Monday, September 21, 2009

Death at the Five Points

(In the 1850s, fired by missionary zeal, the ladies of the Five Points Mission in Manhattan bravely battled poverty, squalor, intemperance, competing missionaries, the Roman Catholic Church, and that most alarming of heathenish practices: an Irish wake.)
During the hot weather in August, many died from the intense heat, and one death from this cause occurred in our building. Dr. McNaire called upon me to visit the dying woman, whom I found lying on the floor with her head slightly elevated on a chair, turned down on the face — her mouth filled with foam, and her pulse quick and thready. A number of Irish, newly arrived, were sitting around, or lying on the boxes in the room. It was a solemn scene. I knelt and poured out my soul in prayer to God; but, oh! how fearful to pray at such an hour — when life is ebbing away, and every moment may decide the destiny of the soul "quivering on the ridge of life."

Just as I had ended the prayer, Mrs. F., who rented the room where the sick woman lay, came running in, and seeing that she was dying, went immediately for a priest, to perform extreme unction, and as I came out, I met him going in. The woman soon died.

Then commenced the preparations for a wake. I gave orders that it should not be; but my orders were disregarded. At midnight, I heard that wild wail rolling upon the air, and I was reminded of that ancient cry at midnight in the land of Egypt, when Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants, and all the Egyptians, and there was not a house where there was not one dead. I thought, too, of the startling summons sounding out at midnight: "Behold the bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet him." I waited awhile, and while it was still dark, I went up to the room of death. There stood two rows of women, with their left hands around each other's waists, and their right beating upon their lips, making, as they shouted, a most horrible noise. Most of the women had never known the deceased until they saw her in her dying agonies, and yet the tears rolled down their cheeks in torrents. I succeeded at last, much to my joy, in breaking up this strange wild scene of frantic wo.
From The Old Brewery and the New Mission House at the Five Points, by the Ladies of the Mission; New York, Stringer & Townsend, 1854.

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