Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  How Count Rumford Reclaimed the Beggars of Bavaria

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

How Count Rumford Reclaimed the Beggars of Bavaria

By Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753–1814)

[Born in Woburn, Mass., 1753. Died at Auteuil, France, 1814. Essays, Political, Economical, and Philosophical. 1796.]

THE NUMBER of itinerant beggars, of both sexes and all ages, as well foreigners as natives, who strolled about the country in all directions, levying contributions from the industrious inhabitants, stealing and robbing, and leading a life of indolence and the most shameless debauchery, was quite incredible; and so numerous were the swarms of beggars in all the great towns, and particularly in the capital, so great their impudence, and so persevering their importunity, that it was almost impossible to cross the streets without being attacked, and absolutely forced to satisfy their clamorous demands. And these beggars were in general by no means such as from age or bodily infirmities were unable by their labor to earn their livelihood; but they were, for the most part, stout, strong, healthy, sturdy beggars, who, lost to every sense of shame, had embraced the profession from choice, not necessity; and who, not unfrequently, added insolence and threats to their importunity, and extorted that from fear which they could not procure by their arts of dissimulation.

These beggars not only infested all the streets, public walks, and public places, but they even made a practice of going into private houses, where they never failed to steal whatever fell in their way, if they found the doors open and nobody at home; and the churches were so full of them that it was quite a nuisance, and a public scandal during the performance of divine service. People at their devotions were continually interrupted by them, and were frequently obliged to satisfy their demands in order to be permitted to finish their prayers in peace and quiet.

In short, these detestable vermin swarmed everywhere, and not only their impudence and clamorous importunity were without any bounds, but they had recourse to the most diabolical arts and most horrid crimes in the prosecution of their infamous trade. Young children were stolen from their parents by these wretches, and their eyes put out, or their tender limbs broken and distorted, in order, by exposing them thus maimed, to excite the pity and commiseration of the public; and every species of artifice was made use of to agitate the sensibility, and to extort the contributions of the humane and charitable.

Some of these monsters were so void of all feeling as to expose even their own children, naked, and almost starved, in the streets, in order that, by their cries and unaffected expressions of distress, they might move those who passed by to pity and relieve them; and, in order to make them act their part more naturally, they were unmercifully beaten when they came home by their inhuman parents if they did not bring with them a certain sum, which they were ordered to collect.

I have frequently seen a poor child of five or six years of age, late at night, in the most inclement season, sitting down almost naked at the corner of a street, and crying most bitterly; if he were asked what was the matter with him, he would answer, “I am cold and hungry, and afraid to go home; my mother told me to bring home twelve kreutzers, and I have only been able to beg five. My mother will certainly beat me if I don’t carry home twelve kreutzers.” Who could refuse so small a sum to relieve so much unaffected distress? But what horrid arts are these, to work upon the feelings of the public, and levy involuntary contributions for the support of idleness and debauchery!

But the evils arising from the prevalence of mendicity did not stop here. The public, worn out and vanquished by the numbers and persevering importunity of the beggars; and frequently disappointed in their hopes of being relieved from their depredations, by the failure of the numberless schemes that were formed and set on foot for that purpose, began at last to consider the case as quite desperate, and to submit patiently to an evil for which they saw no remedy. The consequences of this submission are easy to be conceived; the beggars, encouraged by their success, were attached still more strongly to their infamous profession; and others, allured by their indolent lives, encouraged by their successful frauds, and emboldened by their impunity, joined them. The habit of submission on the part of the public, gave them a sort of right to pursue their depredations;—their growing numbers and their success gave a kind of éclat to their profession; and the habit of begging became so general that it ceased to be considered as infamous; and was, by degrees, in a manner interwoven with the internal regulations of society….

To produce so total and radical a change in the morals, manners, and customs of this debauched and abandoned race, as was necessary to render them orderly and useful members of society, will naturally be considered as an arduous, if not impossible, enterprise. In this I succeeded;—for the proof of this fact I appeal to the flourishing state of the different manufactories in which these poor people are now employed,—to their orderly and peaceable demeanor—to their cheerfulness—to their industry—to the desire to excel, which manifests itself among them upon all occasions,—and to the very air of their countenances. Strangers who go to see this institution (and there are very few who pass through Munich who do not take that trouble), cannot sufficiently express their surprise at the air of happiness and contentment which reigns throughout every part of this extensive establishment, and can hardly be persuaded that among those they see so cheerfully engaged in that interesting scene of industry, by far the greater part were, five years ago, the most miserable and most worthless of beings—common beggars in the streets….

With persons of this description, it is easy to be conceived that precepts, admonitions, and punishments would be of little or no avail. But where precepts fail, habits may sometimes be successful.

To make vicious and abandoned people happy, it has generally been supposed necessary, first, to make them virtuous. But why not reverse this order? Why not make them first happy, and then virtuous? If happiness and virtue be inseparable, the end will be as certainly obtained by the one method as by the other; and it is most undoubtedly much easier to contribute to the happiness and comfort of persons in a state of poverty and misery, than, by admonitions and punishments, to reform their morals.

Deeply struck with the importance of this truth, all my measures were taken accordingly. Everything was done that could be devised to make the poor people I had to deal with, comfortable and happy in their new situation; and my hopes, that a habit of enjoying the real comforts and conveniences which were provided for them, would in time soften their hearts, open their eyes, and render them grateful and docile, were not disappointed.

The pleasure I have had in the success of this experiment is much easier to be conceived than described. Would to God that my success might encourage others to follow my example! If it were generally known how little trouble and how little expense are required to do much good, the heart-felt satisfaction which arises from relieving the wants, and promoting the happiness of our fellow-creatures, is so great, that I am persuaded acts of the most essential charity would be much more frequent, and the mass of misery among mankind would consequently be much lessened.

Having taken my resolution to make the comfort of the poor people, who were to be provided for, the primary object of my attention, I considered what circumstance in life, after the necessaries, food and raiment, contributes most to comfort, and I found it to be cleanliness….

Most of them had been used to living in the most miserable hovels, in the midst of vermin and every kind of filthiness; or to sleep in the streets and under the hedges, half naked, and exposed to all the inclemencies of the seasons. A large and commodious building, fitted up in the neatest and most comfortable manner, was now provided for their reception. In this agreeable retreat they found spacious and elegant apartments, kept with the most scrupulous neatness, well warmed in winter and well lighted; a good warm dinner every day, gratis, cooked and served up with all possible attention to order and cleanliness; materials and utensils for those who were able to work; masters, gratis, for those who required instruction; the most generous pay, in money, for all the labor performed; and the kindest usage from every person, from the highest to the lowest, belonging to the establishment. Here, in this asylum for the indigent and unfortunate, no ill-usage, no harsh language, is permitted. During five years that the establishment has existed, not a blow has been given to any one; not even to a child by his instructor.

As the rules and regulations for the preservation of order are few, and easy to be observed, the instances of their being transgressed are rare; and as all the labor performed is paid by the piece and not by the day, and is well paid, and as those who gain the most by their work in the course of the week receive proportional rewards on the Saturday evening, these are most effectual encouragements to industry….

As by far the greater part of these poor creatures were totally unacquainted with every kind of useful labor, it was necessary to give them such work at first as was very easy to be performed, and in which the raw materials were of little value; and then, by degrees, as they became more adroit, to employ them in manufacturing more valuable articles.

As hemp is a very cheap commodity, and as the spinning of hemp is easily learned, particularly when it is designed for very coarse and ordinary manufactures, 15,000 pounds of that article were purchased in the Palatinate and transported to Munich; and several hundred spinning-wheels, proper for spinning it, were provided; and several good spinners as instructors were engaged, and in readiness, when this house of industry was opened for the reception of the poor.

Flax and wool were likewise provided, and some few good spinners of those articles were engaged as instructors; but by far the greater number of the poor began with spinning of hemp; and so great was their awkwardness at first, that they absolutely ruined almost all the raw materials that were put into their hands. By an exact calculation of profit and loss, it was found that the manufactory actually lost more than 3,000 florins upon the articles of hemp and flax during the first three months; but we were not discouraged by these unfavorable beginnings; they were indeed easy to be foreseen, considering the sort of people we had to deal with, and how necessary it was to pay them at a very high rate for the little work they were able to perform, in order to keep up their courage, and induce them to persevere with cheerfulness in acquiring more skill and address in their labor. If the establishment was supported at some little expense in the beginning, it afterward richly repaid these advantages….

It is easy to conceive that so great a number of unfortunate beings, of all ages and sexes, taken as it were out of their very element, and placed in a situation so perfectly new to them, could not fail to be productive of very interesting situations. Would to God I were able to do justice to this subject! but no language can describe the affecting scenes to which I was a witness upon this occasion.

The exquisite delight which a sensible mind must feel upon seeing many hundreds of wretched beings awaking from a state of misery and inactivity as from a dream, and applying themselves with cheerfulness to the employments of useful industry;—upon seeing the first dawn of placid content break upon a countenance covered with habitual gloom, and furrowed and distorted by misery; this is easier to be conceived than described.

During the first three or four days that these poor people were assembled, it was not possible entirely to prevent confusion: there was nothing like mutinous resistance among them; but their situation was so new to them, and they were so very awkward in it, that it was difficult to bring them into any tolerable order. At length, however, by distributing them in the different halls, and assigning to each his particular place (the places being all distinguished by numbers), they were brought into such order as to enable the inspectors and instructors to begin their operations.

Those who understood any kind of work, were placed in the apartments where the work they understood was carried on; and the others, being classed according to their sexes, and as much as possible according to their ages, were placed under the immediate care of the different instructors. By much the larger number were put to spinning of hemp; others, and particularly the young children from four to seven years of age, were taught to knit and to sew; and the most awkward among the men, and particularly the old, the lame, and the infirm, were put to carding of wool. Old women, whose sight was too weak to spin, or whose hands trembled with palsy, were made to spool yarn for the weavers; and young children, who were too weak to labor, were placed upon seats erected for that purpose round the rooms where other children worked.

As it was winter, fires were kept in every part of the building from morning till night; and all the rooms were lighted up till nine o’clock in the evening. Every room and every staircase was neatly swept and cleaned twice a day; once early in the morning, before the people were assembled, and once while they were at dinner. Care was taken, by placing ventilators, and occasionally opening the windows, to keep the air of the rooms perfectly sweet, and free from all disagreeable smells; and the rooms themselves were not only neatly whitewashed and fitted up and arranged in every respect with elegance, but care was taken to clean the windows very often; to clean the court-yard every day; and even to clear away the rubbish from the street in front of the building, to a considerable distance on every side.

Those who frequented this establishment were expected to arrive at the fixed hour in the morning, which hour varied according to the season of the year; if they came too late, they were gently reprimanded; and if they persisted in being tardy, without being able to give a sufficient excuse for not coming sooner, they were punished by being deprived of their dinner, which otherwise they received every day gratis.

At the hour of dinner a large bell was rung in the court, when those at work in the different parts of the building repaired to the dining-hall, where they found a wholesome and nourishing repast, consisting of about a pound and a quarter, avoirdupois weight, of a very rich soup of peas and barley, mixed with cuttings of fine white bread, and a piece of excellent rye bread, weighing seven ounces; which last they commonly put in their pockets and carried home for their supper. Children were allowed the same portion as grown persons; and a mother, who had one or more young children, was allowed a portion for each of them.

Those who from sickness or other bodily infirmities were not able to come to the workhouse, as also those who, on account of young children they had to nurse, or sick persons to take care of, found it more convenient to work at their own lodgings (and of these there were many), were not on that account deprived of their dinners. Upon representing their cases to the committee, tickets were granted them, upon which they were authorized to receive from the public kitchen, daily, the number of portions specified in the ticket; and these they might send for by a child, or by any other person they thought proper to employ; it was necessary, however, that the ticket should always be produced, otherwise the portions were not delivered. This precaution was necessary to prevent abuses on the part of the poor….

Though a very generous price was paid for labor in the different manufactures in which the poor were employed, yet that alone was not enough to interest them sufficiently in the occupations in which they were engaged. To excite their activity, and inspire them with a true spirit of persevering industry, it was necessary to fire them with emulation—to awaken in them a dormant passion whose influence they had never felt, the love of honest fame, an ardent desire to excel—the love of glory—or by what other more humble or pompous name this passion, the most noble and most beneficent that warms the human heart, can be distinguished.

To excite emulation,—praise, distinctions, rewards are necessary; and these were all employed. Those who distinguished themselves by their application, by their industry, by their address, were publicly praised and encouraged,—brought forward and placed in the most conspicuous situations, pointed out to strangers who visited the establishment, and particularly named and proposed as models for others to copy. A particular dress, a sort of uniform for the establishment, which, though very economical, as may be seen by the details which will be given of it in another place, was nevertheless elegant, was provided; and this dress, as it was given out gratis, and only bestowed upon those who particularly distinguished themselves, was soon looked upon as an honorable mark of approved merit; and served very powerfully to excite emulation among the competitors. I doubt whether vanity, in any instance, ever surveyed itself with more self-gratification, than did some of these poor people when they first put on their new dress.

How necessary is it to be acquainted with the secret springs of action in the human heart, to direct even the lowest and most unfeeling class of mankind! The machine is intrinsically the same in all situations; the great secret is, first to put it in tune, before an attempt is made to play upon it. The jarring sounds of former vibrations must first be stilled, otherwise no harmony can be produced; but when the instrument is in order the notes cannot fail to answer to the touch of a skilful master.

Though everything was done that could be devised to impress the minds of all those, old and young, who frequented this establishment, with such sentiments as were necessary in order to their becoming good and useful members of society (and in these attempts I was certainly successful, much beyond my most sanguine expectations), yet my hopes were chiefly placed on the rising generation.

The children, therefore, of the poor, were objects of my peculiar care and attention. To induce their parents to send them to the establishment, even before they were old enough to do any kind of work, when they attended at the regular hours, they not only received their dinner gratis, but each of them was paid three kreutzers a day for doing nothing, but merely being present where others worked.

I have already mentioned that these children, who were too young to work, were placed upon seats built round the halls where other children worked. This was done in order to inspire them with a desire to do that which other children, apparently more favored, more caressed, and more praised than themselves, were permitted to do; and of which they were obliged to be idle spectators; and this had the desired effect.

As nothing is so tedious to a child as being obliged to sit still in the same place for a considerable time, and as the work which the other more favored children were engaged in was light and easy, and appeared rather amusing than otherwise, being the spinning of hemp and flax, with small light wheels, turned with the foot, these children, who were obliged to be spectators of this busy and entertaining scene, became so uneasy in their situations, and so jealous of those who were permitted to be more active, that they frequently solicited with the greatest importunity to be permitted to work, and often cried most heartily if this favor was not instantly granted them.

How sweet these tears were to me, can easily be imagined.

The joy they showed upon being permitted to descend from their benches and mix with the working children below, was equal to the solicitude with which they had demanded that favor.

They were at first merely furnished with a wheel, which they turned for several days with the foot, without being permitted to attempt anything further. As soon as they were become dexterous in this simple operation, and habit had made it so easy and familiar to them that the foot could continue its motion mechanically, without the assistance of the head,—till they could go on with their work, even though their attention was employed upon something else,—till they could answer questions and converse freely with those about them upon indifferent subjects, without interrupting or embarrassing the regular motion of the wheel, then—and not till then—they were furnished with hemp or flax, and were taught to spin.

When they had arrived at a certain degree of dexterity in spinning hemp and flax, they were put to the spinning of wool; and this was always represented to them, and considered by them, as an honorable promotion. Upon this occasion they commonly received some public reward, a new shirt, a pair of shoes, or perhaps the uniform of the establishment, as an encouragement to them to persevere in their industrious habits.

As constant application to any occupation for too great a length of time is apt to produce disgust, and in children might even be detrimental to health, besides the hour of dinner, an hour of relaxation from work (from eight o’clock till nine) in the forenoon, and another hour (from three o’clock till four) in the afternoon, were allowed them; and these two hours were spent in a school, which, for want of room elsewhere in the house, was kept in the dining-hall, where they were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, by a school-master engaged and paid for that purpose. Into this school, other persons who worked in the house of a more advanced age, were admitted, if they requested it; but few grown persons seemed desirous of availing themselves of this permission. As to the children, they had no choice in the matter; those who belonged to the establishment were obliged to attend the school regularly every day, morning and evening. The school-books, paper, pens and ink, were furnished at the expense of the establishment.

To distinguish those among the grown persons that worked in the house, who showed the greatest dexterity and industry in the different manufactures in which they were employed, the best workmen were separated from the others, and formed distinct classes, and were even assigned separate rooms and apartments. This separation was productive of many advantages; for, besides the spirit of emulation which it excited and kept alive in every part of the establishment, it afforded an opportunity of carrying on the different manufactures in a very advantageous manner….

The awkwardness of these poor creatures when they were first taken from the streets as beggars and put to work, may easily be conceived; but the facility with which they acquired address in the various manufactures in which they were employed was very remarkable, and much exceeded my expectation. But what was quite surprising, and at the same time interesting in the highest degree, was the apparent and rapid change which was produced in their manners—in their general behavior, and even in the very air of their countenances upon being a little accustomed to their new situations. The kind usage they met with, and the comforts they enjoyed, seemed to have softened their hearts, and awakened in them sentiments as new and surprising to themselves as they were interesting to those about them.

The melancholy gloom of misery and air of uneasiness and embarrassment, disappeared by little and little from their countenances, and were succeeded by a timid dawn of cheerfulness, rendered most exquisitely interesting by a certain mixture of silent gratitude which no language can describe.

In the infancy of this establishment, when these poor creatures were first brought together, I used very frequently to visit them—to speak kindly to them, and to encourage them; and I seldom passed through the halls where they were at work without being a witness to the most moving scenes.

Objects, formerly the most miserable and wretched, whom I had seen for years as beggars in the streets; young women, perhaps the unhappy victims of seduction, who, having lost their reputation, and being turned adrift in the world, without a friend and without a home, were reduced to the necessity of begging to sustain a miserable existence, now recognized me as their benefactor; and, with tears dropping fast from their cheeks, continued their work in the most expressive silence.

If they were asked what the matter was with them? their answer was (“nichts”) “nothing;” accompanied by a look of affectionate regard and gratitude, so exquisitely touching as frequently to draw tears from the most insensible of the by-standers.

It was not possible to be mistaken with respect to the real state of the minds of these poor people; everything about them showed that they were deeply affected with the kindness shown them; and that their hearts were really softened, appeared not only from their unaffected expressions of gratitude, but also from the effusions of their affectionate regard for those who were dear to them. In short, never did I witness such affecting scenes as passed between some of these poor people and their children.

It was mentioned above that the children were separated from the grown persons. This was the case at first; but as soon as order was thoroughly established in every part of the house, and the poor people had acquired a certain degree of address in their work, and evidently took pleasure in it, as many of those who had children expressed an earnest desire to have them near them, permission was granted for that purpose; and the spinning halls, by degrees, were filled with the most interesting little groups of industrious families, who vied with each other in diligence and address; and who displayed a scene at once the most busy and the most cheerful that can be imagined.

An industrious family is ever a pleasing object; but there was something peculiarly interesting and affecting in the groups of these poor people. Whether it was, that those who saw them compared their present situation with the state of misery and wretchedness from which they had been taken; or whether it was the joy and exultation which were expressed in the countenances of the poor parents in contemplating their children all busily employed about them; or the air of self-satisfaction which these little urchins put on at the consciousness of their own dexterity, while they pursued their work with redoubled diligence upon being observed, that rendered the scene so singularly interesting, I know not; but certain it is that few strangers who visited the establishment came out of these halls without being much affected.