Violent City

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Then there were the pigs. They ran loose on the streets of New York at the time, disgusting well-bred visitors and residents alike. Here, though, is where our perceptions of history are liable to interpretation. It occurred to me that pics running wild must have looked entirely different to immigrants. To men and women who had been through the famine, and for whom slaughtering the treasured family pig was the last, desperate measure before facing starvation, the pigs must have made it seem as if the streets were paved with gold.

Remember that enough immigrants found America worth preserving, even if it meant fighting their friends and neighbors.

Therein lies the paradox of the immigrant experience. For all the pent-up fury of the mobs, for all the atrocities they committed, it was also their fellow immigrants who suppressed the uprising. Many of the troops who were hurried back to the city were Irish-Americans themselves, including the fabled “Fighting 69th” regiment. So too were most of New York’s police; this would be their finest hour, keeping the city in the Union by the strength of their locustwood clubs, against overwhelming odds. For all they had been subjected to, for all that they could have stooped to lawlessness and depravity, enough immigrants found America worth preserving, even if it meant fighting their friends and neighbors in the streets.

How, then, to put a human face to this epic story? Again, I was lucky in what the historical record had left me. Paradise Alley has many characters, male and female—a New York City fireman turned soldier, a hack journalist, an attendant at the Colored Orphans’ Asylum—but it is centered on a trinity of Irishwomen living in the squalid Fourth Ward, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Deirdre Dolan is one of the “lacecurtain Irish,” based closely on the countless young women who came to this country to work as domestics, aspiring to a house and a home and middle-class respectability of their own. Maddy Boyle is modeled on a real-life prostitute of the time, an Irishwoman named Mary Burke who, when the mob came after her for the great crime of having black clients, fired a pistol at them and cursed them for “Irish sons-of-bitches!” To understand what she meant is to know truly what it means to be Irish. The third woman, Ruth Dove, is also based very closely on a real person, a Mrs. William Derrickson, of Worth Street—an Irishwoman who was married to a black man. Her husband was not at home when the uprising started, and when the rioters came, she went out into the street herself to defy them and to try to save her teenage son from being lynched.

For this is the immigrant story too. It is one of monumental courage, the courage not just to survive and endure but also to embrace the new country and rise above the past. Intermarriage was not prevalent in antebellum New York, but it was not uncommon either, and while the draft riots were first and foremost a racial tragedy, there were also whites—most notably the police—who sheltered and defended African-Americans against the mobs. This was just one small measure, one cautious step forward, toward realizing the freedom and dignity that America had always promised but was so tardy in delivering.

It is already a great story. I just hope I have given it the book it deserves.