Little Vagabonds 1870

The Habits, Homes and Amusements of the Street Boys of New York
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There is without doubt in the blood of most children as an inheritance, perhaps, from some remote barbarian ancestor a passion for roving. There are few of us who cannot recall the delicious pleasure of wandering at free will in childhood, far from schools, houses, and the tasks laid upon us, and leading in the fields or woods a semi-savage existence.

In fact, to some of us, now in manhood, there is scarcely a greater pleasure of the senses than to gratify "the savage in one's blood," and lead a wild life in the woods. The boys among the poor feel this passion often almost irresistibly.

Nothing will keep them in school or at home. Having, perhaps, kind parents and not a peculiarly disagreeable home, they will yet rove off night and day, enjoying the idle, lazzaroni life on the docks, living in the Summer almost in the water, and curling down at night, as the animals do, in any corner they can find, hungry and ragged, but light-hearted, and enjoying immensely their vagabond life. Probably as a sensation, not one that the street lad will ever have in after life will equal the delicious feeling of carelessness and independence with which he lies on his back in the Spring sunlight on a pile of dock lumber, and watches the moving life on the river, and munches his crust of bread. It frequently happens that no restraint or punishment can check this Indian like propensity.

A Rover Reformed

We recall one fine little fellow who was honest, and truthful, and kind-hearted, but who, when the roving passion in the blood came up, left everything and spent his days and nights on the wharves, and rambling about the streets. His mother, a widow, knew only too well what this habit was bringing him to, for unfortunately the life of a young barbarian in New York has little poetry in it. The youthful vagrant soon becomes idle and unfit to work; he is hungry and cannot win his food from the waters and the woods, like his savage prototype, therefore he must steal. He makes the acquaintance of the petty thieves, pickpockets and young sharper of the City. He learns to lie and swear; to pick pockets, rifle street stands and break open shop-windows or doors; so that this barbarian habit is the universal stepping-stone to children's crimes. In this case, the worthy woman locked the boy up in her room, and sent down word to us that her son would like a place in the country, if the employer would come up and take him.

We dispatched an excellent gentleman to her from the interior, who desired a "model boy," but when he arrived, he found, to his dismay, the lad kicking through the panels of the door, and declaring he would die sooner than go. The boy then disappeared for a few days, when his mother found him ragged and half-starved about the docks, and brought him home and whipped him severely. The next morning he was off again, and was gone a week, until the police brought him back in a wretched condition. The mother, now in desperation, tried the "Christian Brothers," who had a fence ten feet high about their premises, and kept the lad, it was said, part of the time chained. But the fence was mere sport to the little vagrant, and he was soon off. She now tried the "Half-Orphan Asylum," but this succeeded no better. Then the "Juvenile Asylum" was applied to, and the lad was admitted; but here he spent but a short probation, and was soon beyond their reach. The mother now in desperation resolved to send him to the Far West, under the charge of the Children's Aid Society. Knowing his habits, she led him down by the collar to the office, sat by him there, and accompanied him to the railroad depot with the party of children. He was placed on a farm in Northern Michigan, where, fortunately, there was considerable game in the neighborhood. To the surprise of us all, he did not at once run away, being perhaps attracted by the shooting he could indulge in, when not at work.

At length a chance was offered him of being a trapper, and he began his rovings in good earnest. From the northern Peninsula of Michigan to the Rocky Mountains, he wandered over the woods and wilds for years, making a very good living by his sales of skins, and saving considerable money. All accounts showed him to be a very honest, decent, industrious lad; a city vagrant about to be a thief transformed into a country vagrant making an honest living. Our books give hundreds of similar stories, where a free country life and the amusements and sports of the farmers, when work is slack, have gratified healthfully the vagrant appetite. The mere riding a horse, or owning a calf or a lamb, or trapping an animal in Winter, seems to have an astonishing effect in cooling the fire in the blood in the city rover, and making him contented.

Habits of Street Boys

The habits of the army of little street vagrants who rove through our City, have something unaccountable and mysterious in them. We have in various parts of the City little "Stations," as it were, in their weary journey of life, where we ostensibly try to refresh them, but where we really hope to break up their service in the army of vagrancy, and make honest lads of them. These "Lodging-houses" are contrived after much experience, so ingeniously that they inevitably attract in the young vagabonds, and drain the quarter of them where they are placed. We give the boys, in point of fact, more for their money than they can get anywhere else, and the whole house is made attractive and comfortable for them.

But the reasons of their coming to a given place seem unaccountable. Thus there will be a "Lodge" in some out of the way quarter, with no special attractions, which for years will drag along with a comparatively small number of lodgers, when suddenly without any change being made, there will come a rush of street rovers to it and scores will have to be sent away and the home be crowded for months after. Perhaps these denizens of boxes and hay-barges have their own fashions, like their elders, and a "boys' hotel" becomes popular and has a run of custom like the larger houses of entertainment. The numbers, too, at different seasons, very singularly. Thus, in the coldest nights of Winter, when few boys could venture to sleep out, and one would suppose there would be a rush to these warmed and comfortable "lodges," the attendance in some houses falls off. And in all, the best months are the Spring and Autumn rather than the Winter or Summer. Sometimes a single night of the week will show a remarkable increase of lodgers, though for what reason no one can divine.

Different Lodging-Houses

The lodgers in the different houses are singularly different. The Newsboys', in Park-place seem more of the true gamin order: sharp, ready, light-hearted, quick to understand, and quick to act, generous and impulsive, and with an air of being well used "to steer their own canoe" through whatever rapids and whirlpools. These lads seem to include more also of that chance medley of little wanderers who drift into the City from the country, and other large towns boys floating on the current, no one knows whence or whither. They are, as a rule, younger than in the other "lodges," and some of them are induced to take places on farms, or with mechanics in the country. One of the mysterious things about this boys' hotel is, what becomes of the large numbers that enter it. In the course of the twelve months there passes through its hospitable doors a procession of more than eight thousand different youthful rovers of the streets boys without homes or friends yet, on any one night, there is not an average of more than two hundred.

 Each separate boy accordingly averages but nine days in his stay. We can trace during the year the course of, perhaps, a thousand of these young vagrants, for most of whom we provide ourselves. What becomes of the other seven thousand? Many, no doubt, find occupation in the City or country; some in the pleasant seasons take their pleasure and business at the watering-places and other large towns; some return to relatives or friends; many are arrested and imprisoned, and the rest of the ragged throng drift away, no one knows whither. The up-town lodging-houses seem often to gather in a more permanent class of lodgers; they become frequently genuine boarding-houses for children. Thus, in the West Eighteenth-street house, (near Seventh-avenue,) established near the head-quarters of the notorious "Nineteenth-street Gang," the lads appear to remain longer and are more seldom inclined to accept situations in the country. They seem to be, too, a more destitute and perhaps, lower class than "the down-town boys." Perhaps, by a process of "natural selection," only the sharpest and brightest lads get through the intense "struggle for existence" which belongs to the most crowded portions of the City. We throw out the hypothesis for some future investigator. The East Eleventh-street House, (near Avenue C,) has its peculiar constituency also more codile, and apparently capable of improvement than in some of the others, but equally hard pressed and poor. The Rivington-street Lodge, (near Goerck street,) attracts in a very bright, decent, and yet impoverished class of lads, some of whom work at regular trades, though the majority follow street occupations for a living. For some indescribable reason, many " canal boys" drift in here.

Each of these lodging-houses has its own peculiar attractions for the young vagrants. In the latter (at No. 325 Rivington street,) is an old public school building, and, from its many windows and high rooms, is well open to air and light, and remarkably adapted to its purpose. The Superintendent, Mr. Calder has made it especially pleasant with a bright little flower garden in the rear, and many flowers and a small aquarium in the audience-room. The "Fifth-avenue Hotel," as some of the boys call the Park-place House, is so large and airy, with such ample baths and gymnasium, and is kept with so much liberality and judgment, and such perfect neatness, by the experienced Superintendent and Matron, Mr. and Mrs. O'Connor, that it is immensely popular with the whole "bummer" class. The West Eighteenth-street House (just presented to the Society by three of the trustees and their friends) shows the most remarkable instance of economical management which we have known in regard to institutions of this character.

During the month of May, the Superintendent, Mr. Gourley, lodged eighty boys every night, and fed them with two meals, at a cost to each lodger of five cents for a meal and five cents for lodging, at the same time feeding and lodging some gratuitously; the boys were kept clean, had enough to eat, and were brought under all the good moral and mental influences of the House; and at the end of the month, the institution had not only cost nothing to the public, but Mr. Gourley absolutely turned over eleven dollars and sixty-five cents to the Society. That is, his rent being paid by the liberal gentlemen mentioned above, he had managed to keep his boys, pay the wages and food of three servants, a night-watchman and errand boy, and the salaries and table expenses of the Superintendent, Matron, and their family. If this not "economical charity," it would be difficult to find it. The Eleventh-street Lodge is the most unpromising of any in externals, and yet for some unknown cause, is for its extent of accommodations, the best attended. Here its rent paid, but little expense would be left to the public for all its benefactions. All of the lodges are kept with perfect neatness by incessant scrubbing, and free use of Croton water and "Lyon's powders." Their floors are like ships' decks.


The great amusement of this multitude of street vagabonds is the cheap theater. Like most boys, they have a passion for the drama. But t them the pictures of Kings and Queens, the processions of courtiers and soldiers on the stage, and the wealthy gentlemen aiding and rescuing distressed peasant girls, are the only glimpses they ever get of the great world of history and society above them, and they are naturally entranced by them. Many a lad will pass a night in a box, and spend his last six-pence, rather than lose this show. Unfortunately, these low theaters seem the rendezvous for all disreputable characters; and here "the bummers" make the acquaintance of the higher class, whom they so much admire, of "flash men," thieves, pickpockets and rogues.

We have taken the pains at different times to see some of the pieces represented in these places, and have never witnessed anything improper or immoral. On the contrary, the popular plays were always of a heroic and moral cast, "Uncle Tom," when it was played in the Bowery, undoubtedly had a good moral and political effect in the years before the war, on these ragamuffins.

The salvation of New York, as regards this army of young vagabonds, is, without doubt, its climate.

There can be no permanent class of lazzaroni under our Winters. The cold compels work. The snow drives "the street-rats," as the Police call them, from their holes. Then the homeless boys seek employment and a shelter. And when they are once brought under the series of moral and physical instrumentalities contrived for their benefit, they cease soon to be vagrants becoming a great class of workers and honest producers.


Website: The History
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Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 New York Times Jul. 19, 1870 p.2 (1 page)
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