Shadows: Prostitution of Irish Emigrant Girls

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XVII (4) start of chapter

It is well known that America, while the home of the strong, the adventurous, the honest and industrious of the emigrants from Europe, is also the asylum of the broken-down and the unfortunate.

Female frailty seeks refuge from exposure in those convenient hiding-places, the great cities of the Western World.

Nor is it always the case that a first fall is atoned for by a future of virtue, or even a career of prudence; and thus the sad wreck which has happened at one side of the ocean is unfairly counted against the moral character of the race at the other.

Here then, in the first place, is frailty imported from the old country, and under circumstances not altogether favourable to reformation and moral strength.

Then, without seeking other evidence than may be found in public records, and in the statute-book of the United States, it can be shown how fatal to youth and inexperience has been the long passage in the emigrant sailing ship.

As mentioned elsewhere, Congress was compelled, so late as 1860, to pass a law for the protection of female passengers from the foul and systematic attempts of officers and seamen to effect their ruin.

Regulations have been made, rules laid down, penalties proclaimed, notices posted, partitions and barriers erected; but all precautionary measures have been, in too many instances, found ineffectual to counteract the watchful wickedness of evil men, and the utter defencelessness of women exposed to the perils of a protracted sea voyage.

Even so late as 1866 the Government Commissioner of Emigration reports to the Secretary of State that these protective laws have been systematically violated, and calls for more stringent measures.

Nor when the poor Irish girl has escaped her enemy on ship-board, and reached the shelter of Castle Garden, is she entirely in safety; and not rarely has it occurred that the indignant officials have beaten back the prowling wolf, as he sought to get his intended victim within his grasp.

Numerous instances, not alone of seduction on board ship, but of lawless violence, are on record; but the Act of 1860 is of itself sufficient evidence of the fact that protection was required, without the necessity of its illustration by harrowing and revolting details.

Terribly suggestive of ruin to female honour were the words addressed by Mr. Thurlow Weed in 1864, on the occasion of laying the foundation, stone of the Emigrant Hospital at Ward's Island.

Referring to the helpless condition of the emigrant before the present admirable system was organised in New York, he says:

‘Families were frequently plundered of all the money they possessed, and left to the charity of the city. Young and friendless females coming from abroad, to find their friends, or seeking employment, were not unfrequently outraged.’


‘Thousands of emigrants arrived with railroad tickets purchased abroad, for which they had paid not only double and treble the regular fare, but upon their arrival here, they found themselves with bogus tickets and bogus drafts. Innocent and unprotected girls came consigned to houses of prostitution.’

Mr. Weed was referring to what frequently occurred some years before; but it is notorious that similar evils have existed at a later period, and are not yet effectually suppressed.

The panderers to the lust of great cities are constantly on the watch to drag into their dens of infamy the young, the innocent, and the unsuspecting.

There is scarcely a House of Protection under the care of a Religious Order in America, which cannot record cases of young girls snatched from the jaws of danger.

Many, it is true, are saved; but what can the helpless do against, the snares and traps and frauds of those who live by the vilest crime?

The contest is unequal: the lamb is helpless in the talons of the vulture, or the fangs of the wolf.

As a single instance of the peril awaiting the unsuspecting, may be mentioned that of a young and handsome Irish girl who was lately trapped into hiring, in a Western city, with a person of infamous character.

She was fortunately observed by a poor old Irish woman, who, knowing the peril in which the young creature stood, boldly rushed to her rescue, and, at personal risk to herself, literally tore the prey from the grasp of the enemy.

The rescued girl was taken to the Refuge in the Convent of Mercy, where she was at once in safety; and though she lost all her clothes, save those in which she then stood, she congratulated herself that she had never crossed the threshold of a house of ill-fame.

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:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America