A Boston detective of long experience says that there are probably two thousand girls in Boston, to-day, whose place of living and whose mode of life are unknown to their parents or friends. And those by whom they are for the time being surrounded are not sufficiently familiar with them, or have not known them long enough, to feel called upon to look them up, or even to give information to the police, in case they should suddenly disappear.
The number of boys who disappear from their homes in the course of a year, and are reported to the police as lost, is quite astonishing. A very large portion are runaways; and a large portion of the runaways are doubtless prompted to set up in business for themselves by the cheap novels, whose heroes almost invariably throw off the parental control at a very early age, and run away to certain fame and fortune. In the ten years from 1861 to 1871, 66,809 lost children, mostly boys, came into the hands of the New York police, and were sent either to their homes or to public institutions. The police estimate that there are at least ten thousand children under fourteen years of age adrift in the streets of New York, four fifths of them being confirmed vagrants. What material is there for recruiting the barbarian horde which, as Macaulay suggested, we may be breeding in our large cities to destroy the modern civilization, as the Goths and Vandals destroyed that of Rome!
In Boston, where the population is supposed to be more homogeneous than in any other large city in the country, the vagrant element has been kept pretty well in hand by the system of licensing minors to ply their vocations in the public streets, on condition that they attend, during certain hours of the day, the schools which have been specially established for their benefit.
Some twenty years ago, when American sailing ships dotted every sea, a great many of the boys who ran away from their country homes in New England made their way to Boston, filled with the inspiring purpose of going to sea. The sailing vessel has been largely superseded in these latter flays by the steamship; and the novelist does not find it possible to fire the imagination of youth by taking a deck hand or a stoker for his hero. The ingenuous country lad who boasts an American parentage is therefore seldom seen nowadays haunting the wharves for a chance to ship before the mast. In the old days there was, too, a spice of romance in every voyage which no longer exists. The means of communication between the different parts of the earth's surface are now so extended that the opportunities for playing the part of Robinson Crusoe have almost wholly passed away. But there is still room for adventure in parts of the world remote from modern civilization, as this little story (given now for the first time) will show:—
Some twenty-five or thirty years ago, a boy ran away from his home, in the vicinity of Boston, and went to sea. For many years nothing was known of him. Then the relatives heard vaguely that the captain of a Nantucket ship, returning from a voyage to the South Pacific, had seen him in one of the French colonies, and that he was a man of some consequence there. About a year ago, the state department at Washington received from the American consul at Sydney, New South Wales, a communication stating that an American had died recently in New Caledonia, leaving some property and one child, a little girl about seven years of age, who had been placed under the charge of the Sisters of Charity until the relatives, if there were any in this country, could be communicated with. The name of the man, the year that he left home, and the name of the child were given. The papers were sent to the mayor of Boston, with the request that he would ascertain whether any of the relatives were living. The police were set to work to look them up; but for a long time their efforts were unsuccessful. As the name given was one common in Nantucket, the oldest inhabitant of that place was consulted. He recollected that the son of a Nantucket family, living near Boston in the year mentioned, had run away to sea; but he bore a different name from the one given in the consul's letter. The name given to the child, however, was the maiden name of the runaway's mother; and it was found, on examination, that the name of the deceased was the baptismal name of the boy who ran away. It appeared that, in his new home, he had dropped his surname. Both parents had died some years before, and the whereabouts of the brothers and sisters were unknown. But with the true name to work upon, it was not difficult to trace them; and nearly a year after their brother's death the inquirers learned something of his wanderings; of the home be had established among the French convicts in the far Pacific, and of the dark-eyed little girl committed to their love, a child who spoke in an unintelligible tongue and had strange ways. Think of introducing this child, at the age of eight or ten, into a quiet New England family, and teaching it to look at life from the stand-point of the Assembly's catechism,—its father a revolter against the restraints of New England life; its mother, or its mother's parents, a revolter, probably, against the laws of France! Here is a subject for a novelist, offering greater contrasts in the study of character than Black's Daughter of Heth.