Part I: Island Children Running Rampant
by James Grieder
Nantucket has been described as a great place to raise your children, but not a great place to grow up. The arrival of the internet and high-speed ferries has blurred the distinction—now that we have good pizza and can get more than three(ish) TV channels—but the reason is the same even if the way it’s experienced is not: Nantucket is still seen as a relatively safe, quiet (read by youth as boring) place to raise a family. But that was not always the case here. There was a time when our island community felt the need not to protect its children but to be protected from them.
The August 12, 1857 edition of the Inquirer and Mirror contains a column titled “Nantucket Facts” from the 1855 Massachusetts census that provides a snapshot of the town’s population at that time. “The first fact is, that contrary to the general supposition, there are 498 more males than females on Nantucket, males 4,281, females 3,783. Here is a handsome surplus of males, which puts a quietus to the popular belief that the females are in the majority here…” The numbers provided number at 2, 427 those age five to twenty.
The author goes on to acknowledge that many of the men who technically resided in Nantucket were in fact half a world away “earning nests for the young robins who they are looking forward to shipping as mates on the voyage of life.” So although the majority of the population fell into the 20- to 40-years-old range, a sizeable percentage of the male residents would have been absent, leaving small children and teenagers as the dominant age group, with retired, elderly whaling captains— and middle-aged newspaper editors—decidedly in the minority. The married women in the 20- to 40-years-old range would have been left to run a household and parent as best they could, waiting for their “robins” to return to the nest, which could take years, with average length of a whaling voyage being two to four years.
If they ever did return, that is—there was always the chance that their husband or beau would be injured or killed whaling, or shipwrecked, or would just disappear at sea, never to be heard from again.
Nantucket has a long, proud tradition of women running things on-island while their men were away, but for those families with a husband at sea, it must have been challenging to eke out a living. “Nantucket Facts” notes that “the greatest number of families to a given number of dwellings is in Nantucket, 1,684 families in 1,114 dwellings. It has long been the custom here for persons with small families, who own houses, to let the upper portion of their dwellings.” The author hastens to distance the practice from the degenerate tenements of the city, noting because Nantucketers are “cozy and sociable” and “not as ‘spacious’ as some others,” that “even under one roof, two families can dwell together in harmony, without the dire mishap of staining their nobility.”
Living in crowded conditions, raising children as a single parent with the constant fear of economic disaster looming in the background, would only exacerbate any underlying prexisting health conditions, and coupled with the desperate circumstances on Nantucket following the Great Fire of 1846 that hollowed out the downtown area where most people lived and worked, it’s perhaps not surprising that mental illness, self-harm, and drug abuse increased, even if usually referred to more obliquely than in the following segment printed in the April 10, 1852 edition of the Nantucket Weekly Mirror (with a solution we’d find shocking today):
“People are so low-spirited, not because they have ‘got trouble,’ but because they haven’t. An old maid with ‘nothing to worry her,’ will be as melancholy as dyspepsia— marry her, however, and make her the mother of four romping boys, and she will be as cheerful as sunshine. It is very seldom that hard-working people commit suicide— suicides being one of the accompaniments of soft hands and indolence. The best thing a girl can do for an oppressed mind is to take a husband.—Marriage gives rise to a family—while the cares of a family give rise to so many other duties, that mothers have ‘no possible time’ to think of either laudanum or ennui. Try it.”
Cramped living quarters and absent or otherwise occupied parents meant that children inevitably spent much of their time out-of-doors when not in school, roaming from the outskirts of downtown to the beaches of the harbor. We have an account of this period from Joseph E.C. Farnham (1849-1933) who wrote about his experiences growing up on Nantucket as the whaling economy went into decline. His mother, Farnham Sr.’s wife died unexpectedly in 1835, leaving the distraught husband with three children under six years of age. Within a year he wed a local girl, Lydia Hussey Parker, who added nine more children of her own to the family. All fourteen of the Farnhams lived in a fairly typical Nantucket house on the corner of Lyons Lane in town.
“Our mothers,” Farnham wrote, “their time needed for home duties, passed the care of us little children” to an outside agency for assistance. Young Joseph Farnham’s first experience with school on Nantucket was attending what was known as a “Cent School,” a kind of nursey school or kindergarten. It was run by two elderly sisters, Mary Eliza and Nancy B. Swain, who had a reputation for treating their young charges with kindness and patience.
Graduating from the Cent School, he spent the next several years attending the Old South School Building, located in what is now an empty lot on Orange Street, before moving to the North Grammar School on Academy Hill. Teachers there all resorted to the switch for discipline, although with varying degrees of severity. Farnham—who went on to be superintendent of schools in East Providence, RI—did not fault them for their efforts, given that the rambunctious nature of the children was to be expected, but did require a firm hand to tame. “Discipline and right control of the volcanic, dynamic explosion incident to and liable at any time to come from within the boy, is what should consistently govern the elder in dealing with such a nature.”
Once school was out, local children were able to give expression to their dynamic natures, often to the consternation of the residents in the area. “Neighbors, pestered by our mischevious and diabolical pranks, called us, oh, how profanely, that ‘gang of boys.’ ” Farnham insisted that they were not a malevolent force, however, but rather merely “a vigorous if not irrepressible set.” “We made matters lively; albeit we were not vicious, yet when we were out on our own unrestrained will there surely was something doing all the time.”
The town was divided between the “North-Shorers”—north of Main Street—who usually attended Academy Hill, and the “New-Towners” that lay to the south of that line. Farnham wrote that there were always rumors going around that one side or the other was crossing over to fight their rivals, but nothing much ever came of it. He ran with a gaggle of boys led by a ringleader named “Gilp” Swain, who always managed to be the first one to slip away when trouble occurred, only to show up shortly after to innocently ask what was going on.
Not that there was much risk of getting caught in the first place—“civic discipline over us crowd of associated boys was extremely easy; it was well-nigh a joke. A policeman, such as he was, was entirely unknown to us.” Instead there was a man the kids called “the hooker,” of whom they had “no fear of him whatsoever”: if he ever had occasion to chase after them, “but slight sprinting on our part enabled us to elude him.” Their favorite spot to gather was then an open way (now closed) at the end of Fair Street, leading to Orange Street. From there, they would range about town—“we used to scale fences, encroach upon private yards, descend upon growing fruits, visit gardens for ripe tomatoes and melons…and in a variety of ways, I am sure, upon reflection, we were often a terror to peaceful residents.”
“There were other acts of boyish deviltry which I shall never forget,” wrote Farnham. On Silver Street, Daniel Dunham kept a grog shop, “where spiritous liquors were on tap, and it was a haunt of debauchery to many patrons.” One of those patrons was Daniel B. “Dan” Coffin, who lived in Madaket and would travel to town to conduct his business, then stop by the grog shop mid-afternoon for an extended visit. While he was inside, the boys would unsnap the end of the reins from the bit ring of the bridle and snap them into the rings of the hames. Dan would emerge some time later, “thorough mulled,” according to Farnham, and spend “a long time, because of his condition,” jerking on the reins, to no affect. “Then he would stagger down from the cart to investigate, fumble around, and finally get onto what he was up against. While readjusting matters, in his drunken stupor, he would heap incoherent profane anathemas on us boys, to our very great delight.”
Not all of Farnham’s youthful escapades seemed as innocent to him in retrospect. He states that some were, in the light of mature review, “not only unkind, but reprehensible.” But overall, he wrote, “our conduct was more thoughtlessly mischevious than it was intentionally wicked.” “We, then, young ‘kids,’ criminals? never; michevious? ever.”
Loitering downtown, they would make themselves sick trying to smoke the one cent cigars they “obtained” from “Cock” Olin’s shop on South Water Street, or tormenting the kindly Quaker named Mitchell who operated a general store in “the Lodge building” behind the Pacific Bank. Boys and girls would stop there for candy and school supplies, and from time to time “naughty boys, usually in pairs, would go in for a purchase; one would engage the unsuspecting Edward” while the other got up to mischief. There was a large roll of string hanging from the ceiling that the owner would snip segments from to bundle up purchases, and the boy would grab the end of the string and run out the door and bolt up Fair Street or down Main, the owner standing their, nonplussed, as the spool rapidly unwound itself. “Wet line, Edward; wet line!” they would holler, in imitation of Nantucketers at sea harpooning whales. “Diabolical practice it surely was, yet it afforded appreciated merriment.”
From Farnham’s perspective, their boyhood hijinks were merely a lark, harming no one beyond causing temporary discomfort or unrest. Other residents of Nantucket were not so sanguine about their activities, or the effect it had on the tranquility and even the safety of the rest of the community. Headlines in island newspapers chronicle a steady increase in complaints about the behavior of the island’s youth throughout the period Farnham and his chums ran amok through town. As early as 1843, the Inquirer and Mirror reported examples of:
“BAD CONDUCT. A few days since, we gently protested against the disorderly acts and unnecessary noises with which our citizens are nightly annoyed…[and] which have increased several fold.”
“At the corners of some of our principal thoroughfares are still assembled gangs of boys and grown up youths who often insult passers-by in the most profane and obscene language, frequently attempting to trip, and, in many instances, bouncing forcibly against ladies, with the diabolical intent to bring them to the ground! Scores of mischievous children throng the streets, upsetting, destroying or stealing everything within their reach. A few evenings since, as some ladies and gentlemen were returning from a pleasant ride on horseback, they were followed by a troupe of urchins, who, at times, made the very welkin ring with their hooting and their yelling, to the great danger and inconvenience of the equestrians.
“Our ears are daily greeted with bitter imprecations and sad complaints uttered by individuals, for insults suffered, or peace invaded. Something must be done to crush this growing evil…if such enormities are suffered to be practiced, and the perpetrators to proceed in their wicked and lawless conduct, we shall soon be compelled to widen the limits of Quaise, and extend and fortify the West Prison-house.”
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”…
Read more about Nantucket youth running rampant in the next edition of Yesterday’s Island/Today’s Nantucket in print and online at YesterdaysIsland.com on July 6.