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“Born in Sin, Nurtured in Crime”: The Children of New York City’s Notorious Five Points, 1854

The Five Points was a notorious mid-nineteenth century New York City slum. Located just east of the fashionable stores, columned banks, and well-dressed crowds of Broadway, its squalor served to remind New Yorkers of the destitution that so closely underlay the city’s surging wealth. The neighborhood included the infamous “Old Brewery,” which had once been a real brewery but by mid-century had degenerated into a miserable tenement dwelling for the very poor. In the early 1850s the New York Ladies Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church purchased the “Old Brewery,” demolished it, and built a mission on the site. The women of the Home Missionary Society made children their first concern, as, increasingly, did many other reformers of this period. While in this selection these Protestant missionary women showcase the children’s gratitude, many Irish-Catholic immigrant families resented the missionaries’ assumption of superiority and regarded their proselytizing as antagonistic to their own desire to pass on their religious beliefs to their children.

The Five Points

A stranger, taking his position in Broadway, near the City Hospital, would find himself at one of the central points of the wealth, the fashion, and the commerce of the largest and most influential city of the Union. The Hospital, of massive stone, surrounded by fine trees and spacious grassplots, which present a beautiful oasis amid the desert of brick and sand that encompasses its outer railing, tells loudly that active benevolence has here its sphere, and Christian charity its appropriate work. Elegant stores, crowded with merchandise of the most costl description; carts bending beneath the pressure of valuable loads; handsome carriages, containing fair occupants, whose rich attire bespeaks an utter disregard of the value of money; well-dressed hundreds, crowding the innumerable omnibusses, or passing with rapid steps through this great thoroughfare of fashion and business; everything betokens progress, wealth and happiness.

"But here is just behind a drearier scene;

The people haunts another aspect wear;

Midst wealth and splendor, wasted forms are seen,

Victims of ceaseless toil, and want, and care;

And there the sterner nature that will dare

To live, though life be bought with infamy;

There guilt’s bold emissaries spread their snare,

Who law, or human or divine, defy,

And live but to perpetuate crime and misery."

One minute’s walk from that Broadway-point of wealth, commerce, and enjoyment, will place him in another world of vision, thought, and feeling. Passing down Anthony-street but two squares, a scene will be represented forming so entire a contrast to that he has just left, that imagination would never have pictured, nor can language in its utmost strength successfully portray it. Standing at the lower end of Anthony-street, a large area, covering about an acre, will open before him. Into this, five streets, viz., Little-Water, Cross, Anthony, Orange, and Mulberry, enter, as rivers emptying themselves into a bay. In the center of this area is a small triangular space, known as “Paradise-square,” surrounded by a wooden paling generally disfigured by old garments hung upon it to dry. Opposite this little park stands, or rather stood, the “Old Brewery,” so famed in song and story. Miserable-looking buildings, liquor-stores innumerable, neglected children by scores, playing in rags and dirt, squalid-looking women, brutal men with black eyes and disfigured faces, proclaiming drunken brawls and fearful violence, complete the general picture.

Gaze on it mentally, fair reader, and realize, if you can, while sauntering down Broadway, rejoicing in all the refinements and luxuries of life, that one minute’s walk would place you in a scene like this. Gaze on it, men of thought, when treading the steps of the City Hall or the Hall of Justice, where laws are framed, and our city’s interests discussed and cared for— one minute’s walk would place you in this central point of misery and sin. Gaze on it, ye men of business and of wealth, and calculate anew the amount of taxation for police restraints and support, made necessary by the existence of a place like this. And gaze on it Christian men, with tearful eyes—tears of regret and shame—that long ere now the Christian Church has not combined its moral influences, and tested their utmost strength to purge a place so foul; for this, reader, is the “Five Points!”—a name known throughout the Union, in England, and on the continent of Europe. The “Five Points!”—a name which has hitherto been banished from the vocabulary of the refined and sensitive, or whispered with a a blush, because of its painful and degrading associations. The “Five Points!” What does the name import? It is the synonym for ignorance the most entire, for misery the most abject, for crime of the darkest dye, for degradation so deep that human nature cannot sink below it. We hear it, and visions of sorrow—of irremediable misery—flit before our mental vision. Infancy and childhood, without a mother’s care or a father’s protection: born in sin, nurtured in crime; the young mind sullied in its first bloom, the young heart crushed before its tiny call for affection has met one answering response.

Girlhood is there; not ingenuous, blushing, confiding youth, but reckless, hardened, shameless effrontery from which the spectator turns away to weep. Woman is there; but she has forgotten how to blush, and she creates oblivion of her innocent childhood’s home, and of the home of riper years, with its associations of fond parental love and paternal sympathies, by the incessant use of ardent spirits. Men are there—whose only occupation is thieving, and sensuality in every form, of every grade, and who know of no restraint, except the fear of the stron police, who hover continually about these precincts. And boys are there by scores, so fearfully mature in all that is vicious and degrading, that soon, O how soon, they will be fit only for the prison and the gallows.

This fear spot—this concentration of moral evil—this heathendom without the full excuse of ignorance so entire as creates a hope for foreign lands—why do we portray it? Why dwell for a moment upon scenes at which even a casual glance causes the warm blook to mantle to the cheek, and sends it rushing through the heart, until it quivers and aches with intensist sorrow? Why? Because we believe the time for action, the most wise, the most earnest, the most vigorously sustained, is fully come. The voice of benevolence has sounded there, and has been echoed, not faintly, not equivocally, but by a cry deep, agonized, impassioned. The wail of infancy, the moan of neglected childhood, the groan of mature years sick of sin, yet almost despairing of rescue, have united, and the cry has reached the ear of Christian kindess, and Christian hearts have responded to that call, and are now united to prove, as far as they may be enabled, the utmost power of redeeming grace to raise the fallen and to save the lost....


The Children of the “Five Points.”

"Alas! to think upon a child

That has no childish days,

No happy home, no counsel mild;

No words of prayer and praise!

"Man from the cradle—'tis too soon

To earn their daily bread,

And heap the heat and toil of noon

Upon an infant’s head.

"To labor ere their strength be come,

Or starve—such is the doom

That makes, of many a hapless home,

One long and living tomb."

When the ladies commecned their mission in this miserable locality, the hope of rescuing the children from the almost certain result of corrupt parental example was perhaps the strongest feeling that influenced them.

The children! hundreds of them with drunken fathers and drunken mothers, who made no provision for their comfort, and scarce any for their physical existence, beyond the miserable dens they called their homes, and in which, after a day of begging and perhaps want, and after a day’s exposure to every evil influence, they crept to sleep—greeted with oaths and curses, and oft-times with stripes and heavy blows! Children! precocious in self-reliance, in deceit, in every evil passion, while the better nature within them slumbered or had been destroyed because no suitable means had ever been used to vivify or awaken it!

"For here the order was reversed,

And infancy, like age

Knew of existence but its worst,

One dull and darkened page,

Written with tears and stamped with toil,

Crushed from the earliest hour,

Weeds darkening on the bitter soil

That never knew a flower."

The ladies, with woman’s instinct and woman’s tact, recognized them not only as depraved little human beings, but as children; their young hearts beating with childish hopes and fears, with childish yearnings and desires; awake to every tone of kindness, and yet so unaccustomed to any government but that of hasty blows and brutal caprice, that it seemed almost impossible to subdue and retain them by those laws of love and gentleness which yet were the only means deemed expedient or useful. There are, however, bright exceptions. We gaze on a few sweet young faces, and smooth the silken hair of some whose appearance declares maternal care, and in the visits made we find now and then a cleaner home, and hear all a tender mother’s anxiety and thankfulness for her children expressed, and listen to tales of privation and sufferings which words could scarcely exaggerate. We also have occasionally touching illustrations of the finer shades of character, which awaken peculiar sympathy and hope. On one of the regular days for the distribution of clothing a lady was attracted by the countenance of a pale, weary-looking child about nine years of age. She carried with difficulty a large baby, more than a year old, and, although the children all around her were full of life and hilarity, she sat listless and unamused, no smile betraying childish interest or joy. On inquiry, Mrs. Luckey [the Rev. and Mrs. Luckey were hired to run the Society’s mission] remarked, “That child has a drunken father who abuses her mother dreadfully, and she lives in a constant state of terror and dread.” The lady resolved to watch over that little girl, and throw some sunshine over the darkened path of the drunkard’s child. Closer acquaintance revealed a maturity of thought and a strength of sympathy with her suffering mother touching in the extreme. She came regularly to Sunday-school, but always, during the session, would whisper, “Mrs. Luckey, please let me run home and see how mother does—I am afraid father will come home and hurt her,” &c. Her little heart seemed at rest, and her face had an abiding look of weary despondency. After some acts of exceeding violence, the mother was obliged to complain against her husband. Maggie loved her father; for, when sober, he was kind, and she pleaded, “O mother! do not let them take him away, for what shall I do without a father?” He was committed to the Tombs, and the next morning early, Maggie took her litle brother, four years of age, by the hand, went to the prison, and sat hour after hour by the window, talking to, and trying to amuse her father until his time of liberation came. Of later her countenance has brightened, and she greets the lady (who in heart adopted her) with somewhat of childish glee.

One little news-boy was found who regularly paid his drunken mother’s rent out of his scanty earnings, and had remained comparatively untainted by the scenes of vice that met his every step.

The children give evidence also of bright intellect and quick perception. One afternoon a number of them had collected around the door of the “Old Brewery,” waiting for the appearance of Mr. Luckey. The rain poured in torrents, and they stood without a shelter of any kind. Mr. Luckey opened his office door, and kindly urged them to run home; that Mrs. L. was detained by the rain, and might not arrive for some time. Turning from them, he closed the door; but, quick as the lightning’s flash, his ear was greeted by the full chorus of one of their hymns,

"We’ll stand the storm, it won’t be long,

We’ll anchor by and bye,"

and the stood it until Mrs. Luckey appeared, and anchored them by a good fire, and applied the hymn they had so sweetly sung.


The Children that Sweep the Crossings.

Children with short ragged garments—old shawls tied around their waists—bare feet bespattered with the mud with which they are waging warfare—tangled locks straying from beneath their dark hoods—faces prematurely old and care-worn! Can we look for good in such as these? Do they remember kindesses, or have they any to remember? Do these forlorn ones take note of aught but the pennies that fall upon their path, as they ply their brooms amid the rush of omnibusses and rail-cars, of carts and carriages, while the stream of hurrying action rolls on its resistless tide? Can they discern among that restless multitude a face associated with memories of kindess—one face that will give the little street-sweepers a smile of recognition? Many of them have been gathered in at the Mission school; and though at times, they resume their old occupation, and with it their street-sweeper’s garb; yet on other days they may be seen tidily dressed, and with clean faces,learning to read and to write, to cypher and to sew in the pleasant school-room at the Mission House. That love’s labor is not lost there, the following incidents will show:

One day a minister of one of the city churches, who had the Sunday before preached in the big tent in “Paradise Square” at the Five Points, was crossing the well-swept walk, which enable one to walk dry-shod over Broadway. He handed some pennies to one of the children, who promptly declined the gift, saying— “Oh, no sir; we heard you preach in the Big Tent on Sunday, and we don’t want to take any pennies from you.” He had given them something better than pennies, and they were glad to make a clean path for the feet of him who had “published peace” to them and theirs.

As a lady, who constantly visits the Mission school drew near the crossing, the little girl exclaimed, “Here comes Mrs. D—, sweep the walk clean for her.” And when she handed one child a three cent piece, her companion put back the little outstretched palm, saing, “Ain’t you ashamed to take money from our teacher? No, Ma’am, we don’t want you to pay us.” And the little silver bit was resolutely declined, till the lady dropt it on the pavement and walked on.

Here was a lively feeling of gratitude shining forth in these children that sweep the crossings—children already old in the bitter experience of life trained up amid evil and wrong—proving that some of the seed freely scattered, had taken root in the poor neglected soil of their young hearts.


The Old Brewery, and the New Mission House at the Five Points.

Source: By Ladies of the Mission. New York: Stringer and Townsend, 1854, 31–36; 152–156; 167–169.