Jerry McAuley’s Story
By Jerry McAuley
I was born in Ireland and our family was broken up by sin. My father was a counterfeiter and left home to escape the law before I can remember him. There was a lot of us, So I was put in the family with my grandmother. She was a devout Romanist. Many times when she would count her beads and kiss the floor for penance. I would throw things at her just to hear her curse and swear at me, and then she would go back to her knees. I’d got well beyond her or anybody by the time I was thirteen. They let me run loose. I was never taught or sent to school and got blows for meat and drink until I wished myself dead many a time. I thought could I only get my sister in America, I’d be near the same as in Paradise. Then all at once they sent me to the care of my married sister in New York. For awhile I ran errands in the family and assisted my brother-in-law in his business. I was tall for my age and had no fear for any man living. Soon by the practice of little tricks, I became well used to dishonesty and stealing became natural and easy. I was a great a rogue as one of my years could be. After awhile I left my sister’s home to live by my own wits. I took board in a den on Water Street, learned to be a prize-fighter, and used a boat at night to board other vessels and steal whatever I could. By this time I was nineteen and don’t suppose a bigger nuisance and loafer ever stepped above ground. I made good hauls, for the river police didn’t amount to much in them days, and it was pretty easy to board a vessel and take what you pleased.
Now I’ve done enough to send me to prison forty times over, and I knew it. But that didn’t make it any easier to go there for something I hadn’t done. A crime, highway robbery, was sworn on me by the rum sellers and inhabitants of the Fourth Ward. They hated me for all my evil ways and were glad to get rid of me,
Fifteen Years In Prison
That was the sentence I got at only nineteen years of age. A child in years, but a man in sin. I couldn’t help myself. I had no friends or advocate at court. That hour going up the river was the toughest I’d ever come to. I was mad with rage, but handcuffed and forced to keep quiet. I had fifteen years of hard labor to look forward to, and all for a crime I was as innocent of as the babe unborn. It was in my mind to kill my keeper and I marked him then. “Wait,” said I to myself. “I’ll be even with you someday if I have to hang for it.” When I arrived at the prison, the first thing that attracted my attention was the sentence over the door:
“The way of transgressors is hard.” Though I could not read very well, I managed to spell that out. It was a familiar sentence out of the Bible which I had heard many times. But when I put on the prison dress and they shut me in, I knocked my head against the wall. If dared I would have killed myself. At last I made up my mind I’d obey the rules, and see if I couldn’t get pardoned, or maybe there would come a chance to escape. I set my mind toward that. For two years not a word could be said against me. All the keepers and guards spoke well of me. I learned carpet weaving as well as to read and write. I had a pile of cheap novels they let us buy to read to pass away the time. Often I would think about escaping from prison and my heart would fill up with murderous intentions toward the man who put me in. I used to say the Lord’s Prayer everyday, feeling that in some way it would do me good. But then I grew weakly and sick. I’d been used to the open air always, and a shut-in life told upon me. Then I got ugly and thought it was no use. I became at times uneasy and intractable and they punished me. Do you know what that is? It’s the leather collar that holds and galls you, and you strapped up by the arms with your toes just touching the floor, and it’s the shower bath that leaves you in a dead faint till another dash brings you out. I’ve stood it all and cursed God while I did. I was so desperate I would have killed the keeper, but I saw no chance out even if I did.
It was one Sunday morning. I’d been in prison for four or five years. I dragged myself into the chapel and sat down; then I heard a voice I knew and looked up. There by the chaplain was a man I’d been on a spree with many and many a time – Orville Gardner. He stepped down off the platform. “My men.” says he, “I’ve no right anywhere but among you, for I’ve been one of you in sin,” and then he prayed till there wasn’t a dry eye there but mine; I was that ashamed to be seen crying, but I looked at him and wondered what had come to him to make so different. He said a verse that struck me. When I got to my cell again I took down the Bible and began to hunt for it. I read awhile till I found something that hit the Catholics. I thought and I pitched my Bible down and kicked it all around the cell. “The vile heretics!” I said. “That’s the way they show up the Catholics, is it?” It was the verse that says: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils: speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron: forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.”
I’ll have a Catholic Bible.” said I, “and not this thing that no decent Catholic would touch with a ten foot pole.” So I got me a Catholic Bible from the library, but it was pretty much the same, only more lumbered up with notes. I read them both, and the more I read the more miserable I was.
I wanted to be different. I thought about the new look in Gardner’s face. “What makes it?” said I, “and he is different, why can’t I be? Now if I send for the priest, he’ll set me to doing penance, and saying so many prayers, and all such like. The chaplain said I’m to be sorry for my sins and ask God forgive me. Which is the way, I wonder?” The voice within said, “Go to God: He will tell you what is right.”
What a struggle I went through I knew I ought to pray. You wouldn’t think I would mind, but if ten thousand people had been in my cell, I couldn’t have been more ashamed to do it than I was there, all alone. I knelt down, blushing and every sin stared me in the face. I remembered the “Whosoever” in the Bible. “But I’m so wicked.” I urged. It seemed as if God was fighting the devil for me. I fell on my knees, and was so ashamed I jumped up. I fell on my knees again, and cried out for help, and then, as ashamed as before, I rose again. This struggle went on for three or four weeks, until I was just desperate. Then there comes a night when I said I’d pray till some sense comes to me, and if it didn’t I’d never pray again.
I was so weak and trembly it seemed as if I could die. I knelt there, and waited between the times I prayed. I wouldn’t stir from my knees. My eyes were shut. I was in agony, and the sweat rolling from my face in big drops, and “God be merciful to me a sinner” came from my lips. Then in a minute, something seemed to be by me. I heard a voice, or felt I heard one plain enough. It said, “My son, thy sins which are many, are forgiven.”
To the day of my death, I’ll think I saw a light about me, and smelled something sweet as flowers in the cell.’ I didn’t know if I was alive or not. I shouted out. “Oh, praise God! Praise God!”
“Shut your noise,” the guard said, going by. “What is the matter with you?”
“I’ve found Christ,” I said. “My sins are all forgiven.” “I’ll report you,” says he, and he took my number, but he didn’t report me.
Well, then, seeing how it had come to me, I began to pray for others. I was quiet and content all the time, and I believed if it was good for me, God would find a way to let me out of prison. I didn’t pray for it for two years, but just worked there to save others, and many a one turned to a new life and stuck to it.
Then at last came a pardon when I’d been in seven years and six months, and I come back down the river to New York.
There was never a more lonesome man alive. I wouldn’t go back to the Fourth Ward for fear I’d be tempted. So I wandered around trying for work, till one day I met a friend, and he took me to a lager-bier saloon to board. Lager bier had come up since I went to prison. I didn’t know it was any more hurt than root beer; said it wasn’t. But that first night did for me. My head got in a buzz and in a week or two I wanted something stronger.
I got work in a hat shop and had good wages, but a strike came, and I was one of the ringleaders. We were all dismissed, and thus I was thrown out of employment. It was war time, and I went into the bounty business – a rascally business, too. Then I had a boat on the river again. I’d buy stolen goods of the sailors, and then make them enlist for fear of being arrested, and I took the bounty. The end of the war stopped this, and then I stuck, to the river buying and selling smuggled goods and paying all I could in counterfeit money. One night the Idaho, a ferryboat was discovered to be on fire in the East River. My partners and I rowed out not to save life, but to rob; but when we saw them screaming in the water we turned and helped them, though one of my partners in the boat said we would make a pile picking up coats and hats instead of people.
Very often I was shot at. Do you think I didn’t remember what I had given to me and how I’d lost it? I didn’t pray. I didn’t dare to. I kept under liquor all the time to head off thinking, for I said God was done with me, and I was bound for hell sure and certain.
About this time, one night I went over to Brooklyn, very drunk, too drunk to do my share of the work we had laid out for that night, and as my partner boarded the ship we were after, I slipped and fell overboard and went under like a shot. An eddy carried me off, and the boat went another way. I knew I was drowning, for I went down twice, and, in my extremity I called on God, though I felt too mean to do it. It seemed as if I was lifted up and the boat brought to me. I got hold of it somehow. I don’t just know how. The water had sobered me. When I was in it, I heard, plain as if a voice spoke to me. “Jerry, you’ve been saved for the last time. Go out on that river again, and you’ll never have another chance. God will let you drop into hell and be lost.” This made me angry.
I was mad. I went home and drank and drank and drank. I was sodden with drink an as awful looking a case – more so than you’ve ever laid eyes on. And oh, the misery of my thoughts. The John Allen excitement had just commenced in Water Street. I heard the singing and was sick of remembering, and yet drinking day and night to forget it all. The Christian people were going through the ward to bring in the sinners to the meetings.
A city missionary came in one day to the house on Cherry Street where I boarded. He shied a bit when he saw me at the top of the stairs – a head like a mop and an old red shirt. He’d been pitched down stairs by fellers like me and I’d done myself once. I hung around while he went in a room, thinking maybe he could get me a job of honest work, and when he came out I told him so. He asked me to step out on the pavement. He said afterwards I was so evil looking that he was afraid of me, and he didn’t know what I might do. So out on the street I went, and he took me straight to the Howard Mission and there we had a long talk. A gentleman wanted me to sign the pledge. “It’s no use.” I said; “I shall break it.” “Ask God to keep you from breaking it.” he said. I thought a minute, and then I signed it and went home. My partner was there, and he laughed himself hoarse when I told him. He had a bottle of gin in his hand that very minute. “You!” he says; “here, drink!” I took the’ glass and drank. “That’s the last glass I’ll ever take,” I said. “Yes,” says he, “till the next one.”
“I’d hardly swallowed it, when who should come in. but the missionary. We went out together, and I told him I was dead broke and hungry, and I would have to go on the river once more, anyhow. “Jerry,” says he, “before you shall ever do that again. I’ll take off this coat and pawn it.” The coat was thin and old. I knew he was poor, and it went to my heart that he would do such a thing as that. He went away a minute, and when he came back he brought me fifty cents. And he kept on helping. He followed me up day after day, and at last one night at his house, where he had me to take tea, and there was singing and praying afterwards. I prayed myself once more, and believed I should be forgiven. There wasn’t any shouting this time, but there was quiet and peace.
It was a hard pull. I got work now and then, but more often not, and then everybody thought I was shamming for what I could get out of it. I found work in a Ferry Company and was tempted, and then I drank again. I caved in again. Three times I was drunk, and do you know what did it? Tobacco. That is why I am down on tobacco now. Chew and smoke and there will be a steady craving for something, and mostly it ends in whiskey. A man that honestly wants the Spirit of God in him has got to be dean, inside and out. He has got to shut down on all his old dirty tricks, or he is gone. That is the way I found it. I gave up tobacco, as well as working on Sunday. I felt it was wrong for a Christian not to keep the Sabbath. For that I lost my job, but I said, “I will trust God … I went into a Christian family who found employment for me, and gave myself wholly to God to be used of Him to help precious souls to be saved from sin and live for God.
I was married by this time to Maria, and she has been God’s help from that day to this. Often we talked about some way to get at the poor souls in the Fourth Ward. We were doing day’s work, both of us, and poor as poor could be. But we said, “Why have we both been used to filth and nastiness, and all else, if not so as to know how to help some others out of it?” And one day I had a sort of vision. I thought we had a house in the Fourth Ward, and a stream of people coming in. I washed and cleansed them outside, and the Lord washed and cleansed them inside. I cried and something said to me, “Would you do it for Jesus’ sake?” And I answered. “Yes, Lord, open the way, and I will go. O if I could only do that for Jesus’ sake.” “Do it for one if you can’t do it for more,” said Maria. We begun in an old rookery of a house, in one room. A little sign hung out: The Helping Hand For Men.”
You would never believe how many that sign drew in. We did what we could, and when Thanksgiving Day came, friends gave us a good dinner for all. Afterwards there was a meeting and it was so blessed we were moved to say that they all should come the next night. From that day to this – first in the old building, and then in the new building – there’s been a meeting every night in the year, and now it’s hundreds – yes, thousands – that can say the Water Street Mission was their help to a new life.
Day and night we work. My life is slowly but surely going from me. I feel it, but living or dying it’s the Lord’s. All these years the Lord has held me, but I don’t know now but that I would had fallen again if I hadn’t been so busy holding on to the Lord and working; that is the way to keep men – set them to work. I never could see how any Christian could be idle. The minute they say they’re sick of the old ways, start them to pull in somebody else. You see, when your soul is just on fire, longing to get at every wretch and bring him into the fold, there is no time for your old tricks, and no wanting to try them again. I could talk a month telling of one and another that has been here at the mission. Oh there is stories if one but knew them! And not a day that you don’t know there isn’t a bummer in the Fourth Ward so low down but what the Lord can pick him out of the gutter and set him on his feet. That’s why I tell my story and everything right out plain. There’s times I’m sick of remembering it, but I have to do it. And as long as tongue can move, may I never be ashamed to tell what I have been saved from.
“Good and upright is the Lord: therefore will He teach sinners in the way,” Psalm 25:8.
“He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him (Jesus),seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them,” Hebrews 7:25.
The old Water Street Mission was opened In October, 1872; a new building was erected in 1876. Jerry opened up the Cremorne Mission in January 1882, at 104 West 32nd Street and Mr. John F. Shorey took charge of the work on Water Street. JerryMcAuley died September 18, 1884, a pioneer in the cause of Rescue Missions. Today the McAuley Water Street Mission, America’s oldest Rescue Mission, continues to operate as New York City ‘Rescue Mission at 90 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10013. Millions of men and women have been helped to find a new life in Jesus Christ. Let no slave of drink or vice despair. Christ saved thousands. He can save you!
Poisoned by alcohol, blear eyed and illy clad,
Cursing his fate as he shuffles along;
Crushed, and bereft of the once earnest will he had,
Penniless, homeless, jeered by the throng,
Friends have assisted him, pastors have prayed over him,
He has been rescued and lost over and over;
Oh do not give hum up, pull from his lip the cup,
Tell him of Jesus and try him once more!
This article Jerry McAuley’s Story by Jerry McAuley is published by the Pilgrim Tract Society, PO Box 126 Randleman, NC 27317.