Chapter XLV of Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, is entitled “Curious Shifts of the Poor.” In this famous chapter, which has echoes of Stephen Crane, George Hurstwood — out of work, physically ill and desperate — is reduced to living in Broadway flophouses and to begging.
One afternoon, he goes to a theater where Carrie is appearing as a lead actress and hovers about the entrance, hoping to see her. He thinks he sees her alight from a carriage and enter the theater, but he is not sure it was her. He ambles downtown from 39th Street, where the theater is located, to the corner of 26th Street and Broadway:
At that hour, when Broadway is wont to assume its most interesting aspect, a peculiar individual invariably took his stand at the corner of Twenty-sixth Street and Broadway—a spot which is also intersected by Fifth Avenue. This was the hour when the theatres were just beginning to receive their patrons. Fire signs announcing the night’s amusements blazed on every hand. Cabs and carriages, their lamps gleaming like yellow eyes, pattered by. Couples and parties of three and four freely mingled in the common crowd, which poured by in a thick stream, laughing and jesting. On Fifth Avenue were loungers—a few wealthy strollers, a gentleman in evening dress with his lady on his arm, some clubmen passing from one smoking-room to another. Across the way the great hotels showed a hundred gleaming windows, their cafés and billiard-rooms filled with a comfortable, well-dressed, and pleasure-loving throng. All about was the night, pulsating with the thoughts of pleasure and exhilaration—the curious enthusiasm of a great city bent upon finding joy in a thousand different ways.
This unique individual was no less than an ex-soldier turned religionist, who, having suffered the whips and privations of our peculiar social system, had concluded that his duty to the God which he conceived lay in aiding his fellow-man. The form of aid which he chose to administer was entirely original with himself. It consisted of securing a bed for all such homeless wayfarers as should apply to him at this particular spot, though he had scarcely the wherewithal to provide a comfortable habitation for himself.
Taking his place amid this lightsome atmosphere, he would stand, his stocky figure cloaked in a great cape overcoat, his head protected by a broad slouch hat, awaiting the applicants who had in various ways learned the nature of his charity. For a while he would stand alone, gazing like any idler upon an ever-fascinating scene. On the evening in question, a policeman passing saluted him as “captain,” in a friendly way. An urchin who had frequently seen him before, stopped to gaze. All others took him for nothing out of the ordinary, save in the matter of dress, and conceived of him as a stranger whistling and idling for his own amusement.
As the first half-hour waned, certain characters appeared. Here and there in the passing crowds one might see, now and then, a loiterer edging interestedly near. A slouchy figure crossed the opposite corner and glanced furtively in his direction. Another came down Fifth Avenue to the corner of Twenty-sixth Street, took a general survey, and hobbled off again. Two or three noticeable Bowery types edged along the Fifth Avenue side of Madison Square, but did not venture over. The soldier, in his cape overcoat, walked a short line of ten feet at his corner, to and fro, indifferently whistling.
As nine o’clock approached, some of the hubbub of the earlier hour passed. The atmosphere of the hotels was not so youthful. The air, too, was colder. On every hand curious figures were moving—watchers and peepers, without an imaginary circle, which they seemed afraid to enter—a dozen in all. Presently, with the arrival of a keener sense of cold, one figure came forward. It crossed Broadway from out the shadow of Twenty-sixth Street, and, in a halting, circuitous way, arrived close to the waiting figure. There was something shamefaced or diffident about the movement, as if the intention were to conceal any idea of stopping until the very last moment. Then suddenly, close to the soldier, came the halt.
The captain looked in recognition, but there was no especial greeting. The newcomer nodded slightly and murmured something like one who waits for gifts. The other simply motioned toward the edge of the walk.
“Stand over there,” he said.
By this the spell was broken. Even while the soldier resumed his short, solemn walk, other figures shuffled forward. They did not so much as greet the leader, but joined the one, sniffling and hitching and scraping their feet.
“Cold, ain’t it?”
“I’m glad winter’s over.”
“Looks as though it might rain.”
The motley company had increased to ten. One or two knew each other and conversed. Others stood off a few feet, not wishing to be in the crowd and yet not counted out. They were peevish, crusty, silent, eying nothing in particular and moving their feet.
There would have been talking soon, but the soldier gave them no chance. Counting sufficient to begin, he came forward.
“Beds, eh, all of you?”
There was a general shuffle and murmur of approval.
“Well, line up here. I’ll see what I can do. I haven’t a cent myself.”
They fell into a sort of broken, ragged line. One might see, now, some of the chief characteristics by contrast. There was a wooden leg in the line. Hats were all drooping, a group that would ill become a second-hand Hester Street basement collection. Trousers were all warped and frayed at the bottom and coats worn and faded. In the glare of the store lights, some of the faces looked dry and chalky; others were red with blotches and puffed in the cheeks and under the eyes; one or two were rawboned and reminded one of railroad hands. A few spectators came near, drawn by the seemingly conferring group, then more and more, and quickly there was a pushing, gaping crowd. Some one in the line began to talk.
“Silence!” exclaimed the captain. “Now, then, gentlemen, these men are without beds. They have to have some place to sleep to-night. They can’t lie out in the streets. I need twelve cents to put one of them to bed. Who will give it to me?”
“Well, we’ll have to wait here, boys, until some one does. Twelve cents isn’t so very much for one man.”
“Here’s fifteen,” exclaimed a young man, peering forward with strained eyes. “It’s all I can afford.”
“All right. Now I have fifteen. Step out of the line,” and seizing one by the shoulder, the captain marched him off a little way and stood him up alone.
Coming back, he resumed his place and began again.
“I have three cents left. These men must be put to bed somehow. There are”—counting—”one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve men. Nine cents more will put the next man to bed; give him a good, comfortable bed for the night. I go right along and look after that myself. Who will give me nine cents?”
One of the watchers, this time a middle-aged man, handed him a five-cent piece.
“Now, I have eight cents. Four more will give this man a bed. Come, gentlemen. We are going very slow this evening. You all have good beds. How about these?”
“Here you are,” remarked a bystander, putting a coin into his hand.
“That,” said the captain, looking at the coin, “pays for two beds for two men and gives me five on the next one. Who will give me seven cents more?”
“I will,” said a voice.
Coming down Sixth Avenue this evening, Hurstwood chanced to cross east through Twenty-sixth Street toward Third Avenue. He was wholly disconsolate in spirit, hungry to what he deemed an almost mortal extent, weary, and defeated. How should he get at Carrie now? It would be eleven before the show was over. If she came in a coach, she would go away in one. He would need to interrupt under most trying circumstances. Worst of all, he was hungry and weary, and at best a whole day must intervene, for he had not heart to try again to-night. He had no food and no bed.
When he neared Broadway, he noticed the captain’s gathering of wanderers, but thinking it to be the result of a street preacher or some patent medicine fakir, was about to pass on. However, in crossing the street toward Madison Square Park, he noticed the line of men whose beds were already secured, stretching out from the main body of the crowd. In the glare of the neighbouring electric light he recognised a type of his own kind—the figures whom he saw about the streets and in the lodging-houses, drifting in mind and body like himself. He wondered what it could be and turned back.
There was the captain curtly pleading as before. He heard with astonishment and a sense of relief the oft-repeated words: “These men must have a bed.” Before him was the line of unfortunates whose beds were yet to be had, and seeing a newcomer quietly edge up and take a position at the end of the line, he decided to do likewise. What use to contend? He was weary to-night. It was a simple way out of one difficulty, at least. To-morrow, maybe, he would do better.
Back of him, where some of those were whose beds were safe, a relaxed air was apparent. The strain of uncertainty being removed, he heard them talking with moderate freedom and some leaning toward sociability. Politics, religion, the state of the government, some newspaper sensations, and the more notorious facts the world over, found mouthpieces and auditors there. Cracked and husky voices pronounced forcibly upon odd matters. Vague and rambling observations were made in reply.
There were squints, and leers, and some dull, ox-like stares from those who were too dull or too weary to converse.
Standing tells. Hurstwood became more weary waiting. He thought he should drop soon and shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. At last his turn came. The man ahead had been paid for and gone to the blessed line of success. He was now first, and already the captain was talking for him.
“Twelve cents, gentlemen—twelve cents puts this man to bed. He wouldn’t stand here in the cold if he had any place to go.”
Hurstwood swallowed something that rose to his throat. Hunger and weakness had made a coward of him.
“Here you are,” said a stranger, handing money to the captain.
Now the latter put a kindly hand on the ex-manager’s shoulder.
“Line up over there,” he said.
Once there, Hurstwood breathed easier. He felt as if the world were not quite so bad with such a good man in it. Others seemed to feel like himself about this.
“Captain’s a great feller, ain’t he?” said the man ahead—a little, woe-begone, helpless-looking sort of individual, who looked as though he had ever been the sport and care of fortune.
“Yes,” said Hurstwood, indifferently.
“Huh! there’s a lot back there yet,” said a man farther up, leaning out and looking back at the applicants for whom the captain was pleading.
“Yes. Must be over a hundred to-night,” said another.
“Look at the guy in the cab,” observed a third.
A cab had stopped. Some gentleman in evening dress reached out a bill to the captain, who took it with simple thanks and turned away to his line. There was a general craning of necks as the jewel in the white shirt front sparkled and the cab moved off. Even the crowd gaped in awe.
“That fixes up nine men for the night,” said the captain, counting out as many of the line near him. “Line up over there. Now, then, there are only seven. I need twelve cents.”
Money came slowly. In the course of time the crowd thinned out to a meagre handful. Fifth Avenue, save for an occasional cab or foot passenger, was bare. Broadway was thinly peopled with pedestrians. Only now and then a stranger passing noticed the small group, handed out a coin, and went away, unheeding.
The captain remained stolid and determined. He talked on, very slowly, uttering the fewest words and with a certain assurance, as though he could not fail.
“Come; I can’t stay out here all night. These men are getting tired and cold. Some one give me four cents.”
There came a time when he said nothing at all. Money was handed him, and for each twelve cents he singled out a man and put him in the other line. Then he walked up and down as before, looking at the ground.
The theatres let out. Fire signs disappeared. A clock struck eleven. Another half-hour and he was down to the last two men.
“Come, now,” he exclaimed to several curious observers; “eighteen cents will fix us all up for the night. Eighteen cents. I have six. Somebody give me the money. Remember, I have to go over to Brooklyn yet to-night. Before that I have to take these men down and put them to bed. Eighteen cents.”
No one responded. He walked to and fro, looking down for several minutes, occasionally saying softly: “Eighteen cents.” It seemed as if this paltry sum would delay the desired culmination longer than all the rest had. Hurstwood, buoyed up slightly by the long line of which he was a part, refrained with an effort from groaning, he was so weak.
At last a lady in opera cape and rustling skirts came down Fifth Avenue, accompanied by her escort. Hurstwood gazed wearily, reminded by her both of Carrie in her new world and of the time when he had escorted his own wife in like manner.
While he was gazing, she turned and, looking at the remarkable company, sent her escort over. He came, holding a bill in his fingers, all elegant and graceful.
“Here you are,” he said.
“Thanks,” said the captain, turning to the two remaining applicants. “Now we have some for to-morrow night,” he added.
Therewith he lined up the last two and proceeded to the head, counting as he went.
“One hundred and thirty-seven,” he announced. “Now, boys, line up. Right dress there. We won’t be much longer about this. Steady, now.”
He placed himself at the head and called out “Forward.” Hurstwood moved with the line. Across Fifth Avenue, through Madison Square by the winding paths, east on Twenty-third Street, and down Third Avenue wound the long, serpentine company. Midnight pedestrians and loiterers stopped and stared as the company passed. Chatting policemen, at various corners, stared indifferently or nodded to the leader, whom they had seen before. On Third Avenue they marched, a seemingly weary way, to Eighth Street, where there was a lodging-house, closed, apparently, for the night. They were expected, however.
Outside in the gloom they stood, while the leader parleyed within. Then doors swung open and they were invited in with a “Steady, now.”
Some one was at the head showing rooms, so that there was no delay for keys. Toiling up the creaky stairs, Hurstwood looked back and saw the captain, watching; the last one of the line being included in his broad solicitude. Then he gathered his cloak about him and strolled out into the night.
“I can’t stand much of this,” said Hurstwood, whose legs ached him painfully, as he sat down upon the miserable bunk in the small, lightless chamber allotted to him. “I’ve got to eat, or I’ll die.”
On November 5, 2016, I received an email from Dreiser scholar Thomas P. Riggio:
I just came across that section in Sister Carrie where the “Captain” gathers the homeless men and begs for small change to get them beds for the night. I’ve always felt that the description was so detailed and that the tone suggests that anyone familiar with New York life would recognize the character — sort of like Fleischmann’s bread line. I wonder if you ever came across anything in your research of the period or its newspapers that identified the original for the Captain? I’m almost willing to bet that he was a local well-known figure in the city.
Professor Riggio was convinced that the figure of the “the captain” in Dreiser’s novel must have been based on a real person. He actually had a name (which turned about the right one, something he did not know at the time), but he did not tell me so. Later, after publishing an article based upon my research (without having told me he planned to do so), Professor Riggio told me that he had had a name.
I went to the New York Public Library that day, on a weekend, to see if I could find anything about the real-life model for “the captain.”
To try and find the identity of a figure (perhaps hypothetical for all I knew) in New York City who might have matched Dreiser’s description of his activities. Over a period of a decade or more (sometime presumably in the 1890’s), using generic search terms such as “homeless,” “charity,” “beggar,” etc.?
I was practically in tears due to frustration and was about to give up, exhausted after searching for five or six hours, when I stumbled upon a newspaper article about some sort of chaplain who would solicit donations every evening near Madison Square Park to pay for beds for destitute men:
“Lodging for the Homeless; Evangelist Rotzler Collects Money for 126 Men and Marches the Shivering Crowd Away,” The New York Times, December 20, 1897
This has got to be the right person, I thought.
Now I had a name. Searching on Frederick Rotzler (the chaplain’s name), I found a lot of documentary material — newspaper and magazine articles — that described Frederick Rotzler’s activities as a chaplain before, during, and after the period when he was observed by Dreiser. Some of this material was unearthed by me on subsequent library visits. I promptly sent it all to Professor Riggio.
That same month, I got another email from Professor Riggio: “As to the blog on Rotzler, … I wonder if you could hold off on this for a while?”
I wasn’t quite sure what this vague communique meant. I had been thinking not so much of a blog — not precisely — I was thinking that since, as far as I knew, I had discovered the identity of “the captain” (pursuant to Professor Riggio’s request to research him), perhaps I should or could write an article in which I would explain the source of the figure in “Curious Shifts of the Poor.” It seemed — and was reasonable for me to assume, for all I knew — that I had made the discovery.
I received another email from Professor Riggio a couple of months later:
… if you could hold off for another five or six weeks, that would be helpful; this will give me time to complete my work on the subject which I began before we exchanged material on the subject. I know you have five or six items you have been trying to complete on your site, so there can be no rush on Rotzler for you.
Again, Professor Riggio was making assumptions about what I planned to do about the Rotzler materials. He was constructing a scenario that fit his plans and would give him “cover.” I did not know what he meant by “complete my work on the subject.” (He was being obscure on purpose.) What he was planning was to write an article, but he did not wish to tell me that, any more than he was willing to tell me at the outset that he already had a name for the person whom he suspected was “the captain.”
What he wanted to be able to do was sort of have his cake (for himself) and be able to eat it too (whenever he decided to) — in effect, to use the materials I had unearthed, whenever and however he saw fit, to write an article supposedly his, while ensuring that no one else would see or be able to use my findings, and that I would, not suspecting anything, honor his implicit request to not (for reasons he did not explain) publish an article myself.
His intention in asking me to do library research (pro bono) was to see what I could come up with — it would provide corroboration for his “theories” (surmises about “the captain’s” true identity) — but to make sure I did not think I was entitled to write an article about my findings. He certainly did not want me to write an article, nor to realize he was writing one, which would have perhaps induced me to think I was entitled to do it first.
The words “which I began before we exchanged material on the subject [“the captain”]” were meant to give him “cover,” to justify his writing an article using my materials, so that he could claim the article he was writing was based on his research, not mine.
Around a year later, to my surprise and consternation, the following article was published:
“Oh Captain, My Captain: Dreiser and the Chaplain of Madison Square”
By Thomas P. Riggio
Studies in American Naturalism, vol. 11, no. 2 (Winter 2016)
The article was based largely (though not entirely) on my original research. I was given a perfunctory acknowledgment in a footnote. When I complained to Professor Riggio, he defended appropriating my research on the grounds that he did the writing. Of course he had, using my material without informing me of what use he planned to make of it; without it, he would have had no article.
When I read the article, I saw to my dismay that it was chock full of documentary material, including verbatim transcripts, photographs and illustrations, plus findings of mine such as the location of the square where Dreiser’s chaplain appeared each night (which Dreiser remembered not quite correctly) and data on Rotlzer in the 1910 census. The latter is the kind of documentary material that makes or breaks a scholarly article. They give the reader assurance that the scholar/author has done his homework. But in this instance, the homework wasn’t done by the author; it was done by me, with no credit. Professor Riggio used this information (Dreiser’s mistake about the exact location; census data, which it would never have occurred to him to check) without any footnotes acknowledging that the information came from me. And, almost all of the illustrative and documentary material in the article, he simply cut and pasted using the text and photos I had emailed to him. This I could readily see by merely glancing at the published article.
— Roger W. Smith