Where the Boys Are

By Greg Marquis

In his 2015 memoir South End Boy: Growing up in Halifax in the tumultuous ’30s and ’40s, former CBC radio and television personality Jim Bennet recalled the freedom that boys, some as young as five, had to roam the wharves, streets, alleys, railways tracks, shoreline, ponds and open spaces of the Nova Scotia capital. Whereas girls, at least in his family, lived relatively sheltered lives, urban boys were on the move, with little adult supervision, in search of adventure.[1] Similarly, interviews conducted for the anthology Occupied St. John’s stressed that the Newfoundland city-even in war time- was a giant playground for boys.[2]

My research into a 1902 murder case in Saint John, which took place a generation prior to Bennett’s experiences and those of the adults interviewed for the Newfoundland project,  uncovered a similar pattern for that industrial city: boys, especially of the working class, appeared to enjoy considerable freedom, away from the control of parents, teachers, employers and religious leaders.[3] Willie Doherty was an Irish Catholic teenager from a working class neighbourhood, most of it later lost to urban renewal, that was once called the East End.  It was a tenement district of low-story wooden buildings between Waterloo Street and Courtenay Bay. In addition to several corner stores and other small businesses, the East End was home to railway tracks, a tannery and a cotton mill. The population consisted of native-born Protestants and Roman Catholics and a few immigrants, notably ‘Syrians’ (Lebanese immigrants). The area was an early target of housing and other reformers including the playground movement.

Dime novels were thought to contribute to the boy problem

Dime novels were thought to contribute to the boy problem.

The East End was the subject of Saint John’s first housing survey in 1914.  As defined by 1940s urban planning and 1950s urban renewal advocates, the neighbourhood was not only a blighted area, it was also a source of social pathology, especially juvenile delinquency. The implication was that eradication of the neighbourhood- or large parts of it- would remove social problems.[4]  The murder of Doherty in nearby Rockwood Park (another threat to moral reformers) in 1902 threw into sharp focus the ‘boy problem,’ an issue identified by the 1890s if not earlier. Journalists, educators, maternal feminists, members of the clergy, police and municipal officials adopted both soft and hard approaches to the threat, the manifestations of which were truancy, voluntary unemployment, cigarette smoking, the use of bad language, loitering, the consumption of harmful popular culture such as dime novels and motion pictures, the carrying of weapons and involvement in petty crime, notably burglary and shoplifting. Individuals and organizations who advocated or implemented soft responses were motivated by the environmental and sentimental theories of the ‘child saving’ movement.  As detailed by Julia Grant, urban boys of poor, immigrant and minority backgrounds were a special challenge for American educators stating in the 1870s.[5]


Frank Higgins.

Doherty was last seen entering the park with two friends, Frank Higgins (another Irish Catholic resident of the East End) and Fred Goodspeed, a Protestant youth from the city’s South end. Depending on the newspaper, the boys were described as members of the Tan Yard gang, or the Opera House gang (named after a popular theatre in the city’s central area) and were suspected by police of involvement with burglaries. Once Doherty’s body was discovered, the authorities began interviewing the circle of boys who knew the three principals. The victim had been shot with a .38 calibre revolver, which raised public concern about handguns in the hands of juvenile delinquents.  Higgins and Goodspeed fled the city and were caught on the Maine border.  The investigation, coroner’s inquest, preliminary inquiry, grand jury proceedings and the Higgins trial were covered in considerable detail by Saint John’s daily newspapers, who sometimes printed multiple editions in a single day. Goodspeed, the Crown’s chief witness against the accused, claimed that the motive was a dispute over the proceeds of burglaries.  Higgins was convicted and the jury recommended mercy on account of his age. His lawyer was Roman Catholic and the petition to the Minister of Justice to spare his life appears to contain the names of many Catholic men (no women signed).  The sentence of death was commuted to life in in prison; Higgins was shipped off to Dorchester, from where he never returned, dying in 1927.

Although reporters produced sympathetic human-interest stories of the parents of all three boys, many press accounts portrayed 16 year-old Frank Higgins as a cool-headed criminal mastermind. Goodspeed, although the prosecution’s key witness, was not an unblemished character, a realty that the defence lawyer exploited. During the trial both the prosecution and defence pointed to the pernicious influence of dime novels on the youth of the day. After Higgins’ conviction, Goodspeed was prosecuted for accessory to murder but acquitted. He ended up in the local reformatory- the Boys Industrial Home-because of he had admitted to a series of break and enters. There he assaulted a staff person and after being convicted of attempted murder he joined Higgins in the penitentiary. This new twist, and evidence of Goodspeed’s violent temper, revived the early theory, offered by Higgins in court, the Goodspeed was the actual murderer and had forced his friend to help cover up the body, dispose of the revolver and flee to the United States.

In 2010, 72% of youths in Canada (under 20 years of age) who appeared in court were male. Females were 25% of youth accused of a crime that year (less than half of all accused were actually charged).[6]  Much like for the pattern for adult offenders, boys were much more likely than girls to be formally processed under Canada’s Juvenile Delinquents Act (1908-84), although girls often faced harsher moral judgement because of the status offence aspects of the legislation and prevailing gender norms.  For actual criminal offences, as opposed to status offences, the gender divide was striking. From 1941 to 1945, for example, boys were 95-96% of all juveniles convicted for major offences.[7]

As I pointed out in my recent article, despite its statistical importance for police departments, juvenile courts and probation officers, the boy problem, both as a objective reality and a subjective social issue, has not been well served by historians.  There are models to follow in excellent studies of the girl problem by Joan Sangster, Carolyn Strange and Tamera Myers.[8]  Case studies such as the Doherty murder offer tantalizing but temporally and geographically limited insights into issues such as class, gender, age, family strategies, state power and other categories of interest to social historians.  There are many unanswered questions- what about adolescent girls, who are totally absent from the Doherty case? Did middle-class children have less freedom that their working-class counterparts? Were there ethnic or racial dimensions to the Boy problem (especially in a city where the Catholic church had carved out parallel institutions, such as schools and, orphanages, for its own children and youth)?

East End 1875

East End 1875.

From a pedagogical point of view, the boy problem is an excellent topic for undergraduate classes. Murder cases were not the typical manifestation of the phenomenon, but they are dramatic and tend to generate more newspaper coverage and justice system documentation, such as letters from the families of victims and the accused, and petitions.  I have use the trial transcript and capital case file (prepared by the federal Department of Justice for all convicted murderers sentenced to be hanged) for the Doherty case, as well as the 1910 case of Robert Henderson and the 1938 murder trial of William Henry Robicheau, accused of killing a shopkeeper in Saint John’s East End. Henderson was only 17 when he was hanged in Peterborough, Ontario for the axe murder of an elderly woman.  Like many criminal justice history topics, the boy problem is a useful example for students of the dangers of nostalgia, an interpretive distortion that often influences popular understandings of the past.  Given the detailed and often biased reporting by newspapers, and the tendency of some reporters to insert themselves into investigations, these cases are also important for helping students to consider the phenomenon of ‘crime as entertainment’ and the power of media in shaping public opinion of the justice system.

Greg Marquis teaches Canadian and criminal justice history at the University of New Brunswick Saint John.


[1] (Halifax: Formac, 2016).

[2] Steven High (ed.) Occupied St. John’s: A Social History of a City at War (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010).

[3] Greg Marquis,” Framing the Boy Problem: the 1902 Willie Doherty Murder,” Urban History Review, Vol. 47. Nos. 1-2 (Fall-Spring 2018-19): 27-38.

[4] Greg Marquis, “Uneven Renaissance: Urban Development in Saint John, 1955-1976,” Journal of New Brunswick Studies, I (2010): 99-112.

[5] Julia Grant, The Boy Problem: Educating Boys in Urban America, 1870-1970 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2014).

[6] Public Safety Canada, A Statistical Snapshot of Youth at Risk and Youth Offending in Canada (Ottawa: Public Safety Canada, 2012), 6.

[7] Owen Carrigan, Juvenile Delinquency in Canada: A History (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1998), 112.

[8] Carolyn Strange, Toronto’s Girl Problem: The Perils and Pleasures of the City, 1890-1930 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995); Joan Sangster, Regulating Girls and Women: Sexuality, Family, and the Law in Ontario, 1920-1960 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001); Girl Trouble: Female Delinquency in English Canada (Toronto:  Between the Lines, 2002); Tamara Myers, Caught: Montreal’s Modern Girls and the Law, 1869-1945 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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