Oh, the sorry state of youth a century ago! Long before the era of “drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll,” young people were becoming simply disgusting. In fact, that was the headline on an editorial in the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 10, 1909 — “Disgusting Youth.”
“Many respectable residents of Bangor who are neither haughty or proud or ‘stuck up’ are becoming wearied and perhaps disgusted over the frequent repetition of tales concerning young men and women who meet in Bangor dives, fill themselves up with a liquid known as ‘bad booze,’ and then amble and curvet forth onto the public streets of the city, where they give exhibitions of profanity, fistic arts and general depravity,” the editorial writer observed. These incidents had become “the common talk of the city.”
The “dives” where they originated were not the average Bangor barrooms where the proprietors knew they would arouse the wrath of an outraged public if they served youngsters. The average Bangor barroom, “wicked as it may be from a prohibition standpoint,” was not so depraved as to encourage this kind of conduct, the editorial writer assured his readers. The dives serving youngsters must have been some other barrooms. Anyway, “it would seem as if the time had arrived when the police should interfere with these wild and unholy orgies and stop them in a way that would make them stay stopped.”
A few weeks later, the editorial writer decided to address a subset of the disgusting-youth problem — namely “The Girl Who Lies.” Polite young women — those who told the truth — apparently were becoming an endangered commodity. The solution, of course, was, well, a good spanking — a solution that to many must have seemed a bit over the top even in those dark ages of 1909.
“The home for unruly girls in Hallowell is crowded to congestion, and eventually Hades itself will have ‘standing room only’ on account of the multitude of young girls who go wrong for want of proper home discipline,” the March 1 editorial began on a decidedly curmudgeonly note. “In all American cities, the custom of permitting girls of the high school age to remain ‘traipsing’ on the streets until nearly midnight has become notorious. We have it in Bangor as bad as in New York or New Orleans. … Their numbers are gaining faster than the rate of population.”
Indulgence or lack of discipline on the part of parents was the cause in 90 percent of these cases, said the writer. Keep in mind these were the days when judges could put children in facilities, such as the Maine Industrial School for Girls in Hallowell, for running away from home too many times.
The editorial continued, “It is so easy to go wrong ‘just a little bit.’ It is so natural for a girl who was told to be in at 9 o’clock to ‘miss a [trolley] car’ and reach home at 9:30 or 10. It is very natural for the girl who has musical gifts to be out playing or singing at private or public entertainments for four evenings in a week, and then to oversleep some morning and stay at home for half a day from school, which leads to missing important points in the daily lessons, low ranking in studies, disgust over things in general, listlessness, and finally utter abandonment.”
This listlessness and utter abandonment could make a girl desire “showy clothes,” speak in “conversation larded with slang,” and make her eyes “red and watery for want of rest.” She “talks vaguely about ‘learning a trade’ or becoming a ‘saleslady,’ and poses and struts before her mirror in the fond belief she was designed for an actress.” Many of these girls ended up hanging around the streets at the entrances to theaters “picking up company.”
The Bangor police kept an eye on wayward girls wandering the streets in the evening. The problem began at home. “The slipper or the birch withe applied with discretion and applied often is very helpful in bringing up a family of self-willed girls in our modern cities,” the editorial writer concluded, perhaps dismissing the threat of Hades or even Hallowell as a bit extreme.
Ex-Judge Harry J. Chapman of the Bangor Municipal Court offered an altogether different perspective on “disgusting youth” when he addressed the Women’s Alliance of the Unitarian Church about juvenile crime. His remarks, as reported in the BDN on Feb. 9, were “optimistic and hopeful.”
“Juvenile crime with us is rare,” he said. “We have tough boys in plenty, but few who commit serious offenses.” Imprisonment of children of either sex was harmful. “We have no business for a juvenile court [an issue then being debated in Maine], but plenty for a probation officer, who should take his stand at the police station door.”
Chapman emphasized the transient nature of Bangor criminals. The vast majority of crimes, including the most common, public intoxication, were committed by homeless men and boys, including many foreigners, “the great army of the employed and drifting unemployed, recruited in the great cities.” In other words, most Bangor criminals were not Bangor’s own, for what that was worth.
Intemperance was a problem, but it was incidental to poverty. Enforcement of prohibition had driven liquor underground. “Some two hundred gilded barrooms have disappeared, whole streets are barren of the saloon, but this has given place to worse conditions. The traffic has spread into private houses, kitchens and kindred places,” he said. “Little children come in contact with vice and conditions that were formerly unknown.”
In fact, Judge Chapman seemed to offer no solution to the problem of wayward youth during his rambling talk. It wasn’t prohibition or prison. Perhaps it was prosperity. It most certainly was not “the slipper and the birch withe.”
Wayne E. Reilly may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.