From the New York Daily Tribune, Wednesday, June 19, 1850.
THE DENS OF DEATH…No. III
DEPRIVATION OF LIGHT – DISEASE IN THE DENS –
RATIO OF MORTALITY AMONG CHILDREN – SANITARY REGISTRATION.
Among the places the most crowded in proportion to their actual size, the worst ventilated, and whose mortality is the greatest at all times, are those subterranean abodes
These dens, or artificial caves of the earth, like the natural caves in former times in Africa, often send forth bands of murderers, who live by thieving alone; and the modern Troglodytes, like their prototypes, after a successful expedition, return to their dark recesses to divide their spoil and plan a new scheme of depredation. Darkness, therefore, would appear to have been from the earliest times one of exciting causes of crime, and our modern policemen see it is so now. We heard a worthy Alderman once say that plenty of gaslight in the streets would go far to exterminate wickedness of all kinds. Whether darkness be a cause of crime or not, it is certain that murderers, thieves, etc. “love darkness better than light,” and that there is more propriety of deportment found in a good, honest abode above-ground, fully open to the light of day, than in dark under-ground residences and caverns, which in a state of nature are inhabited only by beasts of prey. But we have not undertaken to consider the relative state of morals of Subterraneans and of the “Upper Ten,” such as live on the surface of the earth; we shall, therefore, pass to the subject of the consideration of the physical effects of living in these damp and stifling abodes of darkness.
These places are the habitations of the most destitute, and contain in themselves all the usual active agents, independently of the presence of numbers of people, for the spread of malignant diseases. They are always more or less damp, often wet, and never undergo any change of air, except to a very limited extent, and always accidental.
We have mentioned darkness as one of the characteristics of a den of death; we mention it because it possesses the property of modifying and controlling the development of organic life, and in such a way as always to render the body exposed to its influence less vigorous.
The external visible effect of the absence of light are obvious and known to most persons. The blanching of vegetable sprouts that are deprived of light, and of the portions of the bodies of animals, and of their hairy covering that are habitually kept in comparative darkness, of the under parts of the bodies of fishes, especially of the flounder tribe – all illustrate the differences that exist in the vital action of the parts exposed to light or deprived of its active influence.
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These places are always damp, and are thus a continued source of various inflammatory diseases; indeed the occupants of them are always sick in a never-ending rotation, and demands for medical services are more frequent by the inhabitants of dens, than by such as live on the surface, in proportion to their number. Sickness among the poor is always
Whenever typhus fever has prevailed, it was always worse in cellars or in the first floors that were immediately next to the ground, and when it appeared in the upper rooms it was found that they were always excessively crowded, and as badly ventilated as the basement rooms. In the year 1820 typhus fever prevailed in Bancker st. There were 562 blacks living in the infected district, of these 119 lived in cellars, of whom 54 or 45.50 per cent were sick; the remaining 443 lived in the upper rooms; of whom 101 or 22.77 per cent, were sick. Of 120 white persons living above ground in this district, not one was sick. (Dr. John H. Griscom, on the Sanitary Committee of the pauper population.)
We are not aware of any account existing of the location of this disease when it appeared in New York in 1847.
It is not generally known that the rate of mortality on the City of New York has been steadily on the increase since the year 1835. The following statement will show the rate: the population of 1848 is an estimate founded upon the per centage of increase, the other facts are derived from the Annual Reports of the City Inspector:
1835 the population was 270,089 Deaths……6,608 – 1 to 40.87
1840 “ “ “ 312,710 “ ……7,868 – 1 to 39.74
1845 “ “ “ 371,223 “ ……9,886 – 1 to 37.55
1848 “ “ “ 412,155 “ …..14,199 – 1 to 29.03
1849 “ “ “ 450,000 “ …..22,006
Deduct extraordinary (City Inspector) 6,579 …15,427 – 1 to 29.81
What is the cause of this increase can only be discovered with accuracy by a proper scientific sanitary survey. We have no doubt, however, that it arises mainly from immoderate crowding of the poorer classes. It is not unusual to a high rate of mortality to immigration; but what is this but crowding , and that, too, of such as are esteemed healthy? For the sick by law are detained many miles from the city before they are allowed to enter. If there exists any doubt as to the cause, so much greater the reason is there for an efficient survey, not only of the City but of the State. A survey under the provisions of the State Registration Law would exhibit the ratio of mortality in the different sections of the State; and the causes of these differences must be ascertained by a proper investigation made by a suitable commission appointed for the purpose.
This is certainly a condition that demands prompt, decided and energetic action to ascertain the cause and apply the remedies. Imperfect measures, without decided foundation or without any clear object, are worse than unusable.
Although vast improvements have been made in the dwellings, streets and ventilation of the cities, and although we have not among us any of those wretched dens, crooked, damp, and dark passages, such as still exist in some of the cities of the Eastern world, nor even anything that bears a resemblance to the close, dark and dismal abodes of the poorer classes in Edinburgh, Glasgow, etc. yet there are among us too many of the hot-beds of disease, where the seeds of pestilence rapidly take root, and where their noxious products impart their deadly poison to the surrounding air. Crowds must always exist in large cities, where space is always valuable. But this should be the best reason why the actual condition of the mode of living among the most destitute should be known, for without the knowledge the appropriate remedies can never be applied.
Recent facts in Prisons and on ship- board show what can be done to obviate the evil effects of a necessary crowding, and although the mortality in them may still be reduced, yet if it remains as it now is, it will, by comparison with former days, be a perfect triumph for science, in preventing the extension of pestilence.
The average number of people living in one room among the very poor in our city is about six, the extreme number is twenty. The average number occupying one house among this class of people is about sixty. These are permanent dwellers – The occasional lodgers swell the number to an incredible amount; the place known as the Old Brewery at the “Five Points” has often contained as many as three hundred. In one room there have been known to have been from two to four families; most of these will take lodgers. Such an arrangement prevails in all parts of the City where the extremely poor reside.
Sleeping together in such numbers in one room always produces a feeling of exhaustion and physical misery, and where it can be done resort is had to low priced alcoholic drinks for its temporary relief. Hundreds of the poorer class of lodging-houses depend in part for their support on the inebriating drinks that are sold to their inmates; indeed most of these houses have no other customers. Although a display of shop window with bottles is made, it is not to entice the accidental wayfarer, but is in reality a species of sign indicating the class of lodging-house, and is as well understood by those for whom it is intended as a lettered sign for ordinary business. The pauper’s whiskey and never is deficient in accommodations, whatever the demand, and is always filled, whatever be the size of the house. The effects of those circumstances combined, in the event of pestilence, may be conceived.
Children suffer the most from a crowded mode of living; the children of the poor die in frightful numbers, the greatest number is from this cause alone. In the year 1848 the whole number of deaths from disease was 14,199, of which 6,847 were children under five years, and in 1849, deaths 22,006, children under five years, 9,057.
In the Summer such a state of living must be almost insupportable, and in the evening in some of the poorest parts of the city, the doors, and windows, and steps will literally swarm with people, instinctively endeavoring to obtain a little fresh ait. We were never more struck with this instinctive appetite than by an occurrence which happened a few years since. As we was returning home late at night, we saw a man stretched out at full length on a cart, and just as we had discovered what it was, another issued from a poor looking house, remarking to the first mentioned that “he could not stand it any longer in the house” and had come to follow his example; and accordingly placed himself beside his friend on the cart apparently for the purpose of taking his night’s rest.
Will anyone say that it is safe to the general health, humane to the poor, creditable to our civilization, or in any manner right and proper that these Dens should continue as they are – human packing houses and fountains of Disease and Vice?
©2003 The Composing Stack Inc. ©2003 Gregory J. Christiano