Posts Tagged ‘elite anxieties of social stability’

“On referring to the report of the Montreal Jail, it will be seen that the continued increase in the commitments forms a lamentable feature in it. In 1861 the commitments were 3,436; and in 1862, 3,974; an increase of 538, or 15.6 per cent. The same remark which is applied to Toronto is equally true of Montreal. There is a jail population in the latter city, as in the former, which circulates through the streets to the city courts, and from the city courts to the City prison, where it sojourns for a specified number of days, to issue again from the gates and make the usual circuit.of the streets and courts as before. Of the 3,974 committed, 1,526 were persons recommitted.

There has no record been kept here, unfortunately, of the re-commitments of the same person, except for 1862. I cannot, therefore, go back upon previous years, as I have been able to do with respect to the corresponding class in Toronto; but I have taken from the books a list of 649 individuals of those’recommitted during last year.

Those 649 persons had been consequently 2,146 times before the courts in 186 The keeper of the jail, Mr. McGinn, and his assistant, Mr. Laurie, were also kind enough to go over the books with me, and point out tome a list of 75 of the most notorious inhabitants of the prison, giving me the length of time for:which they have been regular frequenters of it, and the number of days generally intervening between their discharge and their re-commitment. Although those officer communicated the facts from memory only, there is not the slightest doubt of their general accuracy.

I confess that – until my duties led me to inquire into and reflect upon the state of crime, as shown by the Common Jail Returns – I had no idea of such results; and I only fear that I will fail in conveying to the minds of others the convictions now impressed upon my own with such force as to induce remedy. Truly do the officers of the prison, who are brought daily and hourly into contact with this moving mass of, crime, declare that prison reform is not to be looked for, so long as the remedy is not applied at its source. The present state of the law, and the custom of the Police and Recorder’s Courts, actually tend to foster crime, and to train up families of criminals to, the second and third generations, in the practice of their profession.

l order to show how the present system acts, I may give a few instances, as related by Mr. McGinn and his deputy, whose known reputation for accuracy and truth places the facts beyond a question.

Mary R., wife of Michael R., was committed, with a child at her breast, as a loose and disorderly person by the Recorder, on the 27th October last, for one month. When in prison she was visited by her husband and a son of about eleven years of age. On the 27th November she was discharged. On the following day, the whole family husband, wife, son and infant – were committed as vagrants, on their own confession, by the Recorder, for another month. On the 28th December they were discharged, and on the 12th January last they were all again re-committed.

John D. was first committed for larceny in 1840, and, frequently afterwards. After a few re-commitments of himself, his wife was committed along with him, having a child in her arms. D. at last was sent to the Penitentiary, and the wife made the jail her home by means of the short commitment system. The child became prostitute at eleven years of age, and the time that she is not now on the streets, she is in the prison.

J. D. and his family were committed as vagrants about eighteen years ago. Two daughters, being then more children, were reared up in jail.’ The parents are now dead, but the girls became prostitutes at thirteen years of age, and are still frequenters of the prison. One of them ‘has now a bastard in her arms, to be trained up in the same steps in which the grand-mother and mother had walked.

John F. became a vagrant about fifteen years ago; and his son has been reared principally in jail. He turned out an expert thief and is now in the Reformatory.

Thomas M. and Pierre L. became inmates of the jail, and had also each a son, who after training in jail, are now in the Reformatory.

In 1848, J. C. was sent to the Penitentiary, after being a regular inmate of the Montreal Jail for some years before. His Montreal Jail life was shared also by his wife and three children. The mother and two children left Montreal soon after the father had been sent to Kingston, but the oldest girl, about eleven years of age, was already a prostitute, and remained.

J. T., senr., was sent to the Penitentiary in September last, after being an inmate of the jail for some time. His son, 15 years old, was sent five years to the Reformatory, and his wife was sent five times to jail during the last year. There are two other children of. whom the oldest is eight years. They will, in all likelihood, follow in their parents’ stops.

Instances might be multiplied to any extent of the efficiency of the Montreal Jail as an academy for crime. A very considerable number of the criminals now about the city, as well as many in the Penitentiary, have spent terms of imprisonment in this jail, before they reached 12 years of age, some of them at first with one or both parents. At the present moment, there are about a dozen children in the prison with their mothers, who, ten years after this, will be thieves and prostitutes on the streets of the city. They will have acquired – all their education, at the government expense, in the school for crime established in this province.

What is the remedy for all this? The first step, undoubtedly, is to put an end to short commitments. If offenders make it clear, by their frequent appearance before a court, that they cannot keep out of jail, the law ought to take them according to their acts, and make a previous sentence a portion of the fresh crime, increasing the imprisonment every time to adults, and in the case of boys sending them to the Reformatory before a second crime is committed. It is not to be wondered at that the expense of the administration of justice reaches the figure which the public accounts exhibit from year to year. I have shewn from the books at Montreal, that 649 worthless vagrants have been tried 2146 times! These re-commitients proceed from the Recorder’s and the Police Courts, and if we reckon the expense of the police, the witnesses and the clerks, and assume them at the moderate rate of $5 for each arrest and trial, we have the sum of $16,560 expended in producing crime, instead of repressing it!

In connexion with the repression and punishment of crime is the employment of the prisoners in the common jails; and it is a question of no small importance to the public.

Under present circumstances, it may be said that the employment of male prisoners is next to nothing. At times, when the corporation of Toronto feels inclined to purchase broken stone from the jail, the prisoners are set to work, and so with respect to Montreal. At this moment, however, there have been about 3000 loads of stone in, the yard at the latter city for some time, which the corporation will not purchase, for some reason or another, as it has been suggested, connected with the letting of contracts by the Road Committee.

The females in the Toronto Jail are employed in sewing to an unlimited extent, and at Montreal they are also engaged in picking oakum. The total amount earned from all sources is stated at $500 for Toronto, and $850 for Montreal.

The county jails afford no employments any description for either males or females, with the exception of sawing wood for the stove; and the small towns in which they are situated seem to be as careful not to encourage work being-done in them, as tie corporations of the larger cities. The town council of Guelph, for instance, was offered the lab or of the prisoners at that jail in breaking stone, if they would pay for the transport’ it to and from the prison yard; but they have not yet acted upon the offer.

In a young country like Canada, where labor is of so much value and where the taxes are paid entirely by a class which does labor, it becomes a question of some moment to consider what is to be done with the mass of idleness which is housed, fed and clothed in our prisons. Setting aside the cases of first commitments, in which the sentences may probably be for short periods of imprisonment, and consequently beyond the reach of regular systematizing, there must be; according to my computation, from 1200 to 1500 vagrants and petty depredators, who come and go from the jails as from their home. and, it is to this class that, I think, the attention of the authorities ought to be at once directed. One would think, as all reason would suggest, that an evil so palpable, and of daily occurrence to so great an extent, in every part of the Province,would have forced itself upon the consideration of intelligent men, and compelled a remedy. On the contrary, however,the legislation of Parliament, and the practice of courts of justice have been directly exercised for producing and nursing it. For the class of habitués,the idea of a jail, instead of presenting an aspect of terror or discomfort, offers them one of a pleasing absence of work, and a certainty of warm lodgings, with abundant food. Every now and then, a paragraph may be seen to the effect, that parties named applied the Court to be committed to prison,and it is of frequent occurrence at the Montreal Jail that the vagrants are entrusted with, and alone carry to the prison, .in their own arms, the warrants under which they are committed.

The first stop, it appears obvious, that should be taken, is to make every recommittal itself a crime, as in Scotland it is a crime to be habit and repute thief. Even under the present system, this would afford relief, first, to the public, who suffer from the depredations of this class of offenders; 2nd, to the police force of the cities and-towns which they frequent, affording to the officers, more time for the duty of protecting the peace and preventing offences on their regular beats; besides diminishing the cause.of complaint. now so frequently brought against the police, that they are never to be found when wanted; 3rd, to the inferior Courts, the principal expense of which is rendered necessary by perpetually having to try the cases in which the class referred to are parties.

The next step is, to set these culprits to some description of work, by which the expenses they have thrown upon society may be lessened, if not reimbursed. This may be done, it appears to me, in two ways: either by the establishment of Central Jails (as already recommended by the Board of Inspectors and favorably entertained by the. late Administration), in which their labor may be systematised and rendered productive; or by employing them in the construction of public works.

The system of central jails could be the soonest established, as there are now jails nearly completed well adapted for the purpose. It would also be attended with less expense for supervision and security against escape than the other. But it would have this disadvantage, that only a few descriptions of occupations could be carried on within them, and a considerable time would necessarily elapse before expertness could be looked for, or consequent, profit.

In a central jails, trades might be carried on, in which males and females could be em ployed, as is now exemplified in tho Penitentiary. And with respect to females, especially I seec no reason why they should not be set to work by the Government, in making up clothing for the Volunteers and Militia, of whom there is every prospect now of there being a standing force in the country. It is only the other day that contracts were given out by the Government for 10,000 pairs of trousers for the Provincial troops, the expense of making which might have been readily saved to the public by collecting the females now scattered through the various prisons into one central jail, and giving them that work to do.

The other mode of employing male prisoners – that of constructing public works –  might be attended with ,perhaps, more expense, but, as I view it, with more direct and visible profit to, the community. From the nature of forced labor and-especially that’ criminals, it can be most advantageously carried on, both in respect to its efficiency, and the expenses of supervision, where a good deal is required within a small space. In the construction of harbors, in the building of locks, or in the excavation of heavy cuts, where a large number of hands can be kept under the eyes of a few overseers or guards, such labor can be employed to advantage.

The public have now to employ policemen to watch, to track, and to arrest them, jailers and turnkeys to guard them, and, under any circumstances, to house, to feed and to clothe them. What more would the Govérnment have to do for them, if it compelled them to do some labor in return? Nothing that I can see.

The whole Canadian shore of Lake Erie is destitute of harbours, to which the storm surprised commerce on its waters can flee for refuge: why not set to work a sufficient gang of the able-bodied men now wasting their own lives, and the hard-earned money of fhe industrious classes in the prisons, and keep them at work until, at every favorable point a harbour of refuge is constructed?

…I cannot bring myself to think that it is right that the criminal portion of the population should be the only one not only exempted from exertions, but supported in plenty at the public expense when the country requires the labor of every available man for opening up and improving its communications.”

–  Inspector James Moir Ferres, “SEPARATE REPORT for the year 1862,” from Annual Report of the Board of Inspectors of Asylums, Prisons &c for the year 1862. Sessional Papers of the Province of Canada, Sessional Papers No. 66, 26 Victoria, A. 1863.

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“Have Experts See Patients,” Toronto Globe. February 20, 1919. Page 07.

And Decide What Institution Best for Them to Live In


Dr. C. P. Johns, physician at the Jail Farm, testifying before Mr. Justice Hodgins’ Commission inquiring into the extent of feeble-mindedness in Ontario, at the Parliament Buildings yesterday, suggested that there should be a clearing house in Toronto for mental defectives, where experts could examine patients and decide as to the institutions in which they should be placed. he advocated sending them to farm colonies for treatment, but not too many to one place. Dr. Johns said that from 35 to 40 per cent of the 289 inmates at the Jail Farm were subnormal mentality. The problem of disposing of these people was a difficult one. He complained of the difficulty in getting into Government institutions on account of delay, referring particularly to the Orillia Hospital.

Canon Tucker of London said he believed there were between 40,000 and 50,000 feeble-minded persons in Canada. The Church of England in Canada was organized for social service work, and it felt it owed a Duty to the State in respect to the health, morals and general welfare of the people. He promised the whole-hearted support of the Anglican Church to the Government in carrying out any well-developed scheme. ‘In the course of one or two generations feeble-mindedness could be eliminated altogether from our social life, if these people were segregated and treated in a kindly way and useful employment found for them,’ Canon Tucker said. ‘There should be a more thorough examination of immigrants before sailing for Canada.’

Dr. Lillan Langstaff, Superintendent of the Women’s Industrial Farm, said that 40 per cent of the inmates there were mentally defective. Classification she suggested as a solution, as moral degenerates taught vice to the ordinary feeble-minded person.

Mr. J. J. Kelso, Superintendent of Neglected Children and Inspector of Industrial School, recommended that local homes should be provided, the Government to undertake the capital expenditure and the municipalities and benevolent people to provide for the upkeep, with the assistance of women’s organizations.

The inquiry will be continued this morning, when Dr. Helen MacMurchy will testify.

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“Notions of hierarchy ordered views
of what had seemed the anarchy of American racial and class diversity. They
were crucial, as well, in justifying the seemingly contradictory ways reformers
approached the problems of the poor. Some at the top of the hierarchy might be
saved. The degenerate were to be eliminated. Historians have understood
segregation simply as the dividing lines of blackness and whiteness, as
something rooted in Southern Jim Crow culture. The move toward Jim Crow around
the turn of the century occurred alongside another contemporary campaign for
‘segregation’: the isolation of the degenerate and their eventual extinction through
the regulation of reproduction Segregation, most broadly, in
turn-of-the-last-century America was obviously not about separate but equal,
but nor was it purely about separation.
Like observers of African Americans who imagined their eventual extinction,
those who advocated the segregation of tramps, the feebleminded, and
prostitutes aimed at their elimination, biological selection, and extinction. As
Franklin Giddings would demand: ‘Give them the fat of the land, build them
separate cottages…but put a hedge and a ditch around their garden and prevent
them mingling with untainted children and youth.’

The idea of segregation was applied
to a range of degenerates, from tramps to prostitutes to the feebleminded to
paupers. The segregation of delinquent women has received the most historical
attention. Ruth Alexander, for example, has described the incarceration of
adolescent women in two New York State reformatories. The experience of these
women, while providing a glimpse of the confrontation of young working-class
women with changing sexual mores, also hints at the way segregation potentially
replaced regulation as the means to combat female degradation and degeneracy.
Thus, the Committee of Fifteen’s report criticized simple regulation. It argued
that regulation only perpetuated the existence of prostitution in tenement
houses and poor neighbourhoods.  Instead,
the committee recommended the formation of a ‘morals police’ charged with
formal investigation – indeed, the ‘surveillance’ – of prostitution. Along with
a Chicago vice commission, the committee sought to arrest degeneration by
separating the ‘semi-delinquent from delinquent girls’ and by creating ‘an
industrial home’ that would segregate confirmed prostitutes.

Concurrently, reformers sought to
segregate tramps. They advocated the creation of a model municipal lodging
houses that would provide an alternative to city jails or to the private
lodging houses castigated by Sanborn. Such model lodging houses, in addition to
providing a sober environment, food, and a bath, would aid in  the very process of classification. Inmates
would be subjected to a ‘work-test’; those capable of work would be forced to
labor. Advocates also described the municipal lodging house as a substitute for
harmful almsgiving. Instead of loose change, a beggar might be presented with a
ticket for a night at the municipal lodging house. Chicago’s Municipal Lodgin
House created a ticket that the well-meaning could give to a passing tramp.
Indeed, the text of the ticket, explaining the work of the house and its labor
test, was aimed primarily at ‘citizens and housewives of Chicago,’ not at
tramps. The ticket worked not only to segregate the tramp but also to replace,
reform, and improve the practice of charity.

Massive institutions, labeled
‘colonies’ and removed from cities, represented the most ambitious plans for
the segregation of tramps, as well as the feebleminded. ‘Colonies’ for tramps
and the feebleminded took their inspiration not from the nineteenth-century poorhouse
(which they resembled in general form, but not in intent) but from European
examples. American observers admired European experiments in segregation, such
as Mexplas, a Belgian colony for the ‘waste of humanity’ that included the
feebleminded and vagabonds. Rice argued that colonies might not only separate
tramps from those they might contaminate and dissuade others from vagrancy but
they also improved the efficacy of philanthropy. With the colony, charitable
aid could be directed toward those who might actually climb the class
hierarchy. By the turn of the century, colonies became an essential part of the
American campaign for social reform and settlement work. For Kelly and tramp
expert Orlando Lewis, colonies were key to remaking reform along scientific
lines. With the tramp removed, there was less temptation for what Kelly
denigrated as ‘indiscriminate almsgiving and such…charities as shelters, soup
kitchens, etc.’ Lewis, likewise, denigrated the mere imprisonment of the tramp.
Once released from prison, the tramp remained at large and became ‘a teacher of
parasitism.’ In the compulsory colony, vagrants could be put to work producing
their own food, while being segregated from the rest of the population.

At the same moment that Kelly and
Lewis advocated the creation of tramp colonies, leading reformers also clamored
for the construction of colonies to segregate the feebleminded, the label for a
newly defined category of congenital mental degenerates. The segregation of the
feebleminded, argued the Committee on Colonies for and Segregation of Defectives,
would relieve future generations of the burden of their degeneracy. Yet their
segregation, the committee said, was simply part of a movement for the
segregation of all degenerates, including ‘prostitutes, tramps and…many
habitual paupers.’ The colony housed classes of degenerates ‘who, if they
mingled with the world at large, would be useless or mischievous.’

The term ‘colony’ was affixed with
yet another meaning, alongside its imperial and immigration contexts: the idea
of removal. Calls for the construction of colonies along European models echoed
in reform and even socialist circles. It was, for example, central to efforts
to remake New York’s system of philanthropy. In 1911, with great support from
reformers and social workers, the New York legislature approved a bill to fund
the construction of a tramp colony. Reformers boasted that able-bodied tramps
could be forced to work to grow their own food. They would meanwhile be removed
from local jails and city streets.

Segregation was particularly
central to reform. Armed with the evidence gathered from slum exploration,
reformers set out by the early 1900s to reform the proletarian environment.
Naturally, they clamored for better housing and safe streets; they also sought
the elimination of degeneracy. In 1901, the South End House, Boston’s leading
settlement house, proudly reported the eviction of a drunk tramp from it’s men
reading room. The settlement, it declared, was not ‘a resort of bums.’ The
settlement’s leaders even saluted the refurbishment of the reading room with
new paint and open windows as part of a process of closing the city’s
working-class colonies to tramps. Something as simple as new paint might become
part of a larger, if brutal, process of segregating and eliminating the
degenerate: ‘Thus, death itself is the final factor in this process of social
regeneration. The morally fit survive, and the morally unfit drop away.’
‘Social degeneracy,’ the House declared,’ demanded isolation. The degenerate
was a ‘carrier’ whose presence could pass on their affliction to the desperate
poor. As a result, the House urged the creation of lodging houses and colonies
to put Boston on the ‘tramp’s black list.’ Social reformers, the inheritors of the
survey and slum exploration tradition, were dedicated to the positive
amelioration of the social environment as well as to the segregation and
extinction of degenerates. As the South End House reported, ‘From the beginning
of its career, the South End House strongly urged and earnestly striven for the
gradual segregation from the community of its degenerate and degraded types.’

Social Darwinists such as William Graham
Sumner had long been suspicious of reform as charity that led to the survival
of the unfit. Reformers were similarly concerned about the biological effects
of their work. To balance the preservation of those who might otherwise have
been eliminated in the social struggle, reform depended on a program of
segregation. ‘Charity…must not itself multiply the occassion for its
exercise,’ editorialized the Survey journal in 1909. But, in its
inherent contradictions, the balance between segregation and amelioration was
impossible to achieve. As the new century wore on, definitions of degeneracy expanded
and programs of elimination and segregation necessarily proliferated. As plans
for segregation and elimination broadened in their viciousness to include
sterilization and immigration restriction, social reformers would find
themselves questioning their ability to combine uplift with extinction. As
early as 1913, one settlement worker decried the expanding definition of
degeneracy. ‘Care must be taken to guard the border line between the fit and
unfit,’ she warned. When should reformers ‘halt’ the elimination of those ‘who
carry the germs of degeneracy?’

– Daniel E. Bender, American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry. New York: Cornell University Press, 2013. pp. 157-60.

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“The work of the noted Italian
criminologist Cesare Lombroso on prostitutes was translated from Italian into
English in 1895. Its English publication helped American authors, regardless of
their fidelity to his theories, refocus debates about prostitution from the
sense of moral crisis prevalent in the 1870s and 1880s to a biologically driven
concern about degeneration by the dawn of the new century. The surgeon G. Frank
Lydston, one of the most vocal American popularizers of Lombroso, sought to
render moral outrage secondary to ‘modern scientific thought’ and ‘evolutionary
law as applied to biology.’ The task of the criminologist, as of the
sociologist, was ‘to reduce the subject to a material, scientific, and
…evolutionary basis.’ The degenerate, for Lydston, must be understand less in
terms of moral failing than for its place at the bottom of the evolutionary
ladder where hierarchies of race and class converged. Vice commissions, formed
in large American cities, often by elite civic leaders, sought to fulfill
Lydston’s dictate – even as they less rigorously followed Lombroso’s theories.
New York’s Committee of Fifteen (and the Committee of Fourteen that succeeded
it), as part of a report that used European theories and experience to
understand New York’s prostitution problem, noted a changing attitude toward
the problem from one of moral outrage to one of scientific concern about
degeneration. As the noted sociologist and the Committee’s secretary Edwin
Seligman noted, ‘In America to-day, we find not only special associations
devoted to this matter, but also its more frequent appearance on the programmes
of many of our great scientific associations.’ The committee’s report located
modern prostitution within the ‘industrial conditions’ of the ‘social
organism.’ However ancient the root of prostitution, the committee focused on
the ‘Social Evil’ as ‘a creature of civilisation.’

Lombroso claimed that the
prostitute – and the degenerate generally – was produced by a combination of
physical heredity and environment. Therefore, he focused attention on the
prostitute’s body and surrondings. He advocated the close examination of the
prostitute’s anatomy: brain size, skull shape, and physical features. The same
method of measurement applied to immigrants was also employed for degenerates.
American investigators adopted the technique of examining the prostitute within
the broader context of their slum explorations. Yet such a gaze presented
problems. Explorations of the life of prostitutes might ‘gratify…prurient
curiosity,’ as the authors of Chicago’s Dark Places put it, but, unlike
investigations of tramps and the unemployed, even disguise could not morally
insulate elite observers. Instead, New York’s Committee of Fourteen paid
working-class men to assume the disguise of men of their own class seeking out
the city’s vice. Their findings replicated Lombroso’s evolutionary hierarchy of
the prostitute. Lombroso argued that some prostitutes were simply born into the
profession; poverty acted merely as a ‘catalyst’ that transformed moral
deficiency into degeneration. Others were ‘occasional prostitutes,’ whose
defeneracy could be blamed largely on their dangerous environment. The
Committee of Fifteen echoed Lombroso when it suggested that many prostitutes
were ‘a type which varies little with time and place.’ In addition to these
biologically ordained ‘real prostitutes,’ the committee described a hierarchy
of other women seduced into the Social Evil. Some women were attracted to
prostitution because the wages of prostitutes trumped those offered by wage
labor. Others became prostitutes because their environment pushed them toward
degeneracy. They were ‘contaminated by constant familiarity with vice in its
lowest forms.’ At the top of the hierarchy were ‘occasional prostitutes,’
driven temporarily toward the Social Evil because of destitution. Their
position as ‘occasional,’ however, was fraught with peril. Degeneration loomed
and ‘many of them drift gradually into professional prostitution.’

Unlike elite vice commissions, the
socialist muckracking author Reginald Wright Kauffman was willing to live with
the sordid world of prostitutes. He and his wife spent a year among New York’s
prostitutes to write his 1910 novel House of Bondage. Like many
socialist critics of prostitution, he linked an attack on the ‘vice trust’ to
hierarchies of prostitutes. Typically, Kauffman included victims of white
slavery in his pantheon of prostitute types. Although the novel focused on
Mary, a victim of white slavery, it introduced a variety of prostitute types.
Fritizie chose prostitution as an alternative to wage work. Wanda was an
immigrant victim of seduction. Evelyn had trod the ‘descending steps’ of
degeneration. Celeste, alone, was ‘temperamentally predetermined’ for
prostitution. Most socialist observers minimized the numbers of women naturally
inclined toward prostitution – even as they relied heavily on the statistics of
reform vice commissions. Theresa Malkiel, for example, declared that
‘congenital sexual perverts…form only a negligible fraction of the entire
number of prostitutes.’ Instead, Kauffman, Malkiel, and other socialist
observers described the degradation of women as a symptom of capitalism. The
‘prostitute is a production of civilization,’ concluded the Socialist Woman.
‘And the capitalist brand is the worst humanity has ever known.’

Socialists cast prostitutes as
capitalist victims by stressing their odiousness. Malkiel mourned our
‘unfortunate sisters,’ but her sympathy was restrained. Prostitutes were still
‘miserable creatures…left to rot in their own vice.’ The normally staid
Malkiel turned to the lurid language of primitivism to describe prostitutes.
They became ‘hordes, like beasts driven from their lairs.’ The aging prostitute
Old Frances, likewise, was a ‘victim of the system’ and also an example of
‘repulsive womanhood.’ In a socialist parable, she spent money for medicine on

Tramps emerged as the male
equivalent of the despised prostitute. The focus on male tramps was less
European in its origin. American fears of tramps coalesced in the aftermath of
the great strikes of 1877, one of the first shocks of the industrial age. For
elite observers the tramp came to represent, at once, the dangerous tendencies
of the disaffected unemployed, the zeal of revolutionaries, and the murderous
moral failings of the inebriate. Lee Harris’s 1878 novel, The Man Who
Tramps: A Story of To-Day
, notably casts tramps as leaders of a conspiracy
to foment tension between capital and labor. In dramatic, reactionary prose his
novel echoed a chorus of voices accusing tramps of stirring up the culturally
jarring strikes.

Even as memory of the strikes
receded, the tramp continued to evoke alcoholism, uncontrolled sexuality,
criminality, and indolence. Increasingly the tramp came to be represented as a
degenerate, a consummate threat to civilization. By the late 1870s and 1880s,
many states had begun drafting vagrancy laws. Such laws, while offering a
series of punishments for vagrancy, also proposed definitions of the tramp.
Tramps appeared in these laws less as conspiratorial revolutionaries than as
degenerates living of misguided charity and unwilling to work. L. L. Barbour’s
1881 definition of the tramp was typical: ‘He is an indigent, idle wanderer who
has nothing to do and wants nothing to do – no trade, no business, no aim in
life but to satisfy his daily hankerings at the expense of society.’ By 1886,
the National Conference on Social Welfare had launched a survey to identify the
causes of trampery.’ Using reports from thirty states describing trampery as an
‘inherited mental condition’ or – more colloquially – as ‘pure cussedness,’ the
Conference characterized tramping as laziness, drink and vice, unemployment,
and depravity.

The tramp may have been revolved,
but he was also a focus of fascinated study, as historian Frank Tobias Higbie
has noted. By assuming disguises, social investigations sought to penetrate the
urban habitat of the tramp in order to understand the symptoms of his
degeneracy. The moderate socialist and settlement worker Robert Hunter pointed
to physical evidence gathered from the Chicago Municipal Lodging House to prove
the degeneracy of the tramp. In a remarkable confession of voyeurism, he
described watching vagrants taking spray baths. He noted their potbellies and
pigeon breasts, curved spines, and degraded muscles. From these ‘physical signs
of degeneracy,’ he read their character. Such tramps possessed a ‘childlike
love of petty adventure,’ but little energy or efficiency. They were beyond
redemption. Similarly, Stuart Rice, an investigator for the New York
Commissioner of Charities, studied the city’s vagrants after donning the
‘outfit of hobo.’ As an investigation, he boasted that he often assumed
different disguises in order to work in the most dangerous of environments. He
had labored among immigrants mucking a railroad tunnel and slept in a rough
bunkhouse. As a tramp, he experienced not simply the desperation of empty
pockets, but also the very process of degeneration itself: ‘Have you felt the
insidious, downward pull of the undertow, the loosening of your moral grip, a
deterioration of your character which you seemed powerless to prevent?’

Such explorations helped observers
outline a hierarchy of tramps and vagrants. Like hierachies of prostitutes, the
classification of tramps divided those who had sunk to the lowest levels of
degeneracy from those afflicted by poverty. Stuart Rice and Alvan Sanborn both
used their experiences in the guise of a tramp to study vagrancy
‘introspectively.’ Not only could they experience tramp life for themselves but
they also could physically examine other tramps in the close quarters of the
lodging house. Rice described the different categories of tramps, including the
tramp temporarily ‘down on his luck’ and the professional beggar. He even
donned fake splints and bandages to join the ranks of vagrants unwilling to
work. They preyed on the sympathy of the civilized. The lecturer and
self-proclaimed tramp expert Edmund Kelly built on the notion of tramp types to
insist on the classification of tramps as the first step in their
‘elimination’. In a complex hierarchy, he divided vagrants into five
categories, including youths seized by ‘wanderlust,’ the born degenerate whose
tramping was a symptom of his condition, the able-bodied, and the

The gendered classification of
degenerates – the tramp and the prostitute – produced a new kind of ‘poverty
knowledge,’ as historian Alice O’Connor calls it. In particular, this
hierarchical view helped distinguish poverty from pauprism. The pauper, like
the tramp or prostitute, was distinct from the poverty-stricken unfortunate.
Pauperism was recast as racial atavism, the final stage of degneration. In the
urban context, savagery by the 1890s came to mean the lowest levels of both
class and race hierarchies. The bodily decrepitude of paupers was the sign not
only of their individual misery and fate but also of their biological unfitness
and racial primitiveness.  Even Edward
Devine, the long-time editor of Charities and Commons, argued that
‘biologically, pauperism represents a primitive type, surviving in the struggle
for existence only by parasitism.’ Male and female degenerates led a life that
was, as Devine argued, ‘suitable to an earlier and more primitive stage of
existence, but out of place in the modern world.’ The fall from poverty to
pauperism was recidivism and economic free fall: it was also racial
degeneration, as the semicivilized impoverished worker became an urban savage.
John Commons worried therefore that the impoverished might join the parasitic
ranks of ‘the criminal, the pauper, the vicious, the indolent, and the vagrant,
who, like the industrial classes, seek the cities.’

Socialist commentators equally cast
paupers and degenerates as primitives. Jack London compares those in the abyss
to the primitive Inuits he had encountered in his travels in the Klondike.
Residents of the slums, for London, were ‘the unfit and the unneeded! The miserable
and despised and forgotten, dying in the social shambles. The progeny of
prostitution – of the prostitution of men and women and children, of flesh and
blood, and sparkle and spirit; in brief, the prostitution of labour.’ The
evocation of savagery allowed socialists to undermine capitalist claims to
civilization. Yet socialists did not abandon the comparison of civilization and
savagery. ‘If this is the best that civilization can do for the human,’ noted
London, ‘then give us howling and naked savagery. Far better to be a people of
the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting-place, than to be a
people of the machine and the Abyss.’ The life of the savage, dwelling in
caves, was preferable to the squalor of the slums. The poet Ernest Crosby evoked
‘bleached and stifled and enervated’ laborers and ‘the army of tramps’ in a
poem ironically entitled ‘Civilization.’

Socialist and reformer observers of
prostitutes and tramps cast degenerates as primitives. Some were born
degenerate whereas others tumbled down the slippery slope of degeneracy in the
slum environment. The degenerate dwellers of the abyss, for London, lived ‘like
swine, enfeebled by chronic innutrition, being sapped mentally, morally, and
physically, what chance have they to crawl up and out off the Abyss from which
they were born falling?’ When women tumbled into the abyss, they fell toward
prostitution; degenerating men became tramps. Charlottte Perkins Gilman
described women’s turn to prostitution not as a moral fall but as racial
degeneration toward primitivism. The prostitute ‘naturally deteriorates in
racial development.’ Likewise, a leading social worker, William H. Allen,
characterized the tramp as a ‘swaggering, ill conditioned, irreclaimable,
incorrigible, utterly depraved savage.’ For the noted reformer of tramps John
J. McCook, tramps had rejected the rigors and rules of industrial society, and
surrendered to primitivsm. Tramps, like ‘aborigines,’ lived outdoors and
relished the ‘savage life.’ Social worker A. O. Wright similarly declared that
tramping was simply ‘a reversion toward the savage type’ and Hunter argued that
the tramps he watched in the shower had all the characteristics of the
‘savage.’ Like tropical savages, they lacked foresight with only ‘maudlin’
dreams of the future.

Degeneration gripped the lowest
levels of the class hierarchy. However, it was not safely confined to the
bottom rungs of the American abyss. It might spread because of the effects of
the slum environment in which degenerates dwelt in close proximity to the poor
and desperate. Degeneration also passed from parents to children. Hunter noted
after years of exploring and living in the slums that ‘children, bred into the
ways of pauperism, nearly always took up the vices of their parents.’ Girls learned
promiscuity and boys learned to tramp. To explain degeneration in the
environment of slums, Hunter appropriately turned to the image of the
primordial jungle. He portrayed degeneracy in the form of predators preying on
the unfit and unlucky. For those in the slum ‘the abyss of vice, crime,
pauperism and vagrancy was beneath them, a tiny hop above them. Flitting before
them was the leopard persistently trying to win them from their almost hopeless
task by charms of sensuality, debauch, and idleness. The lion, predatory and
brutal, threatened to devour them…Some were won from their toil by sensual
pleasures, some were torn from their footholds by economic disorders, others
were too weak and hungry to keep up the fight.’ For Hunter, the urban and colonial
jungles were thousands of miles apart. Racially, they were frighteningly close.

–  Daniel E. Bender, American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry. New York: Cornell University Press, 2013. pp. 152-157.

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