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 Jacob Riis

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Jacob Riis

  • Birth 3 May 1849 Ribe, Esbjerg Kommune, Syddanmark, Denmark
  • Death 26 May 1914 Barre, Worcester County, Massachusetts, USA
  • Burial Barre, Worcester County, Massachusetts, USA
  • Memorial ID 872

Journalist and Social Reformer. He is best remembered for using his journalistic and photographic abilities to aid the cause of impoverished residents who resided in the slums of New York City. He came from a large family where his father was a schoolteacher and local newspaper writer. Against his father's wishes he desired to become a carpenter and worked as a carpenter's apprentice in Copenhagen, Denmark. In 1870, he decided to emigrate to America, arriving in New York City on June 5th, and soon found employment as a carpenter at an iron works on the Allegheny River, in western Pennsylvania. A month later, he learned the France had declared war on Germany and, expecting that Denmark would join the was on the side of the French, he returned to New York City and attempted to enlist at the French consulate only to learn there were no plans to send a volunteer French army from America. Without any money, he left New York City and found work at Mount Vernon, New York, by farming and doing odd jobs. He read in the New York Sun that the newspaper was recruiting soldiers for the war and returned to New York City only to be told the story was untrue. Destitute, he found work at a brickyard at Little Washington, New Jersey, until he heard another rumor that a group of volunteers was going to war and he returned again to New York City and discovered that although the rumor was true, he had arrived too late. He tried several other attempts to enlist but to no avail. He was again destitute and jobless, scavenging for food and sleeping in public areas or in a disgusting police lodging-house. Pawning his last possession, he bought passage on a ferry and left New York City again. He managed to reach Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he appealed to the Danish consulate for help. After caring for him for several weeks, the Consul sent him to Jamestown, New York, where he worked as a carpenter. He was able to earn a sufficient amount of money to find time to experiment as a writer. He soon applied for a job at a Buffalo, New York newspaper and was turned down, as were his articles by magazines. He returned to New York City where he achieved success as a salesman of flatirons and fluting irons. He was promoted to sales representative in Chicago, Illinois, but returned to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after being cheated out of his money and his stock. He experienced the same treatment there and returned to New York City. Seeing a job advertisement in a Long Island newspaper for an editor, he applied and became the city editor only to discover shortly after that the chief editor was dishonest and had no money to pay him for his work. He then found a job with the New York News Association as a writer and soon became the editor of a weekly newspaper, the News, which soon went bankrupt. By using his savings and borrowing money, he purchased the newspaper company and was able to pay off his debts and make the newspaper successful. He sold the company for a profit and returned to Denmark where he married his sweetheart prior to his emigrating to America. Returned to America with his new wife, he working briefly for a Brooklyn, New York newspaper, the Brooklyn News. He then accepted a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune, where he worked the most crime-ridden and impoverished slums of New York City. He wanted to show beyond words what the living conditions of the destitute were like and tried sketching but was not proficient at it. In 1887, he read about a crude form of flash photography as a new innovative way to take pictures in a dark setting. He and several other friends who had an interest in photography started taking pictures in the slums of New York City, using this new method. He purchased a camera along with equipment and supplies and practiced taking flash pictures. On February 12, 1888, the New York Sun published his first pictures that documented the hardships faced by the poor and the criminal element. He continued taking pictures for the next three years and tried to submit them to magazines in illustrated essays but without success. He decided to engage in public speaking and was able to secure a church to sponsor him and with a friend to present lectures on the issue of the plight of the poor living in squalor conditions in New York City. While the lectures made little money, they did help to expose public awareness, especially to people who had the ability to make changes. At the request of Charles Henry Parkhurst, an editor of Scribner's Magazine, he wrote an 18-page article that included nineteen of his photographs, rendered as line drawings, entitled "How the Other Half Lives" which was published in the 1889 Christmas edition. In 1890, he had the article published in a book, subtitled "Studies Among the Tenements of New York." In 1892, he wrote a sequel entitled "Children of the Poor." This all caught the attention of Theodore Roosevelt and 1895 when he became the president of the New York City Police Department Board of commissioners, he asked Riis to show him nighttime police work. These tours ultimately resulted in the closing of the police-managed lodging rooms as well as a tightening and enforcement of police conduct under Roosevelt's term. Riis also sought to have the slums around the Five Points area of New York City demolished and replaced with a park, which eventually opened on June 15, 1897. In 1901, he wrote his autobiography "The Making of an American." Altogether, he wrote 15 books that were published from 1890, with the last being in 1923, nine years after his death. His tombstone is an unmarked oval-shaped granite boulder. There is also a memorial stone that is located at the front stone wall of the cemetery.

Bio by: William Bjornstad

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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Added: 1 Jan 2001
  • Find A Grave Memorial 872
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Jacob Riis (3 May 1849–26 May 1914), Find A Grave Memorial no. 872, citing Riverside Cemetery, Barre, Worcester County, Massachusetts, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .