Lewis Hine caption: 1:00 A. M. Monday, May 9th, 1910. Newsies at Skeeter’s Branch, Jefferson near Franklin. They were all smoking. Location: St. Louis, Missouri.
“I can’t get over the tattered shirt he was wearing. It’s hard to think that my grandmother would have dressed him that way. But I guess money was tight in those days.” -Jean Mercurio, niece of Raymond Klose
“All right, Rocky, supposin’ I take the money… and I kid myself that it’s a means to an end — well it isn’t. It never will be. Inside the center my boys would be clean… and outside they’d be surrounded by the same rotten corruption and crime and criminals. Yes, yourself included. Criminals on all sides for my boys to look up to and revere… and respect and admire and imitate. What earthly good is it for me to teach that honesty is the best policy when all around they see that dishonesty is a better policy? That the hoodlum and the gangster is looked up to with the same respect as the successful businessman or the popular hero? You and the Fraziers and the Keefers and all the rest of those rotten politicians you’ve got in the palm of your hand. Yes, and you’ve got my boys, too. Whatever I teach them, you… you show me up. You show them the easiest way — the quickest way is with a racket or a gun.” -Fr. Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) refusing a dirty money donation to his center for boys from boyhood friend Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), now a gangster, from the 1938 movie Angels With Dirty Faces.
In the 1948 movie, Fighting Father Dunne, Pat O’Brien (him again) portrays a real-life hero, Fr. Peter Dunne, a crusading priest who rescued wayward newsboys from the streets of St. Louis and opened a home for them in 1907. The three boys in this photo certainly look like candidates for such a home. But contrary to what most people think, most newsboys in the early 1900s were not orphans or delinquents, and grew up to be productive citizens who led ordinary lives, despite being exposed at an early age to the rough and tumble world of urban life. But many others did not fare well, and I wondered how these smoking urchins turned out.
In May of 1910, Lewis Hine took about 85 photographs of newsboys in St. Louis. Appearing in many of his captions were words such as truants, gangs, pool room and smoking. One hundred years later, the most famous of these photos is the one above, the three smoking boys at Skeeter’s Branch, reminding us of Hollywood’s Dead End Kids, later called the Bowery Boys. The picture is so popular, that it was used for the cover of a well-known rock music album. But Hine did not identify the boys.
In December of 2007, I contacted the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about this photograph and several others taken by Hine which showed unidentified newsboys. I requested that the newspaper run the photos and an article about my research, hoping that someone would recognize at least one of the children. On December 30, an article by Matthew Hathaway appeared with the headline, “Author trying to identify old newsboys.”
“Little Fattie, Livers and the rest of St. Louis’ newsboy gangs are long gone. Though their real names and life stories always were a mystery, their images were part of a national campaign that helped turn the tide against child labor. Now a man from New England, Joe Manning, wants help in identifying these street peddlers, whose pictures were taken in 1910 by muckraking photographer Lewis Wickes Hine. Manning hopes someone here recognizes in these images the face of a grandfather or great-grandfather. It’s the first step in telling the stories of these boys’ lives, and how they survived a youth spent working the streets — if they survived at all.”
The boy called Little Fattie was identified almost immediately by a niece as George Okertich. No one identified the boy named Livers. A day after the article was published, a man contacted me about the three Skeeter’s Branch boys and said that he thought the boy in the middle was his great-uncle, but further research discounted that possibility. Nearly three years later, on September 20, 2010, I received the following email:
“My mother has asked me to contact you about identifying my great-uncle, Raymond Klose. She thinks he is in one of your photographs. He lived in St. Louis at the turn of the century. I don’t know his exact birth date, but she said he would have been the correct age for the boy in the picture.”
I replied and asked for more information, and received the following two days later:
“I gave my mother your contact information. Her name is Jean Mercurio. You can call her if you like. The middle boy in the picture of the three boys is Raymond Klose. He was my mom’s uncle on her mother’s side. I hope I can find some pictures to verify it. He has an interesting life story which I will let my mom tell you. He was kind of a character.”
I looked up Raymond Klose in the census, and learned that he was born in 1897, which would have made him about 13 in the photograph. That seemed entirely plausible. Following a conversation with Mrs. Mercurio, she sent me several photos of Raymond, one of him when he was about 20 years old, and another when he was in his early sixties. I thought he looked exactly like the newsboy. My wife agreed.
I contacted Maureen Taylor, an internationally recognized photo identification and family history expert, referred to by the Wall Street Journal as the “nation’s foremost historical photo detective.” She has helped me with several other stories. I sent her the Hine photo and the photo of Raymond in his sixties. She told me it was a very close match, with the only apparent discrepancy being a slight difference in the shape of one ear. She advised me to proceed with the story. So I contacted Mrs. Mercurio and arranged a phone interview. Meanwhile, I located the rock music album with the newsboys on the cover, and I had a copy shipped to her as a surprise.
Lewis Hine caption: 11:00 A.M. Monday May 9th, 1910. Newsies at Skeeter’s Branch, Jefferson near Franklin. They were all smoking. Location: St. Louis, Missouri.
Adolph Raymond Klose (pronounced Kloh-Zee) was born in St. Louis on May 9, 1897, which means he was photographed on his 13th birthday. He was the third of five children born to Missouri native Adolph Klose and Adelinde Sack Klose, who was born in Germany. They married about 1890. His father was employed as a car painter. In the 1900 census, they are listed as living at 3519 21St Street. In the 1910 census, their address is listed as 4152 Lee Ave, and Raymond is listed as attending school. In Raymond’s 1918 draft registration, he listed his employer at Holt Mfg. Co., which made tools and farm equipment. The registration stated that he was discharged from the infantry due to “severe flat feet.”
Raymond married Stella Minnich about 1920, and they lived with Stella’s father at 4408 Alaska Avenue. Raymond worked as a special agent for the railroad. By 1930, he and Stella were living at 3825 Fair Avenue, in a house that they owned. He was employed as a streetcar conductor. They never had any children. He passed away in St. Louis on November 7, 1964, at the age of 67.
Lewis Hine caption: “Skeeters Branch.” May 5th, 1910. Location: St. Louis, Missouri.
Lewis Hine caption: Truants like these may be found most any day between 11 & 12 A.M. Jefferson St. near Washington. May 5, 1910. Location: St. Louis, Missouri.
Edited interview with Jean Mercurio, niece of Raymond Klose. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on November December 2, 2010.
JM: When were you born?
Jean: 1933. My mother was Ray’s older sister, Hildegarde.
JM: How close did you live to your Uncle Ray?
Jean: We both lived in North St. Louis, maybe about a mile apart. He and Stella were my godparents. We had a lot of Sunday meals with Ray and Stella, and they liked to play cards with my parents.
JM: What was he like?
Jean: He was fun, a very funny guy. He always liked to act silly around his nieces and nephews. He had the show dogs, and that was interesting to hear about. He always had at least one at home. They were always Airedales, which are terriers.
JM: Did he spend a lot of time with the dogs?
Jean: Not really, because the dogs didn’t actually live with him. They lived with their trainers.
JM: According to the 1930 census, he and his wife Stella were living at 3825 Fair Avenue.
Jean: That’s right. Fairgrounds Park was right across the street from him. Fair Avenue was at the west boundary of the park.
JM: Did he live in a single-family home?
Jean: Yes. It was brick bungalow, and it had a nice size yard. They moved late in life to North County (north section of St. Louis County), because their neighborhood was changing. It was getting kind of dangerous to live in.
JM: The 1930 census said that he was a streetcar conductor.
Jean: That’s exactly what he was. I thought that was interesting.
JM: That makes me think about “The Trolley Song” in the movie, Meet Me In St. Louis.
Jean: Right. And the character that Judy Garland played in the movie grew up in North St. Louis. He enjoyed his job. During that time, he didn’t have a car. But after he retired, he decided he wanted to get a car. He didn’t know how to drive, of course. He got himself a Buick, and everyone he knew was kind of horrified. Well, it didn’t work out, so he sold it.
JM: What was Stella like?
Jean: She was jolly, and laughed a lot. She loved to cook and loved to bake. She was always real pleasant. And whatever Uncle Ray did was fine. Like if he was home for lunch, she stood there while he ate and gave him refills or whatever he needed.
JM: Did she work?
Jean: No. She was Miss Homebody. As far as she was concerned, her job was taking care of Ray. They had no children.
JM: Did you know his parents, Adolph and Adelinde?
Jean: Yes, but my grandfather passed away when I was nine. He had been very sick for a long time, and my grandmother was pretty occupied with taking care of him. I would walk to her house every Friday when I got out of school, and stay till Sunday. We were very close. She also had a little cabin in what we would have called ‘out in the country’ then, which is now just one of the suburbs. She came to the US from Bavaria when she was young. She could do everything. She had a car in the days when women didn’t drive. She could fix a car. She always said that she could do everything but wallpaper. She was also a stamp collector and corresponded with postmasters all over the world.
JM: Did she speak German?
Jean: Yes, when she talked to her friends.
JM: In the 1910 census, Ray and his parents are living at 4152 Lee Avenue.
Jean: Oh, yes, that’s the place where we spent many Christmas Eves and Thanksgivings. That was within walking distance of where Uncle Ray lived on Fair Avenue.
JM: On his WWI draft registration, he was listed as discharged from the infantry due to having severe flat feet.
Jean: Well, he served, because I knew that he was stationed in Kansas, but he did not go overseas.
JM: In the 1920 census, he lived at 4408 Alaska Ave. He is living with Stella and Stella’s father, Frank Minnich. Ray was listed as a railroad special agent.
Jean: Oh, my goodness. I didn’t know he worked for the railroad.
JM: Did he ever tell you that he sold newspapers as a kid?
Jean: I don’t remember him telling me.
JM: I wonder if he knew he was photographed.
Jean: That’s what I wonder, too.
JM: Do you know where Skeeter’s Branch was?
Jean: Yes, I do. Just like the caption said, it’s on Jefferson Street, near Franklin Avenue (now Martin Luther King Drive). I’m going to have to go down there and look. I’m sure the building that he was standing in front of is gone.
JM: Did he smoke?
Jean: Yes, he smoked cigarettes.
JM: What do you think about the fact that Hine was using the photo to show that children shouldn’t be working at that age, even as newsboys?
Jean: I think he was right. Good for him. Uncle Ray is lucky he turned out the way he did.
JM: Looking at the picture, I think most people would probably say, ‘Those kids will turn out rotten.’
Jean: But he didn’t. I can’t get over the tattered shirt he was wearing. It’s hard to think that my grandmother would have dressed him that way. But I guess money was tight in those days.
JM: That’s right, and we know that kids wore hand-me-downs all the time then. They didn’t throw anything away. Mothers used to make or repair clothing all the time.
Jean: I remember my grandmother making me overalls out of old dish towels.
JM: For the kind of work he was doing, like carrying around bundles of newspapers, his clothes probably didn’t hold up too well.
Jean: Actually, if you look closer, Uncle Ray was wearing a jacket and a long sleeve shirt, and he had a hat on. If you ask me, that’s a lot better than kids dress now.
*Story published in 2012