As I was growing up on the East Side in the 1960s, I assumed that juvenile delinquency had been invented in the 1950s by some of Mr. T’s 1 percenters at Poly High. Probably during lunch period. Probably at the very lunchroom table I later sat at.
I was wrong.
Reports in the Fort Worth and Dallas newspapers of the 1890s chronicle the petty crime wave of a gang of Fort Worth brats known as the “Corndodgers.” Pretty cool gang name, eh? Los Angeles has its Crips and Bloods; West Side Story has its Sharks and Jets. Cowtown had its Corndodgers. But why were they called “Corndodgers”? I can find no explanation. Corndodger is a Southern term for a cake of corn bread. When applied to these boys, perhaps the term was a Dixiefied allusion to the Artful Dodger, a member of the gang of hooligans in Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
By the way, the illustrations that accompany these news clippings are from Fort Worth Gazette features and ads for boys’ clothing of 1890, when the Corndodgers first made headlines. But I doubt that the Corndodgers resembled these idealized images of 1890 boys any more than gang members of the 1950s resembled Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in West Side Story.
In fact, the boys in these newspaper illustrations look like the kind of boys whom the Corndodgers would have shoved into a mud puddle and then baptized with a raspberry chorus.
In the bottom clip of this panel, a Gazette reporter interviewed Otis Bernhart and Horace Hackett, two Fort Worth boys (“not more than twelve years of age”) who had been jailed for stealing the lunches of a work crew. The jaded Master Otis dismissed the Corndodgers as “little kids” but admitted that the Corndodgers were “fair” as thieves. As for his own skill as a thief, Master Otis said, “Well, I ain’t no slouch.” The two pint-sized perps ended the interview by asking the reporter to “send us up a pack of cigareets.”
This 1891 clip from the Dallas Morning News says the boys were from prominent families.
Indeed, in 1890 police officer Ben Bell nabbed two Corndodgers as they were stealing coal. Horace Haggart, only twelve years old at the time, was the son of architect Major Samuel B. Haggart, who partnered with Marshall Sanguinet. In the 1900 census Horace would be listed as a plumber. Carl Cromer, thirteen years old at the time, was the son of Henry R. Cromer, local jeweler and bicycle agent who in 1902 owned the first automobile in town. In 1895 Carl Cromer would be killed in a bicycle accident.
News of the Corndodgers spread even out of state. This clip is from the front page of the New York Evening World! Note that now the gang was alleged to have branches in other Texas towns, “a code of signals and other secret means of communication.” The exploits of the Corndodgers seem to have grown to mini-Mafia proportions.
But by late 1899, in part thanks to a kindergarten established “by some of the leading ladies of the city” in the Third Ward‘s Hell’s Half Acre (a natural nursery for such hooliganettes), the Fort Worth Register reported that the “holy terrors” had “ceased to add their petty thievery and deviltry to the troubles of that district.”
And so, at last, dear hearts, the streets and sidewalks were safe from Cowtown’s kiddie Corleones.