On Immigration – The New York Orange Riots

A simian Irish Catholic and a priest carving up the Democratic Party

And so its 1870 and the Civil War is over, Lincoln is dead and Ulysses S. Grant has been elected President of the United States.

The Irish and German immigrant communities did not support Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 and didn’t support Grant.  When the Civil War broke out with the attack on Ft. Sumter in 1861 both communities were first to answer Lincoln’s call for troops – to save the Union.

Thousands of immigrants enlisted, forging regiments and divisions comprised entirely of their own – among them the  New York 69th, the “fighting Irish” and the Mozart Brigade, composed entirely of Germans.  Others were comprised entirely of troops from everywhere else.

They fought with bravery and distinction at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, the Peninsula, Antietam and Gettysburg – all the while Protestant Nativists and Abolitionists did everything they could to bar further Irish immigration, bar them from citizenship for up to 25 years, keep them out of high appointed office and deride their “Popery.”

When it had become apparent that the war would not be over quickly Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the purpose of the war from Union to Emanicipation and, as voluntary enlistment dropped off, instituted the first draft conscription in 1864.

For the Irish it seemed that Lincoln and the abolitionists cared more about the welfare of black slaves than the Irish troops on the front lines and their families back home who felt attacked on all sides by Nativists and “Know Nothings.”

When the conscription order included those who had declared their intent to become citizens (required to seek naturalization) but weren’t actually citizens as well as a buy a substitute clause for $300 (allowing the well to do to escape the draft) riots broke out in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York, necessitating Federal troops to restore order.

The riots resulted in the Irish being depicted in newspapers and magazines as simian creatures wearing little green coats and hats, subservient to the Pope and a Democratic party opposing Lincoln.

Irish immigration fell off dramatically after the war while immigration from eastern Europe and Italy began to increase, though thousands of Irish men and women continued to settle in New York.  Meanwhile the Irish began to quarrel over the public school system, run by Protestants, demanding state aid for parochial Catholic schools.  The public schools of the time taught religion classes from the Protestant bible.

This issue split the Irish community bringing to the fore the echoes of Ireland and the enmity between the Green and the Orange. It all started with a picnic.

On July 12, 1870 an outing was organized by several New York lodges of the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal group founded in Northern Ireland in the late 18th century to celebrate the victories in Ireland of the armies of Prince William of Orange over Irish Catholic forces.  July 12, 1870 was the 180th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, one of the climactic battles that secured English control of Ireland.

The Orangemen took particular pleasure in parading thorough the streets of Ireland on the 12th of July singing centuries old anti-Catholic songs, which of course Catholic Irish found humiliating and purposefully provacative. It always resulted in fights on Boyne Day eventually leading the British to ban the parades.

The year before, fights had broken out in New York on Boyne Day so  a year later the Orangemen decided to up the ante and organized an elaborate 5 mile march from Cooper Union on East 6th street to 91st street, the upper limits of developed Manhattan, where they planned a picnic and a dance.  Speeches from their leaders would recall the heroic exploits of their ancestors at Boyne.

As the parade stepped off from Cooper Union the participants wore their Orange sashes and ribbons and carried banners reading “Boyne,” “Aughrim” and “Derry,” the great Protestant victories in the war.  According to the Tribune “these were names odious to Catholic Irishmen who can only see them as a humiliation of their race and the overthrow of their nationality.”

The band played and the Orangemen sang their favorite sectarian tunes, including “Croppies,”   a pejorative name alluding to the cropped hair of Irish Catholics and certain religious orders.  It of course enraged Irish Catholic New Yorkers.

“Oh Croppies, ye better be quiet and still.  Ye shan’t have your liberty, do what ye will.  As long as salt water is found in the deep, our foot on the neck of the Croppie we’ll keep!”

On the way up Broadway the parade passed a group of Irish workers laboring in the street.  “White with rage. the whole body of men as if by common consent quitted work and carrying whatever tools he was working with went in a body toward the Elm Park” – the picnic grounds.

At the park the workers began throwing rocks and cobblestones over the fence at the 2,000 – 3,000 Orangemen and their family members.  The women and children ran for cover at the other end of the park while the men began throwing stones back.  Both sides eventually drew guns and the Tribune reported that the Orangemen seemed to have many more of these than the Catholics.  Shots were exchanged in rapid succession as men fell bleeding and wounded.

The gun fire caused a stampede of picnic goers out of the park and toward the avenues and street cars pursued by the Catholics.  “Stones and bullets were fired through the windows into the cars literally packed with women and children, while fire was returned from inside.”  Battlefronts erupted all throughout the area with cobblestones, picks and shovels.

Only by nightfall did the fighting end, leaving 8 dead and dozens badly injured.  The press found it incomprehensible that more New Yorkers didn’t die in the mayhem.

As one might imagine, reaction to the riots broke down on religious lines.  Protestants blamed the bloodshed on “base and brutal Celts; the gorilla is their superior in muscle and hardly inferior in moral sense.”  Signs like “Down with Popery!” were necessary as the Irish were against freedom and liberty, public schools, the bible, science, progress, all who don’t agree with the infallibility of the Pope and enlightment.

Since the Catholics had instigated the violence, such accusations were difficult to refute.  They tried to explain why the sight of Orangemen parading through the streets awakened such traumatic memories and violent response.  Americans don’t know or forget how these Orangemen treated us when they had the power and would do so again if they were able.  Taunts concerning these past humiliations and outrages in Ireland could not go unanswered.

These arguments drew little sympathy from Protestant New Yorkers.

A Thomas Nast cartoon picturing gators with Bishop mitres coming to America

Thomas Nast, the noted cartoonist began to focus more and more on the “Catholic menace.”  He portrayed the Pope covetously eyeing the United States as his next home as Italian unification put his sovereignty in Rome into question.  He depicted American Catholic leaders attempting to blur or erase the separation of church and state, aided by simian Irish thugs.

Nast’s anti-Catholicism became more and more vituperative after the 1870 Orange riot.

As Boyne day 1871 approached, New Yorkers began to fear the worst if the Orangemen celebrated again.  Irish Catholics demanded the Boyne Day parade be forbidden as it had been in Britain.  Orangemen insisted in their right to march and peaceably express their views as the Catholics did on “their day” – St. Patrick’s Day.  The “decent Irish” should have theirs!

Police Superintendent James Kelso, after discussions with Tammany Hall, the Irish political machine, decided there would be no Boyne Day march “in order to preserve public peace.”

“Has it come to this?” one outraged Protestant complained to the Tribune; “that the Irish Catholics have sold the most bad whiskey, made the most drunkards, created the most riots, committed the most murders, polled the most votes with the least number of voters and now hold the most offices and receive the most amount of public money, they are now to dictate who shall and who shall not enjoy the liberty of American citizens?”

The Orangemen for their part indicated they would comply with Kelso’s order – no parade on Boyne Day.

During this time, former NY Governor Hoffman was angling for a Presidential nomination in 1872.  He did not want to be associated with Tammany’s “capitulation to the dictation of Irish Catholics” which might damage his chances.  So at 11:00 PM the night before Boyne Day, Kelso’s order was reversed.

Six regiments of the state militia would protect the marchers.  The Catholics vowed the Orangemen would not march in peace.

By early afternoon on Boyne Day tens of thousands of Irish Catholics lined the parade route, some simply to watch the scene, others armed with stones and brick bats and pistols, determined to put a stop to what they considered an affront to their religion and their persecuted Irish forebears.

The few hundred marchers were surrounded by a thousand police and flanked by several thousand militiamen.  One of the militiamen in front was Thomas Nast.

Down 8th avenue they were pelted by bricks and rocks, especially from the surrounding buildings.  The militia started firing at snipers while police used their truncheons to beat back the crowds.  Eventually, the 84th regiment fearing for their lives fired a volley into the crowd  Shooting became “reckless and indiscriminate”

The crowd fled in all directions and then reported the Times, in one of the most egregious acts of bad taste in New York’s history, the band struck up “a lively tripping quickstep”  and the Orangemen marched away “leaving the dead still on the street.”

The scene on the street was one of gore and horror, leaving grown men ahast. Between 24th and 25th street one had to pick his way through the bodies, “the street clotted with gore and pieces of brain.”

Two policemen, three militiamen and 62 civilians were killed on what the Irish World called the “Slaughter on Eighth Avenue.”

The reactions to the slaughter in my next post.


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And I Thought I Knew a Daughter

Fathers think they know most everything they need to know about their kids. Until one day they learn something which both surprises and astonishes them because it seems so out of character. At least the character he perceived.

My younger daughter turned 40 years old a few months ago. She is happily married to the man she met at a Halloween party in college. He was the guy laying in the casket when her older sister introduced them. Sis knew they were made for each other!

These two are Guinevere and Lancelot. Two perfect soul mates.

My younger daughter was a fine arts major in school. Graduated Summa cum Laude from Monmouth University and won the Art Department’s prize for best artist. In her spare time. she wrote reviews of weird Japanese and American grunge bands and edgy indie films for shriek fanzines both in the U. S. and in Italy. She got interviews with the band members on line and asked all the right questions. They were always surprised that, not only has she heard of them but she knew so much about them, their music and musical influences.

Her full time job involves running a computer driven industrial grade engraving machine. She likes the work because it allows for a bit of artistry in design while she can still leave it at the office/factory at 5:00 PM.

She is a talented amateur artist and I have occasionally displayed her work on this site:


And she creates her own Christmas cards from scratch each year.


Both she and her husband are au courant on the latest pop culture phenomena and have opinions on all of it. They are out to the theater, new movies, new restaurants, local and visiting bands and the occasional drag show.

On Halloween they have gone  to the Spooky Empire Fest in Orlando and hung out with others just like them. Costumes and all. Having breakfast with Elvira. Happy as the proverbial clams.  Same with Comic-con shows.

They are both members of an amateur theater company doing local shows; her husband is currently in rehearsal for parts in Lend me a Tenor and The Crucible.

They work everyday (he works in healthcare with the mentally or physically challenged), pay their bills, own two condos, avoid credit card debt and live down low as far as fixed expenses are concerned.

While progressive in politics, it just never dawned on me that she did anything special other than vote.

Then one day I learned something I never knew about her.

She drove to my house a few years back and I happened to be outside as she pulled up. On the front license plate mount of her car was a blood donor plaque  “Two Gallons”

“You are a blood donor?”

“Sure daddy!”

“Two gallons?!” said I incredulously.

“That’s very old pops.” She’s had gotten a 10 gallon plate and a plaque.

“Besides now I give platelets”


Until recently, the only way to collect enough platelets for a single transfusion was to take units of blood given by 5 to 10 donors, separate the platelets from the other blood cells using a centrifuge and combine the platelets.

Today, sophisticated medical equipment – blood cell separators – can collect enough platelets for a transfusion from a single donor. The separator automatically removes platelets from the blood  and returns the remainder  of the blood to you.

Specially trained nurses and staff conduct the procedure while you relax, watch TV or read. The entire process takes about two hours.

Most patients undergoing a bone marrow transplant, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment or an organ transplant need donated platelets in order to survive

Platelets must be transfused into patients within 5 days so there is always a need. While platelets can be removed from whole blood donations it would take 5 to 10 pints to yield the same amount of platelets from a single platelet donor.

“When did you become a blood donor?” asks an astounded father.

“Years ago Pop. It’s something I can do for others that doesn’t cost me anything but a couple of hours of spare time. Besides, it makes me feel good”.

Some very sick people got my daughter’s platelets.

So my daughter, with the somewhat eccentric cultural taste, who listens to the weird music and wrote reviews for shriek fanzines does what she can. Daddy learned something new about his kid nobody would have ever guessed. I certainly never would have guessed.

She has quietly donated her platelets and whole blood for years. Without a word to me, her sister or her aunts and uncles.  She has a good soul.

And her father now looks at her with a new esteem.  Makes you feel like mom and dad did a good job.  Makes this old man feel good.

Today she reached the 15 gallon mark – I calculate that comes out to 120 pints.


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Last Summer’s Affair – From The Archives

Laying my head on your stomach
while the sun streamed through the blinds
forming stripes caressing your contours
just for a moment I thought of biting the thighs
of your perfect body.

Your sea green eyes animate Summer
terns and gulls off the starboard bow
your smile raising the waves
structuring the water
billowing the sails of boundless passion.

Tonight I will undress you
still covered in sand
tasting of sweat, salt and Coppertone
remains of a day at the shore
where no one knows, for we two give no clue
while hiding in plain pose.

But  Autumn comes, the Summer’s gone
“it’s time for us to both move on”
just one last kiss, a last caress
it’s time to dress for fall.


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Immigration – “To The West!”

To the west, to the west
to the land of the free
where the mighty Missouri
rolls down to the sea

Where a man is a man
if he’s willing to toil
where the humblest may gather
the fruits of the soil

Where children are blessings
and he who hath most
has aid for his fortune
and riches to boast

Where the young may exult
and the aged may rest
away, far away
in the land of the west

Away! Far away!
Let us hope for the best!


In the mid-1800s everyone, it seemed, in New York smoked.  Visitors frequently commented on it and cigar makers were highly sought after in the burgeoning cigar factories.

The best description of the work life of a cigar maker in this period comes from an English born immigrant to America, Samuel Gomperts, the London born son of Dutch Jews.who came to New York with his parents in 1863 at age 13. By this point he had already been making cigars for years.

The Gomperts managed to immigrate to America only because Solomon Gompert’s English trade union offered to subsidize the move.  Their settlement to New York was further facilitated by Sam’s uncle and other Jewish cigar makers from London who had already immigrated.

As soon as they arrived in New York in July 1863, the Gomperts family settled among New York’s German Jews in Kleindeutschland – “Little Germany.”  By this time the German community in New York was the second largest group after the Irish.  Twenty percent of the German immigrants were Jewish.  Of the remainder, most were Bavarian and only a small minority Prussians.  The Prussians tended to live among themselves as did the Bavarians.

Solomon and 13 year old Sam immediately found work in a nearby cigar making shop.

The keys to the trade, Gomperts later recalled, was to hide the less attractive tobacco leaves inside the cigar, use a fine tobacco wrapper and “to use both ands so as to make a perfectly shaped rolled product.  These things a good cigar maker learned to do more or less mechanically which left us to think, talk, listen or sing.”

“Detesting boredom, the cigar makers chose someone to read to  us who was a particularly good reader and in payment the rest of us gave him sufficient of our cigars so that he was not the loser.  The reading was always followed by discussion, so we learned to know each other pretty thoroughly…”

The fellowships formed would last a lifetime.

One of the favorite songs Solomon, Samuel and their co-workers would sing as they rolled cigars while still in England was “To the West” which recounted the desire of millions of Europeans to immigrate to America.

Originally a song by Charles Mackay with music by Henry Russell, it was popular in London and spoke of the Missouri as tens of thousands of Germans left their homeland, came to New York and trekked west to the booming German town of Cincinnati.  After the failed revolutions in Europe of 1848, tens of thousands more Germans came to America and stayed in New York, the Kleindeutschland.

Sam never forgot the words to that song.  Andrew Carnegie too mentions it as the inspiration for his family’s immigration to America.

By the 1870s, Gomperts decided to make his name less Jewish and Dutch.

He changed it to Sam Gompers and he would go on to make that name one of the most famous in the annals of the American labor movement.

And so by 1860 my city had become the city of immigrants.  In 1845 New York did not even rank as one of the 20 most populous cities in the world.  Yet by 1860 only London, Paris and Beijing were bigger.  And there was no city in the world composed of so many nations.  It grew not only because of the record immigration but also because so many of them decided to stay.

By 1860, 69% pf the city’s voting age inhabitants were foreign born.  Of New York’s immigrant population, The Irish and Germans dominated, followed by 27 thousand English, 9 thousand Scots, 8 thousand French.

The 1860 census indicates that there were 1,464 Italians living in New York.


The Atlantic Beer Hall on the Bowery in Kleindeutschland


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“I’m ready mom!”


“I’m gonna draw the best picture!”


“I love tomatoes!”

.“My chubby little baby is gone…..” –   Marie

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On Being Clueless

Old people like me can be so ignorant of what is happening in the modern world.  I mean, there are some really significant events taking place out there, away from my local Florida swamp, the cranes and turkey vultures.

For example, most of the young “celebrities” who make it on to Yahoo are completely unknown to me.  I don’t know who they are, what shows of movies they have done, why they are worthy of being tagged with the “celebrity” label.

I stopped watching TMZ a few years ago when I realized I didn’t know anyone featured on the show. Doing so probably had a negative affect on my contemporary cultural knowledge but hey!  Who cares?

Another indication of my absence from the real world out there is that I do not own a smart phone.

I still have a flip phone – which I only look at when it rings; you know, like a telephone.  Or when I get a text message.  I do text although it takes a bit of key punching on a flip phone.

I had no idea what emojis were even though I do use the little yellow smiley and frownie face.  I have to punch keys to make them appear in my posts  –  a colon, a dash and the right end of a parenthesis.


And since I am not a big user of emojis and don’t have a smart phone I was, until recently, quite unaware that emojis seem to have evolved into a virtual language.  Oh I knew there were more than two; I just didn’t how many more!  Emojis can’t appear on my flip phone – every emoji sent to me gets “translated” into a little square.  Send me three emojis and I see three little squares.

When I reply and tell the sender I can’t read them I am promptly told “Will you please get a smart phone Toritto!”  And this is from family.

Renaissance man that I am, I have done a bit of investigation into the current use of emojis among the verbally spare and linguistically challenged, many who seem to have adopted emojis as their primary means of communicating with other humans.

Did you know there is an organization charged with developing the unform emojis of the world?

I didn’t.

It’s called the Unicode Consortium.  And according to Wiki, Unicode oversees over 138,000 emojis

The Unicode Standard consists of a set of code charts for visual reference, an encoding method and set of standard character encodings, a set of reference data files, and a number of related items, such as character properties, rules for normalization, decomposition, collation, rendering, and bidirectional display order (for the correct display of text containing both right-to-left scripts, such as Arabic and Hebrew, and left-to-right scripts).

Unicode’s success at unifying character sets has led to its widespread and predominant use in the internationalization and localization of computer software. The standard has been implemented in many recent technologies, including modern operating systems, XML, Java (and other programming languages), and the .NET Framework.”

Who knew?  And I thought they only worked on smiley faces!

And did you know there is a demand for new emojis to express thoughts we once spoke or didn’t speak about?

A single red blood drop is among the list of 59 new emojis announced this week by the Unicode Consortium, the organization in charge of developing the official emojis of the world. And while it’s just a nondescript drop of blood that can certainly be used to mean a variety of things, Unicode’s site specifically lists “menstruation” as one of its associated keywords — a win for women the world over who just want to tell their partners/friends/moms that they’re on their period and have feelings about it.

And Toritto knew nothing about this development!

“This new addition comes on the heels of Plan International U.K.’s campaign for a period emoji following a 2017 survey by the organization that highlighted the ongoing stigma and shame around menstruation among girls and women in the U.K. The results prompted Plan to create a proposal for a period-pants emoji (I guess all you ladies have or had period pants), which was backed by almost 55,000 voters, in an effort to normalize the conversation around menstruation. When the proposal wasn’t accepted, Plan partnered with NHS Blood and Transplant and submitted a new proposal for the winning blood-drop emoji.”

Who knew?  I learn something everyday!

Of note, too, is the new one-piece bathing-suit emoji, which comes after a call for a less sexualized swimsuit than the existing bikini emoji; for more modest users I guess.

And Unicode isn’t leaving men out, either. The new pinching-hand emoji, which is nothing more than a thumb and index finger with little room in between, is listed only with the keyword “small amount” on Unicode’s website.

“And yet. The internet is ablaze because we all know it will likely be used, nine times out of 10, to describe the below-average size of a certain, um, male appendage.”

Unicode’s new 12.0 list comes with 171 variants for gender and skin tone, totaling 230 emojis in all, which will allow for more options to better represent gender identity and race in emoji couples.

And, for the first time, inclusivity of people with disabilities is represented in the new emojis — such as a wheelchair, hearing aid, and service dog — which comes in response to Apple’s March 2018 proposal to Unicode requesting new accessibility emojis.

And I didn’t even know about Unicode let alone that there were official emojis for gender, skin tones and hearing aids!

“While they’re not available for use yet, you can expect to see the new emojis on your phone come September or October of this year. And until then, you can use the “Okay” hand emoji, which kind of looks like the pinching hand.”

I’m so relieved and feel so much better.  Now I propose a new symbol which I can send to anyone, including friends in Italy, that expresses my problem:

“Mi dispiace, ma non capisco emoji!”


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Immigration – The Great Irish Famine – The Voyage – Part II

Memorial to the “coffin ships” – County Mayo

It is Ireland in the late 1840s and the Irish are literally starving.  Millions of Irish men, women and children who subsisted primarily or entirely on potatoes are foodless as the blight has utterly destroyed the crop.  Famine would continue for years.

Some 1.2 million Irish would die of starvation while 25% of the pre-famine population would flee the country, a million and a half coming to America.  For the impoverished Irish, the key to leaving was “chain migration.” Scrimping, saving and selling possessions would finance the trip for one family member who, upon landing, would scrape every penny and work to exhaustion in order to send enough money home to finance the trip of the next family member.  Then those two would work and remit funds etc. until all one’s loved ones arrived in New York.

Before they could embrace fathers, sons, daughters and mothers however they had to endure the trans-Atlantic crossing in a wooden sailing ship.

So what did your Irish ancestors fleeing the famine have to endure to get here?

Well first of all you needed the money for passage.  Three of four famine Irish left for New York or Canada from Liverpool and virtually all traveled “steerage” class.  More about that later.   The fare across the Atlantic from Liverpool cost about three pounds sterling in 1845; equivalent to about 350 pounds today.  Plus one had to bring one’s own food for a four to six weeks voyage which, with bad weather or storms could stretch to two months.

As the ship floated away from the  Liverpool docks and headed down the river Mersey toward the Atlantic, the famine immigrants were less likely to feel a sense of regret at leaving Ireland than previous generations.  Nevertheless, many were overcome with sadnness with the idea that they would likely never see home again.

But before long sea sickness set in and within hours of departure, rivers of vomit might be flowing back and forth across the floor of steerage quarters if these passengers were not permitted to go on deck and heave over the side.

Once the seasickness subsided they soon became overwhelmed by the tedium of the voyage.  Even the speediest of immigrant ships traversed the Atlantic at no more than 4 miless per hour; most only made 3 mph.

And many of the impoverished immigrants could not afford to bring food supplies with them for a 5 or 6 week journey.  Many arrived in New York or Canada at death’s door, starving skeletons, having eaten only what they could beg from other passengers.

In 1803 Parliament had passed its first Passengers Act requiring ships leaving English ports to provide enough food for each passenger to ensure no one would starve to death crossing the Atlantic.  The law mandated that passengers receive at least one gallon of  water per day, one and a half pounds of bread, biscuit or oatmeal, half a pound of meat and half a pint of molasses.

In 1835 however, in the face of more impoverishment among Irish emmigrants, Parliament cut the water to three quarts, the bread or biscuit to one pound daily and eliminated the meat and molasses all together.  Flour or rice was added as an acceptable substitute for bread or biscuit.

Remember now, none of this “food” was cooked or prepared by a kitchen staff.  The ship’s cook only prepared meals for the sailors – not the passengers, who had to muscle their way to a “public galley” to get near a stove.  The meek, the sick and the elderly were the most likely to suffer from hunger.

Not only did the famine Irish not get much food but what they got was simply awful.  “Bread and biscuit” was typically months old and rock hard. Passengers had to soak them in their precious water to make them edible and sometimes even that didn’t help.  Often foodstuffs were infested with maggots or otherwise spoiled; so foul even the pigs on board wouldn’t eat it.  Many a famine immigrant had to toss the food he brought with him  overboard, thereafter begging for food.  And when it came to begging for food, it was everyman for himself.  Making matters still worse, the ship’s crew often short-changed the food allowance mandated to passengers, many getting less than 50% of what was promised.

Even preparing the food that was edible was an ordeal.  Rice and oatmeal require large quantities of water to prepare; one might quench hunger then be overwhelmed from thirst.  It wasn’t until after the famine had passed in late 1852 that Parliament required that food be cooked and ready for consumption before serving to passengers.

Passenger quarters were divided into “cabins” and “steerage”.  Cabin passengers were those who paid a premium in exchange for less crowded conditions and a berth on  the first level below deck.  Steerage passengers were crammed into the middle level with the lowest level reserved for cargo.  The steerage compartments were even more dreadful than the food situation

“Cabin” passengers, who might have paid five pounds for their ticket rather than four got “roomier” accommodations  with only two person per bunk and a dozen passengers per “cabin.”  They did get better ventilation and slightly more food.

Steerage compartments, far below deck were pitch black unless lit by candles (which were frowned upon by the crew) or dim lamps.  While cabin passengers slept two to a bunk, in steerage four adult passengers were shoehorned into each six by six foot bunk, each getting a mere 18 inches of space.  Those 13 or under got 9 inches.

The bunks, simple boards, were placed one next to another with no dividers of any kind for a hundred feet or more; two long slabs of humanity, one on each side of the compartment.  Each ship usually had two steerage compartments, one at the bow and one at the stern.

Traveling steerage at the time was, of course, quite mortifying.    One had to often sleep with total strangers.  A family of three could not fully occupy a bunk for four and a total  stranger would squeeze in with them.   Women alone would try to bunk with one another but if they were the last to arrive or there were only three, a strange man might sleep with them.

Changing clothes and using a chamber pot was done in public, in front of everyone, male and female. It wasn’t until after the American Civil War that British ships were required to provide separate steerage compartments for single men, single women and families.

And then of course, there was disease.

It was always a distinct possibility that any sailing ship traversing the north Atlantic might encounter storms or heavy weather.  Famine immigrants would be locked into their pitch dark compartments and would begin to vomit from seasickness.  It was rarely cleared away from steerage compartments; certainly not by the crew.

Chamber pots would spill their contents of feces and urine into the vomit slosh on the cabin floor along with seawater which leaked into the cabin during storms.  The vile muck swirling around the passenger’s feet along with those sick with diarrhea who had taken to their bunks was the perfect breeding ground for the spread of disease in close quarters.

Typhus, caused by body lice which spread quickly in the cabins, brought infected immigrants headaches, high fever, chills and nausea.  They had neither the strength or desire to leave their bunks.  Three of four Typhus infected immigrants survived but were debilitated for months.  Twenty five percent would develop delirium, gangrene and succumb to cardiac or kidney failure.

Immigrants sailing across the Atlantic feared Cholera even more, contracted by ingesting water or food contaminated by the feces of someone who already had the disease.  Once ill there was a good chance of death from “rice water” diarrhea; the “rice” was actually pieces of the victim’s colon flaking away as the bacteria destroyed the digestive system.

The disease was terrifying – one could seem perfectly healthy one moment, come down with a fever a few hours later and be dead the next morning.  The Cholera germ sloshed around in the liquid filth of many a steerage cabin during the famine migration – especially in 1849 and 1853 when arriving Irish brought Cholera epidemics to the tenements of New York.

Immigrant ships arriving in New York during the famine years usually suffered an average 3% death rate from the voyage.  The death toll is quite understated as many others would die after landing from debilitating malnutrition or contracted disease which didn’t kill them at sea.   Th.e death toll during the cholera epidemics was much higher

Conditions on ships to Canada, which charged lower fares and carried the most impoverished, were much worse and suffered much higher death rate; 20 – 30% was not uncommon.

If you have Irish ancestors who made the journey across the sea during the famine, you should light a candle to their memory everyday.  It was always dark in steerage.


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