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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).

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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iStock

Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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