Purity Crusade

The Great Fire broke out first in Murray Hill, where enraged and drunken mobs sacked and torched the mansions of millionaires. Then hungry men from the Bowery began pouring into fashionable restaurants, gorging themselves, setting the eateries ablaze, and moving on to loot and burn. Perched atop an elevated railroad platform, a reporter watched the conflagration spread out from Fifth Avenue in “billows and waves and worlds of smoke and flame.” The fires roared south, incinerating the great newspaper offices, sending rivers of now-molten lead type flowing out from Franklin Square. Finally the inferno swept into the poor and industrial districts, and soon “the oil, the gas, the rum, the thousands of filthy things which man in his drunken greed had allowed to accumulate on the face of the island appealed to heaven for purification,” and purification was at last attained when the colossal firestorm, having consumed hundreds of thousands of lives, seared on and on till it “burned and burned and burned to the very bed-rock!”

Or such was the premise of popular writer Joaquin Miller’s The Destruction of Gotham, issued by Funk and Wagnalls in the year of the Henry George campaign. While Miller’s book added luster to his reputation, as apocalyptic literature it was soon eclipsed by Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1889), which would sell a quartermillion copies and become one of the century’s bestsellers. Donnelly depicted New York City, a century in the future, as being locked in a death struggle between the Oligarchy, a cabal of acquisitive and vicious Hebrew capitalists who had seized wealth and power through “subtle combinations,” and the Brotherhood of Destruction, composed of “vast, streaming swarms” of beaten-down proletarians of all nations, commanded by the Italian-born giant Caesar Lomellini. After Lomellini’s forces routed the evil Oligarchs with “dynamite bullets,” the “brutal and ravenous multitude”—with no one left to keep order—broke loose “like a huge flood, long damned up” and flowed “full of foam and terror” in every direction. Maddened men chased well-dressed individuals “like hounds after a rabbit,” tore them apart, and whirled the dead bodies to delighted spectators, who hauled them off in gory chariots to Union Square. There, by the light of blazing bonfires, the drunken victors set sixty thousand prisoners (“merchants professional men, etc.”) to stacking and cementing a quarter-million cadavers into a colossal column of corpses—“in commemoration of the death and burial of modern civilization.”

Like Miller, Donnelly saw cities—New York in particular—as breeding millionaires, tramps, and urban Armageddon. “The classes from which we have most to fear,” agreed Josiah Strong in Our Country (1891), “are the two extremes of society—the dangerously rich and the dangerously poor.” Like other popular Cassandras, Strong, who was secretary of the Congregationalist American Home Missionary Society, emphasized that “a mighty emergency is upon us”—us being the country’s imperiled Protestant middle classes, who were fast losing any ability to rein in either irresponsible monopolists or “ignorant and vicious” aliens.

In New York itself, the comfortable middle classes were finding the final decades of the nineteenth century a strange and perplexing time. They knew they lived amid unprecedented progress and prosperity. Yet everywhere they beheld portents of danger: poverty, corruption, licentiousness, militant unionism, political radicalism, open strife between capital and labor, and a surge of immigrants so vast and alien that it was hard to imagine what would become of the old Anglo-Saxon republic.

Badly buffeted by the upheavals of the mid-1880s—the recession, the rise of the Knights of Labor, the great strikes for the eight-hour day, the burgeoning immigration, the near-triumph of the Henry George campaign, and the Haymarket bombings—many middle-class New Yorkers would enlist in movements dedicated to warding off the now so frequently prophesied apocalypse. Some would direct their energies toward checking the unbridled growth of corporate power, others would concentrate on constraining or transforming the disorderly poor, and others still would find their selfassigned mission of preserving order and civility in urban affairs leading them in both directions at once.


Among those most rattled by contemporary disorders were metropolitan ministers, to whom it had become grimly apparent that Protestantism had lost any influence with the urban working class. This conviction was aired and ratified in December 1888 at a Chickering Hall Christian Conference organized by prominent clergymen. Minister after minister stood up to testify that New York’s Protestant churches, by moving north with their uptown congregations, had abandoned the lower city to Catholicism, Judaism, secularism, anarchism, and socialism.

In Modern Cities and Their Religious Problems (1887), Samuel Lane Loomis suggested another reason that the masses of immigrant workingmen avoided Protestant services apart from lack of proximity: their (misguided) conviction that these were “the churches of the capitalists,” simply because they were “usually attended and sustained by persons of means and intelligence.” The deplorable consequence was that most laborers (overwhelmingly Catholic) “never breathed a Christian atmosphere” and—separated from good influence—fell prey to drink, crime, and anarchism.

Some evangelicals still hoped that old-time proselytizing would solve the problem. The Sunday school movement and urban revivalists pressed ahead with renewed vigor, while the New York Mission and Tract Society updated its publications and, with substantial Chamber of Commerce support, tried aggressively to convert the Jews. But the immigrant wards seemed impervious to such efforts.

There were Protestants who had more of an impact, though their successes were of limited comfort to the established ministry; their advance guard had arrived on Wednesday, March 10, 1880. A Pioneer Party of the Salvation Army had marched down the gangplank of the steamer Australia at Castle Garden, singing hymns and carrying a flag emblazoned BLOOD & FIRE NEW YORK NO. 1—to the amazement of a curious throng of bystanders and reporters who mistook them at first for a traveling concert troupe.

Founded two years earlier in England by Methodist William Booth, the Salvation Army had taken evangelical aim at the most destitute members of the London poor, then decided to expand to America. A company of seven female volunteers was dispatched under the command of trusted Booth lieutenant George Scott Railton, a former clerk turned full-time missionary. Immediately on arrival the little vanguard set out to “wed ourselves to the fate and fortunes of the so-called dangerous classes.” Spurning offers of church pulpits, they scandalized respectable opinion by accepting a proposition from the notorious Harry Hill to “do a turn” at his music hall that Sunday. The ensuing revival service—covered in the World under the headline “A Peculiar People amid Queer Surroundings”—-was treated by most of Harry’s clientele as a great joke. But one participant, a well-known Manhattan drunkard known as Ash-Barrel Jimmy, was wrested from the Devil’s grip that day, becoming the Army’s first American convert. Word of this miracle brought large crowds to hear Jimmy’s “testimony” and, soon, that of other reformed drunkards. When the Army’s rented halls overflowed, they took their meetings to the streets.


Uniformed soldiers of the Salvation Army conducting a worship service, Harper’s Weekly, April 3, 1880. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

The Army promoted its orthodox Wesleyan message of grace, forgiveness, and love—and total war on drink—with novel methods. Stirring brass bands, drums, and tambourines, clearly audible over the din of city traffic, attracted passers-by. So did the rousing versions of religious texts set to popular melodies, including barroom ballads, love songs, vaudeville ditties, and minstrel tunes. Ranks and titles gave a new sense of importance and purpose to converts. So did the handsome blue uniforms (and black straw bonnets for women), which made all soldiers, even those too poor to purchase decent clothing, equal participants in the Great Salvation War. Women, who quickly advanced to leadership positions, were attracted in great numbers. The Army displayed a Barnumesque flair for publicity, as when they burned the Devil (the Enemy Commander) in effigy. And they showed a canny, Pulitzerian grasp of effective public prose by hewing to the injunction “Everything short, sharp, striking, vigorous.”

The Army supplemented its psychic and spiritual appeal with tangible social benefits. The October 1886 issue of its weekly publication, the War Cry, announced the opening in Brooklyn of a Rescue Home for Fallen and Homeless Girls, a haven for husbandless pregnant women, the most desperate of outcasts from respectability. In 1889 they opened a “creche” on Cherry Street where infant care was provided for mothers at work or in jail, a shoestring program sustained by donated pennies, baby clothes, and rice. The same year the Army began sending pairs of “Slum Sisters” to the streets. The women helped stroke victims, washed babies, cooked meals for invalids, and dressed the dead for the undertaker. Salvation Army girls, often alerted by bartenders, entered Bowery saloons or dance halls and rescued girls stupefied from drink or drugs, fighting off men who wanted to keep them there. The program was hailed even by the cynical as an angelic ministry.

At Christmas time in 1891, the Army opened a Cheap Food and Shelter Depot in the basement of a deserted old Baptist church on Bedford and Downing streets. At this New York Lighthouse men could get a box bed and a shower for seven cents (half that charged by commercial lodging houses, for much cleaner, safer, and drunk-free surroundings). A restaurant served staples for pennies. The totally penniless could work for the shelter for two hours in the morning, splitting wood, which was then sold to poor families. Soon larger quarters were opened on Front Street, with attendance at evangelical meetings a prerequisite for coffee and buns. Before long their urban enterprises included day nurseries and Salvage Brigades that collected old clothes, hired the poor to repair them, and sold them to the needy.

This combination of material and spiritual aid was spectacularly successful. The crusade expanded rapidly—by 1890 the Salvation Army was established in forty-three states—with national headquarters at the Brooklyn Lyceum. But such success did not please genteel church leaders. They were offended by the Army’s hoopla and made uncomfortable by its bumptious vitality, which they felt degraded the Christian heritage. While there was some admiration for its expanding social program, overall they found plebeian Protestantism—and its biblical literalism—hard to swallow.


The welfare reforms of the 1870s, by halting municipal outdoor relief and handing public monies over to private agencies for disbursal, guaranteed that metropolitan charity would be governed by well-worn axioms: poverty most often stemmed from individual moral and character defects (probably hereditary), and the task of scientific charity was to dispense assistance, cautiously and grudgingly, to the deserving while incarcerating or rehabilitating the remainder.

In 1881 State Board of Charities commissioner Josephine Shaw Lowell surveyed the city’s existing private charities in the light of this flinty perspective and found too many of them “wasteful” and “encouraging pauperism and imposture.” New York’s alms enterprise remained insufficiently coordinated, despite the decades-long efforts of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP). “So important a business as the administration of charity has become in New York City,” Lowell concluded, “requires to be carried on on business principles.”

In 1882, accordingly, Lowell launched the New York Charity Organization Society (COS), modeled on the London Society for Organizing Charitable Relief and Repressing Mendicity (1869), established by professionals intent on curtailing indiscriminate almsgiving by aristocratic West Enders. As the group’s “guiding spirit” she presided over a thoroughgoing amalgamation of Protestant almsgiving organizations and families. Emerging as something of a Charity Trust—the philanthropic equivalent of Standard Oil—New York COS pooled the resources of over five hundred churches and societies and nearly a thousand private families, embracing old monied (Robert W. De Forest was president) and new (J. P. Morgan was a generous patron). In 1893 this consolidating impulse received architectural expression when COS erected a United Charities Building (on Fourth Avenue and 22nd Street) and persuaded other charitable organizations such as the Mission and Tract Society, the Children’s Aid Society, and the AICP to move in with them (merging with the latter in all but name).

To block multiple handouts, COS established a centralized Registry Bureau to which outdoor relief agencies, asylums, churches, and the city’s Department of Public Charities and Correction sent in data on their clients. By 1887 COS had accumulated data on nearly ninety thousand families and 27,400 houses “occupied by the dependant and disreputable classes.” By the mid-1890s, when COS had files on 170,000 families or individuals, it was making the information freely available, by return mail, not only to agencies considering giving relief but to prospective employers, landlords, banks, and even the police. (Under Seth Low, the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities set up a similar master index to weed out welfare cheats.)

COS tightened standards. “Gratuitous charity,” Lowell said, “works evil rather than good.” Authorizing assistance for a widow with infants might make her life easier, but then the mother might, “by being relieved of anxiety for them, lose her love for the children.” Giving a handout to an unemployed man might get him through tough times but also teach “the dreadful lesson that it is easy to get a day’s living without working for it.” COS, accordingly, was quite selective in its help (far more stringent than the Department of Charities and Correction had been), and it turned down the majority of applicants after probing investigations revealed that character flaws underlay their poverty. Paupers, Lowell argued, should be discouraged from reproducing themselves: while “every person born into a civilized community has the right to live,” the community had the right to see that “incompetent and dangerous persons shall not, so far as can be helped, be born to acquire this right to live upon others.”

Lowell relied on volunteers, believing the AICP had lost touch with the poor after it switched to using salaried visitors in 1879. COS promoters believed the urban poor had degenerated morally in large part because they had been cut off from the elevating influence of their moral betters. The job of reknitting the urban fabric could best be under­taken (one charity expert argued) not by hired professionals but by “noble-hearted women of the wealthier class,” who would bring the poor under “the firm though loving government of heroic women.”

The volunteers—“friendly visitors”—who were urged to help their assigned charges depart the “ranks of idlers” by setting a personal example, by diffusing strength of character across class lines, by making the recipient more like the visitor: honest, thrifty, sober. “If we do not furnish the poor with elevating influences,” the COS argued, “they will rule us by degrading ones.” The proto-caseworkers were urged to avoid soft-heartedness. “All charity must tend to raise and elevate the moral nature,” Lowell reminded her troops, “even if the process be as painful as plucking out an eye or cutting off a limb.”

The return of hard times in the mid 1880s brought renewed demands for aid to the unemployed, presenting the COS with its first major challenge. It succeeded in keeping charitable relief to a bare minimum, though Lowell’s efforts in 1883 to convince the Board of Apportionment “that they can safely cut off the City coal and trust to private charity to make up any necessary claims” were blocked in part due to objections by Tammany-connected coal merchants. It did establish a wood yard on East 24th Street in 1884, but the organization made clear this was not done “with any idea of providing work at fair prices for the unemployed, but purely as a means by which to test the good faith of those seeking relief under the plea of inability to procure work.” Tickets were printed up and sold to charitable persons, who in turn could give them to street beggars in lieu of cash. Each entitled a man to a “day’s work” cutting wood. When finished he would be given fifty cents or, if homeless, two meals and a night’s lodging.

To ensure the poor did not escape its stern concern by panhandling, COS established a Committee on Mendicancy, which hired “Special Agents” who were empowered by the city to arrest beggars. In 1885 they hauled seven hundred before the police justices, then stayed to make sure they were punished under the vagrancy statutes. The police notified COS when such miscreants were released from the Blackwell’s Island Workhouse, and it published a bulletin listing the names and aliases of all known street beggars at large. COS offered as well to investigate and deal with all “Begging-Letter Writers”—the unemployed having gotten into the habit of sending their former employers pleading missives.

COS inveighed too against the city’s policy of providing emergency housing in verminous police station basements, lest encouraging the shiftless in their idleness set the working poor a bad example. Lowell’s group was never able to choke off the practice altogether—Tammany police were unwilling to give up their supply of voters—but it did get the legislature, in 1886, to authorize establishment of a Municipal Lodging House (on First Avenue) which would give food and a night’s lodging (no more than three times in any one month) in return for labor in the COS wood yard. As a corollary, police stations within one mile of the house were forbidden to provide shelter.

“The task of dealing with the poor and degraded has become a science,” said Lowell with some satisfaction—but problems remained. There was the ongoing sniping from those who called COS the “Society for the Suppression of Benevolence.” There was the contradiction between their goal, of restoring the poor to independence, and their method, of granting relief only to those who did as they were told. There was also a dismaying lack of heroic women volunteers—the requirement of being both loving friend and prying investigator put some people off—forcing the COS to resort to paid agents. The biggest problem, however, lay in dealing with the children of the “poor and degraded.”


More than ever—given the new “scientific” literature on the heritability of crime, poverty, insanity, and drunkenness—the Protestant welfare establishment was determined to prevent poor and working-class parents from passing on their lax morals and distaste for work to their offspring. “To keep such families together,” wrote charity reformer Charles Hoyt, “is contrary to sound policy; the sooner they can be separated and broken up, the better it will be for the children and for society at large”—a view endorsed officially by the Protestant female reformers of the State Charities Aid Association (SCAA) in 1879.

Charles Loring Brace and his Children’s Aid Society (CAS) had continued doing their best in this regard. By the mid-1890s Brace had dispatched over ninety thousand poor children to Protestant homes in the Midwest so American women could raise them in proper surroundings. CAS surveys reported these children were happily growing into independent adulthood—though in fact a disturbing number seemed to be wending their way back to New York and reestablishing relations with their families.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) was empowered to take more definitive action than Brace’s group could. A spinoff of Henry Bergh’s old American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the SPCC had been established in 1874 by ASPCA lawyer Elbridge Gerry. An all-male, all-elite, and overwhelmingly Protestant organization, it searched out children deemed neglected or abused, prosecuted the parents, and turned the youths over to an appropriate agency (after 1881 it was given actual law enforcement power).

The problem lay in finding an appropriate agency. In the old days, such youths would have been consigned to an institution like the almshouse or the House of Refuge, but asylums had fallen out of favor. Rather than educating and redeeming their youthful charges, they were now believed to expose them to further degradation. Indeed, in 1875 the SCAA had won passage of a Children’s Act removing all two-to-sixteen-year-olds from poorhouses. In large measure the law was aimed at parents who, after public outdoor relief was terminated, began entering poorhouses with their children, thus maintaining their negative influence. The new legislation required parents entering poorhouses to surrender their children, who would then be transferred to orphanages, from which they could be passed on to decent foster homes.

Unfortunately for this schema, the male Irish Catholics who had just assumed control of Tammany Hall under Honest John Kelly proved newly powerful enough to insist that the law require children be placed only in institutions controlled by persons of the same religious faith. Catholic nuns moved swiftly to turn their convents into refuges from Protestant childsavers, and did so with public money. Within a year, the number of children in orphanages and asylums nearly doubled. Soon thousands of poor Catholic parents, who had been loathe, even in extremis, to send their children to hated Protestant institutions, were turning to the new Catholic ones, treating them as free and temporary boarding schools. Such families knew that the sisters believed poverty a misfortune to be alleviated, not a condition to be reformed, and while they might resent the nuns for requiring compulsory attendance at Mass, they knew that once they were back on their feet, the sisters would funnel their children home to them again.

By 1885 nuns were rearing over 80 percent of the city’s dependent youths and had won effective control of the metropolitan child care system. Josephine Shaw Lowell and her COS and CAS colleagues were appalled. For all their professions of nonsectarianism, anti-Catholicism ran deep in the childsaving movement; the Children’s Aid Society refused to place Catholic or Jewish children with Catholic or Jewish families, as they weren’t proper homes.

The nuns, moreover, had successfully challenged the hard-won right of Protestant women to mother the children of the immigrant poor, which in turn had justified their own entry into public life. The SCAA fought hard in the mid-1880s to dismantle the convent-based system, arguing it led to child abuse or sowed the seed of “pauper poison.” But Tammany and the archdiocese backed the nuns. So did such powerful Protestant male groups as Gerry’s SPCC, because the women religious were unquestionably efficient, and cheap—having taken a vow of poverty—which meant a saving of tax dollars.


Protestant reformers were deeply disturbed by the wide-open wickedness of New York’s teeming entertainment quarters. Saloons were everywhere—the city seemed awash in liquor—and one Methodist speaker at the 1888 Chickering Hall conference noted that where there was but one Protestant church for every 4,464 inhabitants, the saloon-to-inhabitant ratio was one to 150. What was particularly galling to genteel opponents was the de facto legalized status of commercialized vice. The National Police Gazettereported regularly on the fancy life of theaters, gambling dens, and bordellos, and a new generation of sunshine-and-shadow writers provided salacious details on dives and opium dens.

The refusal to pay even decent tribute to the opinions of the respectable drove conservative feminists and cultivated gentlemen (“upright men and virtuous women” in the terminology of the day) into banding together to purify New York City. Rejecting laissez-faire in the moral realm as others were discarding it in the sphere of economics, purity reformers called for greater public regulation of private behavior.

The New York Committee for the Suppression of Legalized Vice, a key organization of the purity movement, was generaled by Aaron Macy Powell and Abigail Hopper Gibbons, two old veterans of the abolitionist crusade (Powell had been an editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard). They set out to free their “fallen sisters” from a “white slavery” as evil as the black slavery that preceded it.

In this they took their cues from England, where since the 1870s a coalition of middle-class nonconformists, feminists, and radical workingmen had been calling for repeal of Britain’s Contagious Diseases Act (1864), which effectively legalized and regulated commercial sex. The British movement received an enormous boost in 1885 with the publication, in the Pall Mall Gazette, of a series by W. T. Stead entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” Stead had investigated the traffic in young girls in London’s vice emporiums and claimed to have actually bought a virgin on the black market. His accounts were inflammatory, prurient, and factually dubious but, coming on top of a decade of moral mobilization, touched off a popular uproar.

The New York Committee, for its part, forced the American Medical Association to drop its plan for municipal regulation of prostitution. Instead the physicians agreed to advocate chastity as the best, indeed the only, defense against venereal disease. The New York Committee also launched petition campaigns demanding the age of consent be increased from ten, a figure that had come to seem shockingly low to the middle classes, whose members increasingly deferred the age of matrimony. Upward revision would also block brothels from legally recruiting scarcely adolescent girls, leading many working-class fathers along with the Knights of Labor to back the campaign. New York State raised the age of consent from ten to sixteen in 1889 and upped it again to eighteen in 1895—the only eastern state to do so. Now sexual behavior once merely improper was illegal.

For a short time, during the administrations of Mayors Grace and Hewitt—at the height of the transatlantic excitement over the Stead expose—purity crusaders also succeeded in getting the municipality to wage limited war on prostitution and gambling. In October 1886 Mayor Grace authorized police raids on leading concert saloons and on the West 27th Street brothels, even those under the protection of police Captain Alexander “Clubber” Williams. Mayor Hewitt continued the campaigns and drove many prostitutes out of the concert saloons, leading them to set up operations in tenements around the city.

But these efforts were of limited reach and effectiveness. They had no impact at all on brothels outside the Tenderloin, and within it the primary consequence of raids—which reformers called “shake-ups” and madams called “shake-downs”—was to increase the price of doing business, thus funneling additional funds to the Tammany machine.

To surmount such obstacles, purity reformers, like their charity counterparts, began gathering law enforcement into their own hands, establishing private preventive societies to ride herd on lax public officials. “In some degree,” the New York Times observed, “our voluntary associations for the prevention of various evils resemble vigilance committees, regulators, or lynch policemen.”

Anthony Comstock’s Society for the Suppression of Vice (SSV) served as censorship squad. Armed with federal authority and the backing of Morris Jessup, J. P. Morgan, and other members of the Chamber of Commerce, Comstock patrolled library bookshelves, scrutinized the city’s printed pages for anything that might corrupt youthful morals, and kept would-be purveyors of birth control information in line.

Steadily expanding his definition of obscenity, Comstock began attacking art he deemed unfit for the public eye. “Nude paintings and statues,” he cautioned, “are the decoration of infamous resorts, and the law-abiding American will never admit them to the sacred confines of his home.” Lest passers-by be tempted by lascivious statuary in art gallery windows, Comstock warned dealers not to display naked pictures where the public could see them. In 1887, however, when he raided the Herman Knoedler Art Gallery on Fifth Avenue for violating this dictate, he was sharply rebuked by the Times and warned not to become “a social nuisance almost as pestilent as that which he exists to abate.” Comstock shrugged off such protests and pressed ahead. In 1890 he invaded the shop of Eugene Caret, a new art dealer on Broadway, and insisted he remove a photograph of an offending Rodin statue; the frightened dealer sold off his stock and left on the next boat.

Comstock’s SSV, along with Elbridge Gerry’s SPCC and Presbyterian minister Howard Crosby’s SPC (the Society for the Prevention of Crime he founded in 1878), also arranged raids on concert saloons, dance halls, brothels, rat pits, and Coney Island’s Gut in a determined—but largely unsuccessful—effort to suppress “immoral behav­ior.” Comstock became an early pioneer in the repression of “fairies,” “mollie coddles,” and “androgynes,” in the parlance of the day. But while the growing attention of vice reformers did lead to an increase in sodomy prosecutions in the 1880s and 1890s and to a shutdown of the Slide in 1892, for the most part same-sex hangouts like Paresis Hall continued to receive (and pay for) the protection of the police.

The reformers’ war on gambling garnered only modest victories. In 1877 the state legislature had banned the old auction pool betting system, but succeeded mainly in promoting bookmaking, a system in which bettors selected a horse at publicly posted odds. Now neighborhood bookies sprang up, offering their services to gamblers who couldn’t afford a trip to the track, at such male bastions as newsstands, barbershops, saloons, and “poolrooms” (off-track betting parlors). Results were received immediately throughout the city via Western Union, which in 1890 paid sixteen hundred dollars a day to each New York track for the exclusive right to transmit results. Despite this overhead Western Union’s racing department became the most profitable part of the company.

In 1887 the Rev. Thomas de Witt Talmage, minister of the Central Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, teamed up with Comstock (along with New York racetrack interests) in winning passage of the Ives Anti-Poolroom Law, which forbade off-track betting but authorized thirty days of wagering at tracks each year. Despite the Ives law, and the Saxton Act of 1893, which made keeping poolrooms a felony, they continued to operate with virtual impunity. Comstock managed to instigate the occasional police raid, but poolroom clerks were usually forewarned of such events and, if caught, usually acquitted by Tammany judges. Indeed, by the mid-1890s Big Tim Sullivan and other Tammany honchos ran organized bookmaker and poolroom syndicates.

Those out to purify civic life made more headway against boxing. Influence and payoffs enabled “exhibition” bouts in the early 1880s—John L. Sullivan began fighting in such events at Madison Square Garden in 1882—but in 1884 and 1885 reformers got police to break up Sullivan’s fights there, local promoters gave up the business, and the sport’s locus shifted to New Orleans. In the early 1890s, however, local prizefighting revived, mainly at Coney Island, under the auspices of boss John Y. McKane. The Gravesend politico also owned the Coney Island Athletic Club (organized in May 1892 by Kings County machine politicians), which became the leading boxing club in the United States (though in 1893 public pressure did force it to cancel a world championship heavyweight bout between Jim Corbett and Charley Mitchell).

Efforts to ban alcohol made limited progress, despite the emergence of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In the 1880s the WCTU employed a missionary evangelist to meet immigrants as they landed in New York City and distribute temperance literature in sixteen languages. But despite some local strength in Brooklyn, the WCTU’s attitude toward immigrants—Willard in the 1890s advocated immigration restriction to block the “influx into our land of more of the scum of the Old World, until we have educated those who are here”—foreclosed support in New York’s ethnic wards. Teddy Roosevelt’s old City Reform Club—down by 1887 to a dozen active members, including Henry Stimson—struggled to enforce a law requiring saloons within two hundred feet of polling places be closed on election day, with minimal success. Liquor interests were deeply imbricated in local politics, and vice versa: of the 1,002 political meetings held in New York City on the local level in 1886, nearly eight hundred were held in saloons. The best reformers could manage was passage of a Temperance Education Law that provided for compulsory drug education in the schools.

Balked in extending their moral mantle over the public at large, some Protestant reformers concentrated on protecting their coreligionists’ ranks. Benjamin DeCosta, a New York Episcopal minister, met with purity reformers, including Stead, on a visit to England. Their work seized his imagination, particularly the efforts of the White Cross Society, newly established by the Church of England. This organization had already converted thousands of respectable workingmen to the cause of a single standard—chastity for both sexes—and DeCosta hurried home to establish the White Cross Army in New York. The organization recruited young people, who pledged themselves to sexual abstinence before marriage. Once enrolled—and a single White Cross meeting in 1888 attracted a thousand members—participants were sent out (often in tandem with YMCA cadre) to disseminate purity literature to other youth groups in the city. White Cross counselors also provided sex education, which consisted chiefly in assisting young men to refrain from illicit activities.

Refuges that provided alternatives to commercial culture were central to this strategy. In January 1887 the YWCA began to offer home-havens in the dangerous city. The first Y, at 7 East 15th Street, provided educational classes, a free lending library, and wholesome entertainments. The Children’s Aid Society expanded its program of lodging houses for newsboys and industrial schools for working-class boys and girls.

In 1884 Grace Hoadley Dodge, wealthy young philanthropist and Sunday School teacher, organized the 38th Street Working Girls Society to isolate members from exposure to the street, cheap dance halls, theaters, and, in general, male cupidity. Adopting the model of the burgeoning women’s club movement, Dodge provided clubhouses—nineteen of them within ten years—salted with moral education (emphasizing “purity of life, dutifulness to parents, faithfulness to employers and thrift”) and peppered by exposure to the “refined influences” of ladies of her class. These retreats also provided more tangible benefits: libraries, entertainment, doctors, insurance, and classes in cooking, sewing, hygiene, childrearing, and household management. The clubs attracted mainly American-born women—carpet and silk factory workers, salesgirls and dressmakers, telegraph operators and stenographers—who were more open than the immigrants to the Anglo-American ideals of the reformers.


For many in the Protestant middle class, Culture itself came to constitute a refuge—albeit a somewhat secularized one—especially after Matthew Arnold came to visit in 1883. The celebrated English poet and essayist was well known in the city for his 1869 indictment, in Culture and Anarchy, of Britain’s fragmentation into selfish class fractions. English workers, Arnold had said, threatened social chaos by demanding greater power, as did aristocrats by their complacent defense of a privileged status quo. The British middle class, which should have been a stabilizing force, had abandoned the public good for an individualistic and spiritually impoverished pursuit of riches. Chaos might yet be forestalled, Arnold argued, if Anarchy were combated by Culture—the pursuit of beauty and intelligence, “sweetness and light.”

Arnold brought a similar warning and appeal to New York, beginning with a lee­ture in Chickering Hall. As the New World was even more complacent, philistine, and anarchic than the Old, it was the duty of America’s saving remnant—its cultivated gentlefolk—to promote the “elevated and beautiful” and to ennoble the public by transforming “the administration, the tribunals, the theatre, the arts.” When Arnold took this message on the national lecture circuit, he would be condemned as just another snooty Englishman disparaging American manners. But many of New York’s genteel intellectuals received him warmly, for they saw his prescriptions as legitimating a mission they had already embraced: ennobling, elevating, and purifying the metropolitan literary scene.

One of Arnold’s many admirers was Richard Watson Gilder, editor of the Century magazine. Gilder, a minister’s son from New Jersey, had come to New York in 1870 to work on the old Scribner’s. Under his editorship it became independent of the publishing firm and changed its name to the Century. By the mid-eighties, the finely printed, beautifully illustrated journal circulated to 250,000, chiefly among the nation’s middle classes, and it had established a reputation as perhaps the best-edited magazine in the world.

And among the prissiest. Gilder’s method of raising public standards of taste and morality required the production of bloodless pages. As custodian of genteel culture he sought out the delicate and the refined and stood guard against the vulgar and the vernacular. Walt Whitman, though a personal friend, was banned from the Century’s pages; a bit of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn snuck in, but only after Gilder deleted references to nakedness, blasphemy, and smells and emended all improper phraseology (changing “in a sweat” to “worrying”). To those who accused him, and Americans, of prudishness, Gilder replied: “It may be that this accusation is well-founded. If so, we can only say that this is the price we pay for being, on the whole, the decentest nation on the face of the globe.”

Gilder’s values and ambitions were widely shared by the editors of New York’s (and Boston’s) genteel monthly magazines. Champions of convention and restraint, grace and serenity, they fed their readers a stately diet of English fiction, biography, travel, and cozy columns addressed to the “gentle reader” from the “Editor’s easy chair”—a mix popular since Washington Irving’s day. A similar tone marked the output of the leading publishing houses, notably that of Charles Scribner’s Sons, under the literary control of William Crary Brownell.

Brownell, born in 1851 to a comfortable Episcopalian family, was a devout Arnoldian disciple who feared New York City was disintegrating into anarchy. Brownell advanced this thesis most forcefully in 1884 after returning from France, which he applauded as a model of an integrated public culture. There the institutions and architecture of public life imposed discipline and constraint on individuals. By comparison, America’s metropolis was chaotic. Paris made people Parisians. New York generated only a “characterless individualism,” a “noisy diversity” with no “effect or ensemble.”

From 1888 on Brownell made the House of Scribners into a fortress of Culture, seeking out writers who combined “strength” and “refinement,” whose fiction and poetry reflected and espoused morality, truth, and beauty. Other great publishing houses joined him, with editors and publishers circulating in a Manhattan milieu that encompassed not only professional writers and critics but also a larger and highly sociable circle embracing amateur authors, artists, architects, cultivated businessmen, polished professionals, and learned university professors and administrators. These gen­tlemen, and a few ladies, gathered together to dine, talk, and listen in an interlocking network of clubs and institutions.

Genteel women remained the bulwark of Culture and the market for decent literature they had been for decades. Convinced they had a biological affinity for the beautiful and the uplifting, they took up their Arnoldian assignment of promoting art, culture, and Protestantism as redemptive antidotes to the centrifugal tendencies of a male-dominated economy. In the 1880s and 1890s the women’s club movement started by Sorosis burgeoned, developing self-improvement salons, islands of refined sociability for discussion of literature and art. In 1890 Jane Cunningham Croly and the New York Sorosis women linked literary clubs with alumnae associations, civic reform societies, mothers’ groups, and needlework guilds into a national network of female organizations, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Editors of “family journals” and leading publishers were extremely sensitive to the wishes of this enormous and ever more organized reading public. They kept their content “innocent as milk” partly out of the conviction that ladies would brook no deviation from genteel standards, and indeed when editors did transgress, they were swiftly brought to task. Even Gilder’s carefully expurgated version of Huckleberry Finn brought protests, and when Harper’s published du Maurier’s Trilby in January 1893 it produced a storm of criticism and canceled subscriptions.

Restrictions on subject matter hastened an ossification of genteel culture. In a collective averting of eyes from indelicate matters, those who dealt with everyday city life or wrote in the vernacular were dismissed as vulgarians. When the Anglo-Saxon literati did deign to focus on immigrant working people, it saw them through picturesque or sentimental lenses.

This policing of the cultural landscape, by producers and consumers alike, was not exactly what Arnold had had in mind. For all his tendencies toward elitist snobbery, he had challenged an array of comfortable middle class convictions. But in the hands of the metropolitan gentility, Culture was transformed from critique to possession, ownership of which served as a credential of class standing.


On February 14, 1892, at the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Charles Parkhurst gave a most unusual Sunday sermon. The tall, slender, bewhiskered minister launched a vitriolic attack on Mayor Grant and his Tammany cohorts. They were, Parkhurst thundered, nothing more than a pack of “polluted harpies that, under the pretense of governing this city, are feeding day and night on its quivering vitals. They are a lying, perjured, rum-soaked and libidinous lot.” The mayor, Parkhurst continued, together with District Attorney De Lancy Nicoll and the entire police department, were pillars of organized crime, linked in an “official and administrative criminality that is filthifying our entire municipal life, making New York a very hotbed of knavery, debauchery and bestiality.” Frustrated by the purity crusade’s setbacks—Parkhurst was a vigorous supporter of Comstock’s SSV—he declared that apparently “every effort to make men respectable, honest, temperate, and sexually clean is a direct blow between the eyes of the Mayor and his whole gang of drunken and lecherous subordinates.”

Mayor Grant challenged Parkhurst to prove his charges. DA Nicoll hauled him before a grand jury and demanded to see his evidence. Parkhurst was forced to admit he had none, apart from newspaper clippings of journalistic exposes. The jury then for­mally denied his charges of police complicity and rebuked him for character assassination. Most of the press denounced Parkhurst as a vulgarian, and Pulitzer’s World cautioned him about “the bearing of false witness.”

The humiliated minister now set out to assemble evidence that would stand up in court. He would descend into the city’s lower depths so he could himself serve as a firsthand witness to New York’s degradation. In Parkhurst’s person, gentility would go toeto-toe with vice; culture would meet anarchy head on.

Parkhurst, of course, was treading a well-beaten path. Dickens, Brace, and a host of sunshine-and-shadow journalists had long been prowling New York’s nether regions. There was even precedent for nocturnal meanderings by men of the cloth. Parkhurst’s fellow Presbyterian, Brooklyn’s Rev. Talmage, had been touring the nighttime metropolis ever since he had read Charles Loring Brace’s Dangerous Classes and decided that “I, as a minister of religion, felt I had a divine commission to explore the iniquities of ourcities.” Talmage had policemen pilot him around brothels and saloons. He then recounted his findings in vivid (and racy) talks that drew as many as five thousand to the vast Brooklyn Tabernacle. These sensational sermons were then reprinted in newspapers and collected in books like The Night Sides of City Life (1878) and The Masque Torn Off (1880).

Parkhurst was no mere sensationalist, and he set about his task methodically. Now president of the Society for the Prevention of Crime, he turned to his righteous and wealthy membership for funds and legal advice. Then, with a zealous young parishioner, John Langdon Erving, he engaged Charles Gardner, a private detective, as guide to New York’s underworld (for six dollars a night plus expenses). The bemused Gardner disguised the pair. He eliminated Parkhurst’s “aroma of the pulpit” by soaping his hair and dressing him as a tough. He gave similar treatment to Erving, a dandy whose initial notion of deep cover was to put on last year’s suit. Then the trio boarded the Third Avenue El at 18th Street and rode it down—literally and figuratively—to Franklin Square.

The slumming party soon made its way to a Cherry Street dance hall filled with sailors and laborers where a nineteen-year-old girl’s greeting to Parkhurst was “Hey, whiskers, going to ball me off?” Nothing daunted, Parkhurst and company pressed on. During the rest of the evening, and over several succeeding nights, the trio took in a five-cent Park Row lodging house, a whiskey saloon, an opium den in Chinatown, a stale beer dive in the Italian section, and other horrors. Always Parkhurst pressed bravely ahead, demanding to be shown “something worse.” They stopped in at a dance hall. “Coarseness was everywhere. The girls sat upon the laps of men, and in no way rejected any advance, no matter how vile it was.”

On to Nigger Johnson’s colored dance house, where white girls waltzed with blacks and black girls cavorted lasciviously with whites (accompanied by piano, harp, violin, and piccolo). In a Tenderloin house, five girls stripped and did a “dance of nature.” (At one point, Gardner later testified, the girls played leapfrog. “Did you join in this leapfrog business?” he was asked. “Yes,” he answered, “I was the frog.” This gave rise to a popular concert hall ditty, borrowing from a current song hit, that went: “Dr. Parkhurst on the floor / Playing leapfrog with a whore / Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay / Ta-rara-Boom-de-ay.”)

“Show me something worse,” Parkhurst commanded. Finally the minister had his circuits completely blown at Scotch Ann’s Golden Rule Pleasure Club on West 3rd. Descending to the basement, they found it subdivided by partitions into cubicles, each furnished with a table and two chairs, in one of which sat a boy with a painted face, a high falsetto, and the airs of a young girl. At this the good doctor turned on his heel and fled at top speed, gasping: “Why, I wouldn’t stay in that house for all the money in the world.”

On March 13, 1892, Parkhurst ascended his pulpit and described to a jammed church the nature of life in the “disgusting depths of this Tammany-debauched town”—“rotten with a rottenness that is unspeakable and indescribable.” In addition to his own evidence he now waved affidavits gathered by Gardner’s private detectives attesting to the fact that at least 254 Manhattan saloons and thirty brothels had been doing business on the previous Lord’s Day.

At first, many ministers, papers, and politicians professed greater dismay at the impropriety of Parkhurst’s expedition than at his findings. But soon a grand jury indicted two brothel keepers and summoned Police Board members on the carpet. Though it concluded the officials were merely incompetent rather than legally culpable, the police were sufficiently alarmed to promote the highly regarded Chief Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes to superintendent. Promising a crackdown on vice, Byrnes soon shifted police captains around and began closing saloons on Sundays. Paresis Hall was forced to close.

Pressing ahead, Parkhurst called a mass meeting in May 1892 and organized the City Vigilance League, modeled on the Manchester City Vigilance League. Its goal—the “perfection of municipal government”—was to be achieved by establishing a massive grass-roots surveillance operation. In each Assembly district a vigilance group would monitor its neighborhood for violations of sanitary, excise, or morals regulations.

Parkhurst was neither bigot nor fundamentalist—a believer in evolution, he favored a liberal interpretation of the Bible—and he strove to make the Vigilance League a collective effort of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews who “mingle harmoniously in its councils, and co-operate in its work.” (When Theodore Seligman was blackballed from the Union League Club that year, Parkhurst said the group would doubtless have excluded Moses.) But if Parkhurst was not bigoted, other crusaders certainly were. In any event, the demand for blue laws dismayed the immigrants, the Germans in particular, and made allies hard to come by.

Even Parkhurst’s short-term hopes were blasted when yet another Tammanyite, Thomas F. Gilroy, was elected mayor in 1892. It was clear that barring extraordinary circumstances—or the formation of a wider political coalition—New York’s government, and thus its moral landscape, would remain unpurified.

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