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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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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
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Retrobituaries
Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

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Hulton Archive//Getty Images
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science
Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]

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