In “A Minotaur in Bellevue,” Jacob Riis, who documented the poverty of New York City slums at the end of the nineteenth century, has persuaded suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to rescue a young woman, dying in a tenement basement. The novel’s narrator— secretary / stenographer to the famous pair of activists (and, previously, to Henry James)—Ellen Finch recalls their foray into the infamous Tenderloin. The narration is distorted by her puerperal mania, or childbed fever, a delusional state caused by a postpartum infection, not uncommon at that time when disease was thought to be bred by miasma and not by germs.
Toward the end of October, we were visited by Jacob Riis, a police reporter for the New-York Tribune. In a rented room on Mulberry Bend, called “Death’s Thoroughfare,” he wrote about the slums, especially those of the Lower East Side, and photographed the poor who scrabbled in the noisome tenements. His grim pictures—not easy to look at—were pricking the conscience of those who had one and inciting reformists to demand the enactment of laws against exploitation by landlords and sweatshops.
When we four had seated ourselves and made polite inquiries into one another’s health—even revolutionaries will observe the rudimentary social conventions—Riis explained the reason for his visit.
“I do not involve myself with the subjects of my photographs,” he said without apology, his English muddied by the Danish he had grown up speaking before emigrating to America. “It is for people who see my photographs to involve themselves. I take a picture, like a burglar breaking into a house; I have time to steal only one, and then I must quickly leave. If I asked for permission, the tenants would be suspicious and not let me inside. If they did, they might turn their faces away in shame or put on false ones, which would not tell the truth about themselves. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth, and Susan concurred. His question had not been addressed to me, so I thought it best to say nothing.
“Good!” said Riis. “I knew you would.”
He opened a worn leather case and took out a print he’d recently made from a dry-plate negative of a girl lying in a stairwell. The way she had folded her arms and legs to make herself compact reminded me of Miss Etta, only the girl was dirty and miserable.
“She’s no more than fifteen or sixteen,” said Riis. “She is skin on bone, sick; her eyes are sunken. I took the picture and hurried away, as if I’d stumbled on a corpse. Something must be done! I told myself. But what? Would the Female Almshouse on Blackwell’s Island be better than her filthy place under the stairs?” He opened and closed his hands helplessly. “I wonder. Good ladies, what’s to be done?”
The photograph had spoken in tongues of fire, inflaming the suffragists.
“In the morning, we will see what can be done!” vowed Elizabeth and Susan, as if they were Grant and Sherman preparing to take Vicksburg. “Mr. Riis, will you show us the way?”
They arranged to meet at ten o’clock at the corner of Mulberry and Baxter streets, near Ragpickers’ Row. In back alleys, stable lanes, and byways—familiar to rent collectors, if not to health inspectors—men, women, and children hunted for anything that could be eaten, burned, sold, or pawned. Inside ramshackle, foul, lice-infested cavities, the poor (in possessions as well as in spirit) sat waiting, sullen and oppressed, surrounded by the “amenities” the city’s ash heaps and refuse barrels afforded them. For what were they waiting? Eviction, the asylum, death, potter’s field. Perhaps a few Christian hearts still waited for Jesus to roll away the stones from their tombs.
I recall reading in the Herald from a speech given by Clarence Harrington, whose opinion of the city’s multitude of indigents was uncharitable, though not exclusively his own.
The poor are our common enemy. They must be dealt with harshly before their desperation turns into enmity; in other words, we must defeat them and drive them out before their self-hatred can be turned against us. Henry George, the communist, speaks of “wage-slavery” and the “tyranny of non-producers over producers.” He accuses us of a “crime against the poor,” and he would have you empty your pockets in redress. He and the Mugwumps would have you tithe, like the papists, a tenth of what you earn by your labor and industriousness. And should a tenth not be enough, because the poor are many and you are few by comparison, then give them twenty, thirty, fifty per cent—give all that you have until you and your family are the poor!
The tenement house where Riis had photographed the girl stood—or rather, slumped—at number 79 Baxter. The girl was lying under the stairs on torn newspaper. I’ve seen dogs do as much in preparation for their newborn. The sight and smell were too much even for the suffragists, who blinked, pinched their nostrils, and stepped backward into the comparative spaciousness of the cellar, whose earthen floor was crowded with crates, battered and mildewed furniture, and old tools too rusted from neglect to be of use. The New Jerusalem would never be built here.
Inured to the stink by his frequent visits to the city’s rankest slums, Riis bent over the girl and felt her forehead. “She is burning with fever.” She was muttering—call it “gibbering,” since the effect it had on me was terrifying—the same words over and over: “I lost my baby. I lost my baby. I lost my baby.”
We heard footsteps on the stairs. Raising our eyes from the wounded animal—forgive the word, but in her helplessness, she seemed like one—we watched an old woman descend, carrying a plate of soup and a cup of water.
“Two days she’s been like this,” said the woman, whose dress looked as if it had been fished from a barrel with a stick. “She won’t eat or drink, poor thing.”
With few to pity them and still fewer to help, the poor pitied one another. I hope there’s a heaven and a big gate to slam in Clarence Harrington’s face.
“She says she lost her baby.”
“I don’t know about that,” said the woman, whose face was as crazed as the china cup she had set down next to the girl, together with the bowl of soup, which looked revolting. “She was here when I came down to look for something to burn in the stove.”
“You never saw her before?”
“The woman shook her head. “There be plenty that look like her, though.”
“But not so many who would look after her.” Riis’s remark was meant in praise of the old woman, whose eyes registered nothing except weariness—and maybe a little wariness, since she could not make out what these fine people were doing in the cellar.
“The well-to-do want the poor to be well behaved and deserving of their charity,” said Elizabeth, who could mint epigrams in the most direful situations. “This girl would have been neither.”
“Maybe not,” said Riis.
“Which is her right!” Defiance was never far from Susan’s reach. “We’re not here by the sufferance of the rich!”
I thought the girl was likely to die before the argument was finished, and said so.
“We must get her to the hospital!” declared Elizabeth capably.
“I’ll get my old man,” said the woman.
Her husband looked frail. But the girl weighed almost nothing, and he and Riis carried her outside and put her into a coach for hire. Susan opened her purse and handed the old man a two-dollar bill. He hesitated. I guessed that he felt a remnant of shame, but his wife’s had died an unnatural death, and she snatched the bill and gripped it in her fist.
When we were seated inside the coach, Elizabeth called to the driver up on his box, “To Bellevue, and don’t spare the horses!”
He touched his whip to the horse’s rump, and the coach jumped forward; its wheels sent up a cloud of grit. The girl’s head lolled on her breast as we bounced over cobbles. She was the incorporation of the misery of a million people jammed into 37,000 tenement houses—a scale of pauperism too vast to help or even comprehend. Forty thousand bodies filled the city’s asylums and workhouses; half a million beggars and ten thousand tramps passed among us, eliciting disgust, if they were noticed at all. More bodies—call them that, since they appeared to be more dead than alive—crowded the Lower East Side than Bombay. But our attention was centered on this girl, gratefully. To have only a single life on one’s conscience is a convenience in the same way that one pesky fly is easier to swat than a swarm, one itch less irksome than a rash.
Located in Kip’s Bay, on First Avenue, near the East River, Bellevue Hospital had been an almshouse and, along with the penitentiary and pesthouse on Blackwell’s Island, had served Gotham’s poor by making the sick well or, from its morgue, by sending them to the potter’s field on Hart Island, in Pelham Bay. Whether they went thence to glory or perdition was a matter for theologians. The girl, whose name we could not discover, was attended by Dr. Jasper Garmany, a surgeon whose competence extended even to the brain, which he would trephine with a drill resembling a carpenter’s. He was a decent sort, and I suppose skillful at his trade, if daunted by the number of patients and the seeming futility of his work; no sooner had he treated one of them than three others took his or her place. The poor are often sick and not always articulate; like drunkards, the insane, the febrile, or those stricken by religious mania, they often speak in an alien tongue. The girl continued to bemoan the loss of her baby, whose whereabouts never would be known. (Sentimentalists may like to imagine that the infant was rescued from the alley where it had been rudely loosed into the world and, in time, would become the scion of a Fifth Avenue millionaire.)
We stayed with her in a whitewashed room while she alternately thrashed and went limp in the bed, which seemed, in contrast to her small, gaunt body, enormous. There was nothing we could do, and as it turned out, nothing Dr. Garmany could do, either. She died before he could allay her fever, reverse the course of sepsis, undo the effects of hunger and poverty, relieve the pressure of blood blooming inside her skull, or stitch up her broken heart. Despair, too, could have been sufficient cause of death, a canker not even the finest surgeon in the land can lance.
“I’m sorry,” he said as a nurse drew the bedsheet over the girl’s head. I was glad he hadn’t shrugged, a gesture often revealing an unsympathetic character, or a demoralized one.
Elizabeth was upset by the death of the girl, who shortly would be buried as Jane Doe, wife of John Doe—names bestowed upon the nameless since the time of King John of England. I supposed that my suffragists were disappointed not to have had the chance to parade the girl—in her misery and degradation—before lecture audiences. In those days, I was often cynical.
“Will you be claiming the body?” asked the surgeon.
Putting their heads together, Elizabeth and Susan conferred in hushed voices. When Riis discreetly left the room, I followed, hoping that they would not make a tour of the lyceums with the dead girl. I shuddered at the thought of her sitting in a stifling Chautauqua tent in the dog days of summer, her spoiled condition a reproach to faithless men and hardened hearts.
I walked down a corridor until I came to a room in which the more docile of Bellevue’s lunatics were permitted to sit and take the sun streaming democratically through barred windows. I smiled at a young man, who responded with a look so serene, it could only be called “beatific.”
“Good morning, madam,” he said, and added anxiously, “It is, is it not?”
“It is a good morning, sir,” I replied cheerfully. “I hope it finds you well.”
“It does not find me at all,” he replied, touching a finger to his nose. “I am too cunning for it.”
“I see,” I said, preparing to be amused.
“What do you see?” he asked, nervously looking around him.
“I see you,” I said.
My answer appeared to reassure him. “Ah! I’m glad. They do not allow glasses, you know.”
“Looking glasses. Without one, I can’t be sure that the person who is here is I and not an impostor. ‘Seeing is believing,’ as Thomas Aquinas said—and quite right, too. Unless it was Mr. Krueger who said it. Mr. Krueger gives me my baths. They’re therapeutic, you know; they open the pores. I would suffocate otherwise.”
I could not help laughing; he was so droll.
“I would like to see you this evening, if it can be arranged,” he said, like a philanderer in one of Douglas Jerrold’s melodramas.
“I’m sorry. I have a previous engagement.” He seemed such a boy; I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
“Would it be difficult to break it?” He gave me a knowing glance.
“I’m afraid that would be quite impossible!” I felt like an actress uncertain of her lines.
“So much is impossible for humankind, when every day a spider climbs the Himalayas.”
I had been about to leave, but the cleverness of his remark stayed me. He was a charming and plausible young man.
“I want to draw you in the nude,” he said, and this time there was a sinister quality in his tone. He continued airily. “I am an artist, you know, or I would be if they’d give me back my pencil.” Again, he touched a finger to his nose and whispered, “The blind man has it and will not give it back.”
I felt—well, you can imagine!
“Your breasts are said to be very fine, and I have heard that the dank place between your legs is magnificent! I once painted a woman who had a tiny crèche there. An angel showed me it. I was astonished. Who wouldn’t be? Because I’m devout, I bowed down and worshipped it. I sent the painting to the Vatican, in care of Pope Leo the Thirteenth, to be hung in the College of Cardinals. I’m still waiting for His Holiness to acknowledge the gift.”
He covered his face with the palm of his hand like a saint in contemplation. “Peekaboo, I see you!” he said gleefully, his eyes peeping through his fingers. “God the Father has lain with you, you naughty girl!”
I hurried from the room. I heard his footsteps behind me, but I dared not turn around. The perspiration stood out on my forehead, my heart beat fast, and I felt my chest and throat tighten. I considered calling for help, but the hallways were empty, the doors to the patients’ rooms shut. In my accumulating fear, I ran from one empty ward to another. In the amphitheaters, surgeons dressed in bloody aprons were sawing arms and legs and tossing them into buckets. I rushed up a stairway, only to find myself in the basement morgue, where row after row of shrouded corpses lay in eerie silence until, one by one, they shouted “Peekaboo!” from underneath their sheets. I screamed, but no one came to my aid.
I wandered like a child in a garden maze, too small to peer over the hedge tops. Endless corridors were spawned by rooms that multiplied on either side. Behind closed doors, moans, gibbers, and guffaws made my blood run cold. I ran down a flight of stairs that led, perversely, to the roof, where chimney pots, each a miniature Krakatoa, were spewing ash. The East River had turned to blood. I would not have been surprised to see Aaron stirring the water with his stick while Moses snickered. I felt like the poor Minotaur lost in the Labyrinth, waiting for Theseus to come and slay it. I roamed the balconies on which inmates would gather to watch Barnum and his circus perform, as they sometimes did to prove the impresario’s munificence. The balconies could have been on the moon, so very desolate they seemed. Exhausted, I went inside the sprawl of brick and iron and lay down on an empty bed. I shut my eyes and, after a time, opened them.
“Why, Mr. James!”
Henry James was standing by my bed, one hand on its rail, the other clasping a bunch of primroses wrapped in sheets of The New York Evening Telegram. His overcoat exaggerated the stoutness to which he is prone. Having remembered his hat, he took it off and looked about for a place to hang it. Finding not so much as a peg, he put it down—with an odd tenderness—on the room’s only chair.
“Mr. James, you startled me!” Although I had been employed as his stenographer and typist, I would no more have called him Henry than I would have presumed to criticize his prose, which I thought tedious, or to kiss the novelist’s face, which, with its wide mouth, thin lips, and goggling eyes, reminded me of a frog’s.
“My apologies, Mrs. Finch. I’ve been meaning to visit you ever since your confinement, but the work, you understand, was in a critical phase. I hope you are recovering.”
“I’m not ill.”
“I was given to understand your wits were turned.” Had a look of disappointment briefly clouded his face and glazed his eyes? “I made inquiries at Mrs. Lang’s and was informed that you are being treated for hysteria.”
“I assure you I am not!” I replied indignantly.
“At present, you are residing in the Bellevue lunatic ward.”
“I’m merely resting. Today has been quite exhausting.”
“Be that as it may, I have missed you, Mrs. Finch – your skill and complaisance.”
My face registered surprise, a reaction that prompted him to explain himself.
“Mrs. Lang sent me a ‘Miss Maisie,’ and she has proved a dullard. She does not grasp what I am saying – or rather, how it is that I am saying it. It’s not necessary that she understands me, only that she takes down my dictation accurately. It’s a nuisance, and she fusses overmuch about her working conditions. I had to have the Carlton desk relocated because of the glare of the late afternoon sun on her machine, and I’ve had the devil of a time about the chair. The chair, she claims, is unsuitable for a person operating a typewriter. You, Mrs. Finch, made no such demands. Moreover, you could always be depended on to keep your head above the ‘stream of consciousness,’ as my brother calls my narrative method, while this Maisie person drowns in it. She is unsatisfactory, and, I suspect, a socialist. I am hoping you will return to Washington Square forthwith, so I can sack her, sans reference.”
He had reached the end of his preamble, for so I felt it to be, having sensed his reluctance to pick up his hat and leave me in peace. With the primroses still in the clutch of his meaty hand, he made a noise in his throat, reminiscent of the rumbling of the Numidian lion I had seen at the menagerie in the Central Park or, to be less fanciful, in the pipe conveying steam to the radiators in Rothschild’s millinery store.
“Is there something else, Mr. James?” I asked when I could no longer bear the sight of his discomfiture. He signed piteously. “Why don’t you sit?”
As before, he surveyed the room, dismayed by its austere furnishings, which consisted of the bed, a table on which sat a water pitcher and a glass, a chair used by consulting physicians and presently occupied by his top hat, and a walnut cabinet, whose contents were known by the medical staff, though not by me. He was still clutching the bouquet.
“Why not put them there?” I suggested, indicating the glass pitcher on the table.
“But, madam, your thirst. It may become intolerable.”
“If it does, I shall drink champagne!” I said gaily.
He regarded his hat, a lovely fawn derby.
“Perhaps it would be safely out of the way underneath the bed,” I suggested.
He took the hat in his hands, sat on the chair, and bent forward to stow the hat beneath the bed. Having glimpsed the bedpan there, he recoiled and decided to sit with his hat on his lap.
I had found the little farce wonderfully entertaining and smiled at him, grateful to have my mind distracted from the confusion of the morning and the mounting sense of panic that had ensued. “Now tell me, Mr. James. Whatever is the matter?”
“I had hoped to find out whether Galen or Kos was right concerning––” He buttoned up abruptly.
“Concerning what?” I asked with a gracious wave of my hand, as a queen would use to bid her subject to continue without fear of the executioner’s ax.
“Your womb . . .” He had gone quite red in the face.
“I beg your pardon!” he stammered, his old impediment reasserting itself.
“You were inquiring after my womb,” I repeated pleasantly. We might have been talking about my tonsils.
“Forgive an author his curiosity, but I would have liked to know whether it wanders, as Hippocrates of Kos maintained, or is the stationary organ Galen declared it to be.”
“I’ve no idea, Mr. James.” I was determined to be agreeable.
“Aretaeus conceived of the womb as an organ of the body closely resembling an animal, for it is moved of itself hither and thither in the flanks and, in a word, is altogether erratic. Many physicians still believe this to be the case.”
I stared at him as one would at a talking ape. By this time, I may have even gaped, an undignified rearrangement of the human features alien to polite society.
“In that you are sane––I trust that you are?” he asked, his tone conveying the wish that I were not.
I bristled. “Perfectly!”
He went on in that pedantic way of his, which at the best of times irritated me. At that moment, the time was of the worst. “Hysteria, whose Latin meaning is ‘belly,’ is believed to be caused by a wandering womb.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you, since I am not hysterical.”
“Ah!” He was crestfallen. “Hysteria would make a wonderful subject for a horror tale, don’t you think? I would have called it The Turn of the Screw had you been able to furnish a firsthand account of the various sensations experienced during your madness.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
“No matter. But if you should ever feel that wandering sensation in your belly—I beg your pardon—please take note of it.”
He gathered up his hat and coat and left. I shut my eyes, the better to be alone with my thoughts. After a while, which could have been ten minutes or two hours, I opened them. For a moment, I feared that I had imagined Mr. James’s visit; novelists in the flesh were hard enough to manage. Then I detected the ghost of cigar smoke that his clothes habitually gave up, and on the table beside me were the yellow primroses. He was not a figment, I thought, much relieved.
I left the room, only to find darkness, particulate and writhing, in the corridor. I felt my way like a blind woman through twisting passages that, in their form, resembled tripe, until I found an unlocked door. I staggered onto First Avenue and blinked in the blessed light of day. The pavement heaved and then fell flat like a blanket shaken to rid it of leftover dreams.
I was distraught, as anyone would be after having escaped a nightmare of uncommon terror. So vivid had it been, I could not believe, at first, that I was not still caught in its toils, no matter how furiously I shook my head to clear it of the remnant fear. Not even in Edgar Poe’s horrors had I read anything to equal what I’d experienced at Bellevue. I walked the hospital’s frontage and the riverside esplanade, but Riis and the two suffragists were nowhere to be seen. Passersby kept their distance. When I saw myself reflected in a store window, I understood their caution. My hat was gone, my hair undone, my shirtwaist ripped, and my skirt bedraggled. I could easily have been mistaken for a heroine in a sensational novel or an escaped lunatic clutching a yellow primrose in her hand.
I walked down Avenue A to Tompkins Square, where the draft riots of 1863 had started. Weary to the bone, I chose a bench shaded by poplar trees and made myself presentable. Thirsty, I drank from the fountain beside a horse trough. Beside me, a horse noisily sucked up water. I turned in time to see a splendid woman giving her arm to a gentleman, the snowy egret feather of her hat dazzling in the noonday sun. Somewhat revived, I took a ’bus to the Brooklyn Bridge, which had opened five months earlier. I felt a sudden need to visit the house of my childhood across the river on Vinegar Hill.
The Memorial Day panic on the roadway of the bridge, a week after its inauguration, was fresh in the minds of citizens on both sides of the East River. That October afternoon, I crossed it for the first time. I was too preoccupied by the strange occurrences at Bellevue to worry about the integrity of Roebling’s colossus, which, at the outset of his thirteen-year Herculean labor, had been called his “folly.”
The smell of New York Bay, arriving on a northerly breeze, recalled the People’s Day, when Franklin and I had stood on a rooftop in Printing House Square. We were in mourning for the death of his brother, Martin, who had “met an untimely end,” as scribblers for the two-penny papers like to say. We’d gone up on the roof in the hope of giving grief the slip—at least for the afternoon. We watched President Arthur, Governor Cleveland, and their frock-coated entourage step from the Fifth Avenue Hotel, across the street from Madison Square, into a blaze of bunting, banners, shiny commemorative medals, and madly waving flags. On Broadway, down which the illustrious would ride to the bridge’s Chatham Street entrance, Old Glory hung at every window. The citizens of Manhattan and Brooklyn were choked to maudlin tears with a patriotic sentiment not felt to this degree since the opening of the Erie Canal. Not even Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House had ignited civic enthusiasm to equal the bridge’s grand inaugural day.
Nearby our aerie, a mob of “sporting men” soused to the gills were pouring champagne down their throats from hundreds of bottles, breaking chairs for firewood, and roasting an ox on the roof of the Police Gazette Building. From midtown to the Battery, Manhattan was overrun by fifty thousand gawkers who had arrived by steamers and milk trains. Rural swains in old-fashioned cutaways and green ties, assorted rubes, hayseeds, and country bumpkins were buying five-cent souvenirs and scratching their chins in wonder. The streets surrounding Chatham Square—Bowery, East Broadway, St. James Place, Oliver, Mott, and Worth—were packed past all hope of unpacking till the next day. Franklin and I were stunned by the shrill uproar of steam whistles, calliopes, and regimental bands and by the clamor of a multitude thick as the masts of ships crowding the river from Red Hook to the Navy Yard. At midnight, Thomas Edison threw a switch at the Pearl Street generating station, and the great bridge blazed forth—a new constellation heralding the “American Century” to come and our inexorable destiny. Fourteen tons of rockets hissed and wheezed in a bombardment sufficient to crack the walls of a citadel. We stuffed our fingers in our ears and shouted “Hooray” like children. Martin was absent from our thoughts—no memory could survive the din—and afterward, we were ashamed.
Note: “A Minotaur in Bellevue” is a chapter taken from American Follies, the seventh book of Norman Lock’s The American Novels series, published by Bellevue Literary Press. Release date: July 7, 2020.