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Visit to the Red Light District, 1843
Richard Henry Dana, Jr, was a member of one of New England's most prominent families. Born in 1815, Dana entered Harvard at age 17. Shortly after, his eyesight began to fail to the point that he could read only with great difficulty. Unable to continue his studies, he joined the crew of a merchant ship and in 1834 set sail from Boston on a voyage around Cape Horn to California. He kept a diary of his two-year experience and from this came the book Two Years Before the Mast published in 1840.

Fortunately, Dana's diminished eyesight was only a temporary condition. He was able to return to Harvard, finish his education and become a lawyer. In 1841 he started a journal that detailed his daily activities. He kept his diary for the next twenty years and through it he provides us with a window on the Victorian lifestyle of America in the mid-nineteenth century.

"... there passed me a man holding up under his arm a woman who was so drunk that she could not walk alone."

Dana's journal entry for Wednesday January 4, 1843 describes a day of socializing in New York City. The evening finds him walking alone down Broadway when he is possessed by an impulse to visit the near-by area known as Five Points - renowned for being what we would today describe as a "Red Light District." As he turns off Broadway, he descends into the underside of urban America in the early Victorian years. His observations allow us to compare the sexual behavior of his time with our own and find little difference:

"Passing down Broadway, the name of Anthony street, struck me, & I had a sudden desire to see that sink of iniquity & filth, the 'Five Points.'

Following Anthony Street down, I came upon the neighborhood. It was about half past ten, & the night was cloudy. The buildings were ruinous for the most part, as well as I could judge, & the streets & sidewalks muddy & ill lighted. Several of [the] houses had wooden shutters well closed & in almost [each] such case I found by stopping & listening, that there were many voices in the rooms & sometimes the sound of music & dancing.

On the opposite side of [the] way I saw a door opened suddenly & a woman thrust into the street with great resistance & most foul language on her part. She seemed to be very drunk & threatened the life of one woman who was in the house, calling upon them to turn her out too, & saying 'I'll watch for you.' Her oaths were dreadful, & her drunken screeches & curses were so loud that they could be heard several squares off. As I passed on I still heard them behind me.

Next there passed me a man holding up under his arm a woman who was so drunk that she could not walk alone & was muttering senseless words to herself. Men & women were passing on each side of the street, sometimes in numbers together, & once or twice a company of half a dozen mere girls ran rapidly, laughed & talking loud, from one house into another. These I gradually found were dancing houses. Grog shops, oyster cellars & close, obscure & suspicious looking places of every description abounded.

The night was not cold, & some women were sitting in the door ways or standing on the sidewalks. From them I received many invitations to walk in & see them, just to sit down a minute, &c., followed usually by laughter & jeers when they saw me pass on without noticing them.

At one door, removed from sight & in an obscure place, where no one seemed in sight, two women were sitting, one apparently old, probably the 'mother' of the house, & the other rather young, as well as I could judge from her voice & face. They invited me to walk in & just say a word to them.

I had a strong inclination to see the interior of such a house as they must live in, & finding that the room was lighted & seeing no men there & no signs of noise or company, I stopped in almost before I knew what I was doing.

The room had but little furniture, a sanded floor, one lamp, & a small bar on which were a few glasses, a decanter & behind the bar were two half barrels. The old woman did not speak, but kept her seat in the door way. The younger one, after letting me look round a moment, asked me in a whisper & a very insinuating air, putting on as winning a smile as she could raise, & with the affectation of a simple childish way, to 'just step into the bed room: it was only the next room.'

Here I had a strong desire to see the whole of the establishment, yet some fear of treachery or fouled play. I had more than $50 in my pocket, a gold watch, gold pencil case, gold double eye glass, & other things of value & being well dressed, I might be looked upon as an object for plunder. I had, too, no weapon; not even a cane. When adventure is uppermost, however, we seldom weigh chances.

The house I perceived was very small & it being comparatively early & people passing in the street I had little fear, & went in. The bed room was very small, being a mere closet, with one bed & one chair in it, the door through which we came & a window. There was no light in it, but it was dimly lighted by a single pane of glass over the door through which the light came from the adjoining room, in which we had been. The bed stead was a wretched truck, & the bed was of straw, judging from the sound it made when the woman sat upon it.

Taking for granted that I wished to use her for the purposes of her calling she asked me how much I would give. I said 'What do you ask?' She hesitated a moment, & then answered hesitatingly, & evidently ready to lower her price if necessary, 'half a dollar?' I was astonished at the mere pittance for which she would sell her wretched, worn out, prostituted body. I can hardly tell the disgust & pity I felt. I told her at once that I had no object but curiosity in coming into the house, yet gave her the money from fear lest, getting nothing, she might make a difficulty or try to have me plundered. She took the money & thanked me, but expressed no surprise at my curiosity or strangeness. Perhaps they are used to having the visits of persons like myself from abroad & who wish to see the insides of such places....

As I retrod the ground very nearly the same scenes presented themselves; & I observed that there were a great many girls of from 8 or 10 to 12 or 14 years of age in the street & going in & out of the houses. The greater part of the women in this course of life are victims of seduction, from other places, & from respectable situations in life, who come or are enticed by cunning to the city; yet it seems there are some who are bred up to vice from out of its midst.

From these dark, filthy, violent & degraded regions, I passed into Broadway, where were lighted carriages with footmen, numerous well dressed passers by, cheerful light coming from behind curtained parlor windows, where were happy, affectionate & virtuous people connected by the ties of blood & friendship & enjoying the charities & honors of life. What mighty differences, what awful separations, wide as that of the great gulf & lasting for eternity, do what seem to be the merest chances place between human beings, of the same flesh & blood."

    Dana, Richard Henry, Robert F. Lucid (ed.), The Journal of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. vol.1 (1968).

How To Cite This Article:
"Visit to the Red Light District, 1843", EyeWitness to History, (2006).