“Poker, Pot Hooks, and Tongs: Did You Ever See Such A Damned Old Fool?

December 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Blunderbuss has a new follower, so we’re going to celebrate with a story I’ve held back for a long time, mostly because I thought I could fit it into another book on life in Austin’s underside. But life being what it is …

 Whenever someone gets misty eyed about the “good old days,” I retort with a touch of disdain, “Oh, yeah? Let me tell you about how really good the good old days were … “

But the “good old days” were truly grand, when it comes to juvenile delinquency in Austin, which boasted an Oscar-winning cast of really bad, really young boys in the 1880s.

This is the first of an as-yet-to-be determined number of installments.

Austin was barely six months old when delinquency first came calling.

A company of unknown evil doers assembled after dark on Capitol Hill on Saturday night, June 20, 1840, and after amusing themselves throwing stones at the Capitol, filled one of the cannon with stone. A company of regular infantry occupied the fort that surrounded the capitol to protect public property like the cannon, and if the gates should ever be closed against the citizens in time of need, the perps would have the satisfaction of knowing that they were to blame. This was the first act of delinquency that disgraced the city of Austin, and despite hopes it might be the last, it was the harbinger of far worse things to come.

Modern juvenile delinquency hit full stride in the 1950s, as evidenced by cult movies like Rebel Without a Cause. Juvenile delinquency first hit its stride in Austin in the 1850s.

On Sunday, May 15, 1853, a gang of riotous boys from six to twelve years of age was stoning the house of a deranged and helpless woman. Her pitiful cries and the yelling of the boys was a disturbance to all the families in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, on Congress Avenue, there was a crowd of boys of all ages, from five to fifteen, two of whom were engaged in a fierce fight, while the others were gathered around, each encouraging their favorite with hurrahs and the usual exclamations.

By October 1856, a local paper despaired, “This place can furnish as many bad boys, according to population, as any in the United States. Several months since a distinguished divine delivered a lecture to the juveniles of the city. A goodly number were in attendance and they seemingly were affected by the words of the reverend minister. Among other things, he dwelt with much force upon the sinfulness of swearing. He insisted they should say “poker,” “pot hooks” and “tongs” instead of taking the name of the Lord in vain.

A gentleman overheard the following comment fall in whispered accents, from two of the young scape-graces.

“Poker, pot hooks, and tongs, did you ever see such a damned old fool? I wonder if he thinks any body is going to throw himself off in any such a way when he is mad?”

Parental neglect was blamed for juvenile crime as much – if not more – than it is now, as evidenced by this newspaper editorial from May 22, 1857.

Bad Boys.

The boys of this city are the most consistent young gents in the world. They start out bad and grow worse with a persistent perseverance truly admirable to one having a penchant to admire the thing. There is no place where Young American does not pertinaciously show his face and his manners. Go to a concert, and he is there to introduce his treble notes and produce a discord. Attend a theatre, and the words of the actors are drowned by the vociferated original remarks of juvenile Forests. Make one at a public dinner, and you are elbowed from the table by a younger but more voracious eater than yourself. Speak kindly to him and he will curse you — try to remove him out of your way and you stand a good chance to make the acquaintance of a “cheese knife.” Let him alone, and he will run over you “rough shod”  — interfere with him, and you get in a row. He is a dangerous chap any way you fix him, and is in many respects very like the “cat named Pole”: good looking, but badly adored, and not to be trifled with by weak-nerved people who prefer cologne to asafoetida.

The question to be answered is, upon whom does the blame rest? Upon the parents most assuredly. If these boys received proper instructions and training at home they would hardly behave rudely and disgracefully abroad. There are many who should feel ashamed of the conduct of their children, and yet they look upon their mis-doings as complacently as if they really thought them creditable and something to be laughed at. It is a pity the City Council has not passed an ordinance making it a finable offense for a boy to disturb a public or private assemblage, by improper, indecent, or immoral behavior. Should the marshall be authorized to arrest them, and carry them before the mayor for trial, and when found guilty should the parent or guardian have to pay a fine and costs, it is more than probable a curb would be placed on many young republicans who now make it a point to disturb every gathering they can squeeze their way into.

The first juvenile delinquent we know of by name grew up to become Austin’s City Marshal, Ben Thompson.

October 13, 1858. On Saturday evening the 14-year-old Thompson and James Smith got into a quarrel, and the latter called Thompson hard names and insulted his father, whereat Ben raised his gun, which was loaded with small shot, and fired; the whole charge took effect in Smith’s back, except two shot, which struck his head. Thompson was taken before Justice Calhoun, examined and discharged.

It was a common thing to see boys from 10 to 14 years of age carrying about their persons, Bowie knives and pistols.

“Tagging” is the most common form of juvenile delinquency today, but graffiti is nothing new; it lines the walls of prehistoric caves. By the summer of 1856, “tagging” the state capitol building was a favorite pastime, to the point that the legislature passed “An Act to punish persons for writing upon, defacing or disfiguring the walls of the public buildings of the State,” a misdemeanor punishable by fine of $5-$50.

But then as now, the law did little to halt the practice.

“The walls of the Capitol have become a register for the names of aspiring gentlemen,” one paper complained in May 1857. “Not content with scrawling their patronymics upon the building, some have bestowed snatches of their genius upon the public, free of charge. Many of these productions are vulgar, betraying both a want of sense and a want of manners in the writer.

“Were it not that these persons are, generally, not worth contempt, it would be a good plan to collect their names, and give them publicity in the newspapers, and let those impudent searchers after notoriety enjoy it to their heart’s content. It is a very good indication of a want of respect for the rules of politeness, and a disregard of rectitude in the man whose name is found scratched upon the wall of a building; and it is not one of the best evidences of good breeding. It is to be hoped the gentleman in charge of the Capitol will endeavor to arrest the inroads of these scribbling vandals.”

Things just kept getting worse: October 12, 1859: “We would advise the ladies who may visit the Capitol, not to scrutinize the hieroglyphics on the walls. From what we have seen, and there are some striking characters, it is evident there are boys among us, who have not been “trained in the way they should go.” The defacing of public buildings is common, they are public property, and those who are so disposed, in our midst, seem to have exerted their powers, not only on the Capitol, but all of the public buildings; in drawing the most obscene characters imaginable.”

During the Civil War, delinquency appears to have taken a vacation, judging from the newspapers and handful of surviving court records.

 End, Part 1

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