19th Century

Jack’s Story: The True Story of a Poor Boy in 19th-Century New York

By Stephen Basdeo

I recently came across a fascinating book titled Darkness and Daylight; or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1891). Inspired by books such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851), Andrew Mearns The Bitter Cry of Outcast London (1883), and General Booth’s In Darkest England (1890)—all of which shined a light on the “low” life of the great metropolis in England—missionaries and journalists in New York decided to venture among the slums and tenements of the city and document what they saw.


Title page to “Darkness and Daylight” (Personal collection)

What they saw was at once horrifying and heart-rending. Homeless women nursing their babies on the street in the cold New York winter. Abandoned girls in their early teens plying their trade as a prostitute. Newsies fishing inside trash cans in the hope that they might get a bit of food for the day. And dangerous thieves planning their depredations in the low taverns and lodging house scattered throughout the metropolis.


Homeless children in NYC (Personal Collection)

Three people wrote Darkness and Daylight: Mrs Helen Campbell, a missionary and philanthropist; Colonel Thomas Know, an author and journalist; and Supt. Thomas Byrnes, the Chief of the New York City Detective department.


A criminal who really seems to have resented having his photo taken by NYC police (Personal Collection)

It was Mrs Campbell who came across a lad called Jack in one of the New York hospitals, who was recovering from a fractured leg. Jack readily told her his life story. In appearance, Jack was “undersized” and malnourished—the result of having been addicted to alcohol and cigarettes since the age of eight, so surmised Mrs Campbell. Yet he seemed nice, for Campbell remarked that he had “honest eyes” and “a face that any mother might be proud of.”

Jack’s Story as Recorded by Mrs Helen Campbell

You wouldn’t believe it,— that’s the trouble. I’ve read dime books and the story papers ever since I could read at all, an’ there was never a thing stranger than what I know o’many a one in Poverty Bay; yes, an’ anywhere you’re a mind to pick out. But if you tell it folks say, “Oh, he’s drawin’ it strong. He’s seein’ .what he can make you swaller.” Go down there for yerself, an’ you’ll see you couldn’t make up worse than there is.

You see, me an’ the Buster [Jack’s friend] was both kicked out into the world about the same time. He wasn’t the Buster then, but nothin’ but the smallest boy you ever did see, and his real name was Dick. His aunt was the “Queen o’ Cherry Street,” an’ she could drink more stuff an’ not show it than any ten women that went with her. His mother was killed in a mistake on the other side o’ the hall. A man shot her that thought she was another woman, an’ his father died of the trimmins [delirium tremens] in the station-house, where they’d taken him after pickin’ him up for dead.  He didn’t do nothin’ but drink any way, an’ he pawned whatever there was to lay his hands on, down to the teapot. So his aunt took Dick, an’ he slep’ along with the other lodgers, an’ had what he could pick np to eat unless she happened to think, an’ then she let him buy pie.

That was Dick, but he turned into the Buster, an’ that’s what I’ll call him now, so you’ll know. My father was a ragpicker on Baxter Street, an’ our house was 47th; do you know it? When you go in there’s a court an’ a hydrant in the middle, an out o’ that court opens seven doors as like as seven peas, an there’s seven rooms with the window alongside o’ the door, an so on all the way up the five stories. It’s all Eyetalian now, an’ they’ve got big Eyetalian beds that hols six or seven easy, an’ over them they slings hammocks an’ piles the children in an’ then fills up the fioor, an’ so they make their rent an’ may be more.

We wasn’t so thick, and lucky, for my father wanted room to tear round when he stopped pickin’ rags an’ had a drunk. He’d smash everything he could reach, an’ my mother, who was little an’ kind o’ delicate like, she’d hang everything high, so’s he couldn’t get at it. He knocked her round awful, an’ one night, when he come home a little worse than any one ever seed him, he just kicked us both downstairs an’ broke her all to smash, ribs an’ everything; an’ then when he’d smashed up the room too, he just sat down an” cut his own throat awful, so when they come to arrest him on account o’ my mother that they had picked up an’ sent to Bellevue, there wasn’t nothin’ to get but a stiff [a corpse].

I hung round a bit till I saw the ambulance, an’ then I made sure they’d do somethin’ awful with me, an’ I cut. I made a run for the river, because I always liked it along the docks. You could often pick up oranges an’ bananas, an’ many a time I’ve licked molasses off th§ barrels. I’d often slep before in barges an’ most anywhere, an’ so I knew a good place where there was most always some bales o’ hay, an’ so I put for that. There was lots o’ boxes an’ barrels pfled up, an’ empty ones too; an’ way behind ’em, where they hadn’t looked for a good while, was some big bales o’ hay.


Image accompanying Jack’s narrative (Personal Collection)

In the spring we had to budge. They cleaned the dock along where our box was, an’ we never got a place like it again. But we had a pretty good one under some steps that did for summer, an’ another boy named Liverpool went shares with us. He was eleven, an’ we hung together awhile because  there wan’t no one else. He was English, an’ his father died in hospital, an’ his mother was respectable an’ not fond o’ drinkin’ or such. He went wanderin’ round on the docks in  Liverpool, an’ he heard ’em talkin’ about America an’ reckoned it would be a good place to come to, so he begged captains to take him for cabin-boy till he found one that didn’t so much mind his bein’ little.

Well that captain larruped him the worst way, an’ just for cussedness;  for Liverpool was like a lamb for disposition, an’ you couldn’t make him mad unless he saw  somebody abused. But he come ashore all black an’ blue an’ raw, an’ no money, an’ not much clothes but some cast-off ones a sailor give him, big enough to wrap up. three of him. When they wore out, another give him some more, an’ he looked like a walkin’ rag-bundle the whole o’ the time. It was him that got me to turn newsboy [newspaper seller], for he was picked up by a man that goes round among the boys, an’ I went with him when it was settled that he was to go to the West. They asked me to go too, but I hung on here. Seemed as if I must on account o’ Buster, for he didn’t want to do much but loaf, an’ I had to have an eye to him. I tried papers awhile an’ tried to make Buster take hold, but it’s hard work whatever folks may think. It was for him, anyhow, for he was sort o’ weakly. I learned to read an’ write in the school, an’ sometimes Buster would come awhile, an’ he had a fine voice an’ he’d sing like anything. I kep’ thinkin’ I’d go West some time, an’ I tried to save a little, but couldn’t very well. So that’s the way we did for a good while, an’ then Buster turned “Daybreak Boy” an’ that broke me all up.


Second image accompanying Jack’s narrative (Personal collection)

You don’t know what a Daybreak Boy is ! It’s a whole gang what steals from small craft below Hell Gate, an’ sell their stealin’s for whatever they get, which is mostly nothin’. They’re all the same as dock-rats, only there ain’t so many of ’em. Buster learned to swim an’ dive, an’ was near enough a dockrat anyhow, an’ then Buckshot Taylor kind o’ took to him, an’ that was the worst thing that ever happened to him.

Buckshot Taylor got his name because he was chuck-full o’ buck-shot in his legs an’ back, an’ his face was all bust up too. He’d dive under a wharf and fasten one end of a wire rope to one of the rafters. Then he’d sneak along on board a lead-loaded schooner and fasten the end he’d carried with him to whatever come handy. Somebody keeps watch all the time while he does it. Then he drops it in the water when he gets the chance, an’ down it goes out o’ sight. Then he dives again an’ comes up under the wharf, an’ all he’s got to do then is to draw it in, an’ a heavy bar will sell for three or may be even four dollars.

Well, he took to the Buster, an’ soon he had him in training an’ all I could do wouldn’t stop him. He liked the fun of it, an’ he was so little he could sneak in anywheres an’ he got to be a champion “Daybreak,” an’ that tickled him. Sometimes, to please me, he’d swear off awhile, but he couldn’t stan’ it. Then I wanted him to go West, because he had to be doin’ something, but he wouldn’t, an’ so I hung on waitin’ for him to get caught and sent up.


Third image accompanying Jack’s narrative (Personal collection)

That’s just what happened. He was in the Reformatory awhile, an’ there the boys taught him more deviltry than he’d ever knowed, an’ he come out about as bad as they make ’em. I knew just as much bad as he did, but I couldn’t stan’ it. He could, an’ I dunno as it was his fault. He kept fond o’ me, an’ I was fond o’ him, an’ so we sort o’ held together.

That went on for a good while ; but three months ago I lost him, an’ I’ve been lookin’ for him ever since. It was some worse racket than ever he tried before that has kep’ him hidin’. I got my eye on him once, but he was in a “run- way” an’ slinked out o’ sight. He sent word he’d be sent up for life if they caught him, an’ I mustn’t be seen with him. You don’t know what a “run-way” is! This one where I saw him is this way. Most o’ the lots on Cherry an’ Water an’ Hamilton Streets have two houses built on ’em, with a way between the two. Cherry an’ Hamilton Streets back up together, an’ there’s only three feet between ’em at the rear tenements.

Now if you’re chased on Cherry Street, all you’ve got to do is to run up to the roof of the rear house an’ jump to the other, go down the skylight, an’ there you are in Hamilton Street an’ can get off easy, while the policeman is comin’ round the corner. The crooks have fixed it to suit themselves. They go climbin’ round over roofs an’ fences till they’ve got it plain as a map. Sometimes they hammer in blocks of wood for steps an’ they don’t come out where the cops are expectin’ ’em. There’s a hundred run-ways, an’ they knows ’em all.

I was awful worried over Buster. I know’d if he could only get away he’d do well enough, an’ I planned to hire him to go West an’ try it. They’d dyed his hair an’ made him all up different; but I knew where he hung out, an’ so a week ago I went in one night, bound to find him. The police had laid for a raid that night, but I nor nobody knew it. Buster was there, sure enough, an’ he was way down in the mouth. We talked awhile, an’ he had about promised me he’d do as I wanted when the woman in the next room gave the alarm.

I don’t know how Buster ever took such a thing in his head, but he did. He made for the roof, an’ I after him, an’ just as we got there he drew on me. “You meant to give me away, did you?” says he. “D — n you! Take that!” an’ he gave it to me in the side. I pitched over, an’ down I went into the run-way, an’ there they picked me up an’ brought me here. He didn’t mean it, an’ he got away, an’ so I don’t care, an’ he sent me word the other day that when I got well he’d go West or anywhere I wanted. So you see it’s come out pretty good after all, an’ I don’t mind lyin’ here because I go over it all in my mind an’ it’s good as the the-a-ter to think they haven’t got him an’ won’t. An’ when I get well,

Jack’s voice had grown steadily weaker. “I’m so tired,” he went on. “I think I’m goin’ to sleep. If” — and here he looked up silently for a moment; “If I ain’t goin’ to get well, Buster’ll go to the bad certain, for there ain’t nobody but me he’ll listen to. But I shall get well soon, an’ now I’ll have a sleep an’ thank you for comin’.”

* * *

“Will he get well?” I whispered to the nurse as we went down the ward.

“At first we thought he would,” she made answer, “Now it is doubtful, for there is something wrong internally. He may live and he may go at any time,” and she turned away to another patient.

A week later came this note from the nurse : —

“Jack asked to have you sent for yesterday, and when we said you were out of town he begged for pencil and paper and made me promise to seal his note up at once and let no one see it. It is inclosed herein, just as he dropped it when the end came. We found him lying there quite dead, and you will see a smile bright as an angel’s on his beautiful face when you come, which must be at once if you want to see him before he is buried.”

On the scrap of paper within he had traced in staggering letters,

“Plese [sic] find Buster at .”

There it ended, nor has any questioning yet revealed who it was for whom he sold his life, — unwittingly, it is true, but given no less fully and freely.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.”

No work in the great city so appeals to all that is just, all that is generous in man, as the welfare of these street children, and none yields larger reward. And yet the final word must be that fifteen thousand homeless, hungry, cold, and naked children wander to-day in our streets, and as yet no agency has been found that meets their need, and the hands that would rescue are powerless. The city money jingles in Tammany pockets [the local seat of government], and the taxpayers heap up fortunes for Tammany politicians, while these thousands of little ones, are outcasts and soon will be criminals.

The children of the slums are with us, born to inheritances that tax every power good men and women can bring to bear on them for their correction. Hopeless as the outlook often seems, salvation for the future of the masses lies in these children. Not in a teaching which gives them merely the power to grasp at the mass of sensational reading which fixes every wretched tendency and blights every seed of good, but in a practical training which shall give the boys trades and force their restless hands and mischievous minds to occupations that may ensure an honest living.

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