Friday, July 18, 2014

Portland by Night

The Evil Deeds of Darkness

An Evening in Whitechapel and Its Celebrated Resorts of Crime and Dissipation

This article was written by an unnamed Oregonian reporter and appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, May 14, 1893. Note: Please try to overlook the racial insensitivity in a few remarks. It is mild compared to many news articles from the period. I added paragraph breaks. The article had none, and was a bit difficult to read. I believe this article is a valuable first hand account of the life in the North End at the beginning of the 1890s.

When darkness has settled down upon the western Heights and blotted from sight the near and distant scenes of which Portlanders love to tell, there is still presented to the eye a beautiful view, for art takes possession of the landscape nature leaves to rest.  Spread out at one’s feet is a vast sea of deep, mysterious darkness, interspersed with glistening points of a radiance—brilliant arcs scattered here and there, long rows of glowing incandescents and twinkling stars of household light.  

How diverse are the scenes upon which these flameless fires shed their rays!  Some shine out from homes of splendor, some light the way to hurrying steps or over the pavements, some standout serene and high above the river’s darkly flowing tide, and others can scarcely pierce the gloom of the resorts of crime and the abodes of misery and squalor.  Sundry forms of municipal legislation and a general scarcity of spare money for the past three years have made Portland’s night scenes quite humdrum affairs to what they were when three or four variety theaters were thriving, and half a dozen big gambling houses within a stone’s throw of each other were running all-night games.  What does go on however, is about the

same kind though less in extent.  Twelve o’clock is about the time when good people fade almost utterly from the street.  There are those, of course, whose duties keep them out—policeman, street sweepers, reporters, but aside from these those who “roam the streets” after that hour should be elsewhere.  

No one who has witnessed a great fire at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning can have failed to wonder at the presence of so many people who have evidently not retired, but appear in their evening dress without a trace of dishabille.  Wherever they come from, they show up in sufficient numbers to prove that a large proportion of the city’s population find other occupation than sleep for the night hours.  Many of these, of course, have duties of the day which will suffer for the dissipation, but still the night side of Portland affords honest work for many toilers.  Most of it to be sure is furnished by those questionable pursuits.  

Protection against lawlessness is the chief of mission of the police at night; and the hack men, and messenger boys who  scurry hither and thither do so by almost uniformly at the instance of the criminal element or the “sporting class.”  After the theater-goers have finished with their jostling but short-lived processions, and the last cars have whisked away with their belated loads, quiet settles over the streets.  

The last places to close up, except the saloons and restaurants, are the cigar and refreshments stands.  About 12 their folding doors are put together, their windows put up and a solitary light burning is all that tells of their previous activity.  But within the saloons there is still life and activity.  They are at anytime the brightest of places along the street. From out their hidden mysteries float sounds of merry clinking glasses, snatches of laughter and song, and sometimes voices in wordy discussion.  Within groups of men before the bar are reflected in the burnished mirrors, others sit at the card tables, busy with paste-board and chips.  

Down in the North End there are more people on the streets.  The varieties are in full blast, and a constant stream of patrons pours in out of them and the saloons which thickly besprinkle the section from Pine street north to Hoyt.  Some of these places are frequented by a very low class of customers—“friends” of variety actresses and women of the town, hoboes, petty criminals, back-number bartenders, relics of brighter days from all classes of employment, sailors and ‘longshoremen.  

To cater to this class of trade, music (so-called) is provided.  Sometimes a piano suffices; in other resorts there will be a violin and piano, or harp and piano; and in one place on Third street there is furnished nightly an unique picture.  A big, burly negro saws away monotonously on a violin, eyes closed in oblivion, a half-consumed cigarette in his mouth.  By his side a white man pounds fiercely upon a piano that has seen better days, while from a neighboring eminence a Jap doles out Irish stew of fearful and wonderful composition as a “grand free hot lunch every night with one glass of beer.” The guests sit around the sloppy tables, and while the night wanes the “Irish Washerwoman” and the grand free lunch go down with the beer.


Other places have feminine attractions. Most of these are the French cribs or the saloon attachment.  These are generally conducted in colonies—three or four ostensibly distinct establishments working under the common headquarters, generally a corner saloon.  In this central establishment is the saloon, and in its rear a dining-room and kitchen or the ladies on the block board and by their cognac and claret. All have connection with the source of supplies and will bring drinks for their thirsty guests in the twinkling of an eye.  

At the corner of Fourth and C is a typical colony of this sort.  The proprietress, a dark, voluptuous Frenchwoman of 33 or thereabouts, has a lease on the entire quarter-block.  The houses on both streets from the corner to the center of the block are cut up into small rooms, the occupants renting from her, boarding with her and patronizing the corner bar for red wine, strong brandy, absinthe and benedictine.  

Those immediately adjoining the saloon often come into the common parlor, which connects with the barroom and vary the monotony of their window campaign by hanging around the bar and accepting chance customers with, “Can’t I have a drink meester?”  Their request is rarely unsuccessful to those who go into such places to drink know what they will meet and expect to be sociable.  The French girl has her faults, but they are not those of her Anglo-Saxon co-laborer.  She does not squander her money and riotous living, make the night hideous with drunken orgies, or
brazenly parade the streets to advertise her calling.  Generally her slender earnings go to her macquereau,1 who manages her as exactingly as the sideshow proprietor does his freaks, and frequently punishes her shamefully for ill success, whether occasioned by sickness or slack business methods.  

There are many saloons were in English speaking women have connecting rooms.  These usually spend much of their time in the barroom or its adjoining “parlor.”  They are clamorous in their pleas for drinks, though it is usually done for the sake of their percentages rather than from a state of ceaseless thirst.  It is not uncommon, however, to see them the worse for liquor, and as long as they are jovial and increasing their “jag,” they do not want for friends to ply them with liquor until they become maudlin.

But not all the women who are out late can be found in saloons.  Some are in the private rooms of fashionable restaurants, slated with champagne and oysters, talking wildly, laughing and immoderately, experimenting with cigarettes and essaying skirt dances.  They have a plausible excuses for parents or husbands in the morning about missing the last car and staying with a lady friend.  There is another large class known to the police as “grafters” who lure their perspective victims into wine rooms, reached by the frequent sign, “Private Entrance,” “Ladies Entrance” or “Family Entrance,” where, with drinks more or less doctored, and with deft fingers, they rob their companion. Sometimes they take him to their lodgings, where silent hands through a panel, or hooks through a transom, do the work she despaired of in the wineroom.

One of the jolly combinations one meets on the streets is that of the drummer and his country customer.  Be sure the merchants sees all the sites at night, from the luxurious bagnio2 to the Whitechapel den, from the tiger to the crap game, and that the house defrays all the expense of the excursion.  Night is not the professional gambler’s time for taking pleasure walks.  He is assiduously employed, dealing, on the lookout, or perhaps playing his own “systems” from the outside. When his work is done he is glad enough to seek his rest.  

The men on the street are chiefly hangers-on of various places, variety roustabouts, saloon porters, hobos pure and simple, alert to sponge meals or drinks or assist in petty misdemeanors which will give him a pittance.  Curiously enough the beggars have vanished.  They must rest sometime from the arduous duties of their profession and at night they find the most congenial company in which to spend their incomes.  

“Sure thing” men at cards or dice are active, keenly on watch for possible victims.  Back in forth among these scenes, the hacks and messenger boys hurry, the street-cleaners’ machines go along with its wake of dust and subsequent shovelers with their carts, police patrol their beats, picking up an occasional drunk or sneak thief, until the gray dawn streaks the eastern sky and another day is ushered in, the rattle of the produce and milk vendors’ wagons is heard over the bridges and the streets become alive with laborers going to their early morning tasks.

1.macquereau:French: Pimp, Procurer
2. bagnio: As per the usage in the Oregonian of the period the word means a prostitute's boudoir.