Wednesday, August 27, 2014

John Akomb

1870 United States Federal Census
New York, New York
Ward 6, Election District 5
Boarding House
John Acom, 32, Cigar Maker, born in China
Kate Acom, 35, Keeping House, born in England

1880 United States Federal Census
New York, New York
62 Cherry Street
John Anderson, 50, Cigar Maker, born in China
Kate Anderson, 50, Seamstress, born in England

Three of following newspaper articles said John Akomb was also known as John Anderson. In the censuses, there was a John Acom in 1870 and John Anderson in 1880; both born in China. The articles said he had an English wife named Kitty and lived at 62 Cherry Street. Both censuses list an English woman named Kate whose nickname could have been Kitty. The 1880 census had the 62 Cherry Street address. Two of the articles said he was 46 so his birth would have been around 1832. The ages in the censuses would have put his birth in 1830 and 1838. Acom and Anderson, in the censuses, appear to be the same person and the subject of the articles. Evidence of his service in the Union navy has not been found.

The New York Times
August 11, 1878
Pining for Their Poison

The Sun
(New York, New York)
August 11, 1878
Ten Cents Worth of Opium.
Reviving Chinamen who were Arrested for Selling Unstamped Cigars.

Four Chinamen sat in the United States Marshal’s room yesterday, the pictures of wretchedness and despair. Their names were John Akomb, alias John Anderson, Ah Foo, Ah Soon and Ah Sin. They were arrested by Special Agent E. S. Stinson for selling unstamped cigars, and spent the night in a station house. All of them were thin-bodied and sunken-cheeked, with black, unkempt hair, and dull black eyes, nearly closed. Three of the four were suffering for the want of their accustomed opium, of which their imprisonment had deprived them. As they crouched in a corner of the office their dejection, attracted the pity of many who happened in and not a few expressed wonder that the Government could find no greater frauds to occupy the attention of its officers than these poor wretches who had been guilty of selling a handful of their miserable penny cigars without the requisite revenue stamps.

John Akomb was the spokesman of the party, for the others spoke little English. He said that he was 46 years of age, and had been away from China thirty years. He had been in England, Germany and France, and at one time served on the United States gunboat Massachusetts, Capt. Hudson, and was also on the Red River expedition in the capacity of cook. He said that he had a wife named Kitty, an English woman, at 62 Cherry street, and had three children that died.

He referred so piteously to his sufferings and that of his companions for their habitual opium that a sympathetic bystander volunteered to get him some of his favorite drug. Akomb with a piteous wail.

“We got no monee.”

“How much will it cost?”

“Ten centee.”

“Ten cents for three?”

“No; ten cent for one.”

“Where do you get it?”

“At 14 Baxter street—of Ah Que.”

“How shall we get it from him?”

“Show him this.”

Then Akomb produced from the folds of his worn vest a begrimed thimble, the metal of which could not be distinguished from the black coating that enveloped it.

“Show him that—he knows that,” and the confiding Akomb surrendered his “pony” to the custody of his sympathizing questioner.

Prevailing upon Marshal Strahan to detain the prisoners until his return, the opium missionary wended his way to Baxter street. The front building is a huge tenement house, and in the rear is a court surrounded by a pile of thickly inhabited tenements in which varied nationalities were represented. The premises of the opium vender were found without difficulty. They consisted of three rooms, or rather one room made into three. The larger room is about ten feet square and contains a little dilapidated furniture, dirty and forbidding. A table covered with matting stood against the wall, with a shelf attached to tho wall. This is the couch of the opium smokers, and in the centre of the table is a tray of utensils for opium smoking. A sleek cat lay drowsily curled up as if under the influence of the drug. The other two rooms are about the size of a small stateroom each, and in each were two bunks covered with matting, and with side-wall shelves to servo as pillows. These bunks will accommodate from two to four persons each. The only ventilation is through a small window about 18 inches square.

The occupants of the room yesterday were a cadaverous old Mongolian who looked as if a puff of air would blow him away, and two emaciated opium smokers—one in each room. Then there was a stout and almost comely Irish woman of about 25, not ill dressed, who evidently was on good terms with them all.

One of the smokers proved to be Ah Que, the opium proprietor. He was reclining on one of the bunks smoking one of his curious opium pipes. Taking a pot of the murky paste he dipped a long rod in it and rolled up a ball of the opium on the end of the rod. This he plunged in a burning taper and then rubbed it in the bowl of the pipe, a singular reed structure. Then he took a few vigorous whiffs, reclining on his side and enjoying the exhilaration of the drug as its fumes spread through the room and went out of the little window.

The other Chinaman in the bunk was evidently in a dull stupor from the effects of the opium, and looked dreamily and languidly at the new comers. Even the woman was apparently stupefied and dazed as though she, too, had partaken of the narcotic, and answered the questions put to her as though she was in a walking sleep. At first all were suspicious, and declared that they knew nothing of the men who had been arrested. They shook their heads and chattered their pigeon English, and nothing else could be got out of them. But the production of John Akomb’s thimble opened their mouths. Ah Que recognized it immediately, and it did not take him long to comprehend that it was to be filled. His price agreed with that of Akomb also, ten cents for the thimbleful.

He procured the drug from a chest in the corner, and covered the thimble neatly with a piece of foil. Then he got a curious little box and filled that with the paste for the other two Chinamen, took his thirty cents, and relapsed into a stolid enjoyment of his cigar.

Ah Que is evidently the capitalist of the Chinese colony in the opium trade, and his dingy apartments the favorite resort of the opium smokers. The old Chinaman of the flimsy anatomy remained suspicious all the time, but he finally nodded assent when the woman said:

“You know Johnny Akomb’s, Kitty?”

“Yes; she live Cherry street.”

“You tell her Johnny Akomb is in prison.”

“Yes; me send word.”

Then the opium missionaries found their way to the Marshal’s office again, and their appearance was the signal for a beam of joy to lighten the faces of the poor wretches who in their absence had been dozing in their chairs. Even the one who does not use opium looked happy as he saw the smiling faces of his fellow prisoners when they seized their precious prize. Johnny Akomb clutched his thimble eagerly, tore off the tinfoil covering, and licked with avidity the piece of foil before he threw it away. Then he tore off the whole cover and ravenously thrust the top of his tongue into the opium, rolling the sweet morsel in his mouth with an air almost ravenous. Ah Soon was only too eager to help him, and brought him a glass of water. Ah Sin likewise partook of his share unceremoniously, dipping a little stick into it and smacking his lips. They paid no attention to the little knot of curious spectators who watched them, but seemed only eager to have their gnawing hunger for the drug appeased.

When the Marshal called them soon after to go to Ludlow street jail, to which Commissioner Shields had committed them, they shuffled off submissively yet with an air of contentment, in strong contrast with their previous appearance.

New York Herald
August 13, 1878
Untaxed Cigars.
...John Acomb, one of four Chinese who were arrested a few days since, because unfamiliar with the law which requires all cigars sold to be sold from a box bearing an internal revenue stamp, was yesterday discharged by United States Commissioner Shields on his own recognizance. John gave a promise that he would never, in his ignorance, again offend, and that his first effort would be to purchase the Statutes at Large, and, although sixty years of age and blind, make himself familiar with their provisions. The cases of Acomb’s associates Ah Foo, Ah Soon and Ah Sin were reserved for a future hearing.

The World
(New York, New York)
August 13, 1878
“Four Melancholy Celestials.”
Arrested for Peddling Untaxed Cigars and Suffering for Opium.

Ah Sin, Ah Foe, Ah Soon and John Akomb, Chinamen, were arrested by Special Revenue Officer Stinsen on Friday on a charge of selling cigars upon which revenue tax had not bean paid. Saturday, after having spent a night in a police station, they were taken before Commissioner Shields and committed to Ludlow Street Jail, each in default of $250 bail, to await examination. Akomb, who says his Christian name is John Anderson, Sin and Foo were suffering for the want of opium. Ah Soon does not indulge in that narcotic. Akomb, otherwise John Anderson, has resided in this country and Europe for thirty years, serving as a cook and steward. He was steward on the United States gun-boat Massachusetts during the civil war. He was twice wounded, being severely injured. For some years he has been married to an Englishwoman, with whom he lives in Cherry street. He is afflicted with blindness, and can merely distinguish between daylight and darkness. He was very much affected when he appeared before the Commissioner, and said that he was well known to a large number of good citizens who would assist him if they were notified of the trouble that had overtaken him.

“I would like to get some opium,” he said, in pigeon English, “I feel so bad. Ah Soon can’t take it, but all the rest of us do.”

His face wore an expression of pain and he turned upon all present a look of supplication. Tears stood in his eyes and he leaned wearily upon the back of a chair. Commissioner Shields was sympathetic in his manner towards the miserable Mongolian.

“I will send for some opium,” said Akomb, and then a sickly smile passed over the faces of his companions. “I will send for it if some one will go,” he added.

“I’ll go,” said a gentleman who had been watching the proceedings.

“Thank you,” returned Akomb. “I’m much obliged to you. Yon take this thimble and go up to Baxter street. Go to 14 Baxter street, inquire for Ah Que and he’ll let you have the opium. Just show him this thimble and he won’t refuse you.”

The volunteer messenger took the thimble and started for Ah Que’s place of business. This he found with some difficulty. Ah Que was discovered in a small, dingy apartment, which was filled with offensive odors and into which the sunshine could scarcely creep. The opium dealer was reposing upon a Chinese bunk, his covering being grass matting. He was smoking a pipe of fantastic design, and as the stranger entered the room he partly raised himself from the couch and, withdrawing the pipe from his lips, ejaculated, “What you want?” The stranger told his story and exhibited the thimble. Ah Que leaned his chocolate-colored, hollow-eyed face towards the stranger and seemed to be suspicious.

“I am willing to pay for the opium,” said the visitor.

At that moment a door opened and a large, coarse-featured, white woman entered the room. “How do, do,” she said with a bow, and than then whispered to Ah Que.

“I knew Akomb,” said Ah Que. “Let me have the thimble.”

He rose from the bunk and unlocking a small, iron-bound chest, with a wooden spoon took some bleak, gummy fluid from a jar and put it in the thimble.

“That is for Akomb,” he said, “and this,” filling a little box with the opium, “is for the other two.”

He then wrapped the thimble and box in tin foil, and while he was doing so the stranger entered into a conversation with the woman.

“What does Ah Que do for a living?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she replied, rather tartly.

“Don’t he sell opium for a living?” he asked.

“Yes he does; there’s use denying it. That’s the way we make our living.”

The writer paid 30 cents for the opium and left the place. The joy of the three suffering prisoners was great at the return of their messenger, who received their repeated thanks for the interest he had manifested in their comfort.

John Kuo Wei Tchen, in his book New York Before Chinatown, wrote about 62 Cherry Street, which was mentioned in the Times and Sun articles.

At, there is a 1879 New York City directory with a listing for Ah Come. Akomb may have been another spelling of Ah Come.

Further Reading

Ruthanne Lum McCunn

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