Young people and the law

In 1908, the Canadian Parliament enacted the Juvenile Delinquents Act, which placed children and youth ’in conflict with the law’ under a new legal status: juvenile delinquency. The law was both rehabilitative and repressive in spirit and practice, as youth were to be excluded from adult lockups, courts and jails as much as possible, but could be prosecuted, fined, placed on probation or even sentenced to a reformatory for being disobedient to parents or guardians.

Under this paternalistic law, legal minors were shielded from publicity in that their names could not be published in the media, but they were denied due process rights supposedly guaranteed to adult offenders. The Juvenile Delinquents Act was permissive legislation; it had to be proclaimed on a case-by-case basis once a municipality established a juvenile court, appointed a juvenile court judge and established a court volunteer committee. The model was late coming to a province like New Brunswick, which was largely rural and whose towns and cities lacked strong tax bases.

Most ’juvenile delinquents’ avoided custody, but secure facilities were required for the minority which was sentenced to incarceration. Often these institutions were called reformatories or training schools, and they required youth to take part in both education and to work. Nationally, between 1922 and 1945, between 3 and 19% of all delinquents convicted of minor offences were sent to training school in a given year.

In the 1890s, on the site of the old New Brunswick Penitentiary that had closed with the opening of the federal penitentiary at Dorchester, the provincial authorities opened the Boys Industrial Home (sometimes referred to the Boys Industrial School). The institution began accepting youth prior to the 1908 legislation and the establishment of a local juvenile court.

It was under the control of a community board which included Saint John's mayor, the provincial government and representatives from women’s organizations. Delinquent, neglected and dependent boys were sent there for short and long periods, either as punishment or for ’protection.’

Boys sentenced from the courts were between 9 and 16 years of age. The maximum term of custody by the early 1930s was five years. Although located in Saint John, it accepted youth from across the province. Girls in trouble with the law, as of 1914, could be sent to the Maritime Home for Girls, located in Truro, Nova Scotia There were also Catholic institutions such as the Home of the Good Shepherd.

Boys Industrial Home, 1932

The Boys Industrial Home (BIH) was criticized by a 1929 report by the Canadian Council on Child Welfare for emphasizing incarceration more than rehabilitation. By the early 1930s the BIH had added a playground and a baseball field for recreation. A new superintendant, who had studied at the YMCA College at Springfield, Massachusetts, was attempting to introduce new ideas to the facility. The boys performed farming chores, working with cows, horses, chickens and pigs, in addition to attending school on site. The facilities, designed to hold 45 youth, were often overcrowded. The superintendant explained that 85% of the boys discharged from the institution made a successful transition back to the community.

In the early 1960s, with the closing of the Boys’ Industrial Home in Saint John, the New Brunswick government required an institution for delinquent and dependent children and youth. In 1962, it opened the New Brunswick Training School at Kingsclear, a few miles north of Fredericton. This modern institution played a dual role. It provided a custodial setting for youth sentenced under the Juvenile Delinquents’ Act and also housed children who had been seized by child welfare authorities prior to their placement in foster care.

Although the institution began with the optimism of the 1960s reform era, it ended in controversy when an investigation revealed that long-time employee Karl Toft had sexually abused a large number of children over a 35-year period. In 1992 Toft was convicted of assaulting eight boys and spent thirteen years in penitentiary. The Kingsclear Reformatory was closed in 1998. Attitudes towards child welfare and corrections also had changed in the 1970s and 1980, when more non-institutional, community-based solutions were explored.

The legal category of delinquency disappeared in 1982, but youth courts still required secure detention facilities. In the late 1990s the Kingsclear training school was replaced in by the New Brunswick Youth Centre (NBYC), located in the city of Miramichi. It is a secure facility for youth between 12 and 17 years of age, including those who have been remanded by youth courts from around the province. The NBYC, much like the Kingsclear facility a generation earlier, promised to reform troubled youth with modern treatment programs. In 2007, citing overcrowding, the lack of mental health services and the presence of adult prisoners, the provincial Child and Youth Advocate called for the closure of the centre.

The boy problem

In the late Victoria era, many social reformers were concerned about 'the boy problem,' the supposed tendency of boys, especially in cities, to avoid school, join 'gangs', engage in disrespectful behavior and commit petty crimes. Even experts who reported sympathetically on the 'lurid language, cigarette smoking and general bravado' of Canada's boys attributed this 'new' problem to the weakening of traditional family and community social roles.

They advocated everything from slum clearance, school truancy laws, curfews, reformatories and juvenile courts to organizations such as the Boys' Brigade, church missions, the Young Men's Christian Association, organized sports, the Boy Scouts and public facilities such as playgrounds. Social reformers were as likely to blame poor parenting or socio-economic deprivation as they were anti-social personality traits of young delinquents.

The following excerpt indicates that 'the boy problem' resonated in early 20th century New Brunswick:

Will enforce the law to keep children off streets

The boy problem was once more before Magistrate Ritchie in the police court this morning, when Albert Ritchey, aged 9 years, Wm. Stone and Edgar Friers, each aged eleven years, formed a line in front of the big desk in the police court. All were bright and neatly clad youngsters and their parents were with them.

About nine o’clock last night a Hebrew who was passing Myer Gordon's small meat shop on Main Street saw a small boy in the store and immediately informed Gordon, who caught the young Ritchey coming from the shop through a broken window. The little nine year old said that Friers had thrown his pen knife in through the window and he was only in there to find the knife.

This did not satisfy the butcher, who seemed to want his pound of flesh and despite all explanations he insisted that Policeman Hamm place the boy under arrest. The little fellow spent the night in the north end station cell crying his heart out. An investigation showed that the boy’s story was true, for his pen knife was found on the sawdust floor of the shop and was taken possession of by the police.

In court this morning young Ritchey told the same straightforward story, as did his two companions. The magistrate took up the matter of small boys being on the street at nine o’clock at night. He quoted the law, which clearly showed that from March until November all youngsters must be in their homes before nine o’clock, and during the months of November, December, January and February they are liable to arrest if out on the street after seven o’clock in the evening.

He said he blamed the parents for allowing their children to be on the street at night, and quoted the law where the child was liable for imprisonment and the parent to a fine of $8. He said St. John was called a city of churches by strangers, who could see the numerous spires, but what must they think when they see so many young boys and girls who parade the street at night and look into hotel office windows.

[That day the police court also heard that boys had damaged a garden and fence on Sheffield and broken windows on St. Patrick Street]

The 'boy problem' came under intense discussion in the wake of a sensational 1902 crime in Saint John, the deliberate shooting of 16-year old Willie Doherty, the son of Joseph Doherty, a street labourer of Brussels Street, by 16-year old Frank Higgins. The later youth was the son of a Saint Patrick Street storekeeper. Doherty's body was found by a man picking berries in Rockwood Park in the city’s North end, just outside the park’s boundaries near a trail called Lovers' Lane.

A piece of paper had been attached to a nearby tree, as if to mark the burial spot. The youth's remains, covered with logs and branches, looked 'as if murdered by maniacs.' The victim was 'known to the police' and according to a Daily Sun reporter, 'ran with a bad crowd,' the so-called Opera House gang (boys who congregated in an alley near a theatre in uptown Saint John). The boy was identified at the 'deadhouse' in part by two acquaintances, brothers Jack and Fred Goodspeed. Suspicion would soon fall on the latter youth. Doherty was known to stay away from his parent’s home for several days at a time, often in the company of Higgins.

The type of murder weapon: a Webley .38 calibre ’Bulldog’ revolverThe victim had been shot in the back four times by a .38 calibre revolver. He had also been beaten with a heavy object. The murder weapon was later fished out of nearby Marsh Creek. According to the version of events eventually accepted by the jury, Higgins had planned the killing and had forced Fred Goodspeed, to help him hide the body. Goodspeed was only 14 and neither boy was in school.

The supposed motive was that Doherty has taken some of Higgins' stolen property. The boys were identified by the press as members of the troublesome 'tan yard' gang, a group of teenagers who congregated in Saint John’s Old Burying Ground and near a tan yard near Marsh Creek.

They were known for harassing couples courting in parks and engaging in crimes such as burglary. Much was made of the fact that the boys were admirers of dime novels, the popular cheap adventure and crime fiction of the day. Higgins had been able to purchase his revolver in a local second hand store for $2.50. After delivering lunch to his father, Doherty had last been seen in the company of Higgins and Goodspeed near Rockwood Park.

The two chief suspects, Higgins and Goodspeed, fled to the United States after the discovery of the body but were apprehended in Maine and brought back to Saint John for questioning. Goodspeed's confession blamed Higgins. Goodspeed ended up as the Crown's chief witness although an objective reading of press accounts would be lead one to question the circumstances surrounding his confession and the actions of the police. Other witnesses testified that Higgins owned a revolver, had purchased ammunition and had been armed the day of the crime.

The trial was reported in great detail in the Saint John press, largely because of the youth of the defendant and chief witnesses. Higgins, although portrayed as the natural leader of the group of boys and exhibiting considerable self confidence in court, was well regarded by adult character witnesses. Adding to the drama was the fact that the defendant testified that the Crown's chief witness, Goodspeed, had been the murderer.

Frank Higgins, age 15

Higgins admitted to owning a revolver, but explained that Frank has requested that he bring it to he park that day to shoot birds and squirrels. Higgins testified that Goodspeed,for some unknown reason, had killed his friend and forced him to help cover the body. The defence attempted to discredit Goodspeed by portraying him as the ringleader in a well-planned series of burglaries. Goodspeed, as a classic juvenile delinquent who had been expelled from school, was not an ideal witness for the prosecution. During the pre-trial examination, the police magistrate denounced youth gangs and sensationalistic dime novels for glorifying crime.

Higgins was found guilty of murder in September, 1902 with a recommendation for mercy on account of his youth. Although only 16 years old, he was sentenced to hang in December-the automatic penalty at this time in the case of a murder conviction. In the meantime, his mother, still convinced of his innocence, visited his son as much as the jail authorities permitted. Appeals and a new trial were denied, but following the circulation of a petition the federal government commuted the sentence to life in penitentiary.

Goodspeed was later convicted of being an accessory to Doherty’s murder and sent to the reformatory. Following a violent attack on a staff member, he also ended up in Dorchester penitentiary on an attempted murder conviction. The case raised an intense discussion in the community of the problem of juvenile delinquents, with the trial judge proclaiming that the testimony indicated the existence of an organization 'as strong and perhaps more shrewd than the police.'

Sources: Saint John Daily Sun, August 5-Dec. 1, 1902; Gerald Wallace, William Higgins and Peter McGahan, The Saint John Police Story: The Clark Years (Fredericton: 1891).