Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cassie Burns

The first snows of December haven't yet fallen on the dirty streets of lower Manhattan, but already there's a chill in the air. The photographer, shifting the legs of his tripod and adjusting the camera for just the right view, shudders under his dark frock. It's an overcast morning without much shadow. The little cluster of urchins have observed his preparations, asking him questions and begging him to take their picture. He has waved them off at first but finally agrees, if they will only stand without moving where he tells them to stand, drawing the eye down from that dead expanse of exposed wall. He has other sites to shoot today and can't waste too much time.

A few men, loitering outside the mission or doing business in the shop that pays cash for "old books, newspapers, pamphlets," have been attracted by the commotion and stand in the background, curious but by old habit loath to draw too much attention to themselves. Along the fence there are posters advertising the plebeian entertainments of the week of December 19th — the Windsor, Huber's Museum, the annual ball in honor of John P. Kenney, and Bartholomew's Equine Paradox — but already one of the posters has had patches of paper torn away by the wind or vandals.

The girl lives a few blocks behind where the photographer makes his preparations, at New Chambers and Cherry Streets, an intersection that today no longer exists. Her name is Cassie Burns. She has dark blue eyes and has just turned thirteen, but she's small for her age; there's TB in the family. Wearing an oatmeal skirt, she stands a bit apart from the boys, the usual playmates she watches over almost like a mother. Womanhood is already inexorably separating her fate from theirs. They will be factory workers or soldiers or will join the drunks that haunt the mission; she will have the harder path of motherhood, struggle, lonely old age.

The children, hunched up against the cold in their worn coats, finally settle themselves enough for the photographer to begin. Only after the fact does he notice that two solitary standing figures, one on either side a few yards away, have left ghostly impressions on the glass. The image is issued as a lantern slide bearing the title "N.Y. City — Homes and Ways 62. McAuley Mission, Water St."

The above isn't a "true story," in that I don't know it to be true, but who knows how far it is from the mark? There really was a Cassie Burns in the neighborhood of Water Street and Cherry Hill when this picture was made, in the first decade of the 20th century. It's highly unlikely but not impossible that the girl — if it really even is a girl — is her, but she undoubtedly knew this block well and may well have played with the children shown here. The real Cassie Burns, it is said, would go on to have nine children of her own.

1 comment:

Tororo said...

A neat post-scriptum to the post about Cherry Hill, I happened to read just today, thanks to the link - another story worth reading. The two ghostly figures are adding some additional layer of mystery to the picture.