When Irish landlords started shipping their starving tenants to North America in the mid-19th Century (either to help the tenants or to help themselves by avoiding the extra poor tax), most of the immigrants chose to go to New York. It soon became much cheaper to send them to Canada (see my earlier post on the “coffin ships”) so some landed in Quebec instead. But many of them soon made their way to New York anyway, because they already had friends or families there. In New York they could be sure to find people from their home county, or even their home neighborhood.

Unfortunately, they would most likely find those friends in Five Points, the most notorious neighborhood slum in the world.The Old Brewery in Five Points Charles Dickens gave the nationally notorious neighborhood international notoriety when he published a description of it in his American Notes, recounting a visit in 1841. “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.”

The population of Five Points grew dramatically during the mid-19th Century. And after the especially heavy immigration of the famine years, an 1855 census revealed that two thirds of the adults living in Five Points had been born in Ireland.

And despite the truly rotten conditions, in most aspects, life in the slum was an improvement.  There was food and work available, both commodities nearly impossible to find in Ireland at the time. Where the immigrants suffered most was from cold, since the winters in New York were more severe. Unlike in Ireland, were turf could be cut from the ground for fuel, in New York, coal or firewood had to be purchased.

Census takers describe Irish immigrants living in unbelievably crowded conditions – as many as 16 people living in a one-room apartment. Some were so crowded that the occupants had to sleep in shifts because there was not enough room for them to all lay down at the same time.

And while it is awful to contemplate, one thing to remember is that many of them chose to make the conditions as overcrowded as they were. A family might rent a one room apartment and then take in boarders, not because they needed the extra money to live, but because they were saving up money to send to family members in Ireland or so that they could move into better circumstances. So there was a method to their madness.

Of course, the extra money sometimes led simply to extra vice, and that is what made the Five Points neighborhood so interesting to tourists. They came to see places like the Old Brewery, a tenement swarming with “thieves, pickpockets, beggars, harlots and degenerates of every type” which was said to average a murder every night.  While the place was undoubtedly filthy (described as a pig sty with less straw and more bugs), the stories of murder were greatly exaggerated. Only about 30 murders were committed during a typical year throughout the entire city. Nevertheless, the building became so notorious that in 1852, a charitable group bought the building and tore it down. But tenements just as bad would remain in Five Points for another fifty years.

The gangs of Five Points were just as infamous of the tenements, so next time I’ll look into the Bowery Boys and see if we can find the Dead Rabbits.


Most of the information in this article came from Five Points by Tyler Anbinder (Plume/Penguin 2002)