Walking to Work: Tramps in America, 1790-1935

By Eric H. Monkkonen | Go to book overview

Priscilla Ferguson Clement


The Transformation of the Wandering Poor in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia

In the early nineteenth century Americans called them vagrants and, after the Civil War, tramps, but quintessentially they were the wandering poor. Men and women, young and old, black and white, native and foreign-born, they drifted in and out of farm communities and cities across America seeking work. Not surprisingly, expanding urban centers which offered job seekers a variety of opportunities, especially in manufacturing and construction, served as magnets for the nation's wandering poor. Such a center was Philadelphia, the third largest city in the country in the last century. With its diversified economy, it attracted a varied population, including many of the tramping fraternity. By definition the wandering poor are among history's most inarticulate classes and therefore pose a particular problem for the historian who wishes to study them. However, for the city of Philadelphia, which retains excellent records of its public institutions, it is possible to study those wandering poor who came in contact with city asylums such as the Prison, the House of Correction, the Almshouse, and the police station. 1

On 4 February 1808, a constable apprehended Sara Bird, brought her before a city magistrate, and charged her with vagrancy. The constable then conducted her to the Walnut Street Prison which, from 1784 to 1821, was Philadelphia's only prison; it housed both convicted criminals and vagrants like Sara Bird. There she remained for exactly one month, the typical prison term for most vagrants in antebellum Philadelphia. On 14 February 1823, when Peter Prince was taken into custody on similar charges, he was committed by the mayor for a one-month term to the new Arch Street Prison at Broad and Arch Streets, which had opened six

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