Glittering and glamorous, New York in the mid-nineteenth century was also plagued by political corruption, sanitation problems, and a growing gulf between rich and poor. In this book, Eric Homberger, brilliantly evokes the life of a city, through vivid portraits of New Yorkers struggling to reconstruct a sense of community amid the selfish materialism of their urban environment.
Homberger focuses on four main characters who played important roles in various reform efforts of the period: Ann Lohman, known as "Madame Restell, the world-renowned medical expert," whose services as an abortionist were partly responsible for the creation of a harshly repressive public policy toward abortion that persisted for more than a century; "Slippery Dick" Connolly, comptroller of New York City, who escaped to Europe with millions of the city's dollars and betrayed his confederates in the Tweed Ring; Dr. Stephen Smith, a young surgeon at Bellevue Hospital who was able to show that dozens of cases of typhus had originated in a single tenement on East 22nd Street; and Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect-in-chief of Central Park, who brought into reality a concept promoted by the aristocracy for the benefit of rich and poor alike.
In the course of telling the stories of these New Yorkers, Homberger describes a host of other characters: cynical politicians employing the ever-effective language of racism, real estate speculators angrily contesting who was to reap the benefit of Central Park and who was to pay, well-meaning preachers, cunning lawyers, destitute immigrants, curious journalists, wealthy New Yorkers who anxiously feared the city's mobs, moral reformers, and many more. Wonderful reading, Homberger's book is also timely, for his account of the struggle to define and create community within a diverse and contentious city illuminates similar struggles taking place in cities today.