For twenty-three years, Riis worked for the New York Tribune and the Evening Sun from an office at 301 Mulberry Street across from police headquarters in the heart of the Lower East Side. Six of those years were spent working nights on the police beat, witnessing criminality and deprivation and gaining an intricate knowledge of street life. With his Danish accent and crusader views, Riis was an outsider among his fellow journalists. He proved his mettle, however, and became the “boss reporter.” Writing in a sentimental yet critical style similar to Charles Dickens, he was unyielding in his depiction of the vices, travails, and efforts of the urban poor. From the start of his work in journalism, he used the personal stories of the slum dwellers he met to paint a vivid picture of what it was like to inhabit the city’s tenement neighborhoods.

Jacob Riis, Reporter

The photograph above depicts Riis (back corner) and his partner, Amos Ensign (seated at the desk) waiting for breaking news in their New York Tribune office on Mulberry Street across from police headquarters. The abundance of images tacked to the wall above their desk attests to the important interplay between policing and news reporting in the 1880s. It could be grueling work. In his autobiographical lecture notes Riis wrote: “‘My first assignment as a Reporter’—Stayed 25 years—not willingly—after one year wanted to get out—was made to stay . . . Compelled there to see the seamy side of everything. I looked behind the gore and the grime of it for the cause.”

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Keeping Account

Jacob Riis was known as an “easy mark,” willing to help anyone with a hard luck story. He tried to save money by keeping annual account books. He successfully cobbled together income to support his growing family not just as a reporter in the grit of city streets but by crafting freelance articles and talks that would appeal to middle-class audiences. On the first page of this 1895 ledger, Riis wrote: “This account of receipts and expenses was opened on January 1st 1895, so that I might find out where my money goes, and how much of it I get anyhow. We shall see.” The book is open to Riis’s various sources of income including salary, payments, and lecture fees—tallied from April through the end of October and totaling $3558.60 for the entire year. Riis referred to the 1890s as “golden years.”

Jacob Riis’s account book, 1895. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (024.00.01)

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Criminal Conditions

In 1891 and 1892, Riis took photographs to illustrate his newspaper accounts. In 1892 and 1893, in a series of four articles and his touring lantern slide lecture, Riis decried the appalling conditions of New York’s police lodging houses, which served as de facto homeless shelters. Riis discussed these photographs of the West 47th Street lodging rooms in an article for the New York Tribune, which reproduced the images as single-line wood engravings. In the men’s lodging room photograph it is difficult to distinguish between piles of lumber and sleeping bodies. And in the women’s lodging room image a young woman at the center of the frame cries, hiding her face from the camera. Riis sought to capture the indignity of the lodging houses, but the Tribune derisively captioned the men’s lodging rooms as “Rubbish, Some of It Human.”

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  • Jacob Riis. Men’s Lodging Rooms in West 47th Street, 1892. Modern gelatin silver printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.234 and 90.13.4.235) (048.00.00)

  • Jacob Riis. Women’s Lodging Rooms in West 47th Street, 1892. Modern gelatin silver printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.234 and 90.13.4.235) (049.00.00)

  • Jacob Riis. “Vice Which is Unchecked in Police Station Lodging-Houses,” New York Tribune, January 31, 1892, from Riis’s personal scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)

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Police Lodging Houses

Riis’s news accounts cast the police station lodging houses as breeding grounds for crime and public health crises, such as outbreaks of typhus. This article, which appeared in the Christian Union on January 14, 1893, again reproduces the men’s lodging room, this time in a tonally flat halftone. The article is from a scrapbook that Riis assembled to chronicle his career as a journalist and lecturer. Riis’s crusade was based not just on combating communicable disease, but observations of the vulnerability of young people to physical harm or recruitment by seasoned criminals and on his own bitter experiences as a newly arrived immigrant, homeless and unable to afford rent. In 1896, the lodging houses were finally closed with the support of then Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt.

Jacob Riis. “Police Lodging Houses: Are They Hotbeds for Typhus?” Christian Union, January 14, 1893, from Riis’s personal scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (050.00.00)

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