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New York Evening Mail

The Gun-Loving Boy Scouts of the Early 20th Century

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New York Evening Mail

In the early 20th century, a gun-toting group of uniformed teens took aim at the Boy Scouts of America. The American Boy Scouts (ABS) became known less for earning merit badges and helping old ladies cross the street than shooting off their rifles, often with deadly results. Their rise and fall reflects the militaristic fervor that took hold of the country during the World War I era, as well as a forgotten chapter in the history of U.S. gun control.

The ABS sprouted from the competitive spirit—or more likely spite—of New York Journal publisher William Randolph Hearst. The newspaper baron, who never liked to be outdone by another publisher, founded the group in May 1910 as an unsubtle response to Chicago publisher William Dickson Boyce, who had incorporated the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) just three months earlier. The boys in both groups went on outdoor trips, volunteered in the community, and read Boys’ Life magazine. But their practices differed in at least one significant way: Hearst’s scouts carried guns. Hearst believed boys should cultivate skill with firearms, and be prepared for service in the United States military, so rifles became standard accessories for ABS members.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

They conducted drills and “sham battles”—sometimes in the middle of Manhattan—in which boys, dressed in their militaristic uniforms, shot at one another using blanks. Though ostensibly a training exercise for members, they proved effective publicity events and recruitment tools for boys who wanted to play soldier. Scouting was a new concept for most Americans at this time, but both groups enjoyed generous press coverage from their publisher-founders and a warm reception from the public, who were more used to seeing young boys as hollering newsboys or unsupervised irritants. Parents steadily enrolled their sons in the nascent organizations. By 1914, the BSA would claim more than 100,000 members (though the ABS kept few records, it claimed membership of similar volume).

Leaders and spokespeople for the two scouting groups sniped at one another, with each claiming that the other should change its name to avoid confusing the public. The American Boy Scouts boasted it had more members, while the Boy Scouts of America claimed the endorsement of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the original, English, Boy Scout organization. “[W]hile there should be a touch of the military, the movement should … prepare boys for efficient living rather than for possible war,” the BSA’s first managing secretary, John Alexander, told BSA President Colin Livingstone in 1910. 

SNIPING SCOUTS

At first the two seemed evenly matched. Fueled by their publisher-founders, both groups were covered regularly in the papers of New York City and Chicago, with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle dedicating a weekly page to “With Brooklyn Boy Scouts,” providing a column to each group. But the Hearst organization lost ground. The BSA leadership solidified power on the national level, chartered new councils around the country, and standardized membership rules. The ABS kept holding its sham battles, but its leaders spent more time fundraising than building the organization, and Hearst soon lost interest. After expressing concern with how it was being run, he disowned the group. General Edwin McAlpin, the heir of a tobacco and real estate fortune, took over as Chief Scout, declaring: “I am accepting this honor and this labor without any desire for red fire.” However, he soon proved more eager for a fight than his predecessor.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The General believed in a strong national defense and saw scouting as an effective way to strengthen it—by teaching boys to be capable with rifles and to understand military discipline. He loved the trappings of armed combat and believed the Boy Scouts of America to be both too weak (having toned down the militarism of the original British Boy Scouts) and too religious (due to the early support the group received from the YMCA, among other things). He summed up his opinion of the BSA as “a bunch of religious enthusiasts—outright pacifists” and delighted in his role as general leading an army against its enemy.

But just six months into his tenure, the gun-toting militarism that so pleased McAlpin created a crisis. On March 23, 1912, 9-year-old Harry Luckhardt, his 10-year-old brother William, and their neighbor John Lightner—none of them members of either scouting group—walked home after filling up a few bottles from a spring near their uptown home. As they crossed a hill on a vacant lot at 169th Street in the Bronx, they encountered a group of five boys. One of them wore the uniform of the American Boy Scouts and carried a rifle.

The scout was 12-year-old Russell Maitland Jarvis (sometimes written as Maitland Russell Jarvis), considered the terror of the block by some in the neighborhood. He had just returned from an afternoon hike with his troop, and brought along the ABS-approved rifle. Playing police officer, Jarvis demanded the three boys put their hands in the air. William and John crouched behind a nearby wagon, but Harry dared him to shoot, making a crack about the scout uniform as he did. Jarvis pulled the trigger, shooting the nine-year-old in the stomach. Harry died soon after. His brother ran home and through gasps and tears told his mother, “Harry’s dead. A Boy Scout shot and killed him.” 

PUBLIC OUTCRY

After some questioning from detectives, Jarvis admitted to the killing and was taken into custody. The scout patrol paid a visit to the Luckhardt family to express their condolences. The shooting caused an outcry demanding that rifles, even unloaded ones, be banned from the organization. Technically the boys were only supposed to use blanks unless they were target shooting (Jarvis claimed that he meant to fire a blank), but since each member carried a fully operational rifle and had access to ammo through their troop, it was relatively easy for a Scout to turn lethal.

Though children were not allowed to carry handguns, the rules were looser about “long guns” typically used for hunting and target practice. Luckhardt’s father expressed fury at the law, which he said could forbid a man to carry a revolver but “allows a boy to carry a dangerous weapon about with him.”

“The shooting of a little boy by another trained to use a rifle is the logical and natural thing,” observed the editors of Quaker magazine The Friend. “Train a boy to kill, put the instrument in his hand, and why should he not kill?” The writer worried that if the “Army enthusiasts” in New York and California who at the time were urging that rifle practice be offered in public schools as a similar sort of military preparation got their way, “killing will become promiscuous in America.”

New York Call

The Boy Scouts of America expressed some of the loudest criticism about the rules, taking the opportunity to shame McAlpin and his scouts.

“These imitation organizations have been devoting themselves to one line of work, such as military drill and target shooting,” James E. West, the chief scout executive for the BSA, told Boys’ Life in May 1912. “When boys wish to become a Boy Scout, parents said, ‘All right,’ not knowing there are different organizations. That was the way with Mrs. Jarvis, mother of the boy who did the shooting.” West declared that members of the BSA would not be allowed to carry firearms and troops would take no part in military drills. The same issue of Boys’ Life included news of more than 1300 members of the American Boy Scouts troop in Los Angeles filing a petition to join the Boy Scouts of America. To do so, they were told to stop carrying firearms and drop their military training. They happily agreed.

Despite the bad press, the American Boy Scouts solidified its militaristic stance in July 1913 when an Arms Selection Committee chose the .22 caliber Remington No. 4S rifle as “the Official Arm of the American Boy Scouts.” The single-shot, military-style rifle, complete with leather sling strap and bayonet, cost the scout $8 and would be known as the “American Boy Scout Rifle” from that point on. 

But before the year was up, another Scout would kill. An American Boy Scouts patrol of 15 members went camping on Christmas Day in a woody area of Peekskill, New York. A few of the boys had gotten a campfire going and began preparations for a rustic Christmas feast.

Monroe Kniskern, 13-year-old son of Episcopal Reverend E.M. Kniskern, lost interest in the proceedings when he spotted a rifle leaning against a nearby tree. It belonged to Wilbur Wright, a fellow scout, who had gotten it as an early Christmas present and brought it on the outing to show off to the other boys. Kniskern’s curiosity got the best of him and he began to play with the weapon. Few paid any attention to him. Then the gun went off in his hands. 

The rifle report was followed by a scream and the other scouts looked up to see 14-year-old Edward Webb face down on the ground. The pastor’s son had accidentally shot him in the back of the head. A doctor rushed to the scene, but he was soon followed by the coroner. The Christmas entertainment that the nearby Peekskill Church had planned was canceled in light of the tragedy. 

The continued bad press led parents to pull their children from the group and many of the leaders to abandon the organization. Rather than changing the group’s rules, though, McAlpin changed its name to “United States Boy Scout.” This rebranding, along with increased interest in training young men for the military following the outbreak of World War I, helped keep the rival Scouts relevant for several more years, even if its membership dwindled to a fraction of the fast-growing BSA. 

But it would not be the disorganization of the group’s leaders—or the boys killed by the group’s members—that would undo the U.S. Boy Scout. What would eventually take the USBS down was the tenacity of the Boy Scouts of America. 

BOY SCOUTS ON THE OFFENSE

While a few passionate leaders like McAlpin stuck around, most of the USBS’s leaders left by the time the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, replaced by professional solicitors focused solely on how to wring out as many fundraising dollars as possible for the group. Their strategies devolved into simply misleading parents and donors into thinking they were contributing to the BSA, not its gun-toting rival. The USBS set up offices in the same building as the BSA and claimed the support of prominent people who thought they had endorsed the more respected group. Even when checks written explicitly to “Boy Scouts of America” were sent to the USBS’s address, the solicitors pocketed the funds for themselves.

The BSA’s leaders struggled to expose its rival’s deceptions and make clear that it was distinct from these armed scouts, as they had going back to the shooting of Harry Luckhardt. After years of trying to coexist with this dangerous doppelgänger, BSA Chief Scout James E. West recognized that his only option was to destroy USBS.

With the aid of a powerful legal team led by Charles Evan Hughes, former governor of New York and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the BSA launched a New York Supreme Court lawsuit against the USBS. The aggressive campaign heaped legal and public relations pressure on the USBS, shining a spotlight on the group’s double dealings that outshone even the bad headlines about dead boys. As legal expenses and negative publicity mounted, the USBS’s fundraisers recognized they had few other options but to settle. In March 1919, the court handed down its decision, ordering that the USBS could not use any version of “Scout” or “Scouting” in its name, effectively ending the group, or at least its ability to fundraise off the BSA’s name.

“It is with great satisfaction that I am able to definitely inform the National Council, and through the National Council the whole constituency, that the suit of the Boy Scouts of America against the United States Boy Scout has concluded,” West gloated in his organization’s annual report for 1919. West could not hide his pleasure at having finally undone the United States Boy Scout. By vanquishing his rival, West solidified his ownership over the very concept of scouting and the proper way to instill ideals into America’s young men. Under his leadership, the Boy Scouts of America would grow into a vast operation, with millions of members. It no longer has serious competitors, armed or otherwise—and continues to forbid firearms on any outings not specifically designated for target shooting.

This article was adapted from The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York (Lyons Press, 2015).

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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iStock

Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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Food
The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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