“I personally think we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.” attributed to Jane Wagner
Setting the scene
The time was October, 1861 and the Civil War was in full swing. President Abraham Lincoln was viewing a hot air balloon demonstration in hopes that such balloons could be used as a top secret observation method during battles. Moore’s Rural New Yorker was reporting that about 20,000 troops were assembling at Annapolis, a “fleet of seventy sail is in the offing; we are ordered to embark soon, with fifteen days’ provisions for men and horses. Foot it all up, and say for yourself whether it shells out Charleston, Mobile or New Orleans. One thing is clear—something is about to be attempted.”
And in Rochester, Ellen Stout was in enough of a state about her son that she complained to the Board of Health about a certain Michael Wolf.
“Oct. 28, 1861. By Ellen Stout. That Mike Wolf, on Orange Street, near Walnut Street, near Schoolhouse No. 17, who keeps a beer saloon, and who entices and harbors her son 16 years of age away from home at his house, thus demoralizing him, and all who visit his saloon.”
How do we know this? Because one of the hottest current reads in the Local History Division is The Board of Health Complaint Book, 1861-1866. This typescript of the Board of Health records from the Civil War period contains a wealth of information about the downsides of city living in the 1860s.
We don’t know who transcribed these complaints or when or why; all we know is that everyone who reads them is fascinated. We have digitized this volume so you can now read them too. Note that the complaints are recorded in chronological order. But before you delve into the volume let me give you some general background about what those Rochesterians were complaining about.
Morality and public nuisances
In addition to complaints about houses of ill repute and drunkenness, the new sport of baseball was a cause of concern to Silas Cornell. Mr. Cornell was an upright citizen and renowned mapmaker. You can view his maps by visiting Rochester Images. But somehow he could not abide boys playing baseball on the Sabbath.
“April 8, 1864. Brown Square is much abused by boys playing ball, etc. on the grass, more on the Sabbath Day than other times. Last Sabbath about 1 o’clock, two gentlemen remonstrated kindly with them and urged them to dispurse. Some of them returned the vilest abuse and before the gentlemen got out of sight they resumed their play. Silas Cornell.”
He seemed to get such little satisfaction that he felt the need to complain again later in the month.
“April 26, 1864. Brown Square again. Last Sabbath rude boys were again collected and playing ball here, not as numerous as on some former times. One company of 5 or 6 boys kept up their game with loud holloring till about 1 o’clock without being interrupted or stoped. Silas Cornell.”
Profane language and other incivilities also get space in the book.
“May 20, 1864. Complaint is made of boys in swimming in canal between Troup and Atkinson St., exposing their persons and using profane language from 7 to 8 of clock p.m.”
“Dec. 27th, 1864. Richard Daly, 183 State St. Complains of John McCormick, Lester’s Block, for chopping wood on the sidewalk and breaking windows while doing so. When complainant remonstrated with him about it, the reply was, ‘Go to — ‘. This is for the street Superintendent.”
Animals, living and dead, were a major concern, as livestock and pets were all in the way everywhere, it seems.
“April 16, 1864. Roswell Hart, Esq., having seen a notice in the paper from the Mayor, requesting good citizens to report the names of persons violating City Ordinances, desires to report the names of Henry S. Potter, William A. Reynolds and O. M. Benedict as having violated an Ordinance by allowing their cows to run at large in the streets.”
Henry S. Potter, cow owner. From Rochester and the Post Express, page 170
“Oct. 14th. 1864. Amasa Orlun, corner of Tappan and Finney Sts., complains of a dead hog lying in the street near his place on Finney Street. Hog lies beside the fence. Been there three days.”
(By the way, if you see a dead pig these days it looks like 3-1-1 is the number you want to call — I am providing this information as a public service)
I tried to count the numbers of complaints about privies and other environmental concerns but it became so daunting that I gave up. Some of the most colorful language in the book is reserved for this category, though.
“Feb. 15, 1866. Complaint is made of a lot of privies on east side of Jones Street between Brown and Jay Streets. They are said to be running over with filth or will be as soon as a thaw occurs.”
“April 19, 1866. See a ravine running down below Lyme’s Brewery which is full of putrefaction and when the weather becomes warmer impregnates the whole atmosphere with putrid miasma, and if not cleansed will be a source for contagion and disease. It is full of corrupt matter and which has been gradully increasing for many years. Let the Inspector stir it a little and smell it. Situated between Prince Street and New Main Street, north of the brewery.”
In the days before hand sanitizer dispensers were in almost every building, colds were the least of the citizens’ worries. Any news of a smallpox outbreak brought out fears worthy of the characters of a modern scary movie:
“December 4, 1863. Complaint is made of a case of small pox. Chatham St. People are continually running out and in exposing the whole neighbourhood to the disease. Dr. Kuichling has pronounced the case fatal and says that proper steps should at once be taken to prevent the malady spreading.”
It is puzzling to me that there is only one complaint recorded in the book about one of the greatest catastrophes of all time in Rochester, the flood of March 1865. However, it is a particularly poignant one.
“March 20, 1865. A family on Kent St., No. 26, has nothing to eat or anything to burn. All flooded out.”
View of the flood
Finally, a true Rochester complaint!
On January 6, 1866, Benjamin Butler, listed in the complaint book as a Street Superintendent, “complains of the Mayor for not having the snow in front of the Court House cleaned off.”
Who among us has not complained about the snow? If you have, you may not want to look at that seven-day forecast just yet. However, if the snowflakes do begin to fall again, you now have a “new” book you can curl up with as you sit by the fire, the Board of Health Complaint Book, 1861-1866.
Elizabeth Spring, Digital Collections Librarian