Jacob Riis: A Key Figure in Constructing the Image of 19th Century “Toughs”

The media industry that pervaded public life the most during the late nineteenth century was print media, which includes the creation and publication of novels, magazines, and newspapers. A particularly influential writer was Jacob Riis (1849-1914), who paired his writing with pictures taken with flash photography, a feature that was developed during the late 19th century. This allowed Riis’ work to have a more significant effect on the public’s understanding of the themes of his work, which focused on revealing the poor living conditions and the poverty of New York City’s crime-ridden slums. While the purpose of his work was to initiate social reforms, Jacob Riis’ exposés of criminal activity also helped the public to understand the nineteenth century criminal.

[1]Jacob Riis, born in Denmark in 1849, was an American journalist, author, social reformer, and photographer. Four years after emigrating to New York in 1870, Riis became editor of the South Brooklyn News, thus beginning his career as a journalist.[2] In 1877, he became a police reporter for The New York Tribune, writing pieces that revealed the crime and poverty of New York City’s lower east side slums.[3] He worked in his press office across from police headquarters on Mulberry Street for thirteen years. In addition to newspaper and magazine articles, Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives (1890), The Children of Mulberry Street (1898), The Battle With the Slum (1902), Children of the Tenements (1903), and other pieces.

As an immigrant who arrived in the United States with nothing but the clothes on his back, $40 in his pocket, and a locket, Riis knew what it felt like to suffer-what it felt like to not have enough food or a place to live. He wanted to show the public what he felt and experienced in the city’s slums.[4] The invention of flash photography made it possible for Riis’ readers to literally see what he saw. Using flash photography, Riis was able to document “the dark, over-crowded tenements, grim saloons and dangerous slums.”[5]

[6]His photographs, used in his articles, books, and lectures, made his exposés on the city’s slums even more shocking in the eyes of the public. These photographs showed that “the unincorporated could be dangerous; that their abodes were dirty; that neighborhoods were crime-ridden.”[7] By putting pictures of criminals and their living conditions right in front of the eyes of his readers, Riis literally constructed the public’s image of the criminal.

[8]How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890, brought Riis fame. It brought to light the unimaginable conditions of New York City’s slums through photographs, sketches, and descriptions. One aspect of slum life that Riis depicted was the formation of gangs. In the chapter “The Harvest of Tares,” Riis states: “the gang is the ripe fruit of tenement-house growth. It was born there…”[9] He also identifies gang members as the American-born sons of immigrant parents, who emigrated to the United States from England, Ireland, and Germany. As he continues, Riis begins to paint the picture of the typical gang member, negating the idea that “the New York tough” is a fierce and courageous individual. Rather, Riis exposes “the tough” as a coward-someone who, like a wolf, is only dangerous when he hunts with the pack. The gang member’s two purposes are bravado, which incites him to attack a policeman, and robbery, which incites him to attack a citizen. According to Riis, the gang member is “a queer bundle of contradictions.”[10] He is a drunk and foul-mouthed, fully prepared to murder an innocent stranger, or even his own mother. At the same time, however, he is “a lover of fair play.”[11] He is also a lover of applause, which stimulates his bravado to great lengths. This applause comes from fellow gang members, who worship he who can get his name in the papers as a “murderous scoundrel,” or he who gets sent to jail.[12] Riis notes that gangs have created standards of heroism, which all members strive to meet by committing daring crimes. “By day they loaf in the corner-groggeries on their beat, at night they plunder the stores along the avenues, or lie in wait at the river for unsteady feet straying their way.”[13] Riis supplements his writing with photographs of gang members, enhancing his illustration of the gangs that inhabited slums from Battery to Harlem. For example, the picture titled “Bandit’s Roost,” depicts “bandits” hanging around 59 ½ Mulberry Street, an area that was considered the most crime ridden and dangerous part of the city.

[14]By viewing this photograph, and others like it, the public is able to comprehend the physical characteristics of criminals as well. In this way, the writing, and photography, of Jacob Riis helped construct an image of the 19th century “tough.”

It is important to note that, contradictory to the beliefs of criminologists of the late 19th century who believed inthe existence of a continuum between the physical, psychological, moral, and social dimensions of the criminal,” and that people were born into the world as criminals, Jacob Riis asserts that the criminal is a product of the poor conditions of tenements and slums.[15]

[16]In A Ten Years’ War: An Account of the Battle with the Slum in New York, Riis dedicates a chapter to a discussion on the formation of gangs and their members. Riis uses Jacob Beresheim, a fifteen-year-old boy who was charged with murder, as a representation of the typical street boy on the East Side. Beresheim, like the other street boys living in slums in the East Side, grew up in a tenement that lacked “sunlight.” Only “darkness and discouragement” flourished in tenement houses, which gave him up to the street at an early age and gave him “an instinct for the crowd.”[17] The street then taught him his first lesson: gambling. Stealing was the next lesson. He did not learn any lessons in a classroom because, although there was a law requiring every child to attend school,  “the law had been dead [for] a quarter of a century.”[18] The church and Sunday school were also unable to teach kids like Beresheim, who drifted around the streets. These kids living in the slums of New York City’s East Side did not have access to the same playgrounds that others living in nicer neighborhoods had, and according to Riis, how a boy plays when he is young has an effect on the development of his character. When a boy does not have a ball to kick, he has no chance of growing up a decent citizen. To summarize his point, Riis states that these boys are trained for citizenship “robbed of home and childhood, with every prop knocked from under him, [with] all the elements that make for strength and character trodden out in the making of the boy, [and with] all the high ambition of youth caricatured by the slum.”[19] In other words, the boys are doomed to become criminals from the beginning.

Riis’ writing was a significant contribution to the public’s understanding of criminals. In showing why and how a gang member or a “tough” is produced, Riis not only reveals something about the nature of criminals, but also provides a way to get rid of them. By enacting social reforms that reduce poverty and improve the living conditions of the cities slums and poor neighborhoods that fostered the development of gangs, crime would disappear. A journalist and a social reformer, Jacob Riis was a key figure in revealing to the public the late 19th century criminal.


[1] Pirie MacDonald. Jacob August Riis, 1849-1914, head and shoulders portrait, facing slightly left. 1906. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress.

[2] Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom, Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York (New York: The New Press, 2007), 7.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Jimmy Stamp, “Pioneering Social Reformer Jacob Riis Revealed ‘The Other Half Lives’ in America,” Smithsonian, May 27, 2014, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/pioneering-social-reformer-jacob-riis-revealed-how-other-half-lives-america-180951546/?no-ist

[5] Ibid

[6] Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1890), 223.

[7] Kay Davis, “Analysis of Riis Photographs,” Documenting ‘The Other Half’: The Social Reform Photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, University of Virginia, 2000-2003, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/davis/photography/riis/riisanalysis.html

[8] Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1890).

[9] Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1890), 218.

[10] Ibid., 220.

[11] Ibid., 221.

[12] Ibid., 222.

[13] Ibid., 230.

[14] Ibid., 63.

[15] Marie-Christine Leps, Apprehending the Criminal: The Production of Deviance in Nineteenth-century Discourse (Durham: Duke UP, 1992), 44.

[16] Jacob Riis, A Ten Years’ War: An Account of the Battle with the Slim in New York- Kindle Edition (Amazon Digital Services Inc., 2012).

[17] Jacob Riis, A Ten Years’ War: An Account of the Battle with the Slum in New York (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1900), 141.

[18] Ibid., 144.

[19] Ibid., 150.

[20] Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1890), 228.