Historian Uncovers Firsthand Account of 1800s Slum Life

The Muckers

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

Vintage sepia photo of group of muckers
George Junior Republic founder William R. "Daddy" George surrounded by the school's boy citizens, circa 1900. Photos courtesy of Syracuse University Press.

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.” 

In 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.

Vintage sepia photo of countless clotheslines stretched across the tenement backyards
William Osborne Dapping's photograph of tenement backyards in Yorkville, on New York City's Upper East Side, circa 1899.

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. 

In fall 2016—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. 

Vintage black & white portrait of Dapping
William Osborne Dapping, Harvard man, around age 20. Photos courtesy of Syracuse University Press.

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.

Dapping individualizes and humanizes the Crapshooters instead of portraying them as exotic and dangerous caricatures.

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.

Woody Register

This story was first published on December 14, 2017 and last updated on . It also appeared as “The Muckers” in the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of Syracuse University Magazine.


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