Wisconsin Industrial School for Boys

Source: The Waukesha Freeman June 16 1898
Submitted by researcher/see contributors page

As Wilder Viewed It
Madison Editor Visits Industrial School
Reflections and Observations of a Sharp-Eyed and Kindly-Hearted Man.
(Amos P. Wilder in the Wisconsin State Journal)

In writing of the Industrial School for the 300 bad boys at Waukesha, it would be helpful if we had a definition of a "bad boy." But definitions are elusive things.

There is a 7-year-old in the feeble-minded home, transferred from the Sparta school for dependent children. In the latter place she had been a favored pet of Mr. Petherick of the board of control, and "Dick" says he never felt so like a poor miserable worm as when by his vote he consented to the change, though the experts said the child was an imbecile.

But one day, while in the classroom her teacher, by way of penalty ordered the little tot to stand up in the corner. "I'll do it," the child replied with spirit, "but you wait until my Uncle Dick comes round - he'll make it hot for you."

Pretty good for one tagged "idiot," wasn't it.

What is a Real Bad Boy?

One of the Waukesha boys was sent there because he stole a locomotive. He is not yet 15, but he went to the round-house, boarded the iron horse, steamed up, pulled the throttle and "let 'er go," and had the whole state by the cars.

Was he a vicious boy, a devil at heart? Most people think so.

Or was he a restless, curious, seething piece of boyhood that, had he fallen into the hands of some one who loved boys and could show him how a locomotive works and secured him a place in the Allis concern, might make a second Thomas Edison out of him. That is the newest interpretation of many a bad boy.

The Waukesha boys range from 10 to 18 years when committed, and they stay until they are 21, unless otherwise paroled, as most of them are after an average detention of two years. The school is but half a mile from the Northwester railroad station: in fact, you can often see boys at work in the fields from the train. Their Sunday dress is a neat uniform of gray with brass buttons. Their daily dress is more after the fashion of farm hands, and some are barefooted. But they all look clean. Nor does the casual observer note indications of the criminal about them, though frank, open countenances, and that hearty impulsiveness that betokens innocence are lacking - no more, perhaps, than in "other institution children." Waupun prison has older and more acutely wicked boys, and there are boys with very crooked records at Waukesha; but as you see them at works in groups about the big farm of 400 acres, or in the school room, they looked not markedly different from other boys. As many of them do not properly belong in even such a mild form of reformatory. Three-fourths are sent as the result of some misdemeanor-usually larceny. It sounds serious, this word "larceny," but you examine the records and it instances the theft-perhaps of a dollar bill; or a bicycle; in one case a "whetstone," and other trifling articles. Why, boys of the best families rarely get through youth without at least one serious breach of morals.

One-fourth of the boys are committed as "incorrigibles" by county or circuit judges. In these cases no specific crime is instanced, but the impeachment is a generic one. And here is the peril-too often it means that the boy is not bad, but inconvenient.

"it is amazing," said one of the Waukesha officials in a dry way "What a disproportionate number of these boys have step-parents."

Second Marriages That Work Badly

There you have it. The mother of the lad dies: the father marries again: the step-mother prefers the boys absence to his company. He is no saint; there is friction, and some obliging judge shunts the boy to Waukesha. Of course, they take him when he is committed.

The traditional charge against reform schools is that they mix the bad boys with the good (for some of the unfortunate commitments are as remote from criminals as your boys or mine). I asked Supt. Merica as to this. He said the opportunity for contamination is less than popularly supposed. The boys are kept busy and occupied from morning to night. They are under supervision almost constantly while at work and at play. At no time are they alone for the exploiting o wickedness by word or deed for more than thirty minutes, and that rarely.

It is well known that Superintendent Merica in the brief time he has been superintendent has introduced marked reforms, notably the careful grading of boys to keep the hardened cases away from the more innocent boys as much as possible.

Too Tired to Think Wickedness

County jails are the worst colleges of crime, when first offenders and the toughened cases are summered and wintered together with no pretense of occupation to engage their thought. The evils of the reform school have been minimized by the introduction of manual training, industries, exercises --- calculated not only to build up the boy's body, will and ambition, but to occupy, engage and engross him. At Brockway's Elmira school the young men are exercised an worked so hard that at night they are said to fall asleep the moment the head touches the pillow, without opportunity for evil thoughts or plannings to tear down the constructive work of the day. It must be remembered that the Waukesha school is for younger boys than Elmira. Mr. Heg's Green Bay reformatory will be a parallel institution to Mr. Brockway's in both of them men being taken of 25 years of age and even older, and detained indefinitely if need be.

The Waukesha boy on the other hand is put out in a home as soon as the authorities think the boy will behave himself. An agent (Rawson) gives his whole time to fitting paroled boys and homes to each other, to visiting them, etc. In seven months Superintendent Merica has placed 130 boys, usually in country homes, and in most cases the boys do well. An honest and judicious farmer makes as good a parent for even a bad boy as an institution and better, too. Desperately wicked boys should be shut away, but friends of the Waukesha school admit that it serves its best use as a clearing house, and the sooner a good home with kindly but vigorous auspices is found for the boys the better.

The plant consists of a series of ten small stone cottages, each the home of perhaps thirty boys. Prof C.O. Merica, the Superintendent, was formerly of the teaching staff of Lawrence university. He is a cultured Christian gentleman, with a strong leaven of good sense and not readily imposed upon. The boys spend four hours a day in the school house, where seven grades are at work, the most advanced students doing work equal to that of the eighth grad public schools. At the head of the school is J. K. McGregor, formerly of the Eau Claire schools and a brother of the Platteville normal president [Duncan McGregor].

The Whip and Solitary Confinement

There is no gymnasium, though horizontal bars are noticeable about the grounds. These, by the way, are not skirted by a high, impassable fence. That was the old idea of a reformatory. Some of the boys would undoubtedly run away if they had a chance. Others-most of the boys-are working hard for parole, and to run away involves serious punishment. I saw pickets stationed - a few trusty pupils-whose business it was to detet any fugitives. But the discipline is not as engrossing a task as one might think. In school for trifling offenses boys are made to stand up against the black board and deprived of their recess. But occasionally there is a serious infraction of the rules. The man at the head of a cottage may punish a boy; it must. however, always be reported to the superintendent. There was a lusty looking whip, a sort of multiplied razor strops, lying in one of the school rooms. And there are some cells for solitary confinement with bread and water. "The boarding house," the boys told me, this is called. At the time of the fire six of the boys ran away, four were recaptured. And the whereabouts of a fifth is known.

Letter to Child

Source: Family letter Submitted by Researcher/See Contributors Page

Wisconsin Industrial School for Boys
J. K. McGregor, Asst. Supt.
Waukesha, Wis. Sep 29, 1898

My dear Boy,
When about my work here in my office yesterday afternoon it occurred to me that I might send a letter past you on the r? and so have it in Auld Reckie when you get there. Report the result. This will go by first physical? if you think to call at the P.O. on your arrival. I doubt not it will be handed to you. We returned home by the R.R. leaving at 3:30. We did a little shopping mostly in the shoe line. Mother stood the parting remarkably well and has done nobly ever since. I have great hopes that she is to come along all right. Of course she speaks often of you and the lonely feeling your absence has created and the fear that you will not find your way over, still she is pleased that you have gone and is glad she did nothing to hinder you. Word from Edinburgh will set her all right on your ability to travel and she has never doubted your ability to do the prescribed work. She will probably enclose a short note in this.

While I was gone yesterday at noon I believe, Mr Trewyn got a hint that one of his boys had a revolver. He saw that his pocket was more than ordinarily prominent and called him up for purposes of examination. He made him unload and not a little surprised at finding that he had Mr Donsonam's six-shooter. The boy had been in Mr D's room cleaning it and at an unseen moment pocketed the weapon. Two others were in the plot. They intended to get away yesterday afternoon and use the weapon to help make good their escape. Kuhn probably the leader of the gang freely admitted that such was their intention. He told the Supr. that he would kill if there by he would secure his escape. That he did not fear the consequences as the law would not allow the authorities to send him to any other place, or to punish him harder than he was now being punished. It made quite a bit of excitement and will cause all officers to be more careful, I trust as to where they will keep their guns and other weapons for a time at least. The incident furnished a good occasion for Prof M. to give all hands a good talk on the necessity for using more care to prevent boys from getting their hands on weapons and tools that might be used for purposes of offense or defense.

You are howling along now, 11:42, somewhere in New York, and taking in the beautiful scenery. I am sure, however, that while your eyes may be fixed on pleasing scenes your thoughts ? se not to remember the fond ones who loan you to Scotland.

Trusting you are on your pri? all night and that you like the outlook?