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“Embryo Courtezans and Felons”: New York Police Chief George W. Matsell Describes the City’s Vagrant and Delinquent Children, 1849

In 1849, New York’s chief of police, George W. Matsell, chose to devote most of his semi-annual report to the problem of vagrant and delinquent children. By mid-century New York was crowded with immigrants from Ireland and Germany. Adult immigrants took jobs once occupied by child apprentices and, despite Matsell’s reference to the city’s public schools, schooling was not compulsory in New York State until 1874. The result was an excess of poor children on the streets earning money however they could, sometimes, Matsell suggests, in unsavory occupations. Matsell’s anxiety about the city’s street children cut two ways: he was concerned about the harm these children were doing to themselves, but he also worried that they would grow up to join a “dangerous class” of criminals that would terrorize the city. In these sentiments he was joined by Charles Loring Brace. In 1853 Brace formed the Children’s Aid Society that initiated the “orphan trains.” These trains transported poor children out of the city to farms in the west.

In connection with this report, I deem it my duty, to call the attention of your Honor to a deplorable and growing evil which exists amid this community, and which is spread over the principal business parts of the city. It is an evil and a reproach to our municipality, for which the laws and ordinances afford no adequate remedy.

I allude to the constantly increasing number of vagrants, idle and vicious children of both sexes, who infest our public thoroughfares, hotels, docks, &c.; children who are growing up in ignorance and profligacy, only destined to a life of misery, shame and crime, and ultimately to a felon’s doom. Their numbers are almost incredible, and to those whose business and habits do not permit them a searching scrutiny, the degrading and disgusting practices of these almost infants, in the school of vice, prostitution and rowdyism, would certainly be beyond belief. The offspring of always careless, generally intemperate and oftentimes immoral and dishonest parents, they never see the inside of a schoolroom; and so far as our excellent system of public education i[s] concerned, and which may be truly said to be the foundation stone of our free institutions, is to them an entire nullity. Left in many instances to roam day and night wherever their inclination leads them, a large proportion of these juvenile vagrants are in the daily practice of pilfering wherever opportunity offers, and begging when they cannot steal.

In addition to which the female portion of the youngest class, those who have only seen some eight or twelve summers) are addicted to immoralities of the most loathsome description; each year makes fearful additions to the ranks of these prospective recruits of infamy and sin, and from this corrupt and festering fountain flows on a ceaseless stream to our lowest brothels, to the penitentiary and the states' prison.

Reports have been made to me from the captains of the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, Eleventh and Thirteenth Patrol districts, from which it appears that the enormous number of two thousand nine hundred and fifty-five children are engaged as above described in these wards alone, and of these, two-thirds are females, between eight and sixteen years of age. This estimate, I believe, to be far short of the number actually thus engaged; Astounding as it may seem, there are many hundreds of parents in this city who absolutely drive their offspring forth to practices of theft and semi-bestiality, that they themselves may live lazily on the means thus secured. Selling the very bodies and souls of those in whom their own blood circulates, for the means of dissipation and debauchery.

These embryo courtezans and felons may be divided into several classes, as follows:

First, Those who congregate around the piers, &c., where merchandize is chiefly landed. Cunning and adroit in these operations, they daily pilfer immense quantities of cotton, sugar, spirits, coffee, teas, &c, from the bales, hogsheads, casks, bags, chests, &c,, with which the wharves are generally more or less loaded, and in the absence of other articles of plunder, they wrench the knobs from the doors, steal building hardware from unfinished buildings, lead and copper pipe, and even tin roofing. They will, even with the owner or consignee looking on, cut open a coffee bag in a manner so sly and artistical, that he is forced to believe the bag burst by accident, and in a few moments some fifteen or twenty pounds are transferred from the planking of the pier to their capacious baskets or aprons. It is no uncommon thing for a hogshead of sugar to be short from fifty to one hundred pounds, through these undetected depredations; and the same system of petty abstraction prevails in regard to all exposed articles of a movable nature.

In one instance an entire bale of cotton was stolen peacemeal, by this process, and the perpetrators were only caught when they returned for the purpose of filching the bag itself.

To guard all the property exposed along our docks would require a policeman upon each pier in the lower wards—a disposition of the force which the present state of the department will in no wise warrant, and which indeed would not, in my opinion, be advisable under any circumstances.

The number of children engaged in this nefarious occupation, is estimated at seven hundred and seventy in the district enumerated. Arrests are indeed frequently made, but it is my unpleasant duty to inform your Honor, that so far as I can learn from the captains of the river districts, these juvenile rogues generally manage to escape. Parents appear in their behalf, with tears and promises of a more careful supervision in future, and the petit pilferer is released from durance, with a simple reprimand from the sitting magistrate, to return in one hour to the docks—a more confirmed thieving vagabond than ever.


The second, class of youthful vagrants are the “crossings sweepers.” They are entirely different from those first mentioned, and in regard to moral degradation, they occupy a still lower position. Clothed in rags, filthy in the extreme, both in person and in language, it is humiliating to be compelled to recognize them as a part and portion of the human family. Consisting mainly of small girls, one looks in vain for a single attribute of innocent childhood in their impertinent and persevering demands. Their shameless advances, and the lewd billingsgate [foul language—as was spoken in London’s fish market near one of the city’s gates] of their voices, involuntarily gives rise to the question, “What fearful fruit will the seed of sin, thus early sown, bring forth in manhood?” Citizens generally suppose that in bestowing pennies upon these children, they are performing acts of charity and of mercy. This is a mistake. Whatever may be their gains during the day, the amount is almost ever spent during the night, in visiting the galleries of the minor theatres, or in the lowest dens of drunkenness and disease which abound in the “Five Points” and its vicinity; and they oftentimes waste large sums of money, amid half-grown boys of similar stamp, in the most disgusting scenes of precocious dissipation and debauchery. The number thus engaged is estimated, in the lower districts, at about one hundred.

The third class are also sufficiently well marked to present distinctive features. They likewise, are mostly girls of tender years, and frequently neatly dressed and modest looking. Their ostensible business is the sale of fruits, socks, toothpicks, &c., and with this ruse they gain ready access to countingrooms, offices and other places, where, in the secrecy and seclusion of a turned key, they submit their persons for the miserable bribe of a few shillings, to the most loathsome and degrading familiarities

By these practices they frequently are enabled to carry home some two or three dollars daily. And this very money, to obtain which the miserable child exchanges its present and future welfare, is eagerly grasped by the often inebriate parents, who, with the full knowledge of the sacrifice by which it was obtained, scruple not to use it; and on the morrow the girl is again sent forth upon the same disgusting errand. The captain of the eleventh patrol district, in speaking of this class of children, says, “scenes of almost nightly occurrence might, if necessary, be rerelated, which, for vileness and deep depravity, would absolutely stagger belief.”

The captain of the second patrol district says, “this class of children is, probably, the most degraded of any in the city; the others steal, but most of the girls who sell fruit, &c., at the different offices, are in the daily habit of practising the most beastly and immoral things, (and when old enough they turn out as common prostitutes,) and frequently get four or five dollars per day in this way. I have known several instances where these children have grown up, and are now living in a state of prostitution, while others are already in the hospital, and some have been sent to the prison or Blackwell’s Island.”

These enormities have long been known to the department, and they come to me in such an unquestionable shape, that I cannot doubt the truth of the statement.

I am aware that there are honorable exceptions to the above, and some among the hundreds, included in this third class, are in reality honest children, endeavoring to gain a living by the legitimate sale of trifles, but the majority are vicious, and only so. The number is computed in the districts named at three hundred and eighty.

The fourth class are boys; they are termed “Baggage Smashers,” they congregate around steamboat landings and railroad depots, apparently for the purpose of carrying parcels, for persons arriving in the city. A large proportion of them have no homes whatever; they will not hesitate to steal when opportunity offers, and lead idle and dissolute lives, generally sleeping in the markets, under sheds, and occasionally in cheap lodgings, but the luxury of a bed, however, they seldom indulge in. Of an average larger growth, and more experienced than the classes before mentioned, there is more method in their evil propensities and not unfrequently, are small burglaries traced home to them. There are about one hundred and twenty-three thus engaged.

A fifth class consists of boys similar to those last mentioned, with this exception, they have homes, and many of them, are the children of respectable parents, but through a mistaken leniency, or a criminal carelessness, they are suffered to spend their evenings and sabbaths in small gatherings on the corners bf the streets, annoying the neighborhood and passers by with their wrangling and fighting propensities, and with the most reckless oaths and blasphemies. They will often steal, and many of them absent themselves from the roof of their parents or guardians, for weeks together, sleeping in markets, wagons and other places of shelter, consorting with the vilest of both sexes, and forming habits of vice and dissipation which cling to them through all their after years.

Frequent complaints are made by citizens in regard to the practices of these juvenile rowdies, but under existing regulations, the efforts of the Police are found inadequate to the suppression of the nuisance. The number of these is estimated at between sixteen and seventeen hundred.

Besides these, there are reported to me from the above named districts, twenty-three hundred and eighty-three children that do not attend school.

In presenting these disagreeable facts for the consideration of your Honour, I trust that I may be pardoned for the suggestion in conclusion, that in my opinion some method by which these children could be compelled to attend our schools regularly, or be apprenticed to some suitable occupation, would tend in time, more to improve the morals of the community, prevent crime, and relieve the city from its onerous burthen of expenses for the Alms House and Penitentiary than any other conservative or philanthropic movement with which I am at present acquainted.

All of which is respectfully submitted, GEO. W. MATSELL, Chief of Police.

Source: Semi-Annual Report of the Chief of Police From May 1, to October 31, 1849 (New York, 1850), 58–61; 62–66.