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A Story of Bleecker Street by Jacob A. Riis


Mrs. Kane had put the baby to bed. The regular breathing from two little cribs in different corners told her that her day's work was nearing its end. She paused at the window in the middle of her picking-up to look out at the autumn evening. The house stood on the bank of the East River near where the Harlem joins it. Below ran the swift stream, with the early twilight stealing over it from the near shore; across the water the myriad windows in the Children's Hospital glowed red in the sunset. From the shipyard, where men were working overtime, came up the sound of hammering and careless laughter.

The peacefulness of the scene rested the tired woman. She stood absorbed, without noticing that the door behind her was opened swiftly and that some one came in. It was only when the baby, wakening, sat up in bed and asked with wide, wondering eyes, “Who is that?” that she turned to see.

Just inside the door stood a strange woman. A glance at her dress showed her to be an escaped prisoner. A number of such from the Island were employed under guard in the adjoining hospital, and Mrs. Kane saw them daily. Her first impulse was to call to the men working below, but something in the stranger's look and attitude checked her. She went over to the child's bed and stood by it.

“How did you get out?” she asked, confronting the woman. The question rose to her lips mechanically.

The woman answered with a toss of her head toward the hospital. She was young yet, but her face was old. Debauchery had left deep scars upon it. Her black hair hung in disorder.

“They'll be after me,” she said hurriedly. Her voice was hoarse; it kept the promise of the face. “Don't let them. Hide me there—anywhere.” She glanced uneasily from the open closet to the door of the inner room.

Mrs. Kane's face hardened. The stranger was a convict, a thief perhaps. Why should she—A door slammed below, and there were excited voices in the hall, the tread of heavy steps on the stairs. The fugitive listened.

“That's them,” she said. “Quick! lemme get in! O God!” she pleaded with desperate entreaty, as Mrs. Kane stood coldly unresponsive, “you have your baby. I haven't seen mine in seven months, and they never wrote. I'll never have the chance again.”

The steps had halted in the second-floor hall. They were on the last flight of stairs now. The mother's heart relented.

“Here,” she said, “go in.”

The bedroom door had barely closed upon the fugitive when a man in a prison-keeper's garb stuck his head in from the hall. He saw only the mother and the baby in its crib.

“Hang the woman!” he growled. “Did yez—”

A voice called from the lower hall: “Hey, Billy! she ain't in there. She give us the slip, sure.”

The keeper withdrew his head, growling. In the street the hue and cry was raised; a prisoner had escaped.

When all was quiet, Mrs. Kane opened the bedroom door. She had a dark wrapper and an old gray shawl on her arm.

“Go,” she said, not unkindly, and laid them on the bed; “Go to your child.”

The woman caught at her hand with a sob, but she withdrew it hastily and went back to her baby's crib.

The moon shone upon the hushed streets, when a woman, hooded in a gray shawl, walked rapidly down Fifth Street, eying the tenements with a searching look as she passed. On the stoop of one, a knot of mothers were discussing their household affairs, idling a bit after the day's work. The woman halted in front of the group, and was about to ask a question, when one of the women arose with the exclamation:—

“Mother of God! it's Mame.”

“Well,” said the woman, testily, “and what if it is? Am I a spook that ye need stare at me so? Ye knowed me well enough before. Where is Will?”

There was no answer. The women looked at one another irresolutely. None of them seemed to know what to say. It was the newcomer who broke the silence again.

“Can't ye speak?” she said, in a voice in which anger and rising apprehension were struggling. “Where's the boy? Kate, what is it?”

She had caught hold of the rail, as if in fear of falling. The woman addressed said hesitatingly:—

“Did ye never hear, Mame? Ain't no one tole ye?”

“Tole me what?” cried the other, shrilly. “They tole me nothing. What's wrong? Good God! 'tain't nothin' with the child?” She shook the other in sudden anger. “Speak, Kate, can't you?”

“Will is dead,” said Kate, slowly, thus urged. “It's nine weeks come Sunday that he fell out o' the winder and was kilt. They buried him from the Morgue. We thought you knowed.”

Stunned by the blow, the woman had sunk upon the lowest step and buried her face in her hands. She sat there with her shawl drawn over her head, as one by one the neighbors went inside. One lingered; it was the one they had called Kate.

“Mame,” she said, when the last was gone, touching her on the shoulder—“Mame!”

An almost imperceptible movement of the head under its shawl testified that she heard.

“Mebbe it was for the best,” said Kate, irresolutely; “he might have took after—Tim—you know.”

The shrouded figure sat immovable, Kate eyed it in silence, and went her way.

The night wore on. The streets were deserted and the stores closed. Only the saloon windows blazed with light. But the figure sat there yet. It had not stirred. Then it rose, shook out the shawl, and displayed the face of the convict woman who had sought refuge in Mrs. Kane's flat. The face was dry-eyed and hard.

The policeman on the beat rang the bell of the Florence Mission at two o'clock on Sunday morning, and waited until Mother Pringle had unbolted the door. “One for you,” he said briefly, and pointed toward the bedraggled shape that crouched in the corner. It was his day off, and he had no time to trouble with prisoners. The matron drew a corner of the wet shawl aside and took one cold hand. She eyed it attentively; there was a wedding ring upon it.

“Why, child,” she said, “you'll catch your death of cold. Come right in. Girls, give a hand.”

Two of the women inmates half led, half carried her in, and the bolts shut out Bleecker Street once more. They led her to the dormitory, where they took off her dress and shawl, heavy with the cold rain. The matron came bustling in; one of the girls spoke to her aside. She looked sharply at the newcomer.

“Mamie Anderson!” she said. “Well, of all things! Where have you been all this while? Yes, I know,” she added soothingly, as the stranger made a sign to speak. “Never mind; we'll talk about it to-morrow. Go to sleep now and get over it.”

But though bathed and fed and dosed with bromide,—bromide is a standard prescription at the Florence Mission,—Mamie Anderson did not get over it. Bruised and sore from many blows, broken in body and spirit, she told the girls who sat by her bed through the night such fragments of her story as she could remember. It began, the part of it that took account of Bleecker Street, when her husband was sent to State's Prison for robbery, and, to live, she took up with a scoundrel from whom she kept the secret of her child. With such of her earnings as she could steal from her tormentor she had paid little Willie's board until she was arrested and sent to the Island.

What had happened in the three days since she escaped from the hospital, where she had been detailed with the scrubbing squad, she recalled only vaguely and with long lapses. They had been days and nights of wild carousing. She had come to herself at last, lying beaten and bound in a room in the house where her child was killed, so she said. A neighbor had heard her groans, released her, and given her car fare to go down town. So she had come and sat in the doorway of the Mission to die.

How much of this story was the imagining of a disordered mind, the police never found out.

Upon her body were marks as of ropes that had made dark bruises, but at the inquest they were said to be of blows. Toward morning, when the girls had lain down to snatch a moment's sleep, she called one of them, whom she had known before, and asked for a drink of water. As she took it with feeble hand, she asked:—

“Lil', can you pray?”

For an answer the girl knelt by her bed and prayed. When she had ended, Mamie Anderson fell asleep.

She was still sleeping when the others got up. They noticed after a while that she lay very quiet and white, and one of them going to see, found her dead.

That is the story of Mamie Anderson, as Bleecker Street told it to me. Out on Long Island there is, in a suburban cemetery, a lovely shaded spot where I sometimes sit by our child's grave. The green hillside slopes gently under the chestnuts, violets and buttercups spring from the sod, and the robin sings its jubilant note in the long June twilights. Halfway down the slope, six or eight green mounds cluster about a granite block in which are hewn the words:—

     These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have
     washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

It is the burial-plot of the Florence Mission. Under one of the mounds lies all that was mortal of Mamie Anderson.


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