In 1890, Jacob Riis – a journalist and photographer in New York City’s slums – wrote his still famous book, How the Other Half Lives. In this book, he brought the horrible living conditions of NYC’s impoverished to the attention of the reader. At one point in the book, he highlighted the desperate abandonment of thousands of newborns throughout the city, as well as, the steps that were being taken to save the babies.
Riis started this excerpt of his book by clearing up any preconceived notions readers may have had about abandoned children. He stated that the babies who were abandoned were never from well-to-do families. He made it clear that it was those living in poverty, who resorted to abandoning their children (Riis). Riis painted a picture of infants being left on the streets in rags, if lucky, and often times wrapped only in newspaper. He also said that it was rare to find notes along with the babies, though other journalists and writers would write the sob stories of such situations (ibid). Riis obviously cared more about the truth being clearly heard than he did about the profit he could make from creating beautiful stories of abandoned children being found just in time.
The excerpt also described the sequences of events that an abandoned child would go through. For many, as Riis mentioned, the process could contain merely being found, being numbered, going to the morgue, and being laid to rest in a mass-burial plot (ibid). Those found alive would spend a night in the police station before being taken with a single bottle and a random number to Randall’s Island Hospital. The Infant’s Hospital was the last stop for many of these infants, as many would not survive long enough to be taken to an asylum (ibid). Those babies who died in the hospital would either be used as subjects for some medical student, or be buried by the dozen in a place known as Potter’s Field (ibid). As Riis described this scene, the reader can sense a hint of remorse in his words. While he wrote in a factual and intellectual style, one cannot help but feel a pang of regret and moroseness reading what Riis penned.
Riis went on to talk about the Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity and the work the institution did to protect the abandoned infants. He talked about the crib where babies were laid so they could be taken care of by the Sisters inside the asylum (ibid). He described the situation of the mother coming to drop off her newborn and being asked to nurse not only her own baby, but another as well, until both were strong enough to survive (ibid). There is a sense of relief in Riis’ words as he wrote that the death rate was lowered significantly among the babies who were brought to the asylum.
Next Riis discussed the topic of baby-farming, a practice that brings a wave of disgust and anger over the reader. In the baby-farms, infants were brought to starve to death, and the people run of them were paid by the parents for taking care of the matter (ibid). The babies were fed sour milk and given paregoric to shut them up. Then when the babies died, the owners would simply have an inexperienced physician to sign death certificates to the Board of Health that stated that the infants died of inanition (ibid). It is hard not to shudder when reading these words. Riis created vivid images for the reader that would not easily be forgotten, which was important as he was trying to raise awareness about the issue.
Riis hit home in the following section, when he described how poverty had made parents so desperate as to take life insurance out on their infants, and then let them die just to have a claim to the money. More than a million policies were taken out for sums of $17 or more (ibid). How dreadful to think that parents could kill their babies to make a few bucks. Yet, upon reading this today, this practice is not so shocking, as it continues even today. Parents still take out life insurance policies for their children and then find ways to kill them, claiming large sums of money for the death of their infants. Thankfully, today it is much harder to get away with such practices, as technology has made it easier to determine the cause of death and catch fraudulent claims.
Riis wrapped up this section of his book with a glimmer of hope. He talked about the different institutions established to caring for and protecting abandoned babies and impoverished children (ibid). He even claimed that, despite all the abandonment and murder of infants in the city, New York City was the most charitable city in the world. He backed up his claim with talk of such establishments as The Five Points Mission and the Five Points House of Industry, which were put into place to rescue, feed, clothe, house, and teach abandoned children (ibid). In today’s society, this is seen all over. Orphanages, adoption centers, and halfway houses are more prevalent and in higher demand than ever. Riis’ book is still very much relevant to life today, as turmoil, poverty, and greed continue to lead parents to abandon, abuse, and murder their children.
Riis, Jacob A. Waifs of New York City’s Slums. How the Other Half Lives. Charles Scribner’s
Sons, New York: 1890.