The Gun-Loving Boy Scouts of the Early 20th Century
In the early 20th century, a gun-toting group of uniformed teens took aim at the Boy Scouts of America. The American Boy Scouts (ABS) became known less for earning merit badges and helping old ladies cross the street than shooting off their rifles, often with deadly results. Their rise and fall reflects the militaristic fervor that took hold of the country during the World War I era, as well as a forgotten chapter in the history of U.S. gun control.
The ABS sprouted from the competitive spirit—or more likely spite—of New York Journal publisher William Randolph Hearst. The newspaper baron, who never liked to be outdone by another publisher, founded the group in May 1910 as an unsubtle response to Chicago publisher William Dickson Boyce, who had incorporated the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) just three months earlier. The boys in both groups went on outdoor trips, volunteered in the community, and read Boys’ Life magazine. But their practices differed in at least one significant way: Hearst’s scouts carried guns. Hearst believed boys should cultivate skill with firearms, and be prepared for service in the United States military, so rifles became standard accessories for ABS members.
They conducted drills and “sham battles”—sometimes in the middle of Manhattan—in which boys, dressed in their militaristic uniforms, shot at one another using blanks. Though ostensibly a training exercise for members, they proved effective publicity events and recruitment tools for boys who wanted to play soldier. Scouting was a new concept for most Americans at this time, but both groups enjoyed generous press coverage from their publisher-founders and a warm reception from the public, who were more used to seeing young boys as hollering newsboys or unsupervised irritants. Parents steadily enrolled their sons in the nascent organizations. By 1914, the BSA would claim more than 100,000 members (though the ABS kept few records, it claimed membership of similar volume).
Leaders and spokespeople for the two scouting groups sniped at one another, with each claiming that the other should change its name to avoid confusing the public. The American Boy Scouts boasted it had more members, while the Boy Scouts of America claimed the endorsement of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the original, English, Boy Scout organization. “[W]hile there should be a touch of the military, the movement should … prepare boys for efficient living rather than for possible war,” the BSA’s first managing secretary, John Alexander, told BSA President Colin Livingstone in 1910.
At first the two seemed evenly matched. Fueled by their publisher-founders, both groups were covered regularly in the papers of New York City and Chicago, with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle dedicating a weekly page to “With Brooklyn Boy Scouts,” providing a column to each group. But the Hearst organization lost ground. The BSA leadership solidified power on the national level, chartered new councils around the country, and standardized membership rules. The ABS kept holding its sham battles, but its leaders spent more time fundraising than building the organization, and Hearst soon lost interest. After expressing concern with how it was being run, he disowned the group. General Edwin McAlpin, the heir of a tobacco and real estate fortune, took over as Chief Scout, declaring: “I am accepting this honor and this labor without any desire for red fire.” However, he soon proved more eager for a fight than his predecessor.
The General believed in a strong national defense and saw scouting as an effective way to strengthen it—by teaching boys to be capable with rifles and to understand military discipline. He loved the trappings of armed combat and believed the Boy Scouts of America to be both too weak (having toned down the militarism of the original British Boy Scouts) and too religious (due to the early support the group received from the YMCA, among other things). He summed up his opinion of the BSA as “a bunch of religious enthusiasts—outright pacifists” and delighted in his role as general leading an army against its enemy.
But just six months into his tenure, the gun-toting militarism that so pleased McAlpin created a crisis. On March 23, 1912, 9-year-old Harry Luckhardt, his 10-year-old brother William, and their neighbor John Lightner—none of them members of either scouting group—walked home after filling up a few bottles from a spring near their uptown home. As they crossed a hill on a vacant lot at 169th Street in the Bronx, they encountered a group of five boys. One of them wore the uniform of the American Boy Scouts and carried a rifle.
The scout was 12-year-old Russell Maitland Jarvis (sometimes written as Maitland Russell Jarvis), considered the terror of the block by some in the neighborhood. He had just returned from an afternoon hike with his troop, and brought along the ABS-approved rifle. Playing police officer, Jarvis demanded the three boys put their hands in the air. William and John crouched behind a nearby wagon, but Harry dared him to shoot, making a crack about the scout uniform as he did. Jarvis pulled the trigger, shooting the nine-year-old in the stomach. Harry died soon after. His brother ran home and through gasps and tears told his mother, “Harry’s dead. A Boy Scout shot and killed him.”
After some questioning from detectives, Jarvis admitted to the killing and was taken into custody. The scout patrol paid a visit to the Luckhardt family to express their condolences. The shooting caused an outcry demanding that rifles, even unloaded ones, be banned from the organization. Technically the boys were only supposed to use blanks unless they were target shooting (Jarvis claimed that he meant to fire a blank), but since each member carried a fully operational rifle and had access to ammo through their troop, it was relatively easy for a Scout to turn lethal.
Though children were not allowed to carry handguns, the rules were looser about “long guns” typically used for hunting and target practice. Luckhardt’s father expressed fury at the law, which he said could forbid a man to carry a revolver but “allows a boy to carry a dangerous weapon about with him.”
“The shooting of a little boy by another trained to use a rifle is the logical and natural thing,” observed the editors of Quaker magazine The Friend. “Train a boy to kill, put the instrument in his hand, and why should he not kill?” The writer worried that if the “Army enthusiasts” in New York and California who at the time were urging that rifle practice be offered in public schools as a similar sort of military preparation got their way, “killing will become promiscuous in America.”
The Boy Scouts of America expressed some of the loudest criticism about the rules, taking the opportunity to shame McAlpin and his scouts.
“These imitation organizations have been devoting themselves to one line of work, such as military drill and target shooting,” James E. West, the chief scout executive for the BSA, told Boys’ Life in May 1912. “When boys wish to become a Boy Scout, parents said, ‘All right,’ not knowing there are different organizations. That was the way with Mrs. Jarvis, mother of the boy who did the shooting.” West declared that members of the BSA would not be allowed to carry firearms and troops would take no part in military drills. The same issue of Boys’ Life included news of more than 1300 members of the American Boy Scouts troop in Los Angeles filing a petition to join the Boy Scouts of America. To do so, they were told to stop carrying firearms and drop their military training. They happily agreed.
Despite the bad press, the American Boy Scouts solidified its militaristic stance in July 1913 when an Arms Selection Committee chose the .22 caliber Remington No. 4S rifle as “the Official Arm of the American Boy Scouts.” The single-shot, military-style rifle, complete with leather sling strap and bayonet, cost the scout $8 and would be known as the “American Boy Scout Rifle” from that point on.
But before the year was up, another Scout would kill. An American Boy Scouts patrol of 15 members went camping on Christmas Day in a woody area of Peekskill, New York. A few of the boys had gotten a campfire going and began preparations for a rustic Christmas feast.
Monroe Kniskern, 13-year-old son of Episcopal Reverend E.M. Kniskern, lost interest in the proceedings when he spotted a rifle leaning against a nearby tree. It belonged to Wilbur Wright, a fellow scout, who had gotten it as an early Christmas present and brought it on the outing to show off to the other boys. Kniskern’s curiosity got the best of him and he began to play with the weapon. Few paid any attention to him. Then the gun went off in his hands.
The rifle report was followed by a scream and the other scouts looked up to see 14-year-old Edward Webb face down on the ground. The pastor’s son had accidentally shot him in the back of the head. A doctor rushed to the scene, but he was soon followed by the coroner. The Christmas entertainment that the nearby Peekskill Church had planned was canceled in light of the tragedy.
The continued bad press led parents to pull their children from the group and many of the leaders to abandon the organization. Rather than changing the group’s rules, though, McAlpin changed its name to “United States Boy Scout.” This rebranding, along with increased interest in training young men for the military following the outbreak of World War I, helped keep the rival Scouts relevant for several more years, even if its membership dwindled to a fraction of the fast-growing BSA.
But it would not be the disorganization of the group’s leaders—or the boys killed by the group’s members—that would undo the U.S. Boy Scout. What would eventually take the USBS down was the tenacity of the Boy Scouts of America.
BOY SCOUTS ON THE OFFENSE
While a few passionate leaders like McAlpin stuck around, most of the USBS’s leaders left by the time the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, replaced by professional solicitors focused solely on how to wring out as many fundraising dollars as possible for the group. Their strategies devolved into simply misleading parents and donors into thinking they were contributing to the BSA, not its gun-toting rival. The USBS set up offices in the same building as the BSA and claimed the support of prominent people who thought they had endorsed the more respected group. Even when checks written explicitly to “Boy Scouts of America” were sent to the USBS’s address, the solicitors pocketed the funds for themselves.
The BSA’s leaders struggled to expose its rival’s deceptions and make clear that it was distinct from these armed scouts, as they had going back to the shooting of Harry Luckhardt. After years of trying to coexist with this dangerous doppelgänger, BSA Chief Scout James E. West recognized that his only option was to destroy USBS.
With the aid of a powerful legal team led by Charles Evan Hughes, former governor of New York and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the BSA launched a New York Supreme Court lawsuit against the USBS. The aggressive campaign heaped legal and public relations pressure on the USBS, shining a spotlight on the group’s double dealings that outshone even the bad headlines about dead boys. As legal expenses and negative publicity mounted, the USBS’s fundraisers recognized they had few other options but to settle. In March 1919, the court handed down its decision, ordering that the USBS could not use any version of “Scout” or “Scouting” in its name, effectively ending the group, or at least its ability to fundraise off the BSA’s name.
“It is with great satisfaction that I am able to definitely inform the National Council, and through the National Council the whole constituency, that the suit of the Boy Scouts of America against the United States Boy Scout has concluded,” West gloated in his organization’s annual report for 1919. West could not hide his pleasure at having finally undone the United States Boy Scout. By vanquishing his rival, West solidified his ownership over the very concept of scouting and the proper way to instill ideals into America’s young men. Under his leadership, the Boy Scouts of America would grow into a vast operation, with millions of members. It no longer has serious competitors, armed or otherwise—and continues to forbid firearms on any outings not specifically designated for target shooting.
This article was adapted from The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York (Lyons Press, 2015).