The New York City draft riot was the worst civic disturbance America has ever experienced. Set off by the first military draft in our history, it raged up and down the length of Manhattan for five, terrifying days in July, 1863. Before it was over, it had come close to destroying the city, causing untold millions in property damage and leaving at least 119 people dead.
The riot is the natural climax to my novel, for it was incited mostly by Irish-Americans, and suppressed by the same, and Paradise Alley is above all the story of the Irish in America—of the first, great wave of emigration that came in the wake of the potato famine.
The famine has become a cliché now, something that sounds almost quaint to our ears, in the way that many terrible things do with the passing of enough time. But it was in fact a very real, human catastrophe, one that killed more than a million-and-a-half people, and fractured Irish society forever. In the late 1840s, Ireland’s roads were filled with human scarecrows, searching desperately, anywhere, for food; many of them lying down to die right by the roadside, their mouths green from eating grass.
Another million—the lucky ones—managed to emigrate. “Lucky” is a qualified term here, for emigration meant trusting your fate to cut-rate “coffin ships,” that were long on cholera and typhus, and short on food, water, competent crews, and seaworthy timbers. Almost all who managed to make it across the Atlantic were then flung headfirst into a world that was even more turbulent, terrifying, and downright confusing. That is, the New York of the nineteenth century.
New York was “the Empire City of the West,” a vibrant, bustling place, well on its way to becoming the busiest port in the world—bursting with commerce, invention, money. It was, at the same time, an almost unbelievably filthy, crowded, malodorous place. The city’s sewers were so clogged that, when it rained, the gutters were filled with butcher’s offal, and it was not uncommon to see little boys playing in pools of blood. Tens of thousands of its citizens worked as prostitutes, or “nightwalkers,” or were members of the city’s many street gangs, the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits, and the Whyos, who were as exotically turned out and as casually violent as the cast of Clockwork Orange.
Or, to let Herbert Willis Robinson, a hack journalist who is one of the narrators of Paradise Alley tell it:
“This is the way we live now, in the City of Smash and Burn, Sulphur and Blood. Nearly one million souls, packed down into the tail end of Manhattan island. Some few thousand more scattered among the villages of Haarlem and Bloomingdale, the rambling shantytowns around the central park they have finally laid out above Fifty-ninth Street. A city where herds of pigs still run loose in the streets. Where stagecoach drivers race and whip each other along the avenues, and steam ferries race and collide and explode in the harbor. The population double what it was twenty years ago, and double again what it was twenty years before that. And every year, the City getting denser, louder, filthier; more noisome, more impossible to traverse.
“Presiding over it all is our upstanding Republican mayor, fuming regularly and ineffectually over each iniquity like some Italian volcano. Just beneath him sit our unspeakable aldermen and councilmen, better known as The Forty Thieves. Would that it were so. In fact, there are eighty-two. (Only New York would take it upon itself to support a legislature of bicameral crooks.)
“And beneath them a whole vast, imponderable hive of crooked street commissioners and demagogues, dead-horse contractors and confidence men, hoisters and divers, shoulder-hitters and fancy men, wardheelers and kirkbuzzers and harlots. And all of them with a profit motive, all of them with an angle and a game, and an eye on the main chance. So many with their hands out, so much corruption that even if you wanted to clean it all out you could never do it, you could never even get past the first, most inconsequential layers of dirt.
“In short, it is a great town in which to be a newspaperman.”
By the time of the Civil War, the disparities of wealth in the city have grown enormous. The war provides those who are quick, and cunning, and unscrupulous enough the chance to grow phenomenally wealthy—”the sybarites of shoddy” as they are called, selling uniforms that fall apart in the rain, boots that fall apart in the mud, muskets that don’t fire. At the same time, the people who will actually do most of the fighting—the poor and middle-class, the new immigrants—find themselves worse off than ever. Going to war means leaving one’s family to the city’s vastly inadequate relief system; inflation sends the cost of every necessity—meat, bread, coffee, salt, milk, coal, shelter—soaring beyond their reach.
When a mandatory draft is instituted, along with a provision that allows anyone to buy a “substitute” for three hundred dollars, New York reaches a boiling point. The price is easily affordable for a rich man—yet, some two years wages for most of the city’s workingmen. When the first names are pulled from the draft box, New York’s Irish strike out in a blind and merciless paroxysm of violence, attacking the police, and the homes of wealthy Republicans and abolitionists. Worst of all, though, they take out their rage upon the city’s small, African-American population, blaming them for the war and committing vicious and shameless atrocities against any black man—or woman, or child—they can find.
Caught in this maelstrom is Ruth, the main heroine of the novel. Living in a slum down by Paradise Alley, on the Lower East Side near the river, she is an Irish woman, married to a black man named Billy Dove. On the eve of the riot, as she senses the tension soaring in the city all around her. She has also learned that her psychotic, common-law former husband, a criminal and boxer known as Dangerous Johnny Dolan, has returned to the city. It was Dolan who enabled her to escape from Ireland, but after he committed a particularly ghastly crime in New York, she managed to have him shanghaied to California.
Now, years later, he is back, looking to wreak his revenge upon her, and to recover his “cabinet of wonders”— a collection of trinkets that Dolan brought over from Ireland and is convinced is worth a fortune. Ruth has never managed to throw it away, and now she waits in dread for Johnny, or the riot, to find her:
“He is coming
“Ruth leaned out the door as far as she dared, peering down Paradise Alley to the west and the south. Past the other narrow brick and wood houses along Cherry Street, leaning against each other for support. The gray mounds of ashes and bones, oyster shells and cabbage leaves and dead cats, growing higher every day since the street cleaners had gone out on strike.
“Fire bells were already ringing off in the Sixth Ward, somewhere near the Five Points. The air thick with dust and ash and dried horse droppings, the sulfurous emissions of the gas works along the river, and the rendering plants and the hide-curing plants. It was not yet six in the morning but she could feel the thin linen of her dress sticking to the soft of her back.
“The good Lord, in all His Mercy, must be readyin’ us for Hell—’
“She searched the horizon for any sign of relief. Their weather came from the west, the black, fecund clouds riding in over the Hudson. That was how she expected him to come, too—fierce and implacable as a summer storm. His rage breaking over them all.
“He is coming—
“But there was no storm just yet. The sky was still a dull, jaundiced color, the blue tattered and wearing away at the edges. She ventured a step out into the street, looking hard, all the way downtown—past the myriad church steeples and the block-shaped warehouses, the dense thicket of masts around lower Manhattan.
“There was nothing out of the ordinary. Just the usual, shapeless forms lying motionless in the doorways. A ragged child with a stick, a few dogs. A fruit peddler with his bright yellow barrow. His wares, scavenged from the barges over on the West Side, already pungent and overripe.
“Nothing coming. But then, it wasn’t likely he would come from the west anyway—
“With a muted cry she swung around, then ducked back into her house—bolting the door behind her while she fought for breath. The idea that he could have been coming up behind her the whole time. She remembered how quickly he could move. She could feel his hands on her, could see the yellow dog’s bile rising in his eyes. That merciless anger, concentrated solely upon her—
“He is coming
“He had come—all the way back from California. It was a fearsome, unimaginable distance. But then, what was that to a man who had gone as far as he had already? A friend of Tom’s, a stevedore, had seen him on the docks. Coming down the gangplank with that peculiar, scuttling, crablike walk of his, fierce and singleminded as ever. Moving fast, much faster than you thought at first, so that Tom’s friend had quickly lost him in the crowd waiting by the foot of the gangplank. Already disappeared off into the vastness of the City—
“Which meant—what? The mercy of a few days? While he found himself a room in the sailors’ houses along Water Street, began to work his way relentlessly through the bars and blind pigs, sniffing out any news. Sniffing out them.
“Or maybe not even that. Maybe he had hit it right off—had found, in the first public house he tried, a garrulous drunk who would tell him, for the price of a camphor-soaked whiskey, where he might find a certain mixed-race couple, living down along Paradise Alley—
“No. Ruth calmed herself by sheer force of will. Picking up a broom, she made her hands distract her. Sweeping her way scrupulously around the hearth, under the wobbly-legged table even though she knew there was no need, they would never live here again after this morning.
“It wasn’t likely that he could be so lucky. He had never had much luck, after all—not even with herself—and his own face would work against him. He couldn’t go out too bold. They would remember him still, after what had happened with Old Man Noe. Men would remember him, would remember that, and keep their distance. Maybe even turn him, for the reward—
“They still had time. A little, anyway. She and Billy had talked it out, deep into the night. Time enough for Billy to go up to his job at the Colored Orphans’ Asylum on the Fifth Avenue today, and collect his back wages. Then they would have something to start on, at least, to see them through up to Boston, or Canada.
“Why aren’t we in Canada already? We should be there—
“She swept faster, in her anger and frustration, kicking up the fine, black grit that crept inexorably through the windows and over the transom, covering the whole City over, everyday. They had talked about leaving, all these years, but somehow they had never actually gone. They told themselves there would be risks if they ran, perhaps even worse risks. A white woman and a black man, with their five mixed-race children, moving through one small town after another, with no real money to sustain them. They would be leaving tracks for him like they were written in the sky—
“So where were they to run now?
“Ruth forced the question from her mind. It didn’t matter now, they had no choice. All it required was a few more hours of grace, then they would be gone. Over to Hoboken on the Chambers Street Ferry, then a schooner up to Halifax, or Montreal. Or even if they didn’t have enough money for that, they could just set out at random, across the countryside, head west or north—
“There was a low, rumbling sound. She risked looking out a window, wanting to see if it were storming after all. But the sound went on and on—one continuous, unending roll of noise—and she realized it must be something manmade. The sound of hundreds, even thousands of feet, and voices, moving relentlessly, indivisibly uptown.
“Something had been brewing in the City all weekend, she knew. There were little things she had picked up, when she poked her head out to throw the washing water in the gutter. The way women usually learned the news in this town. Something in the snatches of talk from the men in their taverns, and the brayings of drunks on streetcorners. Something in the agitation of horses, the thinning of traffic, the urgency of a policeman’s voice. In the unhappy silence of the other women on the block like her—listening and waiting
“The men were unhappy, and when men were unhappy no one could rest easy. Something about the draft, but whatever it was, she knew it would be bad for people like them. Maybe, at least, it would delay him—
“A couple hours grace, that’s all we need. Surely that is possible.
“She tried to think, to make sure there was nothing she had forgotten. Her memory had never been very good since her time with Johnny Dolan. She would leave the beans, or the corn bread over the fire until they burned. She would forget to run an errand, to get something important, unless she carefully thought out everything on her way to work in the morning, or while trying to fall asleep in her bed at night. Sometimes she thought he had knocked it out of her, beaten it right out of her brains—
“What needed to be done, then? She forced herself to concentrate. Everything else was already tied up and waiting by the back door—their bolt hole—where it could be easily tossed into the barrow just outside.
“There was little enough. Her kitchen wares, the two other dresses she owned, and the ribbons she wore in her hair on special days. Billy’s one suit, and his shirts and his overalls. His seaman’s kit, and his tools, still as meticulously wrapped and oiled as when he had first purchased them. The framed daguerreotype she had finally persuaded Billy to have made of the whole family. All of them in their best clothes, standing solemnly around Billy where he sat in a broad, cushioned chair. A little stand in the picture parlor tucked carefully behind his close-cropped hair to make sure he held his head steady, the rest of them clustered all around him in various, shimmering shades of light. Hers the only fully white face, looking bleak and blanched, nearly invisible next to the rest of them.
“That was all. Everything they had to show for thirteen years in this cramped little house. All that remained was that thing. His magic box. She paused over it with her broom in hand, as if considering whether to just sweep the whole thing out the door, out of their lives. The strange pile of gewgaws and odds and ends that Johnny Dolan had put their immortal souls in danger in order to have.
“It lay in a far corner of the front room now, like some malevolent old dog. She threw over the black cloth that still covered it. Underneath lay the whole collection of shiny odds and ends that had fascinated him so, and that she had not been able to so much as look at since he had gone. The broken sword and the blackamoor’s ear, the miniature engine and the giant’s eye and the pictures of lovers, and a thousand other wonders. All of them once glued and arranged so perfectly within the box—now mostly jumbled together in a heap at the bottom.
“Yet still it shone. Deep down, through the depths of all that junk, still glinted dozens of tiny mirrors. In the yellow morning light, she caught a dusty, broken reflection of her own face. Squinting—peering ignorantly back through all the wonders, looking impossibly old and distorted.
“She threw the cover back down over the box and returned to her sweeping. She wasn’t sure why she had never got rid of it, sold it off long ago to the street sweepers for whatever pennies it would bring. Was it to remind herself of her sin—of all her sins?
“Or was it the last hold Johnny Dolan still had on her? Some lingering hope that if she kept it, the box might appease him even after all they had done to him.
“If he returned. When he returned—
“She thought she would leave it. It might at least slow him down for a few more hours while he brooded, and wondered over it like he always used to. Maybe even make him forget about them altogether.
“Or would it simply be another track for him to follow?
“She had to stop then—crouching down, nearly doubled over in her own front room. To think of him again.
“Of course he would come back Of course he would, after the trick we played him—
He is coming.”
© Copyright HarperCollins 2002