1855 the commissioners converted Castle Garden into the Emigrant Landing Depot. The nation’s first immigrant reception center significantly reduced the abuses to which newly arrived aliens had been subjected for years. After ships had passed through the Quarantine Station, six miles below the city, they anchored off the Castle Garden pier, where they were inspected by medical officers and customs officials, and their passengers were barged to the great stone rotunda. Here, clerks of the Emigration Commission supervised the collection and weighing of baggage, enforced uniform porters’ fees, steered travelers to approved agents of railroad and steamship companies, and maintained an official cashier to prevent price-gouging, extortion, and other frauds. In conjunction with labor contractors and manufacturers, the commissioners opened an Intelligence Bureau and Labor Exchange in Castle Garden and began sending tens of thousands of unskilled immigrants every year to the interior to take work on farms and construction crews, in mines and factories, as laborers and domestic servants.


Immigrants arriving at the new Emigrant Landing Depot, formerly Castle Garden. From Frank Leslie’s Illutraied Newspaper, December 29, 1855. Here some seven million immigrants, mostly Irish and German, would enter the United States over the next thirty-five years. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

Nowhere, however, would the torrent of immigrants have greater impact than in New York City itself. The new arrivals would transform every aspect of life in the metropolis—its patterns of work, housing, religion, politics, and gender—and nowhere would the impact be more dramatic than in the arena of class relationships. Some of the better-off immigrants filtered or fought their way into the city’s upper and middling ranks, but the overwhelming mass of them piled into the laboring classes, ousting or overbearing their predecessors in almost every trade. By the late 1850s New York’s predominantly Anglo-Protestant middle and upper classes would confront a reconstituted working class of which better than three-fourths were foreigners.


New York’s had long been a niche economy, its sectors colonized by competing social groups. Newcomers broke into (or were repulsed from) particular occupations depending on the skills and resources they brought with them and the degree of resistance or encouragement they faced from those already entrenched.

Bourgeois occupations remained relatively open to new arrivals, particular those with access to foreign capital or commodities. These included Gustav Schwab, who represented North German Lloyd, a steamship line that began direct service from Bremen to New York; Bavarian emigré Joseph Seligman, who in 1846 opened a successful drygoods importing house; and B. Westermann and Company, who distributed German books, pamphlets, and periodicals to the rapidly growing German-American market. By 1855 fully 25 percent of New York’s top ten thousand taxpayers hailed from foreign countries.

Fewer lawyers, pharmacists, ministers, and teachers migrated—the professional and clerical middle class remained 85 percent native born—but there were openings for people to service their respective ethnic communities. German journalists and editors found work at the many papers that sprang up to serve the German-language community. Twenty-eight appeared between 1850 and 1852 alone, including the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, published by Oswald Ottendorfer of Moravia, who had fought on the barricades of Vienna in 1848: by 1860 it claimed the largest circulation of any German paper in the world. German doctors were in great demand to staff the Ward’s Island establishment, and by the mid-1850s they constituted an estimated one-third of New York’s physicians. Abraham Jacobi, who arrived shortly after being released from prison for his role in the Revolution of 1848, was readily accepted by his American counterparts and began a lengthy career promoting the new field of pediatrics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The shopkeeping portion of the city’s middle class, by contrast, was completely transformed, in considerable measure because the immigrants’ arrival coincided with, and further exacerbated, a breakdown of New York’s public market system. Guided by the new laissez-faire mentality, the municipality allowed existing markets to deterio­rate—apart from Washington Market, which was so lucrative the city replaced it with a larger one—and refused to build new ones in the emerging uptown areas (the farthest north the system reached was roth Street).

This nonexpansion policy created a vacuum, which thousands of small retailers—chiefly immigrants—rushed to fill. Many started as peddlers: Irish women hawked vegetables from streetcorner stands, Germans purveyed small manufactured goods, and Italians sold fruit and flowers. Increasingly, however, Irish, Polish Jews, and arrivals from the mercantile regions of the lower Rhine valley opened independent corner grocery stores. By the mid-1850s the grocery business was dominated by Germans, some of whom had come with capital from the old country, others of whom worked their way up from peddling. Many in turn purchased their supplies from immigrant German farmers who commenced market gardening along the Brooklyn shore from Williamsburgh to Astoria, on well-tilled farms in Flatbush, and even in the pastures, meadows, and woodlands of upper Manhattan. Germans also made substantial inroads as butchers, tobacconists, and newsstand dealers, and by 1855 there were fifteen hundred German bakers, including nine Jewish bakers who could prepare matzohs for Passover.

Immigrants moved into the dry-goods trade as well. Long-bearded Jews, recently arrived from Bavaria, Bohemia, Moravia, and Posen, opened used clothing stores along Chatham and Baxter Streets, creating a bazaar-like atmosphere where haggling was the rule. The Irish ran secondhand shops too but dealt more in iron, brass, and copper: by 1855 224 of the city’s 245 junk dealers were immigrants. Successful secondhand clothiers often moved on to establish their own dry-goods stores. By the end of the 1850s German-Jewish shops lined Houston, Division, Bowery, Grand, and lower Broadway. Irish clothiers were fewer in number (eighty-one out of the city’s 403 in 1855) but did very well indeed. By the 1850s Patrick Rogers of County Tyrone, who arrived in 1836 as a half-trained tailor, was running a prosperous men’s clothing store at Nassau and Fulton, with a retail salesroom and a wholesale warehouse that dealt with merchants across the United States. And Charles Knox, a genius at self-promotion, rose from a basement contracting business to being New York’s best-known hatter, personally fitting out rich Manhattanites with new silk toppers and purveying his goods to the nation.


This cluster of second-hand clothing shops along Chatham street reflected the movement of new immigrants—in this instance German Jews—into small-scale retailing during the 1850s. (© Museum of the City of New York)

Dealing alcohol was another route to middle-class status. Irish constituents of Tammany Hall found it particularly easy to get a liquor license from the Board of Aldermen. Many opened porter houses for day laborers, cartmen, and sailors, while others started taverns frequented by skilled artisans, clerks, and tradesmen. Germans specialized in beer halls and wine gardens. Most of these were “lokals,” lively family venues whose regulars came from particular neighborhoods, trades, vereins (organizations), or old country regions, but some were mammoth enterprises. The Deutsches Volksgarten, Atlantic Gardens, and Lindenmuller’s Odeon could seat twelve to seventeen hundred in frescoed halls, and the Concordia and Germania included meeting halls, bars, ballrooms, billiard rooms, and bowling alleys. Liquor flowed as well in half a dozen German-owned hotels, most famously Eugen Lievre’s Shakespeare on Duane Street, rendezvous for literati, freethinkers, and socialists. According to Police Chief Matsell, fifty-five hundred establishments were licensed to sell liquor in 1855.

For all these entrepreneurial successes, the great majority of immigrants wound up in the manual labor force. Indeed they became the manual labor force: by 1855, only twenty-four thousand native-born whites (17 percent) were doing artisanal or unskilled labor, and a significant proportion of these were clustered in a handful of occupations, notably building and printing.

Immigrants dominated some trades by virtue of special skills. German brewers brought a new product with them. New Yorkers were accustomed to English top-fermented ales, porters, and stouts, which tended to spoil in the hot American summers. Frederick and Maximilian Schaefer, immigrants from Prussia, brought over some bottom-floating yeasts and began producing German lager at a brewery on Fourth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets. Lagers were more highly carbonated, less heavy and less intoxicating, and they kept better. By the 1850s New York had gone mad for lager, and competitors had launched operations in Williamsburgh, Bushwick, and the Bronx, where land was cheaper. By 1860 forty-six breweries were in operation, most consisting of a brewmaster and five to ten workers.

Pianomaking was another specialized trade in which Germans excelled. In 1849 Heinrich Steinweg dispatched his son, then facing reprisals for revolutionary activities, to New York City. His glowing reports about Manhattan’s status as center of the growing U.S. piano industry fetched the elder Steinweg and family in 1850, and in 1853 they formed Steinway and Sons. (Steinweg anglicized the company name, because English pianos were reckoned the best, but kept his German name for some time and didn’t bother learning English.) His timing proved perfect, as refined New Yorkers were demanding parlor accoutrements, and when sales blossomed, Steinway and Sons purchased (in 1858) a site virtually next door to Schaefer’s brewery. The firm installed enormous steam boilers and a Corliss engine to run the plant’s saws, lathes, planes, and elevators, becoming the first industry in New York to mechanize on such a grand scale; by 1860 the company employed three hundred workers.

Cigarmaking had been a substantial industry in Hamburg and Bremen, but in the 1850s the German men (many of them Jewish) who handcrafted expensive cigars faced competition from poorly paid rural women churning out a cheaper product. Thousands migrated to New York City, and soon the old tobacco town became the capital of the North American cigar industry.

English machinists were in great demand to design and develop machine tools—a virtually brand-new trade requiring a knowledge of mathematics, metallurgy, and engineering. English, Scottish, or Welsh printers did well too, constituting nearly half the city’s total in 1855. German printers brought their own fonts and printed prayer books and wedding certificates for German-Jewish synagogues; they also worked for German book, newspaper, and magazine publishers and for English periodicals, like Frank Leslie’s, that started up German editions. (In 1851 Charles Dana, Greeley’s associate at the Tribune, made a bid for German readers by hiring Karl Marx as a European correspondent.)

For many of these skilled craftsmen, life in boomtime New York was a distinct improvement on their former condition. In 1851, attempting to demonstrate immiseration, the Tribune printed a workingman’s budget that allowed “only” 2.8 pounds of “butchers meat” (roasts and chops, not innards) per person weekly. But an annual consumption of 146 pounds of meat was three times that available to London’s workers, and well-nigh unimaginable to new arrivals from devastated Ireland, used to grains and tubers. Enough Irish ate themselves sick on arrival for the Shamrock Society to warn against an “abundance of animal food to which [they were] unaccustomed.” Refugees’ letters back to Ireland reveled in relating the sheer quantity, variety, and cheapness of food in the mouthwatering metropolis.

Many skilled workers could also afford inexpensive furniture (a bed, some chairs, a chest), a stove, perhaps even a swatch of carpet from Hiram Anderson, the Bowery dealer who billed himself as “Carpet Merchant of the People.” Better-paid Irish craftsmen could afford good quality ready-to-wears: “I wear as good a suit of cloths as any Gentleman in the City of Cork, and twenty dollars’ worth of a watch in my pocket,” said an Irish boxmaker in 1852.

These luxuries, to be sure, were tentatively held: the slightest dip in the economy and the watches were off to the pawnshop. And most immigrant craftsmen fared far less well. German and Irish tailors, woodworkers, and shoemakers had fled proletarianization, hoping to reestablish themselves as traditional artisans. But the same capitalizing process was at work in New York and was accelerated by their arrival. Some highly skilled German furniture makers, many with experience in the finest Paris workshops, did obtain custom craft work in firms like Duncan Phyfe’s. Most, however, cranked out cheap chairs and cabinets in small “slaughter shops,” with one to five employees. These outfits, competing desperately to sell their products at wholesale auctions or to large mercantile houses, underbid rivals by driving down wages so steeply that where in 1836 cabinetmakers had made from twelve to fifteen dollars a week, a decade later the majority made less than five. Shoemakers were reduced to putting-out work in cellar workshops, aided by their families.

The garment industry—the city’s largest—was utterly reconstituted. By 1855 95 percent of New York’s tailors had been born abroad; of that number 55 percent were Germans, 34 percent Irish. Some became petty contractors, bidding (and underbidding) for the right to transform the precut cloth supplied by big companies into finished suits and shirts. Some became cutters in the large firms. Most, however, sewed at home for a contractor, at piece rates so low that by the 1850s journeyman tailors, aided by their wives and children—“A tailor is nothing without a wife, and very often a child” went a maxim of German craftsmen—worked sixteen hours a day but seldom cleared more than ten dollars for a seven-day week.

Some Irish garment manufacturers did far better. Daniel Devlin came to New York in 1844 from Donegal, married the daughter of a wealthy Irish American, and did custom tailoring for the city’s leading Catholics. Devlin also pioneered in manufacturing quality discount clothing—he was one of the first in the city to use the new sewing machine—and his line proved popular with upwardly mobile immigrants. By the late 1850s Devlin and Company’s store, at the corner of Broadway and Warren, was the biggest men’s clothier in New York after Brooks Brothers. But Devlin’s accomplishments rested on a huge force of chiefly Irish workers—150 in-house cutters and clerks, and two thousand out-work tailors who labored in their boardinghouses. Devlin paid his men better than average wages by the standard of the day, but that standard was in free fall and soon plunged to seventy-five cents a day.

Female seamstresses might make as little as seventy-five cents a week—when they could find work at all in the highly seasonal and competitive industry. By 1855 two-thirds of New York’s dressmakers, seamstresses, milliners, shirtmakers and collarmakers, embroiderers, and those who turned out artificial flowers for the high-fashion hats of wealthy ladies, were foreign born (64 percent of them Irish, 14 percent German). Living right at the edge, some occasionally fell over. Two German sisters, Cecelia and Wanda Stein, migrated to New York in 1852, both unmarried, Wanda the mother of an illegitimate child. They labored at doing embroidery, but in 1855 their employer went out of business; times being particularly hard, they couldn’t find other work. With the rent due and the larder empty, having borrowed all they could and being unwilling to take up whoring, the sisters spent their last pennies on some flowers, spruced up their dreary room, and got into their bed with the six-year-old, and all took a terminal drink of prussic acid.

Below the ranks of these skilled and semiskilled immigrants lay the battalions of Irishmen and German laborers whose sheer muscle power, as even the most xenophobic New Yorkers were prepared to agree, rapidly transformed the cityscape. In 1855 Irish immigrants made up 87 percent of New York’s unskilled laborers; it was the largest single occupation for Irish males. Some slotted into existing industrial hierarchies at the bottommost ranks: at the Novelty Iron Works, they were hired for such part-time jobs as moving a newly cast thirty-five-ton bed plate through the yard and hoisting it into a ship’s hull. Irishmen also carved out particular niches, especially in construction and transport, often at the expense of African Americans.

With construction booming, Irishmen opened lumberyards, stoneyards, and coalyards and established themselves as building contractors—ethnic middlemen who assembled and managed work crews. By 1860 there were 166 incorporated construction companies. These outfits afforded better-paid jobs for carpenters, masons, and stonecutters skilled in using the new planing machines and steam-powered stone-dressers. However, they relied chiefly on thousands of Irish laborers for the raw manpower needed to complete the Croton Aqueduct High Bridge, build the Hudson River Railroad from Manhattan’s West Side up through the northernmost Bronx, and double-track the New York and Harlem up the Bronx River Valley to White Plains. In Brooklyn, Irishmen filled in the boggy Red Hook marshlands, erected the new docks there, deepened the Buttermilk Channel, and enlarged Fort Hamilton. In Queens they drained meadowlands, filled swamps, and drove turnpike roads east from Hallet’s Cove to Flushing Creek (one them being today’s Astoria Boulevard) and south along the riverbank over Newtown Creek’s first bridge through Greenpoint on to Williamsburgh (including today’s Vernon and Manhattan avenues).

Irishmen reigned supreme in horse-reliant transport. They sat atop hacks, omnibuses, stages, and horsecars—in foul as well as fair weather—and piloted private coaches around town, often suited up in livery. Many found jobs taking care of animals—one agrarian skill transferable to the city—and by 1855 Irishmen accounted for 84 percent of immigrant hostlers. After 1849, when the Common Council, urged by businessmen seeking improved transport, ended ancient restrictions on the trade, Anglo- and Dutch-American one-horse entrepreneurs found themselves in competition with capitalist carting companies who hired immigrant wage-workers. By 1855 there were over eight thousand cartmen (up from thirty-four hundred in 1840), and the bulk of them were Irish.

Irishmen took over New York’s docks as well. “Along the wharves, where the colored man once done [sic] the whole business of shipping and unshipping,” noted one African-American newspaper, “there are substituted foreigners or white Americans.” On any given day five or six thousand of these “alongshoremen” moved mountains of cargo off ships and around the port, roaming from pier to pier for the “shape-ups” at which native-born stevedores amassed work crews. The work was hard, poorly paid, and erratic While waiting for ships to arrive or weather to clear, men hung around local saloons, took alternate jobs as teamsters, boatmen, or brickmakers, and relied on the earnings of their wives and children.

Others went to sea. Here too their arrival noticeably whitened the labor force. Captains relied increasingly on waterfront crimps to assemble crews, and these men, often Irish proprietors of taverns or boardinghouses, tended to favor their own. Black sailors were pushed to the bottom of an already wretchedly exploitative industry. (The glorious clippers were known to seamen as “blood boats.”)

It was much the same with service jobs. Gardeners on upperten estates overlooking the Hudson and Harlem rivers were 90 percent German, Scots, or French by 1855, and immigrants made deep inroads on traditionally black niches in barbering and hotel and restaurant work. Immigrant women competed with blacks for positions as hotel maids, waitresses, cooks, nurses, and washerwomen. By 1855 more than twenty-five “intelligence offices” were placing streams of applicants as household domestics, usually young, single, and recently arrived Irish girls in need of a place to stay as well as work. It was hard work, and the fifteen- or sixteen-hour days, six and a half or seven of them a week, brought in only four to seven dollars a month plus room and board. Still, it seemed better than sweatshop labor, and by 1855 Irish women made up 92 percent of a domestic workforce once overwhelmingly black. “Every hour,” wrote black spokesman Frederick Douglass in 1853, “sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room for some newly-arrived emigrant from the emerald isle, whose hunger and color entitle him to special favor.” There was precious little satisfaction in noting that “in assuming our avocation,” as Douglass put it, the Irish have “also assumed our degradation.”


People had marveled at the almost overnight construction of uppertendom’s fashionable quartier, but they were boggled by the emergence of a huge German metropolis within their precincts. If Manhattan’s Germans had set up their own city in 1855, it would have been the fourth largest urban agglomeration in the United States—third largest if joined by Brooklyn’s Germans. New York City had become one of the three capitals of the German-speaking world, outranked only by Berlin and Vienna.

Roughly half these newcomers were crowded into a mammoth ethnic enclave known as Kleindeutschland (Little Germany). The phenomenon was new to New York, new to the United States. Never before had tens of thousands of foreigners, to whom the English language and American ways were virtually unknown, congregated in such close quarters.

At first, the nucleus of Kleindeutschland lay within a five-block span between Canal Street and Rivington Street. The cobbled or unpaved north-south arteries of Elizabeth, Bowery, Chrystie, Forsyth, and Eldridge were lined with two- to four-story buildings (many of wood) behind which, reached by a maze of alleyways, lay internal courtyards crowded with industrial workshops. From this initial base camp, immigrants pushed north above Houston toward 14th Street in the 1840s and 1850s and east from Third Avenue, through the alphabet avenues, down toward the East River shore, which grew dense with breweries, coalyards, factories, shipyards, and slaughterhouses.

To outsiders Kleindeutschland, with its wealth of German shops, seemed a uniformly Teutonic mass, but the area was far from homogeneous. Quite apart from the admixture of Irish, English, and older American residents, the “German” residents in fact hailed from very different cultural and linguistic regions. “Germany,” after all, was a patchwork of thirty states, and on close inspection Kleindeutschlanders dissolved into a welter of Plattdeutsche and Hessians, Bavarians and Prussians. They were fragmented and spatially sorted along religious lines too. German Jews, for example, concentrated at first in the area bounded by Grand, Stanton, Ludlow, and Pitt. It was here, on Norfolk Street between Rivington and Delancey, that Anshe Chesed built its synagogue in 1849. In the 1850s Jews pressed north with their fellow Germans.

The remainder of the new Germans headed for the urban frontier and formed villages composed substantially of countrymen, much as did their peers who settled in Argentina and Chile. In Manhattan, Yorkville was the leading outer enclave. Between 76th and 100th streets—north of the fire district—cheap wooden housing was available. It was also possible to find work close by or to commute downtown by horsecar. In Brooklyn, Germans constituted two-thirds of the population of Williamsburgh as early as 1847, and Bush wick became known as Dutchtown, from a phonetic rendering of “Deutsch.” Those without local jobs in the tailoring shops or shipyards could float to work, reading their Long Island Zeitung, on steam ferries that arrived every five minutes at Kleindeutschland’s Grand Street. Up in Westchester, Gouverneur Morris II—his ancient manor lands now profitably accessible from Manhattan via the New York and Harlem Rail Road—began to sell off parcels to Germans, among others, and they flocked to villages like Morrisania, Mott Haven, Port Morris, and Melrose.

In Queens, College Point emerged as an industrial town that might well have been transplanted from Germany’s Ruhr region. After Conrad Poppenhusen’s Hamburg vat dyeing business was destroyed by fire, he moved his family to Williamsburgh in 1843 and began manufacturing whalebone brushes, combs, and corset stays. Just as whaling declined in the early 1850s, Poppenhusen learned that Charles Goodyear had figured out how to transform natural rubber into a whalebone substitute. As Goodyear was also strapped for funds, Poppenhusen loaned him considerable sums in return for rights to his discovery. He then established the Enterprise Rubber Works at pastoral College Point and developed a company town around it. He drained marshes, built a cobblestone road to Flushing, brought in water, streets, and gas, and built homes for the employees whom Poppenhusen’s agents recruited from among the disembarking German immigrants. The little town grew from a few hundred in 1853 to over a thousand in 1855 and two thousand by 1860.

Germans also flocked to satellite cities in New Jersey. Between 1840 and 1860 Newark’s population soared from seventeen thousand to seventy-two thousand, Jersey City grew from three thousand to thirty thousand, and Hoboken boomed as well. Substantial percentages of these new urbanites were German (and Irish) immigrants— 40 percent in the case of Jersey City—attracted to the manufacturing establishments of Essex and Hudson counties.

Irish immigrants were less densely concentrated. Their only counterpart to imposing Kleindeutschland was the dilapidated stronghold of the Five Points. Here Hibernians clustered by kin and county—a clutch of Corkonians on Mulberry Street, a cluster of Kerryonians on Baxter. But while the Sixth Ward was more Irish than ever, most African Americans having departed, it remained home to Germans, Italians, Chinese, some remaining blacks, and a multinational assortment of sailors.

Rather than joining their compatriots, most incoming Irishmen settled wherever they could find work. As this was usually on far-flung construction projects, their communities were dispersed throughout the metropolitan region. In the Bronx, Irish laborers who built the Croton High Bridge settled in Highbridge; those who worked on the New York and Harlem opted for villages along its path—Melrose, Morrisania, Tremont; and those driving the Hudson River Railroad into the northwestern Bronx gravitated to Kingsbridge. In Queens, those building turnpikes and draining meadows were drawn to Astoria’s “Irishtown,” whose local byways bore names like Emerald or Shamrock Street. In Brooklyn, “Irish Town” referred chiefly to the substantial enclave around the Navy Yard, but there were others. Brooklyn Irish laid out Bedford’s streets and horsecar lines, then stayed on as residents (immigrants constituted 70 percent of Bedford’s population in 1855, and three-fourths of these were Irish). Red Hook housed the Irishmen who built and worked its docks, brickyards, distilleries, warehouses, and factories. By 1855, out of Brooklyn’s total population of 205,250, roughly a hundred thousand were foreign born (47 percent compared to Manhattan’s 51 percent), and of these fifty-seven thousand were Irish, twenty-six thousand German, and eighteen thousand English.

The diversity of immigrant settlements was matched by the variety of housing conditions. While some immigrants’ dwellings were quite substantial, certainly superior to those they had just fled, overall the standard of working-class accommodations in New York City went into steep decline. The 1837-43 depression had virtually halted new construction, so the vast numbers of newcomers were rolling into a seriously understocked city. Propertied New Yorkers responded to the sudden and intensive demand for shelter either by cramming newcomers into existing housing or by building a new kind of structure, the “tenant house” or tenement, designed specifically as a multifamily worker dwelling.

In lower Manhattan, especially around the Five Points, cramming was the strategy of choice. Landlords converted frame houses built for single artisan families into rabbitwarrened boardinghouses, jammed renters in, then jammed some more into sheds and stables. By 1850 an estimated twenty-nine thousand people, most of them Irish, had become unwilling troglodytes, living in cellars, often with two or three families sharing a single soggy space. The Five Points’ Old Brewery alone housed hundreds of poor Irish and blacks.

Kleindeutschland too was carved up and stuffed full: the elegant five- or six-story buildings on the north end of Tompkins Square (now Der Weisse Garten) that developers had hoped would house the native upper classes were sliced and diced into crowded rooming houses. But in Little Germany, the cumulative market power of even poorly paid laborers and artisans was so great that tenement construction became profitable. Some of the new three- to five-story buildings, especially along Avenues A through D, were solid brick structures. Many, however, were, as former mayor Hone put it, “so slightly built that they could not stand alone, and, like drunken men, require the support of each other to keep them from falling.” Many were in insalubrious locations, stuffed into back lots, nearly flush with the walls of existing houses and privies. Most were stripped-down, amenity-free versions of the row houses developers were raising for the middle and upper classes elsewhere around town. Most lacked “modern improvements,” apart from stoves, and were seldom linked up with water or sewer mains: working people used bedpans and privies long after the respectable classes had switched to water closets.

Tenement areas were intensely crowded. A tenement twenty-five feet wide and seventy feet deep might have twenty-four two-room apartments, each with a ten-by-tenfoot “parlor,” facing street or yard, and a windowless interior eight-by-ten-foot room, big enough for a bed. Such buildings would house a minimum of twenty-four families (plus boarders), but often more—one all-black tenement contained forty families—and when they were organized as boardinghouses for sailors and laborers, densities shot up higher still. Such crowding magnified the dangers of fire and disease, and indeed mortality rates began climbing sharply in the working-class wards.

Given these alternatives, large numbers of immigrants preferred to squat in shantytowns on the periphery of the city. At Dutch Hill, a promontory at 40th Street and First Avenue overlooking Turtle Bay (now the United Nations), Germans and Irish lived in log cabins and recycled railroad cars, the men laboring in nearby quarries, the women and children gathering rags and bones. Farther north lay Harlem—a “third or fourth-rate country village,” the Board of Aldermen called it in 1838, whose lands were worn out after centuries of use, and whose marshes reeked so badly they could “knock the breath out of a mule!” Yet Harlem was also full of lovely hills, woods, brooks, and meadows with river views, and the land was cheap or free. Irish families built one-and two-story frame houses around 125th Street in the 1850s or squatted on mud flats at the river’s edge in cottages pieced together from bits of wood, twigs, barrel staves, old pipes, and tin cans hammered flat. Many raised animals for local markets—geese, cows, horses, goats and such a profusion of hogs that the area around 125th Street was known as Pig’s Alley.

Along the west side, after the Hudson River Railroad opened along Eleventh Avenue in 1851, many threw up shanties in vacant lots between 37th and 50th (the future Hell’s Kitchen). Here they raised pigs and goats, scavenged for food and firewood, hired out as day laborers, and found jobs in the industrializing area. Further north, so many Irish families planted themselves in the African-American community of Seneca Village (bounded by 82nd and 86th streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues) that by 1855 they constituted a third of it. One of the first to arrive was Pat Plunkitt, an Irish immigrant laborer whose wife, Sara, gave birth to George Washington Plunkitt, later a political luminary. Another was an itinerant veterinarian named Croker, who plied his trade among the area’s animals and sired little Richard, the future boss of Tammany Hall.


By mid-century, unable to find adequate housing in the city, thousands of immigrants were crowding into shantytowns scattered around upper Manhattan, safely outside the municipal fire limits. (© Museum of the City of New York)

Many immigrants simply bedded down in the streets. One 1850 account reported that “six poor women with their children, were discovered Tuesday night by some police officers, sleeping in an alleyway, in Avenue B, between 10th and nth streets. When interrogated they said they had been compelled to spend their nights where ever they could obtain any shelter. They were in a starving condition, and without the slightest means of support.” After the establishment of the Police Department in 1845, precinct houses began accommodating homeless people. In one six-month period during 1853 they sheltered roughly twenty-five thousand, a number that would rise dramatically in hard times.


Through the 1830s New York had remained a Protestant town. The 1840s and 1850s immigration ended that dominance forever. Jews went from being an ecclesiastical sliver (five hundred in 1825) to a respectable religious minority of forty thousand by 1859. Catholics, a respectable minority in the 1830s, became the largest denomination in the city—with two hundred thousand congregants in 1855—and a temporal power in metropolitan affairs.

The mass migration of Jews to New York City was triggered when various German states, especially Bavaria, imposed severe economic and social restrictions, making business, travel, and even marriage increasingly difficult. With the arrival of thousands of German- or Yiddish-speaking Jews, the number of synagogues rose rapidly, reaching a total of twenty-seven by 1860. The immigration also created considerable internal strains in what had been a relatively harmonious population. German Jews, especially the more educated and wealthy among them, objected to holding services in Hebrew, which few understood. They also wanted preaching by a rabbi, the introduction of instrumental music, and the integration of sexes. Those inclined toward such practices organized their own “reform” congregation—Emanu-El (God Is with Us)—which soon acquired its own “temple” (first on Chrystie, then on 12th Street) and its own cemetery (at Cypress Hills on Long Island). By the 1850s Emanu-El was challenging “orthodox” Shearith Israel and B’nai Jeshurun for leadership of the Jewish community.

Many German Jews, as verein-minded as other Kleindeutschlanders, flocked to secular groups as well. By 1849 the combined membership of the fifty-odd Jewish organizations—charitable, social, and fraternal—exceeded by far the combined membership of the synagogues. Among the most important was the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant). It resembled the Odd Fellows and Masons in providing members with mutual aid and burial benefits, and by 1860 it had ten lodges and a thousand members. A Jewish press emerged as well. The Asmonean, the first successful Jewish weekly in the United States, was joined, in 1857, by the Jewish Messenger. In 1855 the “Jews’ Hospital in the City of New York” opened its doors (it would be known after 1866 as Mount Sinai). Initially a project of the older Portuguese and English, it soon added immigrant Germans to its board and became the most prominent Jewish organization in New York City. All factions attended its charity banquets and balls; the spectacular affair at Niblo’s in 1858, graced by the mayor’s presence, was the most extravagant event of its kind ever organized by New York Jews.

The emergence of a full-blown Jewish community raised relatively few hackles among other religious communities in a city where congregants of Shearith Israel had long been a respected presence. Anti-Semitic caricatures of Chatham Street’s clothing dealers and pawnbrokers were prevalent, to be sure. A character in Melville’s Redburn recalls “walking up Chatham-street” and seeing “a curly-headed little man with a dark oily face, and a hooked nose, like the pictures of Judas Iscariot.” But most found it hard to distinguish German Jews from other Germans, and when they did, it was apparent that the newcomers were intent on fashioning a brand of Judaism that would be “acceptable” to the gentile majority. By 1856 Temple Emanu-El had switched from German to English.

Where the arrival of the German Jews—modest in numbers and demeanor—provoked no backlash, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants provoked strenuous anti-Catholic outbursts. Yet the newcomers were by and large only nominally Catholic. Most cleaved to pre-Christian Celtic peasant traditions. In Ireland, the official dogmas about sex and sin that would characterize the postfamine Church had, as yet, made inroads only among better-off tenant farmers. Peasants continued to hold boisterous celebrations, wakes, and saint’s-day festivals that appalled the clergy, who were spread far too thinly (one priest per three thousand parishioners in 1840) to have more than marginal influence.

This state of affairs was reproduced in New York City. Many immigrants were ignorant of the simplest Catholic rituals and skipped even Sunday Masses; those inclined to go couldn’t afford pew rents, an American invention. Most hewed instead to rituals like wakes—festive and largely social events that left no room for a priest. The metropolitan hierarchy and the more affluent and anglicized among the laity were eager to church the immigrants, to be sure, but Catholicism was even weaker in New York than in the old country: here there were only eight churches, and one priest for every eight thousand Catholics.

John Hughes, self-proclaimed “bishop and chief” of the Irish community, set out to transform this situation. With considerable assistance from the international Catholic community, he succeeded brilliantly in welding his scattered and dispirited countrymen and women into a coherent body. One of the first great “brick and mortar” priests, Hughes embarked on a mammoth building program, particularly in the uptown industrial wards into which his would-be parishioners were moving. He provided churches for the railroad builders who settled in Harlem and Yorkville villages, built the Church of Annunciation at Manhattanville (1853) for the Hudson River Railroad crews, and erected St. Paul’s on 59th Street for the shantytown squatters on the city’s western edge in 1858. By the 1860s nine new Catholic churches had been organized between 14th and 42nd streets, the overall total had gone from eight to thirty-one, and plans had been set in motion to erect a spectacular new St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.

Nor were outlying areas neglected. St. Raymond’s, established in 1843, was the first Catholic church in the Bronx. In southern Brooklyn, St. John the Evangelist was founded in 1846, with services held in nearby stables until its tall wooden structure at 21st Street off Fifth Avenue was dedicated in 1851. Two years later Brooklyn became a separate diocese under Bishop John Loughlin.

German Catholics presented a special problem. Hughes opposed “national parishes.” He want to preside over a unified community, not a congeries of ethnic ghettoes. Nor was Hughes comfortable with the Germans, whose piety was of a fervent counterreformation variety. Nevertheless, when the Germans pushed to construct their own churches and use their own language, Hughes did not stand in their way. In 1844 Manhattan Redemptorists raised the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, whose original wooden structure was replaced in 1851 with what German New Yorkers called their “cathedral,” and indeed Most Holy Redeemer’s 250-foot tower dominated the Kleindeutschland skyline. In all, seven German churches were established by 1860, along with mutual aid groups independent of those provided by the Irish-dominated Catholic hierarchy.

Hughes’s second priority was to train a cadre of priests and nuns. To this end he built St. John’s College (later Fordham) on 106 acres near the Village of Fordham, twelve miles north of the city, newly accessible by railroad. Opened in 1841, presided over by the Rev. John McCloskey (later, New York’s first cardinal), St. John’s began preparing young men from wealthier Irish families for the priesthood and other professions. Hughes knew, however, that he had neither the priests nor the money to sustain such an institution, so he turned to the Jesuits, his worries about allowing such a powerful religious order into his bailiwick overridden by his desire to have the prestigious organization run his college. The Jesuits, finding the idea of a base in New York City appealing, purchased Fordham from the diocese in 1846. The following year they opened St. Francis Xavier, on West 16th Street in Manhattan, also to prepare men for the priesthood, the bar, and the medical professions. The same goals motivated the Christian Brothers to launch Manhattan College in 1849. All three institutions would be supported by—and in turn help create—a Catholic middle class. For females, Hugh­es arranged for the Madames of the Sacred Heart to begin the Academy of the Sacred Heart (1841), which moved in 1847 to the grounds of Jacob Lorillard’s estate in Manhattanville. By 1850 local graduates and arrivals from Europe had brought the ratio of priests to parishioners down from one to eight thousand to (a still overwhelmed) one per forty-five hundred.

Hughes’s third enterprise was to bring the children of the immigrants into the Faith. With the city and state having refused financial support to Catholic schools, the bishop made organizing parochial schools his top priority. A crash program, which ran up an immense diocesan debt, brought the number of Catholic schools to twenty-eight by 1854, embracing ten thousand pupils. A decade later, fifteen thousand students were attending twelve select and thirty-one Catholic free schools in New York, and there were another twenty-eight institutions in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

To staff these schools, Hughes traveled to Ireland, England, and France seeking help from religious teaching orders. Several accepted his call. In 1848 the Christian Brothers from France opened their first two schools for boys, St. Vincent de Paul’s Academy on Canal Street and De La Salle Academy on 2nd Street near Second Avenue; the order would run many others. For instructing girls, Hughes relied on nuns from, among others, the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and, above all, Sisters of Charity.

Mother Seton’s Sisters of Charity had become legendary in New York City for their work during the cholera epidemic of 1832. Like the other orders, it was not under Hughes’s direct control. In 1846, however, thirty-two of the fifty sisters chose to form a separate community, the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent of Paul. Now they reported directly to the bishop (and their superior, Mother Angela Hughes, the bishop’s youngest sister). At his direction, the women organized the Academy of Mount St. Vincent. In 1847 they purchased the Jacob Dyckman estate at McGowan’s Pass, five miles north of the city in the vicinity of 105th Street and Fifth Avenue. By the mid-1850s their convent had seventy sisters (half of them Irish born), eleven Irish servant girls, nine male employees (also Irish), several buildings with classrooms for nuns, and a free school for local children. In 1856 they moved again, to a fifty-acre tract fifteen miles from City Hall in Westchester County. Once part of Frederick Phillipse’s confiscated lands, the Hudson River estate had been home most recently to the celebrated actor Edwin Forrest. In 1847 he had built Font Hill there, a Norman castle. Now it became part of Mount St. Vincent de Paul. By 1859 a great new red brick building housed a convent for novices and an academy for training the teachers who would staff many of the city’s parochial schools (and other welfare institutions) from that day to this.

Last, Hughes secured ample final resting space for his parishioners. In 1848 the church purchased the old Alsop estate on the Maspeth side of Penny Bridge, which traversed Newtown Creek. Here Calvary Cemetery was laid out, and for the convenience of funeral corteges, steamboat service was inaugurated from East 23d Street. Other cemeteries quickly followed, such as Holy Cross in Flatbush (1849) and Mount Olivet on the old Hallett Estate in Maspeth (1851).

By 1850, reflecting Hughes’s accomplishments, and the importance the Vatican increasingly attached to New York, the city was chosen to be an archdiocese, and Hughes was appointed its first archbishop. For all this, the Irish did not unreservedly accept Hughes as their chieftain. Hughes was certainly a hero to many working-class Irishmen—he had arrived a penniless laborer like themselves and yet achieved great things—and many in the Irish middle class, who saw him as savior and sponsor, snapped up busts of the Bishop turned out by a Greenpoint porcelain factory. Yet the majority of his parishioners were still only nominally in the fold. In the 1850s at least half the Sixth Ward Irish rarely attended Mass. Many parents were reluctant to send their children to parochial schools, fearing this would hamper their futures in the wider city. Substantial numbers preferred the public schools, which had also expanded vigorously and were now ward controlled, hence, in Irish neighborhoods, no longer a threat to their faith. Hughes also met resistance when he moved to seize power from the lay trustees who by custom and state law controlled church property. Their insistence on maintaining a democratic pattern of church governance left him at odds with many professionals, small businessmen, and skilled artisans, key elements of the fledgling Irish middle class.

The bishop also faced considerable opposition to his political stance on international issues. New York’s hierarchy had already assumed the conservative cast that would characterize it for the next century, in part because the clergy had to compete with arriving radicals for the loyalty of the immigrant masses. In 1848 a group known as Young Ireland, impatient with Daniel O’Connell’s failure to end English rule, seized on news of the revolution in France to organize for a rising. In New York City radical nationalists held rallies, raised money, purchased arms, and formed militia companies for anticipated action overseas.

New York’s Irish-American republicans emerged as an alternative and at times oppositional voice. In 1849 Patrick Lynch launched the Irish-American, a moderate nationalist weekly. Its circulation soared from twenty thousand in 1854 to forty thousand by decade’s end, and it was widely read aloud in Irish taverns. Lynch maintained an uneasy truce with Hughes, but he insisted that Irish-Americans believed firmly in the separation of church and state, and he grew incensed when nativists characterized Irish republicans as tools of an autocratic church. Hughes managed for a time to isolate those who advocated armed struggle against the British, but in 1858 militants formed the Fenian Brotherhood, a transatlantic underground organization devoted to raising money, arms, and soldiers for a future rebellion. The Fenians’ numbers were small, and their attention was focused primarily on exile politics, but they would yet play a major part in the affairs of New York City.


These divisions within the Catholic community were largely lost on nativists, from whose perspective it seemed that Hughes had constructed a monstrous phalanx and become its spiritual and temporal dictator. Their anxieties were further fueled by New York’s newfound favor with the Vatican and by some intemperate remarks Hughes made in November 1850 before leaving for Rome to receive the pallium of office from the pope. In a sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, “The Decline of Protestantism and Its Causes,” Hughes announced the coming triumph of Rome over Protestant nations everywhere, including America. Such missionary fervor confirmed many nativists’ worst fears.

Beleaguered white artisans, in particular, facing an avalanche of immigrants and speeded-up proletarianization, reacted with hostility. Some organized the American Laboring Confederacy, whose paper, the Champion of American Labor, spoke out bitterly against the “swarms of needy adventurers, cut-throats and paupers of European jails and poor-houses, that, like the locusts of Egypt,” were ravaging the New York labor market. In trade after trade, an 1847 petition argued, employers had beaten down wages “by reason of their having the cheap pauper labor of Europe ready at hand, to work for that price if Americans refuse.”

Stopping or slowing the onrush seemed the only answer. If the government, through its tariff and other policies, could extend protection to “rich capitalists, to mammoth manufacturers, extensive railroad speculators and contractors in the public works,” why not protect workers by putting a tariff on people as well as commodities? In the boom era, however, most erstwhile allies were nowhere in sight or actively opposed to immigration restriction. Many old-timers recognized that the faucets of imported labor power were fixed in a wide-open position, that the New York working class would soon be dominated by immigrants, and that nativism was a strategy without a future. Some native-born artisans, accordingly, set out to make common cause with English Chartists, German socialists, and Irish nationalists. Others would nevertheless continue to press restrictionist demands, and street violence would flare up in the 1850s.

Whenever the crackle of street fighting subsided—or perhaps precisely when it was most furious—combative young American, German, and Irish workingmen discovered they had much in common. Many shared a visceral distaste for bourgeois culture, with its exaltation of piety and sobriety, self-control and industriousness, female domesticity and refined respectability. Many working-class men did embrace such virtues, of course, but others rejected definitions of male success that poorly paid proletarians found increasingly impossible to meet.

Some immigrants were drawn to the party of the refined; others joined the ranks of the rude boys—and transformed them into “b’hoys.” The b’hoy was a multiethnic construction, part native American rowdy, part Irish “jackeen,” part German “younker” (Kleindeutschland grocery clerks who expressed their Americanness by greasing their hair and wearing loud checked clothes to dance halls, rather than wearing the old costumes and singing the old songs with their elders in the beer halls).

This new youth culture fashioned its self-image not at work but at play—and the bastion of b’hoydom was the Bowery, long a site of rough sports for adolescents and apprentices, more recently a center of commercial entertainment. After work, rambunctious young men, free of family responsibilities and with enough money in their pockets to indulge the less expensive pleasures, rolled out of their bachelor boardinghouses in the surrounding heavily male wards and headed for the Bowery’s theaters, brothels, and dance halls.

They were usually clad in colorful attire, not bourgeois black—either the red flannel of their volunteer fire company, the costume of their gang, or the regalia of a working-class dandy. B’hoys loved dressing “high,” in mocking parody of Broadway’s exquisites—sidelocks heavily greased with soap, stovepipe hat perched on head, cigar or chaw in mouth, red shirt, black silk tie, flaring trousers, high-heeled calfskin boots. And they preened and promenaded with swaggering bravado, not proper decorum: “He rolls down the Bowery a perfect Meteor,” said one observer.

Florid body language found its counterpart in “flash talk.” The word “slang,” meaning “illegitimate language,” first came into use around 1850, and Boweryites introduced slang terms by the bushelful: “chum,” “kick the bucket,” “going on a bender,” “pal,” “blow-out,” and “So long!” “Many of slang words among fighting men, gam­blers, thieves, prostitutes, are powerful words,” Walt Whitman observed, and his poetry so reflected their defiant vitality that more than one reviewer observed: “He is the ‘Bowery Bhoy’ in literature.”

Many spent the bulk of their time in taverns, which the immigrants completely refashioned. In the 1840s the traditional English-style artisanal gathering place, where craftsmen passed a leisurely evening drinking ale and brandy and playing checkers, dominoes, or billiards, gave way to rural-Irish-style establishments, usually named for the owner. Most often found in a corner store or perhaps a cellar, these taverns—more often called “saloons” by the 1850s—consisted of a single long room dominated by a long straight bar along one wall. The saloons had few seats, which made it easier to accommodate the midday crushes of customers fostered by saloonkeepers who handed out free food to those purchasing beer—usually German lager. At night saloons served as jumping-off points from which to barhop, a peripatetic custom that allowed newcomers to learn their way around the neighborhood.

Though weddings and wakes were often celebrated at saloons, they were mainly centers of rough male conviviality. Amid a fog of tobacco smoke, men drank and spat, cursed and quarreled, played cards and told tales and offered toasts to the likes of Daniel O’Connell. The men treated one another in turn, spending lavishly what little they had to demonstrate their honor and bonhomie.

Lost honor, conversely, rapidly led to barroom brawls. Taverns became sites of ritual battles, in which men aired out personal quarrels, displayed courage, vindicated honor by shedding blood, and sustained reputation by demonstrating ferocity and support for chums. Macho touchiness, often heightened by differences of religion and ethnicity, made defending cultural turf a matter of personal—or collective—pride. Volunteer fire companies also offered a chance for real heroics and colorful display, and in the 1850s immigrants joined them in large numbers (the Irish were 14.7 percent of the firemen in 1850 and 37.8 percent in 1860). Battles between these volunteers escalated as well, in part because Irish immigrants brought over from Connaught and Munster the Gaelic peasant tradition of faction fights.

Neighborhood ethnic-based gangs, headquartered at a saloon or corner liquor grocery, also afforded opportunities to bolster identities in the metropolitan flux. Fights between gangs, especially at times of nativist anxiety, could be ferocious affairs, featuring stomping, brass-nailing, eye-gouging, and nose-biting their enemies. Guns began to appear too, for by mid-century cheap, concealable revolving pistols were becoming available. Yet the code of the streets still decreed that a true reputation for grit and toughness had to be won barehanded. And it was precisely the value placed on fisticuffs—by immigrant and native alike—that accounted for one of the Bowery’s most spectacular contributions to the larger life of the city.


Organized boxing (as opposed to mere brawling) originated in eighteenth-century Britain, where it appealed to both plebeian respect for raw physical courage and aristocratic fascination with ritual combat. Immigrants and merchant seaman brought the sport across the Atlantic in the early years of the nineteenth century, and during the 1820s a handful of prizefights took place in the United States. Around the same time, New York gentlemen began to experiment with “sparring” when William Fuller built a gym in the city and offered to teach law-abiding citizens to defend themselves on the streets against “insolent ruffians and blackguards.” Respectable opinion in the city ran strongly against the brutality of the ring, however, and local authorities exerted themselves to suppress scheduled bouts (in 1824 the King’s County sheriff had dispersed a Coney Island crowd with bayonets).

Fed by ethnic and communal rivalries, “the detestable practice of prize fighting” continued nonetheless to grow in popularity. After 1840 boxing contests and exhibitions became weekly events in New York, thanks in large part to the arrival that year of James “Yankee” Sullivan, an Irishman who had a minor career scrapping in the London prize ring. Sullivan set up the Sawdust House, a Bowery saloon where pugilistically inclined immigrants could slake their thirst, watch a fight or two and swap stories about the great bouts of bygone days.

Two years later, on August 29, 1842, ten steamboats ferried more than six thousand people to Hart’s Island in Long Island Sound for a bare-knuckle fight between Sullivan and William Bell. This was a rendezvous guaranteed to grab public attention, for not only was Bell an Englishman, he was also a sparring master who made his living teaching the “good people of Brooklyn” how to defend themselves against foreigners. In the end, after twenty-four rounds and thirty-eight minutes, Professor Bell proved no match for the hard-hitting Sullivan.

The event sent boxing enthusiasm soaring in the city. Fans packed into the Arena, a new saloon on Park Row, for nightly sparring matches, but the sport soon received a serious setback. Sullivan’s victory had helped him promote a second Anglo-Irish fight, two weeks later in White Plains, between Thomas McCoy and Christopher Lilly. This time the Englishman, Lilly, emerged victorious—except that it took him a grueling two hours and forty-one minutes, and he beat his opponent to death, with McCoy literally drowning in his own blood in the 118th round. Outraged by this first fatality in an American ring, the authorities moved quickly to indict all concerned for riot and manslaughter. Lilly’s friends hustled him out of the country, but Sullivan was packed off to Sing Sing after a sensational trial, crowded with urban street fighters and flashily dressed gamblers, in the White Plains courthouse.

An all-out press attack ensued on prizefighting as an attempt by immigrant barbarians to infect American youths—Greeley’s Tribune led the pack against these “festival[s] of fiends”—but it proved impossible to keep down. By the late 1840s the thousands of arriving Irish immigrants underwrote a resurgence of such magnitude that boxing swiftly became the most important spectator sport in the country, and New York City became its national headquarters.

The revival was marked by the great fight in 1849 between Sullivan, now out of jail, and Tom Hyer, a native American butcher. As the sport was still illegal, the combatants had to travel south, to Maryland, and even there were forced to dodge local authorities and throw their hats into a hastily constructed ring. Hyer won the brief (sixteen-round) slugfest, and the new telegraph lines flashed the results to the metropolis. Newsboys hawked bundles of papers, lithographers sold pictures of the fighters, and saloonkeepers (especially at Hyer’s haunt, the Fountain House on Park Row) did a booming business in postbellum merriment.

In the 1850s dozens of bouts took place each year, along with hundreds of sparring exhibitions. A sporting community blossomed, composed of fight connoisseurs, retired pugilists, and active boxers who opened taverns and sporting houses like Jim Gidding’s Old Crib and James Regan’s Clipper Shades. Boxing became big business. The saloon keepers at the heart of the pugilistic community became entrepreneurs: they arranged bouts, gave odds, took bets, chartered steamboats, sold railroad tickets. Fight managers whipped up public excitement by publishing challenges in the paper (an echo of the old aristocratic dueling practice). Publishers played to the new audience by putting out cheap popular pamphlets like The Life and Battles of Yankee Sullivan (1854).

Boxing did not, for the most part, attract the upper classes. There was, to be sure, a coterie of sporting lawyers, brokers, editors, doctors, and clerks who attended the fights, as well as a wider circle of genteel men who followed them in print. Gentry enthusiasts were known as the “fancy,” from which “fan.” But for working-class pugilists and participants, boxing was far more than a thrilling diversion. For the winners, it could be the ticket out of poverty into the middle-class realm wherein saloonkeepers dwelled. And in a world where ordinary men felt increasingly powerless, a tough guy who battled to the top could become an instant hero to those still trapped below.


Betting at ringside allowed b’hoys to display their skill as gamblers, demonstrating their courageous willingness to lose all. Gambling was also a major avocation in most saloons and public houses and, as an affair among friends, had an ancient lineage in the city. Now, however, gambling went pro. Full-time sharpers had begun filtering into New York back in the 1820s, plying its taverns, hotels, and racetracks. The first successful gambling house—a modest place with a few tables for dice, cards, and checkers—had been established in 1825, aptly enough on Wall Street, near the old Tontine Coffee House. Dozens more opened in the 1830s, featuring faro, roulette, and dice and card games. But it was during the 1840s, Bennett’s Herald charged in 1850, that the city became “the great head quarters of the gamblers in this country.” Greeley believed at least five hundred “gambling hells” were in nightly operation, with vast numbers of “ropers-in”—sometimes moonlighting policemen—haunting New York’s hotels, barrooms, brothels, and businesses, steering potential patsies toward their employer’s “hell.”

From the world of gamblers and boxers it was but a short step down to New York’s underworld, a term warranted by the numbers of criminals at work in the city, the emergence of a rough-hewn infrastructure of criminal operations, and the development among the fraternity of villains of a language peculiarly their own.

Chief of Police George Matsell compiled a 128-page Vocabulum; or, The Rogue’s Lexicon (1859) whose words and phrases, arranged from A to Z, hint at the rich variety of opportunities (and perils) the port afforded the criminally inclined. Examples from the A-to-B range include “Air and Exercise” (working in the stone quarry at Blackwell’s Island or Sing Sing), “Amusers” (who use snuff or peppers to blind and rob victims), “Anglers” (who steal from store windows), “Badger” (one who robs a man’s pocket after he’s been enticed into bed with a woman), “Bat” (a prostitute who only walks the streets at night), “Boodle” (a quantity of counterfeit money), and “Booked” (arrested). Matsell also observed that this was a multiethnic jargon, spoken no matter what the thief’s nationality. The chief noted somewhat pridefully that in New York thieves “from all parts of the world congregate.”

Hangouts emerged that were patronized more or less exclusively by the criminal classes. One-Armed Charley, a noted thief, opened the Hole in the Wall, which became a place where robbers could meet with fences to plan jobs. Usually these fences were junkmen who moved stolen goods under cover of their normal operations, but there were innovators in this field too, like Fredrika ‘Marm’ Mandelbaum, who now launched her long career by peddling looted goods door to door. There were also noted female robbers. One-Armed Charley selected as his lieutenant “Gallus Mag,” a ferocious sixplus-footer who held her skirt up with galluses (suspenders). In addition to her considerable abilities as a mugger, Mag ran a tight ship at the Hole in the Wall. Seizing the ear of an excessively rowdy gangster in her teeth, she would drag him to the street or bite it off altogether and add it to the collection of pickled ears she kept in a jar behind the bar.

Much of the city’s crime was undertaken by individual entrepreneurs who hung around the waterfront, mugging boozy sailors as they exited dockside dives. Others sent female coconspirators to lure hapless landsmen to deserted piers or alleys, where they were struck on the head with a slung-shot (a rudimentary blackjack), their pockets rifled, and their unconscious bodies tossed in the river, sometimes with fatal results. One homeless German immigrant was coshed, robbed of twelve cents, and thrown over the Battery wall, where he was found, frozen, in river ice the next morning. Murders remained a rarity, however—at least solved murders. There were only thirteen homicide convictions in the entire city between 1838 and 1851 (roughly one a year), so that when another thirteen were registered between 1852 and 1854, with guns increasingly in evidence, the city trembled. “Horrible murders, stabbings, and shootings,” the New-York Atlas reported in August 1854, “are now looked for, in the morning papers, with as much regularity as we look for our breakfast.”

Some of the upsurge in fatalities could be traced to the burgeoning activities of socalled river pirates, gangs of professional predators who seized on the opportunities presented by the bustling port. Police Chief Matsell claimed in 1850 that there were over four hundred such robbers, organized into roughly fifty gangs, though his figures may well have been inflated in order to win creation of a harbor police force. Some river pirates simply prowled the wharves, snatching up unguarded property. Others were more venturesome—like the Daybreak Boys, named for their youthfulness (most were under eighteen) and their penchant for predawn operations. The Daybreakers would depart their headquarters (a gin mill at Slaughter House Point), head to the waterfront, and row to their objectives—ships at anchor—with muffled oars and greased locks. Once aboard, they rifled the cargo, rowed their booty ashore (at times to Brooklyn), and sold it off to fences. Between 1850 and 1852, it was claimed, the Daybreak Boys stole a hundred thousand dollars in property. Their career ended abruptly when, in the fall of 1852, a trio of Daybreakers shot a watchman who had surprised them on board his ship. Caught and convicted, Nicholas Howlett, nineteen, and William Saul, twenty, were condemned to death by the court but hailed as heroes by the Boweryites. When they were hanged in January 1853, hundreds showed up in the Tombs courtyard to shake hands with the condemned men on the scaffold.


The b’hoys also adored theater, and immigrants were quickly incorporated into popular audiences. (Linguistic differences did generate a degree of ethnic segregation: the Bowery Amphitheater was rebuilt in 1854 as the twenty-five-hundred-seat Stadttheater, which presented classical German dramas, popular comedies, musicals, melodramas, and farces.) At a plebeian playhouse, the Spirit of the Times observed in 1847, “the pit is a vast sea of upturned faces and red flannel shirts, extending its roaring and turbid waves close up to the foot-lights on either side.” The most eager pushed onto the boards themselves, “chanking peanuts and squirting tobacco juice upon the stage.”

Shakespeare remained a major staple of popular theater, but burlesques based on life in New York grew rapidly in working-class esteem. William Mitchell’s Olympic Theater became the most popular venue in town, in part for its low prices, in part for its regular diet of lampoons, parodies, and travesties involving well-known city figures and activities. In the 1843 Macbeth Travestie, for example, the king and attendants appeared as “nabobs of the 15th ward,” while the witches resembled the New York’s market women.

Minstrelsy in particular, said the Literary World m. 1849, “convulse[d] the b’hoys and their seamstress sweethearts.” By the 1850s there were ten major minstrel halls or “Ethiopian Opera Houses” in town, and some became semipermanent features of the cultural landscape, E. P. Christy’s Minstrels (at Mechanics Hall) and Hooley’s Minstrels (in Brooklyn) each played for ten years straight. Minstrelsy too was a variety of social travesty. Its routines ridiculed the self-importance, pretentiousness, and hypocritical morality of New York’s middle and upper classes. One performer usually stood in for a nabob or reformer, whose high-flown diction the other actors delighting in puncturing, often via lewd buffoonery. Immigrants too took their knocks. To the dismay of Irish actors and the Irish-American press, comedians got easy laughs portraying stage Hibernians as ignorant, pugnacious, and drunken buffoons.

The foibles of stage Africans—whites in blackface, of course—received no such leniency. Vicious derision of blacks remained integral to the art form (albeit alloyed with fascination and envy). It afforded artisans and immigrant audiences, who feared their declining economic status might be seen as racial slippage, a chance to collectively display their whiteness by dissing their only inferiors. Whitman, a great fan of minstrelsy, was one of the few to see the racial intermingling underlying the insistence on racial separation—blendings at work behind the backs of the performers. One visitor to a black tavern observed that “in the negro melodies you catch a strain of what has been metamorphosed from such Scotch or Irish tune, into somewhat of a chiming jiggish air.” While Whitman suggested such musical confluence presaged a “native grand opera in America,” it was tap dancing that would later emerge from the admixture, in the Five Points, of African and Irish dance traditions.

Audiences that laughed at Zip Coon or chuckled at Paddy positively roared for Mose. In 1848 Francis Chanfrau took to the stage at the Olympic wearing a version of the standard fire-laddie outfit, complete with red shirt, stovepipe hat, and soaplocked hair. At first, there was puzzled silence. Then Chanfrau took his cigar out, spit into the wings, and growled, “I ain’t a-goin’ to run wid dat machine no more!” There was an instant “yell of recognition” from the pit and galleries. And well there might have been, for Benjamin A. Baker, the playwright, had put the Bowery itself on the boards. The play—A Glance at New York in 1848—revolved around a young Connecticut greenhorn who fell into a series of scrapes with assorted loafers and sharpers, from which he was extricated by Mose.

Baker realized he had a good thing going and redrafted the play, called it New Yorkas It Is, and put Mose at its center. “I’m bilein’ over for a sousin’ good fight with someone somewhere,” Mose bellowed. “If I don’t have a muss soon, I’ll spile.” But Mose the tough guy was also Mose the protector of the weak. If pugilism was his avocation, firefighting was his mission in life. The plebeian hero rescued babies from burning buildings (played out onstage with elaborate sets and props), defended Bowery folk against urban corruption, saved Linda the cigar girl from molesters, helped a rural migrant cheated by city slickers, and—antiaristocratic hero that he was—thwarted effete and wicked gentlemen. The rough realism was a smash, crowds turned the theater into a frolicsome madhouse, and New York as It Is became one of the greatest successes in the history of the Manhattan stage.


Mary Taylor and F. S. Chanfrau in the roles of Mose and his ladyfriend, Lize, in the premier of “A Glance at New York,” 1848. (The New York Public Library for Performing Arts)

The fictional b’hoy’s nationality was ambiguous. In Baker’s play Mose was obviously a native-born worker, though the character also invoked Moses Humphrey, a wellknown fire laddie, brawler, and Irish Catholic printer at the Sun. But Mose was generally perceived as not an ethnic but an urban type—appropriately enough given that b’hoy youth culture, for all its internal stresses and strains, was a conglomerate affair. A mix of social fact and literary convention, Mose was the New York rude boy writ large, but as he liked to think of himself: opinionated, rowdy, but virtuous withal.

Over the next two years, as seven different Mose plays went on the national circuit, the image of Big Mose cohered into a cultural identity recognizable across the country. Lithographed reproductions of scenes from the plays then turned Mose into an international figure. The Bowery B’hoy—riotous and vociferous habitue of fire companies and theaters and prizefights and street corners—became as well known as the Wall Street Banker.

In the 1850s Mose cohered into a fabulous semimythic figure of the sort made popular by Davy Crockett (“half-horse, half-alligator, a little touched with snapping turtle”), and he took his place alongside the likes of Mike Fink, swaggering riverboatsman. This urban Paul Bunyan was said to be eight feet tall, with ginger hair, a two-foot-wide beaver hat, and hands like hog hams, and he toted a fifty-gallon keg of ale as a canteen. He had the strength of ten: he could uproot iron lampposts and use them to smite rival gang members, lift a horsecar and carry it for blocks, leap the East River to Brooklyn with ease, and swim the Hudson in two mighty strokes (with six he could circumnavigate Manhattan).

As Mose grew larger than life, his roots in an adversarial milieu became fuzzed, his Boweryite critique of New York’s elite blurred. But there would be no such ambiguity in 1849, when Mose’s acolytes declared theatrical war against uppertendom and its associated thespians. That year real, not stage, blood ran through the streets of the city.

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