The Measure of Worthiness The Rev. Oscar McCulloch and the Pauper Problem 1877-1891

Brent Ruswick


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 104, Issue 1, pp 3-35

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The Measure of Worthiness The Rev. Oscar McCulloch and the Pauper Problem, 1877-1891


No social student will question the existence of such a law of degeneration in society, or has failed to see such degraded forms of life. He sees the social parasite, the pauper in whom the instinct of self-help has disappeared. He sees the children, under the same law, becoming like their parents; and all this he is powerless to help.1
Oscar McCulloch, 1880
I see no terrible army of pauperism, but a sorrowful crowd of men, women and children.... It is not a war against anybody....It is...simply a question of organization, of the best method for the restoration of every one.... Therefore, I say, we look upon men, women and children, whom we call paupers, or now distinguish into paupers and poor, pitifully, but hopefully; for not one but may be brought back by persistent effort.2
Oscar McCulloch, 1891

  • Brent Ruswick is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas and recent Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin history of science department. The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of the Indiana Magazine of History as well as Eric Sandweiss and Dawn Bakken for their helpful comments and editing. Joyce Coleman was also of great help in reading earlier versions of this paper. The author also is grateful for the assistance and support of Lynn Nyhart and Victor Hilts, as well as the librarians and staff at the Indiana State Historical Society and Indiana State Library.
  • 1Oscar McCulloch, Organized Charity in Cities (Indianapolis, 1880); originally published as "Associated Charities" in E B. Sanborn, ed., Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Conference of Charities (Boston, 1880), 122-35.
  • INDIANA MAGAZINE OF HISTORY, 104 (March 2008) C 2008, Trustees of Indiana University.

Plymouth Congregational Church (left), Indianapolis, 1880

McCulloch, pastor of the church from 1877 until his death in 1891, regularly preached sermons on social reform from its pulpit

Bass Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Hoosiers remember the Reverend Oscar C. McCulloch as the religiously and politically unorthodox minister ofIndianapolis's Plymouth Congregational Church who, from 1877 until his death in 1891, founded and ran a dizzying array of charitable programs within the city. Foremost among those programs was the Indianapolis Charity Organization Society, a consortium of aligned charities whose members aspired to investigate the conditions of each poor person in the city, ascertain the true nature of his or her want, and prescribe appropriate remedies. Likewise, historians of Indianapolis typically have emphasized

  • 2Oscar McCulloch, "The True Spirit of Charity Organization," May 18, 1891, box 1, folder 1, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers (Indiana State Library, Indianapolis's).
the local and religious contexts of his philanthropic work.3 McCulloch's faith and liberal biblical exegesis indeed motivated his efforts to recreate the practice of charity along bureaucratic and scientific principles, and those efforts made him a highly visible and controversial figure statewide.

McCulloch's historical importance, however, does not end at the Indiana state line. Among historians of poverty and of the eugenics movement, McCulloch stands as a prominent figure in the national "scientific charity" movement, a highly influential reform initiative of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that sought profound changes in how Americans thought about and treated poverty. To these historians, McCulloch is notorious for his enthusiastic promotion of the idea that a distinct subgroup of poor persons - the paupers - were biological degenerates, beyond hope of reformation or partial improvement. McCulloch also became one of the first Gilded Age reformers to implement restrictions on charitable relief and to speculate that forcible restrictions of matrimonial and reproductive rights might be the best method of dealing with the biologically unfit.

McCulloch worked his way to national prominence on three fronts: the construction and operation of the Indianapolis Charity Organization Society; his research into the clan of Indiana paupers known as the "Tribe of Ishmael"; and his foundational papers on the proper aims and basis of scientific charity, presented at the influential National Conference of Charities and Correction. The conclusions McCulloch derived from his work in Indianapolis rapidly gained great influence throughout the national scientific charity movement in the early 1880s. His research convinced reformers of what they already suspected: that paupers - the "unworthy poor" who supposedly chose to live off relief that they obtained by deceiving charities - were biologically degenerate persons. As such, they were destined to spend their lives as unrepentant mendicants, peddling their fabricated stories of hardship to

  • 3Genevieve C. Weeks, Oscar Carleton McCulloch, 1843-1891: Preacher and Practitioner of Applied Christianity (Indianapolis, 1976), xiv-xvi. See also Weeks, "Oscar C. McCulloch: Leader in Organized Charity," Social Service Review, 39 (June 1965), 209-221; Weeks, "Religion and Social Work as Exemplified in the Life of Oscar C. McCulloch," Social Service Review, 39 (March 1965), 38-52. Stephen Ray Hall, "Oscar McCulloch and Indiana Eugenics" (Ph. D. diss., Virginia Commonwealth University, 1993) is an incredibly rich source of primary material concerning McCullochs work, and it places him within a larger scientific context.
unsuspecting benefactors. Worse, their children would be born biologically predisposed towards the same fate. McCulloch's local research made the Indianapolis minister a national star among scientific charity reformers who craved evidence for their contentions that pauperism was fundamentally different from ordinary poverty, that it constituted a grave national menace, and that it necessitated extreme invasions of privacy and restrictions on charitable giving.

By the late 1880s, however, McCulloch shifted his emphasis away from biological pauperism and redefined the tenets of scientific charity to focus on the social origins of all forms of poverty. The national leaders of the movement soon followed his ideas, abandoning their commitment to a hard biological distinction between the worthy poor and the unworthy pauper. Relocating McCulloch's charitable work in Indianapolis within larger national trends of charitable relief and poverty research changes our view both of the man and of the movement. The study reveals how the term "pauper" went from being defined as a nuisance to a menace, before being abandoned as antiquated and inaccurate. It brings us a more complete appreciation of the significance of McCulloch's innovative work in Indianapolis, and of its continuing relevance to American attitudes regarding the poor. More importantly, McCulloch's transformation demands that we reconsider the national scientific charity movement as more dynamic and complex, and eventually more progressive and historically influential, than the moralizing, repressive movement that historians typically depict.4


While the pauper had long been an object of moral condemnation in America, prior to the 1870s he did not constitute a threat so much as a nuisance. His aggressive pursuit of alms violated Victorian and Christian notions of the meek and modest poor, as well as those of the classical liberal American vision of the able-bodied performing an

  • 4This view is articulated most forcefully by George Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (New York, 1965); Walter L. Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America(New York, 1974), 75-95; Paul S. Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 142-62; Michael B. Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (New York, 1986), 83-86, 113; and Katz, Poverty and Policy in American History (New York, 1983), 90-92.
honest day's labor.5 In small towns, the agencies of charitable relief - churches, the township trustee, and private philanthropists - dealt with the pauper problem on a case-by-case basis. They generally knew who had fallen onto hard times and merited relief, and who had a reputation for idleness or drunkenness and therefore was an unworthy pauper.

Conditions in Indianapolis typified this traditional relationship between charitable giver and recipient. The city's main charitable organization, the Indianapolis Benevolent Society (IBS), had dispensed private charity in the form of food and clothing to the local poor since 1835. Distribution occurred face-to-face, with persons reportedly of the "highest respectability" delivering to citizens known within the community to be in dire and legitimate need of help. According to the IBS, the first tramps - paupers traveling from town to town looking for the most generous public and private relief accommodations - had arrived in 1851 to a reaction "so immediate and hostile that it led at once to recommendations that assistance either at the door or on the street be refused them."6 Lacking large population turnover or the periods of mass unemployment that came with a fully industrialized economy, the city had no need for a coordinated approach to the challenge of identifying deceitful paupers. Indeed, one scholar has described Indianapolis's coordination of state, county, town, and private relief in this period as "an extraordinary tangle of confused responsibility."7

This local knowledge and treatment of pauperism functioned well enough in antebellum Indianapolis, but faltered under the transition towards an industrial economy and mass population mobility introduced by the Civil War. The influx of freed slaves, foreign immigrants, and rural workers into northern cities, and the return of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, many of them disabled by war, produced poverty and social disorganization on a scale never before seen in America.8

  • 5See, for instance, Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America; Robert Bremner, From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States (New York, 1956); Bremner, The Public Good: Philanthropy & Welfare in the Civil War Era (New York, 1980); Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse; Katz, Poverty and Policy in American History.
  • 6Indianapolis Charity Organization Society, Year-book of Charities 1886 (Indianapolis, 1887), 7-9, 13-15.
  • 7Frederick Doyle Kershner Jr., "A Social and Cultural History of Indianapolis, 1860-1914" (Ph. D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1950), 39.
  • 8See, for instance, Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York, 1967), 12, 44.
Charitable groups could not maintain personal knowledge of all the poor, and thus could not distinguish legitimate cases of want from the dishonest claims of paupers.

Indianapolis exemplified both the national trends of urban growth and poverty that challenged traditional charitable relationships and the resulting impulse to better organize and coordinate charity. As it became a major railroad hub during the 1860s, the city's population grew from 18,611 to 48,244 over the decade - a 160 percent growth rate matched only by San Francisco and Chicago. Recent emigrants from elsewhere in the U.S. comprised half the population. A post-war economic boom spanned 1865 through 1874 and created new family fortunes that threatened the privileged social and economic position of the old rich.9 The boom, however, drew on strong speculation in real estate and in the growth of competing independent railroads that radiated outwards from the city, and could not be sustained.

The collapse of the House of Cooke and other banks that had propped up weak railroads with easily available credit sparked a national panic in September 1873. Capitol of a state with a primarily agricultural economy, Indianapolis weathered the immediate fallout, but in early 1875, crop and bank failures and railroad consolidation caught up to the city "with a completeness that was paralyzing." As Indiana historian Emma Lou Thornbrough notes, "[w]ithin a few weeks there were reports of hundreds of unemployed vainly seeking work at the pork-packing establishments in Indianapolis."10 Wages, which had risen steadily since the war, now plummeted. Historian Frederick Kershner observes that from 1873 to 1879, wages at the Shaw Carriage Company dropped from $2.50 to $1.42 a day. The Indianapolis Manufacturers and Carpenters Union saw a similar decline in median wages, from $2.40 to $1.43. Complicating the situation, Indianapolis's borders sprawled out in all directions as the population continued to swell.11Indianapolis

  • 9U.S., Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930: Population (Washington D.C., 1931), 18-19, in Kershner, "A Social and Cultural History of Indianapolis," 54, 95.
  • 10Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana in the Civil War Era, 1850-1880 (Indianapolis, 1989), 275-76.
  • 11U.S., Bureau of the Census, Tenth Census of the United States, 1880: Wages (Washington, 1886), 42, 62, 76, 142, 385-86, 414-15, 442, 465; Thornbrough, Indiana in the Civil War Era, 559. James H. Madison notes that while the city experienced great population growth, its residents were much more likely than other city-dwellers to settle permanently. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Bloomington, Ind., 1986), 177-78.
residents, like those in other cities, did not know one another, did not know who was poor or why they were poor, and had no infrastructure for finding out. Calls for centralized coordination of the city's charitable work increased.12

In this confusion, Oscar McCulloch rose to become a key national figure in the effort to construct a new infrastructure and new theories for addressing pauperism and poverty. McCulloch brought a blend of social and theological liberalism and scientific enthusiasm to his work in Indianapolis. Raised as a Presbyterian in a religiously strict family, McCulloch had begun his professional career as a traveling salesman in the American West. Biographer Genevieve Weeks speculates that his encounters with diverse characters in this line of work might have been responsible for his movement towards a more liberal theology.13 Eventually, McCulloch chose to abandon this career in favor of becoming a minister, and enrolled at the Congregationalist Chicago Theological Seminary in September 1867. Through extensive reading and debating with classmates, McCulloch crystallized his new theology. Weeks points out that from the start of his first pastorate in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, he gave more sermons on topics of practical interest and concern than on theological doctrine. Several sermons analyzed the latest scientific and technological discoveries and their application to Christian ethics. He furthermore stressed "a loving, forgiving Father instead of Calvin's punishing, revengeful God" and advised that individuals should discover the "liberty of religion" and not just the "law of religion."14 When McCulloch moved on to Indianapolis in 1877 to lead the Plymouth Congregational Church, his reputation as an unorthodox reformer preceded him.


No evidence exists that the topical sermons McCulloch delivered in Sheboygan ever dealt with poverty-a lack due perhaps in part to the dearth of surviving newspaper articles relating to his Wisconsin sermons

  • 12Thornbrough, Indiana in the Civil War Era, 276-78. Also Clifton J. Phillips, Indiana in Transition: The Emergence of an Industrial Commonwealth, 1880-1920 (Indianapolis, 1968), 469-70.
  • 13Weeks, Oscar Carleton McCulloch, 13.
  • 14Ibid., 24-33, esp. 25.
and in part to the scarcity of the minister's own writings. McCulloch began a diary only after arriving in Indianapolis, yet the first recorded impression of the city that he entered was that its residents "have not had much hand in relieving the poor, I judge."15 In January 1878 he recorded a meeting with members of a severely impoverished family. McCulloch's first remarks on the family, which appeared in his January 18, 1878 diary entry, under the title "A Case of Poverty," described
a family composed of a man, half-blind, a woman, and two children, the woman's sister and child, the man's mother, blind, all in one room six feet square. One bed, a stove, no other furniture. When found they had no coal, no food. Dirty, filthy because of no fire, no soap, no towels. It was the most abject poverty I ever saw. We carried supplies to them.16

It is uncertain just how McCulloch came upon this family, which he soon dubbed the "Tribe of Ishmael," but their shocking condition both disturbed and moved him. He investigated the family's history at the township trustee's office, where all records of public poor relief were kept. There he discovered the astonishing extent and historical depth of the family's dependence on public relief. Generation after generation of the Ishmael family had grown up depending on charitable or public relief and suffering from the full gamut of social dysfunctions. To McCulloch's eyes, the Ishmaelites were not worthy people suffering ordinary poverty, but paupers living wanton and debased lives. But why did the pauperism recur, with one generation repeating the sins of its ancestors?

McCulloch thought that some of the answer lay in the family's biological history, and he began more extensive research designed to show that a predisposition towards pauperism was heritable. Beginning with Francis Galton's study of hereditary genius in England and Richard Dugdale's study of pauperism and criminality in the "Jukes" family of

  • 15Ibid., 50; Oscar McCulloch Diary, June 3, 1877, box 1, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers.
  • 16Oscar McCulloch Diary, January 18, 1878, box 1, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers. For more on the Ishmael family history, see Hugo P Leaming, "The Ben Ishmael Tribe: A Fugitive 'Nation' of the Old Northwest," The Ethnic Frontier: Essays in the History of Group Survival in Chicago and the Midwest, eds. Melvin G. Holli and Peter d'A. Jones (Grand Rapids,Mich., 1977), 97-141.

Family Chart of the Tribe of Ishmael (detail), 1888
McCulloch traced several generations of the family that became his model of the dangers of pauperism
Indiana Historical Society Family Service Association Collection

upstate New York, researchers in late nineteenth-century America turned to genealogy for evidence that antisocial behavior had a biological origin.17 Aware of both men's work, from 1878 to 1889 McCulloch traced the connections of 1,789 members of the Ishmael tribe in 35 families, starting from their arrival in Indiana in 1840. In addition, he studied 350 other families consisting of 6,000 individuals.18 Among the earliest such research conducted in America, his work graphically illustrated the generations of Ishmaelites living on poor relief, seemingly demonstrating the heritability of pauperism.

McCulloch's diaries reveal a man of diverse intellectual interests, who read and wrote commentaries on many of the most prominent late nineteenth-century treatises in biology, sociology, and anthropology.19 Much of the fear and pessimism associated with pauperism in the late 1800s rested on a particular analysis of how heredity and environment shaped a person's development, an analysis found in McCulloch's writing about the Ishmael tribe.20 Like most scientifically minded observers of his time, he thought of pauperism as a biological predisposition passed on from parents to children. This disposition might or might not

  • 17For examples of contemporary family studies, see Nicole Hahn Rafter, ed., White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877-1919 (Boston, 1988).
  • 18"Condensed Reports of the COS the IBS and the Children's Board of Guardians.1889-1890," (Indianapolis, 1890), BV1178, Family Service Association of Indianapolis Records, 1879-1971, collection # M 0102 (Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis); Year Book of Charities, 1890- 1891 (Indianapolis, 1892), back cover page.
  • 19See, for example, entries for January 10, 17, 18, 24, 25, February 7, April 5, 24, May 31, June 15, 18, 19, July 3, and September 26, 1877, Oscar McCulloch Diary, box 1, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers.
  • 20For more on hereditarian attitudes towards the poor and other social dependants, see Hamilton Cravens, The Triumph of Evolution: The Heredity-Environment Controversy, 1900-1941 (Baltimore, Md., 1988); Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880-1940: Essays on Ideological Conflict and Complicity, eds. Lois A. Cuddy and Claire M. Roch (London, 2003); Victor Hilts, "Obeying the Laws of Hereditary Descent: Phrenological Views on Inheritance and Eugenics," Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 18 (January 1982), 62-77; Matthew Frye Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917 (New York, 2000); Daniel Kevles, In The Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Cambridge, Mass., 1985); Wendy Kline, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom (Berkeley, Cal., 2001); Edward Larson, Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore , Md., 1995); Diane Paul, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (New Jersey, 1995); Nicole Hahn Rafter, Creating Born Criminals (Urbana, Ill., 1997); Charles Rosenberg, "The Bitter Fruit: Heredity, Disease, and Social Thought," No Other Gods: On Science and American Social Thought (Baltimore, Md., 1976).
be activated, depending on the environmental influences that surrounded a child. In other words, a window existed in which a good environment might overcome the effects of bad heredity. If a child of paupers passed through her first few years without learning the willful idleness and the unclean lifestyle popularly associated with pauperism, she might grow up without that tendency being activated. However, in the absence of early environmental intervention to counteract the tendency, heredity became an irresistible force.

This understanding of the interplay of environment and heredity upon the pauper fit well with McCulloch's larger synthesis of science and religion. Although he held great hope for human improvement and progress through personal and environmental reform, McCulloch also repeatedly warned in his sermons and diaries that God's laws were unforgiving to those who violated them. In a diary entry from 1877, for instance, he explained that "death according to nature ought to be at the end of a full life and as painless as birth. That it is not, is due to the disobedience of natural laws." While such laws existed "for good" and "to bring about a habitable world," they served the collective good "and did not stop to consider ignorance or weakness. ... They make no mistakes and forgive none."21

His research into the "Tribe of Ishmael" convinced McCulloch that he possessed scientific proof of the looming disaster of hereditary pauperism. The work also made him a star among national charity reformers and arguably the most prominent private citizen in Indianapolis during the 1880s. McCulloch came to national attention with an address he delivered to the 1880 session of the preeminent national body for social scientists and social reformers, the National Conference of Charities and Correction. There McCulloch used his initial research into the Ishmael tribe as proof that pauperism was a degenerative condition passed from parents to offspring, activated by a poor environment. If a child with a hereditary predisposition to pauperism grew up in a family of paupers, her predisposition would be activated and she would descend into a lazy, mendacious lifestyle. The offspring of such a person

  • 21Oscar C. McCulloch Diary, January 7, 1877, box 1, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers. McCulloch's statements closely resemble phrenology, popular in America a generation earlier. McCulloch cited the work of British phrenologist George Combe in his Tribe of Ishmael paper, but there is no other evidence to indicate an abiding interest in the subject. See Hilts, "Obeying the Laws of Hereditary Descent," 62-77.
would have even less hope of escaping the pull of heredity. Hostages to their appetites, paupers would then breed armies of mendicants, who would say or do anything to acquire the charitable relief necessary to avoid working. McCulloch concluded that charitable and public relief must be reformed in order to guarantee that the deceitful paupers were identified and denied relief, and he endorsed the removal of young children from pauper families in order to prevent their predisposition from activating.

McCulloch spared no rhetorical expense in arguing for a hereditary basis to pauperism. Citing Ray Lancaster, a British biologist popular among leaders of the scientific charity movement, McCulloch declared that "[t]he law of degeneration is as active as that of gravitation"-and just as universal.22 In a comparison that became famous within the movement, McCulloch announced that the pauper had an analog in the biological kingdom: parasitic crustaceans which "fasten themselves to a hermit crab and live on the juices of his body; their legs drop off, they lose their original form" due to a life of ease. To make sure no one missed the comparison between parasites and paupers, McCulloch pronounced that

[n]o social student will question the existence of such a law of degeneration in society, or has failed to see such degraded forms of life. He sees the social parasite, the pauper in whom the instinct of self-help has disappeared. He sees the children, under the same law, becoming like their parents; and all this he is powerless to help.23
His own efforts to help raise the Ishmaelites to independence had failed because, he claimed, "they are a decaying stock; they can no longer live self-dependent." Like the parasite, their sense of self-help had disappeared, along with "all the organs and powers that belong to free life."24

  • 22McCulloch, "Associated Charities," 122-35.
  • 23Ibid., 125.
  • 24Oscar McCulloch, "The Tribe of Ishmael: diagram, accompanying paper read before the National Conference of Charities at Buffalo, July 5-11, 1888," (Indianapolis, 1891); "The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study of Social Degradation," in Isabel C. Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Boston, 1888), 154-59.
The analogy circulated throughout the scientific charity movement. University of Chicago sociologist and scientific charity enthusiast Charles Henderson, for instance, repeated the comparison and its lessons in detail in the introductory chapter of his 1893 college textbook, An Introduction to the Study of the Dependent, Defective and Delinquent Classes.25


The theory of the hereditary pauper had real consequences for how scientific charity reformers approached the problem of poverty. The theory taught that the pauper class was biologically and socially distinct from the ordinary, "worthy" poor, and therefore should not be dealt with in the same way. While the worthy poor might be set back on the path to independence through carefully administered relief, giving charity to a pauper only sustained his biologically ingrained laziness, enabling him to father the next generation of paupers. His depravity necessitated a new type of charitable giving, not motivated by sympathy but based on objective, scientific investigation of the conditions of poverty. Scientific charity aimed to see through the pauper's dissembling, to identify him and to disqualify him from receiving any charitable relief. It is no overstatement to say that the crux of charitable reform in the Gilded Age rested on efforts to distinguish the common, worthy poor from the duplicitous and degenerate paupers.

From 1877 through the early 1890s, scientific charity reformers established Charity Organization Societies in over one hundred American cities in the hope of distinguishing cases of real need from cases of pauperism by carefully investigating every request for charitable assistance. Leaders envisioned a COS in each city acting as an administrative hub that collected information from every charitable and public institution on all persons who had requested relief. The COS would send out its volunteer investigators, known as "friendly visitors," to inspect the merit of an applicant's request for relief, collect data on the "true causes" of the person's poverty, and act as a moral exemplar to train the poor in proper middle-class virtues. If the visitor deemed the applicant

  • 25Charles Richmond Henderson, An Introduction to the Study of the Dependent, Defective and Delinquent Classes (Boston, 1893), 5.
morally worthy and truly in want, the COS notified the appropriate cooperating charity of what relief should be given. If the applicant was deemed an unworthy pauper, the COS asked all cooperating charities to refrain from assisting. The COS kept a file on every applicant, so as to keep track of case histories, to chart progress or signs of pauperism, and to prevent duplicate giving amongst charities. The COS aimed to end all public welfare and all indiscriminately given private relief and to make a willingness to work the first condition for receiving any charity.

While COS leaders framed their work as a return to the individual connection between private giver and recipient, in practice their work was more novel than traditional. They sought close working ties with civic leaders, business executives, and government officials, and sometimes they appropriated functions of local government and business. Societies in Indianapolis and elsewhere set up savings and loan programs for the working poor and won the right to remove children from families declared to be habitual paupers, all the while claiming that their investigations would reveal scientific laws governing pauperism.

The COS that McCulloch founded in Indianapolis ranked among the earliest, longest lasting, most comprehensive, and nationally most significant of all the societies. In 1878, the governing board of the Indianapolis Benevolent Society narrowly avoided disbanding when its members voted McCulloch their new president. By the end of 1879, McCulloch concluded that IBS officials could not manage the tasks of registering and investigating relief applicants while simultaneously distributing relief to the worthy poor, and he took steps to establish a charity society that would shoulder those responsibilities. With support from Mayor John Caven, IBS member Benjamin Harrison, future U.S. Attorney General William Henry Harrison Miller, and most of the city's professionals, McCulloch established the Indianapolis COS in December 1879. In Indiana alone, COSs soon followed in at least ten other cities and towns.26

In Indianapolis and most other cities, popular perception held that Charity Organization Societies were designed to discourage all charitable giving. Critics soon renamed the COS the "SSB" - the "Society for the Suppression of Benevolence."27 Charity organizers struggled to

  • 26Weeks, Oscar Carleton McCulloch, 173; Phillips, Indiana in Transition, 481-85; Oscar McCulloch Diary, January 9, 16, 1879, box 1, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers.
  • 27Indianapolis Sentinel, November 14, 1885.
explain the importance they attached to distinguishing the biologically hopeless and morally lax pauper from the noble and potentially redeemable poor. Their demand that no aid be given to anyone suspected of being a pauper did little to rebut their tight-handed reputation. McCulloch declared in the society's first public statement:
The prevention of pauperism is as important as the relief of poverty. While the poor we will always have with us, it is our fault and our disgrace if we have the pauper. ... He hangs upon the city, sucking thence his sustenance and giving nothing back. .. He propagates children who are after his kind, recruiting armies of vice. . . . It is folly to dole out charity, year after year, without making an effort to cut off the source of this deep, black river of pauperism. The first thing necessary in the administration of charity is to know who are the poor and who are the paupers.28
The statement clearly indicates that at this time, McCulloch believed that pauperism was so strongly rooted in a person's biology that it could not be cured, once activated. Charity should instead concentrate on prevention: preventing the pauper from receiving charity and preventing him either from having children or from raising his existing offspring.

Prevention, in turn, meant investigation, and the COS quickly developed arrangements with most of the city's existing charities to scrutinize the moral, social, and economic circumstances of every poor person who requested relief. The COS sent out its volunteer "friendly visitors" to meet with the applicants, to ascertain their situation, to offer advice on matters of good childraising, housekeeping and thrift, and to inform the COS of whether the applicants should be approved for relief from the relevant cooperating charity.

Each year the Indianapolis COS published the results of its investigations and relief work. McCulloch conducted many of the investiga-

  • 28Oscar McCulloch, Annual Public Meeting of the Indianapolis Benevolent Society, November 30, 1879, p. 1, BV 1178, Family Service Association of Indianapolis Records.
tions on his own in the group's inaugural year but soon gave those duties over to the friendly visitors. According to the annual report for the year spanning November 1, 1883, to October 31, 1884, for instance, the COS received 1,070 applications for aid concerning 3,579 family members. In every case COS committee members determined the "condition" and social status of the applicant, and the cooperating charity -if the applicants were deemed worthy. "Condition" was defined in three categories denoting the applicant's state of need and worthiness: "cases worthy of relief; cases needing work rather than relief; and cases not requiring, unworthy, or not entitled to relief." Of the 1,070 cases that year, the Indianapolis committee evaluated the applicants as:
worthy of relief: 379
worthy of work: 314
unworthy: 374
not classified: 3
Put another way, they judged 65 percent as worthy poor and 35 percent as unworthy paupers.29

The COS further divided these three categories to identify different causes of poverty. For instance, "worthy of relief" included four subcategories of those beset by circumstances beyond their control: orphans with no living parents or one parent unable to support, the aged, the incurable (presumably referring to a permanently disabling condition), and those incapacitated by temporary illness or accident. In the 1883 - 1884 report, the 379 cases worthy of relief included only 1 case listed as an orphan and 6 as incurable. Of the remaining 372 cases, 50 were aged and 322 had temporarily fallen ill or experienced an accident. As the unknown author of the report put it, "Such belong to the poor whom it is a privilege to help."30

The 374 cases in class three - those not requiring, not entitled to, or unworthy of relief - fell into eight subcategories:

  • 29In the first fifteen years of the scientific charity movement, its proponents considered these terms to be all - encompassing and unproblematic, and they were found in one form or another across America. Annual Reports of the Indianapolis Benevolent Society and Charity Organization Society, Indianapolis, Ind., 1883-1884 ([Indianapolis], 1884), 24.
  • 30Ibid., 26.
  • Not requiring relief
  • Owning property
  • Having relatives able to support
  • Shiftless or improvident, Hopelessly so
  • Vicious, Hopelessly so
  • Prefer to live on alms
  • Tramps
  • Confirmed Inebriates
The first three subcategories were determinations of an individual's means and the last five were judgments of character. Collectively, 115 of the 374 cases fell into the first three subcategories and the remaining 259 into the other five. From another perspective, the COS denied relief, on the grounds of poor character, to 24 percent of all cases that year: 259 out of 1,070.31Other annual reports from the period all show similar proportions.

COS statistics also offer an insight into the types of people who applied for relief. For the 1883-1884 year, the COS grouped cases into ten social states:

  • Families with both parents living
  • Widows
  • Widowers
  • Divorced wives
  • Deserted wives
  • Deserted husbands
  • Single Men
  • Single women, with illegitimate children
  • Other single women
  • Orphans
Thirty-nine percent of all cases (419) involved families, followed by wid- ows (24 percent or 256), deserted wives (14 percent or 153), and single men (13 percent or 141). Only four cases dealt with orphans, and the deserted - husband category consisted of one lonely soul.32

  • 31Ibid., 25.
  • 32Ibid., 24-26.


When charity reformers divided applicants into distinct categories of worthy poor and unworthy paupers, they passed not only a moral judgment but a biological one as well - the unworthy were biological degenerates. The scientific charity movement's interpretation of pauperism, however, granted the significance of environmental factors in the onset or prevention of this biological predisposition. It therefore allowed more potential than commonly appreciated for divergent interpretations about the true role of heredity in poverty.

Over the 1880s McCulloch began to rethink the relative influence of biology in creating paupers, and thereby also reconsidered what it meant to be unworthy. This rethinking of biology, morality, and poverty came about as a facet of a larger political awakening that McCulloch underwent in 1885 and 1886. By the end of 1886, his interest was moving away from biological pauperism and gravitating towards the environmental factors that brought about chronic and intergenerational poverty. McCulloch's thinking evolved to the point where he abandoned his concern for the pauper almost entirely, focusing instead on systemic economic and social causes of poverty that required systematic, progressive reform, but that held promise for permanently ending all poverty. Pauperism became, for McCulloch, a remedial condition, a misdiagnosis of poverty that was due not to bad biology, but to larger social and economic factors. While this redefinition of pauperism never became a mainstream position in American thought, it did signal the beginning of the end of the "pauper" as a distinct moral and biological category used by charity reformers and students of the poverty problem. McCulloch became the first prominent member of the scientific charity movement to adopt this view; he would not be the last. By the early 1900s the scientific charity movement had recast its work away from detecting and punishing paupers, in favor of providing adequate relief to the poor.

Witnessing the rise of labor unrest in the mid-1880s, both within Indianapolis and nationwide, McCulloch began to issue calls for economic and social justice for all of the poor. In Indianapolis, the township trustee reported at the end of January 1886 that the last month had seen more applications for aid than any month in his four years in office. He blamed "dull times, bad health among the poor, and the growth of the chronic pauper class."33 Nationally, conflicts between labor and

  • 33The Public's Poor," Indianapolis News, January 25, 1886.
management grew more frequent, massive, and violent across 1885 and into 1886. All of the Indianapolis newspapers gave detailed and regular attention to the Knights of Labor, the movement for an eight-hour work day, and especially the strikes against the Gould railroad lines, centered in St. Louis. On April 10, 1886, the papers headlined reports that deputy sheriffs in East St. Louis had killed six innocent bystanders in the midst of a strike - related riot. The Democratic Journal editorialized that the strikers, not the sheriffs, were to blame.34 The town's Republican newspaper gave no greater sympathy to strikers, and just barely tolerated the eight-hour movement.

McCulloch closely followed these developments, and in March 1886 he preached his first sermon in favor of the unions, winning the approval of Indianapolis's pro-labor newspaper, as well as the local Socialist party.35 Although he had delivered sermons in Sheboygan concerning the rise of labor unions, riots, and communism, at that time he had explained them as social evils that came about from the abuse of workingmen, growing levels of economic inequality, and the lack of assimilation of immigrant labor. As Weeks notes, "this viewpoint toward the laboring classes . . . changed radically as he studied laboring conditions and the relation of capital to labor."36

McCulloch's new perspective on labor and the poor became even clearer in the autumn of 1886. On Sunday, September 19, between 3,000 and 10,000 people representing all of Indianapolis's unions gathered for a parade organized by the Knights of Labor. The Journal reported that thousands more thronged the streets along the route, "to witness the largest procession of organized labor ever seen in Indianapolis." The parade concluded at the Exposition Grounds, where attendees heard speeches, danced, and played baseball. On Monday, the Journal characterized the public response as "favorable."37 Similarly, the News reported that the event had been orderly, with no liquor sold on or near the grounds and "no disturbances nor quarrels of any kind." This happy

  • 34Indianapolis Journal, April 10, 1886.
  • 35"The Industrial Situation" Indianapolis News, March 22, 1886; "Pulpit Themes Yesterday- The Industrial Situation," Indianapolis Journal, March 22, 1886; article clipping in Oscar McCulloch Diary, January 3, 1886, box 3, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers.
  • 36Weeks, Oscar Carleton McCulloch, 34.
  • 37"Labor's Day of Display," Indianapolis Journal, September 20, 1886.
state, said the News, "can be attributed to the vigilance of the management.""38

The church sermons delivered by Indianapolis's ministers the following Sunday, however, described the parade as an inexcusable desecration of the Sabbath and a violation of the rights of others to worship undisturbed. Such controversies over observance of the Sabbath were not unusual, and the Rev. J. Albert Rondthaler of the Tabernacle Presbyterian Church proclaimed that all Christians "must keenly feel the disgrace put upon the city." The Revs. James McLeod, R. V. Hunter, and E. A. Bradley likewise weighed in with a condemnation - Bradley unequivocally and McLeod with moderation.39

McCulloch addressed the condemnations in his next sermon. In defense of the parade, he reminded his listeners that the Knights had aimed to hold the festivities on a Monday but could not secure the grounds. Since the factories would not accommodate any other day, Sunday remained as the only possible choice. Furthermore, the parade had been scheduled to conclude before church services began, but rain pushed back the starting time. McCulloch then defended both the workers' overall conduct and their theological right to hold the event on a Sunday.40 His words inspired the Central Labor Union to offer him a formal vote of thanks and to attend his October 10 sermon as a body. The Sentinel remarked that "the workingmen owe it to themselves and to the cause of labor to sustain Mr. McCulloch in his work, as the advocacy of humanity's cause is sure to gain for him the ill-will of other ministers."41 Indeed, McCulloch received much criticism for his defense of the Knights' parade, but a stronger expression of his new views, and a larger dose of attendant controversy, lay ahead when McCulloch weighed in on the trial of the Haymarket anarchists.

The labor demonstration held in Chicago's Haymarket district on May 3, 1886, had turned into a riot when police fired into a crowd of

  • 38"The Labor Demonstration," Indianapolis News, September 20, 1886.
  • 39"Yesterday's Pulpit," Indianapolis News, September 27, 1886; "How to Spend Sunday," Indianapolis Sentinel, September 27, 1886.
  • 40Ibid.; "Day Made for Man," Indianapolis Journal, September 27, 1886.
  • 41Indianapolis Sentinel, September 27, 1886. Also see the note of thanks issued by the Central Trade Union, found in Oscar McCulloch Diary, October 1, 1886, box 3, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers.
battling strikers and strikebreakers, killing four. The next day, a peaceful, city - authorized gathering turned into a calamity when, as a riot squad began forcefully dispersing the crowd, someone threw a bomb into the scrum. The explosion killed a policeman, and police responded by firing into the crowd, injuring at least one hundred spectators and some of their fellow officers. Six more policemen, and an uncounted number of civilians, died in the aftermath. Newspapers reported that foreign anarchists were responsible for the bombing.

The percussive force of the bomb, slight even by the standards of the 1880s, deeply shook many Americans, including McCulloch. Three days later, he wrote in his diary that "the one thought on my mind is the Labor Trouble. I wish that I could speak on that and nothing else. When I read of the anarchists in Chicago I said 'They know not what they do.' The law and order of society must be preserved, but they have suffered much." While most Americans demanded swift justice, McCulloch speculated about the possible biographies of the alleged bomb-throwers. "What was their history, first at home?" he asked, and "What had they suffered?" McCulloch wrote that the immigrants likely came to America with the feeling of hope and "with the idea of liberty." Imagining how they must have felt upon waking up to their impoverished situation, McCulloch empathized, calling the immigrant radicals "frankensteins of modern society."42

Considering the "hang-them-all" mentality that pervaded Indianapolis, McCulloch wisely kept his thoughts to himself for six months. Not until his post-Thanksgiving Sunday sermon did he speak out, arguing that the death sentences recently given the anarchists were unjust and that they deserved a new trial.43 The Journal, News, and Sentinel all carried McCulloch's sermons, editorials, and COS announcements regularly, and all chose not to publish the text of this sermon. McCulloch's editorial response to an article appearing in the Monday morning edition of the Journal represents his views:

I have a horror of all methods of violence. I believe in obedience to law and in enforcement of law. I have no sympathy with the

  • 42Oscar McCulloch Diary, May 7, 1886, box 3, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers.
  • 43McCulloch had expressed his dislike of the death penalty as early as 1879. Weeks, "Religion and Social Work," 50.
.. .methods employed by these men. I feel that freedom of speech has its limits. I believe that these men should be punished for the consequences of their words, even if they were not directly concerned in throwing the bomb. But a nation is great by reason of its capacity to forgive.
So I say of these men, "They know not what they do." They are misguided men. They are in the midst of human sorrows and sufferings. They see hundreds of men out of work. They hear the cry of many thousand children who work in the mills, factories and foundries of Chicago. They see young girls who work without wages sufficient for life. They see women sewing for thirty cents a day. They see machinery displace men who then go about asking vainly for work. They see all this and then denounce. They denounce the rich without distinguishing good from bad. They denounce the factories and mills, the system, the civilization. They cry "Hang them! Burn them!" They cannot under- stand the law of political economy.44

The Journal's editorial reply condemned McCulloch's remarks, anarchists, and immigrants in general. Conceding the minister's right to defend the "bloody wretches," the editor then asserted that there was no such right "to use a pulpit of a leading and intelligent church in which to utter unmitigated hogwash." He described McCulloch's quotation of Jesus's words on the cross as "a gratuitous insult to common intelligence" and argued that rationalizing the bombing was "to talk unadulterated trash, which would be simply foolish were it not dangerous in the mouth of a man of standing and influence." The editor saved his strongest venom for the anarchists and immigrants. McCulloch preached "the gospel of gush" and ignored the reality of radical

  • 44"Mr. M'Culloch and the Anarchists," Indianapolis Journal, undated clipping found in Oscar McCulloch Diary, November 30, 1886, box 3, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers. While McCulloch rarely addressed matters of race in his diary and even less frequently in public, during this time he considered the plight of African Americans and immigrants, with similar conclusions. In a tantalizingly brief diary entry, he wondered of African Americans, "What is the future? Peace on earth! Yes but first a sword. First Discerning of rights, dissension, strife, fighting for right or their justice which is peace." Hall, "Oscar McCulloch and Indiana Eugenics," 228, quoting Oscar McCulloch Diary, December 24, 1885, box 3, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers.
immigrants. "The whole lot of them," said the Journal, "are imported scoundrels, naturally at war with civilized society; men who have never done an honest day's work in their lives, but who are parasites and leeches by nature and preference. They are the scum ... of the countries they came from."45 The criticisms seem to have hurt McCulloch's position in the community. In a diary entry from early December, he wrote that "it was reported that my church was broken up."46 The controversy, followed by an extended bout of illness, kept McCulloch from engaging in such heated public controversies in the future.


By 1886 McCulloch had honed a social critique of the labor question and its relationship to poverty. As his interest in these issues grew over the next six years, McCulloch reevaluated his understanding of scientific charity and pauperism. Foreshadowing the national scientific charity movement's transformation at the start of the twentieth century, McCulloch came to argue that the people he had once identified as being biologically degenerate and irredeemable paupers were, in fact, treatable like the ordinary, worthy poor. Like the labor unionists and immigrants who turned to social disruption and even violence, the pauper's woeful condition was also a symptom of greater social problems that could be alleviated or even abolished through concerted social reform. While no part of this revised interpretation threatened the paternalistic assumption that the middle class knew best how to aid those in need, it did suggest different means for reaching that goal. For instance, in a committee report to the NCCC's 1889 session, McCulloch presented a paper that summarized a decade of progress and restated "the principles which underlie . . . scientific charity." In 1880, McCulloch had emphasized the work of detecting paupers, elevating the morality of the poor, and restricting charitable relief. Now, however, he also called for "the reform of abuses in existing laws, the securing of justice, and the modification of conditions which make for poverty and crime."47 A broader understanding of how and why charity groups operated also led McCulloch

  • 45"Mr. M'Culloch and the Anarchists," Indianapolis Journal, undated clipping.
  • 46Oscar McCulloch Diary, December 6, 1886, box 3, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers.
  • 47Oscar C. McCulloch, "Report of the Standing Committee," Isabel C. Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Boston, 1889), 11.
and some other reformers to consider a revised definition of "organization." The term, at the centerpiece of the scientific charity movement from its inception and indeed of the very term "Charity Organization Society," had referred to the coordination of relief between previously distinct private charities. Scientific charity leaders, led by McCulloch, now began to think of organization more broadly, so that it also included the activity of both private and public institutions toward improving social conditions. The Indiana Board of State Charities, founded in 1889 and later described as the "brainchild" of McCulloch, reflects this change.48

In Indianapolis, the turn away from identifying and suppressing pauperism in favor of concerted social reform can be seen in the course McCulloch charted for the COS, and in his sermons. Among its charitable projects, the Indianapolis COS sponsored a savings and loan, designed to provide new social services to the poor. Established in March 1887 at McCulloch's behest, the Indianapolis Dime Savings and Loan Society represented one of the COS's earlier side-projects. According to a flier announcing the society's first meeting, "much of the suffering of the poor is due to a lack of habit of saving small amounts, and to a lack of opportunity for laying by small amounts weekly."49 Contributing to that lack of opportunity, said the flier, the city's deficit of savings institutions gave small wage earners no opportunity to learn the habits and virtue of thriftiness, while high fuel prices ate into what little income they did possess.

The Indianapolis COS intended for its savings and loan to function more as a community resource for the poor than as a normal bank. To help inculcate the habit of thriftiness, the society sold $25 shares, to be bought incrementally through small dues. Collectors inspired, or perhaps enforced, the saving habit by calling on members at their homes for their ten-cent dues each week of summer, "when work is more plentiful," and permitting withdrawals only during the winter. By one measure at least, these visitations eventually eclipsed the number of visitations conducted each year by the COS. The savings and loan additionally sold

  • 48Milton Gaither, "The Rise and Fall of a Pedagogical Empire: The Board of State Charities and the Indiana Philosophy of Giving," Indiana Magazine of History, 96 (December 2000), 336-46.
  • 49Indianapolis Charity Organization Society, "Dime Savings and Loan Society," found in Oscar McCulloch Diary, 1887, box 4, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers.

Oscar McCulloch, c. 1890
In the last years of his life, McCulloch's sermons reflected distinct changes in his view of poverty and the poor
Oscar C. McCulloch, The Open Door: Sermons and Prayers (Indianapolis, 1892)

coal and other goods that the COS had purchased at bulk rates to its members.50

The work of the savings and loan must be considered within the larger context of McCulloch and the COS reformers' evolving attitudes towards poverty. The emphases on personal savings, and on frugal bulk purchasing, as well as the presence of collectors making weekly calls for the dimes, set comfortably within the moralistic philosophy that characterized the first decade of scientific charity, both nationally and in Indianapolis. But the savings and loan's directors also expressed concern

  • 50"The Charity Organization Society of Indianapolis: A Brief Report," (Indianapolis, 1897), 6.
about the usurious interest rates of installment plans and the absence of home associations for the poor, indicating an awareness of larger issues of economic opportunity and justice. A movement concerned primarily with the suppression of the pauper does not create a savings and loan.

McCulloch's re-evaluations of pauperism, poverty, and the proper objectives of the scientific charity movement were accompanied by a new analysis of the relationship between biology, religion, and poverty. The Open Door Sermons, a collection of Sunday sermons from 1890 and 1891, the last two years of his life, contain several theological commentaries on the place of poverty in the modern world. Many of these commentaries emphasize his belief in the potential for all to be forgiven and saved, for poverty itself to be abolished through concerted action, and for the moral necessity of charity projects. In the sermon "Abundant Life," for instance, McCulloch expresses a new understanding of the plight of Indianapolis's poor: "Most of them live so close to the line of actual want that a week out of work, or a month's sickness, brings hunger and cold, or debt." He also evinces a new optimism, going on to say that "to all these a fuller, happier life is possible. Nature is kind."51 The use of the word "all" and the omission of any distinctions between poverty and pauperism are noticeable. Now, when McCulloch looks at the poor he can see that "[1]ying dormant in these souls are capacities for art, music, intelligence, skill, success." The same point is expressed most explicitly in "The Ideal in Man," where McCulloch argues that an "Ideal Human" exists in all souls. He cites an experiment by a New York City newspaper that chose "a chance tramp" from the streets and offered him "a new suit of clothes, a bath, and a week's board in a good hotel." This man, whom McCulloch once would have classed as an irredeemable pauper, is now described as having "a new seriousness ... in his face and a new light in his eyes, like the recovery of one who is lost and regained." "Here is a man," McCulloch told his parishioners, "who says he will try to live a better life. I myself think the experiment would be a hopeful one."52

Further evidence of McCulloch's reinterpretation of pauperism comes in his discussion of intemperance. Proponents of the scientific charity movement of the 1870s and 1880s regarded drunkenness among

  • 51Oscar C. McCulloch, The Open Door: Sermons and Prayers (Indianapolis, 1892), 9.
  • 52Ibid., 158.
the poor as indisputable proof that such individuals were unworthy, degenerate paupers. Since the worthy poor would not dissipate their body or savings with drink, drunkenness must be a sign of the moral and biological failings of a pauper. In his sermon "The Mission of the Son of Man," however, McCulloch turns that analysis on its ear, arguing that "the causes of intemperance are other than the individual will," and that "the greatest cause of intemperance is poverty, absolute misery of life."53 His change in perspective led him to see traits like chronic poverty and intemperance as consequences of broader social failings, and, based on that assumption, to gain a new understanding of charity. In "The Discontent of the Fortunate" he explains that charity is changing: "It used to be pity. It is not pity now. It is the equalization of opportunity. The new religion takes the social as well as the individual into its life."54 Elsewhere, in "The New Vow of Poverty," McCulloch exhorts all Christians to hate poverty and work to end it, arguing that the environmental effect of poverty "starves life" and soul.55

In these late sermons, we see McCulloch describing all poor people as worthy and capable of redemption, given the proper social organization. But what of the biological determinism by which he had defined the pauper class? In his sermon "The Law of Mutual Aid," McCulloch rejects the scientific premises of his "Tribe of Ishmael" work in favor of a new interpretation of biology. Here he seeks to harmonize Jesus's "intense sympathy" and "intuition of love" with recent discoveries "being made known by the sympathetic reading of science."56 Human sympathy is the "essential quality of Christ" found in the practice of modern Christianity. The monuments testifying to Christian sympathy are modern facilities "for the protection of the weak . . . the recovery of the lost . . the enlargement of the life of the unsuccessful."57

The Christian obligation for the better off to tend to those in need had "encountered a certain obstruction," however, in the face of "what is believed to be the revelation" of Darwinian evolution. McCulloch agreed with the Darwinian belief that a struggle for existence "is nature's chief

  • 53Ibid., 38.
  • 54Ibid., 58.
  • 55Ibid., 143.
  • 56Ibid., 237.
  • 57Ibid., 238.
factor in the progress of the species," and that it pervaded not just nature, but also industry and commerce. If this was the full extent of the law of evolution, he conceded, it would trump the Christian's moral warrant for saving and reforming the weak and for exercising human sympathy through the gift of charity:
Our sympathy becomes a sentiment and a sentimentality, and we are doing wrong to the nature of things to try to rescue that which is lost .... If we keep little children alive we are only making more mouths to feed .... If we take ... those that are unfit for the struggle of life, we are doing, says this gospel, what nature is trying to prevent our doing.

But McCulloch also believed that a new law coming to light, the law of mutual aid, held implications for Christian charity. He noted that "a Russian zoologist" (presumably Petr Kropotkin) had espoused a mutual-aid interpretation of evolution. The "Anarchist Prince," feted in the literary and scientific circles of London where he lived in exile, had recently begun an extended confrontation with Darwin's associate, Thomas Huxley, over the social implications of evolution. In the English monthly magazine The Nineteenth Century, Kropotkin wrote that his study of animal social behavior suggested to him that the "prime factor in nature" was not the "struggle for existence," as Huxley had claimed, but the "law of mutual aid."58 Actions such as combining for mutual defense, protecting the young and the old, and gathering and saving food, resonated with McCulloch's long-standing interest in the ideal of social cooperation.59 They indicated to him, as they had to Kropotkin,

  • 58Ibid., 242. See also Thomas Huxley, "The Struggle for Existence: A Programme," The Nineteenth Century, 23 (February 1888), 161-80; Petr Kropotkin, "The Coming Reign of Plenty," The Nineteenth Century, 23 (June 1888), 817-37; Kropotkin, "Mutual Aid Among Animals," The Nineteenth Century, 28 (September 1890), 337-54; and Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution (London, 1902).
  • 59Other progressives shared McCullochs admiration of Kropotkin. Kropotkin toured America in 1899 and 1901, visiting Jane Addams's Hull House and lecturing at the University of Wisconsin as the guest of progressive economist Richard Ely. Wisconsin State Journal, April 19, 22, 23, 24, 1901, box 18, folder 1, Richard Ely Papers (Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison).
that "the struggle for existence is not as between man and man. . .. so much as between everything and its exterior circumstances."60 McCulloch declared that science now vindicated the "sacred instincts" of compassion and cooperation that the heart had always known to be true. By implication, science also vindicated his changing analysis of scientific charity and poverty. On May 18, 1891, a gravely ill McCulloch penned his final and definitive statement on scientific charity and poverty, "The True Spirit of Charity Organization." The moving prose revealed an almost complete abandonment of his earlier positions regarding biology and pauperism. The man who had compared paupers to parasites and envisioned "armies of vice" now wrote:
I see no terrible army of pauperism, but a sorrowful crowd of men, women and children. I propose to speak of the spirit of charity organization. It is not a war against anybody. It is not an attack against any armed battalions. It is the spirit of love entering this world with the eye of pity and the voice of hope. It sees in men and women, despairing, disfigured as they may be ... simple fragments of humanity. They show the incompleteness of men, the partial losses of life. It is, then, simply a question of organization, of the best method for the restoration of every one. ... Therefore, I say, we look upon men, women and children, whom we call paupers, or now distinguish into paupers and poor, pitifully, but hopefully; for not one but may be brought back by persistent effort.61

Two things make this statement extraordinary. First, McCulloch rejected his earlier biological pessimism, which had led him to believe that paupers could not be rehabilitated other than by saving them as small children before a debased environment activated their hereditary predisposition. Second, in changing his assessment of pauperism, he implicitly rejected the biological and social distinctions between the potential pauper, actual pauper, common poor person, and "normal"

  • 60McCulloch, Open Door, 242.
  • 61McCulloch, "The True Spirit of Charity Organization."
human being. Whereas much nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American commentary treated the poor as essentially different from nor- mal persons, and paupers as distinct from the poor, McCulloch suggested that the pauper, though presently abnormal, was potentially normal. In doing so, he became one of the first scientific charity advocates to bring all of the poor population within the parameters of normalcy.

McCulloch marked the pinnacle of a lifetime's involvement in social reform and science by presiding over the 1891 meeting of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, held that May inside of Plymouth Church. There he proposed a national scientific survey of philanthropy patterned after the recent geodetic survey, and a national register of dependent, defective, and delinquent persons.62 The proposal capped his progression towards treating poverty not as an individual's failure, but as a social problem that required the proper organization of charitable resources and concerted national effort.

He died half a year later. McCulloch had long suffered headaches, fatigue, and ill health, when in January 1890 he noticed a tumor in his groin. McCulloch wrote that he wanted to take a year off, but could not find the time. Instead, he and his wife Alice led a three-month tour of European cities for the Plymouth Church Travel Club. While in Holland he became seriously ill and returned home immediately, arriving on September 25. He preached once, but was too ill to deliver the funeral address for an old friend two days later. Doctors recommended surgery, but he and his wife declined. In late October his doctor diagnosed McCulloch as suffering from nervous exhaustion. With wrenching detail, Alice chronicled his deterioration in his diary, and at 5:50 in the morning on December 10, McCulloch died at age forty-eight. The doctor diagnosed the illness as "localized tuberculosis," although a historical diagnosis indicates that he had Hodgkin's disease.63

  • 62Oscar McCulloch, "President's Address: State and National Registration of the Dependent, The Defective, and the Delinquent Classes," in Isabel C. Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Boston, 1891), 10-19.
  • 63Weeks, Oscar Carleton McCulloch, 219-20; entries from October 28 to December 10, 1891, Oscar McCulloch Diary, box 6, Oscar C. McCulloch Papers. The final entry, written by Alice, reads "The light of my life has gone out. All the joy I have known came through him. How ever I can go on alone I do not see."


Ironically, Oscar McCulloch's work ultimately enjoyed far more lasting influence nationally than it did in Indianapolis. Upon McCulloch's death, Judge W. A. Woods of the Indianapolis COS wrote, with great understatement, that "in respect to some of the underlying principles of social organization and government he held views different or divergent from those held by many, and perhaps most others, of the club."64 Although McCulloch's parishioners supported him, and although the COS and IBS thrived under his leadership and most of his critics respected the sincerity of his beliefs and force of his intellect, few, if any, citizens of Indianapolis followed his philosophical evolution. Only the Rev. Myron Reed appears to have been a kindred spirit, and he had emigrated from Indianapolis to find a more receptive home in Denver.65 On matters beyond his immediate supervision, McCulloch's peers in the COS often chose not to follow his example. While McCulloch's fingerprints could be found all over the Indianapolis COS's operations during his lifetime, they quickly faded after his death.

McCulloch had authored some of the foundational documents that characterized the national scientific charity movement's pessimistic and restrictive interpretation of pauperism in the early 1880s, but he died before he could see his progressive reinterpretation take hold at the turn of the century. Few historians have called attention to the pragmatic flexibility found in the scientific charity movement even in its early, more dogmatic years, or the fluidity and complexity that characterized the leadership's thinking in later years. The most influential leaders of the national movement at the end of the 1890s, especially Edward Devine at the New York City COS and Columbia University, and Josephine Shaw Lowell of the New York City COS and many other reform movements, came to concur with McCulloch that they could find no biological marker to warrant distinguishing paupers from poor

  • 64Yearbook of Charities, 1890-1891 (Indianapolis, 1892), 21.
  • 65Reed, like McCulloch, came out of the Chicago Theological Seminary, and it was he who recommended McCulloch for the ministry at Plymouth Church. Reed shared McCulloch's progressive viewpoint on such matters as support of the Knights of Labor, and set up a COS in Denver based upon McCulloch's plan from Indianapolis. See Isabel C. Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Boston, 1889); Weeks, Oscar Carleton McCulloch, 49, 144.
persons.66 By the first decade of the twentieth century, scientific charity leaders regularly expressed their disbelief in a distinct pauper class, even as they continued to accept the reality of criminal and feeble-minded classes.67 In the minds of the leaders of American poverty reform, pauperism was no more. The term itself quickly disappeared from their discourse, as Chart 1 indicates.

While I do not want to overstate McCulloch's influence on any particular individual at the national level, his "Tribe of Ishmael" work had been a cornerstone on which rested the beliefs that paupers could and must be distinguished from the common poor, and that charitable relief must be strictly monitored and, when necessary, severely restricted. As national leaders came to identify other, subtler causes of chronic poverty beyond the temptation of easily available charity, they, like McCulloch, moved to emphasize economic and social reform over repression, and loosened their prohibitions against giving charitable relief. One of the most notable outcomes of this new view of poverty was that the chronic poor escaped the worst of the eugenic sterilization movement of the twentieth century. McCulloch's work illustrates how interpretations of scientific, political, and religious doctrines interacted to shape and reshape reformers' approaches towards treating the poor. As a prominent national figure in scientific charity, he signaled the

  • 66See Josephine Shaw Lowell, "Poverty and its Relief: The Methods Possible in the City of New York," in Isabel C. Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Boston, 1895), 44; Edward T. Devine, "The Value and the Dangers of Investigation," in Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Boston, 1897), 194. Historian Joan Waugh also notes Lowell's progressive evolution; see Waugh, Unsentimental Reformer: The Life of Josephine Shaw Lowell (Cambridge, Mass., 1997). For a more general treatment of the potential or actual radical nature of the scientific charity movement, see Bremner, From the Depths, 55-56.
  • 67See, for example, Homer Folks, "Disease and Dependence," in Isabel C. Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Columbus, Ohio, 1903), 335, 337; F M. Powell, "Growth and Arrested Development," in Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Boston, 1899), 259-73; Charles Henderson, "President's Address: Growth and Arrested Development," in Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Boston, 1899), 14; Jacob A. Riis, "A Blast of Cheer," in Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Boston, 1901), 18-24; Rev. S. G. Smith, "Opening Address: The Heart of the Problem," in Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Boston, 1901), 14; Lee K. Frankel, "Needy Families in Their Homes: Report of the Committee," in Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Columbus, Ohio, 1906), 325; Edward Devine, "The Dominant Note of the Modern Philanthropy," in Barrows, ed., Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (Columbus, Ohio, 1906), 9.

Chart 1: "Pauper" Occurrence in NCCC Proceedings by Year68

movement's shift away from the skeptical investigation of the poor for signs of pauperism, in favor of a new line of thinking in the history of American poverty: that all of the poor could potentially be raised from the depths.

  • 68Based on an October 30, 2005, full-text search of the entire run of the Proceedings, online at http://www.hti.umich.edu/n/ncosw/. The search included all forms of the root "pauper," such as pauperized, pauperization, and paupers.

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.