Title: New York Dissected
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: August 23, 1856
Publication information: Life Illustrated 23 August 1856: 133.
Source: Original issue held at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, University Archives and Special Collections. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00274
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Jason Stacy, Elizabeth Lorang, and Ed Folsom
cropped image 1
NEW YORK DISSECTED.
VI.—ADVICE TO STRANGERS.
DEPOT TO STOPPING-PLACE.
Every great city is a sort of countryman-trap. Accordingly there are here in New York various kinds of scamps who do business upon the inexperience of strangers; and accounts are continually appearing in the papers of this or that sojourner robbed, swindled, and perhaps beaten, in consequence of inexperience, usually, however, tinged a little with what looks very much like folly. So it will not be amiss to say a few words of general direction, for the advantage of the readers of LIFE ILLUSTRATED who may visit our metropolis.
The hackmen1 are the monsters who first throng around the hapless visitants and seek to devour them, terrifying them with hideous whoops and yells, or confusing and vexing them with incessant solicitations; and then after depositing them at destinations proper or improper, demanding excessive fares, which they are prepared to collect, if necessary, by force.
Make a definite bargain with your hackman before accepting his services, and then stick to it. It is often better, if you are to visit a city friend, to proceed to his abode by foot or by omnibus, and leave him to have the baggage sent up; but proud people, and feeble people, who must ride, may observe our rule.
In order to the making of a proper bargain, a word on hack-fares. The city ordinances expressly provide that full explanations shall be posted in plain sight within every hack, and that the driver shall also present them, printed on a card, on demand; but the first of these provisions is systematically violated, and, we believe, the second likewise. The correct prices are as follows: For one person, not over a mile, fifty cents (four shillings York); for two, seventy-five cents (six shillings); and thirty-seven and a half cents (three shillings) for each additional passenger. For one person, more than one and not over two miles, seventy-five cents; half that for each additional one. One trunk, valise, or other article of baggage is to be carried free, to each passenger; six cents each piece may be charged for more. For further distances, fifty cents per mile may be charged for one passenger, and "three shillings" for each additional one.2
For estimating these distances, we can do no better than to say that it is a mile from the Battery to Leonard Street; and by the hack routes, about the same from the principal steamboat landings—Peck Slip and Piers No. 4, and thereabouts, North River; about three quarters of a mile to the Hudson River Railroad station at Chambers Street, corner College Place; a mile and a quarter to the New Haven Railroad depot on Canal Street; two miles to Fourth Street; two and a quarter to Fourteenth Street (where Union Park meets Broadway); three miles to Twenty-fourth Street; and four to Forty-fourth. These items will furnish rough data for estimating very many distances; but they will be much more available if examined in a city map, which can be had for twenty-five cents, which should be owned and used by each visitor, and on which all distances can be discovered at leisure, before employing a driver.
The experienced will often save the extortion and abuse of hackmen by using "stages," as the city people always call an omnibus; but this requires knowledge of too many details to be given here.
The hotels are usually safe, whether those are patronized which charge by the day for all accommodation together, or the "European plan"—houses where you hire a room, even for so little as a quarter per day, if you like, and eat when and where you choose—although we have very lately learned of one or two instances of gross impositions attempted even upon ladies left alone for one night, at a leading hotel. But in general the regular bill only is presented. On the "American" plan, from two and a half dollars a day down to one and half; on the "European," from two dollars a day to two shillings, for room, and your meals at what you choose—nothing, if you carry crackers and munch them. Whichever species of home you select, the safest way for strangers is to disregard solicitations, and to go straight to a well-known and first-class house. At such a one, prices are high, to be sure, but also the reputation and standing of the establishment furnish a sufficient guarantee against the outrageous impositions, and even worse crimes, sometimes perpetrated at low, obscure, and liquor-selling houses.
BUSINESS, MONEY, TICKETS.
Deposit your money in a bank; with a trusty business acquaintance; in the safe of the hotel, through the clerk, retaining only your pocket-money. It is neither safe to leave it in your room, nor to carry it about your person.
If your errand is in the city, you will probably find no great difficulty in learning your way. If you are passing through, and have to secure a passage to a further destination, purchase tickets only at the regular established office; discover that office by the direction of reliable persons in the city; and utterly disregard and refuse all inquiries and solicitations from runners and pretended agents who may attack you at the station, in the street, or at your hotel. Inquire at the office, of the hotel clerk, telling him what you want, and that you will pay him for his trouble; go to some business man that you know; to the office of the city paper that you read, as before, paying the clerk that assists you for his trouble. New York men in such places will almost always help you cheerfully for a reasonable remuneration; overwhelmed with business as they are, you can not expect them to give you time and thought without it
If you think of nothing better, come to office of this paper, 308 Broadway, and ask there for whatever directions and information you require; it will gladly be given, and given for nothing; we find that "it pays" to do such things, without the separate fee for every accommodation.
RAMBLES IN THE STREETS.
Fools who seek to indulge in filthy and wicked gratifications like gambling and licentiousness, under cover of presumed obscurity in the great city, are continually robbed and beaten, and moreover are also named in the police report next morning. We waste no advice on such; their losses, maimings, disgrace, mortification, and the loathsome diseases which they are very likely to catch, are the only lessons that will teach them, if any lesson will.
But there is a large class of more innocent people—sober and well-meaning men—among whom are not frequently found D.D.'s, and other gentlemen of property and standing, whose economical or acquisitive instincts betray them into the hands of our city Philistines, where they suffer only in purse and in feelings. The chief traps for these good folks are the mock auction shops, or "Peter Funk" establishments.3
We can hardly advise as to prices of commodities in general, except so far as to urge all customers to look sharply and penuriously out for the dirty city swindle of the odd half and quarter cent, and to remember that Broadway prices for dry goods, etc., are probably six to ten per cent. higher than elsewhere for the same qualities.
But stranger! where you see a red flag hung out (usually in Broadway, somewhere between the Park and Wall Street, or along in Chatham Street) over a little shop, close to the sidewalk, GO BY WITHOUT STOPPING. If you stop, and if your eyes are open and eye-teeth cut, you may see what we have often seen—how the villain auctioneer and his shabby crew of mock customers stir and bustle up at the sight of you; Funk picks up a watch from the counter before him, and monotonously vociferating pretended bids in a hideous screeching or rasping cross-cut-saw-like voice, hands it about; the attendants look mechanically at it, hand it round, whisper, until they see that you are not a customer, and with sundry curses they relapse into silence until the passing of the next fancied victim. If you are such a dreadful fool as to bid, you are swindled as sure as sunrise. Better pass by and mind your own business.
Don't go wandering about the streets or parks unnecessarily in the evening. The degrading confession and warning is necessary, that New York is one of the most crime-haunted and dangerous cities in Christendom. There are hundreds—thousands—of infernal rascals among our floating population; street boys, grown up into rowdies and the brutal scum of vile city ignorance and filth; shoulder-hitters and thieves, expelled, some of them, from distant San Francisco, vomited back among us to practice their criminal occupations, who will sneak up behind you, or pretend drunkenness and run against you, or inquire the way, or the hour, and snatch your watch, or take you unawares, like Brooks,4 knock you on the head, and rob you before you can even cry out. If you have evening errands, go circumspectly through respectable streets. If you are lost, ask a direction at a respectable store, or from the blue-coated and starred policeman, whom you will probably discern every square or two.
Warnings against decoy houses5 would not avail with the dirty-minded people whom only they can concern.
The old tricks of "watch-stuffing," pocket-book-dropping, and "patent-safe" swindling are just now a little out of use.6 However, it is only the other day that a friend of our own was accosted by a shabby-looking chap, who asked him to step up an alley for a moment.
"Come here a moment, will yer? I've found suthin."
"What is it?" said the gentleman, following fearlessly but cautiously.
"We've just picked up this pocket-book"—he held out a well-filled wallet, which he received from a companion who had been awaiting him — "and it's full of money. We can't keep it, for 'taint ours, and we're poor men; now, p'rhaps you'd hand us over a little for finding it, and you find the owner and settle with him for what you pay us."
Our friend looked the speaker steadily in the eye, with a half smile, saying nothing. In a moment the confederate remarked, "Youv'e waked up the wrong passenger, Jim;" come, let's be off," and they sneaked out of sight. It was perhaps an even chance that they would have attempted a robbery.
Don't be in haste to make city street acquaintances. Any affable stranger who makes friendly offers is very likely to attempt to swindle you as soon as he can get into your confidence. Mind your own business, as we said before, and let other people mind theirs.
One more little item. If you want a newspaper at the station, either going or coming, buy it outside the depot. The paper that costs three cents inside, costs two outside. Not that you are supposed to grudge a cent; but it is irritating to be swindled even out of a cent; and there is no use in helping to train newsboys into jail-birds, by letting them cheat by the pennyworth. The regular price for the daily papers they carry is two cents, except the Sun, which is a small one, one cent.
With these hints you may come, stay, and depart, whole in body, mind, and estate. That is, probably you may; for until, as the proverb hath it, "all the fools are dead," it is certain that greenhorns will be deluded in New York. But it is not to be supposed that any reader of LIFE ILLUSTRATED can have failed to become, especially after perusing this article by way of "eye-opener," altogether armed against these devices of the unprincipled.
1. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "hackman" refers to the driver of a hackney-carriage; in other words, a cab driver. [back]
2. While the U.S. moved to decimal-based money in 1787, businesses and many private citizens continued to figure value based on British shillings for much of the nineteenth century (a shilling was 12.5 cents). [back]
3. "Peter Funk" was a popular term for a decoy purchaser who falsely bid up prices on a product in partnership with the proprietor. The term was first used in The Perils of Pearl Street (1834) by Asa Green. See Louise Pound, "'Peter Funk': The Pedigree of a Westernism," American Speech 4.3 (February 1929), 183–186. [back]
4. Preston Brooks (1819–1857), a Congressman from South Carolina, physically assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the U.S. Senate on May 22, 1856, in retaliation for Sumner's anti-slavery speech "The Crime Against Kansas," in which Sumner accused Brooks's kinsman, Senator Andrew Butler, of having an affair with the "harlot" Slavery. [back]
5. Decoy houses, also known as "touch houses," were "brothels where disguised partitions allowed secreted criminals to rummage through the client's clothes while he slept" (Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, Graham White, Playing the Numbers [Harvard University Press, 2010], 47). [back]
6. These are various forms of sophisticated con games and swindles used in New York at the time; see, for example, "New-Jersey; Patent Safe Swindle" (New York Times, April 2, 1855) or "The Patent Safe Swindle" (New York Times, May 24, 1855) for articles describing cases of the swindle just a year before Whitman wrote this piece. [back]