Monday, May 25, 2009

The Belgian paupers

The police herded the 12 men onto the ship headed for New York City. They were from a local beggars’ colony and had asked for and received the help of the provincial government in getting to America. They were going to get a chance to start over, but before that happened, these 12 poverty stricken Belgians would help set off an international scandal and a debate in Congress.

There were 351 passengers on board the ship that October 1854 day, but these 12 men happened to arouse the suspicion of the packet ship Rochambeau’s captain, Harris Stackpole. Due to their meager baggage he assumed they were “paupers.” He asked the American counsel whether he could throw them off. The counsel, according to the captain, told Stackpole he would have to take them and could not put them ashore without violating the contract.

Stackpole had heard the rumors of the Belgian government shipping paupers and criminals to America, but couldn't prove that these men were of either class. “It was spoken of by American captains that there were going to be a lot of paupers shipped, but it was impossible to find out about it,” he said in court. “I did hear the interpreter say the passage of these men had been paid by the Burgomaster.”

Stackpole, born in 1816, was a highly respected captain from Maine who would later retire from the sea and become a merchant in Thomaston, where he had was born, raised and eventually died in 1896.

An internal government letter from that time (that ended up published in every major American newspaper) gives a glimpse of the Belgian government’s plans for shipping the poor to America.

“The transports for immigrants for the United States will take their
departure from Antwerp,” it reads. “A large number of vessels are prepared already to leave at various periods of this month…The departure will take place during the year, every fortnight.”

Liberated prisoners and the poor were to be sent to Antwerp at the cost of 180 francs each, which was paid by the municipal government sending them.

Belgium, only a little more than 15 years after being recognized as a legitimate nation, was just coming out of what was known as the "hunger years,” which lasted from 1843 to 1850.

Industrialization and its centralization in urban centers came early to the country, helping to destroy the rural, home based industry of flax weaving. When combined with the potato blight that swept across Europe, devastating the staple crop of the rural poor—and which was responsible for between 40,000 to 50,000 deaths in Belgium alone—the government was soon dealing with a huge influx of country people into its cities.

The government response was to put these people into beggar’s colonies and when the poor kept pouring in, the government, at least in the province of Antwerp, decided on another strategy, that is, they sent them packing to other countries including France, Canada and the United States.

The plan worked for a little while, until the word spread among American ship captains who vigorously tried to keep those they considered beggars from coming aboard. Stackpole went so far as to post handbills offering a reward to anyone who could, or would, confirm when the beggars would be shipped to America.

Stackpole's suspicions were confirmed after they put ashore in New York harbor.

Sgt. William Bell of the Emigrant squad attached to New York City Mayor Fernando Wood’s office, along with several officers, went on board the Rochambeau before the passengers could disembark and secured the "convicts" and intercepted some correspondence for the Belgian Consul related to the men, who were taken to the Tombs, as the city’s jail is known.

The American government assumed the men were either convicts or beggars, neither of which were tolerated stateside.

It’s highly probable that Lewis Baker, the man who would be charged with the murder of Bill “The Butcher” Poole the next year also came aboard that day, as he had been a member of the Emigrant Squad since its formation two years earlier. This was the same case in which champion bare-knuckle boxer John Morrissey would be named as accessory to the killing.

Bell would later act as a defense witness for his old comrade, telling the jury that he had known Baker since childhood and could vouch for his good character.

The 12 Belgians from the Rochambeau remained in jail while the case made its way through the legal and political worlds of New York.

In the following months two inquests were held to try and get to the bottom of the situation, as much in the name of justice as for the fact that the 12 men were being housed and fed on the city’s dime.

The first was held before Judge Abraham Bogart Jr. and began on Christmas day. Stackpole and the first mate, Christian Hildebrand, both related their belief that the men were convicts, but neither could present any proof backing it up. One of the 12 men also spoke at the hearing, the first time the public had heard from them.
J. Baptist Stour, a native of Forest, Belgium, told the judge he had been confined in the Workhouse at Lavine and that he and nine others made application to the mayor of Antwerp to be transported to the United States. The application was accepted, he said, and each man was given 10 francs to defray their expenses.

The case was kicked upstairs to a higher court and the men remained in the Tombs.

As a side note a year later Judge Bogart was convicted of a misdemeanor while in office for taking bail from a defendant without giving notice to the DA, as required by law. The conviction was later upheld by the Supreme Court

After the fist hearing in city court Mayor Fernando Wood, on Valentine’s Day, addressed a letter to Henry W. T. Mali, the Belgian consul in New York, in which he stated that he believed the 12 men were not of a “character to be permitted to go at large in this city or in this country.”

He suggested that they be returned to their own country
at the cost of the Belgian government, citing his belief the men had arrived there the same way and that they were indeed criminals. “While we cannot set them at liberty, we can no longer retain them in custody,” Wood told the consul, but hold them they did.

The Belgian government remained moot on the subject, following the lead of other countries such as England and Germany and biding its time.

That same month the case came before Judge James Roosevelt, the man who presided over the Lew Baker murder trial.

Two of the 12 accused, Joseph Poismanns, 30, a native of Louvain, and 40-year-old Jean Waggemanns, of Ghent, were there to plead for their release since they had now been in jail for more than two months.

According to a NY Times reporter the men appeared to be in good health and looked to be of a “respectable appearance” like “the majority of adult male emigrants from the working classes of Europe who land in this country.”

Poismanns, who was a tanner by trade, told the court he had been in a poor house voluntarily for six months before coming to America because he had been unable to find work.

He said he wasn’t a convict and had never even been in a courtroom before now. Waggemanns told a similar tale and with this information in hand the judge said that it all seemed to be a matter of a translation problem, in the sense that what was meant by a poor house in Belgium was different then what it meant in America and that the men were not paupers in the same sense of the word. “This ‘depot’ as it had been called, [is] like a Home of Industry with us,” he concluded, adding that he could not assent to the doctrine that “the law looks on a man as a pauper because he has not a cent in his pocket.” He set the men free.

But other wheels had been set in motion. The case of the 12 Belgians had become fodder for the larger national debate concerning immigration as well as the fiery dispute on state’s rights.

As soon as the case hit the papers the Know Nothings, an anti-immigrant political party also called Nativists or Native Americans, bandied the story about in the halls of Congress saying that this was just another reason to keep immigrants out of America. Members of the party authored legislation that would do just that.

Legislation was introduced in January 1855 to keep “foreign paupers, criminals, idiots, lunatics, and insane and blind persons” out of America. It was tabled.

The next month a bill was introduced that would allow the states to legislate any matters concerning immigration. It too was tabled.

Again, in March a bill to exclude foreign paupers and criminals was introduced.
The report that accompanied this bill contained the correspondence concerning the Belgian paupers as well as other similar cases.

According to the report “the immigration of foreign paupers and criminals is the chief source of intemperance, the fruitful source of pauperism, and the prolific source of crime; it has brought upon the country a large juvenile vagrant population; the mother of crimes, it has flooded our country with irreligion, immorality, and licentiousness.”

The report recommended the adoption of a state policy that would discourage the “esprit du corps” that bound immigrants together; banning the sale of liquor licenses to immigrants who were not citizens; prompt conviction of criminals and establishing institutions “to take charge of all juvenile delinquents and vagrants,” among other reforms.

The Know Nothings were a voice in the wilderness, so to speak, in contrast to the vast majority of politicians who were pro-emigration, reflected in the tabling of every piece of ant-immigration legislation introduced by the Nativists.

More importantly, the issue of who was able to control the flow of foreigners into port cities, the state or the federal government, a debate wasn’t fully settled until the smoke had cleared from the war that tore the country apart and remade it into a unified nation.

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