A paradise for tramps: Lorenzo Lewelling tackles vagrancy laws
Early in December, 1893, an executive letter from the Populist governor of Kansas, Lorenzo Lewelling, was circulated to the state’s police commissioners. It ordered them to cease enforcement of the part of section 571 of the general statues of 1889 requiring the arrest of “vagrants, tramps” and others “without visible means of support.” The law, wrote Lewelling:
is a disgraceful reminder how savage even in Kansas has been our treatment of the most unhappy of our human brothers. The man out of work and penniless is, by this legislation, classed with ‘confidence men.’ Under this statute and city ordinances of similar import thousands of men, guilty of no crime but poverty, intent upon no crime but that of seeking employment, have languished in the city prisons of Kansas or performed unrequited toil on ‘rock piles’ as municipal slaves, because ignorance of economic conditions have made us cruel.
By “economic conditions” Lewelling meant that even at the best of times, let alone during an economic depression like the one Americans were experiencing in 1893, there was always a huge “standing army of the unemployed” produced by mechanization and “its devotion to selfish instead of social use….” The unemployed could not be blamed for their condition, and the victims of statutes like section 571 were, said Lewelling, in no position to defend themselves:
They have been unheeded and uncared for by the busy world which wastes no time visiting prisoners in their jails. They have been too poor to litigate with their oppressors, and thus no voice from this under-world of human woe has ever reached the ear of an appellate court, because it was nobody’s business to be his brother’s keeper.
But those who sit in the seats of power are bound by the highest obligation to especially regard the cause of the oppressed and helpless poor. The first duty of government is to the weak. Power becomes fiendish if it be not the protector and sure reliance of the friendless, to whose complaints all other ears are dull.
Lewelling made a constitutional argument for his position. Equal protection of the law is, he wrote, denied to those subject to the a law which separates men into the poor and those who are not, “and declares the former criminals”: “To be found in a city ‘without visible means of support or some legitimate business,’ is the involuntary condition of some millions at this moment, and under the law we proceed to punish them for being victims to conditions which we as a people, have forced upon them.”
Further, he argued, ordering people to leave town contravenes their constitutional right to go from place to place “in search of employment, or even obedience to a mere whim….. Even voluntary idleness is not forbidden,” wrote Lewelling: “I am aware of no power in the legislature or in city councils to deny him the right to seek happiness in his own way, so long as he harms no other person.”
Fining the individual and requiring him to work out the fine “as a municipal slave” on rock piles and “bull pens” provided for the purpose -- “twin relics of the auction-block era” -- also violates constitutional prohibitions on involuntary servitude, argued the governor. In Missouri, in fact, vagrants could literally be sold at auction, at least until June, when the law was declared unconstitutional. The “crime of being homeless and poor” should, Lewelling concluded, become “obsolete in all the cities of Kansas governed by the metropolitan police act.” 
Lewelling’s letter grasps some of the most troublesome political and economic nettles of the day. It will, predicted the Kansas City Times, “probably cause an endless amount of truble [sic].” For one thing, Lewelling’s statement suggests that people have a right to wander about and pursue “voluntary idleness” – to be tramps if they so desire.
Even before the full effects of the 1893 depression hit, Kansas Citians were debating what to do about the problem of vagrancy. As Lewelling points out in his circular, “until recently it was the prevailing notion, as it is yet the notion of all but the work-people themselves and those of other classes given to thinking, that whosoever, being able-bodied and willing to work can always find work to do….”
The problem for many people was distinguishing between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor, as the American Citizen, an African-American newspaper published in Kansas City, Kansas, pointed out in its critique of what it called Lewelling’s “circular favoring loafing ….Governor Lewelling,” the editors wrote, “did not consider the fact that it will be quite difficult to distinguish what he is pleased to term the “workingman” from the genuine, whiskey-soaked tramp; and therefore, when a tramp is arrested on a charge of vagrancy, Lewelling would have it that he be released from custody on the flaccid excuse that the ‘gentleman of leisure” is a ‘workingman” unable to find employment. Criminality is the result of vagrancy, and it is no more than right that all vagrants shall be jailed.”
In Missouri, most vagrants were either sent out of the city or to the rock pile to work out their fines. This seemed eminently fair to middle class citizens, even if unemployed working men were sometimes mistaken for vagrants, as happened to a group of tin miners arraigned for vagrancy. They were, reported the Journal, “nicely clad and had papers to show they were tinners seeking employment.” More convincingly, perhaps, “they had watches,” but since they were found in a box car, the police arrested them.
One woman wrote to the Daily Journal proposing that “every vagrant idle man in the city” be put to work cleaning up the streets in return for assistance from the Provident Association: “mix in a little work with our charity,” she argued. The Provident Association was the city’s largest charitable organization, supported by citizen donations and proceeds from a wood yard and rock pile; twenty to fifty men worked daily breaking stones for use in paving, another ten to twenty split wood for kindling, receiving about $1 a day.
Another citizen, identifying himself only as “A friend of humanity and the right,” wrote the Daily Journal in praise of the Association’s policy of requiring “that class of men usually denominated ‘tramps’” to work in the Association’s wood yard or rock pile in order to receive assistance:
Let every able-bodied man who goes from door to door annoying peaceful, industrious citizens with his demands for ‘a few pennies to buy a cup of coffee,’ or for a meal, be arrested as a vagrant. Give him employment in breaking stone or chopping wood, with sufficient pay to buy his daily food, and surely in a very short time we will be rid of this ceaseless begging.
Men not willing to earn their keep in this way, he wrote, should be forced to leave the city or be sent to the workhouse, where labor was required: “the sooner these worthless, lazy fellows come to understand the situation the better it will be, both for themselves and the community.”
Attitudes toward vagrancy and the unemployed began to change, however, after silver mines in Colorado were closed at the end of June by their owners, who claimed the falling price of silver made mining unprofitable and that the mines would be reopened only when silver was restored to its “proper worth.” The closures occurred at the height of debate over repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which required the federal government to purchase a fixed amount of silver and, in effect, maintain its value relative to gold. The Times, which supported Cleveland’s effort to repeal the act, said the owners had shut down the mines only “in order to scare the country into a reckless financial system. Free silver or blood was the watch-word, and honest and industrious men were thrown out of work immediately and shipped East to complete the farce of ‘bankrupt Colorado.’”
Regardless of the reasons for the closures, some of the estimated 25-30,000 miners thrown out of work began arriving in Kansas City: they “filled box-cars, lined the car roofs and hung on by their eyelids to trucks and brake beams,” reported the Times. At first, the response of the authorities was to continue treating the arrivals as vagrants. On July 26 about 150 men from Colorado called in a body on Thomas Speers, chief of police, asking for his help on their journey east. Speers “advised the men to leave Kansas City and told them there was little work to be had” in the city. He told the Times:
I do not believe that one in a hundred of them were miners… they were bundled on the cars at Pueblo by the authorities and sent East for effect. We can not take care of such people here, and they must be made to move on. If the city should begin the business of dispensing charity to this class we would be overrun with them. The only course to pursue is to keep them moving on.
The Journal accused Colorado of dumping a “large slice of its population” on Kansas City, “partly miners and largely tramps.” Chief Speers was quoted as saying “not ten out of the entire party had ever seen a mine.” In contrast to the Times, which represented the miners as asking for help and being “advised” to leave town, the Journal described the men as “inclined to be insolent and their spokesman boldly told Chief Speers that the city must furnish them food and transportation.”
In the Journal account, the Chief threatens the men with a turn at the rock pile if they don’t leave town. In an editorial, the Journal endorsed the Chief’s response: “There should be no disposition on the party of any community or any good citizen to refuse sympathy and aid to honest victims of misfortune, but Kansas City cannot afford to become an asylum for the evicted vagrants of half the continent…. Kansas City will do its part in the direction of deserved charity, but it will not be imposed upon.”
The Times and Star, Democratic-leaning newspapers who favored repeal of the Sherman Act and blamed the miner migration on western “silverites,” took a different view of the migrants than the Republican Journal, a view that blurred the dichotomy between “tramp” and “unemployed worker,” “deserving” and “undeserving”: “there is an element in every man which, under certain circumstances, will make a tramp of him,” wrote the Times, ”and in every tramp there is that which, if taken at the right time, will make a man of him.” The thousands of destitute flowing out of Colorado are leaving because they cannot live where they are: they are “in no way responsible for their present distress…. They are ‘tramps,’ if you please, but honest and hard-working ‘tramps’ when they have a chance.” The editorial argued that Missourians should “Take in these men and help them to tide over their present time of distress and poverty” by offering them jobs in the farm economy.
In a later editorial the Times compared the migrating miners to Israelites, “a crowd of unfortunates driven from home by an industrial paralysis such as has seldom been known…. They did look tough, but they were unmistakably working men in the hardest kind of luck.” While the Journal continued to rail against “indiscriminate charity” toward “professional idlers,” the Star argued for “consideration and charity” in the face of the situation in Colorado:
These men are moving eastward in considerable bodies in search of work, which means bread. That tramps and vagabonds who never have worked, and never intend to [,] mix themselves in with these laboring men is probably true, but there is every reason to believe that a great majority of the pilgrims are what they profess to be, genuine laboring men out of a job but willing and anxious to get another.
It is submitted that it is not the proper thing to meet these unfortunate men at the city limits with policemen and clubs and to refuse them permission to enter the town, a proceeding of doubtful legality and savoring of inhumanity, since they are not accused of any offense, unless poverty be an offense. Men should not be clubbed or ordered to ‘move on’ merely because they are poor, and it should not be said that a great, rich country like this is unwilling or unable to give a piece of bread and a ‘lift on the road’ to the unfortunate…. A tramp now and then will make no difference; better feed a score of tramps than let an honest working man go hungry. Meet the men with a square meal rather than a heavy club.
In a later editorial, the Star took an even stronger position, arguing that the “individual right of every man to earn his bread” should be considered a natural right and be protected by government.
It was against this background of ferment and debate over the responsibility of citizens and government to the poor at a time of economic depression that Governor Lewelling’s order suspending section 571 appeared. Kansas City papers responded initially with a certain incredulity: the Times headlined its story on the order “Joy for the tramp,” and called it a “highly sensational letter,” mocking it in an editorial as “one of the most remarkable of all the heir-raising gubernatorial eccentricities of this year…. another of those brilliant schemes with which the brain of the reformer is wont to scintillate…. The milk of human kindness is a most desirable thing, but Governor Lewelling is treading on dangerous ground when he attempts to regulate an evil that no community has ever successfully dealt with by throwing off all restraint.”
The editors anticipated “murders and arson and law-breaking of every description” as the possible outcome of the governor’s order. Another editorial comment condemned the governor’s “great tramp manifesto” as showing “no sympathy for the deserving or unfortunate poor of Kansas, but invites the hordes of unwashed and voluntary paupers of the entire country to come and live upon the State.”
The Journal, in contrast, supported Lewelling’s statement, reporting that the governor’s order was based on conversations with judges about the unjust and erratic application of the statute. He told a Journal correspondent:
I am not in sympathy with lawbreakers, but I [am] told that we have no right to interfere with an unfortunate citizen who is compelled by force of circumstance to tramp about the country, or arrest him before he has committed some overt act against society. I was a tramp once myself – in Chicago in 1865. I found myself penniless, with no place to sleep; I walked the streets all night, but found a job next day shoveling dirt on a railroad, and was glad to get it. I did not consider myself a thief or vagabond because I was out of employment, and had I been arrested I should have felt that my country or the law of the land was doing me an outrage.
In an editorial, the Journal agreed that those who have been denied work through no fault of their own should not be treated as vagrants or criminals, but have the right to “demand the right and privilege of earning their bread. If this is denied them, the law should feed them – and not make the poverty imposed by law a crime – punishable by fine and imprisonment at hard labor. Whatever literary or other criticism may say of Governor Lewelling’s utterances, his protest against law imposed idleness and destitution being treated as a crime does him honor.”
The law to which the editors refer is the repeal of the Sherman law in October, about four months after closure of the Colorado silver mines and the mass movement of Colorado miners which followed. The Journal, as a Republican paper, took the position that since it was the action of Cleveland’s Democratic administration which had caused the miners to lose their jobs, the state should offer support rather than punishment.
Even if motivated by partisanship, the view that governments had a responsibility to the unemployed was something new; neither state nor national governments had resources for such a purpose. Even the Populist Lewelling had not suggested that Kansas had a fiscal responsibility to the unemployed.
The Times, probably with the intention of further undercutting Lewelling’s credibility, published the opinions of a socialist endorsing the governor’s letter as “the grandest State document ever penned since the foundation of the Republic,” and of Mary Ellen Lease, who commented of Lewelling, “God Bless that grand man. He has more Christianity in his heart than all the editors who have attacked him.” Lease was a frequent target of paternalistic criticism in the Democratic press.
In response, the Journal published extracts from letters of support received by Lewelling from around the country, some of them notably partisan: “The very people and party that gave us this army of the unemployed, of ‘tramps’ if you will,” wrote a veteran from Lawrence, Kansas, “are the first to denounce your courageous and manly words.” A police judge from Denver wrote “I know of no laws which have been so universally abused and used as an engine of oppression against the unfortunate poor as have the vagrancy laws.”
By the end of 1893, as the economic depression deepened, distinctions between “tramp” and “unemployed worker,” between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, were blurred in the press. Kansas City, the Journal editorialized, was not “threatened with the extent of want among its poor that confronts nearly every city of its size in the country,” so the Provident Association will be sufficient to meet the need even as other cities were “raising large sums for the establishment of lodgings for the homeless and for soup houses for the hungry.” The charitably inclined, said the paper, should give their money to the Provident Association, not to individuals making appeals on the street: “a dollar expended by the association will do more good, and in a direction more worthy, than ten times as much will accomplish as usually dispensed by individuals.” 
The Times took pride in the city’s treatment of its vagrants, responding indignantly to the charge of a Chicago paper that the city had been dumping its tramps and criminals in the Windy City: “We are taking care of our own drift of humanity,” a police captain is quoted as saying, conducting the reporter to the lodging quarters of a police station where 63 men were spending the night. The Mail also did a story on the police station providing a place for “homeless wanderers” to spend the night, “all in their hearts thankful to secure a bed in a warm room instead of shivering in a cold doorway or hanging out in some Battle Row saloon until kicked into the street.”
In these somewhat more humane views of the responsibility of society and governmental authorities to the poor and the outcast, as in Lorenzo Lewelling’s letter, one can glimpse evolving sentiments that would underlie the reforms of the progressive era a few years ahead, reforms that marked the end of America’s first gilded age.
 More on Missouri’s vagrancy law:http://kansascitystories.com/law/vagrancy/vagrancy.html.