Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
The Beast

By Ben B. Lindsey and Harvey J. O’Higgins

(“The Children’s Judge,” who founded the first children’s court in America, tells the story of his long fight with the powers of privilege in Colorado. In the following extract, he narrates what came of a newspaper interview on the subject of the revolting conditions under which children were kept in prison)
THE RESULT was an article that took even my breath away when I read it next day on the front page of the newspaper. It was the talk of the town. It was certainly the talk of the Police Board; and Mr. Frank Adams talked to the reporters in a high voice, indiscreetly. He declared that the boys were liars, that I was “crazy,” and that conditions in the jails were as good as they could be. This reply was exactly what we wished. I demanded an investigation. The Board professed to be willing, but set no date. We promptly set one for them—the following Thursday at two o’clock in my chambers at the Court House—and I invited to the hearing Governor Peabody, Mayor Wright, fifteen prominent ministers in the city, and the Police Board and some members of the City Council.  1
  On Thursday morning—-to my horror—I learned from a friendly Deputy Sheriff that the subpœnas I had ordered sent to a number of boys whom I knew as jail victims had not been served. I had no witnesses. And in three hours the hearing was to begin. I appealed to the Deputy Sheriff to help me. He admitted that he could not get the boys in less than two days. “Well then,” I said, “for heaven’s sake, get me Mickey.”  2
  And Mickey? Well, Mickey was known to fame as “the worst kid in town.” As such, his portrait had been printed in the newspapers—posed with his shine-box over his shoulder, a cigarette in the corner of his grin, his thumbs under his suspenders at the shoulders, his feet crossed in an attitude of nonchalant youthful deviltry. He had been brought before me more than once on charges of truancy, and I had been using him in an attempt to organize a newsboys’ association under the supervision of the court. Moreover, he had been one of the boys who had been beaten by the jailer, and I knew he would be grateful to me for defending him.  3
  It was midday before the Sheriff brought him to me. “Mickey,” I said, “I’m in trouble, and you’ve got to help me out of it. You know I helped you.”  4
  “Betcher life yuh did, Judge,” he said. “I’m wit’ yuh. W’at d’ yuh want?”  5
  I told him what I wanted—every boy that he could get, who had been in jail. “And they’ve got to be in this room by two o’clock. Can you do it?”  6
  Mickey threw out his dirty little hand. “Sure I kin. Don’t yuh worry, Judge. Get me a wheel—dhat’s all.”  7
  I hurried out with him and got him a bicycle, and he flew off down Sixteenth Street on it, his legs so short that his feet could only follow the pedals half way round. I went back to my chambers to wait.…  8
  As two o’clock approached, the ministers began to come into my room, one by one, and take seats in readiness. Mr. Wilson of the Police Board arrived to represent his fellow-commissioners. The Deputy District Attorney came, the president of the upper branch of the City Council came, Mayor Wright came, and even Governor Peabody came—but no boys! I felt like a man who had ordered a big dinner in a strange restaurant for a party of friends, and then found that he had not brought his purse.…. I was just about to begin my apologies when I heard an excited patter of small feet on the stairs and the shuffle and crowding of Mickey’s cohorts outside in the hall. I threw open the door. “I got ’em, Judge,” Mickey cried.  9
  He had them—to the number of about twenty. I shook him by the shoulder, speechless with relief. “I tol’ yuh we’d stan’ by yuh, Judge,” he grinned.  10
  He had the worst lot of little jailbirds that ever saw the inside of a county court, and he pointed out the gem of his collection proudly—“Skinny,” a lad in his teens, who had been in jail twenty-two times! “All right, boys,” I told them, “I don’t know you all, but I’ll take Mickey’s word for you. You’ve all been in jail and you know what you do there—all the dirty things you hear and see and do yourselves. I want you to tell some gentlemen in here about it. Don’t be scared. They’re your friends the same as I am. The cops say you’ve been lying to me about the way things are down in the jails there, and I want you to tell the truth. Nothing but the truth, now. Mickey, you pick them out and send them in one by one—your best witnesses first.”  11
  I went back to my chambers. “Gentlemen,” I said, “we’re ready.”  12
  I sat down at the big table with the Governor at my right, the Mayor at my left and the president of the Board of Supervisors and Police Commissioner Wilson at either end of the table. The ministers seated themselves in the chairs about my room. (We allowed no newspaper reporters in, because I knew what sort of vile and unprintable testimony was coming.) Mickey sent in his first witness.  13
  One by one, as the boys came, I impressed upon them the necessity of telling the truth, encouraged them to talk, and tried to put them at their ease. I started each by asking him how often he had been in jail, what he had seen there, and so forth. Then I sat back and let him tell his story.  14
  And the things they told would raise your hair. I saw the blushes rise to the foreheads of some of the ministers at the first details. As we went on, the perspiration stood on their faces. Some sat pale, staring appalled at these freckled youngsters from whose little lips, in a sort of infantile eagerness to tell all they knew, there came stories of bestiality that were the more horrible because they were so innocently, so boldly given. It was enough to make a man weep; and indeed tears of compassionate shame came to the eyes of more than one father there, as he listened. One boy broke down and cried when he told of the vile indecencies that had been committed upon him by the older criminals; and I saw the muscles working in the clenched jaws of some of our “investigating committee”—saw them swallowing the lump in the throat—saw them looking down at the floor blinkingly, afraid of losing their self-control. The Police Commissioner made the mistake of cross-examining the first boy, but the frank answers he got only exposed worse matters. The boys came and came, till at last, a Catholic priest, Father O’Ryan, cried out: “My God! I have had enough!” Governor Peabody said hoarsely: “I never knew there was such immorality in the world!” Some one else put in, “It’s awful,—awful!” in a half groan.  15
  “Gentlemen,” I said, “there have been over two thousand Denver boys put through those jails and those conditions, in the last five years. Do you think it should go on any longer?”  16
  Governor Peabody arose. “No,” he said; “no. Never in my life have I heard of so much rot—corruption—vileness—as I’ve heard today from the mouths of these babies. I want to tell you that nothing I can do in my administration can be of more importance—nothing I can do will I do more gladly than sign those bills that Judge Lindsey is trying to get through the Legislature to do away with these terrible conditions. And if,” he said, turning to the Police Commissioner, “Judge Lindsey is ‘crazy,’ I want my name written under his, among the crazy people. And if any one says these boys are ‘liars,’ that man is a liar himself!”  17
  Phew! The “committee of investigation” dissolved, the boys trooped away noisily, and the ministers went back to their pulpits to voice the horror that had kept them silent in my small chamber of horrors for two hours. Their sermons went into the newspapers under large black headlines; and by the end of the next week our juvenile court bills were passed by the Legislature and made law in Colorado.  18

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