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THE UNTOLD ESCAPES OF THE BARLOW BOYS

It was like clockwork: In June the Barlow boys arrived, then a few weeks later came reports of runaways. But after the 1911 season, it appeared the escape attempts stopped. What happened? Boys were still trying to get away, all right – but the Santa Rosa newspapers just stopped reporting about it.

(For those just tuning in: In the early Twentieth Century, California courts usually sentenced boys who committed minor crimes or were deemed incorrigible to spend the rest of their youth at institutions not unlike a modern prison halfway house. One of these places, the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society of San Francisco, struck a deal with the Barlow family of Sebastopol; during summers the boys would camp on the ranch and pick berries and fruit for low pay. Soon other farmers were asking for orphans and it wasn’t long before the Aid Society and similar institutions were sending up hundreds of boys – some as young as seven – to work in West County fields and canneries every year. For more background, see “SEBASTOPOL’S CHILD LABOR CAMPS“.)

We know the escapes continued thanks to the archives of the Petaluma Argus-Courier, which just came online this week via newspapers.com. It’s a huuuuge deal that this trove is simply available, but that it’s also searchable with great accuracy is enough to make genealogists and historians purr and mew.

There are a few possible reasons why the Petaluma paper informed their readers about the runaways while the Santa Rosa papers blacked out the news. Rarely were escapees nabbed around Santa Rosa; usually they were caught in the countryside or en route to San Francisco, so it was more likely the boys would be seen close to Petaluma or Marin. There also might have been editorial bias in keeping quiet about bad news; the use of child labor was a fast-growing part of the West County economy – in 1912 the boys picked 407 tons of berries and fruit, up from 125 tons just five years earlier, showing farmers were lining up to get in on this sweet deal for ultra-cheap juvenile labor. And to be fair, it must be noted that in 1913 the Press Democrat did offer a paragraph on seven runaways being captured and even mentioned the Barlow ranch by name.


(RIGHT: Mess tent for boys working on the Barlow ranch, date unknown. Photograph courtesy Western Sonoma County Historical Society)

But there was one related story which the local press couldn’t ignore because it made all the Bay Area papers: The 1913 theft of summer earnings by the boys of the Armitage Orphanage – and that the robber was the orphanage’s superintendent.

While it was was rarely mentioned which orphanages and charities were shoving their kids down the Sebastopol berry picking pipeline every June, it comes as a shock to find this outfit was among them. The [Episcopal] Bishop Armitage Orphanage was a pet charity of the San Francisco swells who funded it via lawn parties, balls, country club polo matches and other high society soirees (“Tableaux Vivants to Show Masterpieces – Famous Art Works Will be Staged by Members of the Board” – San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1910).

That orphanage certainly didn’t need any income from the boys; the stolen $3,000 was petty change to its society matron directors and to their credit, they promised to reimburse the children. Well-funded does not mean well-run, however. While the 150 boys were working in the orchards and fields, the orphanage was being closed and their buildings sold, so at the end of summer the Armitage inmates were split up other institutions. The superintendent who disappeared with their money was known as Robert Ellis, although that was not his real name for some reason – and the directors were aware of that. He had been superintendent for a couple of years, the board having raced through four managers in six months before him. There seems to be a quite the scandal unreported there, although the society sections did not speak of such unpleasantries.

On related news, the Press Democrat recently presented a couple of items about the orphanage at Lytton Springs operated by the Salvation Army. The property near Healdsburg is now on the market with an asking price of $24 million.

One PD article nostalgically waxes about Lytton success stories – a pair of brothers who built a successful contracting business and a man who became an important Santa Rosa lawyer. Healdsburg High School welcomed the Lytton kids, according to the PD writer, because the Salvation Army encouraged them to play band instruments and the boys were strong and scrappy from all their farm work.

That’s a very rosy view. The situation may have changed later but in their earlier days  Lytton youths were allowed to attend Healdsburg High only if supervisors ruled the child had “capacity for high school training;” per a 1909 article about Lytton, only about 5 percent of their residents were permitted to continue schooling beyond 8th grade. Otherwise, the kid had no choice but to work on the Salvation Army’s commercial farm. As I wrote earlier in “THE CHILDREN OF LYTTON:” The cruelest aspect of the “orphanages” was that wards of the system lost nearly all chance of an education beyond readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic. While Santa Rosa High School was then offering typewriting classes and teaching other office skills which were in growing demand, Lytton and other Aid Homes were preparing kids for a 19th century future.

While the institutions could have done more to keep their kids in classrooms, a century ago state law didn’t require it. The Jones-Hughes Act of 1903 made it compulsory for every child in California to attend school between ages 8 and 15, but offered a grabbag of loopholes allowing families to opt out of schooling altogether – children who lived over two miles by road from the nearest school could be claimed as exempt, for example. Those exemptions were removed in 1919 and the compulsory age raised to 16, but that still didn’t mean a child would make it to high school. According to a report that year from the state’s Dept. of Education, most of the students who were to be added to the attendance rosters hadn’t yet finished elementary school by age sixteen.

There were many institutions far, far worse than Lytton, but it wasn’t free of controversy. In November, 1913 the Oakland Enquirer published a series of investigative articles “berating the management of the institution for alleged cruel treatment of children at the institution,” according to a mention of the articles in the Santa Rosa Republican. Unfortunately, not much more can be said about that reporting because the paper is not online and the only known surviving editions from that year are at UC/Berkeley. The Republican added the main incident was “punishment meted out to two boys who stole horses and got away from the institution.”

Sonoma County District Attorney Clarence Lea thought the charges were credible enough to have the grand jury investigate. Oakland Enquirer reporter Fred Williams was summoned, and the mother of the boys also testified, which suggests the pair were at Lytton not for being orphans but having been sentenced there by a court for delinquency.

Jurors visited Lytton and found it was overcrowded, but the children were well cared for and no “unmerited punishments were inflicted.” The grand jury report concluded with praise for the institution, which deserved “support and commendation.” The jury foreman wrote, “in view of the splendid work that is being accomplished at the institution we feel that minor criticisms which might be made would be uncalled for.”

Not so fast, there, mee bucko. Their report did not mention the jury interviewed the boys making the charges although it’s implied (“we investigated all cases called to our attention”). Nor did it explain what the Oakland Enquirer reporter had to say; that was a significant newspaper with a reputation for muckraking – it’s doubtful they would run a series based only on wild yarns from a pair of malcontent kids who apparently had been in trouble with the law.

More interesting is a mention at the end of the jury report that the superintendent and his wife together earned only $14 a week, and no one there was paid more than $400 a year. Those earnings are on the low side for unskilled labor at the time, but not unreasonable. But from a Press Democrat article the previous year, we know that Lytton annually spent about $3,400 on salaries. Now project the numbers: Lytton must have operated with only eight paid staffers, twelve max – to run a 400+ acre commercial farm AND care for about 250 kids full time.

“Mother Bourne,” the beloved figurehead of Lytton may indeed have been worthy of sainthood, but the institution was clearly dependent upon the children to keep the wheels turning. And barely supervising so many kids – most there because they were deemed to be “unmanageable” – is surely an invitation to bullying or even worse forms of abuse.

But as the Santa Rosa papers seemed wanting to tell readers only good news about the Barlow boys, the grand jury wanted to see Lytton as a shining example of noble work. Look how well we are treating these troubled and troublesome youths, our ancestors seemed determined to boast. We have plucked them from nothing and given them something.

 

TWO BOYS MADE ESCAPE

Two boys whose names are given as Butts and Landingan by Superintendent Turner, escaped from the Barlow berry fields above Sebastopol on Monday afternoon at an early hour and later Deputy Sheriff R. L. Rasmussen was notified.

He kept a close watch on all departing trains and the steamer Petaluma but the youngsters have not yet come to this city.

A watchman was in this city on Monday evening investigating. Both the lads are wearing blue overalls. They are from the Boys and Girls Aid Society which is now at Barlow’s picking berries.

They have only been there two days and during that time the two boys have been trying to get away. They are thought to be in this county yet.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, June 18, 1912
TWO MORE BOYS MAKE ESCAPE

The local police were notified on Wednesday night that two boys had escaped from the berry pickers’ camp at the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol and the officers are keeping a watch for them and examined the outgoing trains and steamers Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

The boys are Harry Herman, aged 18, and Chas. Sargent, age 17, both of San Francisco. The former is 5 feet four inches in height and the latter slightly shorter. Both wore straw hats, blue overalls and dark coats. The former wore a yellow khaki shirt and the latter a light colored soft shirt. Herman is slightly stooped and walks with swinging gait and has dark brown hair and dark eyes.

Sargent is of dark complexion with light brown hair. Both wore heavy shoes. For some reason the custodians of the boys, are unusually anxious to capture these escapes, so it is probably that they are detained fore [sic] more than the ordinary wrong doing.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, July 11, 1912
THREE BOYS RAN AWAY

Several officers of the Boys and Girls Aid Society were in this city on Sunday morning looking for three runaway boys who made their escape on Saturday evening from Barlow’s station where the girls and boys were picking berries. The officers remained here for a short time and then went to Sausalito where they captured the three runaways who were taken to Barlow’s on the next train.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, June 23, 1913

 

HERE AFTER RUNAWAYS

Special Police Officer T. Connolly of San Francisco who is connected with the Boys and Girls Aid Society was in this city on Wednesday seeking Allen Luhra, Joe Fahey, Abe Bernard, Sam Telaxney and Charles Griffin, who escaped from Barlow’s station during the present week. The last four named left on Tuesday afternoon, while younger Luhra left on Monday.

Chief of Police Flohr has been notified of the disappearance of the boys and has been given a good description of them so if they are in this city they are likely to be captured in a short time.

– Petaluma Argus-Courier, July 16, 1913

 

 MANY OF THE BERRY BOYS ARE FOUND AND RETURNED

The Sheriff’s office received word on Thursday that four of the boys who escaped from the berry picking camp on the Barlow ranch had been captured by the Aid Society’s officers, and had been returned to camp. Four boys were found in Forestville, and three in Green Valley. Thursday Mrs. Dick Isaacs telephoned the Sheriff’s office that four of the boys were on a place back of their ranch. Superintendent Turner was notified and went after the boys.

– Press Democrat, July 18, 1913
DECAMPS WITH COIN OF BERRY PICKERS

Thirteen days before the Armitage Orphanage was to pass out of existence and his term of office expire, the superintendent, known in San Mateo as Robert Ellis, disappeared, and is accused of having taken with him about $3,000 belonging to the boys in the institution. Detectives are searching for the former superintendent, but have found no substantial clews.

The orphanage will pass out of existence on October 23, when the property will be taken over by Antoine Borel and Ellis’ employment would have expired on that date. He disappeared last Friday, but the loss of the money was not discovered until yesterday by Mrs. William G. Hitchcock, treasurer of the orphanage.

The money represents the earnings of 114 boys who picked berries at Sebastopol last summer, and was given to the superintendent for keeping. It is said that the boys will not lose by the theft, as the directors will make good the deficit.

Ellis has been superintendent of the orphanage for two years. He went to San Mateo well recommended, and although it was known that Robert Ellis was not his true name the directors made no objection to the masquerading. He is the son of an Episcopal minister in Philadelphia and is married, but separated from his wife.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 16, 1913

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LOSING THE LOVELY LAKE JONIVE

Once upon a time Sebastopol had a popular and beautiful lake until the town turned it into an open cesspool. As the saying goes, this is why we can’t have nice things.

A small remnant of the lake can still be seen during the rainy season at the intersection of High School and Occidental Roads but more than a century ago it was year-round. Here’s how the Sebastopol Times described it in 1903: “A beautiful body of water a mile long, 150 feet wide, and from 20 to 30 feet deep, boarded with oaks, willows, etc., is situated within a mile of town and is a favorite place for bathing, boating, and fishing.” Five years earlier a tourist praised in the Sebastopol Times its “crystal laughing waters” which seems a bit embroidered, but it’s safe to presume it was a very pleasant place.

(RIGHT: Colored postcard of Lake Jonive in 1908. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library)

It was known as Lake Jonive (“strangers will take notice that it is pronounced ‘Ho-nee-va,'” the Press Democrat noted in a promotional supplement, adding a syllable lost today). The papers also called it the Lagoon or simply the Laguna, although that shorthand was also used in other stories about plans to drain the entire Laguna de Santa Rosa plain – more about that in a moment.

The Sonoma County Library has about twenty photographs of Lake Jonive, mostly from around 1900 and mostly showing people boating. The photo marked “Pleasure Resort” shows the swimmer’s diving tower and wooden landing where all those women with elaborate, flowery hats rented boats from Joe Moran’s family, on the western shore. Other snapshots show couples lounging on the lake banks, which was also where crews of hop pickers pitched tents during the harvest season. No anglers are pictured but it was a very popular fishing hole where anyone could catch salmon and steelhead, carp (which appeared after a 1878 flood washed them out of a private pond), bass and catfish (which were introduced in following years in efforts to kill the carp). “From the clear waters of this body have been caught salmon-trout that filled the sportsman’s heart with joy,” boasted a promotional article in the 1902 Sebastopol Times.

The last known photo dates from 1912, which may be because the following year Lake Jonive was thick with dead and dying fish.

“I have never seen anything like it in my life,” Deputy Health Officer John L. Gist told the Press Democrat. “I have seen fish but the number and the size–some of them immense–and such queer actions. I have never noticed before in all my experience. There were a great many dead fish on top of the water from some cause. There were hundreds and hundreds of fish, all wiggling and with their mouths open as if they wanted to get out of the water to reach air.”

Water samples and dead fish were sent to San Francisco for analysis. Unfortunately, we don’t know the results; the Santa Rosa papers didn’t mention the topic again, and there is no Sebastopol Times microfilm for 1913. But the fish were clearly gasping for air because they were asphyxiating – the lake was so polluted the water was nearly dead from lack of oxygen. Part of the blame likely goes to the canneries; apple pomace sucks up lots of O2 as it decays, not to mention the peels having residual lead arsenate from the insecticides used in that era. What was mainly killing the lake, however, was the 100,000 gallons of untreated septic tank effluent Sebastopol was pumping into the southern end of the lake every day.

In the years around the turn of the century, Sebastopol was perpetually on the verge of a major public health crisis. Following a diphtheria outbreak in 1898 there were calls to do something about the sewage problem. Homes had an outhouse or cesspool and since most of the town is built on a slope, any overflow or leaks flowed down the street or on to a downhill neighbor’s property – and maybe into their private well. A few years later a Sebastopol Times editorial commented the smell was “the most detestable foulness imaginable.” Once the town incorporated in 1902 efforts were quickly undertaken to buy equipment to pump the failing cesspools and three years later, bonds were sold to build an actual sewer system, which terminated in a big wooden septic tank slightly north of today’s Teen Center on Morris street. From late 1906 everything collected there was flushed directly into Lake Jonive without any treatment. This system remained in place until 1929.

(By the way: Except for the events of 1912 and 1913, most of the research here comes from John Cummings, who wrote several excellent papers on Sebastopol history which are available for download from SSU. If you’re interested in this topic or Sebastopol history in general I encourage you to explore them.)

Sebastopol’s toilets may have been the main culprit in the killing of Lake Jonive, but there were other threats. Over the course of three generations – from 1877 to 1946 – there were numerous plans to drain the Laguna and reclaim the fertile soil for cultivation. The proposal in early 1913 was to blast a four-mile canal between the lake and the Russian River. The Santa Rosa papers commented that property owners were enthusiastic because the land “has no particular value” as it was.

(RIGHT: Swimmers in Lake Jonive in 1909. Kids, don’t swallow the water. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Like most of these half-baked schemes, the 1913 plan didn’t get out of the preliminary stages. One that did find some traction came in 1929, when Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley and L. C. Cnopius of Sebastopol blasted a half-mile ditch between their properties which resulted in Lake Jonive – or what remained of it, by then – dropping eighteen inches. Finley also led efforts during the Great Depression to get the state involved in a works project to drain the entire Laguna de Santa Rosa. More about that can likewise be found in the Cummings papers.

While sewage poisoned the lake and reclamation projects repeatedly threatened to destroy it altogether, neither explain what reduced Lake Jonive to its relatively puddle-like size. In a 1955 story on local history, the Sebastopol Times quoted a member of the Moran family as saying, “when [Sebastopol] put in the sewer plant it encouraged weeds to grow and silt filled it in.” Another significant factor was garbage – next to the sewer farm was the town dump, which covered roughly the area around today’s Community Center, park and ball field.

There were apparently no restrictions on what could be thrown there and whenever there were heavy rains the tin cans, bottles and other lighter trash washed into the lake. In 1926 the city council declared it an “unsightly mess” and imposed fees (75¢ for an abandoned car, please). Sebastopol didn’t close the dump until 1966, and then only after strong pressure from the county health department citing both Russian river water contamination and air pollution from the dump’s incinerator.

Lake Jonive was Sebastopol’s jewel, an irreplaceable treasure which the town and canneries killed in just six years. There’s irony in noting it was 1910 – smack in the middle of the tragedy – when the town held its very first Gravenstein Apple Show, promoting the apple industry’s special relationship with the community. Such a pity that was the only thing that Sebastopol thought was worth celebrating.

PLAN TO CUT CHANNEL FOR WATERS OF LAGUNA
Project Would Reclaim Two Thousand Acres of Land

Parties interested in the drainage of the lands lying along the water course in western Sonoma county, known as the laguna, have planned to hold a mass meeting at the office of the Leppo Realty Company, on Fourth street, at 10 o’clock on the morning of January 4th. To this meeting all persons owning land along the laguna and adjacent thereto are urged to be present and take part in the discussions.

It is planned to cut a channel in the laguna to guide the waters straight to the river, and not permit them to overflow hundreds of acres each winter, as they have done for hundreds of years past. This annual inundation of these lands have deposited a rich sediment there, but it has made it impossible to farm them. When a channel has been cut to carry off this water and confine it to a narrow bed, these hundreds of acres will be reclaimed, and they will be among the most valuable and productive in the entire country.

Contractors will be in attendance at this meeting and submit plans and estimates for doing the work, and if arrangements are made they will be in position to speedily undertake and carry out the contract. This will give for farming purposes from 1500 to 2000 acres of lance, which is now considered waste, because of the annual overflow, which makes it impossible to get crops therefrom.

The channel which it is proposed to cut will be 25 feet wide and not less than 6 feet deep at any portion of the stream. This will give an abundant passageway for confining the waters of the laguna, and prevent them from spreading over these hundreds of acres, destroying their usefulness from a productive standpoint. This will give a direct channel from Sebastopol to Russian river, and make a water course of about six miles, on which the people of the Sebastopol section could maintain launches and other small craft. This straight channel will give an opportunity for fish to come from the river, and so stock the streams tributary to the laguna, and will provide the local fishermen with an exceptional abundance of sport along that favorite line.

Contractors who are willing to undertake the work of cutting the channel will present their proposition to the property owners at the meeting on January 4th, and it is certain that the reclaiming of this quantity of land will add materially to the wealth of Sonoma county and to its taxable property, besides becoming valuable for the owners, where not it has no particular value. The project is one of far reaching importance, and it is hoped that every one residing along the stream will attend the meeting.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 27, 1912

 

CONSIDER PLAN DRAIN LAGUNA
Seek to Reclaim About 2,000 Acres of Fertile Farm Land in the Gold Ridge Section

To recover about two thousand acres of land by draing the Laguna de Santa Rosa was the proposition discussed at a meeting of the property owners adjoining the Laguna, held on Saturday morning. It is proposed to cut a channel from the Laguna to the Russian river, a distance of about four miles. This will enable the water to be carried off and the rich land placed under cultivation.

The meeting was called to order and J. D. Baliff was chosen chairman…F. C. Stauvel was appointed to take up the matter with the remaining property owners to see if they would join in defraying the cost.

Two methods were discussed to put the proposed ditch through. One was by dredger and the other by dynamite. The latter was favored as being more economical. It is thought that there will be about four miles that will have to be dredged. The project is a large one and the property owners are very enthusiastic about it.

– Press Democrat, January 5, 1913

 

MANY FISH DEAD AND DYING IN LAKE JONIVE ON MONDAY

County Health Officer S. S. Bogle received a telephone message Monday morning from the Lake Jonive section near Sebastopol, stating that for some unknown cause all the fish were dying in Lake Jonive, and asking that the matter be given immediate attention. Dr. Bogle sent Deputy Health Officer John L. Gist to the scene and the officer found that the report was correct. The top of the water of the lake was thick with all kinds of fish, Mr. Gist says. There were immense black bass, carp and catfish, and some smaller ones too, but hundreds of them, wiggling about in the water with their mouths open as if gasping for air, and all presumably endeavoring to get to a fresh water stream at another end of the lake.

“I have never seen anything like it in my life. I have seen fish but the number and the size–some of them immense–and such queer actions. I have never noticed before in all my experience. There were a great many dead fish on top of the water from some cause. There were hundreds and hundreds of fish, all wiggling and with their mouths open as if they wanted to get out of the water to reach air. It beat anything you can imagine.

“Unlike the shyness fish usually exhibit when an angler is after them, these shoals of fish came right towards us. They all seemed to be wanting to get to the fresh water. I telephone and get Deputy Fish and Game Commissioner Henry Lencioni to come over from Santa Rosa and when he arrived he was just as surprised as I was. He could not fathom the cause of the trouble any more than I could. We discovered that some distance further up the Laguna the water from the septic tanks of the Sebastopol sewer system empties into the Laguna which passes through Lake Jonive. Draining from the wineries and some pomace has been passing through the sewer into the water. I think possibly some matter may have gotten into the lake from this source. The fish looked as if they were intoxicated. We got several samples of water from the place where the septic tank water empties into the Laguna, then we got some further down and also a sample from the fish pond. We also caught some of the fish and the water and fish we are going to take to the analyst in San Francisco for examination tomorrow. Then we shall know what has caused this unusual stir among the fish in Lake Jonive. I had been told that a person could not catch fish in the Lake. There were certainly enough of them, dead and living, yesterday.”

– Press Democrat, November 11, 1913

 

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THE MEASUREMENT OF THE BARLOW BOYS

Like robins in spring, the return of the Barlow boys to the Sebastopol work camps announced the arrival of summer.

(Handwritten caption on photo: “A squad goes to a near by farm to pick berries.” Photo early 1910s and courtesy Western Sonoma County Historical Society)

In the early Twentieth Century, California juvenile courts sentenced boys who committed minor crimes or deemed incorrigible to spend the rest of their youth at institutions not unlike a modern prison halfway house. One of these places, the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society of San Francisco, struck a deal with the Barlow family of Sebastopol; during summers the boys would camp on the ranch and pick berries and fruit for low pay. Soon other farmers wanted in on the sweet deal for ultra-cheap labor and it wasn’t long before the Aid Society and similar institutions were sending up hundred of boys – some as young as seven – to work in West County fields and canneries every year. (For more background, see “SEBASTOPOL’S CHILD LABOR CAMPS.”)

The year 1911 wasn’t much different than previous years; at least four boys tried to escape and a pair of them made it as far as Sacramento – no easy task, considering their clothes were locked up at night and they probably had little or no money. The Santa Rosa newspapers predictably described the Aid Society children as being on “vacation” during their time here and boasted they were earning “splendid wages,” without mentioning they were being paid a fraction of the rate formerly earned by the adult farmworkers they were displacing.

Some new details did emerge however; we learn the Barlow boys were sometimes working over eleven hours a day in the fields, which certainly puts a crimp in the ol’ “vacation” portrayal. Thanks to a Press Democrat summary of the Aid Society’s annual report, we find more than a dozen of the boys escaped or tried to escape from their facility in San Francisco during the year, so it wasn’t just that they disliked their hands and arms being incessantly scratched by thorns all summer. The Aid Society placed employment above education and about two in three of the kids had a job, which suggests the Barlow boys were the leftovers, either too young to work or unemployable for some reason. Although they said “night classes are conducted for the benefit of these working boys and every boy is given an opportunity to improve his education,” I’m certain a 12 year-old who spends all day sweeping factory floors is raring to be drilled on his multiplication tables after supper.

We don’t know much about the boys individually except for the occasional anecdote, such as the two Santa Rosa kids who were sentenced there for truancy and stealing chickens in 1907. But we do know some interesting stuff about them as a group because a medical journal published a 1916 study of the “juvenile delinquents” at the Aid Society. We learn they were mostly a little taller and heavier and stronger than average for their age, with over half suffering dental problems – which is really no surprise as the kids were expected to pay for their own dentistry out of their earnings (clothing, too). .

Measuring their physical traits is all well and good, but what the researchers really wanted to know was this: How smart were they? Linking criminality to low intelligence was one of the burning scientific questions of the day, and most of the boys were sentenced to the Aid Society for minor crimes – stealing, burglary, truancy and incorrigibility (children who committed serious crimes went to the Preston School of Industry at Ione, which was like a prison). To make sense of what they found, we have to first wade into the murky waters of the “IQ” test.


How do you estimate intelligence? At the turn of the century, you primarily measured the size and shape of someone’s head; a pretty skull meant there were probably pretty brains inside, and a noggin that was small or shaped the “wrong” way meant the person wasn’t too bright and probably wanted to steal your watch. There were other considerations (tattoos! long arms! “precocious” wrinkles!) but all came down to the nonsense that you could tell how smart, dumb, or inclined to criminality someone was by looking at their body.

French psychologist Alfred Binet was among a few pioneers in his field experimenting with a radical new approach: Evaluating how well someone answered questions and solved problems. In 1904 the French government hired him to develop a test to identify children with learning disabilities so they could be helped with special education. Over the next several years he refined his method with a colleague and the “Binet-Simon Scale” became the standard method of evaluating children, although he never claimed his technique measured intelligence.

Binet’s test was adapted for American use in 1916 by Stanford University professor Lewis Terman, whose main interest was the opposite – using the test to spot “gifted” children. If those kids were given a good education, he believed they would grow up to be captains of industry, statesmen, brilliant scientists and other topnotch achievers. Professor Terman, it seems, was a true believer in the dark nonsense of eugenics with its notion some people are superior to others.

To prove his point, he followed over a thousand high-IQ youths – almost all white and middle class – around for the rest of their lives (Terman called the subjects his “Termites,” yuk, yuk). Ultimately he proved himself wrong; while a great many of them went to college, overall they were no more successful than other American boys and girls in their generation. Only a handful made any sort of notable achievement, but ironically two young men who Terman deemed not smart enough to qualify later won a Nobel Prize in Physics (William Shockley and Luis Alvarez).

Terman’s eugenic views are most obvious when he classified kids at the lower end of the scale. Binet called these children “retarded,” meaning simply they weren’t keeping up with their peers, and besides a lack of intelligence the cause could be family problems, bad teachers, or other reasons that could be fixed. When explaining how his test should be used, he worried that psychologists were too eager to tar these children for life by slapping labels on their backs with vague meanings such as “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron.” Professor Terman and other eugenicists instead claimed those derogatory terms had scientific precision. Those below an IQ of about 25 he classified as idiots; a ranking of 25-50 was an imbecile; anyone between 50 and 70 was a low, middle, or high moron. Terman believed schooling these “defectives” was a waste of time and taxpayer money, except for vocational training. Possibly.

COULD YOU PASS A 1916 IQ TEST?

Lewis Terman’s first revision of the Binet test can be found in his 1916 book, “The Measurement of Intelligence.” Getting a good IQ score required more than quick wits, however; you also had to share Terman’s prejudices and cultural background. Some examples:
* Shown a drawing of a Native American rowing a white man and woman in a canoe, children were asked to explain the picture. An acceptable answer was, “In frontier days a man and his wife have been captured by the Indians.” An example of an unsatisfactory reply was, “Indians have rescued a couple from a shipwreck.”
* Asked how a “knife blade, a penny and a piece of wire” were alike, acceptable answers included, “All are metal” or “All come from mines.” It was wrong to say “they are small” or all were the same metal. Aside from the problem of assuming knowledge of different types of metal qualifies as a measure of intelligence, this is a poorly designed question. All three objects could be copper; it was regularly used in wire and copper letter openers were made. Also, brass and steel, both commonly used in blades and wire, are alloys and not mined metals.
* “My neighbor has been having queer visitors. First a doctor came to his house, then a lawyer, then a minister (preacher or priest). What do you think happened there?” The only acceptable answer was some variation of “a death.” Of those who failed to answer correctly, over half apparently did not know that attorneys wrote wills or ministers conducted home funerals. Wrong answers also included “a baby born” and “a divorce,” which Terman remarked was a very common reply from children living in Reno, then a destination for people nationwide seeking to end a marriage.

In his book Terman provided several case studies of low-IQ children, and a common thread was the futility of keeping them in school.  A boy of eight was kicked out of kindergarten because his 50 IQ “required so much of the teacher’s time and [he] appeared uneducable.” A boy who just “stands around” and was “indifferent to praise or blame” was enrolled in a sixth-grade class at age 17, but was doing “absolutely nothing” in the classroom. They were also troublemakers, according to Terman: A “high-grade moron” boy “caused much trouble at school by puncturing bicycle tires.” A 14 year-old girl with an IQ of 65 was a “menace to the morals of the school because of her sex interests and lack of self-restraint.” Another young woman he called “the type from which prostitutes often come.”

The problem with eugenics (well, one of the problems) is that it’s built on the worst sort of slippery slope logic. Not only were defectives unteachable, declared Terman, but also prone to crime – a false assumption which still carried over from the days when we were looking at the shape of heads. In his 1916 book on the IQ test he wrote, “not all criminals are feeble-minded, but all feeble-minded are at least potential criminals. That every feeble-minded woman is a potential prostitute would hardly be disputed by any one.”

So did the IQ study of the Aid Society kids prove Terman right? The researchers found “dull normals” – meaning just slightly below average intelligence – were most likely to be there because they were skipping school (interestingly, they were also ten times more likely than any of the others to have bad hearing).

In the other three crime categories – stealing, burglary and incorrigibility – the boys with normal intelligence exceeded or were tied with those classified as being not as smart. More than half of the “normals” were there for stealing or burglary. The researchers also did a limited survey of the Aid Society boys’ backgrounds and it shows the main environmental factors they shared were extreme poverty and bad friends. It completely disproved Terman’s eugenics theories; these bad eggs were mostly average boys who happened to be poor and hung out with the wrong crowd.

Whether Terman read that study is unknown but it is extremely likely, given that it was based on the Binet tests he was then adapting for American use. It certainly didn’t make him waver in his views; as years went on his enthusiasm for eugenics hardened. He began saying some people – including entire nationalities and races – were uniformly inferior. He later wrote, “a median IQ of 80 for Italian, Portuguese, and Mexican school children in the cities of California would be a liberal estimate.”

We also can’t be sure if Terman ever came up from Stanford to visit Sonoma County, but if he did it was surely to meet Dr. Fred O. Butler of the Sonoma State Home (now called the Sonoma Developmental Center). Prof. Terman was an enthusiastic believer that “defectives” should be sterilized so they can’t parent children, and Dr. Butler had turned the hospital into a sterilization mill, leading the nation in performing thousands of such operations. And when eugenicists later classified homosexual boys and promiscuous girls as sexually delinquent defectives, they were forcibly sterilized by Dr. Butler as well (see “SONOMA COUNTY AND EUGENICS” for more).

Today the reputation of Lewis Terman has been largely whitewashed. A recent textbook on multicultural education points out that high school and college texts are likely to describe his genius tracking study and his revision of Binet’s scale but rarely is his eugenics history noted. A Google search for his name in scholarly books and journals shows the word “eugenics” appears in only 1 out of 10 works.

Yet the damage he caused was incalculable. By turning Binet’s method – which wasn’t intended to measure intelligence at all – into a written test with right and wrong answers, Terman made it easy to condemn people who tested poorly as inferiors, which usually leads to lives of lesser opportunities and hopes. He was a bad scientist with regrettable ethics; Terman was on the Advisory Committee of the American Eugenics Society and didn’t resign until after Hitler came to power, so maybe he should be called clueless as well.

The one bright spot in this dismal tale is that in 1916, the Barlow boys proved him completely, utterly wrong about everything. Too bad he wasn’t smart enough to pay attention.

DID GOOD WORK FOR THE BOYS
Accomplishments of the Boys and Girls Aid Society–Boys Are Picking Berries

The annual meeting of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society was held on Tuesday for the purpose of hearing reports of the officers of the Society and electing a Board of Trustees for the ensuing year. In the absence of the president, Senator George C. Perkins, who is in Washington, D. C., the chair was taken by the vice-president, Charles A. Murdock.

The report of the superintendent, George C. Turner, gave the details of the splendid work of the Society for the needy boys of San Francisco and vicinity.

Two hundred and forty-one boys were received into the hands of the Society during the year ending June 30th, and received the benefits of special training and schooling including manual training under the Lloyd system.

The Society is working in conjunction with the juvenile courts and probation officers of this and other counties in the State and has received one hundred and forty boys from the courts.

As the boys improve in their conduct and when they have made satisfactory progress in their school work, they are secured positions through the employment agency maintained by the Society, through which one hundred and fifty-one boys were placed in good positions during the year.

The best qualities of manhood are developed by the care given the boys who are placed on their honor. This is shown by the fact that during last year 5,172 leaves of absence were granted on Sundays with but 13 failures to return–less than ½ of 1%.

For homeless boys the Society maintains the Charles R. Bishop Annex, where boys may board while they are learning trades and until they become self-supporting. These boys have individual rooms not very large, but neat and tasteful and have sitting rooms, library, and the family dining room where excellent meals are served at moderate rates. Night classes are conducted for the benefit of these working boys and every boy is given an opportunity to improve his education.

The younger boys are sent to approved country homes through the Children’s Agency, the Children’s Home Society and the Native Sons and Native Daughters Committee on Homeless Children, who last year placed out fifty-two boys for the Society. Children so placed are permanently removed from the streets of the city and often grow up in their environment.

In addition to the work in San Francisco, the Society maintains a summer camp on the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol, where last year one hundred and sixty-three boys were engaged in picking loganberries and Mammoths and Lawton blackberries, picking one hundred and ninety-four tons of berries and earning in all $3,948, of which the boys received $2,328.39, which was used for clothing and dentistry, and some of it put in the bank.

The summer outing is a great benefit to the boys and a great help to the berry growers, who have learned to depend on the boys for assistance in harvesting their berries.

The officers and trustees for the following year are: […]

– Press Democrat, July 21, 1911
BOYS PICKING MANY BERRIES
Having Great Financial Success in Their Labors

Special Officer W. D. Scott, of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society, came up on the evening train Tuesday with several boys, who were being escorted to the berry fields at the Barlow ranch near Sebastopol.

Two of the boys in charge of Mr. Scott had recently made their escape from the berry fields, having taken French leave at night. They passed through this city and made their way to Sacramento before they wee captured. They were Clarence Johnson and H. Chapman. They enjoyed liberty for four days.

Officer Scott declares the boys in the berry fields are not only having one of the finest vacations they have ever enjoyed, but they are meeting with greater financial success than ever before. One of the boys in camp earned $2.64 in one day during the past week and most of the boys are averaging splendid wages. The berries are ripening rapidly and the lads are laboring until 6 o’clock each evening in the endeavor to relieve the vines of their burden of fruit before it becomes too ripe for shipment.

On a recent evening the books at the camp were examined and it was found that the boys had collectively earned $1800 up to that date in harvesting the berry crop. The harvest will last for some time to come, and it can be readily be seen what a financial benefit the outing of the boys turns out to be. Aside from this it gives the lads one of the best vacations in the country that could be planned for them.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 26, 1911
RUNAWAY BOYS RECAPTURED

Two runaway boys from the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society camp at Mrs. Barlow’s ranch in the Gold Ridge district were taken back to camp by officers of the association Saturday night, after having been caught here by Officer Nick Yeager.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 31, 1911
BOYS EARNED MUCH MONEY
Berry Harvesting Profitable to Large Number

Something of the magnitude of the berry industry in the Gold Ridge section can be ascertained when it is realized that the forces of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society this season earned more than $4600 gathering the crop. The boys were paid four cents per tray for the harvesting of the berries, both Logans and blacks.

The boys went into camp on the Barlow place about June 1st, and finished picking the berries on September 13. Their record this year shows that they have earned one hundred dollars more than on any previous year, the record of $4500 having been made in 1910. This would indicate that the berry crop was slightly larger this year than the previous season.

Two-thirds of this money will be distributed to the boys who earned it, and it will be given them in proportion to the amount earned by each individual boys. With the moneys [sic] given to the boys they have the right to choose what they will do with it, so long as the contemplated expenditure is legitimate. Many of the lads buy clothing, some place the money in bank to draw interest, while still others help their families financially. Most of the boys buy magazines with a portion of their coin.

During the year the boys were engaged in picking for about twenty people while they were in the Gold Ridge section. Their camp at the Barlow ranch was dismantled Friday morning, preparatory for their start for home and Old Glory, which has floated from the flagstaff there daily was hauled down with appropriate ceremonies.

Ninety-five boys were in the merry party which returned to San Francisco on the afternoon train Friday, having had one of the most enjoyable outings on record.

– Santa Rosa Republican, September 15, 1911

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