Monday, April 22, 1861
New York City
When Charlotte and Alice told their mother they were taking the omnibus down Broadway, they weren’t lying. They just didn’t tell her where they would be getting off. There was simply no time for an argument today.
Boarding at Fourteenth Street, the sisters paid the extra fare for their hoop skirts, as if they were separate passengers, and sat back on the long wooden bench for the ride.
“This is against my better judgment, you know.” Alice’s voice was barely audible above the clatter of wheels and hoof beats over the cobblestones.
“Don’t you mean Jacob’s?” Charlotte cast a sidelong glance at her sister.
Alice twirled a ringlet of her honey-blonde hair around her finger —a nervous childhood habit she never outgrew—but said nothing.
She didn’t have to. Ever since she had married the wealthy businessman a few months ago, she had been even more pampered—and sheltered—than she had been growing up. Heaven help her when they reached their destination.
“I’ll have you home by teatime and none the worse for wear.” Charlotte’s voice was softened by just a hint of guilt. “I promise.”
The omnibus wheels jolted over a broken cobblestone, bouncing the passengers on their benches. Releasing her grip from the edge of the bench, Alice raised an eyebrow at her sister. “Just tell me why I let you talk me into coming.”
Charlotte grinned. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Why do I have the feeling it isn’t a good one?” Alice planted her palms on the bench beside her again, bracing herself against the jarring ride.
“Whatever you do you mean?”
“Do you remember your idea to adopt that lame squirrel we found?”
“I did let it go.” And there were more important things on Charlotte’s mind. She squinted at the front page of The New York Times held up by the man seated across from her. Washington Still Isolated—New York Seventh Regiment Arrives in Annapolis by Steam—
“Only after it chewed through five of Mother’s best doilies and made a nest in the velvet armchair.”
Charlotte turned from reading headlines to face her sister. “I was ten!”
“And I was eight, and still old enough to know better. There were other times, too, like when you chose that outrageous reading on the value of a woman’s education to recite for our class at finishing school. Completely at odds with the context of the school.”
Charlotte chuckled. “Exactly why it was so perfect! But today’s idea is even better. I’ve found a way to actually dosomething for the war effort.”
“And what do you call knitting socks for the troops? Rolling bandages? Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“Of course it does. But I mean something else. Something more.”
Alice’s eyes narrowed, but she let it rest as the omnibus slowed to a halt and more passengers squeezed beside the sisters. Any further conversation would soon be drowned out by the cacophony of Broadway.
The avenue throbbed with life, like an artery coursing down the island of Manhattan. Ten days into the war, recruiting offices for the Union army had already cropped up along the avenue, their entrances clogged with eager young men. Between Canal Street and Houston, the street teemed with gentlemen in spats and ladies in silks, their musk colognes and lavender perfumes cloying on the warm breeze. The white marble façade of St. Nicholas Hotel between Broome and Spring Streets dominated the west side of Broadway. In front of The Marble Palace facing Canal Street, porters in their brass-buttoned, blue uniforms opened carriage doors and escorted their elite customers inside, where they would no doubt spend staggering sums on the latest Parisian fashions.
But Charlotte and Alice did not get off at any of these places. At least not today. For just a few blocks south of The Marble House, and just a few blocks east of the German-Jewish secondhand clothing shops on lower Broadway, the steady pulse of polished society gave way to the erratic beat of Five Points, the world’s most notorious slum.
Alice squeezed her sister’s hand so tightly Charlotte couldn’t tell if it was motivated by anxiety or anger for bringing her here.
If Broadway was Manhattan’s artery, Five Points was its abscess: swollen with people, infected with pestilence, inflamed with vice and crime. Groggeries, brothels, and dance halls put private sin on public display. Although the neighborhood seemed fairly self-contained, more fortunate New Yorkers were terrified of Five Points erupting, spreading its contagion to the rest of them.
This was where the Waverly sisters got off.
Competing emotions of fear and excitement tugged at Charlotte’s heart as she hoisted the skirt of her amber-colored day dress above her ankles and began heading toward Worth Street. “Come on, Alice,” she whispered, cocking her head at her dumbstruck sister. A foul-smelling breeze teased strands of hair from their coifs, crept into their noses, and coated their throats. Charlotte had forgotten how the smell of poverty would stick to her skin. Swallowing her distaste, she vowed to scrub herself with sugar and lemon-infused olive oil as soon as she returned home.
Pressing a violet-scented handkerchief to her nose, Alice held her parasol low over her head, blocking out as much of the view as possible as she began walking. “Where are we going?” Her words were muffled, but her discomfort was not.
A disheveled drunk leered at the sisters from a rotting doorway, raising the hair on Charlotte’s neck. “The House of Industry. It’s just up ahead.”
With her parasol in one hand and a fistful of skirts in the other, Charlotte set a brisk pace. As they turned onto Worth Street’s littered sidewalk, Alice skirted a child leaning against a lamppost, hawking apples from a broken crate. Charlotte stopped short.
“Maggie?” She reached out and touched the girl’s soot-smudged cheek while Alice gawked from five feet away. “It’s me, Miss Waverly! I used to teach your mother sewing. How is she?”
Maggie peered up with eyes too big for her face, too old for her nine years. “About the same as usual—only there’s not enough sewing to go around, she says—so Jack sweeps the streets and here I am. Say, wouldn’t you and the miss over there like a nice red apple?”
“Of course!” Charlotte reached into her dress pocket and traded several coins for two small, bruised apples smelling of fermentation.
“Charlotte!” Alice gasped while Maggie’s dirty face brightened. It was far too much money to spend on apples—especially rotting ones.
“Go on now, Maggie. Give your mother my best.”
With “Bless you Miss!” ringing in her ears, Charlotte joined Alice with both apples in one hand, skirt now dragging on the sidewalk.
“Can we hustle, please?” Alice’s voice was still muted behind her handkerchief. Charlotte was eager to comply. Virtually every tipsy wooden building on this block—including Crown’s Grocery—housed a brothel, and none of them bothered hiding the fact. Bareheaded and bare-chested women stood in doorways quoting their rates to passersby, even in broad daylight—which was a dirty yellow, like a fevered complexion. By the time they stepped into the slanted shadow of the six-story House of Industry, Charlotte noticed she had been holding her breath. The vapors in this area could truly make one sick.
“Ah, there you are!” Mr. Lewis Pease, founder of the charity, had been waiting for them in the shade of the brick building, and now waved the sisters inside, away from the seedy, star-shaped intersection for which Five Points was named, half a block away. “And who is this lovely young woman?”
“Forgive me, this is my younger sister Alice—Mrs. Jacob Carlisle.” Charlotte and Alice entered the building ahead of Mr. Pease, who closed the door behind them. “She’s in town visiting for a spell while her husband is away on business.” She set the apples down on the hall stand and wiped her gloves on her skirt.
Pease bowed slightly. “A pleasure to meet you, madam. Mr. Dorsheimer is already here,” he added in a whisper just as the visitor’s barrel chest entered the room ahead of him. “Ah, Mr. Treasurer. Allow me to make the introductions. Miss Waverly, Mrs. Carlisle, this is Mr. Phillip Dorsheimer, Treasurer of the State of New York and the New York State Military Board. He’s here all the way from Buffalo, and we’re so fortunate he’s making time to meet with us.” Mr. Dorsheimer ignored Charlotte’s outstretched hand, fading both her smile and her confidence.
Mr. Pease continued. “Mr. Treasurer, Miss Waverly here was the one who suggested we make a bid for the contract. She used to be a sewing instructor here.”
Without even the slightest acknowledgment, Mr. Dorsheimer frowned at his pocket watch. “Can we get on with it?” His jowls quivered as he spoke. Charlotte took a deep breath and squeezed her parasol handle. So far, this was not going as she had hoped it would.
A thin smile tipped Mr. Pease’s lips. “Yes, quite. I’d like to give you a tour of the facility before discussing the terms of the uniform contract. Unless you’ve been here before?”
Mr. Dorsheimer cleared his throat. “Oh, I’ve been to the Points before, but not here in this building.” Of course. Well-to-do New Yorkers often came down to see Five Points for themselves to satisfy a macabre curiosity. “Well, allow us to show you around,” said Mr. Pease, leading the way. “This is a fairly new headquarters for us, and we’re rather proud of it. This corridor leads to the workshops where neighborhood teens and adults learn several trades. At first we taught only basic sewing, but now we also teach baking, shoemaking, corset making, basket weaving, and millinery. Go ahead, look around.”
Mr. Dorsheimer tossed cursory glances into a few of the workshops.
“We have more than five hundred workers currently. Five hundred!” Mr. Pease beamed. “I pay the workers according to what they produce. Sewers can earn up to $2.50 a week—now I know that doesn’t sound like much to you and me, Mr. Treasurer, but it’s a lot more than needlewomen normally earn. We’ve also opened a day school for the children so they are educated, fed, and even clothed while the parents work at their trades here.”
They walked a little farther and turned into a large open room. “This is the chapel where we hold religious services,” Mr. Pease continued. “Of course there is also the Five Points Mission just across the street, whose primary objective is to feed the souls and point them to new life in Christ. The House of Industry began as a branch of the Mission, because I found they had a hard time hearing the Bible when their stomachs were growling. And what better way to feed the multitudes than to teach them a trade so they can feed themselves?”
If Mr. Dorsheimer felt anything, he hid it well in those doughy folds of skin. The palms of Charlotte’s gloves began to dampen with sweat.
“One last thing I’d like to show you.” Climbing a set of stairs brought them to a well-ventilated floor with spacious dormitories, each with iron beds that termites couldn’t penetrate. “We started out housing our worker women, so they wouldn’t need to go back to the brothels at night. But now we also shelter dozens of abused, neglected, and homeless children who are waiting for adoptive parents.”
Mr. Dorsheimer, winded from the exertion of the climb, did not look impressed.
“These rooms are humble enough, indeed,” Charlotte added, “but when you consider many of these people are used to sleeping on the bare floor of a room with no windows and laid out like sardines in a can, you can understand the charm of a bed and some—air, can’t you?” Calling it “fresh air” would have been a lie. With human waste collecting in trenches behind most Five Points tenements, no air had been fresh here for decades. At least windows allowed circulation.