Putty balls and juvenile halls (WikipediA)

In a long-removed section of the page “New York City Department of Education” on WikipediA was a section of various school buildings. The top of the list was this:

PS 11 Purvis J. Behan Public School – This school is located at 419 Waverly Avenue, Brooklyn. According to the newspaper Brooklyn Daily Eagle of April 30, 1902, Purvis J. Behan was at the time the principal of PS 45 on nearby Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn. According to the paper, Behan had two teenage boys from the neighborhood arrested for blowing “putty balls” and peas into an open window of his own school. The two boys were convicted by the local magistrate.

Having too much time on my hands, here is the transcription of the column in that paper:

PUTTY BALLS AND DRY PEAS DISTURBED SCHOOL NO. 45.

Three Boys Arrested for Blowing Missiles Through Windows at Their Enemies.

NOW CONVICTED CRIMINALS.

Their Object, They Claim, Was to Get Other Boys to Come Out and Fight.

To-day’s record in the Myrtle avenue police court shows the names of three boys, none or them more than fifteen years old, found guilty by Magistrate Kramer of “breach of the peace.” The boys are Frederick Robinson, 14 years old, of 345 Lafayette avenue; Raymond Tenro, 15 years old, of 235 Grand Avenue, and Roy Stoddard, 14 years old, or 342 Lafayette avenue.

The boys are all sons of good parents. The specific charge against them was blowing putty balls and peas into the open windows of Public School No. 45 on Lafayette avenue, and daring the boys inside school building to come out and fight. The charge was made against the boys by Purvis J. Behan, principal or the school.

The boys appeared in court clean and well dressed, healthy looking outdoor American boys. They didn’t deny that they had used their putty blowers. In fact there. was too strong an array of evidence against them. They merely pleaded provocation and said that they were shooting at certain boys inside in the hope of arousing enough spunk to get the boys to come out and settle grievances on the sidewalk. It was a superlatively clear case of boy.

Principal Behan is a very serious man. He made his accusation with great severity. Magistrate Kramer heard the complaint with a heavy frown. At the same time the magistrate is man not devoid the sense of humor and as he heard the recital or the wrongs of Public School No. 45 he had frequently to turn away his face to control a smile of amusement. The boys were evidently deeply impressed. The upshot of the proceeding was that the boys to-day, according to Magistrate Kramer’s verdict, stand convicted criminals with a suspended sentence hanging over them.

Principal Behan explained to the Magistrate how serious the question appeared to him. He deliberated long whether to lie in wait for the boys behind a tree to effect their capture and to give them the thrashing they deserved. Then be thought of the dignity of his position, of the great public school system of the city, of the frequent exhortations of Superintendent Lyon for regularity and his natural inclination toward the direct method failed. His recital of wrong was about as follows:

The boys have done this thing more than once. It was a habit with them. While school was in session they would appear on the sidewalk, selecting the warm spring days when they knew the windows would be open, with bamboo putty blowers in their hands and an inexhaustible supply of dried peas and other things. They would begin by rattling the peas against all the windows. That was their warning. Then they would reload and it for some boy whom they knew—two of them were until recently members of the school and there were feuds of other days to be settled—and fusillade the defenseless chap inside with peas.

“And I can tell you it is no joke to be hit in the face with dried peas.” said the principal impressively.

guerrilla attack to his teacher, one the women teachers of the school, and the teacher would step boldly to the open window to warn them. The boys with the putty blowers had no grudge against the teachers, that is, most of them. The influence of home training was over them and they would listen attentively to what the teacher had to and then one of the trio would reply:

“Well, Miss ——, he stole my ball. Send him out here and I’ll punch his head. Just send him out here and we won’t shoot at him no more.”

It became a serious question among the teachers what to do about it. The climax came only a few days ago when one of the boys missed his aim and struck one or the young women teachers In the right ear. The boy begged the teacher’s pardon, as a well behaved boy should, but that was not enough. After thinking it over carefully, Principal Behan decided to invoke the majesty of the law.

There was only one thing for Magistrate Kramer to do. He frightened the boys as much as he could and let them go. The only difficulty with the proceedings is that instead of the temporary tingle of a thrashing which the mellow sunlight of spring would soon wash away these three boys are now convicted criminals under the shadow of the law.

A relative of one of the boys when seen by an Eagle reporter to-day said: “I suppose it’s all right. The boys did wrong and they have been punished. But I’m from the country and somehow this gives almost too serious a turn to the affair. If I had been told I would have seen to it that at least one of the boys got the thrashing he deserved. I may be old fashioned but after all there is a flavor of directness and health about old time methods that appeals to me.

You remember Whittier’s lines:

Brisk wielder birch and rule / the master the district school.

“Well, that’s what I mean.”


Some notes:

  • In 1902, juvenile privacy was evidently nonexistent. Despite being underaged, their names and home addresses are all published in the first paragraph.
  • “Community Service” was also evidently not dreamed up yet, which is what they would get these days, most likely.
  • Additionally, if these boys had “good parents”, what were they doing on the street while school was in session?
  • Public buildings had windows that opened. I long for the day when this is again the case.
  • The trend of shooting bullets had not yet afflicted school boys. Note however, that in a different story on the same page, a man buys a gun for no reason and then accidentally kills his friend with it.
  • A criminal conviction, even for a minor offense, was still a serious matter.
  • The “relative” interviewed has a valid point: Why didn’t the principal demand their parents punish them? He must have known who they were since we are told that they used to attend his school.

Note that the apparently cut off paragraph (beginning with “guerrilla”) is transcribed exactly as found in the paper. Also, the boys didn’t go to juvenile hall – such things not yet existing – I wanted a rhyme in the title.

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