History of The Cellars of The Five Points

This is historical reference material pertaining to the history of Cellars in the location known as the Five Points. The material comes from the public domain Ebook “Lights and Shadows of New York Life” by James McCabe. If you enjoy the material below you are more then welcome to download the complete Ebook for FREE by going to the bottom of this post.

If the people of whom I have written are sufferers, they at least exist upon the surface of the earth. But what shall we say of those who pass their lives in the cellars of the wretched buildings I have described?

A few of these cellars are dry, but all are dirty. Some are occupied as dwelling-places, and some are divided into a sort of store or groggery and living and sleeping rooms. Others still are kept as lodging-houses, where the poorest of the poor find shelter for the night.

In writing of these cellars, I wish it to be understood that I do not refer to the rooms partly above and partly below the level of the side-walk, with some chance of ventilation, and known to the Health Officers as “basements,” but to the cellars pure and simple, all of which are sunk below the level of the street, and all of which are infinitely wretched. There were in April, 1869, about 12,000 of these cellars known to the Board of Health, and containing from 96,000 to 100,000 persons. With the exception of 211, all of these were such as were utterly forbidden, under the health ordinances of the city, to be used or rented as tenements. The Board of Health have frequently considered the advisability of removing this population, and have been prevented only by the magnitude of the task, and the certainty of rendering this large number of persons homeless for a time at least.

The larger portion of these cellars have but one entrance, and that furnishes the only means of ventilation. They have no outlet to the rear, and frequently the filth of the streets comes washing down the walls into the room within. In the brightest day they are dark and gloomy. The air is always foul. The drains of the houses above pass within a few feet of the floor, and as they are generally in bad condition the filth frequently comes oozing up and poisons the air with its foul odors. In some cases there has been found a direct opening from the drain into the cellar, affording a free passage for all the sewer gas into the room. The Board of Health do all they can to remedy this, but the owners and occupants of the cellars are hard to manage, and throw every obstacle in the way of the execution of the health ordinances.

The rents paid for these wretched abodes are exorbitant. Dr. Harris, the Superintendent of the Board of Health, states that as much as twenty dollars per month is often demanded of the occupants by the owners. Half of that sum would secure a clean and decent room in some of the up-town tenements. The poor creatures, in sheer despair, make no effort to better their condition, and live on here in misery, and often in vice, until death comes to their relief.


Many of the cellars are used as lodging-houses. These are known to the police as “Bed Houses.” In company with Captain Allaire and Detective Finn, the writer once made a tour of inspection through these establishments. One of them shall serve as a specimen. Descending through a rickety door-way, we passed into a room about sixteen feet square and eight feet high. At one end was a stove in which a fire burned feebly, and close by a small kerosene lamp on a table dimly lighted the room. An old hag, who had lost the greater part of her nose, and whose face was half hidden by the huge frill of the cap she wore, sat rocking herself in a rickety chair by the table. The room was more than half in the shadow, and the air was so dense and foul that I could scarcely breathe. By the dim light I could see that a number of filthy straw mattresses were ranged on the floor along the wall. Above these were wooden bunks, like those of a barracks, filled with dirty beds and screened by curtains. The room was capable of accommodating at least twenty persons, and I was told that the hag in the chair, who was the proprietress, was “a good hand at packing her lodgers well together.” It was early, but several of the beds were occupied. The curtains were drawn in some cases, and we could not see the occupants. In one, however, was a child, but little more than a baby, as plump and ruddy, and as fair-skinned and pretty as though it had been the child of a lady of wealth. The little one was sleeping soundly, and, by a common instinct, we gathered about its bed, and watched it in silence.

“It is too pretty a child for such a place,” said one of the party.

I glanced at Detective Finn. His face wore a troubled expression.

“A man becomes hardened to the sights I see,” he said in answer to my glance, “but I can scarcely keep the tears from my eyes when I see a child like this in such a place; for, you see, I know what a life it is growing up to.”

This wretched place Mr. Finn told us was one of the best of all the bed houses. He proved his assertion by conducting us to one out of which we beat a hasty retreat. The night air never seemed so pure to me as it did as I came out of the vile den into the clear starlight. I could scarcely breathe in the fearful hole we had just been in, and yet it was rapidly filling up with people who were to pass the night there. There were men, women and children, but they were all huddled together in one room. There was no such thing as privacy. Some of the lodgers were simply unfortunate, some were vagrants, and others were criminals.

I do not believe that all the sanitary measures in the world could ever make these places clean or healthy. The atmosphere is always too foul and dense to be breathed by any but lungs accustomed to it. When the cellars are crowded with lodgers, and the heat of the stove adds to the poison, it must be appalling. The poor wretches who seek shelter here are more than half stupefied by it, and pass the night in this condition instead of in a healthful sleep. They pay from ten to twenty-five cents for their lodgings, and if they desire a supper or breakfast, are given a cup of coffee and a piece of bread, or a bowl of soup for a similar sum.

As a matter of course only vagrants and those who have gone down into the depths of poverty come here. They must choose between the cellars and the streets, and the beds offered them here are warmer and softer than the stones of the street.

“Have we seen the worst?” I asked Mr. Finn, as we came out of the last place.

“No,” he replied, “there are worse places yet. But I’ll not take you there.”

The reader will readily credit this assertion, after reading the following account of a visit of the Health Officers to one of a number of similar cellars in Washington Street, on the west side of the city:

“The place next visited was 27 Washington street. This building is also owned by ‘Butcher Burke,’ and is one of the most filthy and horrible places in the city. We passed under an old tumble-down doorway that seemed to have no earthly excuse for standing there, and into a dismal, dark entry, with a zig-zag wall covered with a leprous slime, our conductor crying out all the time: ‘Steady, gentlemen, steady, keep to your left; place is full of holes.’

“Presently we emerged into a yard with a detestable pavement of broken bricks and mud, with high, towering houses surmounting it all around, and a number of broken outhouses and privies covering a large portion of the ground surface of the yard. Turning around, we could see the back of the tenement house from whose entry we had just emerged, with its numberless and wretched windows, shutting out the sky, or the fog, which was the only thing visible above us, and a cloud of clothes-lines stretched hither and thither, like a spider’s web.

“There were eight privies in the yard, and we entered them. The night soil was within a foot and a half of the seats, and the odor was terrible. From these privies a drain passed under the surface of the muddy, sloppy yard, to the margin of the building, where a descent of perhaps four feet was obtained, at the bottom of which the basement floor was level with the windows, giving a sickly light, but no air or ventilation whatever, to the inhabitants of the cellar. But the worst is yet to be told. The drain from the privies connecting with the sewer in the street had a man-hole, which was open, at the place where the yard was broken for a descent into this infernal cellar. This man-hole was about four feet wide and three feet deep, forming a small table for a cataract of night soil and other fecal matter, which poured over this artificial table in a miniature and loathsome Niagara and into a cesspool at the bottom, and from thence was conducted under the rotten boards of the cellar through a brick drain, a few inches below the board flooring, to the main sewer in the street. The bottom of the windows in this house are on a dead level with this horrid cesspool, so that a man sitting on a chair at the window would not have only the odor, but also the view of this loathsome matter circulating at his feet in the pool below. We entered the back cellar after knocking at the door a few minutes, and a man, poverty-stricken and wretched in appearance, of the laboring class, came with a candle to let us in. The room was in a filthy condition, ten by twenty-two and a half feet, with a ceiling of six feet three inches elevation from the floor. A woman, wretched and woe-begone as the man, rose suddenly from a dirty bed at the back of the room, and bade us welcome civilly enough, in her night clothing, which was scanty.

“‘And are yees the Boord of Helth, sure. Well it isn’t much we have to show thin, but yees can see it all without any charge at all, at all.’

“‘How much rent do you pay here?’ asked the writer of the man with the candle.

“‘Is it rint ye mane? Nyah, its $6 a munth, shure, and glad to get it, and if we don’t pay it, it’s the little time we’ll get from Burke, but out on the street wid us, like pigs, and the divil resave the bit of sattysfaction we’ll get from him than ye would from the Lord Palmershtown, Nyah!’

“‘How do you live?’

“‘Shure, I put in coal now and thin, whin I can get it to put, and that’s not often, God knows, alanna!’

“‘How much do you earn?’

“‘Is it earn d’ye say? Sometimes fifty cents a day, sometimes two dollars a week; and thin it’s good times wid me.’

“The Woman of the House.—‘Don’t mind him, man, what he’s saying. Shure he niver earns two dollars a week at all. That id be a good week faix for me. Two dollars indade!’

“‘Have you any children?’

“‘We have one dauther, a girl—a fine, big girl.’

“‘How old is she?’

“‘Well, I suppose she’s twenty-two next Mikilmas.’

“Woman.—‘Indade she’s not, shure. She’s only a slip of a gerrul, fifteen or sixteen years of age, goin’ on.’

“While the parents were arguing the age of their daughter, who, it seems, worked as a servant girl in some private residence, and only slept here when out of employment, the Health Officer was testing the condition of the walls by poking his umbrella at the base under the window and directly over the cess-pool. The point of the umbrella, which was tipped with a thin sheet of brass, made ready entrance into the walls, which were so soft and damp that the point of the umbrella when drawn out left each time a deep circular mark behind, as if it had been drawn from a rotten or decomposed cheese in summer.

“‘Take up a board from the floor,’ said the Health Officer. The man, who informed us that his name was William McNamara, ‘from Innis, in the County Clare, siventeen miles beyand Limerick,’ readily complied, and taking an axe dug up a board without much trouble, as the boards were decayed, and right underneath we found the top of the brick drain, in a bad state of repair, the fecal matter oozing up with a rank stench. Every one stooped down to look at this proof of sanitary disregard, and while this entire party were on their knees, looking at the broken drain, two large rats ran across the floor, and nestling in a rather familiar manner between the legs of Mr. McNamara for an instant, frisked out of the dreary, dirty room into the luxurious cesspool.

“The physician asked, ‘Are those rats?’ of Mr. McNamara.

“‘Rats is it? endade they were. It’s nothing out of the way here to see thim. Shure some of thim are as big as cats. And why wouldn’t they—they have no wurrok or nothing else to do.’”

Read or download the FREE public domain Ebook “Lights and Shadows of New York City Life” by James McCabe by clicking or right-clicking the link below:

“Lights and Shadows of New York City Life” by James McCabe Ebook


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