The poor have always been with us, and by 1890, one of Hartford's better-known residents had had enough of them.
Or, at least, the Rev. John James McCook, respected rector at St. John's Episcopal Church in East Hartford and resident of a graceful home on Hartford's Main Street, had had enough of the homeless. A man talented with numbers, he was angry that the city had set aside $40,000 for "outdoor alms," or money for the homeless.
New Haven, one and a half times bigger, set aside only half as much. McCook appeared before the council and convinced them to drop the amount to $25,000. The council appointed him to head a committee to study the issue.
Though he was a man of the cloth — thus someone who might be prone to generosity toward the downtrodden — McCook was old school. Beggars brought ill fortune upon themselves by too much drink, gambling or vice. Sinners should not be rewarded with public funds.
Or so he believed.
McCook had come to Hartford from Ohio to study at Trinity College. He had stayed with — and eventually married — a second cousin in what is now the Butler-McCook House & Garden. He studied law and theology, and served at St. John's without pay. He would sometimes walk the 6 miles to work. He was that kind of man.
He joined Trinity's faculty — teaching Latin — in 1883, and proved himself a legendary fundraiser for the college. Once, in a lighthearted mood, he listed his role on a biographical sheet from the school as "beggar general for Trinity College."
But among real beggars, McCook showed no mercy. He and his committee found in the alms budget what he considered luxury items, including "cocoanuts" and "eggs … often in winter."
When the committee's work was over, the minister started researching the homeless on his own. McCook traveled to 14 cities, and conducted surveys. He took pictures. He accompanied police on raids to roust squatters. At first, he was strictly interested in answering a question of the day: Which comes first, demon rum or homelessness? He started studying "venal voting," or the nasty practice of paying the poor for their votes. Along the way, he befriended his subjects. One, a man named Roving Bill from Rhode Island, sent the minister stacks of letters from all over the country, says Scott L. Wands, Connecticut Landmarks assistant curator of education.
Even as he became acquainted with an army of homeless men around the country, McCook tried to retain his jadedness. In one 1891 questionnaire on a Cleveland man, McCook summed up the subject as a "worthless fellow who plays piano in houses of ill fame."
That attitude soon dissipated. The more homeless men he met, the less sure he was of his original suggestion to cut off their aid. The homeless problem was complex, and removing eggs from a diet seemed beside the point.
And so McCook flipped. He stopped talking about tramps and bums, and started talking about Providence Box, Philadelphia Shorty and Connecticut Fatty. He wrote a bill to prohibit the long-accepted practice of jailing vagrants. He tried to set up a reformatory, where the homeless could engage in what would amount today to rehab.
Neighbors of the proposed reformatory launched a NIMBY campaign, and McCook's dreamed-of reformatory never saw the light of day, but he never stopped trying. He gave lectures, wrote treatises and remained friends with the men he met on the streets until he died in 1927.
To honor the good minister's legacy, during December visitors to the Butler-McCook House & Garden on Hartford's Main Street get in free if they bring a cash donation, personal grooming products, clean winter clothing or men's socks and shoes. Items will be given to Mercy Housing and Shelter, just down the street.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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