An article in the Brooklyn Eagle of January 26, 1901 reported that police officials believed that “professional mendicancy” was responsible for an upsurge of beggars in New York City. In sync with the xenophobic mood of the time, city officials blamed the “wholesale immigration of professional mendicants [italics mine] from Europe” for a new, assertively exhibitionistic form of beggary.

“They are moved to this belief both by the nationality of the beggars and by the changed character of the begging habits.” Whereas native beggars were usually “content” to look shabby and miserable when soliciting handouts, the professional beggar would attempt to elicit pity by “prominently displaying their afflictions.”

While the article goes on to state that some people doubted police reports of this so-called professional mendicancy, it also claims that an “investigation proves it to be true and unexaggerated.” The investigation supposedly revealed that many prospective immigrants learned from their relatives already situated in America that all they’d have to do was to poignantly dramatize an actual or simulated affliction (blindness, paralysis, etc.) to play on the heartstrings of “those stupid Americans” and profit by it.

Professional mendicancy has actually become such a profitable occupation in Brooklyn and New York that these swindlers and loafers make more money than honest hardworking men. There is hardly a professional beggar in Brooklyn or Manhattan who is not considerably better off than 75 percent of the people who give alms. Nearly all of them have comfortable sums put away in banks…

While many of these “success” stories are probably true, I would suspect that even more of them are mostly exaggerated or entirely bogus; again, assumptions largely influenced by the prejudices of the early 20th century. Untold numbers of immigrants, possessing the most noble dreams and upright motives in coming to the USA, were, despite their more laborious efforts, reduced to begging…for survival, certainly not for profit.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle (excerpt)

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