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Kerry James Marshall, Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of his Master. Acrylic on PVC panel, 2011. 
Private collection, courtesy Segalot, New York.

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“IN 1940, even before the United States joined the war against the Axis powers, policymakers began to warn of imminent threats to the south. Numerous politicians and political scientists claimed that German and Japanese agents had organized an infiltration of Peru, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries. These enemy agents, it was said, were plotting coups and conspiring to launch an invasion of the United States. Franklin Roosevelt warned in repeated radio addresses that the Third Reich and the Japanese empire were erecting “beach heads” across South America. These anxieties were so pervasive that, in the same year, the White House contemplated dispatching hundreds of thousands of troops to Brazil in a preemptive strike against what it feared was a looming invasion.

Once the war reached the Western Hemisphere in December 1941, these fears started to shape formal policy. American officials were determined to suppress any potential subversion in Latin America, preferably with the cooperation of local governments. For this purpose, in January 1942, the United States helped found a new organ, the Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense, or CPD. Joined by twenty-one countries, from Canada in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south, the CPD would combat any activities that government officials deemed subversive, such as commerce with Axis countries or the publication of “questionable” newspapers. The CPD helped coordinate the sharing of intelligence and relevant legal procedures. A team of US legal experts, for example, helped Mexican and Brazilian officials draft regulations that curtailed the political activities of “dangerous” individuals and limited their right to travel.

But the United States wouldn’t stop at censorship and espionage. Within a few months of the CPD’s formation, its agents decided the enemy’s subversion was so dangerous that it could only be prevented through “preemptive” arrest. In the winter of 1942, American officials began to encourage and help local governments in numerous Latin American countries raid the houses of suspicious civilians. US intelligence agents provided police officials with names and logistical support, while State Department personnel helped skeptical politicians get over their opposition, mostly through generous economic loans. The thousands who were detained as a result were mostly sent to local military bases and denied access to legal representation or due process. Like the Japanese Americans whose arrest was unfolding at the same time, the detainees were targeted not so much based on anything they’d done (only a tiny minority was politically active), but due to their ethnic backgrounds: The vast majority were members of immigrant communities from Germany, Japan, and Italy.

CPD officials were well aware that many of these detainees did not pose a risk to security. They also knew that the officials in charge of the arrests were often motivated by racism or greed. (Internal reports mentioned policemen’s plans to take over the prisoners’ houses.) In one of the most grotesque consequences of this operation, the “dangerous aliens” arrested in Guatemala in 1942 included German-Jewish refugees who had recently fled the Third Reich. But in their eagerness to take action against foreign threats, American policymakers were unmoved by such tragedies. They accepted these incidents as collateral damage and sought, time and again, to enlarge the number of preemptive arrests.

The CPD’s campaign culminated in the creation of multiple concentration camps in the United States itself. American officials were convinced that they were better equipped to supervise and handle the Latin American detainees than their southern neighbors, some of whom had begun to complain about the high costs involved in holding them. In 1943, the CPD coordinated the deportation of eight thousand people from several Latin American countries to the United States. Forced onto crowded navy warships by Marine troops, they were shipped to San Francisco and New Orleans, where they were detained and processed by immigration officials. Most of the detainees were then sent to military bases in Texas, including Camp Seagoville, located a few dozen miles to the north of the Trump Administration’s proposed camps. They spent the war’s final years detained indefinitely without any charges brought against them, mostly working in local farms and factories. Unlike the asylum seekers held by CBP, these detainees enjoyed some modicum of decency. Camp authorities largely kept families together, provided basic schooling for children, and even allowed inmates to elect their own representatives, who organized cultural events. Still, because they were deemed enemy agents, most were deported at the war’s end alongside Axis POWs to Asia and Europe. Many of them would never see their homes again.

It was no accident that all these cruelties took place in the context of prolonged and brutal war. The pervasive fears over existential threats, the belief that foreign enemies were supported by internal subversion, and the sense that victory required the total destruction of our foes all fueled the conviction that “foreigners” were enemies and thus had no rights. The American concentration camps of the 1940s exemplified the logic of such war. Foreigners were guilty until proven otherwise.

THIS LOGIC HAD A LINEAGE and a name: “militant democracy,” a term first coined in 1935 by the political theorist Karl Loewenstein. A German-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Loewenstein arrived in the United States convinced that totalitarian and democratic regimes could not coexist. It was the nature of fascists and communists, he wrote in widely read academic essays, to infiltrate democratic regimes, exploit their freedoms of the press and speech, and destroy them from within. Long before the first shots of World War II were fired, Loewenstein claimed that an existential struggle between democracy and its enemies was already engulfing the entire globe. To win, democracies had to reform themselves. They had to become “militant.”

The heart of militant democracy was the suspension of laws and rights. Because totalitarianism operated especially through subversion, Loewenstein wrote, democrats had to get over their “legalistic blindness” and recognize that “the mechanism of democracy is the Trojan horse by which the enemy enters the city.” Governments had to move aggressively to limit rights—preemptively—to those deemed dangerous. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion would all be suspended, and the crackdown enforced through the creation of new, anti-totalitarian secret police forces. For Loewenstein, loyalty to the state preceded any discussion of rights. Anyone who questioned political norms found themselves outside the sphere of the law. “Fire should be fought with fire,” he wrote in 1935.

Throughout the 1930s, Loewenstein’s ideas were largely confined to academia. But World War II propelled an otherwise fringe concept like militant democracy to the maintenance of American power. To anxious government officials, the writings of Loewenstein and scholars like him captured new wartime exigencies. They clarified why curbing—and even abolishing—rights did not undermine democratic freedom, but actually enhanced it. Theories like Loewenstein’s also linked external and internal threats and rendered them indistinguishable. Japanese American or Latin American communities were thus the same—no matter where their members were born, they were both emissaries of global danger and thus not entitled to legal status. As his way of thinking spread, Loewenstein took on a more active role in America’s militant democracy. In 1943, he was recruited as legal advisor to the Justice Department, a position from which he joined the CPD and helped coordinate its campaign of surveillance, arrests, and deportations.

While Loewenstein ultimately returned to academic life, militant democracy outlived World War II. In the cold war’s harsh early years, some politicians and scholars continued to insist that international conflicts required the suspension of some rights at home. (The West German supreme court, for example, relied on militant democracy to outlaw the Communist Party in 1957.) Yet it wasn’t until the attacks on September 11 and the beginning of the war on terror that these notions reasserted themselves in the United States as forcefully as they did during World War II. The revival of militant democracy in the first decade of the 21st century helped prepare the ground for the tragedy unfolding in Texas.”

– Udi Greenburg, “The Logic of Militant Democracy: From domestic concentration camps to the war on terror.N+1, July 6, 2018.

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“A journalist for the Evening Independent wrote that [General Amos] Fries was often “accused of being an absolute militarist anxious to develop a military caste in the United States.” But to those who shared his cause, Fries was an excellent figurehead. A family man, a dedicated soldier, and a talented engineer, Fries was the perfect face of a more modern warfare.

Just as some in Europe argued that chemical weapons were a mark of a civilized society, for General Fries war gases were the ultimate American technology. They were a sign of the troops’ perseverance in World War I and an emblem of industrial modernity, showcasing the intersection of science and war. In an Armistice Day radio speech broadcast in 1924, Fries said, “The extent to which chemistry is used can almost be said today to be a barometer of the civilization of a country.” This was posed as a direct intervention to the international proposal for a ban on chemical weapons: Preparations for the Geneva Convention were well under way. If chemical weapons were banned, Fries knew it would likely mean the end of the CWS [Chemical Warfare Service] — and with it his blossoming postwar career.

To save the CWS from extinction, Fries would need his own army — one that would fight with rhetoric and social capital. Over the autumn of 1919, Fries worked to secure a network of publicists, scientists, and politicians to rally for their cause. They strategically began a full-scale multimedia marketing campaign to promote “war gases for peace time use.”

The trade press provided the first and largest forum for the spread of the tear-gas gospel. In the November 6, 1921, issue of Gas Age Record, Theo M. Knappen profiled Fries, the “dynamic chief” of the Chemical Warfare Service. Knappen wrote that Fries had

given much study to the question of the use of gas and smokes in dealing with mobs as well as with savages, and is firmly convinced that as soon as officers of the law and colonial administrators have familiarized themselves with gas as a means of maintaining order and power there will be such a diminution of violent social disorders and savage uprising as to amount to their disappearance.

In the future, Knappen predicted, when breaking up a demonstration, tear gas “will be the easy way and the best way.”

This early promotional writing struck a careful balance between selling pain and promising harmlessness. Its psychological impact set tear gas apart from bullets: It could demoralize and disperse a crowd without live ammunition. Through sensory torture, tear gas could force people to retreat.

These features gave it novelty value in a market where only the billy club and bullets had previously been available. Officers could disperse a crowd with “a minimum amount of undesirable publicity.” Instead of traces of blood and bruises, tear gas evaporates from the scene, its damage so much less pronounced on the surface of the skin or in the lens of the camera.

But the idea of transforming wartime weapons for peacetime use was not without its critics. In a 1922 letter to the New York Times, US Army veteran A. Reid Moir argued that gas was not only inhumane but “hellish.” He wrote, “Is it humane to lie in excruciating pain, with stomach swollen by the expansion of gas, and with lungs eaten by the deadly vapor to cough up one’s life in an agonizing convulsion?”

Fries’s team had carefully constructed comebacks for such objections. Borrowing loosely from medical statistics, Fries and his team constructed a trio of retorts. War gases, they claimed, killed only one-twelfth the amount of fatalities caused by bullets. Second, only half of disability discharges were from gas. Finally, they argued that there was no medical proof of permanent injury from gas exposure and that serious injuries were very rare.

Numbers could be twisted, but veterans’ testimonies stood in their way. Fries and his team claimed these were exaggerated tales, going so far as to publicly declare that “every imposter is beginning to claim gassing as the reason for his wanting War Sick benefits from the government.” This approach provided the groundwork for the decades of legitimizing less lethal weaponry to come.

Never far from Fries’s lenient use of statistics were his rationalizations of colonial myth as fact. Fries’s writing and speeches are littered with references to white supremacy. In his lecture at the General Staff College, Fries told young soldiers, “The same training that makes for advancement in science, and success in manufacture in peace, gives the control of the body that hold the white man to the ring line no matter what its terrors. A great deal of this comes because the white man has had trained out of him nearly all superstition.” It is this training, for Fries, that sets him apart from the “negro” as well as the “Gurkha and the Moroccan.”

While it would be easy to write Fries off as an anti-communist, racist, and military extremist, the potency of his views arose from his intellect as much as his ignorance. After graduating seventh in his class from West Point in 1898, Fries had entered the academy by acing an exam held by Congressman Binger Herman and went on to impress his superiors and inspire his army subordinates.

In the words of his peers, Fries took a situation in which “the entire civilian population,” as well as the army, stood against his pro-gas campaign and ignited in people an “earnest conviction” that these chemicals were the solution to law enforcement and political control in a time of economic depression. Instead of being seen as a form of physiological and psychological torture, tear gas became rhetorically cemented in much of the public imagination as the humanitarian alternative to live ammunition.

Into the next century, tear gas would become the most widely used less lethal technology. It would transform into part of today’s $1,630,000,000 global industry in less-lethal weapons, with rapidly expanding markets in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But for all that to unfold, Fries and his compatriots would first need to build up a commercial market for tear gas.

Commercializing Tear Gas
Beyond trade publications, radio speeches, and news features, Fries and his network also staged large-scale product demonstrations. On a balmy July day in 1921, Fries’s old friend and colleague Stephen J. De La Noy brought large supplies of tear gas to a field near downtown Philadelphia. Here he enacted the power of war gases in peacetime by inviting members of the city’s police department to experience its effects. Inviting reporters to record the spectacle of 200 policemen faced with tear gas, De La Noy set the stage for an enticing media story.

A reporter from the New York Times described how the gas “thrice sent [the police] into hasty and wet-eyed retreat.” As the demonstration continued, Philadelphia’s police superintendent selected “a battalion of his huskiest men … with instructions to capture six men who were armed with 150 tear gas bombs.” They fared no better than the first bunch, as “three times they charged, but each time were driven back, weeping violently as they came within range of the charged vapor.” Afterwards, police officials told the Times that the demonstration “undoubtedly proved the value of tear gas in police work.” The gas, they concluded, would likely replace “means hitherto used to subdue mobs and criminals.”

This early demonstration spawned a major national and international campaign for the use of tear gases by law enforcement agencies. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s both the CWS and commercial manufacturers peddled their products to police departments, National Guard, prisons, and private security firms.

This marked a turning point in what is today called the “militarization of the police.” “A few police armed with this weapon could disperse a mob easily and destroy the impact of a mass demonstration,” historian Daniel P. Jones argues. “The dramatic increase in the power of police forces in handling mass disturbances certainly meant a loss of power to any group opposing established order.”

Just as demand needed to be secured, so too did supply. To jump-start the commercial market, Fries donated samples from the CWS to friends — many of them former soldiers — who had become entrepreneurial executives in gas munitions companies.

Perhaps the most outspoken of these was Colonel B. C. Goss, who had worked in the chemical warfare division during World War I. A respected chemist and decorated military man, Goss founded the Lake Erie Chemical Company in Cleveland, Ohio. As general manager of one of the largest companies in this new industry, Goss knew profits would follow perception. He wanted to be the single manufacturer supported by the US military, and sought to use his wartime credentials to make this happen. Goss solicited help from his old CWS buddies and learned the art of twisting scientific testing into advertising copy.

On April 15, 1926, Goss wrote to Fries requesting that he contact the Chicago Superintendent of Police, Morgan A. Collins, “calling his attention to the fact that there are many possible new uses and new chemicals which are admirably suited for use by police departments, with which you would like to have them made acquainted, and that you would appreciate it if he could arrange to have me give a brief talk to the National Convention of Police Chiefs at Chicago.” Fries, uncomfortable with this request but committed to Goss, delayed his reply. Busy preparing for a confidential show at Edgewood Arsenal, Fries “hesitated about writing to the Chicago Chief of Police for fear of possible unfavorable reaction.” He thought it better if the superintendent could telephone him, at which point he could then recommend Goss as a keynote speaker, making the matter appear more casual. “You know my great personal interest in what you are doing,” Fries reassured Goss, “As fast as your products are available, send them along to us for test.”

Within a year, the CWS was providing tests of Lake Erie’s commercial products. The company’s new tear-gas weapons were set to undergo scrutiny at Edgewood Arsenal in the winter of 1927. While Goss was soliciting military endorsements, he wanted to make sure the tests were carried out in a way that provided the best possible outcome. This was no ordinary tear gas. “These Shells are intended to be used, namely, for firing directly in the faces of rioters or mobs, at short range by guards,” Goss wrote, checking in with Fries on February 17, 1927, to recommend that testing be done only with the one-inch Very Pistols instead of the ten-gauge. He promised, “These one-inch shells really have a terrific wallop.”

On February 25, the CWS reported the results of Lake Erie’s “Blind-X Shell” tests. In the opinion of the board, this tear gas was of no use in the outdoors, as Goss had noted in his letter. Yet the gas “would seriously injure if fired in the face of a person under twenty feet,” making it useful for “warehouses or other large rooms.” It recommended that “the charge must be received full in the face or on the body to be effective” and that this gas “will be effective against unarmed individuals, but will only stop a determined and armed individual when red point blank.”

While the Lake Erie “Blind-X Shells” tests were just one in long series of munitions tests to take place at the Arsenal, the results speak toward common misperceptions about how tear gas is handled. Today when canisters are shot at people’s heads or into rooms or cars, it is seen as an accident or against-protocol use. However, these tests show that tear gas was in fact intentionally designed to be shot at point-blank range at people’s faces and bodies and was indeed recommended for use inside buildings and for ring at close proximities.

Second, the test results explicitly stated that the product would be effective against “unarmed individuals.” Again, it was not an anomaly or ethical mistake for police to fire upon unarmed protesters at close range in enclosed spaces. This function was embedded in the very design of these tear-gas weapons. Causing injury to unarmed civilians was an intended outcome of manufacturing these tear-gas shells.

Today, companies claim to manufacture safer and safer forms of tear gas and less lethal weapons. But what does it really mean to improve on the safety of a device designed to cause harm? Is it truly an accident when a product developed to shoot people in the face is used to shoot people in the face? If you follow the hyperlinked trails of less-lethal-weapons patents into the past, you will see the mystifying language of safety and protocols erode. Yet the design and purpose of these technologies remains the same.”

– Anna Feiggenbaum, “The Man Behind The Mask.Jacobin, January 5, 2018. 

Extract from Tear Gas. London: Verso, 2017.

Picture is from a Federal Laboratories, Inc. brochure touting the value of the ‘Federal Gas Riot Gun,’ 1932. LAC RG73. 1-8-1. Vol. 1.

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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
alcohol.

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
non-able-bodied.

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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Scenes from the Bayonne refinery strike, July 1915. Bain News Service photographs, Library of Congress.  

“Initially about 1200 workers walked out, including 900 coopers, when their demands for increased pay and tolerable working conditions were ignored. The company retaliated by calling in the Bayonne police force through the Mayor of Bayonne, New Jersey, Pierre P. Garven, who was simultaneously on Standard Oil’s payroll as an attorney.  A riot on July 20, 1915 involving the strikers, police and “several hundred women” shut down the Standard Oil plant, and caused the shooting death of 19-year-old striker John Sterancsak. Plant general manager George B. Gifford ordered 250 men from the professional strikebreaker Pearl Bergoff.  

The following day a mob attacked the Tidewater refinery in an attempt to set it on fire. After several days of lawlessness, significant arson damage, at least five strikers killed altogether, and at least five more seriously wounded, Sheriff Eugene Francis Kinkead and federal labor mediators restored order after James Fairman Fielder, the Governor of New Jersey refused to call out the New Jersey National Guard. The General Superintendent of the Tidewater facility and 32 guards were arrested on a charge of inciting to riot. A total of 130 plant guards would be arrested. Saloons were closed. Local officials also arrested the Industrial Workers of the World agitator Frank Tannenbaum, who had tried to insert himself as a spokesperson for the strikers, and banned the sale of the socialist newspaper, the New York Call. On the 28th, the workers warily returned on promises of increased pay and the institution of an eight-hour day, promises which appear to have been kept by September.”  

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