Gilded Age New York City’s “Beggars’ Paradise”

New York City’s fortunes rose after the Civil War—the metropolis became the financial capital of the nation, powered by Wall Street and the center of a mighty shipping and manufacturing sector.

beggarsparadiseblindbeggarjacobriismcny90-13-4-98

But with so much money changing hands, a problem emerged: an uptick in beggars on the city’s most pedestrian-heavy cross streets.

beggarsparadidepleasegivemeapenny“Twenty-third and Fourteenth street constitute the ‘Beggars’ Paradise,’ the former by day and the latter by night,” wrote journalist James B. McCabe in 1881’s New York by Sunlight and Gaslight.

A beggar could be one of the many tramps who bedded down on park benches for the night, out of sight from the police.

But the category included anonymous, under-the-radar New Yorkers, kids and adults, who populated the late 19th century city.

“The same cripples, hand-organ men, Italian men and women, and professional boy beggars who infest twenty-third Street by day change their quarters to fourteenth street, when the darkness settles down over the city, and the blaze of the electric lights bursts forth over the latter thoroughfare.”

beggarnyplstreetbeggarFourteenth Street’s electric blaze came from the nightly shows at nearby theaters.

But 23rd Street was more lucrative during the day thanks to its fashionable and luxurious stores and hotels, like Stern Brothers and the Fifth Avenue Hotel across Madison Square.

“These beggars constitute an intolerable nuisance, and some of them are characters in their own way,” wrote McCabe.

He described the men who challenge “every passer by with pitiable looks,” collect coins, and then hightail it to a saloon or hand it over to a “pal” waiting out of sight.

beggarsparadisehandorganmannyplWhile benevolent societies and missions tried to help the “deserving” poor, these institutions couldn’t help unfortunate folks who fell into the hands of con men.

“The most systematic beggar is a man paralyzed from his waist downward. He sits in a four-wheeled wagon, and is drawn to a fresh station each day. He works the thoroughfare between Fourth and Eighth Avenues, on both sides.”

“The creature who wheels the wagon and watches the contributors, is an elderly man with a vicious face.”

“He makes his companion settle up three or four times a day, and is liberal with his oaths if his share does not equal the amount he expected,” added McCabe.

[Top photo: MCNY: 90.13.4.98; second image: New York by Sunlight and Gaslight; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]

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7 Responses to “Gilded Age New York City’s “Beggars’ Paradise””

  1. wendy Says:

    Alas, little has changed. People still talk about the “deserving” poor. And I’ve heard some places in India, children are made to look pathetic and have managers who take the funds the children collect. Ah, the human race.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes, McCabe goes on describing the same thing in NYC–adults using kids to appeal to the wallets of passersby.

  3. carolegill Says:

    the paralyzed man- i wonder how he would have survived if he didn’t beg back then. And please, no politics. I am in the U.K. 🙂

  4. trilby1895 Says:

    As always, ephemeralnewyork provides new (to me) and fascinating information about New York back in the day. Also always, as I walk along the streets and avenues described in these vignettes, I imagine what was going on along these same sidewalks. I especially love the illustrations; paintings, photos, drawings. Thank you, ephemeralinnewyork!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you Trilby1895. As a fellow NYC time machine traveler, I always welcome your insight and encouraging words.

  5. trilby1895 Says:

    Thank you, ephemeral………

  6. familytreedet Says:

    Great description of life in New York at that time. In some ways things change and in some ways they stay the same.

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