I've been on tours at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum before, but this one broke my heart. Perhaps it was the size of the coffin of the girl being mourned after her death from malnutrition in 1869: it was so small that it looked like a large shoebox.
The deceased was Agnes Moore, aged ten months. Her death is the centerpiece of a moving yet carefully researched exhibit on her Irish Catholic family in a time when public health conditions were so awful, and the Irish so poor, that they suffered an infant mortality rate of 25%.
The Moores: An Irish Family in America, a new exhibit, takes place in a 325-square-foot tenement apartment restored to the condition of 1869, when the family actually lived at 97 Orchard. The father, Joseph, left Dublin in 1865 at 20. His wife, Bridget, arrived in New York in 1863 at 17. Joseph worked as a waiter and bartender. Bridget took care of the children, and the couple had three by 1869--Jane, Mary and Agnes.
The blue walls and knickknacks on the mantle make the apartment look more habitable then you might expect. But the tour and audiovisual presentations show that conditions the family endured were bad, even in a mostly German neighborhood with a reputation for relatively good living. Trash piled up as high as four feet in the streets.
And while the backyard of 97 Orchard had running water and privies that could be flushed out every two weeks or so, standards of sanitation and public health were poor. Particularly noxious was the "swill milk" that led to the malnourishment of so many children: unpasteurized, extracted from cows fed an unwholesome diet of distillery byproducts, and frequently dosed with chalk to make it look white.
As with other Tenement Museum exhibits, much of this information is conveyed by a tour guide working in a restored apartment stocked with antique furnishings from the period under discussion. Some amount of informed conjecture is unavoidable in this format, but it is responsibly identified as such.
The Moores adds to this formula, however, with artful use of recorded sound and projected images. Early in the tour, visitors listen to nineteenth century Irish songs, splendidly performed by my friends Dan Milner and Mick Moloney, which convey the immigrant experience. At the same time, pictures are projected on an interior window.
Later, when you enter the front room where Agnes' coffin is laid out, you are confronted by the sound of heart-rending keening in Gaelic for a dead child. Some pipes and whiskey are laid out for the men who will visit. A rosary is laid on top of the coffin.
The tour concludes with a visit to an adjacent apartment, the home of the Katz family in the 1930s, when housing reforms, education and sanitary measures had raised public health. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, the infant mortality rate for New York dropped to eight percent. And unlike the mid-nineteenth century, when immigrant children died at a rate ten times that of native children, the 1920 census showed immigrants' children dying at a lower rate than the children of the native-born.
All of this came too late for the Moore family. They moved away from Orchard Street in 1870 and eventually had eight children in all. Bridget died at 36. Joseph lived into his seventies. But of their eight children, only four reached adulthood.
Only one of the four surviving Moore children married. Her descendants today include police officers and firefighters in New York City.
The Moores is accompanied by What Might Have Been: An Irish Family at 97 Orchard Street, a historical novella grounded in detailed research, by the Irish writer Joseph O'Connor. It evokes the Moores' lives in beautiful, aching prose.
What Might Have Been, and The Moores: An Irish Family in America, powerfully relate an Irish immigrant experience marked by suffering, exploitation and courage. The exhibit and novella also have lessons for the present.
Today, the immigrant poor still suffer from a lack of good health care. Yet the world that the Moores inhabited--a world without government policies to enforce public health standards, mandate decent housing, and provide medical care--is just the social order that free market fundamentalists like to extol.
If you know some, take them to the Tenement Museum to call on the Moore family. It just might change their minds.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum can be reached on the Web at www.tenement.org.