The Abominations of Modern Society

T. De Witt Talmage, Brooklyn, January 1st, 1872


When night came down on Babylon, Nineveh, and Jerusalem, they needed careful watching, otherwise the incendiary's torch might have been thrust into the very heart of the metropolitan splendor; or enemies, marching from the hills, might have forced open the gates. All night long, on top of the wall and in front of the gates, might be heard the measured step of the watchman on his solitary beat. It is to me a deeply suggestive and solemn thing, to see a man standing guard by night. It thrilled through me, as at the gate of an arsenal in Charleston, the question once smote me, "Who comes there?" followed by the sharp command: "Advance and give the countersign." Every moral teacher stands on picket, or patrols the wall as watchman. His work is to sound the alarm; and whether it be in the first watch, in the second watch, in the third watch, or in the fourth watch—to be vigilant until the daybreak flings its "morning glories" of blooming cloud across the arching trellis of the sky.

The ancients divided their night into four parts—the first watch, from six to nine; the second, from nine to twelve; the third, from twelve to three; and the fourth, from three to six. I speak now of the city in the third watch, or from twelve to three o'clock. I never weary of looking upon the life and brilliancy of the city in the first watch. That is the hour when the stores are closing. The laboring men, having left the scaffolding and the shop, are on their way home. It rejoices me to give them my seat in the city car. They have stood and hammered away all day. Their feet are weary. They are exhausted with the tug of work. They are mostly cheerful. With appetites sharpened on the swift turner's wheel and the carpenter's whetstone, they seek the evening meal. The clerks, too, have broken away from the counter, and with brain weary of the long line of figures, and the whims of those who go a-shopping, seek the face of mother, or wife and child. The merchants are unharnessing themselves from their anxieties, on their way up the street. The boys that lock up are heaving away at the shutters, shoving the heavy bolts, and taking a last look at the fire to see that all is safe. The streets are thronged with young men, setting out from the great centers of bargain-making. Let idlers clear the street, and give right of way to the besweated artisans and merchants! They have earned their bread, and are now on their way home to get it. The lights hang over ten thousand evening meals—the parents at either end of the table, the children between. Thank God! "who sets the solitary in families!"

A few hours later, and all the places of amusement, good and bad, are in full tide. Lovers of art, catalogue in hand, stroll through the galleries and discuss the pictures. The ball-room is resplendent with the rich apparel of those who await the signal from the orchestra. The footlights of the theater flash up; the bell rings, and the curtain rises; and out from the gorgeous scenery glide the actors, greeted with the vociferation of the expectant multitudes. Concert-halls are lifted into enchantment with the warble of one songstress, or swept out on a sea of tumultuous feeling by the blast of brazen instruments. Drawing-rooms are filled with all gracefulness of apparel, with all sweetness of sound, with all splendor of manner; mirrors are catching up and multiplying the scene, until it seems as if in infinite corridors there were garlanded groups advancing and retreating. The out-door air rings with laughter, and with the moving to and fro of thousands on the great promenades. Mirth, revelry, beauty, fashion, magnificence mingle in the great metropolitan picture, until the thinking man goes home to think more seriously, and the praying man to pray more earnestly.

A beautiful and overwhelming thing is the city in the first and second watches of the night. But the clock strikes twelve, and the third watch begins. The thunder of the city has rolled from the air. Slight sounds now cut the night with a distinctness that excites your attention. You hear the tinkling of the bell of the street-car in the far distance; the baying of the dog; the stamp of the horse in the adjoining street; the slamming of a saloon door; the hiccoughing of the inebriate; and the shriek of the steam-whistle five miles away. Solemn and stupendous is this third watch. There are respectable men abroad. The city missionary is going up that court, to take a scuttle of coal to a poor family. The undertaker goes up the steps of that house, from which there comes a bitter cry, as though the destroying angel had smitten the first-born. The minister of Jesus passes along; he has been giving the sacrament to a dying Christian. The physician hastens past, the excited messenger a few steps ahead, impatient to reach the threshold. Men who are forced to toil into the midnight are hastening to their pillow. But the great multitudes are asleep. The lights are out in the dwellings, save here and there one. That is the light of the watcher, for the remedies must be administered, and the fever guarded, and the ice kept upon the temples, and the perpetual prayer offered by hearts soon to be broken. The street-lamps, standing in long line, reveal the silence and the slumber of the town.

Stupendous thought—a great city asleep! Weary arm gathering strength for to-morrow's toil. Hot brain getting cooled off. Rigid muscles relaxing. Excited nerves being soothed. White locks of the octogenarian in thin drifts across the white pillow—fresh fall of flakes on snow already fallen. Children with dimpled hands thrown out over the pillow, with every breath inhaling a new store of fun and frolic. Let the great multitudes sleep! A slumberless Eye will watch them. Let one great wave of refreshing slumber roll across the heart of the great town, submerging trouble and weariness and pain. It is the third watch of the night, and time for the city to sleep.

But be not deceived. There are thousands of people in the great town who will not sleep a moment tonight. Go up that dark court. Be careful, or you will fall over the prostrate form of a drunkard lying on his own worn step. Look about you, or you will feel the garroter's hug. Try to look in through that broken pane! What do you see? Nothing. But listen. What is it? "God help us!" No footlights—but tragedy—mightier, ghastlier than Ristori or Edwin Booth ever acted. No bread. No light. No fire. No cover. They lie strewn upon the floor—two whole families in one room. They shiver in the darkness. They have had no food today. You say: "Why don't they beg?" They did beg—but got nothing. You say: "Hand them over to the almshouse." Ah! they had rather die than go to the almshouse. Have you never heard the bitter cry of the man or of the child when told that he must go to the almshouse?

You say that these are wicked poor, and have brought their own misfortune on themselves. So much the more to be pitied. The Christian poor—God helps them! Through their night there twinkles the round, merry star of hope, and through the cracked window-pane of their hovel they see the crystals of heaven. But the wicked are the more to be pitied. They have no hope. They are in hell now. They have put out their last light. People excuse themselves from charity—by saying they do not deserve to be helped. If I have ten prayers for the innocent—I shall have twenty for the guilty. If a ship be dashed upon the rocks, the fisherman, in his hut on the beach, will wrap the warmest flannels around those who are the most chilled and battered. The wicked poor have suffered two awful wrecks, the wreck of the body—and the wreck of the soul; a wreck for time—and a wreck for eternity!

Go up that alley! Open the door. It is not locked. They have nothing to lose. No burglar would want anything that is there. There is only a broken chair set against the door. Strike a match and look around you. Beastliness and rags! A shock of hair hanging over the scarred visage. Eyes glaring upon you. Offer no insult. Be careful what you say. Your life is not worth much in such a place. See that red mark on the wall. That is the mark of a murderer's hand. From the corner a wild face starts out of the straw and moves toward you, just as your light goes out. Strike another match. Here is a little babe. It does not laugh. It never will laugh. A sea-flower flung on an awfully barren beach: O that the Shepherd would fold that lamb! Wrap your shawl about you, for the January wind sweeps in. Strike another match. The face of that young woman is bruised and gashed now—but a mother once gazed upon it in ecstasy of fondness. Awful stare of two eyes that seem looking up from the bottom of woe. Stand back. No hope has dawned on that soul for years. Hope never will dawn upon it. Utter no scorn. The match has gone out. Light it not again, for it would seem to be a mockery.

Pass out! Pass on! Know that there are thousands of such abodes in our cities. An awful, gloomy, and overwhelming picture is the city in the third watch. After midnight the crime of the city does its chief work. At eight and a half o'clock in the evening the criminals of the city are at leisure. They are mostly in the drinking saloons. It needs courage to do what they propose to do. Rum makes men reckless. They are getting their brain and hand just right. Toward midnight they go to their garrets. They gather their tools. Soon after the third watch they stalk forth, silently, looking out for the police, through the alleys to their appointed work. This is a burglar; and the door-lock will fly open at the touch of the false keys. That is an incendiary; and before morning there will be a light on the sky, and a cry of "Fire! Fire!" That is an assassin; and a lifeless body will be found tomorrow in some of the vacant lots. During all the day there are hundreds of villains to be found lounging about, a part of the time asleep, a part of the time awake; but at twelve tonight they will rouse up, and their eyes will be keen, and their minds acute, and their arms strong, and their foot fleet to fly or pursue.

Many of them have been brought up to the evil work. They were born in a thief's garret. Their childish plaything was a burglar's dark lantern. As long ago as they can remember, they saw, toward morning, the mother binding up the father's head, wounded by a watchman's club. They began by picking boys' pockets, and now they can dig an underground passage to the cellar of the bank, or will blast open the door of the gold vault. So long as the children of the street are neglected, there will be no lack of desperadoes.

In the third watch of the night the gambling-houses are in full blast. What though the hours of the night are slipping away, and the wife sits waiting in the cheerless home! Stir up the fires! Bring on the drinks! Put up the stakes! A whole fortune may be made—or lost—before morning! Some of the firms that once thrived, have already foundered on the gambler's table. The money-drawer in many a mercantile house will this year mysteriously spring a leak.

Gambling is a portentous vice, and is making great efforts to become respectable. Recently a member of Congress played, and carried off a trophy of one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. The old-fashioned way of getting a fortune is too slow! Let us toss up and see who shall have it! And so it goes, from the wheezing wretches who pitch pennies in a rum grocery, to the millionnaire gamblers in the gold-market. After midnight the eye of God will look down and see uncounted gambling-saloons plying their destruction.

Passing down the street tonight, you may hear the wrangling of the gamblers mingling with the rattle of the dice, and the clear, sharp crack of the balls on the billiard-table. The finest rooms in the city are gambling dens. In gilded parlor, amid costly tapestry, you may behold these dens of death. These houses have walls attractive with elaborate fresco and gems of painting—no sham artist's daub—but a masterpiece. Mantel and table glitter with vases and statuettes. Lounges and couches with deep cushions, the perfection of upholstery, invite to rest and repose. Tufts of geranium, from bead baskets, suspended mid-room, drop their bewitching perfume. Fountains gushing up, sprinkling the air with sparkles, or gushing through the mouth of the marble lion. Long mirrors, mounted with scrolls and wings and exquisite carvings, catching and reflecting back the magnificence. At their doors merchant-princes dismount from their carriages; official dignitaries enter; legislators, tired of making laws, here take a respite in breaking them. From all classes, this crime is gathering its victims: the importer of foreign silks, and the Chatham street dealer in pocket-handkerchiefs; clerks having a game in the store after the shutters are put up; and officers of the court whiling away the time while the jury are out.

In the woods around the city, in the morning, it is no rare thing to find the suspended bodies of suicides. No splendor of surroundings can hide the dreadful nature of this sin. In the third watch of this very night, the tears of thousands of orphans and widows will dash up in those fountains. The thunders of eternal destruction roll in the deep rumble of that ten-pin alley. And as from respectable circles young men and old are falling in line of procession, all the drums of woe begin to beat the dead march of ten thousand souls.

Seven million dollars are annually lost in New York city at the gambling-table. Some of your own friends may be at it. The agents of these gambling-houses around our hotels are well dressed. They meet a stranger in the city; they ask him if he would like to see the city; he says, "Yes;" they ask him if he has seen that splendid building up town, and he says "No." "Then," says the villain to the greenhorn, "I will show you the lions and the elephants." After seeing the lions and the elephants, I would not give much for a young man's chance for decency or heaven. He looks in, and sees nothing objectionable; but let him beware, for he is on enchanted ground. Look out for the men who have such sleek hats—always sleek hats—and such a patronizing air, and who are so unaccountably interested in your welfare and entertainment. All that they want of you is your money!

A young man on Chestnut street, Philadelphia, lost in a night all his money at the gambling-table, and, before he left the table, blew his brains out; but before the maid had cleaned up the blood, the players were again at the table, shuffling away. A wolf has more compassion for the lamb whose blood it licks up; a robber has more love for the belated traveler upon whose carcass he piles the stone; the frost has more feeling for the flower it kills; the fire has more tenderness for the tree-branch it consumes; the storm has more pity for the ship that it shatters —than a gambler's heart has mercy for his victim! Deed of darkness unfit for sunlight, or early evening hour! Let it come forth only when most of the city lights are out, in the third watch of the night!

Again, it is after twelve o'clock, that drunkenness shows its worst deformity! At eight or nine o'clock the low saloons are not so ghastly. At nine o'clock the victims are only talkative. At ten o'clock they are much flushed. At eleven o'clock their tongue is thick, and their hat occasionally falls from the head. At twelve they are nauseated and blasphemous, and not able to rise. At one o'clock they fall to the floor, asking for more drink. At two o'clock, they are unconscious and breathing hard. They would not flee, though the house took fire. Soaked, imbruted, dead drunk! They are strewn all over the city, in the drinking saloons— fathers, brothers, and sons; men as good as you, naturally—perhaps better.

Not so with the higher circles of intoxication. The "gentlemen" coax their fellow-reveler to bed, or start with him for home, one at each arm, holding him up; the night air is filled with his hooting and cursing. He will be helped into his own door. He will fall into the entry. Hush it up! Let not the children of the house be awakened to hear the shame. He is one of the merchant princes. But you cannot always hush it up. Drink makes men mad. One of its victims came home and found that his wife had died during his absence; and he went into the room where she had been prepared for the grave, and shook her from the shroud, and tossed her body out of the window. Where sin is loud and loathsome and frenzied, it is hard to keep it still. This whole land is soaked with the abomination!

It became so bad in Massachusetts, that the State arose in indignation; and having appointed agents for the sale of alcohol for mechanical and medicinal purposes, prohibited the general traffic under a penalty of five hundred dollars. The popular proprietors of the Revere, Tremont, and Parker Houses were arrested. The grog-shops diminished in number from six thousand to six hundred. God grant that the time may speed on when all the cities and States shall rouse up, and put their foot upon this abomination. As you pass along the streets, night by night, you will see the awful need that something radical be done.

But you do not see the worst. That will come to pass long after you are sleeping—in the third watch of the night. Oh! you who have been longing for fields of evangelistic work, here they are before you. At the London midnight meetings, thirteen thousand of the daughters of sin were reformed; and uncounted numbers of men, who were drunken and debauched, have been redeemed. If from our highest circles a few score of men and women would go forth among the wandering and the destitute, they might yet make the darkest alley of the town kindle with the gladness of heaven. Do not go in your warm furs, and from your well-laden tables, thinking that pious counsel will stop the gnawing of empty stomachs or warm their stockingless feet. Take food and medicine, and clothing, as well as a prayer. When the city missionary told the destitute woman she ought to love God, she said: "Ah! if you were as cold and hungry as I am, you could think of nothing else."

I am glad to know that not one earnest prayer, not one heartfelt alms-giving, not one kind word, ever goes unblessed. Among the mountains of Switzerland there is a place where, if your voice is uttered, there will come back a score of echoes. Only utter a kind, sympathetic, and saving word in the dark places of the town—and there will come back ten thousand echoes from all the thrones of heaven. There may be someone reading this, who knows by experience, of the tragedies enacted in the third watch of the night. I am not the man to thrust you back with one harsh word. Take off the bandage from your soul, and put on it the salve of the Savior's compassion. There is rest in God for your tired soul. Many have come back from their wanderings. I see them coming now. Cry up the news to heaven! Set all the bells a-ringing! Under the high arch spread the banquet of rejoicing. Let all the crowned heads of heaven come in and keep the jubilee. I tell you there is more joy in heaven over one man who repents, than over ninety-nine who never got off the track.

But there is a man who will never return from his evil ways. How many acts are there in a tragedy? Five, I believe:

ACT 1.—Young man starting from home. Parents and sisters weeping to have him go. Wagon passing over the hills. Farewell kiss thrown back. Ring the bell and let the curtain drop.

ACT 2.—Marriage altar. Bright lights. Full organ. White veil trailing through the aisle. Prayer and congratulation, and exclamations of "How well she looks!" Ring the bell, and let the curtain drop.

ACT 3.—Midnight. Woman waiting for staggering steps. Old garments stuck into the broken window-pane. Many marks of hardship on the face. Biting of the nails of bloodless fingers. Neglect, cruelty, disgrace. Ring the bell, and let the curtain drop.

ACT 4.—Three graves in a very dark place. Grave of child who died from lack of medicine. Grave of wife who died of a broken heart. Grave of husband and father who died of dissipation. Plenty of weeds—but no flowers. O what a blasted heath with three graves! Ring the bell, and let the curtain drop.

ACT 5.—A destroyed soul's eternity. No light; no music; no hope! Despair coiling around the heart with unutterable anguish. Blackness of darkness forever! Woe! Woe! Woe! I cannot bear longer to look. I close my eyes at this last act of the tragedy. Quick! Quick! Ring the bell and let the curtain drop!