RCC Honors History Project

Charles Loring Brace, “The Life of the Street Rats” (1872)

Posted by dmcneal347 on March 11, 2009

. . . The intensity of the American temperament is felt in every fibre of these children of
poverty and vice. Their crimes have the unrestrained and sanguinary character of a race
accustomed to overcome all obstacles. They rifle a bank, where English thieves pick a
pocket; they murder, where European proletaires cudgel or fight with fists; in a riot, they
begin what seems about to be the sacking of a city, where English rioters would merely
batter policemen, or smash lamps. The “dangerous classes” of New York are mainly
American-born, but the children of Irish and German immigrants. . . . .
There are thousands on thousands in New York who have no assignable home, and “flirt”
from attic to attic, and cellar to cellar; there are other thousands more or less connected
with criminal enterprises; and still other tens of thousands, poor, hard-pressed, and
depending for daily bread on the day’s earnings, swarming in tenement-houses, who
behold the gilded rewards of toil all about them, but are never permitted to touch them.
All these great masses of destitute, miserable, and criminal persons believe that for ages
the rich have had all the good things of life, while to them have been left the evil things.
Capital to them is the tyrant.
Let but Law lift its hand from them for a season, or let the civilizing influences of
American life fail to reach them, and, if the opportunity offered, we should see an
explosion from this class which might leave this city in ashes and blood.
Seventeen years ago, my attention had been called to the extraordinarily degraded
condition of the children in a district lying on the west side of the city, between
Seventeenth and Nineteenth Streets, and the Seventh and Tenth Avenues. A certain
block, called “Misery Row,” in Tenth Avenue, was the main seed-bed of crime and
poverty in the quarter, and was also invariably a “fever-nest.” Here the poor obtained
wretched rooms at a comparatively low rent; these they sub-let, and thus, in little,
crowded, close tenements, were herded men, women and children of all ages. The parents
were invariably given to hard drinking, and the children were sent out to beg or to steal.
Besides them, other children, who were orphans, or who had run away from drunkards’
homes, or had been working on the canal-boats that discharged on the docks near by,
drifted into the quarter, as if attracted by the atmosphere of crime and laziness that
prevailed in the neighborhood. These slept around the breweries of the ward, or on the
hay-barges, or in the old sheds of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets. They were mere
children, and kept life together by all sorts of street-jobs-helping the brewery laborers,
blackening boots, sweeping sidewalks, “smashing baggages” (as they called it), and the
like. Herding together, they soon began to form an unconscious society for vagrancy and
idleness. Finding that work brought but poor pay, they tried shorter roads to getting
money by petty [sic] thefts, in which they were very adroit. Even if they earned a
considerable sum by a lucky day’s job, they quickly spent it in gambling, or for some
The police soon knew them as “street-rats”; but, like the rats, they were too quick and
cunning to be often caught in their petty plunderings, so they gnawed away at the
foundations of society undisturbed.


One Response to “Charles Loring Brace, “The Life of the Street Rats” (1872)”

  1. dmcneal347 said


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