Analysis of Waifs of New York Citys Slums by Jacob Riis
In 1890, Jacob Riis – a journalist and photographer in New York City’s slums – wrote his still famous book, How the Other Half Lives. In this book, he brought the horrible living conditions of NYC’s impoverished to the attention of the reader. At one point in the book, he highlighted the desperate abandonment of thousands of newborns throughout the city, as well as, the steps that were being taken to save the babies.
Riis started this excerpt of his book by clearing up any preconceived notions readers may have had about abandoned children. He stated that the babies who were abandoned were never from well-to-do families. He made it clear that it was those living in poverty, who resorted to abandoning their children (Riis). Riis painted a picture of infants being left on the streets in rags, if lucky, and often times wrapped only in newspaper. He also said that it was rare to find notes along with the babies, though other journalists and writers would write the sob stories of such situations (ibid). Riis obviously cared more about the truth being clearly heard than he did about the profit he could make from creating beautiful stories of abandoned children being found just in time.
The excerpt also described the sequences of events that an abandoned child would go through. For many, as Riis mentioned, the process could contain merely being found, being numbered, going to the morgue, and being laid to rest in a mass-burial plot (ibid). Those found alive would spend a night in the police station before being taken with a single bottle and a random number to Randall’s Island Hospital. The Infant’s Hospital was the last stop for many of these infants, as many would not survive long enough to be taken to an asylum (ibid). Those babies who died in the hospital would either be used as subjects for some medical student, or be buried by the dozen in a place known as Potter’s Field (ibid). As Riis described this scene, the reader can sense a hint of remorse in his words. While he wrote in a factual and intellectual style, one cannot help but feel a pang of regret and moroseness reading what Riis penned.
Riis went on to talk about the Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity and the work the institution did to protect the abandoned infants. He talked about the crib where babies were laid so they could be taken care of by the Sisters inside the asylum (ibid). He described the situation of the mother coming to drop off her newborn and being asked to nurse not only her own baby, but another as well, until both were strong enough to survive (ibid). There is a sense of relief in Riis’ words as he wrote that the death rate was lowered significantly among the babies who were brought to the asylum.