CLOSE
New York Evening Mail
New York Evening Mail

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

New York Evening Mail
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).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Kevin Winter, Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
Bea Arthur: Golden Girl, U.S. Marine
Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

When Bea Arthur joined the cast of The Golden Girls in 1985, she had already established an impressive career on stage and television. But one of her most important jobs predates her acting career—for 2.5 years, Arthur served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

According to the National World War II Museum, her service came at a time when women enlisting in the military was still an anomaly. The country had recently entered the Second World War, and the Marines began recruiting women as a way to free more men to fill combat roles. The Marines opened the Women's Reserve in 1943 after every other military branch had already started accepting female members.

One of the program's first enrollees was a 20-year-old woman who was called Bernice Frankel at the time, and who's best known as Bea Arthur today. Prior to enlisting, she had attended Blackstone College in Virginia for a year, worked as a food analyst at the Phillips Packing Company, and volunteered as a civilian air-raid warden. As she later wrote in a letter, she joined the Marines on a whim: “I was supposed to start work yesterday, but heard last week that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so [I] decided the only thing to do was to join.”

After attending the first Women Reservists school at Hunter College in New York, Arthur spent the remainder of her service at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina as a truck driver and typist. According to her Official Military Personnel File (OMPF), she exhibited “meticulous good taste” and was "argumentative," "over aggressive," and “officious—but probably a good worker if she has her own way!”

Bea Arthur entered the Marines a private and had risen to staff sergeant by the time she was discharged. Her exit paperwork shows that she expressed interest in going to drama school after the military, foreshadowing a long career ahead.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Keystone/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
5 Things You Might Not Know About Henry Kissinger
Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

You probably know Henry Kissinger as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the German-born political scientist and diplomat.

1. MAO ZEDONG TRIED TO GIVE HIM "10 MILLION" WOMEN.

In 1973, Henry Kissinger was engaged in a discussion of trade with Mao Zedong when the chairman abruptly changed the subject by saying, “We [China] don't have much. What we have in excess is women. So if you want them we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands.”

Kissinger sidestepped this bizarre offer and changed the subject, but Mao later returned to the subject by jokingly asking, “Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you 10 million.”

This time Kissinger diplomatically replied, “It is such a novel proposition. We will have to study it.”

Other Chinese officials in the room pointed out that Mao’s attitudes toward women would cause quite a stir if the press got their hands on these quotes, so Mao apologized to his female interpreter and talked Kissinger into having the comments removed from the records of the meeting.

2. NO, HE'S NOT THE INSPIRATION FOR DR. STRANGELOVE.

Here’s a riddle that’s been bugging film buffs for decades: who was the basis for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? For years many observers thought that Kissinger might have inspired Peter Sellers’s memorable performance. Blame it on the accent and the glasses. Even though Kissinger was still a relatively obscure Harvard professor when the film premiered in 1964, the rumor that Kubrick modeled the character on him just wouldn't die.

Kubrick did what he could to dispel this notion before his death, saying, “I think this is slightly unfair to Kissinger ... It was unintentional. Neither Peter nor I had ever seen Kissinger before the film was shot.” Most observers now think that Dr. Strangelove was actually a distorted version of Herman Kahn, an eccentric nuclear strategist for the RAND Corporation.

3. HE WAS QUITE THE LADIES MAN.

Even in his youth, Kissinger didn’t quite fit the bill of a matinee idol, but he has always been a hit with the ladies. A 1972 poll of Playboy bunnies selected Kissinger as the man with whom Hef’s ladies would most like to go out on a date. He also had a string of celebrity girlfriends in his younger days, including Diane Sawyer, Candice Bergen, Jill St. John, Shirley Maclaine, and Liv Ullman, who called Kissinger, “the most interesting man I have ever met.”

Kissinger’s swinging bachelor days are long gone, though. He was married to Ann Fleischer from 1949 to 1964 then married philanthropist Nancy Maginnes in 1974—a union that at one point seemed so improbable that just a year before they tied the knot, Maginnes had called speculation that she and Kissinger would marry “outrageous.”

4. PROTECTING HIM ISN'T ALWAYS EASY.

In 1985 former Secret Service agent Dennis McCarthy released the memoir Protecting the President—The Inside Story of a Secret Service Agent, in which he described being on Kissinger’s security detail as “a real pain.” McCarthy shared a funny anecdote about a 1977 trip to Acapulco with Kissinger and his wife. There were signs warning of sharks in the water, but Nancy wanted to go for a swim. Kissinger then told his security detail to get in the water to guard for sharks.

Personal protection is one thing, but McCarthy and his fellow agents drew the line at fighting off sharks. Instead, they made the reasonable point that if the Kissingers were afraid of sharks, they shouldn’t go swimming. Agent McCarthy did, however, offer a compromise; he told Kissinger, “If the sharks come up on this beach, my agents will fight them.”

5. THE STATE DEPARTMENT NIXED HIS OFFICIAL PORTRAIT.

Official portraits of government luminaries don’t usually become big news, but in 1978 the painting of Kissinger commissioned by the State Department for its gallery made headlines. Boston artist Gardner Cox had previously painted Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk, so he got the $12,000 commission to paint Kissinger. The finished product didn’t earn rave reviews, though.

Some viewers at the State Department thought the painting lacked Kissinger’s dynamism and made him look “somewhat a dwarf.” Others felt the portrait was “a rogues' gallery thing." The State Department offered to let Cox fix the painting, but he said he didn’t see anything that need changing. He lost the commission but got $700 for his expenses.

Kissinger took the whole episode in stride, though. When Houston artist J. Anthony Wills painted a replacement, Kissinger declared it to be, “an excellent likeness, swelled head and all,” and called the unveiling "one of my most fulfilling moments. Until they do Mount Rushmore."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios