Distinct from other great cities of the world, Manhattan is almost pathologically averse to letting you wander to the river’s edge and get close enough to touch the water. It has erected a prophylactic wall of fences and other physical barriers, which over-protectively stave off potential accidents, intentional harm and, most of all, liability suits. It was not always thus. A sampling of one year’s city coroner reports in the early nineteenth century bears out how frequently and casually Death visited the waterfront:
-Ackerman, Cornelius – suicide by drowning, b. New York, age 29 (6 Feb. 1826)
-Ackerman, Duke – drowning while going on board sloop Lowell (27 Oct. 1835) )
-Baptist, Isaac – drowning when he fell from the wharf (21 Aug. 1836) )
-Barcelo, James – suffocation from charcoal fumes on board the brig Merced, b. Spain, Age c. 33 (6 Feb. 1826) )
-Berry, Nelson – hemmorhage of the lungs, b. on the ocean, a rigger by occupation, a sailor all his life, age 35. He has been married to his wife Sarah for 7 years. He has no children. (26 Aug. 1839) )
-Birrckenbeck, Benjamin – fall from the gangway of ship Panthea, age c. 45 (10 Mar. 1841) )
-Boise, Jacob – blowing up of flagship Fulton at the Navy Yard (4 June 1829) -Bundy, Edward (colored) – accidentally knocked from main deck to the lower hold of the ship Silver de Grace by a tierce of rice (12 Jan. 1836) )
A simple notation of “drowning” was as frequently entered as any explanation for decease. Wrote Kenneth Scott, in his Introduction to Coroners’ Reports, New York City, 1823-1842: “Inasmuch as New York was a port, drowning was an extremely common form of death. Many, especially when intoxicated, lost their lives when trying to board a vessel or go ashore.” Alcohol blurred the line between accidental and intentional self-destruction. Perhaps it was this pattern of “border crossings” that eventually led the municipal authorities to place the river’s edge off-limits to its citizens.
There is a scene in Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) that makes you realize the degree to which access to the water’s edge means, in part, the freedom to commit suicide. On a simple river-walk, below a bridge or elevated promenade, a soused millionaire is getting ready to drown himself with a rope and a heavy stone. Charlie the Tramp waddles blithely down the staircase attached to the bridge and takes up a river-walk bench for the night, when he notices the would-be suicide’s preparations. He tries to convince the man that life is worth living (“Tomorrow the birds will sing”), in the process entangling himself with the rope and the wealthy self-destructive sot, so that both keep landing in the drink and having to pull themselves out. A fine bit of physical comedy; but what strikes me is how easy it was in yesterday’s cities to do away with oneself by drowning.
A century ago, “the river” had a fateful ring. It connoted suicide, especially for destitute women or prostitutes overtaken by despair. Such women were often said to end up “in the river.” Beyond the actual incidence of such tragedies, the realist school had a penchant for drowning denouements, a residual romanticism that popped up in “fallen women” narratives worldwide, from Vienna to Tokyo, around the turn of the twentieth century: the victim of social forces was shown poised on the bridge, ready to jump.
In Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), the author describes the moments preceding his heroine’s death through the invocation of ominous waterfront imagery: “The girl went into the gloomy districts near the river, where the tall black factories shut in the street and only occasional broad beams of light fell across the pavements from saloons….When almost to the river the girl saw a great figure. On going forward she perceived it to be a huge fat man in torn and greasy garments. His grey hair straggled down over his forehead. His small, bleared eyes, sparkling from amidst great rolls of red fat, swept eagerly over the girl’s upturned face….Chuckling and leering, he followed the girl of the crimson legions. At their feet the river appeared a deathly black hue.”
The customers as well would sometimes end underwater. James McCabe, nineteenth-century chronicler of New York’s secrets, wrote of men enticed by “prostitutes, connected with professional thieves and assassins…. More than one has found his grave in the Hudson, dragged there in the darkness of the night, after being drugged by poisonous liquors and robbed of his valuables.”
The river was also the repository of another sad human cargo. In 1858, a committee, established to investigate the treatment of abandoned children, reported: “our own Hudson and the East River carry with them to the Atlantic, with the returning tide, the dead bodies of infants cast out by unfeeling mothers.”
That New York rivers continue to serve as a mortuary for suicides and homicides may be seen by the bodies fished out each year, around mid-April, by the harbor police, during what has come to be called “Floaters Week.” But the river is no longer morbidly connected in the public’s mind with the fate of fallen women—not because street-walkers’ lives have so improved, but because narrative tropes exhaust themselves.
Excerpted from Waterfront by Phillip Lopate, to be published by Crown. Copyright (c) 2003 by Phillip Lopate. All rights reserved.