Monday, July 18, 2011

New York City 1839

John Martin was an observant traveler, and found much to interest him that others might have passed by without seeing. As the Great Western docked on the East River, he could see a section of grand stone buildings. These newly constructed buildings marked the area of the city which had been destroyed by a dreadful fire that took place in 1835. It began in a single building at the corner of Pearl and Exchange Streets on a bitterly cold December night. The temperature stood at 17 degrees below zero. The usual water sources, wells and reservoirs, and the East River, were frozen and useless. The fire roared unchecked through the lower part of Manhattan.

The Great Fire of the City of New York Dec 16 1835

In the four years since the fire, the area had been rebuilt with more fire resistant buildings. In addition, a great new water source, the Croton Water System, had been planned and construction was already underway. It would bring water from upstate New York by way of a great aqueduct. The cities of Ireland were always in similar danger from fire. So John was certainly interested in this grand solution to a universal problem.

There were several comfortable hotels for John to choose from, most sprinkled along Broadway. From that central location, John could easily walk about most of the city. New York was laid out in a grid pattern that made exploration easy. As soon as John had established himself in his hotel, he was out to explore, and observe.

1839 Bradford Map of New York City, New York - Geographicus - NewYorkCity-bradford-1839

Broadway was bustling with pedestrians and vehicles of all sorts. Evidences of wealth were easily visible in the brightly colored and elegant clothes of pedestrians, and ornate coaches often driven by black men in uniforms designed to impress. But John saw other signs of the first great depression which had occurred two years before. President Andrew Jackson had refused to re-charter the Second Bank of the United States. This resulted in a sharp rise in inflation, which rapidly reduced the value of paper money. Government land sales stopped because of uncertainty about the value of money used to purchase the land. On May 10, 1837, all the banks of New York refused to deal in paper money at all, accepting deposits of gold and silver only. The economy collapsed just as the term of the new president Martin Van Buren began.

The economy had begun to recover as John took his first walk around the city. Still, the city was dirty, beggars held out their caps to passersby, the stench of garbage fouled the air once visitors left the glitz of Broadway. John certainly thought of how like his home town of Newry this proud city of the new world seemed

John was certainly had a special interest in the Irish newcomers to the city and how they were being received in their new homeland. Irish immigrants were easily visible, at least the ones who came without funds and had yet to find work. The old fashioned jackets, trousers and hats made them stand out on any street, just as if they had had a large identifying sign attached to their backs. John could easily see the scornful looks of New Yorkers and hear the taunts that were shouted after them. Irish women often found work as maids in the grand houses of the city. So a servant's uniform produced the same scorn as Irish hats.

Most of the Irish immigrants lived in an area of the city called Five Points, its name coming from the intersection of several streets in one place. John certainly walked down to visit the area. The wooden tenements were crammed beyond capacity with Irish immigrants. Sewerage ran freely along streets and alleys, contaminating water and breeding disease. The great cholera epidemic roared out of Five Points and across the city in 1831. John found the new lives of his fellow Irishmen saddening. The immigrants had sacrificed so much and found so little. Their dreams of a better life were quickly dashed. Now they would live out their lives far from the green fields and fresh air of their native land, never to see their families and friends again.

Five Points - George Catlin - 1827

Not surprisingly, there was much desperation in the Five Points and much crime. Clearly, a new prison in the area was a prime necessity. So a large prison was built the  year before John visited. It was designed to look like an Egyptian tomb, hence the name by which it was known. Irish suspects were taken from the streets and slums of Five Points in the black paddy wagons into the dark cells of the tombs. Just the sight of this grim and aptly named building must have depressed. Fortunately, John had no way of knowing that just 10 years later, he would enter a similar prison as a convicted felon himself.

A few of the immigrant Irish achieved great success. One of them was a cook named William Niblo. After some years in New York, he was able to open one of the first restaurants in the city, Niblo Garden, located at Broadway and Prince Street. The inside of the restaurant was decorated with shrubs, and trees. Birds sung from their cages. This business opened shortly before John arrived, and was already wildly successful. John certainly heard about this Irish success story and must have dined there at least once.

William Niblo’s Sans Souci, Br... Digital ID: 809939. New York Public Library

There was one story that occupied the attention of New Yorkers when John arrived. Just a few days earlier, a strange, dark ship had been spotted off the shores of New York. Reports of its presence came from crews of tugs and small ships passing in the same area. On the 26th of August, Thomas Gedney of the USS Washington located the ship Amistad off Long Island, seized it, and brought it to New Haven. The ship was controlled by 54 slaves.

A hearing was held before the slaves were brought ashore in an effort to keep them in custody for return to their owners in Havana. However, the hearing judge decided to hold them for trial and put them in jail on American soil. When John arrived in New York, newspapers were still putting the latest Amistad news on the front pages of their papers.. So great was the interest in the story that a play called "Long Low Black Schooner" had opened in the Bowery Theater a week earlier

The accounts of events were unique and riveting, arousing intense and opposing emotions, according to views on slavery. These slaves had been captured in Africa and sold in the spring of 1839, though transportation of slaves across the ocean had been made illegal. In Havana, they had been sold to work in the sugar cane fields. They were put on board the Armistad for the short trip from the slave market to the cane fields.

One of the slaves  Joseph Cinque, a man with training in working metals, was able to free himself and the other slaves. After a fierce battle during which the Captain and 2 slaves were killed, the slaves succeeded in capturing the ship.  They intended to sail the ship back to Africa. Lacking any familiarity with navigation, they spared Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez who promised to steer them home to Africa.But the two men had no intention of doing that. They sailed the ship eastward by day and northward by night.  This deception brought them off the coast where the slaves could be recaptured.

La Amistad (ship)

Abolitionists hurried to help raise funds to ensure that the men who risked their lives to fight for their freedom would indeed be freed. The first hearings had not been held when John left New York to visit his sister Jane in Canada. However, by the time he returned to New York to leave for home, the slaves had been ordered freed and returned to their homes in Sierra Leone. They settled in Farmington CN while the case was appealed. In 1842, the Supreme Court concurred in the lower court decision. Cinque and his companions returned to Africa, free men again.

Sources. "Asthma" by Dr. Hyde Salter. "Journal of Philip Hone," by Philip Hone. "Recession of 1837," Wikipedia. "Five Points," by Wikipedia. "Fire of 1835," Wikipedia. "Gastropolis: Food and New York City," by Hannah Lawson. "Journal of a Tour of New York In the Year 1830" by John Fowler. "American Notes," by Charles Dickens. "Retrospect of Western Travel," by Harriet Martineau.