From the New York Daily Tribune, Thursday, June 13, 1850.
THE DENS OF DEATH…..No. II
CELLAR POPULATION – CHARACTER AND EFFECT UPON THE PUBLIC HEALTH.
The underground holes and corners, the number and population of which were set forth in our first article, are of character as various as can be imagined, from the roomy, clean, orderly almost entirely healthy basement, to the narrow, dark, filthy cellar, where drunkenness, vice and misery fester in their fullest manifestation.
Passing over the better class of basements with this general remark, we will examine more carefully some of the middling and worse sorts. The first thing that a visitor notices is a lamentable want of Ventilation. The ceiling is often so low that a tall man can not stand upright with his hat on; the main room has but one window and that is often under a grate and in such a position that it cannot be opened, thus leaving the door as the only place where fresh air can enter. In rainy and cold weather, and at night, the door must be closed, and then half dozen victims enclosed must breathe over and over again the poisonous air until they are themselves poisoned. The bed-rooms are still worse places. They are always in the rear, and very few of them have any opening except into the main room; without air, without light, filled with damp vapor from the mildewed walls, and with vermin in ratio to the dirtiness of the inhabitants, they are the most repulsive holes that ever a human being was forced to sleep in. There is not a farmer’s hog-pen in the country, that is not immeasurably ahead of them in point of health – often in point of cleanliness.
Imperfect drainage is often the cause of filling these places, after a hard rain, with water, which lies under the floor until slow evaporation and absorption dissipate it. We once knew a pool of water in an area to break through the foundation of a house and empty itself into a room where several persons were sleeping, carrying with it a large quantity of mud and sand, it is said that many persons have in this way been drowned. Besides the heavy rains that overflow these places, the water, not infrequently, gets into them by the tide rising; one instance of this was found in Washington st. where lived thirteen human beings, four adults and nine children; occasionally augmented in population, doubtless, as such, places usually are by the addition of lodgers.
Among the sweet savors of these cellars may be mentioned leakage of gas, the continual exhalations of the gutters, remnants of animal matter decaying in the streets, &c. We know that in many of the dirtier streets the stench is always revolting to the wayfarer, who is unaccustomed to such localities, yet thousands of people dwell with their noses constantly at the level of the fetid gutter and draw in at every breath a dose that would suffocate a less fastidious person. These stenches are probably not directly injurious to health in a noticeable degree; but a purer sort of air is decided preferable in any case.
Around the doors pf many cellars you may see, at any time when the weather is not too cold, swarms of children whose appearance is the best argument that can be found in favor of public wash houses; covered in rags, encased in a coat of dirt, that from long hardening has become a sort of water and fire proof paint, their hair matted into one mass with grease and dust, their limbs distorted by disease or bruised and disfigured by accident, constantly in contact with the more vicious of the street-roaming vagabonds of larger growth, utterly ignorant of such a place as a school, perfectly oblivious of the use of the alphabet, they grow up in ignorance wickedness to a future of vice and misery. It is from these subterranean fountains of poverty and infamy, in a great measure, that the great army of Juvenile Vagrants is constantly recruited.
These instances presuppose cases where at least a semblance of virtue is kept. We may next turn to a class of cellars far cleaner physically but morally the lowest of the low. It is beyond our province to describe them; indeed, it is not necessary to do so, since they are the staple text of all the “Mystery” literature of the day. Those who pander to the taste hardly less vulgar than its procurer, would be bankrupt were they deprived of the Dance Cellars and the classes who dwell in them. These places openly, undisguisedly dens of prostitution, from whose jaws we now and then hear of some child being rescued by the Police, but of hundreds who are not rescued only the grave-diggers on Potter’s Field or the keepers of the Lunatic Asylum can hear. From the necessity of keeping up an ‘inviting’ aspect, these places are generally clean; but the cupboard bedrooms and the badly ventilated ‘parlor,’ are crowded with drunken and diseased occupants, from whom little health and less morality, can be expected.
Of course these Dance Cellars are rum shops; but there is a large class of basements devoted entirely to the sale of liquor. We have frequently passed one of this kind in the Eighth Ward, where the addition of gambling keeps a crowd of twenty men closely shut up in a hot Summer night, the room filled with smoke and such air as only a drunken man could be made to breathe. The rum cellars proper are haunts for the lowest class of sots, because of their seclusion; the solid board blinds and the closed doors screen them from the eyes of policemen and acquaintances and give them the largest liberty to drink their fill without molestation. It is not improbable that five hundred subterranean rum shops are in full blast, in each of which, during the first half of the night there are constantly say ten persons breathing the air that is insufficient for the proper support of two. With the rum we have at present nothing to do.
The Boarding of Lodging Cellars are the last we shall mention. In several of these there are three classes of boarders taken; the first class pay 37½ cents per week for board and lodging, having straw (loose on the floor) to sleep on; and being entitled to the first table; the second class pay 18 ¾ cents per week sleep on the bare floor and eat at the second table; the third class pay 9 cents per week, are turned out when there is a lack of lodging room, and eat at the third and last table. Those cellars are generally bare of furniture except one or two benches and a large table. The marketing is done by the children who are sent out to beg cold victuals, except in some instances where there are too many boarders to risk such a hazardous source of supply, and then the keeper of the cellar makes a special contract with three or four professional beggar women, who sell the product of their appeals in behalf of starving children and sick husbands, for a mere trifle. All the baskets are got in at a certain hour, when the boarders assemble, and at the time of feeding, the whole mass is emptied upon the table. The “first class” or three shillings a week boarders have the first picking, and is a trice the fingers of the first table gourmands are knuckle deep in the feast of fat things, and for a quarter of an hour they poke over the pile selecting the choice bits – the scraps of chicken, chop, ham, muffins, clean bread, &c. seasoning the variety with pickle, salad, and some condiments as fancy and delicate
The lodging system in these places is to spread along one side of the room a layer of straw on which the first class boarders stretch themselves, lying generally very close together; the next tier, on the bare floor, are of the second class, and if the patronage be extensive the whole floor outside the straw will be packed with these persons as closely as it is possible to make human beings lie. Should this class fill the room, the nine-penny vagabonds are unceremoniously thrust into the street, regardless of rain or snow, to crawl into alleys and under door steps for the night. Thus packed, the room becomes in a few minutes filled with nitrogen and carbonic gases sufficient to poison a regiment. The door being barred and the windows closed there is not the slightest chance for fresh air to get in, and the appearance of the wretches as they issue forth in the morning, shows plainly the effect of their dreadful confinement.
There are cellars devoted entirely to Lodging, where straw at two cents and bare floor for one cent a night can be had. The piling and packing here does not differ from that of the Boarding Cellars. In some of the dens males and females are promiscuously lodged together, and scenes of depravity the most horrible are of constant occurrence. Black and white, men, women and children, are mixed in one dirty mass. But we need not dwell upon this phase of subterranean infamy.
The above paragraphs will give a general idea of some of the most peculiar characteristics of cellar life. We might point out dozens of basements used as workshops, where half a score of tailors, shoemakers, or other laborers are crowded into a single room, but these are more generally observed by people, and are well enough known. There are many little shops kept in basements, where some poor women strives to maintain life and respectability by hard work and the small profits of sales of candy and toys.
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