Massacre of the Innocents

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XI (10) start of chapter

With such a state of things—affecting at least a very large portion of the tenement population of New York—it cannot be a matter of surprise that the destruction of infant life in that city is something prodigious. The total number of deaths 'in the first year of life,' for the nine months ending the 30th of September, 1866, was 6,258! This is a Massacre of the Innocents with a vengeance. The Commissioners of the Board of Health remark:—

The rate of mortality in children under five years of age in New York is greater than in any city with which this Board has correspondence, and the cause of this excess will best be sought in the miserable housing and habits of the labouring classes, and in the multiplied sources of foul air in our two cities. . . . From various data now in hand, the conclusion is warranted, that death has in each of the past two years taken nearly one-third of the total number before the first birthday.

Dr. Derby takes rather a philosophical view of this tremendous death rate, and is inclined to regard it as a providential counterpoise to the fecundity of the poor, which, he states, has long been a matter of remark. He adds:—

The number of diseases which menace and destroy infantile existence seems almost a providential interference to prevent an excess of population over and above that which the means of the parents could possibly support. Nor, when we reflect upon the condition in which these unfortunate children are found to exist, and the many circumstances, moral and hygienic, by which they are surrounded, do we wonder less at the amount of sickness and mortality among them, than that it is not greater; less that they die than they survive.

Dr. Monnell thus concludes his remarks on the destruction of life caused by the miserable dwellings of his district: —

In the deadly atmosphere of some low basement, or close unventilated bedroom, or in the wretched squalor of some dilapidated garret, those little ones so numerously born amongst this class first draw their breath, and in an atmosphere surcharged with poison they battle for life; but in the unequal strife very few survive, and thus are yearly sacrificed whole hecatombs of living souls. They fall victims not of necessity, nor of the decrees of inevitable Fate, but of ignorance and avarice, and are lost to parents and friends, to society, and to usefulness in the world.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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ebook: The Irish in America