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The Dead End Kids of St. Louis

Homeless Boys and the People Who Tried to Save Them

Bonnie Stepenoff

Publication Year: 2010

Joe Garagiola remembers playing baseball with stolen balls and bats while growing up on the Hill. Chuck Berry had run-ins with police before channeling his energy into rock and roll. But not all the boys growing up on the rough streets of St. Louis had loving families or managed to find success. This book reviews a century of history to tell the story of the “lost” boys who struggled to survive on the city’s streets as it evolved from a booming late-nineteenth-century industrial center to a troubled mid-twentieth-century metropolis.
To the eyes of impressionable boys without parents to shield them, St. Louis presented an ever-changing spectacle of violence. Small, loosely organized bands from the tenement districts wandered the city looking for trouble, and they often found it. The geology of St. Louis also provided for unique accommodations—sometimes gangs of boys found shelter in the extensive system of interconnected caves underneath the city. Boys could hide in these secret lairs for weeks or even months at a stretch.
            Bonnie Stepenoff gives voice to the harrowing experiences of destitute and homeless boys and young men who struggled to grow up, with little or no adult supervision, on streets filled with excitement but also teeming with sharpsters ready to teach these youngsters things they would never learn in school. Well-intentioned efforts of private philanthropists and public officials sometimes went cruelly astray, and sometimes were ineffective, but sometimes had positive effects on young lives.
Stepenoff traces the history of several efforts aimed at assisting the city’s homeless boys. She discusses the prison-like St. Louis House of Refuge, where more than 80 percent of the resident children were boys, and Father Dunne's News Boys' Home and Protectorate, which stressed education and training for more than a century after its founding. She charts the growth of Skid Row and details how historical events such as industrialization, economic depression, and wars affected this vulnerable urban population.
Most of these boys grew up and lived decent, unheralded lives, but that doesn’t mean that their childhood experiences left them unscathed. Their lives offer a compelling glimpse into old St. Louis while reinforcing the idea that society has an obligation to create cities that will nurture and not endanger the young.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

List of Illustrations

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p. ix-ix

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pp. xi-xii

There are lots of reasons why writers choose the topics of their books. Most of them are personal. The reason I wrote this book is personal: because my own father could easily have been a “dead end kid,” a ...

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p. xiii-xiii

I owe a debt of gratitude to the Friends of the Missouri State Archives for awarding me a William E. Foley Research Fellowship in support of this project. Mike Everman, Pat Barge, and Sharon Kenny ...

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pp. 1-9

From the 1930s through the 1950s, a group of fictional young toughs known as “the Dead End Kids” captivated audiences on Broadway and in the movies. Sidney Kingsley’s melodramatic play, ...

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Chapter One - The City Streets

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pp. 10-22

Mark Twain came to St. Louis as an ambitious boy, dreaming of becoming a pilot on the Mississippi River. In the 1850s, he prowled the riverfront, boarding the steamboats that were ...

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Chapter Two - Orphans and Orphanages

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pp. 23-35

In the 1850s, a Harvard-trained minister named Charles Loring Brace came to the conclusion that cities were dangerous to the moral development of boys and girls. To put his ideas into practice, ...

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Chapter Three - Drifters in the City Streets

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pp. 36-45

Tattered bands of wandering boys haunted the streets of industrializing cities, where they sometimes strayed into lives of crime. British historian E. Royston Pike observed that, although there have

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Chapter Four - Games, Gangs, Hideouts, and Caves

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pp. 46-54

In the late nineteenth century, street boys coalesced into tribes or clans, the precursors of mid-twentieth-century gangs. Rebels and runaways gathered in groups for safety and companionship. In many cases, ...

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Chapter Five - Juvenile Delinquents and the House of Refuge

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pp. 55-67

As early as 1820, reformers in eastern cities took action to rescue wayward children from the life of the streets. During that decade, urban dwellers began using the term juvenile delinquents for ...

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Chapter Six - Child Savers and St. Louis Newsboys

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pp. 68-80

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, progressive reformers aimed to get children out of the workplace, off the streets, and into well-organized educational and ...

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Chapter Seven - City on the Skids

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pp. 81-92

Despite the efforts of Progressive Era reformers, the problem of footloose and lawless men and boys continued, and in some ways intensified, in the first three decades of the twentieth century. ...

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Chapter Eight - Young Men and Criminal Gangs

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pp. 93-103

The criminal gangs of the 1920s were mostly adult organizations, but they attracted boys as hangers-on, hero worshippers, messengers, and new blood. Young admirers of flamboyant outlaws sometimes ...

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Chapter Nine - A New Deal for Homeless Youth

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pp. 104-116

The Great Depress ion drew sharper attention to social outcasts, including the boys who traveled the nation’s railroads, highways, and streets searching for work or shelter. St. Louis’s Bureau ...

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Chapter Ten - Youth and the Changing City Streets

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pp. 117-127

According to historian Michael Bennett , postwar prosperity and the GI Bill brought about a “relandscaping of America.” With college educations and good jobs, many veterans moved their ...

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pp. 128-130

St. Louis, like other industrial cities, acted as a magnet, drawing young male adventurers into its vibrant and often violent center. Their noisy, messy, and unpredictable presence made the city more ...

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pp. 131-132

On Mother’s Day, 2005, I was trapped in an East St. Louis club called Popp’s. I say “trapped” because I had a stamp on my wrist that glowed under ultraviolet light, and the doorkeeper told me and my ...

Appendix: Glossary of Names

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pp. 133-140


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pp. 141-158


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pp. 159-168


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pp. 169-176

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272140
E-ISBN-10: 0826272142
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826218889
Print-ISBN-10: 0826218881

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 18 illus, 4 tables
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1