Looking through the early 20th century prisoner records books at the City of Vancouver Archives, one thing that stands out is the number of young boys who were hauled before the courts. The youngest I’ve come across is 11 year-old Mitchell Doyle, a chronic bike thief. The scribe who documented his case in the prisoner record book noted that Doyle was from BC and a “Quarter Breed…This boy had stolen other Bicycles & had been let go on suspended sentence twice before.” His arrest on 26 August 1903 resulted in a three month jail term.
An article in the 22 October 1904 Province newspaper entitled “Police Court was like a Baby Show” provides some more illustrative cases. My favourite is the case of 15 year-old Frank Fenchen, who was charged with creating a disturbance at the East End School (since renamed Lord Strathcona) even though he was not a student there.
Principal Gregory H Tom claimed Fenchen had made a calculated attempt “to break discipline, to a certain extent, at the school” by leaning over the fence, making remarks to the students lining up, and waving his hands at them. Fenchen rebutted that he was merely speaking to a friend of his and waved to other friends he saw in the line up.
To give the court a sense of the boy’s bad attitude, the prosecutor grilled Fenchen about another interaction he had with Principal Tom:
‘Since this occurrence did you not see Mr. Tom? What did you tell him?’ asked Prosecuting Attorney Farris.
‘Yes, I saw him about a licking that had been given to my smaller brother.’
‘What did you tell him?’
‘I said if he touched my brother again he would have his block knocked off,’ said the youth.
‘But tell us just what you said,’ persisted Mr. Farris.
‘I said he would have his d— block knocked off,’ repeated the lad.
‘No, but just exactly what you said,’ questioned counsel.
‘Well, I said he would have his G— d— block knocked off,’ reeled off the witness.
The judge considered “the boy’s demeanor and general actions” alongside the testimony of Principal Tom and found that an offence had indeed been committed under the School Act. Frank Fenchen was fined $5.
In another case, Francis Berry was charged with failing to make sure his ten year-old son attended school. Berry told the judge that “the lad was a good boy except for this one fault of being unable to arrive at school after being sent.”
Although he admittedly had no children of his own, Magistrate Williams lectured Mr Berry on how to make his son more obedient so as not to become
a fit subject for the reformatory…Can’t you pick out a section of his cuticle upon which you can make a lasting impression? … If I had that boy I would blast him so hard that he would have to lie around on his stomach for awhile – something that he would really remember. Why don’t you take him over your knee and then go at him with a slipper, so that he won’t be able to sit down on that spot for a week or two?
The judge handed down a suspended sentence. If the lad continued to miss school, he said, “the court would see that the provisions of the School Act were enforced.”
The same day, “three small boys from Fairview were fined $1 each for shooting off a rifle.”
Another shooting incident in 1904 was much more dramatic, not to mention fatal. Sixteen year-old John Kay broke into the cabin of John Spittal on Lulu Island and stole some guns. Spittal was a hunter and returned home in time to catch Kay in the act. Even though Spittal was himself armed with a shotgun at the time, Kay shot him dead and then dragged the body into the cabin. Six weeks later, the corpse was discovered and soon after Kay was arrested.
According to the prisoner record book, John Kay’s run-ins with the law began at the age of twelve. His father theorized that a kick in the head when he was three by a horse had turned the boy into bad seed. In 1903, Kay served three months hard labour for stealing “sacks and chickens.” Another time he tried to pass forged cheques. After getting caught for breaking entering he received a suspended sentence on the condition that his father “would take him out of the country.” From there, Kay went to Dawson City, where he continued his criminal career. In reporting his death, the Yukon World wrote:
He was in Dawson for a time and his history here as a petty larcenist is pretty well known to the police and others who possessed his acquaintance. Twice he was before the magistrate upon the charge of burglary and it was only his tender age that saved him from a severe sentence. He was finally sent out of the country virtually under police escort, and soon after that he landed in Vancouver [where] he again engaged in nefarious pursuits.
John Kay was sentenced to hang on 17 January 1905 for the murder of John Spittal. He managed to cheat the gallows, however, when the tuberculosis he contracted in prison killed him on 10 December 1904.