Syracuse University Magazine

The Muckers

The Muckers

A historian uncovers a long-forgotten manuscript in the Special Collections Research Center that gives a rare firsthand account of a street kid's view of immigrant slum life in the late 1800s

By Woody Register

In early October 2012, during an extended research residency at the Syracuse Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, I began searching through the unindexed and minimally organized papers of William Osborne Dapping, a somewhat prominent, if mostly forgotten, mid-20th-century journalist from nearby Auburn. Born in 1880, Dapping graduated from Harvard in 1905 and amassed an impressive newspaper career (including a Pulitzer Prize in 1930). He rose high in the ranks of the state Democratic Party power structure and died in 1969 a respected journalist and esteemed citizen. Soon thereafter his modest collection of papers passed to the Syracuse Libraries, where his catalog biography describes him as a prize-winning “American journalist and editor from Auburn, New York.” 

William Osborne Dapping, Harvard man about age 20In actuality, there was much more to Dapping’s history than the official record allows. Before he was a Harvard man, Dapping was a “mucker,” which was street slang for a tough, grimy boy from the immigrant slums. Muckers were everywhere in late 19th-century cities: shining shoes, hawking newspapers, shooting craps, tormenting policemen, and sowing disorder in the lives of adults. Dapping ran with a tough gang of them in Yorkville on New York City’s Upper East Side. At age 16, he was “rescued” (in the reform terminology of the time) from both the slums and his chronically destitute family and entered an innovative school for unruly juveniles near Ithaca called the George Junior Republic. There he began the long process of cleansing himself of the muck of his disreputable past. His upward mobility was accelerated by Thomas Mott Osborne, a wealthy industrialist in Auburn and benefactor of the George Junior Republic, who made Dapping his ward, paid his way to Harvard, and set a place for him afterward at the newspaper he owned.

It was that part of Dapping’s life that had me searching through his papers. Above all, I hoped to find a document called “The Crapshooters Club,” an unpublished manuscript of 30,000 or more words, which I knew Dapping had penned in 1899 when he was 19 and had left the George Junior Republic to live with the Osborne family. The book was a collection of stories from his delinquent youth with a gang he called the Crapshooters Club. Dapping never found a publisher, and, based on what I knew then, all signs of the book faded after 1905. But there it was right where I hoped it would be—in one of the first boxes I opened. 

This fall—more than a century after he wrote it—Syracuse University Press published Dapping’s manuscript under the last title he assigned it: The Muckers: A Narrative of the Crapshooters Club. Students of American literature and history have every reason to celebrate. The Muckers is written entirely in the slum dialect of Dapping’s Upper East Side immigrant neighborhood. It is not a novel, but a collection of freestanding sketches portraying the mischief and petty criminality of the Crapshooters, narrated in the slangy, ungrammatical voice of their leader Spike. He and the other gang members—Mickey, Butts, Shorty, Red, Blinkey, and Riley—are fictionalized representations of boys from the poor but striving German and Irish families in Yorkville. 

The richness of its contribution lies in its rare firsthand account of immigrant and boy life at the turn of the century. It captures the alternative slang language they used, the elaborate and often sadistic games they played, the ingenious crimes and cruel pranks they hatched, and the spirited rebellion they staged against adult authorities. Dapping’s matter-of-fact and nonjudgmental “insider” exposé also reveals what other writers in his day were unable to convey with such authority: how muckers viewed the world they lived in and especially the well-meaning adults who sought to uplift them.

The Muckers also restores Dapping to the historical record, although I am all but certain he would greet the occasion with ambivalence. The Syracuse Press edition may vindicate a writer who labored fruitlessly for more than a decade to find a publisher, but it also exposes Dapping’s past, which he worked just as hard to hide from public knowledge. From the first word he wrote, Dapping insisted on anonymity, which defied and angered his patron Osborne. It also drove away would-be publishers, who preferred a redemption narrative about rising from the sordid abyss of the slums to the lofty heights of Harvard. 

Dapping refused to reveal himself, in part, because he knew that respectable people looked at boys from the slums with pity, scorn, and fear. From experience he knew they would bar him at the door of social acceptance—or worse, make him enter through the kitchen—if the truth came out. In the end, he signed his name to the last revision, but he presented himself as the editor, not the author, of the muckers’ stories. He invented a fictional alter ego, the gang’s leader Spike, to pose as his talkative narrator of the boys’ exploits and crimes. 

Instead of discrediting this work, the deceit may have worked a little like witness protection, shielding Dapping from reprisal so that he could tell his stories in his way. Authorities on urban social problems produced a vast, often sensationalized literature about the menace of street gangs. The Muckers is different. Dapping individualizes and humanizes the Crapshooters instead of portraying them as exotic and dangerous caricatures. His Crapshooters demand respect as well as their share of the pleasures of city life. They are charming, but down deep they are wily hustlers who laugh at the haplessness of their victims, whether “do-goody” social reformers or malicious cops. They need no one’s help to survive in a darkly violent world of poverty and sickness, where adults seek to cheat, exploit, and control them.

A good way to introduce Dapping, the Crapshooters, and the book’s distinctive voice is with Spike’s narration of the lavish banquet thrown in their cellar clubhouse to celebrate the gang’s founding. Spike dispatches the boys to hunt and gather—which is to say, swipe—coveted delicacies from the neighborhood’s storekeepers: jelly, oily sardines, canned salmon, plus anything else they can lay their sticky fingers on. They return with their bounty, but as is often the case with the Crapshooters, their skillfully executed mischief takes a comical turn. In this case, each tops off the feast with a hearty swig of purloined “mineral water,” or laxative, which they mistake for a tonic “what makes ye’ strong.”  

 

Woody Register is chair of the Department of History and the Francis S. Houghteling Professor of American History at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.



HELLGATE_final.jpgWilliam Osborne Dapping's photograph of the Heucken & Willenbrock lumber yard.

The Crapshooter's Housewarming

In an excerpt from the SU Press book The Muckers,  author William Osborne Dapping’s gang of street boys swipes stuff for a feast

Saturday night soon come around. First avenue as ushal was jammed with hawkers, peddlars … a yellin’ out their wares, women an’ kids … buyin’ stuff, and pilin’ in and out of the stores, or linin’ up on the curb to make bargains with the push-cart guys.…

Well, it was just about this time that the honorable members of The Crapshooter’s Club was stealthily droppin’ in, one by one, down into Dugan’s cellar, gettin’ ready fer the inaugural blow-out. There was to be a banquet, but first we had to swipe the stuff that was to go into our menu.…

As soon as I got there I announced me orders, which was to this effect: “Every guy wants to outdo himself tonight. This is the first blow-out of this club and we want some class to it. Each bloke wants to do his best an’ see how much he can swipe. The programme is this—first we hit Davey’s store, and after we have lifted all there is around there that is loose or if they get wise to us, we go on to Rafter’s store.… We ought to get a pretty good bunch of eats in the swag from them stores, and on the way back a couple of us can stop at Dutch Miller’s grocery store an’ get away with a couple o’ bottles o’ soda water.…” With that we gets out on the street, and starts down First avenue.

Davey’s is a great big cheap grocery store, and on Saturday nights it is packed with East Side housewifes buyin’ groceries fer a week. Outside the store they have great, red tubs. One’ll be full o’ cans o’ corn; another’ll have cans o’ salmon, another pickle bottles, sardines, catsup, washin’ soda and so on.…

When we got near the store—oh joy! There on the curb was piled up a pyramid of small, wooden pails decorated with labels showin’ clusters of flowers, fruits an’ berries! We knowed at a glance what them labels meant. Jelly! “Them’s our meat!” we says quiet to each other. How the grocer left them out on the curb subjeck to the tender mercies of any muckers like us that come along is explained this way. The wholesale grocer’s wagon had been along that afternoon and left them there, and them Plat-deutsch, greenhorn, grocery clerks was too busy to take them inside. Consequently some of them pails went South with some of our push when we come that way.

I never seen such a slick job done before, neither. I have saw many good jobs pulled off, some right under the cops’ noses, but none ever raised so much respeck in me as the trick that Shorty and Riley put over. We had hardly got in front of the store and none of us had even took a look in to see whether anybody was watchin’ when Shorty steps up to one o’ them red tubs, digs down into it an’ picks up a lot of articles like he was the proprietor’s own son fillin’ an order, and walks off whistlin’. Nobody but thought that he was payin’ good money for them articles.

At the same time Riley, pretendin’ he was an errand boy fer the grocer, pushes through a crowd o’ wimmin as was examinin’ the jelly labels, picks up a pail in each hand, and goes follerin’ Shorty down the avenue.…

Me and Mickey joins the rest of the bunch who was still hangin’ around Davey’s waitin’ fer a good chance.

That bold work done by the other guys put it up to us pretty hard. I, meself, was just screwin’ up courage to walk half-way into the store where there was a ten pound can with a glass front showin’ some nifty, fruit crackers. I was about to nail that can when I heard Buttsy’s voice yellin’ “cheese it, the cop!” and of course it was dig out! We beat it at top speed down the avenue never stoppin’ to see whether we or the cop was gainin’, an’ stopped on’y when we was out of breath. As a matter of fact the cop what caused the stampede never even knowed that we was pipin’ off the place, and he kep’ on his way, swingin’ his club gently as he strolled down past the store chewin’ an apple that he picked off some … fruit stand.

After we got together again we hiked it fer Rafter’s. There we found a dandy “show.” That means everything easy fer us to steal anythink. I walks up to a pile of packages, lifts up a few kind of easy so as not to tumble down the whole pile, and starts to walk off. Then a big Irish biddy, who was fussin’ around with her basket when I done it, an’ was probably crookin’ somethink her self, seen me and starts to yell. She goes into the store to put up a holler, so the rest o’ the guys tells me to blow. I makes fer the gutter an’ starts beatin’ it hotfoot fer other territory. I got a good start, an’ when the clerks come out all they see was the direction I took. Mine, too was a safe getaway.

It was nix fer the rest there that night and after hangin’ round near that store waitin’ fer a chance fer a longtime they give it up, and goes back to Davey’s.

Butts again takes his place to “lay keegie,” but there was no good show fer so long that the word was passed to hit ’em up, caught or no-caught. When fellers decide to do that they are desperate, an’ they was waitin’ so long that they had begun to get cold feet. So jump in, sink or swim, was the order!

Blinkey and Red accordingly led off, swooped onto them tubs, shoved a couple o’ old wimmin over into them in their hurry, grabbed a mess o’ junk, and lit out down the street, with a strappin’ Dutch grocery clerk at their heels.

The remainin’ Crapshooters chased along behind the Dutchman ready to hand him somethink if he caught Blinkey or Red. He had no chance, though. His long apron tangled around his legs, and he was no ten-second man, at that. After he run five blocks he got winded, set on the curb and wiped the sweat off’n his face. They come along and was goin’ to punch him, just fer fun, but they wasn’t borrowin’ trouble, then.

Butts and Mickey was the last guys to show up at the club-rooms, and they was empty-handed.… I sent them out to see whether they couldn’t swipe a few bottles of soda water from Dutch Miller’s store, just up the street a ways.… 

[Later we] heard clinkin’ bottles … it was Mickey and Butts comin’ back.… Butts sets down a lot of bottles, and turns to the rest of us.

“Now dont youse fellows kick because we brung back seltzer water instead of soda water. Dutch Miller was standin’ right in the door-way and we could not wait all night fer him to get out of our way an’ give us a chance. So we had to try something elst. Mickey suggested that we try the row of woodsheds in the cellar of the … flathouse down the block. So down we goes. He clim’ over the partitions and hands out what he finds. It was them bottles. Four of them is seltzer, the other is somethink elst. I dont know what…. The label says its mineral water, so instead o’ chuckin’ it away, I kep’ it.”

“Let’s see it,” says I. I see it says “Hunjady” on the label, and that was too many fer me. I didn’t know nothin’ about it so I hands it over to Shorty who wanted to inspect it. He knowed what it was right away. He says: “I know what that is. I used to work in a drugstore an’ we sold quarts an’ quarts o’ that stuff. It’s expensive stuff an’ doctors recommend it. I think it costs half a plunk a bottle. Its mineral water what comes from Germany and makes sick people strong.”…

Well, we sure had a swell banquet. Red was cook, and he announced the list of plunder. Say bo, maybe there wasn’t some class to it! And more ’n you could eat, too! Red says: “Here is one pail of apple butter, and one pail current jelly—these to the credit of Brother Riley!”

“Yea bo!” yells the crowd.

“An’ here’s six cans o’ nice oil sardines, what Shorty nipped fer us.”

“He’s a good kid!” says Butts.

“Here’s five packages o’ stuff what you put on cakes. Let’s see what you call it? The printin’ says: ‘Shredded cocoanut.’ Then we got three cans o’ Columby river salmon, and them two big bottles o’ Pride o’ Long Island catsup, which Red hooked.… Aint this a swell lay-out?”…

Well, I first divvied up the shredded cocoanut. It was bum stuff. All cut up fine, packed together and sweet. Would have made pretty good plug chewin’ terbacker fer dudes. It didn’t go well with our gang. Some et some but most chawed it up into gobs, an’ threw it at each other or plastered up the walls with it. It was mighty satisfyin’ but didn’t make very good eats.

Then we pitched into the rest. We divvied everything on the square. After openin’ a can o’ sardines I take one fish, drink a sip of oil an’ pass it on to the next guy. He done the same, an’ passed it to the next, an’ so on until we cleaned out all them six cans. Sardines was one of our favorite things to swipe. Then come the salmon, each guy dumping out a handful. The catsup went next, each guy bein’ allowed to take one big swig out of the bottle each time it was passed. Maybe that catsup didn’t go fine with that salmon! Then we drunk the seltzer, each guy swiggin’ out of the nozzle. We raised holy terror with that seltzer, squirtin’ it out of the siphons. Then come the jelly! We made pasteboard plates out of the shredded cocoanut boxes and scooped out all we wanted to eat when the pails was passed.

“Too much is plenty,” says Blinkey, plastered up to the ears with apple butter and current jell’. We had so much that the guys got lawless. They smeared it around and got so fresh that I had fer to call them down. We’d forgot about the mineral water when Riley … shouts: “Open up that mineral water, Spike, what makes ye’ strong. I want to get a pull at that before we close this banquet!”

I ripped off the tinfoil, dug out the cork, an’ took a good, healthy pull at the bottle. That was all I wanted. It was the punkest tastin’ stuff I ever drunk! It must a been stale, fer it was bitter and warm. “I’m poisoned,” says I, runnin’ fer the sink.

“No y’aint,” says Shorty, “that bum taste is what makes it valuable.” 

Well, them yaps really drunk up all that mineral water, twistin’ their faces into knots, but swallerin’ it because Shorty says it cost four bits a bottle.

At midnight we still had lots o’ apple butter left but they didn’t waste it when I adjourned the meetin’. They took it up on the street with them, and findin’ most of the house doors closed they smeared the knobs and stuffed the keyholes with the apple butter, like it was axle grease. An’ it might have been, from the taste it was beginnin’ to have about this time.…

But we didn’t have no pleasant dreams that night. Somethink we et or drunk gave us all a awful bellyache. Me own private opinion is that it was that expensive mineral water!  «



MUCKERS-3.1.jpg

George Junior Republic founder William R. "Daddy" George surrounded by the school's boy citizens, circa 1900.



EASTSIDE.jpgWilliam Osborne Dapping's photograph of tenement backyards in Yorkville, on New York City's Upper East Side, circa 1899.

TMO-GJR-INTRO-6.jpgThomas Mott Osborne joins his favorite citizens of the George Junior Republic for a photograph.

TMO-INTRO-5.jpgThomas Mott Osborne, a wealthy industrialist from Auburn, New York, and benefactor of the George Junior Republic, made Dapping his ward, paid his way to Harvard, and employed him afterward at the newspaper he owned.

JAIL-15.1.jpg

A new citizen, trying to beg for a meal at the George Junior Republic's restaurant, is shown the door and told to get a job and earn money to pay for his food. The photograph was posed to illustrate the school's motto, "Nothing Without Labor," and intolerance of pauperism, circa 1901.



Photos courtesy of Syracuse University Press



  • Grand Again
  • Beyond The Usual
  • Campus Transformation
  • The Muckers