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.
But with so much money changing hands, a problem emerged: an uptick in beggars on the city’s most pedestrian-heavy cross streets.
“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.”
“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.
“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: 18.104.22.168; second image: New York by Sunlight and Gaslight; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL]