Academic journal article Urban History Review

Framing the Boy Problem in the Early Twentieth Century: The Willie Doherty Murder of 1902

Academic journal article Urban History Review

Framing the Boy Problem in the Early Twentieth Century: The Willie Doherty Murder of 1902

Article excerpt

In 1902 three teenagers visited a public park in Saint John, New Brunswick. Three days later one of them was found shot to death. This case study of the murder of Willie Doherty and the trials of Frank Higgins arid Fred Goodspeed examines how a critical event crystalized the justice system, social reform, and press understandings of the boy problem in one community at the turn of the twentieth century. The case suggested, in the case of working-class youth, the existence of a semi-autonomous "boys world" that operated beyond the reach of adults, including the police. Reformers were as likely to blame environmental influences such as poor parenting, popular culture such as dime novels, or socio-economic deprivation, as they were the antisocial personality traits of delinquents. The study also explores the degree of freedom enjoyed by children and youth in the turn-of-the-century industrial city.

En 1902, trois adolescents ont visite un pare public a Saint-Jean au Nouveau-Brunswick. Trois jours plus tard, l'un deux a ete trouve tuepar balle. Cette etude de cas du meurtre de Willie Doherty et des proces de Frank Higgins et Fred Goodspeed examine comment un evenement critique a mis en lumiere le systeme judiciaire, la reforme sociale et la comprehension de la presse au sujet du probleme des garqons dans une communaute au debut du vingtieme siecle. Le dossier des jeunes de la classe ouvriere a suggere Texistence d'un " monde de gargons " semi autonome, qui existait hors de laportee des adultes, y compris la police. Les reformateurs etaient tout aussi partes a bldmer soit les influences environnementales telles que l'irresponsabiliteparentale, la culturepopulaire des romans a dix sous ou la privation socioeconomique, soit les traits antisociaux de lapersonnalite des delinquants. L'etude explore aussi le degre de liberte que les enfants et adolescents connaissaient au tournant du siecle dans cette ville industrielle.

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In the summer of 1902, teenagers Willie Doherty, Frank Higgins, and Fred Goodspeed visited heavily wooded Rockwood Park in Saint John, New Brunswick. Only two of the boys left the park area alive, and less than three months later one of them was sentenced to be hanged for murder. This case study of the killing of Doherty and the trials of Higgins and Goodspeed examines how a critical event crystallized the justice system, social reform, and press understandings of the boy problem in one community at the turn of the twentieth century. During this period, moral and social reformers were increasingly concerned about the supposed tendency of boys, especially in cities, to avoid school and work, join gangs, use bad language, smoke cigarettes, read inappropriate literature, carry weapons, commit petty crimes, and waste their time on street corners and in places of commercial amusement. The boy problem was perceived as the by-product of a semi-autonomous "boys world" that thrived in specific urban spaces. This article, which is based on the federal Department of Justice capital case file on Higgins and extensive newspaper coverage also explores the issues of crime as entertainment and the degree of freedom enjoyed by working-class youth in the industrial city. (1)

Most recorded crime is committed by men. In the era when juvenile delinquency was a legal category in Canada (1908-84), the overwhelming majority of delinquents, including those handled informally, were boys. Yet the literature on male delinquency lacks the breadth and sophistication of what has been produced on girls. (2) In addition to contributing to the sparse literature on the "boy problem" in Canada, this article helps to fill two other gaps: it deals with a mid-sized city and the Maritimes, a region relatively neglected in criminal justice history scholarship. Finally, it is a rare look at the intersection of juvenile delinquency and homicide.

As the Canadian literature on girls and young women reveals, educators, maternal feminists, charity workers, politicians, and legal officials were concerned about the moral perils confronting girls and young women, but in most jurisdictions boys constituted up to 90 per cent of juvenile delinquents in a given year. …

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