The Tramp 1868

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Like the Western Army and Army of the Potomac during the war, the City of New York possesses its troop of bummers--men who hate the discipline of life, detest marching in the ranks of workers, and hold industry in abomination. The regular bummer is a mixture of the thief and beggar, usually possessing more of the characteristics of the latter than the former, as his cowardice and indolence prevent him from rising high in the ranks of criminals. His strongest feeling is a horror of all regular employment; his chief happiness is to lie with a well-filled stomach on the Battery, in the sun, and sleep; his hell, or 'infinite dread,' is to be arrested by the police and be sent to the Island as a vagrant.

He begs bread from the bakers, and broken victuals from restaurants and private houses. In summer he strolls around the market to pick up or steal what he can find. His money he will spend for liquor for himself and friends, but considers it wasted if used to buy food. He will treat a brother in distress to five-cent whiskey as long as his money holds out, but his comrade might starve before he would buy him a loaf of bread. He has his regular routes and customers whom he visits, and some of these chevaliers d'industrie keep regular lists of the charitable, their residences, what is the proper time to call, and the probable result of such visit. 'Mr.----, No.--street, coffee and bread, 7 and 8 A.M.; Mr.----, No.--street, 9 A.M., bread, cold meat, or cheese; brown stone house corner of----street, 8 P.M., Irish girl, dinner; bakery,-- street, bread; cracker bakery,----, street; house four doors from---- street, lady, lots to eat and money; sisters in----street, soup; hotel,----street, soup meat, 12.30 P.M.,' etc., etc. This is a partial copy of a list seen by the writer.

As a rule he does not go to the same place two days in succession, but having a number, can levy toll at intervals and still keep supplied. Woe to the charitable restaurant- keeper who expresses sympathy--he will be overrun. The keeper of a certain eating-house not far from the City Hall, in reply to the thanks for the meal that he had given to our cormorant, said: 'You are heartily welcome. I never send any man hungry from my door.' This expression was spread, and he was almost overwhelmed. On one day, in less than a week from this unfortunate remark, he had thirty-two callers within twenty-four hours, and was compelled to refuse all in order to obtain peace.

The clothing of a bummer, while, of course, rarely of the latest fashion, is still generally sound and whole, except when on an expedition in pursuit of a wardrobe. This he obtains by 'asking,' though sometimes he will buy cast-off garments in Baxter street, but in general he prefers to beg for it. Some keep dilapidated clothing expressly to wear when begging, and even lend it to others to use for the purpose. Some also make a list of the places where they will be apt to procure what they require. This list they obtain from the daily papers.

Every morning they examine the obituary notices, and enter the date of the deaths, of persons of about their own age, on paper; about a week or two thereafter, they call on the afflicted family, and very frequently obtain a supply. What they cannot use they exchange at some of the numerous second-hand dealers for what they can, or sell it outright.

Their lodging-place is vast, consisting of the whole city. They are regular nomads, having no fixed abiding place, driven by the police or weather from one spot to the other. The City Hall Park is their usual headquarters by day. Many also visit the criminal courts to pass away the time, but the neighborhood of the City Hall appears to be their favorite resort. Whenever the sky is clear they can be seen sitting on the benches, vainly endeavoring to keep awake. If their gyrations become too violent, or they tumble from their seats, the watchful police are upon them, and, with sundry pokes of the club, compel them to banish Morpheus by walking--outside of the Park. Those who have not rested well during the night, at early dawn wend their way thither, and, stretching themselves on the benches, endeavor to snatch a nap, but, if seen, are always bastinadoed; for the only method our Metropolitans understand of arousing a man is by beating a reveille on his feet with a club.

On the Battery, near the water's edge during the summer, was a large pile of gravel. This, in dry weather, was a favorite resort. Here, every night from nine o'clock, eighteen or twenty figures could be seen stretched out in every shape. Most had old newspapers under them; some had a brick or stone for a pillow, but all were hatless. Hats were dangerous pieces of property to possess, as if one was ever left exposed it was sure to be stolen. The police rarely disturbed them; their greatest enemies were the mosquitoes. Many of these night birds sleep in hallways, or on stoops. Some creep into empty wagons, while others visit the hay barges in the North River. The farmers who bring their produce to the Washington Market, arrive there early in the morning, and they and the carriers who assist them to unload, generally sleep in the doorways opposite their teams. Among these the bummers frequently creep to rest, and as the police have neither the time nor inclination to pick them out, the black sheep remain with the white until the morning breaks, when they crawl away or skulk around the huckster-stalls to gather refuse fruit. When the weather is cold or rainy, the station-house is taken as a last resort. A description of the lodgings there would lead us away from our subject; it is sufficient to say that only a regular bummer can enjoy a rest in such a place. The life of such a creature is, necessarily, merely an animal existence, and, as a rule, he does not care for any amusement beyond listening to trials in the criminal courts. If with a full stomach he can doze away his time, he is satisfied, and asks nothing more. When, however, he desires any recreation, he patronizes Tony Pastor's Bowery Theatre.

At the latter place he is often seen standing near the door, with the hope of having a check given to him by some one who leaves early. Some money he requires to try his luck in policy shops, and especially to pay for his drinks. His methods of 'raising the wind' are only limited by his ingenuity. Simple begging, without an excuse, he seldom tries, as, being able-bodied, his requests would be roughly refused. He frequently sells hats, boots, and articles of clothing that he has begged. When on such a collecting tour, he carefully hides his hat or gives it to a comrade, and then calls in some wholesale hat-store. There he tells a pitiable story of having been compelled to sleep in the street and of having his hat stolen. He goes from place to place and frequently succeeds in collecting quite a number. One of these gentry has been heard to brag that he obtained fifteen different hats, all good, in one day. Boots and shoes he collects by showing his feet bursting out of the covering he has put on them for the occasion. The most singular manner of making money is practiced by a German, who told of it with great pride. Every morning he examines the obituary notices in the German newspapers. He then writes a few lines of something he calls poetry concerning each deceased. This he takes to the afflicted family, and tells them that seeing the death of a 'dear one' in the paper, the following thoughts were suggested, and then gives them his manuscript. On being asked if there is anything to pay, he replies that he is poor and will take anything they choose to give. Most give ten cents, some twenty-five, and he has even received a dollar, probably where the sorrow was very deep. When all other means fail, our subject visits the different ferries, and there asks the persons about to cross for enough to pay his ferriage. In this way he collects a small amount during the day, but as it is tedious and slow work he never undertakes it except as a last resort. With half the trouble that he takes to beg he could earn a decent livelihood, but detesting regularity he never undertakes it. One sense of shame, however, yet remains to him. He hides his begging under a euphemism; he never says he "begs," but always "asks."

The Germans call it fechten, to fight. They are the most successful, for two reasons--first, because the German nation is peculiarly hospitable and charitable to their own countrymen. Those speaking the same language and coming from the same country are always received kindly and are assisted. A Prussian helps a Prussian, a Saxon a Saxon, etc., etc.; secondly, they have less hesitancy in asking for what they need, being accustomed to it from their own country. There, when a mechanic has learned his trade he goes on his travels, and seldom having money, must beg his way. He is seldom refused his reisepfennig, traveling penny, and never his food and lodging. When he arrives at a place where there is a boss in his trade, if there is no work for him, each journeyman gives him something, and the boss twice as much. This is the custom, and when he obtains work he must do the same to those who come after him. Here he has little shame in asking for money, victuals or clothes. The German druggists have a singular custom of giving two cents to all beggars of their own nationality. Why they give that exact sum is a mystery, but it seems to be their habit.

Such are the bummers of New York, hastily sketched. Much more could be told did the space allow, but it is enough to show the nature of those excrescences on the body politic; men who, by their indolence and impudence, curdle the milk of human kindness and dishearten the charitable, taking the help that would make happy more deserving objects.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Tramp 1868
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City, by James Dabney McCabe (aka Edward Winslow Martin) Published: Philadelphia, Chicago, Jones Brothers & Co., 1868
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