‘Police Headquarters With Jacob Riis’

In His Own Words

Bandits and Bubbes: Riis’s famous 1888 picture displays the menace and domesticity of downtown New York at the end of the 19th century.
‘BANDIT’S ROOST,’ MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK, JACOB. A RIIS COLLECTION
Bandits and Bubbes: Riis’s famous 1888 picture displays the menace and domesticity of downtown New York at the end of the 19th century.

By Abraham Cahan

Published May 19, 2010, issue of May 28, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Police Headquarters was then on Mulberry Street, near Houston. The daily newspapers had special offices there — in a few old buildings located opposite the police. The head reporter for the “Evening Sun” was at that time an immigrant from Denmark named Jacob Riis, known as a brilliant writer in the world of journalism. Several months before, [Lincoln] Steffens had been the police reporter for the “Evening Sun,” and he made friends with Riis then. So he gave me a letter for him. Riis was not a tall man and not a fat one either. He was in his 40s with a blond mustache and glasses. He spoke with a slight Danish accent. Steffens introduced me to him as a writer, the author of “Yekl” and as a man “with ideas.”

We spent about half an hour together, and we didn’t like each other. To me, Riis seemed like a person with outdated notions. At the same time, I felt that I made a bad impression on him with the opinions I expressed in the course of our conversation about literature and politics. I saw that he didn’t like my socialism much, and even less my low opinion of certain American writers. I felt that he considered me a pretentious young man. But he treated me courteously, and he showed me and explained everything related to my work.

He introduced me to the reporters from the other newspapers and to all the officials at Police Headquarters, from the Chief of Police to some of the clerks.

The duties of a police reporter had a two-fold character: One part of the work was connected to the police itself — to the “politics” among the officials, or related to them. If, for example, new people are appointed to important posts, if inspectors or captains are sent to new places, if somebody receives a promotion or a demotion, if somebody is punished for a mistake or a crime — the police reporter has to report all that in the newspaper. The second part of the work consists in paying attention to the police bulletins and reporting the various sensational events announced in them: a murder or another major crime, a suicide, a tragedy, a fire — the reporter has to make news from every unusual event in the life of New York that is reported in Police Headquarters. If necessary, he needs to zip down to the place where the event took place, examine, question, research and describe; or call the editorial office so that the city editor can send another person there. Chiefly, the second part of the work interested me, but the first part did also. Everything interested me.

Translated by Leizer Burko.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.