Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis

Danish-American whistleblower journalist and photographer.
Country: Austria

  1. Biography of Jacob Riis
  2. Early Life
  3. Migration to the United States
  4. How the Other Half Lives
  5. Personal Life and Later Years
  6. Legacy and Criticisms

Biography of Jacob Riis

Early Life

Jacob Riis, a Danish-American journalist and photographer, was born on May 3, 1849, in the city of Ribe, Denmark. He was the third of fifteen children in his family. His father, Niels Riis, was a schoolteacher and editor of a local newspaper, while his mother, Carolina Riis, was a homemaker. At the age of 12, Jacob amazed everyone by donating all his money to a poor family for Christmas. At 16, he moved to Copenhagen in search of work as a carpenter.

Migration to the United States

In 1870, at the age of 21, Riis embarked on a journey to the United States in hopes of finding employment. He arrived in America during a time of social upheaval, as a large number of migrants and immigrants were flooding the cities, leading to a 700% increase in the population. Riis initially worked odd jobs to make a living. In 1873, he secured a job as a police reporter for the New York Evening Sun. He later moved to the Brooklyn News in 1874 and then to the New York Tribune in 1877. Through his work, Riis regularly witnessed the lives of the poor and the social injustices they faced. He used his writings and photography to draw attention to these issues, often using flash photography to capture images of the dark slums.

How the Other Half Lives

In 1889, Scribner's Magazine published Jacob Riis's photo essay on city life. This essay was later expanded and published as his magnum opus titled "How the Other Half Lives." Thanks to this work, Theodore Roosevelt, who was a police commissioner at the time, made the decision to close down the police lodgings for the homeless, known for their harsh treatment of the poor. Roosevelt was so impressed by Riis's work that he referred to him as "the best American I ever knew." Roosevelt also coined the term "muckraker" to describe Riis, referring to his diligent and dedicated efforts to expose social issues.

Personal Life and Later Years

At the age of 25, Riis married Elizabeth Gortz, whom he had known since childhood. Elizabeth supported her husband for 25 years and helped him in his fight for the betterment of the poor. During this time, Riis released twenty more works addressing social problems, as well as his own autobiography. In 1905, Elizabeth passed away. In 1907, Riis married Mary Phillips. On May 26, 1914, Jacob August Riis passed away on his farm in Massachusetts. Following his death, Mary Phillips continued to manage the farm, worked on Wall Street, and taught at a university. She passed away in 1967.

Legacy and Criticisms

Some contemporary critics argue that while Riis fought for social justice, he held biases against women and certain racial and ethnic groups.