Saving the Lives of Strangers: Humane Societies and the Cosmopolitan Provision of Charitable Aid


This article explores the contribution of humane societies – organizations that promoted the rescue and resuscitation of victims of drowning and certain other accidents – to Americans' and Britons' mastery of aid to strangers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By 1800, these little-known groups were among the most cosmopolitan philanthropies in the Anglophone world. The humane societies founded in the 1770s and the first half of the 1780s had not started out with catholic outlooks. Indeed, their founders wondered how many people the charities would help, raising questions about the relationship between social ills and eleemosynary projects. Philadelphia burial records as well as newspaper accounts from several cities indicate that the actual incidence of drowning did not lead to the formation of humane societies; rather, the perceived danger united people across regions and backgrounds. Although their claims were exaggerated, humane societies in London, Massachusetts and Philadelphia engaged in beneficence without regard to the ethnic, religious, occupational, or personal ties that had structured access to charitable relief for much of the eighteenth century, and American humane societies even recognized the role of African Americans as lifesavers. These groups belonged to a larger shift among American and British philanthropists towards helping people, either locally or at a distance, for whom earlier activists would have felt no charitable obligation. Although not unique, humane societies fostered great confidence about the possibilities of moral responsibility to all humankind because of the tightly focused, yet potentially universal, nature of their programs.