MY FIRST POSITION AND EXPERIENCE WITH MESSENGER BOYS
[Published in the San Antonio Daily Light, Sunday, April 23, 1905]
by Jerry Newton, 142 West Commerce Street, San Antonio, Texas.
[Jerry Newton was the son of John C. Newton and Elizabeth Snyder. He lived from 1846-1917, serving in the Union army during the Civil War, and running telegraph offices in Houston and San Antonio. He worked in other offices in other cities, but I have not tracked them down as yet. He also published some books of poetry in his latter years. He was married twice (that I know of) and appears to have had several children who seem to have all died young. In this article he mentions a diary that he kept for all his working life. What a treat it would be to have a copy of that diary!]
Next messenger out number 147. Then there was commotion in the neighborhood of the long settee used for seating messengers in the Telegraph office.
Thirty-seven years ago, at a time when young men were seeking positions which were not plentiful in those days, owing to the vicissitudes and very material changes in conditions, brought about by a long devastating war between the states, goaded by a keen desire to become a telegraph man, and also by necessities naturally surrounding a young man left entirely alone, without funds, education or influence, I sallied forth to meet the fortuitous fates, be they generous or cruel. During my peregrinations in search of employment I turned up in a town in southeastern Missouri. While strolling listlessly down the main street of the town, looking from side to side at the different signs, plain and gaudy, my attention was attracted by a small unpretentious sign with blue background and white letters "W. U. T. Co." At that time I was not at all familiar with telegraph signs, or any other kind as for that, and the one referred to was indeed obscure, remote and quite an enigma to me. I stood mutely gazing at the sign oblivious to surroundings in my effort to decipher the letters. A "good morning, young man," from a passing gentleman dispelled my reverie. I responded to his salute and with but little delay or hesitation asked him if he could tell me what the letters "W. U. T. Co." were intended to convey. He very generously gave me the desired information, and after some little talk passed on.
I gazed with fickle courage up the long flight of grimy stairs in front of which the sign was suspended by two small wires. These steps were the only means of reaching the second floor of a rickety old frame building. A chilly rigor seized me which it took some moments to shake off. Finally that hope which springs eternal, chastised me for my timidity and lack of confidence. Necessity goaded me and bade me be brave. Encouraging fancies of honor, and of fame I might achieve by becoming an expert telegrapher smote my timidity, and partially dissipated my doubts and misgivings.
With slow step I ascended the time-worn stairway with a certain degree of fear and dread. Reaching the second floor I steadied myself by leaning against a stair post, took a few deep long inhalations of fresh air, and began surveying the surroundings. At the far, or back, end of a long unkempt hall I beheld a smaller sign than the one I had seen at the street entrance, which bore the same insignia. I walked leisurely down the hall, endeavoring to compose myself, until I reached the entrance of what I afterwards learned was the receiving room. With some difficulty I partially assumed an air of confidence and unconcern, and walked in. There was a crude counter which reached entirely across one end of a long room, dimly lighted by four old-fashioned windows, bedaubed with grime and festooned with numerous cob-webs and spider nets. At one end of the counter there was an opening for the ingress and egress of the office force. This apperture [sic] was closed with a shutter made of crude ungainly lumber with a conspicuous placard tacked thereon which bore the legend "Private, Keep Out."
Everyone in the office seemed to be busy. As I had noiselessly entered I had not, apparently[,] attracted the attention of anyone. After taking a hurried glance at the surroundings I stepped up to the counter and gave the accustomed rap to attract attention, when a weezled-faced, dapper youth observed my presence and came forward to the counter. With what I considered a haughty air he asked what he could do for me. I sized him up as being the president, or some high official, of the company, judging from the lofty attitude he assumed. As I look back through the vista of years fancy pictures the humilated and embarrassed aspect I presented when I meekly informed him that I was in search of employment.
Almost before I had finished making my mission known he with much indifference, replied: "We do not need anyone at present." He doubtless observed the depression his reply caused me, and his chilly mien seemed tempered with a spark of sympathy. When I started to retrace my steps he called me back and inquired if I had had any experience in the telegraph business. I sorrowfully admitted that it had not been my good fortune to have had an opportunity to enjoy advantages or to obtain knowledge in that line, and added that I was
more than anxious and ready to do anything legitimate, or any kind of work which would enable me to obtain necessaries adequate to maintaining myself until I could by faithful application become familiar with the business, the intricacies of which I had a great desire to master.
My straight forward talk seemed to impress him favorably. He excused himself a moment and walked over to a desk at which an elderly gentleman sat; returning he invited me to come inside, at the same time asking my name, and pointing to the opening at the end of the counter. I readily accepted his invitation, feeling elated even to get a view of the operating department that I might get a glimpse of the machinery and strange devices peculiar to a business which I had been informed were dependent upon lightning for operation. He conducted me to where the elderly gentleman sat at an old-fashioned rather dilapidated desk and introduced me to Mr. Hartwell, adding that "Mr. Hartwell is our superintendent."
I was received cordially by the superintendent, his courteous, dignified manner was indicative of the true polished man of affairs. He motioned me to an old split bottomed chair with the words "be seated." I briefly made my mission known to him. His every word was tempered with kindness. A moment in his presence made me feel entirely at home. I began at once to take courage. The ordeal changed and became pleasant instead of burdensome. He asked me if I was willing to clean battery, sweep office and assist in the delivery of telegrams. I could hardly wait for him to complete his remarks, but I remembered the golden teachings of a devout mother and suppressed my inclinations to talk until he had finished, at which time my answer came quickly, "Yes, sir, and I will devote my entire abilities and energies to fullfllling, my obligations, my adherance to business will convince you that I am as anxious to work as I am to get the chance to do so."
He asked me if I could read and write reasonably well. I told him I could do both fairly well, and felt assured that in a short time I would improve very perceptibly. "I think you will suit me," was his cheering response. He then gave me the most pleasing surprise of my life, before or since it was my pleasure and good fortune to meet him, by remarking: "Commencing tomorrow, December 1, your salary will be forty dollars per month. You may report for duty tomorrow morning, and your number will be 147."
Forty dollars per month, shades of Moses! I could hardly believe my hearing apparatus had served me correctly. Forty dollars per month continued to ring in my ears; visions of all kinds of money of large and small denominations floated before my fancy's gaze. My chalice was filled to overflowing with the nectar of joy. I was enthused beyond expression, yea, was very happy. I managed to suppress the choking sensation in my throat and thanked the dear old gentleman profoundly and profusely, at the same time stepping to his desk. I grasped his soft white hand and repeated my thanks again and again.
I stood riveted to the spot, swayed by those blissful emotions that produce inexplicable joy, when smiles and tears mingle, as messengers from a heart full of unadulterated gratitude. An effort to suppress my emotions and tears was fruitless. The supreme felicity offered me knew no bounds. The dear old man's heart was also touched and he spoke words of sweet sympathy and encouragement which I have ever cherished with fondest recollections. It has ever been a sweet morsel for memory to feed upon, when flitting back to the time I secured my first position.
I ever afterwards entertained a high regard and deep respect for the good old man, which began at the incipiency of our acquaintance and ripened into that affectionate esteem which insures devotion and loyalty, especially to a benefactor who has bestowed friendship in the hour of dire need. My admiration for, and fealty to him continued until his demise in 1885. Peace to his ashes. Affectionate memories linger 'round his tomb and I shall ever revere and reverence his name, and cherish with fondest recollections the manifold bestowals of his generosity and kindness.
Buoyant and highly elated, early on the morning of December 1, I reported for duty, filled with emotions born of happy surroundings and a heart at ease, such a status yields a good harvest in any undertaking or cause espoused. I assisted my predecessor in the janitor work and was shown the different duties I was expected to perform. Divinely happy, nothing seemed impossible or improbable to me. The old German gentleman whom I relieved had been promoted to a position which he thought would suit him better, at a small advance in salary, and on the morning of the following day departed with a light heart for his new post.
Only a few weeks elapsed before the good hearted superintendent accorded me the privilege of learning the art of telegraphy, at which advantage I gladly availed myself. My every spare moment was devoted to that end.
Three months after I accepted the position as battery-man, janitor and assistant messenger I was placed in charge of the delivery department of the main office, and through my hands passed every message for delivery that came into the office from distant points. I was in charge of the entire messenger force, composed of boys ranging from 12 to 16 years of age; hence March 1st, 1868, marked the day when my real experience with messengers commenced.
I was comparatively new in the business, which fact the boys soon detected and readily took advantage of. Many were the tricks they played at my expense, pecuniarly and otherwise. It was not long, however, before the tide changed. I complained to the manager that I could do nothing with the messenger force unless I had absolute control of them, and asked him to clothe me with authority to discharge and employ at will, or when the interest of the service demanded it. This request he readily granted and when the boys found I was boss in fact there was a great change for the better. This gave me leverage and I soon had them in line.
In eight months after I accepted my first position I had mastered the art of telegraphy sufficiently to enable me to take charge of a small office, when I was made manager. I began to feel somewhat important, but endeavored to suppress any undue egotism. I had some attractive cards printed with my business thereon and imagined they were the prettiest cards that ever passed through a printing machine.
The office to which I had been assigned as manager afforded only one messenger, who received the munificent sum of $4 per month with the privilege of learning the business which he accomplished in a remarkably short time, and finally developed into one of the most expert operators.
It was not until I assumed charge of the delivery department in a large office that my interesting experience with the different types of the messenger boy began. There were 48 messengers employed in the office referred to, and they were as tough as the toughest specimens, I imagined; and I am still of the same opinion.
Since 1868, by actual count, kept in my diary, I have handled, employed, discharged and had to resign 17,489 messengers, hence have had ample opportunity to thoroughly study the natures of this especial wing of the human race; my experience has run the gamut, so to speak, and has indeed been varied, interesting, disgusting, serious, pathetic and mirthful. Patience and firmness has contributed largely to my success in handling boys.
It has been my fortune or misfortune to deal with types from all nationalities, save a few of the most remote, illiterate and heathenish. I am constrained to say, without reflection, intended or otherwise apparent that the German boy, as a rule, has proven himself the most tractable, devoted and trustworthy: that is the composition of a German boy seems more adapted to the needs essential for a long hard pull, where constant untiring devotion to business is required.
It is an incontrovertable fact that a large percentage of messenger boys have abnormal appetites. In this assertion, I dare say, merchants who handle pecans, peanuts, sweet potatoes, turnips, etc., will concur. The average messenger is ever on the alert for something with which to appease a gnawing hunger that seems to be innate, whether real or imaginary. Raw sweet potatoes and raw turnips may strike my readers as being an unwholesome, unsavory morsel, but to the palate of the messenger boy they are absolute ticklers.
During my thirty-seven consecutive years of service with a large telegraph company, I filled every position from janitor to manager; opportunities afforded me to observe human nature closely, in its many different phases have been abundant. Many years ago I had in my employ a delivery clerk in the person of a young lady, possessed of a high strung nervous temperment, she was indeed an esthetic little soul, in her general makeup.
By way of enlightenment for my readers I will state that, a delivery clerk in a large telegraph office of considerable importance, has almost entire control of the messenger force. There is usually a row of chairs, or a long bench similar to those used for lawn settees, for the seating of the messenger force. When they are in the office alll must sit with hats off until summoned by the clerk to take out messages, or a route, as they term it. These chairs or benches are ordinarily just back of the delivery clerk's desk, and very near to that supposedly, amiable personage, who has a buzz or electric call bell connecting the messengers bench with her desk, with which to call a messenger when it is desired to send one out. The clerk touches the button and the next messenger out does the rest.
You will perceive from the above that the delivery clerk and messenger boys are very closely allied, which at times does not guarantee the most pleasant surroundings. Among the many serious and ludicrous happenings in connection with the messenger boy, there are some that provoke mirth which it is difficult to subdue, even though it be necessary to promote that dignity which will insure good discipline and hold the belligerent messenger boy in line. A laughable incident in connection with the young lady and the messenger force comes to mind.
On a very summer's day, some twenty years ago, when the zephyrs had almost ceased to waft cooling and refreshing draughts to dissolve the contaminated oxygen, the density of which was very oppressive, the young lady referred to rushed over to my desk and in a very agitated demeanor remarked that she could not stand that odor any longer. It required several seconds for me to get my faculties together, sufficiently to make a reply, when to my relief it occurred that perhaps it was the corpse of a dead rat whence came the obnoxious odor.
I ventured to make known my dead rat theory, at the same time entertaining misgivings as to the real cause, knowing the weakness of the average messenger boy. The young lady replied "No, sir, it is not the odor from a dead rat, it is even worse; it is a conglomeration of offensive smells, created and thrown off by those messengers.
I stammered and coughed a few times searching for an answer that would suit the embarrassed situation. Finally I said: Miss K- I will have each messenger take a bath and make it a rule that no messenger will be retained in the service who does not bathe at least every other day, and who will not agree to abstain from eating peanuts, sweet potatoes, pecans and raw turnips, etc., while on duty. This seemed to satisfy the young lady and she returned to her desk when I heard her telling the boys of the new rule that was to be put in force.
The young lady that was, has now been married many years and has several messenger boys of her own. She tells me the experience she gained while handling telegraph messenger boys has proven very useful in the handling of her own.
When a new addition to the messenger force is employed he is quietly taken to some covert place and there coached by some member of the force who knows all the ropes. Among other things he is told that he must not go too swiftly when out delivering messages, if he does he will spoil the time killing arrangement that the older messengers have in vogue; also that many times he can with impunity ask for a dime or even more, when he delivers certain messages, but is warned that he must be d----d careful, if the old man (the manager)
catches on, you will catch h--l, and likely get fired, etc.
As previously stated, messengers have ravenous appetites, and will eat anything that is eatable. It may seem strange, and it may not be credited by some of my readers, but now and then it has been found that certain messengers are fond of smothered spring chicken, especially when surrounded with tempting condiments to add zest.
I remember having a call from a lady who resided on D street, in a certain city where I presided as manager, jointly, for a telegraph company that furnished messengers for all kinds of errands; the latter company delivered packages of all kinds charging a small fee for the service each trip.
The lady referred to, asked that a messenger be sent to a down town restaurant to bring to her residence a smothered spring chicken which she had ordered, adding that she was just convalescing from a serious protracted spell of sickness, and felt inclined to partake of such delicacies as might tempt her depressed and sluggish appetite. The restaurant proprietor happened to be a lady who was well acquainted with the lady just recovering from sickness, and in preparing the chicken sheo had been particular to give it her personal attention, adding all the tempting finishing touches she thought would appeal to the most rebellious appetite.
Messenger number 146, who was considered as good material as was had in stock was directed to call at the restaurant named for a package, to be taken to a lady on D street. A nicely wrapped and tied box containing the precious morsel was handed him with the injunction "Handle this package with care, it contains a smothered spring chicken for a sick lady."
When about half way on his mission the messenger began to feel a yearning to at least see the inside of the package. He soliloquized, "Spring Chicken. Gee it must be awful good." Goaded by morbid curiosity and that ever present desire in the messenger to eat, he dared to open the package; what he found in that box touched his fancies and must have temporarily dethroned his reason. Regardless of the after-clap his desire to taste that chicken could not be then subdued. He evidently relished the stolen sweets, as he consumed the best portion of the chicken, and the few remaining fragments he replaced in the box.
Before be had made his return the lady, although just out of a sick bed, called at the telegraph office and gave me a thorough tongue lambasting for keeping in my employ such villainously dishonest messengers. I begged of her to compose herself, assuring her that I would endeavor to remedy any loss she had sustained resulting from indiscretions or shortcomings on the part of any employe in the office I managed.
She continued: "It is an outrage on the public to give a boy employment who cannot be entrusted with a package containing a spring chicken. (The facts then dawned upon me.) When I opened the box containing the chicken, what do you suppose I found? Only a drum stick and part of a wing, and a small piece of toast remained."
I succeeded in smoothing the ruffled waters, by promising to send at once another spring chicken to her residence, and promised to send it by a boy who might not be afflicted with such an ungovernable and ravenous appetite, feeling at the same time I did not have one in my employ. The lady accepted this offer and departed.
The next thing was to interview and jack up the messenger. I stepped I stepped over to the delivery clerk's desk and told her to send messenger number 146 over to my desk when he came in. But few moments elapsed before number 146 reported and was told that I desired to see him. He came over to my desk with confusion and guilt depicted on his countenance. I asked him if he carried a package from a certain restaurant to a lady on D street. He became more visibly confused. I informed him of the lady's charge, which was that she claimed the package had been opened before it was delivered to her, and it appeared that all of the contents, a chicken, had been consumed save one leg and part of a wing.
He bitterly denied the lady's allegations and persisted in his innocence, endeavoring to arouse my sympathy with tears. Being so familiar with the tactics peculiar to the messenger boy, I went at him in another way. Well, I said, it is in order, if you are innocent, and I trust you are, to call on the lady and get a written statement from her that this package had not been opened when she received it.
He hung his head and was more non-plussed. I came to his relief by asking him which he had rather do, pay the cost of the chicken and the errand service a total of $1 or go back and see the lady. His answer came promptly: "I had rather pay the dollar."
[Edited by GMN, adding a few paragraphs to make reading a bit easier.]