- Vagrants and Vagabonds: Poverty and Mobility in the Early American Republic by Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan
Studies of policing and incarceration often miss the continuities in legal practices that span from Elizabethan laws, through the Jim Crow era, and into the creation of Stop and Frisk policies. Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan rectifies this in Vagrants and Vagabonds: Poverty and Mobility in the Early American Republic, which argues that “indigent transiency” shaped poverty laws, the evolution of [End Page 237] policing, and penal codes. Vagrants, vagabonds, hobos, widowed women, released indentured servants, formerly enslaved persons, many free Blacks, and paupers feature as indigent transients, searching for work, food, or shelter in urban centers.
O’Brassill-Kulfan shows that political, social, economic, and legal anxieties regarding indigent transients played a significant role in limiting, or sometimes forcing, the mobility of these populations. Citizenship, she argues, is influenced by sociopolitical understandings of race, gender, class, and settlement. Drawing on legal depositions, prison registers and vagrancy dockets, almshouse system records, and examinations of paupers, O’Brassill-Kulfan argues that the rise in racialized-capitalistic ideologies sought to incarcerate, rather than alleviate, indi-gent transients’ situations. Chapter one considers how officials sought to manage the mobility of the poor, often limiting access to voting with settlement laws. In chapter two, O’Brassill-Kulfan uses examinations of paupers records to reveal the narratives of women and Black people, populations who were more likely to be indigent earlier in the nineteenth century. Chapter three addresses the ways in which populations were forced to migrate through pauper removal and the increased policing of vagrancy by authorities and everyday citizens.
O’Brassill-Kulfan makes an important intervention in chapter four, linking fugitive slaves, manumitted Black people, and enslaved people to impoverished populations. Government officials limited the mobility of these populations. She argues that the ability to move or stay in place has been a cornerstone for African American conceptions of freedom. Further, she contends that authorities used race, gender, class, and labor status throughout the Mid-Atlantic to control mobility. O’Brassill-Kulfan notes that Black men could be arrested for wearing expensive clothes and women could be cited for walking without a chaperone. A thorough analysis of Black surveillance from vagrancy laws and respectability politics, both of which affected black mobility, would further strengthen the argument.
Chapter five interrogates the policing of vagrancy and the power governing officials had in condemning vagrants to incarceration or the almshouse, often resulting in a stay at both. O’Brassill-Kulfan closes the text with societal and governmental understandings of vagrants as carriers of disease. The 1832 cholera epidemic, like Elizabethan laws regarding poverty, crossed the Atlantic and had devastating results in Philadelphia’s vagrant prison population at Arch Street. As a result, officials recognized that vagrants deserved treatment at least equal to what criminals received, including basic access to cleanliness.
Overall, Vagrants and Vagabonds proves the critical importance of considering poverty and mobility for analysis of the early American republic and beyond. Scholars of policing, incarceration, and poverty and both undergraduate and graduate students will benefit from this important text. [End Page 238]