By his own account, Jerry McAuley was a rogue and a serious crook.
Born poor in Ireland and sent to live in New York City at age 13, he became a drunkard and river pirate who frequented the rum shops and brothels on Water Street, one of the worst sections of pre–Civil War Manhattan.
At 19, he was convicted of highway robbery and went to Sing Sing in the 1850s. McAuley learned to read and write and found religion in prison, he explained in an autobiographical sketch.
When he was released seven years later in 1864, he returned to Water Street—and after a couple of relapses into crime, he decided to change his ways and help men like himself straighten out their lives.
In 1872 he renovated a former dance hall at 316 Water Street and called it Jerry McAuley’s Mission.
This “helping hand for men” was one of many religious missions in the city determined to aid the down and out with food, job training, and lodging via prayer meetings and bible study.
McAuley’s effort was similar, except in one crucial way: he accepted everyone.
At a time when an increasing number of missions and benevolent societies were dedicating themselves to helping the poor, the sentiment was that only the “deserved poor” should be offered charity.
The so-called undeserving poor—drunks and criminals, basically—were on their own. And thanks to the Panic of 1873, there were many more deserving and undeserving poor who desperately needed help.
“No one, however wretched, however far gone in sin, is ever turned away; a helping hand is extended to all, and the vilest outcast is made to feel welcome and confident that there is still a chance for salvation left him,” wrote James D. McCabe, Jr. in his 1882 book New York by Gaslight.
McAuley’s mission earned notoriety citywide, and many wealthy New Yorkers provided financial support.
In the 1880s, McAuley and his wife founded a mission on West 32nd Street in the Tenderloin called McAuley’s Cremorne Mission to help prostitutes and other “fallen” women turn their lives around.
McAuley didn’t live much longer. He died in 1882 from tuberculosis, contracted during his stay at Sing Sing. His mission still exists as the New York Rescue Mission.
He’s also memorialized on a 1913 water fountain in Greeley Square, with the inscription: “I will give to him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”
[Last photo: via pilot-projects.org]