submitted by Steve Frangos on 12.10.2006
Steve Frangos, c. 2006
Contact, Steve Frangos
From the late 1880s onward Greek peddlers quite literally fought to earn their daily bread. For those who scoff at such a claim we need only turn to the daily press of New York City. I think it is extremely important to stress that the accounts I have gathered here are just a selection of the nearly 100 news reports gleamed from the New York Times and the Brooklyn Eagle newspapers from roughly the 1880s into the 1900s.
Attacks against Greek immigrant peddlers took many forms.
Just as the first Greek immigrants disembarked in the 1800s the explosive growth of the new industrialization in America created a host of totally unique social problems. In 1890 the total population of New York City was 1,513,501, with those under five years of age numbering 182,770. Again, in 1890, in Manhattan alone, there were 1,440,101 individuals. In 1889, 349, 233 immigrants landed at Garden Castle on Ellis Island. Housing for all these people became an immediate problem. Existing buildings began to be subdivided and over crowding was a problem that lasted for decades.
Coincidently, in 1890, Jacob August Riis (1849-1914), the Danish-American social reformer released a classic investigative study of New York City, “How the Other Half Lives.” The lives, work, and economic earnings of the average worker (inclusive of the new immigrants and their unique problems) were carefully presented in Riis’ groundbreaking volume. As part of the evidence Riis offered were photographs of individuals and locations all across New York City. Greek peddlers are briefly mentioned in the chapter entitled, “The Mixed Crowd,” as being “down near the Battery, the Westside.” In that same chapter is one of the earliest photographs of Greeks in the United States. The photograph entitled, “Greek Children in Gotham Court” shows two small children certainly less than ten years of age as well as an adult and a youth. Riis was careful to point out the Greek boy’s torn-apart shoes.
The Greek peddlers were not alone on New York City’s streets. Aside from the street sellers were buyers, performers, artisans, laborers, pedestrians and crowds of children. It is this last group that had an unexpected impact upon the newly arrived Greek peddlers. In 1853 there were 10,000 homeless children in New York City. Abandoned children who lived on the streets were seen all over New York City well into the 1900s and were soon given the name of street arab. How these children interacted with the general population and the Greeks is critical to our appraisal of this era.
Attacking the Peddlers
Greek immigrant street vendors commonly worked twelve hour days. Walking the streets along New York City’s five boroughs these men, whose English language skills were most often very limited, faced and interacted with American born and foreign born pedestrians, police, newsboys, messenger boys, and local neighborhood people. It is quite telling that the street arabs played so significant a role in the harassment of the Greek vendors.
As one published newspaper report after another documents neither the police nor the general native-born American stopped or punished young boys from stealing or attacking Greek peddlers. Before we offer newspaper accounts to document this claim we must first point out a transformation in American notions concerning punishment. The decades bridging the 1880s to late 1900s was a period when children not yet in their teenage years worked in the mills, factories, railroads, and mines right along with adult men and women. Let us not forget that the very Greek immigrants we are speaking about here were themselves often between the ages of 7 and 14 during this early period of immigration. During this era slapping or striking children as a means of discipline was common. This was definitely not an era when a child was given a “timeout” to sit alone and do nothing.
It was July 19, 1896, when “[A] number of mischievous boys followed George Farsesia, a Greek peddler, twenty-five years old, of 38 Hamilton Street, last night as he was on his way home. They were throwing dirt and stones at the Greek. When in front of 70 Catherine Street, Farsesia became wild with rage, and, picking up a stone weighing about two pounds, threw it at them with all his strength. Not a boy was hurt, but Irene McLaughlin, six years old, who was playing in a sand heap across the street, was struck by the stone on her forehead over the right eye. She fell unconscious (New York Times).”
Fortunately, “Little Irene McLoughlin, who while at play in front of her home on James street, New York, on Saturday evening, had her skull crushed in by a stone recklessly thrown by a Greek peddler, is not going to die from the injury. This is the report made by the surgeons at the Hudson street hospital, where the wounded child is a patient. Irene is fast recovering and this morning when asked what she would like for breakfast replied that she wanted an egg turned over and ice cream. She got them and was happy (Brooklyn Eagle July 22, 1896).”
We never read of George Farsesia again in the public press so we have no idea how his case was finally resolved.
But street fights with stones between street arabs and Greek peddlers were far from uncommon. “John Drevino, an inoffensive looking Greek peddler, was arraigned before Magistrate Brennan in the Manhattan avenue court today on a charge of malicious mischief. Drevino was assailed by a crowd of youngsters last night, who began to pelt him with stones. He made one effort to return the fire and the stone took a bad bound and crashed through a $25 plate glass window in the undertaking establishment of Michael Dierkes. Drevino was held for an examination (Brooklyn Eagle April 4, 1902).”
We can never be sure how many of these attacks turned tragic. As we have already noted killing lone Greeks by native-born Americans in the street was not unheard of during the period of the late 1880s and early 1900s. But sometimes news accounts fail us. An attack is reported but no follow up so we are left wondering whatever happened.
An example of this tendency would be September 29, 1909 when: “Thomas Concellas, a young Greek, peanut peddler, of 254 Hopkins Street, Williamsburg, was stabbed with an umbrella while protecting his stock at Manhattan Avenue and Moore Street early yesterday morning. Concellas was about to depart for his home when two young men appeared. While one engaged him in conversation the other filled his pockets with peanuts, and when Concellas tried to use force to protect his stock the two men attacked him. One, who had an umbrella with a sharp ferule, jabbed it twice into the Greek’s left side near the heart. As the peddler fell his assailants ran away.
Several men who saw Concellas fall ran to his aid. They raised an alarm which brought Policeman Michaels of the Stagg Street Station. The Greek seemed to be dying and a hurry call to the Eastern District Hospital brought Dr. Moskowitz in an ambulance.
The police searched for the assailants, and later arrested Charles Herrschaft, a young clerk of 142 Scholes Street. Herrshaft had an umbrella with a sharp point. He denied that he had in any way been implicated in the attack on the Greek, but he was identified by several men, and also in the hospital by Concellas. He was arraigned in the Manhattan Avenue Court for felonious assault and held. At the hospital it was said last night that Concellas may not recover.”
After hearing just these few accounts, as well as others in this series, it certainly changes how we understand the following news story: “Frank P. Sheridan a probationary policeman attached to the Oak Street Station had his first experience in making an arrest on Saturday evening. He says that he is not likely to forget it very soon, in as much as his right hand is badly hurt and his facial appearance is disfigured.
He encountered John Rappo, a Greek peddler of 62 Cherry Street on Park Row about 7 o’clock in the evening, and recalling Capt. Vreedenburg’s instructions to arrest every pushcart peddler violating a corporation ordinance, Sheridan proceeded forthwith to arrest Rappo. Rappo resisted, using a piece of rough board as a weapon. He struck the policeman on the wrist. Rappo followed this up with two other blows, which the new policeman received over his shoulders.
Having thus acquitted himself Rappo fled, pushing his cart before him. In his wake was an army of small boys gathering the fruit that dropped from Rappo’s cart. At New Chambers Street and Park Row, Sheridan caught up with Rappo and a scuffle followed. Sheridan was thrown to the sidewalk and had his face disfigured. At this juncture Policeman Slott hove in sight and helped Sheridan arrest Rappo.
In Centre Street Court yesterday morning Rappo had two complaints to answer. One was assault on the policeman and the other a violation of a corporation ordinance. Magistrate Pool fined Rappo $50 on the assault complaint and held him for trial in $10 bail for violation of a corporation ordinance (New York Times August 27, 1900).”
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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