A Heathen Baby by Jacob A. Riis
A stack of mail comes to Police Headquarters every morning from the
precincts by special department carrier. It includes the reports for
the last twenty-four hours of stolen and recovered goods, complaints,
and the thousand and one things the official mail-bag contains from day
to day. It is all routine, and everything has its own pigeonhole into
which it drops and is forgotten until some raking up in the department
turns up the old blotters and the old things once more. But at last the
mail-bag contained something that was altogether out of the usual run,
to wit, a Chinese baby.
Pickaninnies have come in it before this, lots of them, black and
shiny, and one pappoose from a West Side wigwam; but a Chinese baby
Sergeant Jack was so astonished that it took his breath away. When
he recovered he spoke learnedly about its clothes as evidence of its
heathen origin. Never saw such a thing before, he said. They were like
they were sewn on; it was impossible to disentangle that child by any
way short of rolling it on the floor.
Sergeant Jack is an old bachelor, and that is all he knows about
babies. The child was not sewn up at all. It was just swaddled, and no
Chinese had done that, but the Italian woman who found it. Sergeant
Jack sees such babies every night in Mulberry Street, but that is the
way with old bachelors. They don't know much, anyhow.
It was clear that the baby thought so. She was a little girl, very
little, only one night old; and she regarded him through her almond
eyes with a supercilious look, as who should say, Now, if he was only
a bottle, instead of a big, useless policeman, why, one might put up
with him; which reflection opened the flood-gates of grief and set the
little Chinee squalling: Yow! Yow! Yap! until the Sergeant held his
ears, and a policeman carried it upstairs in a hurry.
Downstairs first, in the Sergeant's big blotter, and upstairs in the
matron's nursery next, the baby's brief official history was recorded.
There was very little of it, indeed, and what there was was not marked
by much ceremony. The stork hadn't brought it, as it does in far-off
Denmark; nor had the doctor found it and brought it in, on the American
An Italian woman had just scratched it out of an ash barrel. Perhaps
that's the way they find babies in China, in which case the sympathy of
all American mothers and fathers will be with the present despoilers of
the heathen Chinee, who is entitled to no consideration whatever until
he introduces a new way.
The Italian woman was Mrs. Maria Lepanto. She lives in Thompson
Street, but she had come all the way down to the corner of Elizabeth
and Canal streets with her little girl to look at a procession passing
by. That, as everybody knows, is next door to Chinatown. It was ten
o'clock, and the end of the procession was in sight, when she noticed
something stirring in an ash barrel that stood against the wall. She
thought first it was a rat, and was going to run, when a noise that was
certainly not a rat's squeal came from the barrel. The child clung to
her hand and dragged her toward the sound.
Oh, mamma! she cried, in wild excitement, hear it! It isn't a
rat! I know! Hear!
It was a wail, a very tiny wail, ever so sorry, as well it might be,
coming from a baby that was cradled in an ash barrel. It was little
Susie's eager hands that snatched it out. Then they saw that it was
indeed a child, a poor, helpless, grieving little baby.
It had nothing on at all, not even a rag. Perhaps they had not had
time to dress it.
Oh, it will fit my dolly's jacket! cried Susie, dancing around and
hugging it in glee. It will, mamma! A real live baby! Now Tilde
needn't brag of theirs. We will take it home, won't we, mamma?
The bands brayed, and the flickering light of many torches filled
the night. The procession had gone down the street, and the crowd with
it. The poor woman wrapped the baby in her worn shawl and gave it to
the girl to carry. And Susie carried it, prouder and happier than any
of the men that marched to the music. So they arrived home. The little
stranger had found friends and a resting-place.
But not for long. In the morning Mrs. Lepanto took counsel with the
neighbors, and was told that the child must be given to the police.
That was the law, they said, and though little Susie cried bitterly at
having to part with her splendid new toy, Mrs. Lepanto, being a
law-abiding woman, wrapped up her find and took it to the Macdougal
That was the way it got to Headquarters with the morning mail, and
how Sergeant Jack got a chance to tell all he didn't know about babies.
Matron Travers knew more, a good deal. She tucked the little heathen
away in a trundle-bed with a big bottle, and blessed silence fell at
once on Headquarters. In five minutes the child was asleep.
While it slept, Matron Travers entered it in her book as No. 103
of that year's crop of the gutter, and before it woke up she was on the
way with it, snuggled safely in a big gray shawl, up to the Charities.
There Mr. Bauer registered it under yet another number, chucked it
under the chin, and chirped at it in what he probably thought might
pass for baby Chinese. Then it got another big bottle and went to sleep
At ten o'clock there came a big ship on purpose to give the little
Mott Street waif a ride up the river, and by dinner-time it was on a
green island with four hundred other babies of all kinds and shades,
but not one just like it in the whole lot. For it was New York's first
and only Chinese foundling. As to that Superintendent Bauer, Matron
Travers, and Mrs. Lepanto agreed. Sergeant Jack's evidence doesn't
count, except as backed by his superiors. He doesn't know a heathen
baby when he sees one.
The island where the waif from Mott Street cast anchor is called
Randall's Island, and there its stay ends, or begins. The chances are
that it ends, for with an ash barrel filling its past and a foundling
asylum its future, a baby hasn't much of a show. Babies were made to be
hugged each by one pair of mother's arms, and neither white-capped
nurses nor sleek milch cows fed on the fattest of meadow-grass can take
their place, try as they may. The babies know that they are cheated,
and they will not stay.