Death and Debauchery

We’ve been fascinated by this one for some time, for reasons not entirely clear even to us. We don’t usually publish true crime and the like, but now and then there’s a story that reminds us that over the centuries, people are fundamentally the same, though perhaps our treatment of them makes some halting progress.

The article from the June 15, 1891 Albany Morning Express tells of the death of Julia McIntyre, “one of the best known street characters in Albany,” who was found dead in bed the previous morning. The article says that Julia was about 40 years of age.

“She was the daughter of respectable parents, who gave her a fair education and did everything in their power to make a useful member of society of her. But while she was still in her teens she showed a longing for fast life, and soon became known as one of the frail sisterhood.”

That needs a moment of explanation — the “frail sisterhood,” not too surprisingly, is a euphemism for prostitution, and could well be the source of the noun form of “frail,” often used in hard-boiled fiction to refer to a broad, a dame, and possibly a skirt.

And knowing what we know now about human psychology, we have to think there’s more to the story than a rebellious girl from a “respectable” family. That can happen, but that’s not how it usually happens. So I can’t help but have a moment of sympathy for Julia.

“She drifted along with her boon companions, falling lower and lower, until she finally met one John McIntyre, whose correct name is said to be Murphy. McIntyre, or Murphy, has had an extended experience and made quite a record as a sort of genteel tramp.”

Not a lot of genteel tramps these days.

“He is tall, dark complexioned, curly haired and slender, with features, which although badly disfigured through dissipation, still bear traces of former perfection. He has spent his latter years in picking rags and doing whatever odd jobs he might find.”

Here, again, we may need to explain that at a previous time, almost nothing went to waste. When there were only a limited number of fibers, and limited sources for them, cotton rags were valuable, particularly to paper makers, who relied on cotton (not trees) to make fine paper — hence the term “rag paper.” It seems contradictory, but 100% rag cotton paper is very fine paper indeed.

“Whatever money he has been able to obtain has been expended in the purchase of his favorite poison. About eight years ago, having fallen to the lowest place in the social scale, he chanced to meet Julia, who had also descended the social ladder to a point below the lowest rung. The couple soon became fast friends and in time were married.”

Happily ever after? Um, no.

“But marriage did not reform them. The couple drifted about from one portion of the city to another in their endeavors to keep house and at the same time pay no rent. For the past few years there have been no ‘characters’ on the streets better known than this unfortunate couple – John, with his rag-bag on his back, and Julia carrying a ‘co’-wittle’ basket.”

“Co’-wittle basket”? We’ve got nothing. No idea what that is. But it doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

“Several days ago they were evicted by the landlord of the quarters which they then occupied, and for which they had failed to pay rent for the past several months. They went to a friend named Mrs. Smith, who lives in the dilapidated building, 14 Van Zandt street, which is used as a 10-cent lodging house. The woman took them in and gave them a corner of the room in which to spread their blankets. Saturday was a good day for the couple, and in the evening they drank heavily and continuously. About 11 o’clock Julia staggered tot he miserable pallet and fell down in a drunk en stupor. The ‘growler’ made the rounds for hours afterward and revelry ran high. The unfortunate’s death amid this wild scene of debauchery was a fitting end of an ill-spent life.”

Despite the subhead’s promise, that doesn’t sound like that wild an orgy, just a sad roomful of terminal alcoholics.

14 Van Zandt would have been in the vicinity of Van Zandt and Fulton, a block above (west) S. Pearl. You could be forgiven for not knowing those streets still exist, but they do.

In the Express’s version of discretion, while it can be bothered to shame and make a moral lesson of what was likely a most unpleasant set of experiences that befell Julia, it did not see fit to name her family. Julia was fairly far under the radar at the time, so despite having been one of the best known street characters (at a time when there seem to have been plenty), we don’t find another mention of her at all.

It isn’t said how old John McIntyre was, and being a common enough name it’s hard to be sure if we can trace him at all, but it’s worth noting that a widowed John McIntyre does show up in the 1910 census, then aged 48 (and therefore about 10-11 years younger than Julia), working in a pool room.

We’re a little sorry for Julia, and think she deserved better, perhaps in life and certainly in death.

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