Eyewitness 1862: Boys always find a way leading to vice, trouble

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Older readers of the Pittsburgh Gazette in the late autumn of 1862 may have wondered what the younger generation was coming to. Even as the Civil War raged, the newspaper carried stories about teenage tobacco use turning deadly and youth gangs running amok.

Henry McNash, age about 16, was "an inveterate tobacco chewer," according to a story in the Nov. 27 edition of the newspaper. The son of a shoemaker, he had been hired as a porter on an Ohio River steamboat that towed barges between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. He had picked up his nicotine habit on his previous job, "peddling tobacco and cigars."

As his boat reached Marietta, Ohio, "young McNash accidentally fell from the [deck], alighting upon a barge which the steamer had in tow." The drop wasn't far, "but the boy, as usual, had a large quid of tobacco in his mouth, which, by some means or other, he swallowed."

Henry was able to climb back onto the steamboat under his own power. "Immediately after getting aboard the boat again, he became very sick and convulsions rapidly followed," according to the story. The boy was seen by a doctor, who could do little. Showing a singular concern about keeping to a schedule, the captain ordered the boat to get under way.

The swallowing incident happened Saturday morning, and for the rest of the day McNash "suffered intensely from spasms." As the steamboat slowly made its way upriver toward Pittsburgh, Henry's convulsions were followed by lethargy and coma. "Animation seemed completely suspended, except when the body was shaken, when slight signs of life were exhibited," the Gazette said.

When the steamer reached Pittsburgh Tuesday morning, doctors were called. The first physician predicted McNash would not survive. The teenager rallied later in the day, however, and was able to recognize people, including a second doctor called in on the case.

There was some confusion about the victim's identity that was not solved until the young son of one of the boat's owners recognized him. Henry was carried to the North Side home of his father, in what was then the independent city of Allegheny. The second physician "expressed the opinion that the boy was out of danger, but fully concurred in the opinion ... that tobacco was the sole cause of the symptoms."

While Henry was battling to recover from the effects of too large a wad of swallowed tobacco, other Allegheny boys engaged in a rock-throwing battle with youths from across the river. "About two hundred boys were engaged, but no casualties are reported," a Dec. 1 story said. "The police pounced down upon them, but the pickets gave the alarm and the 'Allegheny rats' and the 'town rats' (as they are mutually designated) suddenly ceased the combat and fled to their hiding places.

"Only one prisoner was captured, a big hulk of a fellow, old enough to have known better," the newspaper reported. "He was conveyed to the lock-up, where he was enjoying a snooze last night."

Allegheny's mayor, Alexander C. Alexander, was at his wits' end trying to stop the gang fighting, because "boys are harder to catch and more troublesome to deal with than men."

The newspaper warned of tough, if ungrammatical, consequences. The mayor "will resort to harsh measures if the boys does not behave themselves," the Gazette reported. "They have become so bad that nothing but sharp punishment will bring them to their senses."

That same edition of the paper provided the sad final chapter to the story of Henry McNash. The 16-year-old never recovered from what the Gazette described as "a death-like lethargy" following his ingestion of tobacco. He died on Nov. 29.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. See more stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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