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Nigger Martha's Wake by Jacob A. Riis


A woman with face all seared and blotched by something that had burned through the skin sat propped up in the doorway of a Bowery restaurant at four o'clock in the morning, senseless, apparently dying. A policeman stood by, looking anxiously up the street and consulting his watch. At intervals he shook her to make sure she was not dead. The drift of the Bowery that was borne that way eddied about, intent upon what was going on. A dumpy little man edged through the crowd and peered into the woman's face.

“Phew!” he said, “it's Nigger Martha! What is gettin' into the girls on the Bowery I don't know. Remember my Maggie? She was her chum.”

This to the watchman on the block. The watchman remembered. He knows everything that goes on in the Bowery. Maggie was the wayward daughter of a decent laundress, and killed herself by drinking carbolic acid less than a month before. She had wearied of the Bowery. Nigger Martha was her one friend. And now she had followed her example.

She was drunk when she did it. It is in their cups that a glimpse of the life they traded away for the street comes sometimes to these wretches, with remorse not to be borne.

It came so to Nigger Martha. Ten minutes before, she had been sitting with two boon companions in the oyster saloon next door, discussing their night's catch. Elsie “Specs” was one of the two; the other was known to the street simply as Mame. Elsie wore glasses, a thing unusual enough in the Bowery to deserve recognition. From their presence Martha rose suddenly, to pull a vial from her pocket. Mame saw it, and, knowing what it meant in the heavy humor that was upon Nigger Martha, she struck it from her hand with a pepper-box. It fell, but was not broken. The woman picked it up, and staggering out, swallowed its contents upon the sidewalk—that is, as much as went into her mouth. Much went over her face, burning it. She fell shrieking.

Then came the crowd. The Bowery never sleeps. The policeman on the beat set her in the doorway and sent a hurry call for an ambulance. It came at last, and Nigger Martha was taken to the hospital.

As Mame told it, so it was recorded on the police blotter, with the addition that she was anywhere from forty to fifty years old. That was the strange part of it. It is not often that any one lasts out a generation in the Bowery. Nigger Martha did. Her beginning was way back in the palmy days of Billy McGlory and Owney Geoghegan. Her first remembered appearance was on the occasion of the mock wake they got up at Geoghegan's for Police Captain Foley when he was broken. That was in the days when dive-keepers made and broke police captains, and made no secret of it. Billy McGlory did not. Ever since, Martha was on the street.

In time she picked up Maggie Mooney, and they got to be chummy. The friendships of the Bowery by night may not be of a very exalted type, but when death breaks them it leaves nothing to the survivor. That is the reason suicides there happen in pairs. The story of Tilly Lorrison and Tricksy came from the Tenderloin not long ago. This one of Maggie Mooney and Nigger Martha was theirs over again.

In each case it was the younger, the one nearest the life that was forever past, who took the step first, in despair. The other followed. To her it was the last link with something that had long ceased to be anything but a dream, which was broken. But without the dream life was unbearable, in the Tenderloin and on the Bowery.

The newsboys were crying their night extras when Undertaker Reardon's wagon jogged across the Bowery with Nigger Martha's body in it. She had given the doctors the slip, as she had the policeman many a time. A friend of hers, an Italian in The Bend, had hired the undertaker to “do it proper,” and Nigger Martha was to have a funeral.

All the Bowery came to the wake. The all-nighters from Chatham Square to Bleecker Street trooped up to the top-floor flat in the Forsyth Street tenement where Nigger Martha was laid out. There they sat around, saying little and drinking much. It was not a cheery crowd.

The Bowery by night is not cheerful in the presence of The Mystery. Its one effort is to get away from it, to forget—the thing it can never do. When out of its sight it carouses boisterously, as children sing and shout in the dark to persuade themselves that they are not afraid. And some who hear think it happy.

Sheeny Rose was the master of ceremonies and kept the door. This for a purpose. In life Nigger Martha had one enemy whom she hated—cock-eyed Grace. Like all of her kind, Nigger Martha was superstitious. Grace's evil eye ever brought her bad luck when she crossed her path, and she shunned her as the pestilence. When inadvertently she came upon her, she turned as she passed and spat twice over her left shoulder. And Grace, with white malice in her wicked face, spurned her.

“I don't want,” Nigger Martha had said one night in the hearing of Sheeny Rose—“I don't want that cock-eyed thing to look at my body when I am dead. She'll give me hard luck in the grave yet.”

And Sheeny Rose was there to see that cock-eyed Grace didn't come to the wake.

She did come. She labored up the long stairs, and knocked, with no one will ever know what purpose in her heart. If it was a last glimmer of good, of forgiveness, it was promptly squelched. It was Sheeny Rose who opened the door.

“You can't come in here,” she said curtly. “You know she hated you. She didn't want you to look at her stiff.”

Cock-eyed Grace's face grew set with anger. Her curses were heard within. She threatened fight, but dropped it.

“All right,” she said as she went down. “I'll fix you, Sheeny Rose!”

It was in the exact spot where Nigger Martha had sat and died that Grace met her enemy the night after the funeral. Lizzie La Blanche, the Marine's girl, was there; Elsie Specs, Little Mame, and Jack the Dog, toughest of all the girls, who for that reason had earned the name of “Mayor of the Bowery.” She brooked no rivals. They were all within reach when the two enemies met under the arc light.

Cock-eyed Grace sounded the challenge.

“Now, you little Sheeny Rose,” she said, “I'm goin' to do ye fer shuttin' of me out o' Nigger Martha's wake.”

With that out came her hatpin, and she made a lunge at Sheeny Rose. The other was on her guard. Hatpin in hand, she parried the thrust and lunged back. In a moment the girls had made a ring about the two, shutting them out of sight. Within it the desperate women thrust and parried, backed and squared off, leaping like tigers when they saw an opening. Their hats had fallen off, their hair was down, and eager hate glittered in their eyes. It was a battle for life; for there is no dagger more deadly than the hatpin these women carry, chiefly as a weapon of defence in the hour of need.

They were evenly matched. Sheeny Rose made up in superior suppleness of limb for the pent-up malice of the other. Grace aimed her thrusts at her opponent's face. She tried to reach her eye. Once the sharp steel just pricked Sheeny Rose's cheek and drew blood. In the next turn Rose's hatpin passed within a quarter-inch of Grace's jugular.

But the blow nearly threw her off her feet, and she was at her enemy's mercy. With an evil oath the fiend thrust full at her face just as the policeman, who had come through the crowd unobserved, so intent was it upon the fight, knocked the steel from her hand.

At midnight two dishevelled hags with faces flattened against the bars of adjoining cells in the police station were hurling sidelong curses at each other and at the maddened doorman. Nigger Martha's wake had received its appropriate and foreordained ending.


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