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Newsboys

Children who died during the nineteenth century were generally buried by family, the church, or the cultural group to which they belonged. DiGirolamo brings to light the practices of newsboy funerals in which other young colleagues, sometimes orphans and homeless themselves, but certainly always poor, laid their peers to rest. Newsboys often collected money for coffins and headstones, the minister, and flowers. They also participated in public funeral processions through the streets in which they lived and worked. While obscure, and usually occurring in major U.S. cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, these practices were unusual given the public sphere in which they took place. Further, parentless boys did not die unloved and alone. Indeed the newsboys considered each other family, and the elaborate manner in which these children in poverty were buried and mourned further demonstrates the esteem in which they held each other.28

If indifference to the regular occurrence of children dying was the assumed rule, then the case of newsboys was the exception. Newsboys were often the subject of consolation literature, which included sermons, poems, memories, and other writings. Poems include Emily Thornton’s “The Dying Newsboy” (1886) and Irene Abbott’s “Only a Little Newsboy” (1903), which appeared in popular magazines. These poets were less concerned about exposing social conditions, and more about moving readers to help the poorest of children. Poets and those who helped the newsboys, their employers and ministers for example, found their cause an opportunity for “moral instruction.”29

The question of how to appropriately bury poor children was a common problem, as funerals were (and still are) expensive. Among the poor working class in the nineteenth century it was not uncommon to find deceased infants buried in anonymous graves or abandoned in the streets. Jacob Riis noted that seventy-two deceased (from natural causes) babies were picked up in 1890s New York alone. The bodies of these infants were most likely abandoned because parents could not afford their funerals, although older children were usually properly buried. Funerals for children could impoverish families for weeks. Funerals for older children, who were often more likely afforded a funeral than a baby, were much more costly.

Lou Taylor noted that when the body of a child was too long to fit under the seat of the hearse driver, the cost of the funeral went up.30

In addition to paying for a coffin, flowers, the burial and service, newsboys also published resolutions in order to publicly express their condolences, whether for a public figure or for one of their colleagues. While children, prior to the twenty-first century, grew up to be with death (whether experienced in their own families or through sermons at church), newsboys’ experiences with death were even more sophisticated given the location of their “offices”. Many were witness to the funeral processions of the most famous and revered public figures like President Lincoln. When Ulysses S. Grant died, several hundred boys went to city hall to state the fact of their sympathy for the passing of the president. They felt it was “our privilege to give expressions of regret and sympathy so universal”. They then insisted that the resolution be sent to Grant’s children and wife, who later acknowledged the consolation. A similar resolution was written for a fellow newsboy, which included “Whereas, Willie Crawford was a good fellow. ..he was always square and honest.. .he should have lived longer.it is no more than right to let his mother know what a good fellow he was when he was with us..” The newsboys also wrote obituaries, submitting them to the newspapers for which they worked. Often these obituaries mirrored their resolutions; a mention of the deceased’s qualities, the circumstances by which he died, and the regret for the bad hand of cards the boy was dealt. Newsboys were elaborate in their expressions of sorrow; while excessive grieving was generally looked down upon, the newsboys would sob and sing during funeral processions.31

Because elaborate funerals with all of the trimmings indicated an elevated status, as well as an expression of deep affection, the boys went all out when they could. For one boy in particular, a cortege, reserved for male funerals only, of fifty-six boys, six of them pall bearers, led a procession from the boy’s home to the church, passing the child’s newsstand. Alexander Hogeland, who founded the Newsboys’ and Bootblacks’ association in Louisville, noted that he was often the only adult to attend these funerals in addition to the undertaker and parent. For a funeral procession the coffin would be draped in black crepe, with a white ribbon that symbolized that the coffin held a child.

It was the fear of a potter’s field, which concerned these boys. To them the quality of their graves and funerals had a direct relationship to the “condition” of their soul. Burial in potter’s field was an everlasting indignity. The elaborate funerals, obituaries, and mourning rituals were a way of articulating that they were humans and tradesmen and not nameless vagrants.32 “Respectability, to them, was taking care of their own, which somehow became more important in death than in life.” The fear of being buried in a potter’s field prompted some boys to take advantage of burial clubs or insurance companies so that they would be afforded the elaborate funeral they deserved. Newspapers, at times, helped to cover the costs of a newsboy’s funeral. It was not in the name of self-promotion either, as competing periodicals reported the kind acts.33

 
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