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When Bicycle Messenger Boys Peddled Drugs And Sex Across America (1908 – 1917)

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In 1908, Lewis Hine began taking photographs of bicycle messenger boys across America. Funded by the National Child Labor Committee (NCL), Hine recorded the lives of the boys who took messages on their bicycles from telegraph companies and drugs stores to homes, stores, brothels, panel-houses and offices. Hine was not there simply to observe the boys who played an integral part in creating and sustaining a rapid nationwide communications network, although one that went only so fast as a boy could pedal. He wanted to expose child-labor abuses. These messenger boys worked unsupervised, long hours and for little pay. They encountered seedy venues rife with crime, drugs and sex. The NCL found: “The messenger’s cap is an open sesame to the underworld.”

 

May 1910 "Harvey Buchanan, Postal Telegraph Co. Messenger No. 1908. 14 years of age. 1 year in service. Works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. $4 weekly. Visits houses of prostitution. Smokes."

May 1910
“Harvey Buchanan, Postal Telegraph Co. Messenger No. 1908. 14 years of age. 1 year in service. Works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. $4 weekly. Visits houses of prostitution. Smokes.”

 

NCL activist Edward N Clooper said the messenger boys were being sucked into a life of vice. He said the boys fetched the prostitutes “chop-suey, chili-con-carne, liquor, tobacco, opium, medicine and articles used in their trade, deposit their money in the bank and one instance was found in which a boy was actually acquired by a prostitute to clean up her room and make her bed.”

The boys were used as agents to “purchase cocaine  and opium… and for drugs used to render insensible the patrons of the disreputable house that they may be robbed by its inmates”.

It would not last: *

Western Union upgraded its message collection and delivery technologies only after 1940, when child labor and education laws, minimum wage laws, and unionization drove up the cost of human messengers. Without a messenger to deliver it, however, a telegram was no different than a letter or a phone call; Western Union lost its distinctive brand identity and its position in the communications marketplace steadily eroded after World War II.

 

November 1913 "Isaac Boyett, 'I'm de whole show.' The twelve year old proprietor, manager and messenger of the Club Messenger Service, Waco, Texas. The photo shows him in the heart of the Red Light District where he was delivering messages as he does several times a day. Said he knows the houses and some of the inmates. Has been doing this for one year, working until 9:30 P.M. on Saturdays. Not so late on other nights. Makes from six to ten dollars a week."

November 1913
“Isaac Boyett, ‘I’m de whole show.’ The twelve year old proprietor, manager and messenger of the Club Messenger Service, Waco, Texas. The photo shows him in the heart of the Red Light District where he was delivering messages as he does several times a day. Said he knows the houses and some of the inmates. Has been doing this for one year, working until 9:30 P.M. on Saturdays. Not so late on other nights. Makes from six to ten dollars a week.”

messenger boy 1911

Danville Messengers. The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5 is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy. He said he was going to be laid off as the manager told him he was too young, but an older messenger told me the reason was that the other messengers were having him put off because he cuts into their earnings. See Hine report on Va. messengers for data about the tallest boy. Location: Danville, Virginia.

 

bicycle messenger boy

March 15, 1917
“Manley Creasson. Messenger #6, Mackay Telegraph Co. Says he is 14; school records say 13. Says he has steady job – “Been a messenger for years. Get $15 for 2 weeks’ pay.” Location: Oklahoma City.”

October 1913 "Eleven year old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall. Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls. Location: Houston, Texas."

October 1913
“Eleven year old Western Union messenger #51. J.T. Marshall. Been day boy here for five months. Goes to Red Light district some and knows some of the girls. Location: Houston, Texas.”

October 1913 "Postal messenger #6. Said he was 14, but he does not seem to be. Frail, tiny and stunted. Works until 11 P.M. Says he goes to the Red Light some, and gets 25 cents extra then. Location: Montgomery, Alabama."

October 1913
“Postal messenger #6. Said he was 14, but he does not seem to be. Frail, tiny and stunted. Works until 11 P.M. Says he goes to the Red Light some, and gets 25 cents extra then. Location: Montgomery, Alabama.”

bicycle messenger boy 1910

November 1910
“George Christopher, Postal Tel. #7, 14 years old. Been at it over 3 years. Does not work nights. Location: Nashville, Tennessee.”

June 1911 "Raymond Bykes, Western Union No. 23, Norfolk, Va. Said he was fourteen years old. Works until after one A.M. every night. He is precocious and not a little "tough." He told me he often sleeps down at the Bay Line boat docks all night. Several times I saw his mother hanging around the office, but she seemed more concerned about getting his pay envelope than anything else."

June 1911
“Raymond Bykes, Western Union No. 23, Norfolk, Va. Said he was fourteen years old. Works until after one A.M. every night. He is precocious and not a little “tough.” He told me he often sleeps down at the Bay Line boat docks all night. Several times I saw his mother hanging around the office, but she seemed more concerned about getting his pay envelope than anything else.”

October 1913 "Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with WU for six months, one month delivering for a drug store."

October 1913
“Curtin Hines. Western Union messenger #36. Fourteen years old. Goes to school. Works from four to eight P.M. Been with WU for six months, one month delivering for a drug store.”

November 1913 "Percy Neville, eleven year old messenger boy. Messenger boy #6 for Mackay Telegraph Company. Says he has been messenger for different companies for four years."

November 1913
“Percy Neville, eleven year old messenger boy. Messenger boy #6 for Mackay Telegraph Company. Says he has been messenger for different companies for four years.”

April 1912 "Happy but thoughtless. The messenger service is poor training for him. (Works for Dime Messenger Service). Location: Washington, D.C."

April 1912
“Happy but thoughtless. The messenger service is poor training for him. (Works for Dime Messenger Service). Location: Washington, D.C.”

September 1913 "Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers. Location: Waco, Texas."

September 1913
“Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Said fifteen years old. Exposed to Red Light dangers. Location: Waco, Texas.”

November 1913 "Fourteen year old messenger #2 Western Union, Shreveport. Says he goes to the Red Light district all the time."

November 1913
“Fourteen year old messenger #2 Western Union, Shreveport. Says he goes to the Red Light district all the time.”

November 1913 "Percy Neville, eleven year old messenger boy. Messenger boy #6 for Mackay Telegraph Company. He has been messenger for different companies for four years."

November 1913
“Percy Neville, eleven year old messenger boy. Messenger boy #6 for Mackay Telegraph Company. He has been messenger for different companies for four years.”

November 1913 "A typical messenger boy in New Orleans. The telegraph companies are trying to obey the law, and few violations occur."

November 1913
“A typical messenger boy in New Orleans. The telegraph companies are trying to obey the law, and few violations occur.”

November 1913 "Howard Williams, thirteen year old delivery boy for Shreveport, La. Drug Company. He works from 9:30 A.M. to 10:30 P.M.; has been here three months. Goes to the Red Light every day and night. Says that the company could not keep other messenger boys; they work them so hard."

November 1913
“Howard Williams, thirteen year old delivery boy for Shreveport, La. Drug Company. He works from 9:30 A.M. to 10:30 P.M.; has been here three months. Goes to the Red Light every day and night. Says that the company could not keep other messenger boys; they work them so hard.”

October 1913 "Fifteen year old delivery boy for Linders Drug Store.... He works from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M. Location: Dallas, Texas."

October 1913
“Fifteen year old delivery boy for Linders Drug Store…. He works from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M. Location: Dallas, Texas.”

November 1913 "Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message.... He said gleefully 'She gimme a quarter tip.'"

November 1913
“Percy Neville in the heart of the Red Light district. Just come out of one of the houses with message…. He said gleefully ‘She gimme a quarter tip.'”

June 1911 "Postal Telegraph boy, Danville, Va. That night he refused to show me through the Red Light District, said the manager did not permit them to go on such errands."

June 1911
“Postal Telegraph boy, Danville, Va. That night he refused to show me through the Red Light District, said the manager did not permit them to go on such errands.”

October 1913 "Luther Wharton, drug store delivery boy, twelve years old. Works from 4:00 P.M. to midnight in Sommers Drug Store. I saw him working at midnight. He goes to school in the daytime, then works from four to twelve. Sundays half a day. Gets $5.00 a week."

October 1913
“Luther Wharton, drug store delivery boy, twelve years old. Works from 4:00 P.M. to midnight in Sommers Drug Store. I saw him working at midnight. He goes to school in the daytime, then works from four to twelve. Sundays half a day. Gets $5.00 a week.”

November 1910 "Postal Telegraph messenger. Location: Birmingham, Alabama."

November 1910
“Postal Telegraph messenger. Location: Birmingham, Alabama.”

October 1914 "A typical Birmingham messenger."

October 1914
“A typical Birmingham messenger.”

May 1915 "'Red Line' messenger service.... Location: Sacramento, California."

May 1915
“‘Red Line’ messenger service…. Location: Sacramento, California.”

August 1911 "Young messenger in New Bedford, Massachusetts."

August 1911
“Young messenger in New Bedford, Massachusetts.”

August 1908 "A.D.T. Messenger Boy, Indianapolis, 10 P.M."

August 1908
“A.D.T. Messenger Boy, Indianapolis, 10 P.M.”

April 1912 "Young messenger making an office call. Location: Washington. D.C."

April 1912
“Young messenger making an office call. Location: Washington. D.C.”

October 1913 "Marion Davis, Messenger #21 for Bellevue Messenger Service. Fourteen years old. 'Been messenger, off and on, for two years. Not supposed to go to the Reservation under sixteen years, but I do just the same. The boss don't care and the cops don't stop me.' Location: Houston, Texas."

October 1913
“Marion Davis, Messenger #21 for Bellevue Messenger Service. Fourteen years old. ‘Been messenger, off and on, for two years. Not supposed to go to the Reservation under sixteen years, but I do just the same. The boss don’t care and the cops don’t stop me.’ Location: Houston, Texas.”

October 1913 "Fourteen year old Western Union Messenger #43. Works until 10:30 P.M. Goes to Reservation some. Location: Houston, Texas."

October 1913
“Fourteen year old Western Union Messenger #43. Works until 10:30 P.M. Goes to Reservation some. Location: Houston, Texas.”

March 1911 "Leo Day, Postal Telegraph Messenger, 12 years old, and a very knowing lad. Location: Tampa, Florida."

March 1911
“Leo Day, Postal Telegraph Messenger, 12 years old, and a very knowing lad. Location: Tampa, Florida.”

June 1911 "Hodges Gallop, Western Union Messenger No. 16, Norfolk, Va.... Been working here one month. He, and several other young boys, work until 10:30 P.M."

June 1911
“Hodges Gallop, Western Union Messenger No. 16, Norfolk, Va…. Been working here one month. He, and several other young boys, work until 10:30 P.M.”

June 1911 "Hodges Gallop, Western Union Messenger No. 16, Norfolk, Va.... Been working here one month. He, and several other very young boys, work until 10:30 P.M."

June 1911
“Hodges Gallop, Western Union Messenger No. 16, Norfolk, Va…. Been working here one month. He, and several other very young boys, work until 10:30 P.M.”

April 1912 "Wilbur H. Woodward, Washington, D.C., Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only."

April 1912
“Wilbur H. Woodward, Washington, D.C., Western Union messenger 236, one of the youngsters on the border-line, (15 yrs. old) works until 8 P.M. only.”

April 1912 "Earle Griffith and Eddie Tahoory, working for the Dime Messenger Service. They said they never knew when they were going to get home at night. Usually work one or more nights a week, and have worked until after midnight. They said last Christmas their office had a 9 yr. old boy running errands for them, and that he made a great deal of money from tips. They make about $7 a week and more, sometimes. Said "'The office is not allowed to send us into the red light district but we go when a call sends us. Not very often.'"

April 1912
“Earle Griffith and Eddie Tahoory, working for the Dime Messenger Service. They said they never knew when they were going to get home at night. Usually work one or more nights a week, and have worked until after midnight. They said last Christmas their office had a 9 yr. old boy running errands for them, and that he made a great deal of money from tips. They make about $7 a week and more, sometimes. Said “‘The office is not allowed to send us into the red light district but we go when a call sends us. Not very often.'”

bicycle messenger boy Texas

October 1913
“Preston DeCosta [i.e., De Costa?], fifteen year old messenger #3 for Bellevue Messenger Service. I ran across him and took photos while he was carrying notes back and forth between a prostitute in jail and a pimp in the Red Light. He had read all the notes and knew all about the correspondence. He was a fine grained adolescent boy. Has been delivering message and drugs in the Red Light for 6 months and knows the ropes thoroughly. ‘A lot of these girls are my regular customers. I carry ’em messages and get ’em drinks, drugs, etc. Also go to the bank with money for ’em. If a fellow treats ’em right, they’ll call him by number and give him all their work. I got a box full of photos I took of these girls – some of ’em I took in their room.’ Works until 11:00 P.M. Location: San Antonio, Texas.”

June 1911 "A typical group of Postal Messengers in Norfolk, Va. Smallest on left end, Wilmore Johnson, been there one year. Works days only. The Postal boys are not nearly so young, in Norfolk and also in other Virginia cities, as are the Western Union boys."

June 1911
“A typical group of Postal Messengers in Norfolk, Va. Smallest on left end, Wilmore Johnson, been there one year. Works days only. The Postal boys are not nearly so young, in Norfolk and also in other Virginia cities, as are the Western Union boys.”

March 15, 1917 "Ben Collins. Been working steady for Mackay Telegraph Co. for 1 month. 13 years old. Says he makes $5 a week. Location: Oklahoma City."

March 15, 1917
“Ben Collins. Been working steady for Mackay Telegraph Co. for 1 month. 13 years old. Says he makes $5 a week. Location: Oklahoma City.”

 

Via: Lewis Hine, Mashable, Design ObserverTelegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology, and Geography, 1850-1950, by Gregory J. Downey 

  • klaus.gebhard

    Thanks for these wonderful photos and information. I would have to say my favorite was the 15-yr. old smoking the pipe.
    I think that if I was at this same age over a hundred years ago I would have been doing this same job. Makes me yearn for my paper route days!

  • DoomedCoast

    Incredibly, every one of these boys eventually became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. “Few would anticipate that childhood work as bicycle riding drug dealing male prostitutes would serve as the ideal training ground for such future work.” -Howard Zinn

  • David Wilma

    In 1908 James Casey and his partner Claude Ryan started a delivery service in Seattle’s red light district today’s Pioneer Square. The working girls were not permitted to travel to the retail part of town so they ordered packages delivered by American Messenger Service. The headquarters was in the basement of a saloon. Casey took his idea to other cities and rebranded it United Parcel Service.