Nigger Martha's Wake by Jacob A. Riis
A woman with face all seared and blotched by something that had
burned through the skin sat propped up in the doorway of a Bowery
restaurant at four o'clock in the morning, senseless, apparently dying.
A policeman stood by, looking anxiously up the street and consulting
his watch. At intervals he shook her to make sure she was not dead. The
drift of the Bowery that was borne that way eddied about, intent upon
what was going on. A dumpy little man edged through the crowd and
peered into the woman's face.
Phew! he said, it's Nigger Martha! What is gettin' into the girls
on the Bowery I don't know. Remember my Maggie? She was her chum.
This to the watchman on the block. The watchman remembered. He knows
everything that goes on in the Bowery. Maggie was the wayward daughter
of a decent laundress, and killed herself by drinking carbolic acid
less than a month before. She had wearied of the Bowery. Nigger Martha
was her one friend. And now she had followed her example.
She was drunk when she did it. It is in their cups that a glimpse of
the life they traded away for the street comes sometimes to these
wretches, with remorse not to be borne.
It came so to Nigger Martha. Ten minutes before, she had been
sitting with two boon companions in the oyster saloon next door,
discussing their night's catch. Elsie Specs was one of the two; the
other was known to the street simply as Mame. Elsie wore glasses, a
thing unusual enough in the Bowery to deserve recognition. From their
presence Martha rose suddenly, to pull a vial from her pocket. Mame saw
it, and, knowing what it meant in the heavy humor that was upon Nigger
Martha, she struck it from her hand with a pepper-box. It fell, but was
not broken. The woman picked it up, and staggering out, swallowed its
contents upon the sidewalkthat is, as much as went into her mouth.
Much went over her face, burning it. She fell shrieking.
Then came the crowd. The Bowery never sleeps. The policeman on the
beat set her in the doorway and sent a hurry call for an ambulance. It
came at last, and Nigger Martha was taken to the hospital.
As Mame told it, so it was recorded on the police blotter, with the
addition that she was anywhere from forty to fifty years old. That was
the strange part of it. It is not often that any one lasts out a
generation in the Bowery. Nigger Martha did. Her beginning was way back
in the palmy days of Billy McGlory and Owney Geoghegan. Her first
remembered appearance was on the occasion of the mock wake they got up
at Geoghegan's for Police Captain Foley when he was broken. That was in
the days when dive-keepers made and broke police captains, and made no
secret of it. Billy McGlory did not. Ever since, Martha was on the
In time she picked up Maggie Mooney, and they got to be chummy. The
friendships of the Bowery by night may not be of a very exalted type,
but when death breaks them it leaves nothing to the survivor. That is
the reason suicides there happen in pairs. The story of Tilly Lorrison
and Tricksy came from the Tenderloin not long ago. This one of Maggie
Mooney and Nigger Martha was theirs over again.
In each case it was the younger, the one nearest the life that was
forever past, who took the step first, in despair. The other followed.
To her it was the last link with something that had long ceased to be
anything but a dream, which was broken. But without the dream life was
unbearable, in the Tenderloin and on the Bowery.
The newsboys were crying their night extras when Undertaker
Reardon's wagon jogged across the Bowery with Nigger Martha's body in
it. She had given the doctors the slip, as she had the policeman many a
time. A friend of hers, an Italian in The Bend, had hired the
undertaker to do it proper, and Nigger Martha was to have a funeral.
All the Bowery came to the wake. The all-nighters from Chatham
Square to Bleecker Street trooped up to the top-floor flat in the
Forsyth Street tenement where Nigger Martha was laid out. There they
sat around, saying little and drinking much. It was not a cheery crowd.
The Bowery by night is not cheerful in the presence of The Mystery.
Its one effort is to get away from it, to forgetthe thing it can
never do. When out of its sight it carouses boisterously, as children
sing and shout in the dark to persuade themselves that they are not
afraid. And some who hear think it happy.
Sheeny Rose was the master of ceremonies and kept the door. This for
a purpose. In life Nigger Martha had one enemy whom she
hatedcock-eyed Grace. Like all of her kind, Nigger Martha was
superstitious. Grace's evil eye ever brought her bad luck when she
crossed her path, and she shunned her as the pestilence. When
inadvertently she came upon her, she turned as she passed and spat
twice over her left shoulder. And Grace, with white malice in her
wicked face, spurned her.
I don't want, Nigger Martha had said one night in the hearing of
Sheeny RoseI don't want that cock-eyed thing to look at my body when
I am dead. She'll give me hard luck in the grave yet.
And Sheeny Rose was there to see that cock-eyed Grace didn't come to
She did come. She labored up the long stairs, and knocked, with no
one will ever know what purpose in her heart. If it was a last glimmer
of good, of forgiveness, it was promptly squelched. It was Sheeny Rose
who opened the door.
You can't come in here, she said curtly. You know she hated you.
She didn't want you to look at her stiff.
Cock-eyed Grace's face grew set with anger. Her curses were heard
within. She threatened fight, but dropped it.
All right, she said as she went down. I'll fix you, Sheeny Rose!
It was in the exact spot where Nigger Martha had sat and died that
Grace met her enemy the night after the funeral. Lizzie La Blanche, the
Marine's girl, was there; Elsie Specs, Little Mame, and Jack the Dog,
toughest of all the girls, who for that reason had earned the name of
Mayor of the Bowery. She brooked no rivals. They were all within
reach when the two enemies met under the arc light.
Cock-eyed Grace sounded the challenge.
Now, you little Sheeny Rose, she said, I'm goin' to do ye fer
shuttin' of me out o' Nigger Martha's wake.
With that out came her hatpin, and she made a lunge at Sheeny Rose.
The other was on her guard. Hatpin in hand, she parried the thrust and
lunged back. In a moment the girls had made a ring about the two,
shutting them out of sight. Within it the desperate women thrust and
parried, backed and squared off, leaping like tigers when they saw an
opening. Their hats had fallen off, their hair was down, and eager hate
glittered in their eyes. It was a battle for life; for there is no
dagger more deadly than the hatpin these women carry, chiefly as a
weapon of defence in the hour of need.
They were evenly matched. Sheeny Rose made up in superior suppleness
of limb for the pent-up malice of the other. Grace aimed her thrusts at
her opponent's face. She tried to reach her eye. Once the sharp steel
just pricked Sheeny Rose's cheek and drew blood. In the next turn
Rose's hatpin passed within a quarter-inch of Grace's jugular.
But the blow nearly threw her off her feet, and she was at her
enemy's mercy. With an evil oath the fiend thrust full at her face just
as the policeman, who had come through the crowd unobserved, so intent
was it upon the fight, knocked the steel from her hand.
At midnight two dishevelled hags with faces flattened against the
bars of adjoining cells in the police station were hurling sidelong
curses at each other and at the maddened doorman. Nigger Martha's wake
had received its appropriate and foreordained ending.