The Bad Boy of the Street
During last winter for one morning each week I sat with a committee listening to the reports of officers whose business it was to discover the temptations and difficulties into which city children habitually fall, and so far as possible to minimize the dangers and to substitute innocent recreation for soul-destroying pleasures.
Two or three distinct impressions were left on my mind as a result of this prolonged recital.
First: that a certain number of the outrages upon the spirit of youth were decidedly traceable to degenerate or careless parents who totally neglected their responsibilities.
Second: that a certain other large number of wrongs was due to sordid men and women who deliberately used the legitimate pleasure-seeking of young people as lures into vice, such as the dances designedly connected with saloons that more liquor might be sold, or the music halls which deliberately lend themselves as recruiting stations for the immoral life. Fortunately, adults of this type, the indifferent parent and the exploiting pleasure-vender, could be reached by the Contributing Delinquency Act, and, while of necessity many remained undiscovered and unpunished, the moral effect of the cases regularly brought into court must in the end act as a deterrent.
There remained in my mind, however, a third very large class of offenses for which the community as a whole must be held responsible if it would escape the condemnation, "Woe unto him by whom offenses come." This class of offenses is traceable to a dense ignorance on the part of the average citizen as to the requirements of youth and to a persistent blindness on the part of educators as to youth's most obvious needs.
The young people are overborne by their own undirected and misguided energies. A mere temperamental outbreak in a brief period of obstreperousness exposes a promising boy to arrest and imprisonment; an accidental combination of circumstances, too complicated and overwhelming to be coped with by an immature mind, may condemn a growing lad to a criminal career.
In the life of each boy there comes a time when primitive instincts urge him to action, when he is himself frightened by their undefined power. He is faced by the necessity of taming them, of reducing them to manageable impulses just at the moment when "a boy's will is the wind's will," or, in the words of a veteran educator, at the time when "it is almost impossible for an adult to realize the boy's irresponsibility and even moral neurasthenia." That the boy often fails may be traced in those pitiful figures which show that between two and three times as much incorrigibility occurs between the ages of thirteen and sixteen as at any other period of life.
Take the petty crime due to the sheer spirit of adventure. Many boys in the years immediately following school find no restraint in either tradition or character. They drop learning as a childish thing and look upon school as a tiresome task that is finished. They demand pleasure as the right of one who earns his own living. They have no capacity for recreation demanding mental effort or even muscular skill, and seek only that depending upon sight, sound and taste. Many of them begin to pay board to their mothers, and make the best bargain they can, that more money may be left to spend in the evening. They even bait the excitement of "losing a job," and often provoke a foreman if only to see "how much he will stand." They are constitutionally unable to enjoy anything continuously and they follow their vagrant wills unhindered. Unfortunately, the city lends itself to this distraction; at the best, it is difficult to know what to select and what to eliminate as objects of attention among its thronged streets, its glittering shops, its gaudy advertisements of shows and amusements.
It is, perhaps, to the credit of many city boys that the very first puerile spirit adventure, looking abroad in the world for material upon which to exercise itself, seems to center about the railroad. The impulse is not unlike that which excites the coast-dwelling lad to dream of
"The beauty and mystery of ships
And the magic of the sea."
I cite here a dozen charges upon which boys were brought into the Juvenile Court of Chicago, all of which might be designated as deeds of adventure. A surprising number, as the reader will observe, are connected with railroads. They are taken from the court records and repeat the actual words used by police officers, irate neighbors or discouraged parents when the boys were brought before the Judge:
Throwing stones at moving train windows.
Shooting at the actors in the Olympic Theater with slingshots.
Breaking signal lights on the railroad.
Stealing linseed-oil barrels from the railroad to make a fire.
Taking waste from an axle-box and burning it upon the railroad tracks.
Turning a switch and running a street car off the track.
Staying away from home to sleep in barns.
Carrying concealed weapons.
Knocking down signs.
Cutting Western Union cable.
Another dozen charges, also taken from actual court records, might be added as illustrating the spirit of adventure, for, although stealing is involved in all of them, the deeds were doubtless inspired much more by the adventurous impulse than by a desire for the loot itself:
Stealing thirteen pigeons from a barn.
Stealing a bathing suit.
Stealing a tent.
Stealing ten dollars from Mother with which to buy a revolver.
Stealing a horse blanket to use at night when it was cold sleeping on the wharf.
Breaking a seal on a freight car to steal "grain for chickens."
Stealing apples from a freight car.
Stealing sausages from a lunch wagon.
Stealing a hand car.
Stealing a bicycle to take a ride.
Stealing a horse and buggy and driving twenty-five miles into the country.
Stealing a stray horse on the prairie and trying to sell it for $20.
Of another dozen it might be claimed that they were also due to this same adventurous spirit, although the first six were classed as disorderly conduct:
Breaking down a fence.
Picking up coal from railroad tracks.
Carrying a concealed "dagger" and stabbing a playmate with it.
Throwing stones at a railroad employee.
The next three were called vagrancy:
Sleeping "out nights."
Getting "wandering spells."
One, designated petty larceny, was cutting telephone wires under the sidewalk and selling them. Another, called burglary, was taking locks off basement doors. While the last one bore the dignified title of resisting an officer because the boy, who was riding on the fender of a street car when an officer ordered him off, refused to move.
Of course, one easily recalls other cases in which the manifestations were negative. I remember an exasperated and frightened mother who took a boy of fourteen into court upon the charge of incorrigibility. She accused him of "shooting craps," "smoking cigarettes," "keeping bad company," "being idle." The mother, however, now regrets it, for she thinks that taking a boy into court only gives him a bad name, and that "the police are down on a boy who has once been in court, and that makes it harder for him." She hardly recognizes her once-troublesome charge in the steady young man of nineteen who brings home all his wages and is the pride and stay of her old age.
I recall another boy who worked his way to New York and back again to Chicago before he was quite fourteen, having skillfully escaped the truant officers as well as the police and special railroad detectives. He told his story with great pride, but always modestly admitted that he could never have done it if his father had not been a locomotive engineer, so that he had played around railroad tracks and "was on to them ever since he was a small kid."
There are many of these adventurous boys who exhibit that curious incapacity for any effort which requires sustained energy; they show an absolute lack of interest in the accomplishment of what they undertake, so marked that if challenged in the midst of their activity they will be quite unable to tell you the end they have in view. Then there are those tramp boys who are the despair of everyone who tries to deal with them.
I remember the case of a boy who had traveled almost around the world in the years lying between the ages of eleven and fifteen. He had lived for six months in Honolulu, where he had made up his mind to settle when the irresistible "Wanderlust" again seized him. He was scrupulously neat in his habits and something of a dandy in appearance; he boasted that he had never stolen, although he had been arrested several times on the charge of vagrancy, which fate befell him in Chicago and landed him in the Detention Home connected with the Juvenile Court. The Judge gained a great personal hold upon him, and the lad tried with all the powers of an untrained moral nature to "make good and please the Judge." Monotonous factory work was not to be thought of in connection with him, but his good friend, the Judge, found a place for him as a bell-boy in a men's club, where it was hoped that the uniform and the variety of experience might enable him to take the first steps toward regular pay and a settled life. Through another bell-boy, however, he heard of the find of a diamond carelessly left in one of the washrooms of the club. The chance to throw out mysterious hints of its whereabouts, to bargain for its restoration, to tell of great diamond deals he had heard of in his travels, inevitably laid him open to suspicion which resulted in his dismissal, although he had nothing to do with the matter beyond gloating over its adventurous aspects. In spite of skillful efforts made to detain him he once more started on his travels, throwing out such diverse hints as that of "a trip into Old Mexico" or "following up Roosevelt into Africa."
There is an entire series of difficulties directly traceable to foolish and adventurous persistence in carrying loaded firearms. The morning paper of the day on which I am writing records the following:
"A party of boys, led by Daniel O'Brien, thirteen years old, had gathered in front of the house, and O'Brien was throwing stones at [Niezgodzki] in revenge for a whipping that he had received at his hands about a month ago. The Polish boy ordered them away and threatened to go into the house and get a revolver if they did not stop.
"Pfister, one of the boys in O'Brien's party, called him a coward, and, when he pulled a revolver from his pocket, dared him to put it away and meet him in a fist fight in the street.
"Instead of accepting the challenge [Niezgodzki] aimed his revolver at Pfister and fired. The bullet crashed through the top of his head and entered the brain. He was rushed to the Alexian Brother's Hospital, but died a short time after being received there. [Niezgodzki] was arrested and held without bail."
This tale could be duplicated almost every morning; what might be merely a boyish scrap is turned into a tragedy because some boy has a revolver.
Many citizens in Chicago were made heartsick recently by the knowledge that a boy of nineteen was lodged in the county jail, awaiting the death penalty. He had shot and killed a policeman during the scrimmage of an arrest, although the offense for which he was being "taken in" was a trifling one. His parents came to Chicago twenty years ago from a little farm in Ohio, the best type of Americans, of whom we boast as the backbone of our cities. The mother, who has aged and sickened since the trial, can only say that "Davie was never a bad boy until he began to go with this gang, who were always looking out for fun."
Then there are those piteous cares due to a perfervid imagination which fails to find material suited to its demands. I can recall misadventures of children living within a few blocks of Hull-House which may well fill with chagrin those of us who are trying to administer to their deeper needs. I remember a Greek boy of fifteen, who was arrested for attempting to hang a young Turk, stirred by some vague notion of carrying on a traditional warfare and adding another page to the heroic annals of Greek history. When sifted the incident amounted to little more than a graphic threat, and the lad was dismissed by the court, covered with confusion and remorse that he had brought disgrace upon the name of the Greeks when he had hoped to add to their glory.
I remember with a lump in my throat a Bohemian boy of thirteen, who committed suicide because he could not "make good" in school and wished to show that he, too, had the "stuff" in him, as stated in the piteous little letter left behind.
Out of my twenty years' experience I can recall all sorts of pilferings, petty larcenies, and even burglaries, due to that never-ceasing effort to procure theater tickets, that the boys may enter into "the house of dreams" infinitely more real to them than the noisy streets and the crowded tenements. One boy whom I had known from babyhood began to take money from his mother from the time he was seven years old. After he was ten she regularly gave him money for the Saturday matinée, but the Saturday afternoon "starting him off," as it were, he always went twice again on Sunday, procuring the money in all sorts of illicit ways. After he was fourteen practically all of his earnings were spent in this way. The insatiable desire to know of the great adventures of the wide world the more fortunate boy takes out in reading, from Homer to Stevenson. When it seizes such a boy it draws him irresistibly to the drama, whether presented upon the stage or in five-cent picture shows. In talking the situation over with his mother, I was sometimes reminded of my experience one Sunday afternoon in Russia, when the employees of a large factory were seated in an open-air theater, watching with breathless interest the presentation of folk stories. We were told that troupes of actors went from one manufacturing establishment to another, presenting the simple elements of history and literature to audiences who could not read; the benevolent employers in Russia sustained these little theaters as English employers founded reading-rooms and improving courses of study for their more literate employees. This tendency to slake the thirst for adventure by viewing the drama is, of course, but a blind and primitive effort in the direction of culture. "He who makes himself its vessel and bearer thereby acquires a freedom from the blindness and soul poverty of daily existence."
Added to this, however, the stage draws thousands of boys every night and every Sunday afternoon through its unique ability to minister to that love of excitement which is simply immeasurable. This same love of excitement, the desire to jump out of the humdrum experiences of life, also induces boys to experiment with drinks and drugs to a surprising extent.
For several years the Residents of Hull-House struggled with the difficulty of prohibiting the sale of cocaine to minors under a totally inadequate code of legislation, which has at last happily been changed to one more effective and enforceable. The long effort brought us into contact with dozens of boys who had become victims of the cocaine habit. The first group of these boys was discovered in the house of "Army George," a one-armed man who sold cocaine on the streets and also to the inhabitants of the levee district by a system of signals so that the word was never mentioned, and the style and size of the package were changed so often that even a vigilant police would find it hard to locate it. What could be more exciting to a lad than a traffic in a contraband article, carried on in this mysterious fashion? I recall our experience with a gang of boys living on a neighborhood street. There were eight of them altogether -- the oldest seventeen years of age, the youngest thirteen -- and they practically lived the life of vagrants. What answered to their club-house was a corner lot on Harrison and Desplaines Streets, strewn with old boilers, in which they slept by night and many times by day. The gang was brought to the attention of Hull-House during the summer of 1904 by a distracted mother, who suspected that they were all addicted to the use of some drug. She was terribly frightened over the state of her youngest boy of thirteen, who was hideously emaciated and his mind reduced almost to vacancy. I recall the poor woman as she sat in the reception-room at Hull-House, holding the unconscious boy in her arms, rocking herself back and forth in her fright and despair, saying: "I have seen them go with the drink, and eat the hideous opium, but I never knew anything like this."
An investigation showed that cocaine had first been offered to these boys on the street by a colored man, an agent of a drug-store, who had given them [page 2] samples and urged them to try it. In three or four months they had become hopelessly addicted to its use, and at the end of six months, when they were brought into Hull-House, they were all in a critical condition. At that time none of them was either going to school or working. They stole from their parents, "swiped junk," pawned their clothes and shoes, did any desperate thing to "get the dope," as they called it.
Of course they continually required more and had spent as much as eight dollars a night for cocaine, which they used "to share and share alike." It sounds like a large amount, but it really meant only four doses each during the night, as at that time they were taking twenty-five cents' worth at once if they could possibly secure it. The boys would tell nothing for three or four days after they were discovered, in spite of the united efforts of their families, the police, and the Residents of Hull-House. But finally, the superior boy of the gang, the manliest and the least debauched, told his tale, and the others followed in quick succession. They were willing to go somewhere to be helped, and were even eager if they could go together; and finally seven of them were sent to the Presbyterian Hospital for four week's treatment, and afterward all went to the country together for six weeks more. The emaciated child gained twenty pounds during his sojourn in the hospital, the head of which testified that at least three of the boys could have stood but little more of the irregular living and doping. At the present moment they are all doing well, although they were rescued so late that they seemed to have but little chance. The oldest one earns seventeen dollars a week in a neighboring factory. He has gone back to live with his grandmother, whom he supports, although he intimates that he will soon have to marry so that she may have a younger woman to help her do the housework. His black experience of five years ago has quite dropped away from him. Another boy is still struggling with the appetite on an Iowa farm, and dares not trust himself in the city, because he knows too well how cocaine may be procured in spite of better legislation.
It is doubtful whether these boys could ever have been pulled through if they had not been allowed to keep together through the hospital and convalescing period, if we had not been able to utilize the gang spirit and to turn its collective force toward overcoming the desire for the drug test. They urged each other "to be game and to win out."
This inveterate demand of youth that life shall afford a large element of excitement is, in a measure, well founded. We know, of course, that it is necessary to accept excitement as an inevitable part of recreation, that the first step in recreation is "that excitement which stirs the worn or sleeping centers of a man's body and mind." It is only when it is followed by nothing else that it defeats its own end, that it uses up strength and does not create it.
In the actual experience of these boys the excitement has demoralized them and led them into law-breaking. When, however, they seek legitimate pleasure and say with great pride that they are "ready to pay for it," what they find is legal, but scarcely more wholesome. It is still merely excitement. "Looping the loop" amid shrieks of simulated terror, dancing in disorderly saloon halls, are perhaps the natural reactions to a day spent in noisy factories and in trolley-cars whirling through distracting streets, but the city which permits them to be the acme of pleasure and recreation to its young people commits a stupid and grievous mistake.
It is almost as if the adult population assumed that the young would be able to grasp only that which is presented in the form of sensation -- as if they believed that youth could thus early become absorbed in a hand-to-mouth existence and so entangled in materialism that there would be no reaction against it. It is as though we were deaf to the appeal of these young creatures claiming their share of the joy of life, flinging out into the dingy city their desires and aspirations after unknown realities, their unutterable longing for companionship and pleasure. Their very demand for excitement is a protest against the dullness of life to which we ourselves instinctively respond.
May we not assume that this love for excitement, this desire for adventure, is basic and will be evinced by each generation of a city boys as a challenge to their elders?