Part 2: Crime and Punishment
by James Grieder
As we learned last week in Part 1: Island Children Running Rampant, during the mid-1800s, many Nantucket youth were participating in “wicked and lawless conduct.” We continue this week with what efforts were made to deter this behavior and to reform island children…
In the mid-1850s, there is an increase in calls in the newspapers for the town to crack down on the out-of-control youth:
Concerning Truant Children.
“That when any child or children between the ages of six and fifteen years, shall neglect to attend the Public or any other schools of Nantucket…and shall become an habitual truant or truants, and not attend any school, and without lawful occupation shall be growing up in ignorance, then it shall be the duty of the Committee appointed by the Town to have charge of these children…and for each and every such truancy and non-attendance there shall be imposed a fine of One Dollar [around $35 per child per day in today’s currency] for the use of the Town and all the cost of prosecution…. The Town expects that there shall be no children allowed to absent themselves from these nurseries of improvement.” (Mar 11, 1854 Nantucket Weekly Mirror)
“That there has been much remissness is this respect, that there have been many children among us who seldom, if ever attend our schools, and still others who are exceedingly irregular in their attendance. Previous laws have been almost entirely inoperative. Truants, in many instances, have cared but little whether attended by a constable or or by their associates, and have again been absent. It has been no great punishment to be thus escorted, as the vast major ity of absences among the boys will amply demonstrate.
“With the present arrangement, it will, at least, be very inconvenient, if not expensive, to be absent from school, without good and sufficient reasons. And in the more difficult cases, where the truants become unmanageable by all ordinary means, the State has generously and wisely provided for the education of such, at what are usually termed ‘State Reform Schools.’” (Mar 18, 1854 Nantucket Weekly Mirror)
Henry W. Giles, a Unitarian minister and writer who had lectured at the Nantucket Atheneum three months before, wrote in August 1854 that “boys, next to women, abound, or seem to abound, in Nantucket. This seeming, we suppose, arises from the absence of men. Visitors, we were told, had complained as to the conduct of these boys. It would not be strange if, without the presence and control of fathers, they were a little wild…”
Two years later, in an article about agriculture on Nantucket in the Boston Cultivator, the author notes that the very idea of agriculture on the island “may sound strange to people who suppose that Nantucket is only a heap of sand that answers for a home for whalemen’s wives, daughters, and small boys [italics in text].”
For their part, the children objected to the town ruining all their fun. The January 16, 1856 edition of the Inquirer and Mirror records two letters from “some of our ‘fast youths’,” self-described “b’hoys” complaining about the “meanness of the town of Nantucket” in pouring ashes on the slides in the vicinity of Academy Hill. “It is winter only once a year, and if people cannot let young America enjoy themselves during that time we think it a pity. YOUNG AMERICA”
Under the headline “ABSENT” in the November 21 edition of the newspaper, the editor stated that at a review of one of the local public schools it was revealed that “out of a school of about one hundred pupils, all but ten had been absent more or less.” Acknowledging that there were probably some legitimate cases where a child was too sick to attend school, they wrote that “it would be absurd to suppose that such a large proportion of the pupils were sick in the term,” and that “the whim of the pupils was the actual reason of many of the absences” and that parents “are responsible for the indulgence of those whims.”
A week later, the editor of the Nantucket Weekly Mirror railed against juvenile behavior in church, “those children between the years of twelve and twenty, and mostly those with bonnets on, who greatly annoy the congregation with their noisy whispering and half-smothered laughing,” not to mention “writing nonsense on the fly-leaves” of hymnals. “This whispering and laughing,” he said, “is too often carried on in the pew under the eyes of the parents, who make no effort to check this growing evil.”
Out in the streets it was worse: “crowds of great boys who nightly congregate at the corners of streets, so regardless of others’ rights as to make the ladies turn off the walk to get by, and then impudently comment on their timidity, because they did not dash through their midst.” Sometimes in the evening he would “see boys following women and girls, and saying such things as even shame the hearers and disgrace themselves; but we suppose they do not read the paper, so our comments would not reach them.”
A complaint the following spring about “some of the masters and misses who went [to a lecture] not to hear but to annoy those who did” led to a heated exchange of letters to the editors that spanned two newspapers, with one writer blaming the teachers in attendance who failed to control the students, another saying it was their parents’ fault, and a third calling for a public listing of names of some of the teachers themselves, “who have more than once, amused themselves at the lectures, by noticing, laughing at, and conversing about the personal appearance, and peculiarities of different lecturers, much to the annoyance of others.”
Vandalism seems to have been an ongoing problem. An ad in the July 18, 1857 edition of the Nantucket Weekly Mirror offered a $5 reward [around $170 in today’s currency] for information leading to the arrest of whoever had been smashing the windows in Town Buildings, destroying street Lanterns, and injuring the Town Trees.” In 1859, the Humane Society posted a $25 reward [just over $850 in 2023] because “some evil-minded person or persons have recently broken open by forcing the lock, the Humane Society’s House at or near Hummock Pond,” where they “committed depredations, and stolen certain articles therefrom.”
In an August 19, 1857 edition of the Inquirer and Mirror, a letter to the editor inveighed against “Corner Loafers”—“Is there no way that the gang of boys and half-grown men (or pretenders to be men) that stand around the corners of our most public streets particularly Philip H. Folger’s corner [at the intersection of Orange and Main streets, across from Mitchell’s Book corner], can be broken up? At any time from five to nine o’clock, P.M., these loafers can be seen, numbering from twelve to twenty, blocking up the sidewalk, so that ladies passing must be obliged to go through the crowd, and have their dresses soiled by the tobacco spittle that is ejected from the foul mouths, or turn off the walks and get around as best they can, hearing jeers and insulting remarks.” As to which town official should be responsible, he said “it strikes me it would come under the Hog Reeve’s duty.”
Conditions continued to deteriorate, with a call for LAW AND ORDER appearing in the October 28, 1859 Inquirer and Mirror. “Persons committed to our house of correction for stated periods may be seen daily in the streets; the corners of our principal streets are blocked nightly by crowds of men and boys, spitting, swearing, and insulting passers-by.” There were multiple complaints about “nuisances of too gross a nature to mention,” where unknown individuals lobbed tobacco spit at the doors and windows of nearby houses. “Depredations are nightly committed, gardens robbed, etc.,” they wrote, and urged that some of the perpetrators be detained and made an example of.
They then listed other examples of recent offenses against good order:
A man was sitting in his office when two bricks were thrown through the window, one after the other, narrowly missing the occupant.
“A lady storekeeper was insulted and imposed upon by a gang of idlers, and the watch being called upon, simply stated to the crowd that Mrs. — wished him to ask them to go away! which they did not do, or at least but for a few moments.”
“A rascal threw a handful of pepper into the face of a young lady” one evening while walking on Orange Street. “She was taken into a house near by in great distress.”
The author lays the blame for the crime wave partly at the feet of the victims, who often declined to prosecute because “the person who breaks your windows, robs your garden, insults you or your child, is perhaps a ‘distant relation’.” In that same edition of the paper appeared another news item, titled LARCENY. “Two boys, aged about twelve, named Davis and Perkins, were taken before justice Bunker on a charge of entering the store of Mr. John Williams, on Milk Street, and stealing there-from about thirteen dollars in money [$450 in 2023]. They were convicted and sent to the House of Correction for two months.”
Things came to a head in November 1859, when a Town Meeting was called to address the “manifest necessity for more vigilance on the part of the watchmen, and an increase of numbers, in order to render the watch more efficient” because the “streets are infested with standing nuisances, by night and day…” The new watchmen should be “temperate men, and men of good physical health” able to stay awake through their shift and, as needed, “keep the corners and streets clear, and to preserve order on Sundays, in the day-time” so that “all rudeness, loud talking, and that loud laughing which speaks the vacant mind, should cease from the streets; and all should pass to some destination, without the hindrance of others.”
Restive youth continued to be a problem over the years. In 1860, with war clouds gathering on the mainland that would soon result in even more young men leaving the island, the editor of the Nantucket Weekly Mirror reported that they’d received “much and reasonable complaint of the annoyance which rude youths and boys inflict upon our audiences at public entertainments, by various modes of disturbance”—in the immediate instance, disrupting a concert in the Atheneum’s Great Hall. The author suggested that the renters of the space, rather than the Atheneum proprietors, should hire police officers “to preserve order in the hall” and have the miscreants dragged in front of a justice of the peace to receive judgment.
Over the spring and summer of 1860, the beleaguered community was afflicted by an escalation in the criminal activity to arson, primarily outside of town and beyond the prying eyes of neighbors and watchmen. Joseph Farnham records one particular example that he describes as “the most wicked and cruel of anything I ever knew occuring at Nantucket in my boyhood.” A large barn on Charles C. Folger’s farm, sitting slighly southwest of Madaket Road, two or three miles outside of town, was quickly engulfed in flames. It was an exceptionally warm day for November 1, and Farnham and his friends had gone for a swim. As the sun set, an increasing glow from the west drew everyone’s attention, and “in retrospect, it appears as though the entire population of the town proper was at that fire.” As they grew closer, the anguished bellows of terrified horses and cattle, trapped in the barn, grew louder and louder. The barn eventually burned to the ground, with the complete loss of all the livestock, as well as carts and farming equipment.
Folger’s assistant, a young man of twenty named Dan Hart, was the first on the scene after returning from town. Subsequent examination revealed that Hart was the one who, in fact set the fire then headed into town, but stopping along the way to return, only to find the barn fully engulfed. Before he left, he had shuttered and barred all the doors and windows. Hart was convicted of the crime, and sentenced in 1861 to ten years in state prison.
A house near the south end of Long Pond, along with an adjacent shed and the skiff inside it were burned to the ground, “the second instance within six months, of houses out of town having been set on fire and destroyed,” according to a March 1860 edition of the Nantucket Weekly Mirror. Less than a month later, a small fire was discovered at a warehouse on Angola Street, but it was contained before it did much damage. The paper pointed out that the town had narrowly avoided a repeat of the catastrophic fire of 1846—the warehouse that had been set on fire was near a large shed containing 2000 barrels of sperm oil, and the wind direction that day would have showered cinders down on the nearby wooden buildings, in an area without access to a supply of water to fight a larger fire.
Witnesses in the area identified “two youths named Franklin B. Chase and Henry C. Stackpole” as the culprits; they were arrested and brought before the local magistrate, at which point they confessed to other, earlier fires they had set. He said that the two boys had been “prowling around in the north part of town,” as described by the newspaper, “seeking a suitable spot whereon to plant their combustibles.” They tried breaking into local businesses, from a cooper’s shop near Cliff Road to a candle house on Pine Street, before settling on the warehouse outside of town. Stackpole admitted that he had also set fire to Isaiah Nicholson’s barn, and Chase confessed to burning the shop of Christopher Hussey two years previously. As to motive—“in reply to a question put by the magistrate, Stackpole stated that in setting the various fires confessed to, he or they had no particular motive for their destructive conduct.” The paper went on to note that “there are still several suspicious characters at large, upon whose movements a watchful eye rests.”
The two youths were held over for trial, and were found guilty. They were sentenced to state prison for life, although the judge hoped that while there they might learn a useful trade, that would allow for the possibility of “executive clemency”—a pardon from the Governor—if they were found to be reformed. Later in the session another pair of young males, George H. Sanford and Edward P. Orpin—were indicted for burning the tool shed of Rowland Hinckley in March 1860. They received different sentences: Sanford was to be remanded to the state prison for a year, while Orpin received “eight months’ imprisonment in the House of Correction of this County.”
Although often used interchangeably today, “prison,” “jail,” and “house of correction” at that time had different meanings. A prison was for long-term confinement; a jail—or on Nantucket, a gaol—were for temporarily holding people charged with a crime or waiting to be transferred somewhere else; a house of correction was ostensibly a place where petty criminals, vagabonds, dipsomaniacs, and other social “undesirables” could be housed while they learned a trade or were reformed through the power of hard work. The House of Correction on Nantucket was originally located in Quaise near the Poor Asylum and close by Pest House Pond, named for the now-vanished location where people had traditionally been quarantined for smallpox and other communicable diseases. Later it wasmoved to town from Quaise, and placed next to the much smaller Old Gaol. It was demolished in the 1950s.
Other petty crimes continued be committed in town. A fourteen-year-old named William F. Davis was arraigned for larceny, charged with stealing from the shop of John G. Williams. Because this was the second occurrence—he had been sent to the Nantucket House of Corrections the previous October for the exact same offence—the judge ordered that he be committed to the “Nautical Branch of the State Reform School.”
It was soon revealed that the State Reform School was itself in need of reform. “Charges of inhuman treatment” were made against the superintendent of the school, “a course of treatment disgraceful to the State, and barbarous in the extreme.” Founded on the principal that children under the age of 17 should not be put in jail among older hardened criminals, but instead reformed of their criminal ways by moral, religious, academic, and vocational education. Rather than attempting to mold the students into productive members of society, under the direction of Superintendent William E. Starr, the school had “inflicted punishments appropriate to the Inquisition, or to Austrian despotism” for even the smallest of infractions. “He has imprisoned not less than twenty boys in cells, ‘black holes,’ the [investigating] committee called them, for terms ranging from sixteen weeks to shorter periods.”
The report, detailed in the August 11, 1860 Nantucket Weekly Mirror, goes on to describe the tiny cells in detail—eight feet long and three feet wide, because of the design they were a cell within a cell, deprived of light and proper ventilation, the air “unfit for respiration by any human being.” There was no bed, and inmates slept on the floor with a blanket, with their hands manacled behind their backs the entire time. They were fed bread and water. The members of the investigating committee were appalled, and their revulsion is apparent in the report, which ends with the terse statement “a complete and immediate re-organization of the school is urgently recommended by the committee.”
An article in an early October edition of the Inquirer and Mirror titled “ROBBERIES” claimed that a thief or thieves had “enter the premises of Mr. B.F. Coffin, on Main Street, and stripped the fruit from a peach tree. Not content with taking the fruit they broke off two or more large limbs, leaving them upon the ground.” It continues, “the next night some party gained an entrance into the paint store of Messrs. Hussey & Coffin, near the head of Straight Wharf, and appropriated property to the amount of about $25 [around $680 in 2023]. The owners didn’t believe that the thief or thieves had arrived on a fishing boat, as word on the street claimed to be the case. Instead, they thought “the articles were taken by some ‘native’ who knew the place well.” Why they thought that goes unreported.
Moses Joy, Esq. complained in the October 6, 1875 edition of Island Review about a “neglected, vicious boy” named James Lombard, charged with having stolen fruit from Joy. He was brought up on charges and found guilty, but sentenced was deferred while the court considered sending him “to the Westboro farm until a good opportunity arrives to bind him out during his minority.” Even at that late date, the reform school was considered the best option available, but the earlier reforms to the reform school hadn’t been successful, and throughout the late 1870s and early 1880s, accusations of abuse and mismanagement were reported in the newspapers, fueled by disgruntled former officers and inmates. Another investigating committee, formed in 1877 after a riot among the students that lasted for several days, uncovered the use of straitjackets, “sweat boxes,” and the liberal application of the strap to the bared backs of the residents. Clearly, more reform was needed.
The State Reform School was eventually closed, and other approaches tried, but in the end it was the cost of maintaining the facilities led to their demise. Between 1970 and 1972, the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services closedall seven of the state’s reform schools, and nearly all juvenile offenders were returned to community supervision and treatment.
By the late 1800s, on Nantucket things had begun to quiet down. Reports of outraged citizens and out-of-control youth trail off in the local papers as the nineteenth- century drew to a close, maybe in part because there just weren’t many people here. Nantucket’s population, larger in size than neighboring Martha’s Vineyard (with six towns) since the 1790 census, had peaked at nearly 10,000 in the 1840s, only to decline to 3,727 by the 1880 census, compared to 4,300 on the Vineyard at that time. The revival of the island’s economy with the growing tourism trade is what it took to reverse the decades of urban decay and accompanying social ills that attended it.