Friday, November 17, 2017

Our City Charities

Margaret Fuller (1810–1850)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology

“Dancing by Lunatics. Ball Given to the Patients of the Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, New York, November 6, 1865,” sketch by W. H. Davenport for Harper’s Weekly, December 2, 1865.
During the nineteenth century orphanages, almshouses, hospitals, asylums, and prisons were must-see destinations for many North American tourists. In Hartford, “the Orphan Asylum is delightfully situated on an eminence, and consists of handsome and spacious edifices, well managed,” recommends Willis Pope Hazard’s American Guide Book, Being a Hand-book for Tourists and Travellers. At Sing Sing, only “33 miles from the city [New York] . . . is the celebrated State Prison, an object of great interest for visiting, with cells for upwards of 1000 prisoners,” touts The New World in 1859: Being the United States and Canada. In one of his travelogues globetrotter Alexander Marjoribanks describes the sentries “with loaded guns” and the impossibility of escape from the penitentiary in Ontario and proclaims that “no one who visits Kingston should omit seeing it.” A guide to St. Louis published in 1888 boasts of the city’s asylum, which accommodated 800 patients. “Almost every form of insanity may be witnessed where the number is so great. The patients are afforded a variety of amusements such as theatricals balls etc. The balls occur every Friday night to which visitors are invited. Visitors are shown through during the day.” In his book Theaters of Madness (2008), Benjamin Reiss observes that the “New York Lunatic Asylum at Utica averaged 2,700 visitors a year, outstripping Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.”

As a journalist and social reformer, Margaret Fuller disdained the gawking presence of guidebook authors, local reporters, and vacationing tourists and instead visited private and public institutions as an advocate and activist. In late 1844 she accepted a job offer from Horace Greeley to become a columnist for the New-York Tribune; of the more than 250 pieces Fuller wrote over the next two years, a good number of the longer articles were investigations of the plight and treatment of the city’s underclass, especially women "from the lowest haunts of vice." In a letter sent to a friend soon after her arrival in New York, she described one of her first journalistic projects.
Just as I was beginning to visit the institutions here, of a remedial and benevolent kind, I was stopped by influenza. So soon as I am quite well I shall resume the survey. I do not expect to do much, practically, for the suffering, but having such an organ of expression as the Tribune, any suggestions that are well grounded may be of use. I have always felt great interest for those women who are trampled in the mud to gratify the brute appetites of men, and I wished I might be brought, naturally, into contact with them.
A remarkable series of columns chronicled Fuller’s excursions to the various hospitals, prisons, and poorhouses of New York City and its environs. In October 1844 Fuller went to Sing Sing prison to meet with women who had been incarcerated for prostitution and public drunkenness. She returned to the facility on Christmas Day and spoke at the services held in the prison’s chapel; her column about the holiday excursion solicited funds to help women prisoners. This appeal and her other fundraising efforts on behalf of the Women’s Prison Association helped bring about the establishment during the following summer of the Home for Discharged Female Convicts—perhaps the world’s first halfway house for women.

Another column, “St. Valentine’s Day,” detailed in mostly positive terms her visit in February 1845 to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane (on land currently occupied by Columbia University).* A month later, in March, she continued her “survey” with the essay “Our City Charities,” describing, with increasing displeasure, her trips to the poorhouse at Bellevue (now a medical center), to a “farm school” for orphans and children from impoverished families, and to the new asylum and the penitentiary, both on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island).

In late 1846 Fuller became the America’s first female foreign correspondent and set sail for Europe. Over the next four years she sent dispatches to the Tribune on European politics and culture, and while in Italy she covered the 1848 revolutions and met (and secretly married) the Marquess Giovanni Ossoli. In May 1850 the couple, with their 22-month-old son, returned to America on the freighter Elizabeth, which was loaded with blocks of Carrara marble, silks, paintings, and other valuable cargo. Encountering a severe summer squall, an ill-trained first mate, who had assumed command when the captain died of smallpox early in the voyage, ran the ship aground on a sandbar just off the shore of Fire Island, New York, at four in the morning of July 19. For the next twelve hours wind and waves, aided by blocks of marble, battered the ship while spectators on the shore plundered the cargo as it floated away from the wreck. Seven men were later arrested and charged with looting, and a surviving crew member complained to Henry David Thoreau, “The men on shore had not courage enough to launch the lifeboat—they might have launched it without risk of life.” As the boat disintegrated, eight people were swept into the sea and drowned, including all three members of the Fuller-Ossoli family.

Learning of the tragedy, Ralph Waldo Emerson asked Thoreau to go to the scene and search for the bodies and personal belongings. Joined by the poet Ellery Channing, Thoreau found only some garments and Fuller’s desk, which held a few letters and a short journal from early 1849. The manuscript for Fuller’s just-finished book on the Italian revolutions and the short-lived Roman Republic was lost. The infant’s body, which had been crated and buried in the dunes by local residents, was later located and removed to Cambridge, but the bodies of Fuller and her husband were never recovered.

* By the end of the decade the Bloomingdale Asylum had become a victim of its success, as the city—with the complicity of the asylum’s board of governors—used the center as a dumping ground for the disorderly and the incurable, with the inevitable overcrowding and insufficient supervision. In 1851 social reformer Dorothea Dix, who like Fuller had approved of the asylum’s performance early in the 1840s, prepared a scathing evaluation for the facility’s administrators.

Notes: The selection includes a short headnote by Phillip Lopate. Anastatic printing was a type of transfer lithography for the rapid printing of facsimiles. Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay in 1845 on this new, if short-lived, innovation—and the potential for its abuse by copyright pirates. Opthalmia (or, correctly, ophthalmia) is inflammation of the eye; usually the sign of such conditions as conjunctivitis or trachoma. The Tombs was the common name for Manhattan’s Halls of Justice, built in 1838. The block is currently the location of the Collect Pond Park. In 1842 former City Inspector John H. Griscom, a physician, issued a critical report on sanitary conditions in the city.

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The aspect of Nature was sad; what is worse, it was dull and dubious, when we set forth on these visits. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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