Death Comes to Cat Alley by Jacob A. Riis
The dead-wagon stopped at the mouth of Cat Alley. Its coming made a
commotion among the children in the block, and the Chief of Police
looked out of his window across the street, his attention arrested by
the noise. He saw a little pine coffin carried into the alley under the
arm of the driver, a shoal of ragged children trailing behind. After a
while the driver carried it out again, shoved it in the wagon, where
there were other boxes like it, and, slamming the door, drove off.
A red-eyed woman watched it down the street until it disappeared
around the corner. Then she wiped her eyes with her apron and went in.
It was only Mary Welsh's baby that was dead, but to her the alley,
never cheerful on the brightest of days, seemed hopelessly desolate
to-day. It was all she had. Her first baby died in teething.
Cat Alley is a back-yard illustration of the theory of evolution.
The fittest survive, and the Welsh babies were not among them. It would
be strange if they were. Mike, the father, works in a Crosby Street
factory when he does work. It is necessary to put it that way, for,
though he has not been discharged, he had only one day's work this week
and none at all last week. He gets one dollar a day, and the one dollar
he earned these last two weeks his wife had to draw to pay the doctor
with when the baby was so sick. They have had nothing else coming in,
and but for the wages of Mrs. Welsh's father, who lives with them,
there would have been nothing in the house to eat.
The baby came three weeks ago, right in the hardest of the hard
times. It was never strong enough to nurse, and the milk bought in
Mulberry Street is not for babies to grow on who are not strong enough
to stand anything. Little John never grew at all. He lay upon his
pillow this morning as white and wan and tiny as the day he came into a
world that didn't want him.
Yesterday, just before he died, he sat upon his grandmother's lap
and laughed and crowed for the first time in his brief life, just like
he was talkin' to me, said the old woman, with a smile that struggled
hard to keep down a sob. I suppose it was a sort of inward cramp, she
addeda mother's explanation of baby laugh in Cat Alley.
The mother laid out the little body on the only table in their room,
in its only little white slip, and covered it with a piece of discarded
lace curtain to keep off the flies. They had no ice, and no money to
pay an undertaker for opening the little grave in Calvary, where their
first baby lay. All night she sat by the improvised bier, her tears
When morning came and brought the woman with the broken arm from
across the hall to sit by her, it was sadly evident that the burial of
the child must be hastened. It was not well to look at the little face
and the crossed baby hands, and even the mother saw it.
Let the trench take him, in God's name; He has his soul, said the
grandmother, crossing herself devoutly.
An undertaker had promised to put the baby in the grave in Calvary
for twelve dollars and take two dollars a week until it was paid. But
how can a man raise two dollars a week, with only one coming in in two
weeks, and that gone to the doctor? With a sigh Mike Welsh went for the
lines that must smooth its way to the trench in the Potter's Field,
and then to Mr. Blake's for the dead-wagon. It was the hardest walk of
And so it happened that the dead-wagon halted at Cat Alley and that
little John took his first and last ride. A little cross and a number
on the pine box, cut in the lid with a chisel, and his brief history
was closed, with only the memory of the little life remaining to the
Welshes to help them fight the battle alone.
In the middle of the night, when the dead-lamp burned dimly at the
bottom of the alley, a policeman brought to Police Headquarters a
wailing child, an outcast found in the area of a Lexington Avenue house
by a citizen, who handed it over to the police. Until its cries were
smothered in the police nursery upstairs with the ever ready bottle,
they reached the bereaved mother in Cat Alley and made her tears drop
faster. As the dead-wagon drove away with its load in the morning,
Matron Travers came out with the now sleeping waif in her arms. She,
too, was bound for Mr. Blake's.
The two took their ride on the same boatthe living child, whom no
one wanted, to Randall's Island, to be enlisted with its number in the
army of the city's waifs, strong and able to fight its way; the dead,
for whom a mother's heart yearns, to its place in the great ditch.