A protégé of Wharton’s Simon Patten (who told him to skip his doctoral exams), he studied homelessness and helped create the field of city planning.
Benjamin Clarke Marsh spent the winter of 1902–03 wandering the streets of Philadelphia, panhandling all day and sleeping in filthy nickel-a-night flophouses. The 25-year-old Marsh, however, was far from destitute. Penn had awarded him a graduate fellowship—tuition and a $500 annual stipend—to study the city’s homeless population, commonly referred to at the time as tramps.
As a Brooklyn Eagle reporter who interviewed him explained, Marsh was determined to “go among the tramps freely and win their confidence, find out why they are tramps, and how to help them to ambitious, industrious, useful citizenship.” So he donned an appropriately shabby wardrobe—a “patchwork suit of dirty brown, with a gape between the waistcoat and the trousers showing a strip of blue flannel shirt”—and infiltrated their ranks.
It was typical of Marsh to throw himself into a project so entirely. Born to Christian missionaries in Bulgaria in 1877, he grew up amid the turmoil of the Balkans. When Serbia invaded Bulgaria in 1885, the eight-year-old Marsh, overcome with patriotism for his adoptive homeland, ran away and attempted to enlist in the Bulgarian army as a drummer boy. “Bulgarian officers promptly returned me to my parents,” Marsh recalled in his 1953 memoir Lobbyist for the People, “who used orthodox methods to convince me that foreign missionary progeny should be neutral abroad.”
In the autumn of 1891, Marsh, just 14, moved to his parents’ home state of Iowa to attend Grinnell College’s prep school. Three years later, he enrolled in the college itself. Grinnell was a hotbed of social activism at the time, which suited Marsh just fine.
After graduating from Grinnell in 1898, he did some graduate work at the University of Chicago before moving to Philadelphia in the spring of 1902 to work for the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity, an umbrella organization for the city’s disparate charitable organizations. Marsh was hired to help manage the organization’s new Wayfarers’ Lodge, a 192-bed homeless shelter in a four-story, red-brick building at 1720 Lombard Street.
The tramp population nationwide, meanwhile, increased dramatically in the years after the Panic of 1893, one of the worst depressions in US history. There were at least 15 “philanthropic shelters” for the city’s homeless in 1902 (including the Wayfarers’ Lodge), as well as an unknown number of flophouses where homeless men were charged five cents a night for accommodations and where, Marsh would later write, “the stench in the unventilated rooms was something frightful.”
The Philadelphia Society’s general secretary—Marsh’s boss—was Mary Richmond, a pioneering social worker who believed in “scientific charity.” She was interested in studying and addressing the underlying causes of homelessness, and the society’s new Wayfarers’ Lodge gave her a steady stream of raw data. Richmond approached Penn Provost Charles Custis Harrison C1862 G1865 Hon1911 about creating a “Special Fellowship for the Study of Homeless Men.” Harrison agreed and the University awarded the fellowship to Marsh. Newspapers immediately dubbed him the “professor of trampology.”
He was perfect for the job. “Mr. Marsh is a big, whole-souled, wholesome bodied man, with bright brown eyes that see without seeming to criticize,” the Brooklyn Eagle explained. “He has a hearty, frank manner, and makes friends easily.”
In a June 1903 interview with the Eagle, Marsh expounded on his findings.
Tramps in general Mr. Marsh divides into three classes—the healthy and reasonably upright tramp, who is a victim of “wanderlust;” the drunken tramp, who is the victim of a passion for strong drink; [and] the swindling, lying, begging tramp, who is not a victim, but who victimizes humanity at large.
Marsh was a reformer, but he was no pushover. One of the leading causes of homelessness in Philadelphia, he concluded, was the generosity of the city’s residents. “My friends tell me that Philadelphians are notoriously ‘easy’ for beggars, and my own experiences have corroborated their assertions,” he said. “I find that at least half of the people I accost give something. The contributions are usually nickels, but sometimes I get dimes and quarters and even larger sums.” Marsh said some beggars in Philadelphia collected as much as $11.50 a day—about $300 in today’s money.
At Penn, Marsh’s academic advisor was Simon Nelson Patten, a Wharton professor and an unusually progressive economist [“Prophet of Prosperity,” Nov|Dec 2017]. Marsh later wrote of Patten, “His intellectual hobby—advocacy of the pleasure economy of abundance instead of the pain economy of scarcity—challenged the doleful brutality of the standardized economists of his day, and anticipated the ‘New Deal’ by three decades.” Marsh was enrolled at Penn for three years but never completed his PhD. In his memoir, posthumously published a year after his death, he claimed that Patten told him he shouldn’t even bother taking the final exams. “He warned me at the close of my academic work with him that it wouldn’t be any use,” Marsh wrote, “for he knew the answers I’d make, and I wouldn’t be granted the degree signifying mental acquiescence in an out-worn economic system. I passed up the examinations and have managed to survive without a doctorate!”
Degree aside, Marsh’s stint as Penn’s professor of trampology would prove deeply influential, not only on the rest of his life, but also on the nascent field of city planning. His work in Philadelphia sparked in him an intense interest in the problems of housing the urban poor.
In February 1907, Marsh, not quite 30, was named the executive secretary of a new organization called the Committee on Congestion of Population (CCP) in New York. The CCP sent Marsh to Europe to study housing issues, and he returned to New York convinced that a comprehensive zoning plan, like those already in use in German cities, was the solution to overcrowding and its concomitants of poverty, crime, and disease. Zoning laws could regulate the size and location of housing units, as well as the placement of factories and public facilities like parks and playgrounds.
In 1909, Marsh published An Introduction to City Planning: Democracy’s Challenge and the American City, the first book dedicated to city planning. That same year, Marsh, along with Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., organized the first conference on city planning, in Washington.
At the conference, Marsh’s ideas clashed with those of Olmsted and the other leaders of the so-called City Beautiful movement, which emphasized aesthetic improvements over social concerns. Marsh’s call for new zoning laws also irked business leaders, who considered such laws an unnecessary government intrusion.
In 1916, New York became the first major US city to pass a comprehensive zoning ordinance. Marsh deserves some of the credit, but by then he had been pushed to the sidelines by elements aligned with Olmsted.
Marsh moved to Washington and in 1920 founded an organization that came to be known as the People’s Lobby, which promoted liberal causes like massive wealth-redistribution schemes and “public ownership of banking, coal, gas, oil, and water power, and of transportation and communication.” The People’s Lobby was a threadbare operation. Dues were $1 a year and the organization’s total annual budget “did not much exceed an average of about $8,500 a year,” according to Marsh.
For more than 30 years, Marsh prowled the halls of Congress, promoting progressive legislation. He claimed to have testified before Congressional committees “several hundred” times. He was a professional thorn-in-the-side of high-level government officials. “Marsh Charges Congress Is Joseph Stalin’s Greatest Asset” read the headline on one of his typically acerbic press releases. When the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 took effect, Marsh became the first registered lobbyist on Capitol Hill.
“Old Ben was almost a legend in Washington,” the news agency United Press remarked when he died in 1952 at age 75, “and in a sense his death symbolizes the end of an era—an era of reform, of the rise of labor in politics, of the uphill fight for the ‘little man.’”
—Matthew Algeo C’88