If 19th-century papers are to be believed, the problem had grown to plague-like proportions. Women were warned about this pestilence in ladies’ journals. Intrepid writers like Jack London exposed themselves to danger to get a closer look. Local and state governments warned against actions that might exacerbate the epidemic. No, the new social woe wasn’t bedbugs or tuberculosis or any other infectious disease: it was a supposed army of professional beggars spilling into cities across England and America.
“They have little care or anxiety, except the fun of dodging the policemen,” wrote K.K. Bentwick in The North American Review in 1894. “They shamelessly impose upon those who really pity and befriend them.” Bentwick described the weekly meetings these supplicants held in London and identified a biweekly paper published in Paris called Journal des Mendicants (beggars). In London’s travels around the United States as a tramp, the author best known for Call of the Wild came to know his share of professional beggars, whom he called the profesh. “[They] are the aristocracy of their underworld,” London wrote in The Road, but they were also the most fearsome because of the lengths they were willing to go to hold onto their status. “The professional mendicants may be estimated at no less than 60,000, who are for the most part thieves, or their accomplices,” claimed the British Lady’s Newspaper in 1847, likely an exaggeration of the actual number.
Where did these professional beggars come from, who made up their ranks, and how did they organize themselves? Each writer had their own answer, or no answers at all. But perhaps the real question should’ve been: were professional beggars real?
“As the homeless population emerges in the late 1870s, and in some cities in fairly large numbers, you see the emergence of literature trying to explain who these men are and what they’re doing there. They were also trying to create this hierarchy of deserving-ness,” says Stephen Pimpare, author of A People’s History of Poverty in America. “With most of this kind of writing, it’s almost all anecdotal.” In other words, the professional beggars of the 18th and 19th centuries were the welfare queens of their era. While Bentwick and London might not have been completely fabricating their accounts, they also didn’t consider societal factors like economic upheaval, war, epidemics and natural disasters, all of which correlate with increases in the number of beggars and homeless, says Pimpare.
Categorizing the deserving and undeserving poor goes back nearly a millennium in the Western world. Government officials in England began regulating begging and poverty relief as early as the 13th century, when population growth and depressed wages meant an increasing number of able-bodied people couldn’t make ends meet. After the first wave of the Black Death in 1349 reduced the labor force, the situation only got worse. While poverty had once been seen as a societal problem that required regular almsgiving, it was now transformed into a moral failing.
“What employers wanted was a return to earlier standards, to a labor market in which masters held the upper hand, workers were disciplined by the threat of insecurity, and wages were seen as ‘reasonable,’” writes historian Elaine Clark. “By launching a war of words that portrayed laborers as transgressors and employers as victims, the government defined the problem of the ‘begging poor’ as a problem of justice; able-bodied beggars were in the wrong and should be punished.”
Regulations on almsgiving and begging continued into the Elizabethan era of the late 1500s and beyond. A 1597 act laid down strict guidelines for beggars and vagabonds and required towns to provide a prison for the undeserving poor to be housed in. Turning poverty and begging into criminal offenses also meant employers could maintain low wages and control the labor market. “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious,” wrote English traveler Arthur Young in 1771.
Despite criminalizing begging in England, some village magistrates adopted the practicing of establishing living wages, a system named “Speenhamland,” writes Boyd Hilton in A Mad Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846. And while opponents of the system argued it rewarded sloth and served to increase poverty, “most available evidence suggests that, rather than causing poverty, it was adopted in parishes where poverty was greatest.”
Begging and vagrancy could be punished by whipping, imprisonment and hard labor, though women and children—who made up 90 percent of beggars in London in 1796—were often exempted from punishment. All the same, the public fear of and fascination with male beggars continued to grow. In 1817, engraver John Thomas Smith wrote Vagabondiana, which detailed the lives of 30 Londoners living on the streets and how they survived.
“The vast majority of beggars are women with children, but the people who get in the literature are men who find a safe space on the street and own it,” says Tim Hitchcock, author of the 2005 Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London. “Are they professional? Possibly. Are they poor? Yes. Are they in need? Yes,” says Hitchcock. “But you don’t continue begging if you can’t make a living on it.” He points to the existence of popular memoirs including to show that some people did consider themselves to be successful professional beggars, including Autobiography of a Super-Tramp and Mary Saxby’s Memoirs of a Female Vagrant.
To Hitchcock, the title “professional beggar” wasn’t so much a myth as it was part of long continuum of changing traditions for how poor members of society interacted with wealthier ones. He cites the tradition of British servants using Christmas boxes in the 18th and 19th centuries, wherein they carried the boxes around and begged for money, often earning more than their wages for the rest of the year combined. Or the holiday of Guy Fawkes, when children would beg for change outside pubs to pay for the ceremonial bonfires. Even Halloween is its own sort of begging, Hitchcock says.
Fearing beggars and discouraging welfare wasn’t unique to England in the 18th and 19th centuries. “[American chambers of commerce] were concerned that if governments started to intervene and provide more public assistance, it would strengthen workers’ bargaining rights in the labor market,” Pimpare says. “If you had nothing other than the awful, dangerous job in the factory, you’re gonna take it. But suddenly if soup kitchens are available, maybe if your job is really terrible or dangerous you’ll be able to turn it down.”
One of the main differences between begging in the U.S. and England, Pimpare notes, is the legacy of slavery. Following the Civil War, a number of southern states passed very specific laws that targeted newly freed slaves. These men could then be arrested for “crimes” like appearing in public without a visible means of support, violations that resulted in conscription into chain gangs or being leased out to private companies. The visible through line from those early laws to today’s mass incarceration debate are modern municipal laws that disproportionately target African-Americans, like those in Ferguson, Missouri as reported by the Washington Post.
The Civil War also resulted in many veterans suddenly finding themselves without employment, leaving them to wander the streets. Shortly after the war ended there was the first post-industrial economic depression in 1873. “There was something like a million vagrancy arrests in 1877, which was double, give or take, the number the year before,” Pimpare says. There were also immigrants from countries like Italy pouring into the United States, prompting more xenophobic fears about the motivations of these outsiders and whether they were contributing to the begging epidemic.
“The professional beggar became a conversation about how society should work more generally,” says Hitchcock. “When there’s no substantial safety net, begging becomes a more reasonable thing to do.”
But Pimpare thinks classifying beggars as professionals can be dangerous because it suggests society should turn to harsher punishments for poverty. “By blaming people for that failure it doesn’t obligate us collectively through government to step up and ensure there are opportunities available. People will often say poverty is such a hard problem, it’s so intractable, so difficult to deal with. It’s actually not all that difficult to deal with. Pretty much every rich democracy on the planet has a lower poverty rate than we do.”
The solution, he says, is to stop using myths that dole out blame to the impoverished, and look to other countries with greater welfare systems whose poverty and incarceration rates are lower than our own.