Friday, February 16, 2018

The road to a "modern Gomorrah" --- back in 1870

One of the oddities after great public calamities often involves a turn of conversation to younger folks --- followed sometimes by a shift into another gear as oldesters declare, "this younger generation sure is going to hell in a handbasket" or something similar.

One of my favorites yesterday involved a widely circulated meme that ran something like this: "Back when I was a pup every pickup in the school parking lot had a gun rack in the back window and nobody got shot."

But when I was a pup more than 50 years ago, there was no school parking lot for students and classmates lucky enough to have their own vehicles would not have dreamed of investing in a pickup (pickups became sex symbols many years later). Some of us Iowa farm boys were in fact so poor that our families could not afford the luxury of both a good car and a utility vehicle.

Maybe I lived a sheltered life, but quite frankly don't ever recall seeing a pickup parked near the school with a gun rack in the back window back in the good old days, although my Wyoming cousins tell me this was not unusual there.

But this isn't about gun racks --- rather about perceptions of younger folks. So I was interested to find the following article on Page 1 of The Chariton Democrat of April 26, 1870, under the headline, "Crime Among Children."

It's not local news --- these were early days still for Iowa weekly newspapers and The Democrat relied heavily on syndicated copy. Only one page of hand-set type was entirely local. This story was a reprint from The New York Times.

At that time, The Democrat --- a four-page broadsheet --- was printed on sheets of paper that arrived partially pre-printed weekly by rail, most likely from Chicago. These were known as "patent insides" even when, as in The Democrat's case, Page 1 was a pre-print, too --- other than a hole at the top where The Democrat's flag --- or nameplate --- could be added.

But even though the setting was New York City, the patent insides editors probably were fairly certain it would resonate across the Midwest as well. It's something of a morality tale, too, involving lessons about the examples older folks should be setting if they expect younger folks to behave.


Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclined; and those who read the newspapers cannot fail to see that the present tendency of wrongdoing among children threatens a lamentable warp toward evil hereafter. Youthful crime hereabouts is rapidly increasing. Several children have lately killed or attempted to kill their parents. Nearly every day, small boys commit highway robbery --- usually by snatching the purses of ladies --- in the streets of New York and Brooklyn.

On Monday last, a little rascal of seven, who had been picked up on Broadway and placed in charge of the matron of the Lost Children's Department at Police Headquarters, actually, with great deliberation, set fire to the room in which he had been temporarily left, and the building was only by accident saved from conflagration.

Thefts from shops by juvenile experts are of constant occurrence, although these cases, when detected, are often hushed up by friends and so do not get into the police reports. The torture of animals by children is almost as common. Some small fiends anointed a cat with kerosene the other day in a neighboring city, set fire to the poor animal's fur, and drove her, while she screamed with agony, through the streets.

Another form of misbehavior we alluded to a short time ago. Gangs of lads stop other single boys and rifle their pockets of whatever they may contain. If interrupted by an adult, the young brigands are only "in fun." If undisturbed, they make off with their booty.  All this is lamentable and ominous and yet there is reason to fear it is only what under existing circumstances ought to be expected.

There can be little doubt that most boys if left to themselves are likely to be selfish and cruel. Society recognizes this by subjecting them in general to much coercion, and by dwelling strenuously in its precepts relating to children upon the force of example. The immediate occasion of increased juvenile crime apparently lies, then, in the slackening of the reins of coercion, and in permitting children to become familiar with bad examples. Young New York smokes, chews, gambles, falls in love with ballet girls --- does anything in a word in the way of promiscuous sensuality, and no man says him, nay. His younger brother, gazing with admiration on these splendid achievements, makes haste when he can go and do likewise.

But it is not merely social vices of the class that may be called sins against one's self that are thus inculcated. The spectacle of notoriously bad men in high office, of gamblers, thieves, and assassins, mounting to official station, the prevalent worship of money, no matter how got, and all but universal chuckle over what is called sharp practice and ought to be called scoundrelism; all this corrupts the young, breaks down their moral sense and first induces their assent to such evils, and subsequently their active participation in them.

Some imagine that children do not see or know of these blots on our escutcheon, which is a grievous mistake. The knowledge and influence of such social stains extend to all classes, conditions and ages, down almost to the very cradle. As surely as the bad habits of parents work their effect in the household, are the vices of a community reproduced in its rising generation.

Example, to be sure, is not always literally and instantly followed. It is not all children who would do what the Canadian lad lately did, who, having seen a pig butchered took the earliest private opportunity to cut up and dress his little brother in the same way. 

But the influence of bad example, if commonly less direct than this, is pervasive and destructive, and although the methods of turpitude vary like fashions, so that different kinds of crime have their spoch just as different modes of executions have theirs, depravity may, at the various times, equally exist. We may be preparing fewer Jack Sheppards and Claude Duvals for future use than ballot box stuffers, repeaters, or robbers of our city treasury; and the harm in that case may be the greater because more difficult to punish.

It is plain, meanwhile, that the disposition to evil on the part of our city youth is growing strong and dangerous. There may be ways to cope with or to extirpate this disposition; but one way is most palpable and certain, however it may be among the most difficult. It consists in the establishment of a pure local government. The influence for mischief of our municipal system, as for years it has practically worked, might almost have made of New York a modern Gomorrah. Let us hope that with the reforms promised for the immediate future, we may accomplish among other collateral benefits, a diminution of the ratio of juvenile crime. (New York Times)

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