The Cellar Was Good
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
August Wood, Lamplighter
Fall River, Massachusetts
February 15, 1873 The Leblancs came down from Quebec to join the others in the mills. Pierre, a mule spinner, didn’t speak much English, but his wife tried. Their daughter was about four years old, and there was another one on the way.
How could I put up a fuss? Finn and I were squatters ourselves, and with this cold snap and all, we had to let them in. Every day, I expected the landlord to either charge us for rent or kick us out. I wondered what was takin’ so long.
Doin’ his best, Pierre explained that they had been livin’ with his sister’s family, when there was an outbreak of measles, so to spare their daughter and unborn child, they left. Ruby, one of the weavers who lived next door, told them about the cellar.
We hung a ragged blanket between our sleepin’ quarters, open at one end so that we could still get the heat. Pierre had some tools, and his wife had kitchen utensils, a good oil lamp, and a washtub that she set up in the corner beside her chamber pot.
As long as I remembered the narrow canvas cots, the cellar was not so bad. And, it was much better than any other place at Five Points, where we were overcrowded with wretched drunks, degraded women, Italian rag pickers, and even the organ player’s monkey—the vilest of all—crammed together so tightly that we often couldn’t move freely when we slept. Many people were sick, as we were surrounded by death.
Yes, the cellar was good. I liked it. There was room to move around. Sure, it got smoky, but I aired it out when I could. I was prepared. If more folks showed up, I wouldn’t turn them away. (Excerpt, The Angels' Lament - Book Two, Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series)
As most of you know, homelessness is not new. Throughout the ages, people like August Wood have been squatting. A report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development has found that just under 553,000 people in the United States are homeless, with approximately 65% staying in sheltered accommodations. Out of every 10,000 people in the United States, 17 experienced homelessness on a single night in 2018.
The numbers continue to rise. It is likely that the statistics mentioned above are underreported. Many individuals have been either intentionally or unintentionally off the radar. Also, it is essential to keep in mind that because of lack of funding, many shelters and soup kitchens close daily— a crisis, indeed.
As a social historian, much of my work focuses on situations similar to what we continue to face today. The foundation of our current welfare system seems to be nothing more than a complex, perpetual cycle. This is also true of the labor force, immigration, and many other dynamic struggles that we continue to face.
I intend to bring about awareness, not of what is new, but of what has been happening in our shared history in centuries past, highlighting that which has not changed. We tend to review the old days, in terms of good or bad. Often, texts are nothing more than watered down versions of our so-called history at best. Editing and omitting is the norm, a way out. Well, at least for some. History recorded by a handful of the elite, the winners, always come out on top.
A majority of sources are nothing more than a fabrication of the truth. We read about various cultures and eras throughout history and then believe that somehow any of the previous societal struggles and challenges either just went away or never happened at all.
Relying on mainstream data leads to a sea of misinformation and remaining blindfolded. I dig deep into the bones of social narrative. I seek first sources that are rich in detail, bringing voice to the page. With so many archives emerging —journals, diaries, previously banned books— we can piece together richly textured tales once lost to us.
In The Angels' Lament, August Wood is a very colorful young man. He shares his experiences as an orphan in the Five Points section of New York, a trip out west on what we call in modern terms an orphan train, and finally settling into a position of power (in his world) as a lamplighter. Mj Pettengill Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2018/12/20/the-u-s-cities-with-the-most-homeless-people-in-2018-infographic/
Image: Public Domain