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Document-Based QuestionDocument-Based Question

City Problems: Poverty and Slums

The cholera epidemics in the nineteenth century revealed a chronic crisis over immigration, ethnicity, poverty, and class in Jackson-era New York City. While modern science can explain the biological causes of cholera, the contemporary interpretations were grounded in moral, behavioral, and environmental explanations of the disease and of the poverty associated with it. In their reaction to cholera and poverty in the Five Points, New York's elite revealed their underlying assumptions about the nature and causes of poverty and their anxieties over difference in the immigrant-crowded metropolis.

Respond to this statement, specifying whether you partly or entirely agree or disagree. Use your knowledge of the time period and the sources provided to support your arguments.

Whatever position you take, be sure to construct an original thesis that addresses the who, what, when, and especially the why. Be sure to consider the counterargument, what historians might say in opposition to your thesis, and to support your argument with material from Professor Jackson's lecture and other sources.


Document Links

A. Report of the Magdalen Society
B. Petition to Have the Five Points Opened
C. Daily Tally of Cholera Victims
D. Cholera Outbreak
E. The Cholera Epidemic
F. Cholera Epidemic Editorial
G. Annual Report of the Interments
H. Charles Dickens on the Five Points
I. Sunshine and Shadow in New York
J. How the Other Half Lives
K. The Five Points Slum


A. Report of the Magdalen Society

Primary source: New York Magdalen Society, First Annual Report of New York Magdalen Society, 1831.
Background information: Led by John Robert McDowell, a Princeton divinity student, the Magdalen Society was founded in 1831 to help reform prostitutes living in the Five Points slum.

[ . . . ]


The exorbitant rent of houses, compels them [European immigrants] to occupy a narrow space of house room for their families. One or two rooms is generally as much as one family can afford; thus boys and girls lodge in the bedchamber with their parents, and one room serves for cooking and eating; the children are driven off as early as possible into the streets to run like wild colts. Thus they grow up ignorant, idle, and disobedient to their parents. They make bad apprentices and worse citizens. Money is the only object they ever desire to obtain, and for that object nothing is too mean and scarcely any thing dishonest if they can evade the laws. . . . The girls grow up thus, associating with their depraved brothers, ignorant, vain and idle. Conscious of no other distinctions in society than externals, they look with envy on their wealthy neighbors, and essay every art to equal them in dress and expense. This lays the basis of their ruin, and at an early age makes them easy prey to the profligate libertine. Nay, many of these girls assist their parents with the wages of their shame.

[ . . . ]


Another source of this horrid crime arises in the custom of requiring security for house rent. This compels women to resort to some means of obliging a friend to obtain a roof to shelter her family. Men are not generally willing to risk their money for pure friendship; yet security must be had.

New York Magdalen Society, First Annual Report of New York Magdalen Society (1831), 21.

Courtesy of Municipal Archives, New York City.

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B. Petition to Have the Five Points Opened

Primary source: "Petition to Have the Five Points Opened," 1831.
Background information: Merchants owning property along the periphery of Five Points petitioned the municipal government in 1829 to demolish the heart of the slum by widening and extending Anthony and Cross Streets.

That the place known as "Five points" has long been notorious . . . as being the nursery where every species of vice is conceived and matured; that it is infested by a class of the most abandoned and desperate character . . .

[They] are abridged from enjoying themselves in their sports, from the apprehension . . . that they may be enticed from the path of rectitude, by being familiarized with vice; and thus advancing step by step, be at last swallowed up in this sink of pollution, this vortex of irremediable infamy.

In conclusion your Committee remark, that this hot–bed of infamy, this modern Sodom, is situated in the very heart of your City, and near the centre of business and of respectable population. . . . Remove this nucleus—scatter its present population over a larger surface—throw open this part of your city to the enterprise of active and respectable men, and you will have effected much for which good men will be grateful.

"Petition to Have the Five Points Opened," Board of Assistant Aldermen documents (24 October 1831), Municipal Archives, City of New York.

Courtesy of Municipal Archives, New York City.

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C. Daily Tally of Cholera Victims

Primary source: “Daily Tally of Cholera Victims,” 1832.
Background information: Due to overcrowding and poor sanitation, the Five Points slum suffered numerous casualties during outbreaks of disease, as this daily report taken during the 1832 cholera epidemic makes clear.



The cholera epidemic of 1832 swept through the Five Points, an area of predominately poor and working class Irish-Americans and African Americans. This daily tally from 1832 shows the severity of the epidemic in poor and immigrant quarters.

“Daily Tally of Cholera Victims,” in Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 592.

Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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D. Cholera Outbreak

Primary source: Newspaper article, 1832.
Background information: This article, written during the cholera epidemic of 1832, conveyed the opinion that only certain social types contracted the deadly disease.



[ . . . ]


Every day's experience gives us increased assurance of the safety of the temperate and prudent, who are in circumstances of comfort. . . . The disease is now, more than before rioting in the haunts of infamy and pollution. A prostitute at 62 Mott Street, who was decking herself before the glass at 1 o'clock yesterday, was carried away in a hearse at half past three o'clock. The broken down constitutions of these miserable creatures, perish almost instantly on the attack. . . . But the business part of our population, in general, appear to be in perfect health and security.

New-York Mercury (18 July 1832), in Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 42 n. 3.

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E. The Cholera Epidemic

Primary source: Editorial, 1832.
Background information: Many of New York's Protestant leaders interpreted the 1832 cholera epidemic as proof of God's displeasure with contemporary morality.

[The editor of the Western Sunday School Messenger explained:]

Drunkards and filthy, wicked people of all descriptions, are swept away in heaps, as if the Holy God could no longer bear their wickedness, just as we sweep away a mass of filth when it has become so corrupt that we cannot bear it. . . . The cholera is not caused by intemperance and filth, in themselves, but it is a scourge, a rod in the hand of God. . . .

Western Sunday School Messenger, (1 September 1832), in Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 44 n. 9.

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F. Cholera Epidemic Editorial

Primary source: “E. M.,” editorial, 1849.
Background information: As far away as New Hampshire, editorials denounced the New York cholera epidemic of 1832 as divine retribution for decadence and sin.

If cholera had no other mission than this, to sanction the practice of temperance and cleanliness, and to denounce the penalties against artificial and undenied appetites, and putrescent inhalations, it is yet an angel of mercy to the world, if mankind will suffer themselves to be instructed by it.

"E. M.," editorial, Morning Star (Dover, N.H.), 24, (15 August 1849): 69, in Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 130 n. 19.

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G. Annual Report of the Interments

Primary source: "Annual Report of the Interments in the City and County of New-York," 1842.
Background information: Dr. John Hoskins Griscom (1809–74), a Quaker physician, founded the New York Academy of Medicine and pioneered the field of public health. His advocacy for sanitation, medical care, and adequate housing led to the great reforms of the Progressive Era after the Civil War.

The over-crowded state of many tenements, and the want of separate apartments, are prolific sources of moral degradation, and physical suffering. They operate directly, by vitiating the atmosphere, already too confined for a majority of the inmates, while, by close approximation of both sexes, and all ages and relationships, and often no relationship except necessity, and a too familiar intercourse of parents, sons and daughters, without partition or curtain to shield them, night or day, sleeping in the same room, and often in the same bed, there are created an indifference to the common decencies of life, and a disregard of the sacred obligations of moral propriety, which result in a depressing effect upon the physiological energies, and powerfully heighten the susceptibility to, and render more difficult the cure of diseases among them. The coincidence, or parallelism, of moral degradation and physical disease, is plainly apparent to an experienced observer.

By providing the laboring classes with better tenements, improved ventilation, and healthy and cleanly arrangements in respect to yards, sinks and sewerage, they will certainly suffer less from sickness and premature mortality, and a vast amount of pauperism, crime, and wretchedness be prevented. On the other hand, it is a well-established fact, that diseases are not confined to the localities where they originate, but widely diffuse their poisonous miasma. Hence, though the poor may fall in greater numbers because of their nearer proximity to the causes of disease, yet the rich, who inhabit the splendid squares and spacious streets of this metropolis, often become the victims of the same disorders which afflict their poorer brethren. Nor should the momentous fact be overlooked, that the same causes which occasion a great amount of physical suffering to the laborer, and a high rate of mortality, at the same time impair his ability of self-support, increase taxation, and present almost insuperable obstacles to his social elevation, and moral and religious improvement.

"Annual Report of the Interments in the City and County of New-York, for the year 1842, with remarks thereon, and a brief view of the Sanitary Condition of the City," in John Hoskins Griscom, The Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of New York (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1845).

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H. Charles Dickens on the Five Points

Primary source: Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, 1842.
Background information: The famed British writer Charles Dickens published his account of his 1842 visit to America, where he found evidence of England's superior class system in the squalor of New York's Five Points slum.

This is the place [Five Points], these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?

Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (London: Chapman and Hall, 1842), 101, at Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

Courtesy of the Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

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I. Sunshine and Shadow in New York

Primary source: Matthew Hale Smith, Sunshine and Shadow in New York, 1866.
Background information: Sunshine and Shadow in New York, a mid-nineteenth-century publication, depicts New York City as two polar societies, one affluent and vibrant, and one poor and diseased.



Sunshine and Shadow in New York, a mid-nineteenth-century publication, depicts New York City as two polar societies, one affluent and vibrant, and one poor and diseased.

Matthew Hale Smith, Sunshine and Shadow in New York (Hartford, Conn.: J. B. Burr, 1866).

Courtesy of the American Social History Project.

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J. How the Other Half Lives

Primary source: Jacob A. Riis, How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, 1890.
Background information: Newspaper reporters, such as Jacob Riis (1849–1914), played an instrumental role in exposing the destitution and misery of New York's immigrant and working-class neighborhoods.

WHERE Mulberry Street crooks like an elbow within hail of the old depravity of the Five Points, is "the Bend," foul core of New York's slums. Long years ago the cows coming home from the pasture trod a path over this hill. Echoes of tinkling bells linger there still, but they do not call up memories of green meadows and summer fields; they proclaim the home-coming of the rag-picker's cart. In the memory of man the old cow-path has never been other than a vast human pig-sty. There is but one "Bend" in the world, and it is enough. The city authorities, moved by the angry protests of ten years of sanitary reform effort, have decided that it is too much and must come down. Another Paradise Park will take its place and let in sunlight and air to work such transformation as at the Five Points, around the corner of the next block. Never was change more urgently needed. Around "the Bend" cluster the bulk of the tenements that are stamped as altogether bad, even by the optimists of the Health Department. Incessant raids cannot keep down the crowds that make them their home. In the scores of back alleys, of stable lanes and hidden byways, of which the rent collector alone can keep track, they share such shelter as the ramshackle structures afford with every kind of abomination rifled from the dumps and ash barrels of the city. Here, too, shunning the light, skulks the unclean beast of dishonest idleness. "The Bend" is the home of the tramp as well as the rag-picker.

[ . . . ]



Jacob A. Riis, How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1971), 49.

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K. The Five Points Slum

Primary source: George Catlin, "Five Points, 1827," lithograph.
Background information: Five Points, the great slum of antebellum New York, was located at the convergence of Worth, Baxter, and Park Streets in present-day lower Manhattan. Its residents suffered terribly during the cholera epidemic of 1832.



Five Points, the great slum of antebellum New York, was located at the convergence of Worth, Baxter, and Park Streets in present-day lower Manhattan. Its residents suffered terribly during the cholera epidemic of 1832.

Courtesy of The New-York Historical Society.

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