The Reverse Side

James Forbes, the author of “The Reverse Side,” describes the criminal aspect or “the underworld,” of Pittsburgh at that time. He gives vivid depictions, statistical data, and qualitative stories from the likes of corrupt police officers, begging yeggs/panhandlers, beggars, prostitutes, and more.  Forbes states that “The underworld preys especially upon the producing classes. It filches their earnings from the wage-earners. It recruits from them by flaunting the allurements of vice and excitement and the apparent offer of easy money, all in marked contrast to the heavy round of factory and mill,” ( 307).

The Underworld

This investigation shows during this time there was a lot of corruption in Pittsburgh. There were corrupt policemen, and officials that were being elected and re-elected into office. For instance, Forbes states “the police force work lies close to crime and prostitution and violence, to political allegiance and to the shady practices of certain of the so-called respectable elements in the upper world,” (308). Next, he tells of the begging yeggs or panhandlers. They were described by Forbes as “national characters in the life of the underworld, covering even more territory in their wanderings and criminal activities than the professional pick-pockets,” (326). He continues to describe them as desperate and daring safe blowers, hold-up men, and burglars. Along with the begging yeggs Forbes speaks of a small population of actual beggars. He calls this population the “down and outs” or lodging house frequenters. Forbes continues his assessment of Pittsburgh by exposing the world of  prostitution in the city, and how the influx of wage-earning men in the mines and mills has perpetuated this underground activity. As an illustration he asserts “Yet there can hardly be a sadder picture than the “parlor” in a disorderly house where sit the daughters of working people soliciting debauch at the hands of youths of their class,” (349). These women were from ages as young as 15 all the way to 40. Most of the women were from poor wage-earning families, and in need of money.


In addition to exposing the “underworld” of Pittsburgh Forbes also provides suggestions for reform. He speaks multiple times in many sections that a centralized city government with strong honest, leadership and some type of checks and balances will provide the structure needed to combat this underground world. In regards to the police force Forbes asserts “the regeneration of a police force that performs its traditional duties of protecting property must come first from the top. Otherwise the new recruits, though of good quality, are quickly absorbed into the “system,” (309).  In accordance with his descriptions of beggars he criticizes Pittsburgh’s lack of decent lodging houses for those who are on the “down and outs.” He references the lodging houses of New York and Chicago as ideal municipal assistance. Conversely Forbes seems to applaud the municipal government of Pittsburgh in the policy used to handle prostitution. He declares “Their policy was not to suppress the traffic, but to cut down its amount, its profits, and its graft” (361). In short, the city prohibited and took away licensing for activities that would contribute to prostitution such as alcohol, abuse of minors, disorder of house, soliciting guest from the street, etc. This in turn made running a brothel very difficult, and cut down slowly on the amount of prostitution because it took all the “fun” away from the frequenters of the brothels.

Reactions to the Reverse Side
It was not surprising to read about these types of activities in a city at that time, as it is not uncommon to find these activities in cities today. There are still cities with corrupt police, begging yeggs or scam artists, beggars or homeless people, and even prostitutes. However, this survey and investigation was well written, and the call for the reforms to address these issues seems logical.  Honest and strong leadership is the first step in combating criminal activities. It is hard to think that a city will change if the leadership, such as the police force, is corrupt.  The Survey’s solution to prostitution was ingenious.  Taking away the “fun” aspects of going to brothels would make it harder for the activity to continue.  Unfortunately, I am not sure the reforms had lasting effects.  Cities are always going to have some “underworld” aspect no matter what plans and policies are enacted. However, the reform recommendations were good ways to contain and oversee the corruption and crime.