19th Century

Lines Written by a New York Homeless Woman

By Stephen Basdeo

I recently came across a fascinating book titled Darkness and Daylight; or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1891), which formed the basis of another post on this blog. 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” (Basdeo, 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.


A cheap eating house in New York (Basdeo, 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.

Helen Campbell

Helen Campbell, missionary and philanthropist (Basdeo, Personal Collection)

It was Mrs Campbell who, as part of her investigations, decided to venture along the Brooklyn river front and visit some of the cheap restaurants frequented by the poor and homeless—understandably not many families, living as they did in one room apartments, had access to cooking facilities. Fast food of low nutritional value seems to have been a historic feature of American culture.

Without further ado, let us hear Mrs Campbell in her own words:

Helen Campbell et al, Darkness and Daylight; or Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1896), pp.214–16.

All along this water side is one of the most curious features of night life in New York,—the sidewalk restaurants. Just beyond them fruit ships are unloading, and many eager street vendors flit about the docks in search of damaged fruit for the next day’s trade. Worker, longshoreman, thief,—it is all one to the restaurant keeper, who pours his hot coffee with no questions, and only looks sharply at each piece of money as he rings it on the little counter. These places are not over five feet wide, and some ten or twelve long, and are enclosed with glass and boards. There is a shelf or counter at which half a dozen can sit at once, and on the opposite side are boilers, a range, a small desk, and some shelves for crockery. Codfish balls, hash, coffee, cakes and pies, are all the bill of fare affords,—the cakes, known as “sinkers,” being a species of muffin, rudimentary in character, but in high favor. No one is turned away, and sailors, negro longshoremen, marketmen, and stray women, come and go, and fare alike.

“Yonder is a little Italian eating-house no one would think of calling a restaurant. It is down in a cellar, and, as if to hide it more, the steps, old and broken, go down sidewise along the front wall. The room is lit by a smoky kerosene lamp. A little bar is in one corner, and narrow, wooden benches, black with use, run around the walls and are fastened to them. Here five cents will buy a plate of maccaroni, a bit of toast and a cup of coffee. It was in this dingy basement that a woman of about thirty drifted only the other day. She was a comely woman, with regular features and dark hair. A thin shawl was drawn over her shoulders; her dress was ragged and worn, her face deathly pale. She had no money, and when she faintly begged for food a swarthy Italian paid five cents for the coffee and a crust of bread that were served to her.


A destitute elderly woman takes some much-needed rest at a “low” drinking house in NYC (Basdeo, Personal Collection)

She drank the coffee, and thrust the crust into her pocket. She would have gone then, but she was trembling with weakness and the man who paid for her food held her back. She sat silent and thoughtful on the narrow bench until long after nightfall. Then she drew the crust from her pocket and began to nibble it.

“Let me’ warm the bread for yon,” said the keeper’s little boy. He put it on the stove, warmed it, and brought it back to the woman, who suddenly gasped, and died.

The police propped her up on the bench, and all night long her lifeless body waited for removal in the dead wagon to the Morgue. In her pocket was found the remnant of the crust, and a copy of these verses printed on red paper:

On the street, on the street,

To and fro with weary feet;

Aching heart and aching head;

Homeless, lacking daily bread;

Lost to friends, and joy, and name,

Sold to sorrow, sin, and shame;

Ruined, wretched, lone, forlorn;

Weak and wan, with weary feet,

Still I wander on the street!

On the street, on the street.

Midnight finds my straying feet;

Hark the sound of pealing bells,

Oh, the tales their music tells!

Happy hours forever gone;

Happy childhood, peaceful home —

Then a mother on me smiled.

Then a father owned his child —

Vanish, mocking visions sweet!

Still I wander on the street.

On the street, on the street.

Whither tend my wandering feet?

Love and hope and joy are dead —

Not a place to lay my head;

Every door against me sealed —

Hospital and Potter’s Field.

These stand open! — wider yet

Swings perdition’s yawning gate,

Thither tend my wandering feet.

On the street, on the street.

On the street, on the street;

Might I here a Saviour meet!

From the blessed far off years,

Comes the story of her tears,

Whose sad heart with sorrow broke.

Heard the words of love He spoke,

Heard Him bid her anguish cease.

Heard Him whisper, “Go in peace!”

Oh, that I might kiss His feet.

On the street, on the street.

[Postscript (by Stephen Basdeo): this is of course a very poetic, tragic account. But I have some reservations about accepting the truth of Campbell’s claim that a copy of verses was indeed found on the homeless lady. They seem a little too much like the generic ‘copy of verses’ found on crime broadsides during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and maybe Mrs Campbell included these just to tug at her readers’ heartstrings — or maybe studying the poetry of crime has made me a bit cynical…]