New York in the Nineteenth Century: Illustrations from the life of George McWatters’s “Knots Untied” (1871)

Stephen Basdeo is a lecturer and historian based in Leeds, United Kingdom.

New York, the United States’ most famous city in the nineteenth century, was at that time much like London. Factories were springing up in the centre of the city and workers from other parts of the states, and other parts of the world, made their way to this city to find work. Once there, many of the poorest of the poor found shelter in rickety slums and tenements. For many others, the streets were their home.

Of course, crime flourishes when many poor and desperate people are herded together and policing is lax. For many, a life of crime was more tolerable than one spent toiling in a factory on poverty wages. Robbery, murder, rape, and fraud—these crimes were committed in abundance in the dark alleyways of the New York slums.

New York’s levels of crime left its mark on American popular culture during the nineteenth century, a process mirrored in heavily urbanised Britain and industrialising France. Just as London and Paris with their respective alley-ways and courts provided the perfect settings for George W. M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London (1844–48) and Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (1842), so the New York author Ned Buntline imagined it as the perfect place to set his own crime novel: The Miseries and Mysteries of New York (1848–49).

George McWatters (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

At a time when Henry Mayhew ventured like an explorer into the ‘darkest’ parts of London to publish London Labour and the London Poor (1851), social investigators such as Jacob A. Riis and Helen Campbell did the same for New York city. And just as French policemen such as Vidocqu published their recollections of their time in the police—a book which inspired the characters of Jean Valjean and Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables—so too did one Scottish-American detective, named George McWatters, publish his memoir of policing.

McWatters’s book, which details a thirty-year career, was titled Knots Untied: or, Ways and Byways of the Hidden Life of American Detectives (1871). It was not a particularly ground-breaking book and was hardly unique in the overall American literary market for true crime. Indeed, there was what we might call a transatlantic market in these books: books about crime in New York were just as popular in England as the more traditional Lives of the Highwaymen. Conversely, American readers lapped up the latest Mysteries of London and Paris. What was special about McWatter’s book was the illustrations—produced by people whose names are now lost in time—which depicted several of the book’s most dramatic scenes.

This was melodrama—but in print.

Below is all of the illustrations from McWatters’s book, which you can read here, and which can be reused freely (though some credit might be nice as it takes a while to scan these images in).

McWatters Spectacle Case (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

“Ten dollars a month” (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

The Bond operator (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

The wax finger discovered (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Seizure of young Worden in Baltimore (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Atlantic Beer Garden (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Descent upon Blanchard and the gamblers (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Protecting the innocent (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

The rescue of Hattie Newberry (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Restell at Sing Sing (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

The bogus lottery office (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Recovering the diamond ring (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Discovering the spirits (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)
Catch him (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

The wolf in sheep’s clothing (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Breakdown on Litchfield Hill (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

The ceremony defeated (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Hudson’s strategy with the highwaymen (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

The lawyer outwitted (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

A rash courtship (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Mr Brooks’s fearful dream (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Rescue of Nellie Wilson (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Two sisters courting Col. Novena (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

The counterfeiter (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

Catching a “Flat” (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)