What do we do about archival violence? (#DH2017 talk)

I’m in the process (after the book manuscript is submitted!) of revising this into a more formal paper.  But in the meantime I wanted to put it out in the world.  (The slide deck is here: http://bit.ly/humanizing_data) Also, this includes the story that I didn’t have time to tell.  Again.  Some day I will give this talk and get to the story.

Data is fraught with peril.

I want to do two things today. The first is to talk about how archives enact epistemic violence on some of the subjects they preserve. The second is to talk about how DH methods, combined with insights from scholars who study marginalized people, can be used to undermine the inhumanity of that data.

This is both about not accepting the epistemologies of historical actors, and being critical about how our own work can enact violence. (I’m echoing stuff from alternative histories of dh yesterday.)

In the 1840s, Ireland had a famine. One million people died. One million people fled. You only need to know this because the vast majority of these immigrants sailed for New York.

The Atlantic crossing from Ireland could take more than a month, and the ships were rife with typhus and cholera. Irish immigrants’ experience of ships was deeply corporeal. New York City’s experience of them was as potential liabilities.

In response to the thousands of immigrants arriving in New York in the nineteenth century the city passed a law requiring that the master or captain of every ship originating outside of the state of New York commit funds in case immigrants became sick and were cared for in city institutions.

Some ships paid. Others sold their obligations to brokers. In New York, immigrants were transformed into sickness futures. Because of this, it was important for the city to produce data on them.

Simultaneously, when immigrants occupied public spaces in New York in ways unacceptable to bourgeoisie New York – either because they were ill or because they were simply the wrong kind of bodies – they were extracted and incarcerated – most often in public health institutions.

There, clerks recorded more information – name, age, profession, nationality – but also the names of the people who referred immigrants and, most importantly for nineteenth-century Americans, the ship or broker that was obligated to cover the new inmate’s fees.

They were then medically assessed.

Some were diagnosed with recognizable diseases. But the most interesting category, the one that tells us to question the conditions of production of this data, is that of “recent emigrant.” This diagnosis covered twenty percent of all Irish inmates.

After they were diagnosed, these inmates were distributed throughout New York’s public health system. Some were sent to the hospital. Others were sent to the workhouse. Still more ended up in the most dismal spaces,

described by one Almshouse administrator as “constantly filled with paupers, and at various periods numbers have had to occupy the garrets and cellars. The dead House recently erected had to be opened for their admission. The Chapel also has been converted into sleeping apartments and shanties [have been] built.” (we are going to spend some time in the garrets later)

I want to close this section with a quotation from Friederick Kapp, a New York City official who described this era of immigration as one in which “the emigrant is not a subject, but an object…they appear as a numerical quantity; they seem to have no individual existence, and the student of contemporary history does not take the trouble to study their individual motives, misfortunes and aspirations.”

I should say here that, in making the claim that the quantification of people, particularly aboard ships, transformed Irish immigrants from humans into some other kind of object in the eyes of the state is not original. I’m drawing on the work of the exemplary historians of slavery Marisa Fuentes, Jennifer Morgan, Stephanie Smallwood and Sowande Mustakeem. I am NOT (because that is a terrible meme) comparing Irish immigration to the heritable slavery that people of African descent were subject to. I am saying that something about entry into the New York public health system rendered – in the eyes of dominant groups, at least – Irish immigrants other in a process that was related, but very, very different from the middle passage, and that we can do something both with and against that violence.

Why does all of this history matter? I want to suggest three reasons and then expand on the last.

The first: as DH practitioners, we have to contend with the kinds of work that historical data creation enacted upon marginalized people and with the work that historical data producers thought they were doing. For my data, this means that I need to think about, for example, discrepancies between what we know about immigrants and what is revealed in the data, and what kind of explanatory power those discrepancies have.

The second: unfortunately, we have no archival records that describe the internal mechanisms of Bellevue. These processes were largely invisible to us, and remain largely archiavally invisible. But in looking at how thousands of immigrants moved through this system, we can start to see the institutional forces pushing on immigrants.

Finally, and this is what I want to close with, we can use quantitative methods to identify particular moments of contingency. Put another way, we can identify variables (each of which signifies one stage in immigrants’ passage through the almshouse) which significantly predict or are correlated with some other stage or experience, and then drill down into those moments, and imagine the ways in which immigrants within this system might have exercised agency.

An aside: this data consists of a lot of categorical variables. I used logistic regression. I can talk a bit about this in the Q and A.

I wanted to explore why immigrants ended up at particular places within the public health system. The models I built suggested that immigrants’ age, gender and profession did not significantly contribute their ultimate site of incarceration.

Several things:

Being diagnosed as a “recent emigrant” was correlated with being sent to marginal spaces (garrets, shantytowns on the Bellevue grounds, Blackwell’s Island where I suspect they were being used as labor to build new asylums)

Flipping the model around and looking at what ultimate sites predicted about diagnosis revealed that having been sent to the garrets of Bellevue meant that an inmate was likely to have been a recent emigrant. So if an immigrant was in the garret, they were likely to encounter other people who had been incarcerated for their immigrant status.

Being diagnosed as “recent emigrant,” was also significantly predicted by who was doing the sending. Two officials in particular, Moses G. Leonard and the Superintendent of the Out Door Poor (a man named George W. Anderson), were significant in predicting whether the person they were sending to the hospital would have been diagnosed as an emigrant and whether they were sent to the garrets.

Other diagnoses that would seem to do similar work of signaling the unsuitability of an immigrant for public spaces in New York – like destitution – were not strongly associated with any particular individual.  So we know that for an immigrant in New York, encountering these men was more likely to result in this immigration diagnosis, and likely to be sent to the Bellevue garrets.

So all of this is interesting (I think) but I want to take a stab at making this human.

On February 27th, 1847, John Conway and two children, Mary and Margaret disembarked in New York, having left Sligo (in Ireland) a month before. John might have been May and Margaret’s father. He might have been their grandfather, uncle or other distant relative. These three left Ireland alone. They were either not bonded to the ship, could not provide the information, or refused to provide it. (I found them on the manifests) Four days after arriving in New York, all three were sent to Bellevue. The men who dispatched them were George W. Anderson, the Superintendent of Out Door Poor, and the Alderman of the 12th ward, which in 1847 was everything north of fourteenth street. All three were classified as “recent emigrant” and all three were sent to the garrets. We don’t know how they felt about Bellevue. We do know that they would have found a community. In the garrets with them were other families, most of whom were also “recent emigrants.” They might have met the McClahey family, all of whom arrived on the Thetis from Belfast on February 25th, were sent by the same men that dispatched the Conway family, and were classed as “recent emigrants.” They might also have encountered Thomas McDonal, a laborer who had been on the same ship as they had from Sligo. Bellevue’s garrets, then, became a space of potential community, where families from across Ireland might share common cultural parlance, if not the same history.

This is a story we can tell because of the data. These are stories we need to tell if we are going to work with historical data designed to strip people in the past of their humanity.

One thought on “What do we do about archival violence? (#DH2017 talk)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *