Monday, June 24, 2013

Amanuensis Monday: An August Night in the Slums - 1896 - St. Louis

Amanuensis: A person employed to write what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another.

I continue my project to transcribe family letters, journals, newspaper articles, audiotapes, and other historical artifacts. Not only do the documents contain genealogical information, the words breathe life into kin - some I never met - others I see a time in their life before I knew them.

I began this project back on February 16, 2009.  Since I began, many others have joined in on the meme. I am thrilled that this meme I started has inspired so many to transcribe their family history documents. Why do we transcribe? I provide my three reasons in the linked post. You may find others.

This week I share a transcription of a newspaper article I found at NewspaperArchive. No relatives are mentioned, but the setting is a neighborhood I've written about in the past, and in which several of my paternal ancestors lived at the turn of the 19th century. Finding out how the neighbors of my ancestors lived gives me an idea how my ancestors might have lived. Those who have read my earlier posts on the neighborhood know, it's not a pretty picture.

Written for the Sunday Republic
August 9, 1896
Midnight in the slums.

From towers on churches bells peal forth the hour. The roar of the streets is dying away and the rumble of a wagon can be heard for blocks. In the corner saloons hot, coatless men are drinking and wrangling. Fitful breezes blow faintly, carrying foul odors. They are warm and sickly, and do not cool. The rattle of policemen’s clubs on the stone walks is almost continuous. Out in the narrow, dirty streets and in the dark and dangerous alleys thousands of men and women and children try to sleep. Death stalks boldly and picks victims by the score. The atmosphere is humid. Clothes stick to moist bodies and from the gutters miasmatic fumes arise.

On every side of the Third District Station, at Seventh and Carr streets stretch away block after block of the habitations of the poor. Little Jerusalem clusters close around it. Communities of Poles and Slavs and Italians throng the alleys within a few squares of it. The neighborhood is not a safe one for a stranger after dark, and for that reason Seargant Tom Boyd detailed Officer Sadler to guide a Republic reporter and an artist through the labyrinth of noisome thoroughfares Thursday night. From midnight until 3 o’clock in the morning they tramped past row after row of suffering mortals seeking rest outside their stuffy houses.

The inhabitants of that section do not retire early. 11 o’clock finds them all on the streets. The stores are open and children play on the sidewalks in such numbers that locomotion is almost impossible through them. The cooling breezes that visit the strictly residence portions of the town do not bring relief to the inhabitants of the slums. Garbage reeks in the streets and in alleys streams of dirty water make little pools that smell to heaven. Street traffic keeps up to a late hour and there is not rest for the tired people before the clock strikes 12.

At midnight the lights are out. The cries of the children who have been playing along the sidewalks are stilled. The people have retired, some to sleep, but the majority to roll and toss on uneasy beds until the first glare of the sun in the East drives them fort to toil and renewed misery. The houses are deserted. The entire population goes to bed in the streets and alleys.

All along Carr street from Sixth street to Eighth street it is almost necessary for pedestrians to walk in the gutter on account of the number of lightly clad bodies that encumber the walks. They sleep in doorways and huddle up on boxes. Some of them lie on quilts, a few on staircases, but the great majority recline on the bare bricks or stones. Whites and blacks mingle indiscriminately. Adult and infant share the same couch. Wearing apparel is at a discount, but night casts a charitable mantle over the restless sleepers and there are few electric lights in the slums.

Forster alley is the most thickly populated of the alleys in the section around the station. It is between Broadway and Sixth and Biddle and O’Fallon streets. On the west side is a long row of tenements, occupied for the most part by Russians with a sprinkling of negroes and Chinese. The houses set back from the alley, leaving in front of each a wide stone porch between the front door and the alley. This porch is the lodging place for the people who live in the houses – hundreds of them.

“Look out for dogs,” said the officer as he led the way into the narrow passage.

Immediately the value of his warning became apparent. Each family in the alley owns all they way from one to 10 dogs, and each dog is a vocal performer of great ability. None of them are big dogs. They are generally little snappy fellows, who bark and bark and bark, but would not bite under any circumstances. They came down the alley in droves howling and snapping.

One can form no adequate idea of the way these people are packed without seeing them. Children are sandwiched in wherever there is room. Babies sleep between their parents’ feet, or rest on the breasts of their mothers. Sometimes a child rolls off the curb and down into the alley, but there is no disturbance over a little thing like that. The men and women dress as scantily as they can, but there is little or no pretense made at keeping clothes on the children. Away at the east end of the alley a chubby little tot had rolled several feet away from the couch on which it was sleeping and was comfortably spread out on the hard stones. It was entirely destitute of clothes and slept as calmly as though reclining on a bed of down. A long row of baby carriages stands against the wall. Each carriage contains a baby and if it cries the mother or father is close enough to reach out and jostle it up and down until the little one goes to sleep again.

“It’s a singular fact,” said the office, “that the babies in these alleys seldom cry. They are so dead tired that they go right to sleep, and sometimes they never wake up.”

Clabber alley is close by – an Italian alley. All was life and bustle there when the tourists reached it shortly after [?] o’clock. The banana carts, so numerous on the streets during the day, were lined up along each side of the alley, and in them reposed their owners and scores of children. A man who looked like a comic opera brigand was going along from cart to cart waking the sleeping throng. There was a big Italian picnic Friday and by [?] o’clock in the morning Clabber alley was deserted.

The Sixth Street alley is another Italian settlement, but the crowd living there was not in on the picnic, and slept through the night. They [?] in every available place, leaving a space through the center of the alley barely wide enough for a pedestrian to pass through. When a wagon goes by the driver has to go on ahead and wake up the entire colony. Naked babies abound in this alley.

Right back of the police station on Carr street a woman sat on a doorstep, fanning three tots sleeping on a quilt on the sidewalk. One of them was a sweet little thing, wholly naked. When the tourists came along the mother covered the baby with her dress.

“I can’t put no clothes on him,” she explained to the officer. “He’s all broke out with the heat.”

On Wash street, near Sixth, a woman sat on a doorstep fanning a baby in a little carriage. Her name is Carlisle and the officer said she had slept but four hours in five nights. The baby is sick and requires her attention all the time. Her husband, William Carlisle, a painter, fell from the roof of the new Wabash building recently and fractured the bones in his right ankle. He is in the City hospital. The baby slept restlessly, tossing his thin little arms and moaning. All day and all night the mother sits, keeping cool cloths on its head. Sometimes one of the neighbors comes in and watches the little one while the mother sleeps.

Block after block of such scenes unfolded themselves to the tourists in the alley back of the Ashley building, the largest tenement in the city, nearly a thousand people were asleep. In hallways and areas and doorways sleepers could be seen. Down on Third street a man and a woman were asleep in a stairway, and a few doors away three children slept on an old cabbage crate in front of a commission house. Wagons in vacant lots are utilized as lodging houses.

Three o clock in the slums! The big bells on the churches boom out the hour and the sleepers toss uneasily. In another hour the first streaks of dawn will appear in the East and the sun will begin to add his quota into the annoyance of life. At [] o clock the broad light of day illumines the alleys and the dark places and the sleepers get up to another day – a day like yesterday and like to-morrow.

Why they have not died like sheep-these people of the slums-in the past three weeks, is beyond the ken of man. Plenty of them have died, but the wonder is that any of them have lived.


1) How close were my ancestors to the alleys mentioned in the story?

Below are two clippings from the 1909 Sanborn Maps. (Click to enlarge.) The one on the left shows Biddle Street from 8th to 6th. I've marked where my Feinstein ancestors lived from 1896-1908, and where my Cruvant ancestors lived in 1897. The image on the right is Biddle Street from 6th to Broadway, with Forster Alley in the middle.

Even though they lived a couple blocks away, the buildings they lived in were probably not much better. It's possible they slept outside as well.

For anyone wondering what exists at the location of Forster Alley today, courtesy of Google Maps, here's a satellite view. If you enlarge the image, you'll notice Biddle is labeled, and the street on the right is Broadway.

The building in the lower left is the Edward Jones Dome, home of the St. Louis Rams football team.

2) I am unable to find in the 1900 census, living in St. Louis, a William Carlisle, or any child with the last name Carlisle born between 1891-1897. I'll assume they survived and moved elsewhere.

3) I have created category tags for "Little Jerusalem" and "Carr Square" so that all my posts on this neighborhood are easier to find.

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