In the Children's Hospital by Jacob A. Riis
The fact was printed the other day that the half-hundred children or
more who are in the hospitals on North Brother Island had no
playthings, not even a rattle, to make the long days skip by, which,
set in smallpox, scarlet fever, and measles, must be longer there than
anywhere else in the world. The toys that were brought over there with
a consignment of nursery tots who had the typhus fever had been worn
clean out, except some fish horns which the doctor frowned on, and
which were therefore not allowed at large. Not as much as a red monkey
on a yellow stick was there left on the island to make the youngsters
That afternoon a big, hearty-looking man came into the office with
the paper in his hand, and demanded to see the editor. He had come, he
said, to see to it that those sick youngsters got the playthings they
were entitled to; and a regular Santa Claus he proved to the friendless
little colony on the lonely island; for he left a crisp fifty-dollar
note behind when he went away without giving his name. The single
condition was attached to the gift that it should be spent buying toys
for the children on North Brother Island.
Accordingly, a strange invading army took the island by storm three
or four nights ago. Under cover of the darkness it had itself ferried
over from One Hundred and Thirty-eighth Street in the department yawl,
and before morning it was in undisputed possession. It has come to
stay. Not a doll or a sheep will ever leave the island again. They may
riot upon it as they please, within certain well-defined limits, but
none of them can ever cross the channel to the mainland again, unless
it be the rubber dolls who can swim, so it is said. Here is the
Six sheep (four with lambs), six fairies (big dolls in street
dress), twelve rubber dolls (in woollen jackets), four railroad trains,
twenty-eight base-balls, twenty rubber balls, six big painted (Scotch
plaid) rubber balls, six still bigger ditto, seven boxes of blocks,
half a dozen music-boxes, twenty-four rattles, six bubble (soap) toys,
twelve small engines, six games of dominos, twelve rubber toys (old
woman who lived in a shoe, etc.), five wooden toys (bad bear, etc.),
thirty-six horse reins.
As there is only one horse on the island, and that one a very
steady-going steed in no urgent need of restraint, this last item might
seem superfluous, but only to the uninstructed mind. Within a brief
week half the boys and girls on the island that are out of bed long
enough to stand on their feet will be transformed into ponies and the
other half into drivers, and flying teams will go cavorting around to
the tune of Johnny, Get your Gun, and the Jolly Brothers Gallop, as
they are ground out of the music-boxes by little fingers that but just
now toyed feebly with the balusters on the golden stair.
That music! When I went over to the island it fell upon my ears in
little drops of sweet melody, as soon as I came in sight of the nurses'
quarters. I listened, but couldn't make out the tune. The drops seemed
mixed. When I opened the door upon one of the nurses, Dr. Dixon, and
the hospital matron, each grinding his or her music for all there was
in it, and looking perfectly happy withal, I understood why.
They were all playing different tunes at the same time, the nurse
When the Robins Nest Again, Dr. Dixon Nancy Lee, and the matron
Sweet Violets. A little child stood by in open-mouthed admiration,
that became ecstasy when I joined in with The Babies on our Block. It
was all for the little one's benefit, and she thought it beautiful
without a doubt.
The storekeeper, knowing that music hath charms to soothe the breast
of even a typhus-fever patient, had thrown in a dozen boxes as his own
gift. Thus one good deed brings on another, and a good deal more than
fifty dollars' worth of happiness will be ground out on the island
before there is an end of the music.
There is one little girl in the measles ward already who will eat
only when her nurse sits by grinding out Nancy Lee. She cannot be
made to swallow one mouthful on any other condition. No other nurse and
no other tune but Nancy Lee will doneither the Star-Spangled
Banner nor The Babies on our Block. Whether it is Nancy all by her
melodious self, or the beautiful picture of her in a sailor's suit on
the lid of the box, or the two and the nurse and the dinner together,
that serve to soothe her, is a question of some concern to the island,
since Nancy and the nurse have shown signs of giving out together.
Three of the six sheep that were bought for the ridiculously low
price of eighty-nine cents apiece, the lambs being thrown in as
makeweight, were grazing on the mixed-measles lawn over on the east
shore of the island, with a fairy in evening dress eying them rather
disdainfully in the grasp of tearful Annie Cullum. Annie is a foundling
from the asylum temporarily sojourning here. The measles and the
scarlet fever were the only things that ever took kindly to her in her
little life. They tackled her both at once, and poor Annie, after a six
or eight weeks' tussle with them, has just about enough spunk left to
cry when anybody looks at her.
Three woolly sheep and a fairy all at once have robbed her of all
hope, and in the midst of it all she weeps as if her heart would break.
Even when the nurse pulls one of the unresisting muttonheads, and it
emits a loud Baa-a, she stops only just for a second or two and then
wails again. The sheep look rather surprised, as they have a right to.
They have come to be little Annie's steady company, hers and her
fellow-sufferers' in the mixed-measles ward. The triangular lawn upon
which they are browsing is theirs to gambol on when the sun shines, but
cross the walk that borders it they never can, any more than the babies
with whom they play. Sumptuary law rules the island they are on. Habeas
corpus and the constitution stop short of the ferry. Even Comstock's
authority does not cross it: the one exception to the rule that dolls
and sheep and babies shall not visit from ward to ward is in favor of
the rubber dolls, and the etiquette of the island requires that they
shall lay off their woollen jackets and go calling just as the factory
turned them out, without a stitch or shred of any kind on.
As for the rest, they are assigned, babies, nurses, sheep, rattles,
and railroad trains, to their separate measles, scarlet fever, and
diphtheria lawns or wards, and there must be content to stay. A sheep
may be transferred from the scarlet-fever ward with its patron to the
mixed-measles or diphtheria, when symptoms of either of these diseases
appear, as they often do; but it cannot then go back again, lest it
carry the seeds of the new contagion to its old friends.
Even the fairies are put under the ban of suspicion by such evil
associations, and, once they have crossed the line, are not allowed to
go back to corrupt the good manners of the babies with only one
Pauline Meyer, the bigger of the two girls on the mixed-measles
stoop,the other is friendless Annie,has just enough strength to
laugh when her sheep's head is pulled. She has been on the limits of
one ward after another these four months, and has had everything, short
of typhus fever and smallpox, that the island affords.
It is a marvel that there is one laugh left in her whole little
shrunken body after it all; but there is, and the grin on her face
reaches almost from ear to ear, as she clasps the biggest fairy in an
arm very little stouter than a boy's bean blower, and hears the lamb
bleat. Why, that one smile on that ghastly face would be thought worth
his fifty dollars by the children's friend, could he see it. Pauline is
the child of Swedish emigrants. She and Annie will not fight over their
lambs and their dolls, not for many weeks. They can't. They can't even
One of the railroad trains, drawn by a glorious tin engine, with the
name Union painted on the cab, is making across the stoop for the
little boy with the whooping-cough in the next building. But it won't
get there; it is quarantined. But it will have plenty of exercise.
Little hands are itching to get hold of it in one of the cribs inside.
There are thirty-six sick children on the island just now, about half
of them boys, who will find plenty of use for the balls and things as
soon as they get about. How those base-balls are to be kept within
bounds is a hopeless mystery the doctors are puzzling over.
Even if nines are organized in every ward, as has been suggested, it
is hard to see how they can be allowed to play each other, as they
would want to, of course, as soon as they could toddle about. It would
be something, though, a smallpox nine pitted against the scarlets or
the measles, with an umpire from the mixed ward!
The old woman that lived in a shoe, being of rubber, is a privileged
character, and is away on a call in the female scarlet, says the nurse.
It is a good thing that she was made that way, for she is very popular.
So are Mother Goose and her ten companion rubber toys. The bear and the
man that strike alternately a wooden anvil with a ditto hammer are
scarcely less exciting to the infantile mind; but, being of wood, they
are steady boarders permanently attached each to his ward. The dominos
fell to the lot of the male scarlets. That ward has half a dozen grown
men in it at present, and they have never once lost sight of the little
black blocks since they first saw them.
The doctor reports that they are getting better just as fast as they
can since they took to playing dominos. If there is any hint in this to
the profession at large, they are welcome to it, along with humanity.
A little girl with a rubber doll in a red woollen jacketa
combination to make the perspiration run right off one with the
humidity at 98looks wistfully down from the second-story balcony of
the smallpox pavilion, as the doctor goes past with the last sheep
tucked under his arm.
But though it baa-a ever so loudly, it is not for her. It is bound
for the white tent on the shore, shunned even here, where sits a
solitary watcher gazing wistfully all day toward the city that has
passed out of his life. Perchance it may bring to him a message from
the far-away home where the birds sang for him, and the waves and the
flowers spoke to him, and Unclean had not been written against his
name. Of all on the Pest Island he alone is hopeless. He is a leper,
and his sentence is that of a living death in a strange land.