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Dr. Nagle, Mrs. Dr. Nagle and Jacob Riis

EJ Phillips often mentions Dr. and Mrs. Dr. Nagle, the boardinghouse keepers at East 21st Street (originally at 9 West 12th St).  Hattie and Mrs. Dr. Nagle were going to hear “the Cowboy Pianist”  (Mar 12 1886) and a number of them went to “a private box at the circus” in April 1886.  EJ Phillips joined them for Thanksgiving (Nov 27 1891) or Christmas ( Dec 26 1890) dinner and went to visit them when she was staying elsewhere. Her only reference to Dr. Nagle’s professional knowledge came in 1893 when she asked about the prevalence of measles when 2 year old Edward was possibly coming to visit (being well aware of the dangers since Elizabeth Ellen Dolman’s death the previous year) but was told there were no more cases than usual in the city. 

John T. Nagle (1842-1919) seems to be the author of  “Table showing the total number of stillbirths and deaths (with an enumeration of some of the most prominent causes) which occurred in the city of New York during the ninety- one years ending Dec. 31, 1894” [n.p.] 1896 [LC Library of Congress] and  “The status of acting assistant surgeons of the United States Army, who served in the late Civil War, being a reply to the ruling of the War Department” New York, M. B. Brown, printer, 1893 [LC] and An appeal to President Roosevelt for justice to a class of acting assistant surgeons of the United States Army who served in the Civil War [New York : M.B. Brown Press, 1908. [Coll Physicians & Surgeons, Philadelphia]. He could also be the John T. Nagle from whom the American Irish Historical Society received 132 East 16th Street in 1921 as a bequest.  

The Library of Congress provided several publications of Dr. Nagle, one of which included these photographs.

We know from a  Sept 15 1882 letter of reference for Albert  from Dr. Nagle, (as Albert was looking for a job at the Silk Twist factory)  on the letterhead of the Health Dept of the City of New York  Bureau of Vital Statistics, No. 301 Mott St, that he had known Albert for the past 4 years (since shortly after the family arrived in New York from Philadelphia) and could testify to his habits “a gentleman of good moral character, industrious and persevering” and was also well acquainted with his mother and his sister (both of exemplary character).

EJ Phillips never mentions Dr. Nagle’s connection with Jacob Riis, but given her interest in Henry George, newspaper reading and interest in current events it would be surprising if she was not aware of their collaboration. Dr. Nagle’s obituary (New York Times June 15, 1919) mentions how Nagle “joined the late Jacob A. Riis in his pleas for small parks in tenement districts and for the abolition of “rear tenements … and also urged recreation piers. 

Riis  writes in his autobiography The Making of an American how “upon my  midnight trips with the sanitary police that the wish kept cropping up in me that there were some way of putting before the people what I saw there.  A drawing might have done it, but I cannot draw, never could…We used to go in the small hours of the morning into the worst tenements to count noses and see if the law against overcrowding was violated, and the sights I saw there gripped my heart until I felt that I must tell of them, or burst, or turn anarchist, or something…I wrote but it seemed to make no impression. 

One morning, scanning my newspaper at the breakfast table, I put it down with an outcry that startled my wife sitting opposite. There it was, the thing I had been looking for all those years. A four-line dispatch from somewhere in Germany, if I remember right, had it all. A way had been discovered, it ran, to take pictures by flashlight. The darkest corner might be photographed that way.  I went to the office full of the idea, and lost no time in looking up Dr. John T. Nagle, at the time in charge of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the Health Department to tell him of it. Dr. Nagle was an amateur photographer of merit and a good fellow besides, who entered into my plans with great readiness. The news had already excited much interest among New York photographers, professional and otherwise, and no time was lost in communicating with the other side. Within a fortnight a raiding party composed of Dr. Henry G. Piffard and Richard Hoe Lawrence, two distinguished amateurs, Dr. Nagle and myself, and sometimes a policeman or two, invaded the East Side by night, bent on letting in the light where it was so much needed

At least that was my purpose. To the photographers it was a voyage of discovery of the greatest interest, but the interest centred in the camera and the flashlight. The police went along from curiosity, sometimes for protection. For that they were hardly needed. It is not too much to say that our party carried terror where ever it went. The flashlight of those days was contained in cartridges fired from a revolver. The spectacle of half a dozen strange men invading a house in the midnight hour armed with big pistols which they shot off recklessly was hardly reassuring, however sugary our speech, and it was not to be wondered at if the tenants bolted through windows and down fire-escapes wherever e went.  But as no one was murdered, things calmed down after a while, though months after I found the recollection of our visits hanging over a Stanton Street  block like a nightmare. We got some good pictures, but very soon the slum and the awkward hours palled upon the amateurs. I found myself alone just when I needed help most. I had made out by the flashlight possibilities my companions little dreamed of. 

Riis eventually hired a professional photographer and when that proved unsatisfactory, got a camera himself, substituting “a frying pan for the revolver and flashed the light on that” twice setting fire to his house and once to himself. In the 1880’s photographs could not yet be reproduced in newspapers, and the halftone illustrations in How the Other Half Lives were of poor quality, lacking detail and sharpness.  Other illustrations were drawings from photographs as the newspaper illustrations had been. “The result was that the photographic work of Jacob Riis was overlooked until 1947 when Alexander Alland made excellent enlargements from the original glass negatives.  The exhibition held by the Museum of the City of New York and subsequent publication of some of the best of the prints (1948) revealed Riis as a photographer of importance, Riis and his companions were among the first in America to use Blitzlichtpulver – flashlight powder- invented in Germany in 1887. Piffard had modified the German formula, which he had found extremely dangerous; lye sprinkled guncotton with twice its weight of magnesium powder on a metal tray and ignited the mixture. [History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day, Beaumont Newhall, 1982]

The New York Sun ran a story on Feb 12, 1888 “Flashes from the Slums. Pictures Taken in Dark Places by the Lighting Process. Some of the Results of a Journey Through the City with an Instantaneous Camera – The Poor, the Idle and the Vicious”.  Riis also gave lectures illustrated with lantern slides on “The Other Half: How it Lives and Dies in New York.  

Riis’ first book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York was published in 1890. http://www.cis.yale.edu/amstud/inforev/riis/title.html  A New York Sun article of May 25 1895 ran with the headline “Getting ready to raze the Old Mulberry Street Slum”, as the city demolished an entire block of tenements bounded by Bayard, Mulberry Park and Baxter streets, creating Columbus Park on the site.  The park’s opening was written up in the New York Times, June 16, 1897 p. 7 

[pictures from the Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York. Hypertext How the Other Half Lives has illustrations.] 

After some searching at the Library of Congress, several pamphlets of Dr. Nagle's were found, including Suicides in New York City during the 11 years ending Dec. 31, 1880, Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1882.  This starts with a discussion of what can be considered suicide.  Dr. Nagle distinguished between the legal sense "the taking of one's life as the result of an insane delusion or impulse is not suicide," but explains that he doesn't strictly adhere to this definition and that the tables of suicide include "all deaths of persons who have taken their own lives, unless such deaths were clearly proven to be accidental. This, I think, is the popular understanding of the word suicide, though it may not be an accurate one. Some of the cases that are tabulated as deaths by suicide may not appear clearly as such, and may not have been intentional, yet the fact that there was a knowledge that the action would be attended by danger to life induces me to place them among the suicidal deaths.  

I may mention as an instance of the uncertainty of classification the two deaths from abortion. It is reasonable to suppose that the two women who used instruments for the purpose of producing abortion did not intend to kill themselves, and that their deaths were accidental.  Yet the well-known risk that attended the operation, and the bungling manner in which it was performed, producing death almost instantly thereafter, justify their inclusion among the suicides. It is very difficult in a majority of cases of self-destruction to determine whether there was an insane impulse of delusion prompting it. " 

Table showing total number of stillbirths and deaths (with an estimate of some of the most prominent causes) in the city of New York during the Ninety-one years ending Dec. 31, 1894, compiled from the records of the City Inspector, Metropolitan Board of Health and Health Dept. of the City of New York by John T. Nagle M.D. In 1894 the death rate per 1,000 inhabitants was 22.77, Deaths of children under 5 years of age 42.64 % and deaths of persons 5 years of age and over 57.36%  .

Nagle's appeal to Theodore Roosevelt (as Commander in Chief) on a question of law [whether he was a civil employee, as opposed to a military one] related to the ruling of the Pension Bureau of the Department of the Interior and the Judge Advocate General of the War Departments states that he was a medical officer during the civil war, from May 2, 1864, until June 15, 1865 and is signed  "John T. Nagle, M.D, Late Acting Assistant Surgeon, US Army, in charge of Third Division and Reserve Brigade, Dismounted Cavalry, Army of the Potomac,  Camp Stoneman, which left Camp Stoneman July 5, 1864 to join the Army of West Virginia, at Mt. Pleasant and Seminary, US general hospitals, etc. etc. (Commissioned), Assistant Surgeon, 192nd Regiment of Infantry, NY State Vols."

Health & Medicine, Public Health 

Tenement Museum, 91 Orchard Street, New York   http://www.tenement.org/
Starr, Paul, Social Transformation of American Medicine   Starr notes that clergymen and physicians made similar salaries 120 or so years ago..

Last updated Mar. 5, 2004

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