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I spend many of my lunch hours reading the papers. In 1880. or thereabouts. Don’t you?

I’ve been seeing if I can find references to my great-grandfather who was a NYC Policeman from 1885 to 1913, as well try to find connections to other Tierneys in the area since we are not sure if he had any family over here as well.

As I systematically search for “Tierney” in the NY Times year by year, I find I end up learning more about New York City history than my family, but that’s almost as good to me.

Yesterday I found an article in the June 15, 1880 edition of the Times entitled Life in Baxter-Street – A Census Enumerator in an Unsavory Neighborhood.

cene at 5 Points.  [New York City Views. Five Points] ([ca. 1875])

Courtesy of the Digital Gallery

I use my library’s online access to Proquest to view the Historical (and often hysterical) NY Times, but this particular article happens to have free access as well.


The story follows census enumerator James B. Tierney (no relation I know of) as he works his way through Baxter Street in the Five Points section – with Police Roundsman Sparboro assigned to him, apparently as protection in these seedy tenements.

In between rather disdainful descriptions of “the Italians” – made even more obvious by the author’s description of Officer Sparboro as “an exceptionally intelligent” one – the article provides both a terrific depiction of life in the tenements at the time and of some of the high-wire work of an enumerator as he climbed from building to building via the rooftops.

“The first attack was made upon about the most ill-shaped, filthy, and noisome buildings in the City of New-York. There are four of these structures, put together, probably at the same time, and in the cheapest manner possible. They are five stories in height, with Summer gardens at the top. The rooms are so small and so many, and in such queer places, that it would require more than one ordinary census enumerator to keep the run of them.”

It goes on to provide counts of the great number of immigrants crammed into each crevice of these buildings, the lack of furniture and intense odors – both with horror and attempted humor it seems.

My favorite description in the article:

“Also in the rear of this mission-house, which is having, according to the meagre information furnished, an up-hill time of it, a colored boarding house, under the management of John Hargust, whose mother was of the Delaware tribe of Indians, and whose father was a Spaniard. With him lives an insane Indian.”

I strongly suggest you read the entire article if you are interested in genealogy and NY history and immigration in the 19th century. A follow up to the tough job of enumerators at the time can also be found in the short article entitled Dissatisfied Census Enumerators in the August 31, 1880 edition of the paper.

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