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Disease of Mendicancy (1877)

The Disease Of Mendicancy

An article in Scribner’s Monthly, January 1877

AN English paper, in some recent utterance, reminded the American nation of the appearance of an unmistakable evidence that it is growing old. It possesses “the tramp.” The war left with us, as war always leaves in every country, a great number of men utterly demoralized. The hard times have cut them loose from remunerative work, and they have become rovers, nominally looking for employment, but really looking for life without it. They have lost their self-respect if they ever had any, lost their love of steady industry, lost all desire for independence, lost their sense of manhood and of shame, and have imbibed the incurable disease of mendicancy. We mistake the nature of the case entirely, if we suppose that better times and fair wages for all, would cure these men, and relieve the country of their presence and their support. Leprosy is not more incurable than mendicancy. When the disease has once fastened itself upon a man, — when, through long months or years, he has willingly and gladly lived on the industry of others, and roamed around without a home, — he becomes a hopeless case, and nothing but the strong arm of the law can make him a self-supporting man.

The same is true of the dead-beat, who is only “the tramp” of the city. He is not so humble a man as the country tramp. He dresses better and supports himself by different methods. He is the man who wants to get to Boston or Baltimore, where he has friends. He is the man who has just arrived from the South, having run as far as New York to get away from the yellow fever, or whatever trouble may be in progress there at the date of his application. He is the man who wishes to get money to bury his wife or child. Or, he is about to receive funds, but is in a starving condition, and wants something to assist him in “bridging over.” If you happen to have been born in Vermont, he comes to you as a Vermonter. Perhaps he comes to you because you and he happen to have the same name. There is no end to the lies he can tell, and does tell. We have some very genteel and high and mighty dead-beats in New York, who never stoop to beg, but rise to borrow, and forget to pay. We know of one woman here, claiming to be productively literary, who apparently lives well on the funds which a bright and sweet-faced daughter borrows for her. Now all these people are hopelessly diseased. They can never be restored to sound manhood and womanhood. What is worse than all the rest is that they perpetuate their mendicancy through their families. So we have the tramps and the dead-beats, and the regular old-fashioned paupers, and they are all alike, with some exceptions, perhaps, in favor of the regular old-fashioned paupers; for now and then there is one of these who, much against his will, has been forced by circumstances into pauperism.

What are we to do with these people? How is this disease to be treated? These questions demand an early answer, for the evils to which they relate are increasing with alarming rapidity. There is the general feeling that they will take care of themselves, so soon as prosperous times shall return; but, as we have already said, this is a mistake. The dead-beat will never reform. The tramp will be a tramp for life, shifting from country to city as his comforts may demand, and ready to be led into any mischief which will give him grub and grog. There ought to be, this very winter, in every State in the Union, such laws passed as will restrain the wanderers, and force them to self-support in some public institution. A standing commission of vagrancy should be instituted in every large city, and every county in the land; and institutions of industry established for the purpose of making these men self-supporting, and of curing them of their wretched disease. We have lunatic asylums, not only for the benefit of the lunatics, but for the relief of the community, and among the dead beats and tramps we have an enormous number of men who are just as truly diseased as the maddest man in Utica, or at the Bloomingdale Asylum. Something must be done with them, and done at once, if we are to have any comfort by day or safety by night; for men who are so demoralized as to beg from choice, and lie by profession, have but to take a single step to land in ruffianism. Already they intimidate, and rob and murder, to get the means to support their useless lives.

It is only last year that we heard of a force of five hundred of them approaching a Western city, to the universal alarm of the inhabitants. The disclosures connected with the recent fraudulent registration in this city show how easy it is, under the lead of demagogues, to assemble them by tens of thousands at any point desired, and how readily they can be induced to perjure their souls for bread and beer. These facts menace both our homes and our liberties. It is not a tramp, here and there, such as we have at all times; but it is an army of tramps that can be brought together on the slightest occasion, for any deed of rascality and blood which it may please them to engage in. The evil has come upon us so noiselessly — so almost imperceptibly — that it is hard for us to realize that we are tolerating, and feeding for nothing, a huge brood of banditti, who will ultimately become as monstrous and as disgraceful to our country and to Christian civilization as the banditti of Greece or Southern Italy.

The one fact which we wish to impress upon the people, and upon legislators, in this article, is, that the evil which we are describing and commenting upon is not one that will cure itself, — is not one that will be cured by returning national prosperity, — is not one that will be cured by driving tramps from one State into another, — and is a hopelessly demoralizing mental disease. It must be taken hold of vigorously, and handled efficiently and wisely. There is not a month to be lost. Thus far in the history of the country we have been singularly free from any pauperism but that which we have imported from the great European repositories of pauperism. But matters have changed. The tramps are not all foreigners. They are, to a very considerable number, our own American flesh and blood, and unless we are willing to see the country drift into the condition of the older peoples of the world, where mendicancy has grown to be a gigantic burden and curse, and pauperism a thing of hopeless heredity, we must do something to check the evil, and do it at once.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): The disease of mendicancy. (1877, January).  Scribner’s Monthly. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=10819.

Source: Disability History Museum,