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Five Points

The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum



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About The Book

All but forgotten today, the Five Points neighborhood in Lower Manhattan was once renowned the world over. From Jacob Riis to Abraham Lincoln, Davy Crockett to Charles Dickens, Five Points both horrified and inspired everyone who saw it. While it comprised only a handful of streets, many of America’s most impoverished African Americans and Irish, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants sweated out their existence there. Located in today’s Chinatown, Five Points witnessed more riots, scams, prostitution, and drunkenness than any other neighborhood in America. But at the same time it was a font of creative energy, crammed full of cheap theaters, dance halls, and boxing matches. It was also the home of meeting halls for the political clubs and the machine politicians who would come to dominate not just the city but an entire era in American politics.

Drawing from letters, diaries, newspapers, bank records, police reports, and archaeological digs, Anbinder has written the first-ever history of Five Points, the neighborhood that was a microcosm of the American immigrant experience. The story that Anbinder tells is the classic tale of America’s immigrant past, as successive waves of new arrivals fought for survival in a land that was as exciting as it was dangerous, as riotous as it was culturally rich.


The Making of Five Points

FIVE POINTS, the lower Manhattan neighborhood named for the five-cornered intersection of Anthony, Orange, and Cross Streets, was originally verdant and bucolic, like everything else in America. A five-acre lake known as “the Collect” was its defining landmark. Just northeast of the Collect, Bunker Hill rose more than a hundred feet, providing picnickers with breathtaking views of both the wildlife that gathered at the Collect’s shores and the expanding city to the south. But as New York spread northward, the Collect area became a favorite site for the city’s most noisome industries. Slaughterhouses, banned from inhabited areas, clustered just east of the lake on what is now Bayard Street. By the mid-1700s, it was the only place in the city where one could lawfully kill livestock. Here meatpackers could butcher their cattle at a safe distance from the populace, transferring the meat south to the markets and the hides to the many nearby tanneries that concentrated on the shores of the Collect. The curing carcasses and the chemicals used to process them created a stench every bit as pungent as that produced by the slaughterhouses. The drovers who patronized the slaughterhouses spent their layovers at the famous Bull’s Head Tavern on the Bowery, which provided pens where cattlemen could keep their herds while they drank or spent the night.10

By the end of the eighteenth century, contamination from the tanneries, slaughterhouses, and other industries had transformed the Collect from a lovely landmark into a putrid nuisance. Architect Pierre L’Enfant proposed cleaning the lake and surrounding it with a park so that the city might grow around a central recreation area, but landowners refused to sell and the project collapsed. A proposal to make the Collect part of a canal from the Hudson to the East River was also abandoned. With no alternative in sight and the city expanding rapidly northward, New Yorkers began to consider something other than water for the site. The Common Council in 1802 ordered the Collect filled with “good and wholesome earth” from Bunker Hill, which was leveled at the same time. By 1813, the Collect had been completely covered over, literally laying the ground for what would become the world’s most notorious neighborhood.11

Once the Collect had been filled, the area changed rapidly. Although some of the local industries such as the Coulthardt Brewery and the Crolius pottery works remained, most of the tanneries moved. Some of the tanners shrewdly retained their real estate holdings in the area. The Lorillard family, for example, became tobacco merchants while they built and rented housing on the property that had once held their tannery. The Schermerhorns, whose rope works had once lined the east side of the Collect, retained property in the neighborhood, too, as did the Livingstons. German immigrant Heinrich Ashdor, who had purchased land around the slaughterhouses in 1785, maintained a significant interest in real estate there as well. His profits from the sale of sixteen lots on and behind the Bowery in 1825 helped establish the fortune of the family, by this point rechristened as the Astors.12

Prominent citizens made real estate investments in the Collect neighborhood, as it was still known for nearly two decades after the lake had disappeared, because a healthy return on their investments seemed assured. With the city’s population expanding rapidly after the War of 1812, and the portion of Manhattan south of City Hall already densely populated, newcomers to New York were desperate to find new residential and commercial locations farther to the north in neighborhoods like Five Points. In one of their many efforts to meet these demands, municipal authorities in 1817 authorized the extension of Anthony Street east to the intersection of Orange and Cross.13

Landowners generally filled their lots with two-and-a-half-story wooden buildings, the half story an attic with low ceilings and dormer windows suitable for small workshops. Of the neighborhood residents who filled these houses, about half worked as artisans, with shoemakers, tailors, bakers, carpenters, and masons especially numerous. Merchants, shopkeepers, and professionals also scattered throughout the area. Businessmen housed their own families and often their clerks or journeymen and apprentices in the very same buildings where their businesses operated.

Photo of the Five Points intersection taken some time after 1867 from the south side of Worth Street (previously Anthony) looking toward the northeast. These two-and-a-half-story buildings dominated the neighborhood in the 1820s and 1830s. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Although the mix of occupations in the Collect neighborhood did not differ dramatically from that of the rest of the city at this point, some distinctions quickly emerged. By 1825, immigrants accounted for at least 25 percent of the area’s population, more than double their representation in the city as a whole. African Americans also concentrated in the district, comprising about 15 percent of its inhabitants, again double the city average. These immigrants and blacks were much more likely to be unskilled menial laborers than were other citizens. Perhaps as a result, the per capita income of the ward was the lowest in the city, about 40 percent below the average.14

Yet the Collect district in the 1820s was far from the “ulcer of wretchedness” that it would soon become. A number of factors, many complex and interrelated, contributed to the deterioration of the neighborhood that would soon become known as Five Points.* One was the declining economic status of the city’s artisans. As the “market revolution” slowly transformed the nation, many of the goods once handcrafted on a small scale by local artisans were now mass-produced in parts of the city or country where it was most economical or efficient to do so. Shoemaking, for example, became concentrated in Massachusetts, where footwear could be shipped on the nation’s increasingly thorough network of roads, canals, rivers, and coastal waterways. Shoe manufacturers took more and more business from independent, small-scale shoemakers, frequently hiring workers without a master shoemaker’s thorough training. Although artisans whose skills could not be “bastardized” in this way (such as shipbuilders or masons) escaped much of the impact of these changes, most suffered a decline in income.15

In the old days, artisans had speculated in real estate by obtaining long-term leases on their houses, which served as both workplace and home, for themselves and their employees. If they decided to relocate their businesses before the lease expired, they might sublet or sell the rights to the lease. By the 1830s, however, most did not feel economically self-confident enough to continue such speculation. Instead, they leased houses for a few years at most. They were also less likely to rent enough living space for their employees, for in an economic slowdown they might need to lay off their workers and did not want to be stuck paying rent for unoccupied rooms. Because of these changes and the general decline of the home workshop, neighborhoods organized by trade began to disappear, and New York began for the first time to divide into commercial and residential districts. Five Points became one such residential neighborhood.16

As these changes took place in the 1820s and 1830s, immigration and migration swelled the city’s population, and as a result housing prices rose dramatically. Landlords discovered that it was significantly more profitable to subdivide their two-and-a-half-story houses into small apartments and rent each to a single family. Some tore down the small houses on their lots and put up taller brick buildings that could accommodate many more tenants. Most simply converted existing buildings. The owners of old decrepit buildings paid less in taxes than owners of sparkling new structures, providing landlords with additional incentive to subdivide old buildings into many small apartments and spend little or nothing to maintain them. Because so many unrelated tenants lived in these structures, they became known as “tenant houses,” and by the 1840s as “tenement houses.” Thus was born one of America’s signature immigrant environments. Most Five Points landlords happily converted their small buildings into tenements and rented apartments in them to increasingly less well-to-do workers and their families, while employers and other prosperous citizens moved to neighborhoods populated by their peers.17

The proliferation of residential neighborhoods provided advantages for tenants as well as landlords. Under the old system, employers had closely monitored their workers’ after-hours behavior. If the worker lived with his boss, the employer would know if the employee came home late, or drunk, or with a woman of ill-repute. Even if a worker merely lived in the same neighborhood as his boss, his after-work behavior was likely to be observed by his employer. This became an especially sensitive issue in the twenties and thirties, as evangelical ministers began to prod their employer parishioners to hold their workers to the same high moral standards to which they themselves aspired. New Yorkers who resented others dictating how they should spend their leisure time took offense at this meddling, and their animosity contributed to violence directed against Baptist and Methodist churches in New York. The Baptist church on lower Mulberry Street in the heart of the Five Points neighborhood was the target of attacks on a number of occasions in the 1820s.18

The new residential districts were more homogeneous than earlier New York neighborhoods. Five Points’ prosperous merchants moved west to homes near Broadway. Successful artisans relocated to the Fourteenth Ward north of present-day Canal Street, where the quality of housing was superior. Some wealthier residents remained, but these were primarily grocers and saloonkeepers, who even though they could afford to live elsewhere found it more convenient to live where they worked or in buildings that they owned. Because the journeymen and laborers who came to dominate Five Points tended to have fluctuating incomes, the quality of the homes that they could afford varied from year to year, so they moved especially frequently, creating an impression of instability that made the neighborhood unattractive to better-off New Yorkers.

The very ground under Five Points was also a problem. Although civil engineers had succeeded in erasing all obvious traces of the Collect, the ground remained damp and unsettled, causing houses to shift and tilt dramatically just a few years after construction. The slightest rain or snowfall created basement floods throughout the neighborhood, especially in its western portion along Anthony and Orange Streets where the lake had once stood. Because so many diseases of the period were attributed to dampness and “vapours,” few New Yorkers wanted to live in such a locale.19

The increasing association of the area with immigrants and blacks also played a role in its decline. Discrimination forced African Americans into certain occupations—especially those of chimney sweep, barber, and sailor—whose status and pay kept them in constant poverty. Many whites shunned such “degraded” workers. Immigrants sometimes faced similar bigotry. By 1830, an increasing proportion of newcomers settling in New York were Irish and Catholic. They usually arrived with less savings than other immigrants and sought the cheapest housing available, much of which was in Five Points. As Catholic immigrants became more numerous, native-born Protestants increasingly moved away.

Finally, it was Five Points’ development into a center of prostitution that sealed its disreputable fate. Until 1820, the waterfront district around Water Street had housed the city’s largest concentration of prostitutes and brothels. But by 1830, Five Points had become the center of New York’s commercial sex industry, with more bordellos located on Anthony Street between Centre and Orange than on any other block in the city. It is difficult to determine why Five Points became the city’s most popular red-light district. Perhaps it was the large population of rootless immigrant men. Prostitutes may have also selected the district because its central location, just a few blocks from Broadway and City Hall, made it convenient for customers from all over the city.20

There were other parts of New York that were just as impoverished. Both Corlear’s Hook and the waterfront area around Water Street struggled with crime and poverty. Yet because Five Points was so central (no more than a twenty-five-minute walk from any significantly populated portion of New York), residents continued to cram into its houses well after the tenements had reached a point that most would have considered full. Crowding grew worse and worse, apartments got smaller and smaller, until finally Five Points became something new in America: a slum in the very center of a city.


Five Points’ speedy decline can be traced in the newspapers of the 1820s and 1830s. Business publications such as the Journal of Commerce, party organs such as the conservative Courier and Enquirer (the voice of the Whigs), the more moderate Evening Post (Democratic), and even tabloids such as the Sun all began to mention Five Points with increasing frequency. The first known press comment about the alarming conditions in Five Points dates from 1826. In that year, a letter to the editor of the New York Evening Post demanded that the city address the neighborhood’s increasingly shameful conditions. “CORNELIUS,” as he signed himself, claimed inaccurately that “the Collect” acquired its name because of “the vast collection of houses of ill fame, tippling shops, drunken persons and other kinds of filth in which it abounds.” His account nonetheless indicates a close familiarity with the area: “The houses generally are of wood from one to two and a half stories high and of no very attractive appearance; every fourth or fifth one, upon an average,” sells liquor and “sundry” other goods

without particularly enquiring how they were obtained, a fact which our police records will fully substantiate. In and about these rum holes [live] both sexes, and almost every variety of age and colour, drinking, swearing and fighting. . . . I saw no less than four fights in as many minutes, conducted in the Kentucky style of rough and tumble, accompanied with a grand chorus of shouts and the most profane language. The different combatants, black and white, men and women, displayed admirable proficiency in the art of boxing and afforded amusement to the crowd, who formed rings for the purpose of betting on the victor. In short, the wretched appearance of the place, the immorality of the inhabitants, &c. would hardly be believed if not witnessed. Something ought to be done for the honour of the city, if for no other reason than to render the place less disgusting and pernicious, it being the resort of thieves and rogues of the lowest degree, and by its filthy state and “villanous smells” keeps respectable people from residing near it.21

In 1829, the press for the first time referred to the neighborhood as “Five Points.” An editorial in the Evening Post directed police “to put an end to the crimes and outrages almost daily committed in this neighborhood, which has become the most dangerous place in our city.” Even prominent citizens were not safe there, noted the Post, which reported that Assistant Alderman George D. Strong had been slashed in the nose with a knife.22

The same Post editorial also demanded that a small group of Five Points tenements be razed—one of the first recorded efforts at slum clearance in American history. In January 1829, a group of New Yorkers petitioned the Common Council to tear down a tiny triangular block of tenements created when city officials had demolished the surrounding buildings in order to extend Anthony Street eastward to the Five Points intersection. Most of the houses remaining in the 7,500-square-foot triangle had been sheared in half, lending them a tumbledown quality that frightened away most potential tenants. As a result, stated a committee of councilmen, the triangle’s buildings were “occupied by the lowest description and most degraded and abandoned of the human Species.”23

A year later, a letter writer to the Post complained about the lack of progress. New buildings were under construction all over town, but “in that place only which stands in most need of improvement—I mean the Five Points—nothing is done.” The Post’s correspondent condemned the whole area as a “nuisance” and asked for “the removal of Five Points,” though by this comment he may have meant merely the triangular plot of buildings rather than the entire neighborhood. A subsequent petition to the Common Council suggested that the city build a new jail on the triangular site and widen some of the streets leading to the intersection by tearing down portions of other existing buildings. Supporters justified the plan on the grounds that the conditions in Five Points adversely affected businesses in other parts of the city. Citizens who might venture from the East Side to shop on Broadway were disinclined to do so because they feared having to pass through Five Points, while businesses on Pearl Street to the south and east of Five Points suffered similarly.24

But the Common Council balked at tearing down the triangle of tenements. It would be dangerous to locate a prison near the former site of the Collect, noted some of the lawmakers, because disease would spread uncontrollably in a prison built on such low, damp ground. The potential expense of the plan also worried them. Those proposing demolition had assumed that acquiring the property would cost the city little, because the wretched tenements on the triangle of land were almost worthless. Yet the land below the rotting buildings was actually quite valuable, the council discovered, because it produced “a great rent on account of its being a good location for small retailers of Liquor. . . . What may be considered as the Nuisance has in reality increased the Value of the property.” Consequently, the Common Council refused to endorse any changes in Five Points. Continued pressure from the press and business owners in surrounding neighborhoods, however, resulted in the enactment of compromise legislation in January 1832. The city would acquire the triangle of tenements and tear them down, but rather than constructing the prison there would instead build a tiny park. It became known as Paradise Park. The legislation also provided for the widening of some of the streets (Cross, Little Water, and Anthony) leading to Five Points, in the hope that wider thoroughfares would seem less dark and forbidding. “The decent inhabitants in the vicinity of the Five Points,” applauded the Mirror, “ought to give ‘nine cheers’ at the breaking up of that loathsome den of murderers, thieves, abandoned women, ruined children, filth, misery, drunkenness, and broils.”25

The decision not to build a prison in Five Points because of the fear of contagious disease proved a wise one, for just a few months later, the cholera outbreak of 1832 ravaged the neighborhood. Cholera is a bacterial infection that spreads primarily through water contaminated by human feces. Symptoms include high fever and a ricelike diarrhea in which the “rice” is actually pieces of a victim’s colon flaking away. Thousands of New Yorkers died during the 1832 epidemic, and the disease spread especially rapidly in tenement districts such as Five Points where outhouses and wells were located too close together. The tendency of cholera to run rampant in impoverished tenement districts led to the belief that it was the dissolute habits of the poor, rather than an inadequate sanitation system, which made one susceptible to the contagion. “The disease is now, more than before, rioting in the haunts of infamy and pollution,” reported the Mercury. In Five Points, “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.” What worried more fortunate New Yorkers most about cholera in Five Points was the neighborhood’s proximity to their own homes. In the past, the poor had lived on the periphery of town or were too widely dispersed to create a concentration of contagion. Yet with Five Points’ “race of beings of all colours, ages, sexes and nations . . . inhabiting the most populous and central part of the city,” complained a Post correspondent, “when may we be considered secure from pestilence? Be the air pure from Heaven, their breath would contaminate it, and infect it with disease.”26

By 1834, the press began to publish lengthy exposés about the neighborhood. The first appeared in the Sun that spring. The reporter found that apartments in the worst parts of Five Points did not have “a table, chair or any other article of furniture, save a cooking utensil, a few plates, and knives, and bottles, with which to carry on the business of living. Few beds were found in any of these apartments, the inmates sleeping or lying on heaps of filthy rags, straw and shavings, the stench from which was almost insupportable.” He described “white women, and black and yellow men, and black and yellow women, with white men, all in a state of gross intoxication, and exhibiting indecencies revolting to virtue and humanity. . . . The drunkards of both sexes, intermingled with scarcely any thing to hide their nakedness,” lay “in a state of misery almost indescribable.”27

Although the conditions inside Five Points apartments were bad, the Sun’s reporter was also horrified at how Five Pointers made public spectacles of themselves: “In the afternoon of each day, when drunkenness is at its height, the most disgusting objects, of both sexes, are exhibited to the eyes of the examiner. Indecency, squalid poverty, intemperance and crime, riot and revel in continued orgies, and sober humanity is shocked and horrified, at the loathsome spectacles incessantly presented.” Evenings were no better: “At night the streets and sidewalks are literally blocked by swarms of sturdy vagabonds of both sexes; the grog shops are filled . . . horrid oaths and execrations burst upon the ear from every tipling house, and brothel, and the most abominable indecencies of every kind, by word and deed, are perpetrated and heard.”28

According to the Sun, the drinking and carousing that took place inside was worse than that on the streets. Here neighborhood criminals hatched their larcenous plans, divvied up the loot after each heist, celebrated by drinking, dancing, and gambling, and procured prostitutes. The favorite haunts of the “rogues and vagabonds of the Five Points are the Diving Bell, Swimming Bath, and the Arcade, at Nos. 39, 40, and 33, in Orange street.” The reporter also mentioned “the Archway” on Orange at the corner of Leonard (either 46 or 48 Orange) and “the Yankee Kitchen” on Cross Street just above Orange. The entire two-block length of Little Water Street was a gathering place for criminals. Both the portion north of Anthony, known according to the Sun as “Cow bay,” and the block south of Anthony, which the reporter labeled “Squeeze Gut Alley,” were described as “principally the resort and residence of white, black, and mulatto prostitutes, and the bullies and blackguards who keep and visit them, and are seats of vice, hotbeds of debauchery, wretchedness, and poverty, such as few eyes have witnessed.”29

The reporter concluded that “if ever wretchedness was exhibited in a more perfect garb, if ever destitution and degradation were more complete, if ever immorality and licentiousness were presented in more disgusting forms, we confess we have never yet beheld them.” He assured his readers that he had seen on the “frontiers . . . squatters . . . without any visible means of support,” as well as “untutored Indians” in “the howling wilderness . . . and examined minutely the situation of the slaves, held to labor, in their most deplorable conditions; after seeing all these, we hesitate not to say, that the colored, and some of the white tenants of the Five Points, are infinitely more degraded and debased, than these others we have named; and the border settler in his hut, the Indian in his wigwam, and the Southern slave in his cabin, is each a monarch in comfort, respectability, happiness and virtue, when compared to the wretched vagabonds, who inherit, as it were, poverty, vice and crime, in and near the Five Points. They endure literally, a hell of horrors, arising from their poverty and wickedness, such as few others on earth can suffer.”30

Five Points, by George Catlin, probably from 1827. Collection of Mrs. Screven Lorillard, Far Hills, New Jersey.

One of the most fascinating documents available for the analysis of Five Points’ early history is a painting of the intersection by George Catlin from about 1827. All the elements of Five Points’ reputation are in evidence. Fights are breaking out everywhere; people are drunk; pigs roam the streets; whites and blacks are mixing; and prostitutes brazenly solicit customers (see the second-story window on the upper right). Even the abundance of groceries portrayed would have been significant to 1820s New Yorkers, as antebellum groceries were often little more than liquor stores, generating most of their profits selling beer, ale, rum, and gin. That an accomplished artist such as Catlin would bother to paint an impoverished working-class neighborhood indicates that—by that early date—Five Points was truly renowned.31

By the 1830s, Five Points’ infamy was so well known that out-of-town visitors went there to see its depravities. The first of these tourists to record his impressions for posterity was frontiersman Davy Crockett. In 1834, Crockett toured the Northeast and soon after published An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East. Written in a style that attempted to convey that Crockett’s co-author was as much a backwoodsman as the famous colonel (the ghostwriter was actually Pennsylvania congressman William Clark), An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour listed the visit to “Five-points” as one of the highlights of the frontiersman’s tour. “The buildings,” noted Crockett and Clark, “are little, old, frame houses, and looked like some little country village. . . . It appeared as if the cellars was jam full of people; and such fiddling and dancing nobody ever saw before in this world.” The mixing of the races in these dance halls was especially noteworthy: “Black and white, white and black, all hugemsnug together, happy as lords and ladies, sitting sometimes round in a ring, with a jug of liquor between them: and I do think I saw more drunk folks, men and women, that day, than I ever saw before. This is part of what is called by the Regency the ‘glorious sixth ward’—the regular Van Buren ground-floor. I thought I would rather risque myself in an Indian fight than venture among these creatures after night. I said to the colonel, ‘. . . these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell’s kitchen.’” The infamy of Five Points was now being conveyed to a national audience.32

With their reference to Vice President Martin Van Buren, though, Crockett and Clark added a new element to the discourse surrounding Five Points. Five Points was part of the city political district known as the Sixth Ward, and “Regency” was the term used by enemies to describe the Democratic party’s statewide organization, then headed by Van Buren. “The regular Van Buren ground-floor” referred to the large Democratic majority the district routinely polled—larger than that in any other ward. Crockett had recently broken with the Democrats and thrown his support instead to their Whig opponents. Crockett and Clark were using the Democrats’ popularity in Five Points to cast aspersions on the entire party.


The reference to Van Buren may have been inspired by a Five Points election riot in 1834. There were actually three riots there in 1834 and 1835—the first an election battle; the second the Lewis Tappan–inspired race riot; and the third an ethnic and religious fight between natives and Irish Catholics. The initial riot began on Tuesday, April 8, 1834, the first of three days set aside for voting in New York’s municipal election. That year, for the first time, the various groups that opposed the policies of President Andrew Jackson and his Democratic party had unified in a single organization, just then becoming known as the Whig party. The Whigs were determined to unseat the Democrats, who had controlled New York’s municipal government in recent years. Whigs believed that by emphasizing Jackson policies they considered unconstitutional (such as his removal of federal deposits from the Bank of the United States without the consent of Congress) and by vigilantly guarding the polls to prevent Democratic intimidation of voters in places such as the Sixth Ward, they could carry the election.

Each side blamed the other for the fighting. Whigs insisted that it started when a mob of a hundred or so Democrats, led by ex-Alderman George D. Strong (he of the slashed nose), invaded the Whigs’ Sixth Ward committee rooms, tore down banners, destroyed Whig ballots, and assaulted those Whigs present. Democrats, on the other hand, asserted that peace had prevailed in the district until Whigs from the First and Second Wards arrived at the Sixth Ward polls. They had come ostensibly to prevent Democratic intimidation, but instead threatened peaceable Democrats with weapons, insulted them by repeating slurs from the Whig press, and vowed loudly to “keep those damned Irishmen in order!” Such confrontations led to polling place fights at which a number of participants were seriously injured.33

To highlight their claim that Jackson ignored the Constitution, the Whigs had constructed a huge model of the warship Constitution which, with the aid of four horses, they pulled through the streets. When the Constitution rolled into the Sixth Ward on the second morning of balloting, more fisticuffs ensued, though this time a heavy police presence prevented severe injuries. Voting proceeded relatively quietly until noon on the third and final day of the canvass, when violence erupted outside the Whig headquarters at Masonic Hall on Broadway, at the western edge of the ward. Democrats claimed that the trouble started when one of the “sailors” from the Constitution (then parked outside Masonic Hall) beat an Irishman, whose friends headed toward Five Points looking for reinforcements. Whigs claimed that no such beating took place and that they were simply, in the words of former mayor Philip Hone, attending to the “miniature frigate . . . when suddenly the alarm was given, and a band of Irishmen of the lowest class came out of Duane Street from the Sixth Ward poll, armed with clubs, and commenced a savage attack upon all about the ship and the hall. There was much severe fighting and many persons were wounded and knocked down. The Irishmen then retired and the frigate was drawn away, but in a few minutes the mob returned with a strong reënforcement, and the fight was renewed with the most unrelenting barbarity. The mayor arrived with a strong body of watchmen, but they were attacked and overcome.” Each side had hundreds engaged in the rioting by this point.34

Determined not to be bested, the Whigs retreated into the Sixth Ward to the nearby city arsenal at the corner of Elm and Franklin Streets, where they broke in and began to arm themselves with muskets. The mayor, who a few minutes earlier had pleaded with the Democrats to desist, now implored the Whigs to leave the weapons alone before the riot turned murderous. “He begged them to consider the awful consequences of this movement” to introduce firearms, reported the Sun. “Civil war” was inevitable if they did not reconsider. “‘Stop, for the love of heaven, stop,’ said the Mayor, as the tear stood in his eye—‘You are rash—you know not what you do.’” After this impassioned plea, the Whigs came out of the arsenal without the weapons and order was restored. Thus ended the ordeal.35

The rioting that day was unprecedented in the history of New York City—at least prior to July’s race riot. “The extent and violence of the disturbance went well beyond any riot of the eighteenth century and far exceeded any previous political tumult in New York,” writes historian Paul Gilje. “Never before had an election pushed the city so near the brink. Never before had there been such anarchy.” Both Democrats (such as the Post’s editors) and Whigs (such as Hone) blamed the heightened tension on ethnic animosity. Hone characterized it not as a fight between Democrats and Whigs, but “between the Irish and the Americans.” The riot further hurt Five Points’ reputation, convincing New Yorkers that the neighborhood’s Irish threatened not only the health and morals of the city, but its peace as well.36

Just three months later, in July, the anti-abolition riot erupted. And eleven months after that, a third riot disgraced the neighborhood. Like the first, this one pitted Irish immigrants against native-born citizens. Since the election riot, tensions between natives and immigrants had increased alarmingly in many parts of the United States. In August 1834, a mob burned a Catholic convent near Boston. A few months later, Samuel F. B. Morse published a series of virulently anti-Catholic newspaper articles in New York charging the Catholic Church with a conspiracy to flood the United States with Catholic immigrants in order to assist in the overthrow of democratic government. The growing animosity between natives and Irish-Catholic immigrants manifested itself in New York as well, with street fights breaking out in September and October 1834 and January and March 1835.37

Hostility between the Irish and natives truly exploded in early June 1835, however, when word spread throughout the city that the Irish in Five Points were about to form an exclusively Irish militia company. Without a standing army of any significance, antebellum Americans relied upon volunteer militia units to defend the nation and at times quell domestic disturbances. Two decades had passed since the United States’s last war, and because none seemed imminent, these militia companies had become primarily social organizations, with picnics and drinking occasionally interrupted for a bit of target practice or drilling. Because Irish immigrants tended to socialize with each other and probably felt unwelcome in units comprised either primarily or exclusively of natives, it was inevitable that they would form militia units of their own. Yet the nativist press vehemently objected. “No greater insult was ever offered the American people than the arrangements now being made to raise in this city an Irish regiment to be called the ‘O’Connell Guards,’” insisted the Courier and Enquirer. “Such a corps would soon attempt to enforce with the bayonet what too many of the misguided and ignorant of the foreign voters already boast of—the complete subjection of the Native Citizens to their dictation.” Similar diatribes in the Courier and Enquirer had helped foment both 1834 riots, so New Yorkers braced themselves for another outbreak of violence.38

Natives claimed that the trouble started on Sunday evening, June 21, 1835, when an Irishman upset the cart of a native-born apple vendor. The Irish insisted that it originated when natives insulted a drunk Irishman, perhaps concerning the propriety of drinking on the Sabbath. Others said the cause was a brawl between the O’Connell Guard and its neighborhood rival, the natives-only American Guard.39 Whatever the cause, every observer agreed that a “most disgraceful riot” erupted between “natives and Irish” along Pearl and Cross Streets between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. According to the Sun, “Ireland and America were the battle cry of the contending parties, and both sides found plenty of zealous friends. Bloody noses, bunged eyes, cracked craniums, and barked knuckles soon became the distinguishing marks of scores of combatants.” At its height, several thousand were engaged in the melee, and dozens were injured.40 Fighting also spread north of Five Points. On Grand Street, Irish rioters hit Dr. William McCaffery with a brick, “which broke his jaw bone.” The doctor, after “being thrown down, was jumped on, and several of his ribs broken.” McCaffery died a day later. The Courier and Enquirer claimed that the rioters had singled out McCaffery for such a malicious attack because he was an Irish Whig, and the paper set up a fund to assist his widow and children. This was the first fatality of the bloody year in Five Points.41

Rioting resumed Monday night, June 22, as both natives and immigrants gathered on Chatham Street near Orange and Pearl looking for trouble, though “the party claiming to be American” far outnumbered its adversary. Fighting spread across the neighborhood and from there both southward toward City Hall and northward above Walker Street, where the natives stoned the house of a “Mr. O’Brien” and “menaced” St. Patrick’s Cathedral (on Mott Street north of Walker) as well. They also attacked the Green Dragons tavern on the Bowery and some twenty houses on Orange Street. The next evening, a large crowd that “seemed to cherish burning resentments against the adopted citizens” collected on Chatham Street near Orange. Meanwhile, closer to the Five Points intersection, “fire arms and clubs were seen” in the hands of immigrants, who vowed to use them against natives if attacked. Many Catholics assembled at the Cathedral to protect it from an expected onslaught, but none materialized. Although there were again many “broken heads” and bruises, the mayor, aldermen, and police finally managed to disperse the rioters and bring the violence to an end.42

In many ways, this riot was the least dreadful of the three. The neighborhood never seemed as close to anarchy in June 1835 as it had fourteen months earlier when the Whigs stormed the arsenal. There was no serious damage to property this time, in stark contrast to the rampant destruction during the anti-abolition violence of the previous summer. Yet the deaths of Dr. McCaffery and an English-born piano maker made the final melee the only one to result in fatalities, something virtually unprecedented in previous American rioting. The final unrest also helped lead to the creation of the city’s first nativist political party.43

A subsequent incident, one that did not receive the attention of the riots, reflected the lingering ethnic and religious tensions in Five Points. In March 1836, the Herald reported that “the Bowery gang” was up to its old mischief again, invading the oyster bar at the North American Hotel at the corner of Bowery and Bayard and causing a commotion. Later that day, gang members threw snowballs and ice at the predominantly Irish-American city workers clearing snow from the streets. When the workers protested, the Bowery gang beat them unmercifully with the laborers’ own shovels and pickaxes, injuring one badly. The reaction of the crowd when Alderman Ferris and some constables arrived at the scene revealed the ethnic tensions at the source of the attack. The offenders had long since disappeared, but the crowd defended the assailants and excoriated Ferris and the city workers, shouting “D__m the Irishmen, they ought not to have work—the Corporation always gives them work and not us Americans.” Some of this animosity, of course, had a religious underpinning. Writing at about this time, New Yorker Asa Green reported that the city was brimming with anti-Catholicism and that he commonly heard it said that “the Pope of Rome is coming hither, with hasty strides, to take the land.”44

From this point on, Five Points would be renowned as the most violent part of the “Bloody Sixth” Ward, where collective violence was the standard response to almost any grievance. The reputation was mostly unwarranted, at least at this point. Outsiders had instigated most of the violence in the anti-abolition riot, and much of the blame for the 1835 anti-Irish riot rested outside the community as well. Nonetheless, observers concluded that any neighborhood in which three major riots could take place in just fifteen months must be particularly brutal. Additional election riots, particularly one in 1842, would reinforce this impression.45


By the late 1830s, all the major elements of Five Points’ reputation were well established in the minds of New Yorkers and many Americans. It was an Englishman, however, who brought that reputation to the world. Charles Dickens was not yet thirty years old when he embarked on a five-month tour of North America in 1841. He had become a celebrity a few years earlier for his Pickwick Papers, and the subsequent publication of Oliver Twist established his reputation as a severe critic of England’s treatment of the poor. Consequently, one might have expected Dickens to portray Five Pointers with sympathy and compassion. But the young writer harbored a burning resentment of the United States, where inadequate copyright laws brought him little compensation for sales of his work. Dickens’s account of his visit, the American Notes, brutally condemns nearly every aspect of American life.

His description of Five Points revealed its appalling conditions, already well known to New Yorkers, to readers all over the world:

Let us go on again . . . and . . . plunge into the Five Points. . . . We have seen no beggars in the streets by night or day; but of other kinds of strollers plenty. Poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife enough where we are going now.

This is the place, these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. . . . 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 [previously described wandering the streets foraging for food] 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? . . . . Here, too, are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee deep; underground chambers, where they dance and game . . . hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder; all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.

Dickens described in detail his visits to some of the neighborhood’s wretched tenement apartments. In one, what initially appeared to be piles of rags was in fact several African Americans sleeping in their clothes on rag-pile beds on the floors of their apartments. Although he had thought that no slum in America could match those of London, Dickens concluded that Five Points contained every bit as much misery as the “Seven Dials, or any other part of famed St. Giles.”46

Although this image dates from the 1880s, slumming parties had begun to visit Five Points as early as the 1830s. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December 5, 1885. Collection of the Library of Congress.

Dickens’s visit to Five Points made it fashionable for well-to-do New Yorkers to go “slumming,” visiting Five Points as Dickens had done, with a police escort, to marvel at its poverty and gawk at its displays of vice. Indeed, the term “slumming” may have been coined there to describe such tours. “I had never before any adequate idea of poverty in cities,” admitted the writer and literary critic Nathaniel P. Willis after visiting Five Points in the mid-1840s. “I did not dream that human beings, within reach of human aid, could be abandoned to the wretchedness which I there saw.” The writer, abolitionist, and reformer Lydia Maria Child toured Five Points in about 1844. “Morally and physically, the breathing air was like an open tomb,” she wrote in Letters from New York:

How souls or bodies could live there, I could not imagine. If you want to see something worse than Hogarth’s Gin Lane, go there in a warm afternoon, when the poor wretches have come to what they call home, and are not yet driven within doors, by darkness and constables. There you will see nearly every form of human misery, every sign of human degradation. The leer of the licentious, the dull sensualism of the drunkard, the sly glance of the thief—oh, it made my heart ache for many a day. . . . What a place to ask one’s self, “Will the millennium ever come!”

Such expeditions soon became a standard part of visiting tourists’ itineraries. A Scandinavian writer, Fredrika Bremer, inspected the infamous district carefully, recognizing that conditions varied immensely within Five Points, sometimes even within a single tenement. Nonetheless, she concluded that “lower than to the Five Points it is not possible for human nature to sink.”47

By the late 1840s, such descriptions had convinced Americans that Five Points was the nation’s worst neighborhood. New York Tribune contributor George G. Foster wrote in 1849 that Five Points was to New York “the great central ulcer of wretchedness—the very rotting Skeleton of Civilization, whence emanates an inexhaustible pestilence that spreads its poisonous influence through every vein and artery of the whole social system, and supplies every heart-throb of metropolitan life with a pulse of despair.” Others asserted that no slum in the world could rival its filth and misery. “We know of no place on the earth where there are more wretched beings congregated together than at the Five Points,” contended the New York Evening Post in 1846. Minister Lyman Abbott concurred, writing in 1857 that Five Points “contains more squalid poverty and abominable wickedness than any area of equal size in the world.”

Five Points had become so notorious that its very name became an adjective, a term used to describe something scandalously raunchy. The Herald jibed in 1842 that “if you desire to revel in the midst of Five Points literature, read the Courier and Enquirer, and the New York American,” which daily “contain columns of the lowest, most vulgar, most blackguard, most ferocious libels against the President.” The Methodist missionaries who attempted to reform the area likewise found that Five Points had become “the synonym for ignorance the most entire, for misery the most abject, for crime of the darkest dye, for degradation so deep that human nature cannot sink below it.”48

Five Points became so infamous that reference to it even became a staple of the southern defense of slavery. Northern abolitionists were hypocrites to complain about slavery, insisted slaveholders, when they tacitly condoned such abject suffering in their own midst. A Kentucky doctor who had treated Five Points cholera victims in 1832 argued that its residents “are far more filthy, degraded, and wretched than any slave I have ever beheld, under the most cruel and tyrannical master. . . . They are in the lowest depths of human degradation and misery.” Two decades later, a South Carolinian who visited Five Points contended that it contained more vice, poverty, and wretchedness than the entire South. Only “when the Abolitionists have cleared their own skirts,” could they “hold up their hands in holy horror at the slave-holder, and the enormity of his sins.” Even southerners who had not seen the slum firsthand began to cite it as proof of the superiority of their way of life. The Southern Quarterly Review asked “whether there is any negro quarter, from Mason and Dixon’s line to the Rio del Norte, which could furnish a picture of vice, brutality, and degradation comparable to that drawn from the heart of London” or “the Five Points of New York?” Southerners also cited Five Points as proof that the anti-slavery Republican party was in favor of the “social equality of the negro.” A slave state congressman described to the House of Representatives “a ball held at Five Points in the city of New York, where white women and negroes mingled ‘in sweet confusion in the mazy dance.’” Southerners felt certain that the life of a free person in Five Points, whether black or white, was infinitely worse than that of any slave.49

Opponents of slavery and its expansion also alluded to Five Points to justify their political organization, the Republican party. In reply to the previously quoted speech to the House of Representatives, Michigan congressman Francis W. Kellogg asserted that while his colleague’s depiction of Five Points might be accurate, the ward in which the neighborhood was located “is the strongest Democratic ward in the city, and I doubt if a Republican vote was ever polled there.” Those who endorsed or participated in the depravity described by Kellogg’s colleague were in fact Democrats, and could in no way be linked to the Republican party or the anti-slavery cause. North Carolina Republican Hinton Helper elaborated upon this theme in his famous Impending Crisis of the South. Helper noted that at the “Five Points Precinct” in the 1856 presidential election, Democrat James Buchanan received 574 votes to only 16 for Republican John Frémont and 9 for Know Nothing Millard Fillmore. He then pointed out that Five Points, “with the exception of the slave-pens in Southern cities, is, perhaps, the most vile and heart-sickening locality in the United States. . . . The votes polled at the Five Points precinct, which is almost exclusively inhabited by low Irish Catholics,” proved that the Democratic party appealed most to degraded slum dwellers and those too ignorant to resist the “Jesuitical” influence of the Catholic Church. Northerner and southerner, slaveholder and abolitionist, could all use Five Points to justify their political views.50

The reputation of Five Points, the “Five Points of the mind,” one might say, was firmly and irreversibly established. But was the neighborhood really as bad as these writers claimed? After all, each of the groups that shaped its reputation had some incentive to make it look as horrible as possible. In fact, not too long after Dickens had published his description, New York journalists admitted that as bad as Five Points was, it was “not one half the pestilential hole he has represented.”51

The truth is horrifying and yet simultaneously inspiring as well. There were many irredeemable individuals, yet the immigrants who dominated Five Points survived and eventually thrived in their new homeland. Five Points had more fighting, drinking, and vice than almost anywhere else; but also more dancing and nightlife, more dense networks of clubs and charities, and opportunities both small and large for those who seized them. With its energy, brutality, enterprise, hardship, and constant dramas, Five Points was an extreme case, yet still a deeply American place.

About The Author

Photograph © Anne McLeer

Tyler Anbinder is a professor of history at George Washington University. His first book, Nativism and Slavery, was also a New York Times Notable Book and the winner of the Avery Craven Prize of the Organization of American Historians. He lives in Arlington, VA.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (September 28, 2010)
  • Length: 544 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439141557

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