Yesterday our daily history section mentioned the 1892 case of Mamie Schwartz, a five-year-old St.Paul girl kidnapped in June of 1892. I said I’d check the Strib’s archives papers to see how the story was covered – it was supposedly sensational enough to grip the public mind for months, and you wonder how they handled these matters in the days before Amber Alerts. The following may surprise you – but remember that papers were different then: dense, wordy, mostly unillustrated, with a few ads for scrofula cures and painless lobotomies punctuating endless expanses of dry tiny type.
The Minneapolis paper had little on the matter, since it happened in That Other Town; the front page was devoted entirely to the national political convention, held in the Exposition building. (The Strib’s fine "Yesterday’s News" blog has a piece, here.) Hmm: “Devil in the White City,” foreshadowed? Some fiend at large, blending in with the bunting and hoopla? The paper did deign to acknowledge the existence of St. Paul with a column of goings-on, including who checked into which hotel. The big story: an English Aeronaut, Prof. William Bissell, jumped from a balloon and parachuted to the ground. A few inches below, these terse remarks: “Mamie Schwartz, a 5-year old girl, has been missing from her home at 174 East Seventh Street since Saturday afternoon.” It ran on the bottom of page 5.
The next day, buried again: “No trace of Emma (sic) Schwartz the 5-year-old girl who disappeared from her home Saturday afternoon, has not yet been discovered.” Double-neg and the wrong name: well, nobody’s not perfect. But the plot thickens: “Her parents are of the opinion that the child was kidnaped (sic) by relatives for spite and will take legal steps again some West Side parties if the child is not soon returned.”
Sounds like they knew who did it, right? The next day had more, in type so small it’s like watching a flea circus mime the Y-M-C-A song: “Mamie Schwartz, the 5-year-old daughter of Valentine J. Schwartz, is still missing, and last night her father sent to the Tribune this plaintive appeal: ‘Please publish this description and do me a kind favor.’ The description as furnished is:
‘Black hat, yellow flower, bottle green dress. She has large black eyes and is pretty. She is 4 1/2 years old, speaks quite fluently, can tell her own name and can describe where she belongs. Lost since Saturday afternoon.’”
Over a hundred years later, your heart goes out to the man. Lost. You can’t begin to imagine how that feels; you don’t want to try. Then the plot took a peculiar turn:
“It was learned lat night that on the day of the girl’s disappearance a woman called at the boarding house on Tenth street and asked permission to sit in the parlor for two hours. After remaining a few minutes she left, but returned soon after with a little girl, and tossing a dollar on the table remarked ‘I am so glad to get her again.’”
The next day: “The latest development in the abduction of Mamie Schwartz is the arrest of William Wagner, whom the parents of the little girl strongly suspect of having played a part in her abduction.”
After that, nothing much. The child was found in Wisconsin the next year. If the boarding house story is true, you can imagine what happened – perhaps relatives who’d cared for the child and developed a bond took her away for their own, and the parents were left bereft. Every parent’s nightmare.
And that’s why we don’t let them play outside anymore. Ever.
At least less than we used to. Granted, the link goes to a British study, but you know it’s true for America as well: kids just don’t get to roam far and wide unattended anymore. Parents are overprotective and paranoid, and don’t let the kids out of their sight anymore. (Your host is as guilty as anyone; I got concerned when her preemie incubator was out of my sight.) In the 60s, in grade school, I strolled to school; now many folks assume that the six-block walk teems with kidnappers, bears, tiger traps, toxic dumps, and other random threats. Why take the chance? The sociologists call today’s cosseted tots the “indoor generation,” because that’s where they grow up: sitting in climate-controlled rooms pushing buttons instead of running around in the summer sun stepping on nails and getting tickbites. As the author of the British study says:
"Studies have shown that people deprived of contact with nature were at greater risk of depression and anxiety. Children are getting less and less unsupervised time in the natural environment.”
True. This might relate to the early discussion about hunting and fishing, too. Whatever the reason and whatever the eventual impact, it’s all changed; the idea that a parent wouldn’t know where their kid is, but trusted him to wander back by supper, tired and hungry, socks full of nettles, seems like pure hokey Norman-Rockwell stuff, quaint and outmoded, and downright dangerous in a world where creeps and pervs have their own chatrooms to marinate in their evil.
Then again, it’s summer; wouldn’t you want to ride your bike to the end of town, just to see what’s beyond?
So: are you one of the overprotective types? Did you have that carefree childhood? Or is this just another study that exaggerates the problem as much as modern parents exaggerate the dangers?
UPDATE: Then again, maybe they’re not safe indoors, either. (Reg. req; story details threats to shoot up a local daycare center.)