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May 18, 2012

Poetry Friday--Poehistry (Of Sorts)

Title: Wm. Gross, 516 Tatnall St. Newsboy, 15 years of age. Selling papers 5 years. Average earnings 50 cents per week. Father, carpenter, $18 week. Selling newspapers own choice, to get money to go to moving picture shows. Visits saloons. Smokes sometimes. "Serves" papers to prostitutes. On May 25 William gave to investigator a list of houses of prostitution written in his own handwriting, to which he serves papers. He also tells a story of occasionally guiding strangers to these houses, for which he receives from 15 cents to a quarter. Investigator, Edward F. Brown. Wilmington, Del. Location: Wilmington, Delaware/ Photo by Louis [i.e. Lewis] W. Hine, May, 1910.

William the Liar

Oh, William, I was attracted
to your photo by your direct gaze,
by the sweetness of your expression.

And then I read the caption:
Visits saloons. Smokes sometimes.
"Serves" papers to prostitutes.

William you lie--either with
your face or your words.
I prefer the second option.

© Diane Mayr, all rights reserved. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

This poem has the most amazing story attached to it. In my librarian capacity, I was looking for an old photo of teenagers for use by our teen librarian. I found a nice one from about 50 years ago with dancing teens and a record player. I also found a bunch of Lewis Hines photos of workers in their teens, which were taken about 100 years ago. After I left work, I did the search over again and took time to look at some of the Lewis Hine photos with the idea that I might use one as a poem starter.

I came across William Gross's photo, with its intriguing captioning. There was a whole story in just those few lines!

Have I ever mentioned how I think the internet is the best thing since sliced bread? Knowing about the wonders of Google maps and Google Earth, I decided to see if the address in the caption still existed. Sure enough, there was a photo of the present day address.

The little red marker showed it to be very near the location of St. Peter's Cathedral. Strange, I thought. I wondered if perhaps William gave a false address.

So, remembering the wonders of the internet, I decided to look for the 1910 census, since that was the year that Hine took the photo. Amazingly, I found the Gross family in less than a minute! And, since my library subscribes to Heritage Quest Online, I was able to log in and find the census listing for a "William Gross" at 216 W. Second St. I found that William was the son of Russian immigrants, Maurice and Sarah Gross. Maurice Gross was not a carpenter, but was listed in the census as the proprietor of a "2nd Hand Store"! The language of the parents was listed as Yiddish, so I couldn't understand why William would have given the address of a cathedral, unless he was having a little fun with Mr. Brown, the investigator! Might the carpenter occupation have come from the Jesus story? So many tantalizing questions!

I next looked at the St. Peter's website to check on the cathedral's history, just in case it had been built after 1910. Nope, a church building had been in that area since 1818 and had undergone major work to turn it into a cathedral. As a matter of fact, it had only been celebrated as being completed in 1905.

I think the best explanation is the simplest--the #516 could simply have been a mistake in the recording of notes--I know I'm sometimes confused by peoples' handwriting. And, if you look at the Google map, the location at 216 W. Second St. also shows a side on Tatnall St.

Back to the 1910 census. William had a Russian-born sister, Sadie, who was 20 years old. William was born in the U.S., in 1897, making him 13! So, like any kid, he probably lied about being older than he really was! Whether or not the other parts of the record are true, is anyone's guess!

So that's the story. Probably more than you ever wanted to know, but I found it to be a fascinating exercise, and, it resulted in a small poem with a big story behind it!

From here you can head over to the Poetry Friday Round-Up being held at Write. Sketch. Repeat.


  1. I loved your poem and your post! And I want William's hat. Fascinating stuff, Diane!

  2. Impressed by your sleuthing, D!


  3. Love this, Diane - the photo, your poem, and these bits of history and wonder. What I really love is your curiosity, and I'm sure that's one thing your kitties love about you, too.

  4. Curiosity is a great benefit to being a writer and a librarian. And the best part is discovering the unexpected!

    My cats only love me for my can opening abilities!

  5. I agree with you about the internet. How did I ever live before it? And HOW did I ever teach? It was fun reading about your research.

    I just came from another Poetry Friday post talking about portrait poems, and yours seems to fit in that category!

  6. Fascinating path of research -- thanks for taking us along for the ride. William leaves us with more questions than answers, doesn't he?!?

  7. Yes, he does! But, that's what makes him so interesting for a writer--we can imagine the whole thing!

  8. However hard this kid's life was, I hope his spirit receives some comfort from your kind attention.

  9. Diane, you made William's already fascinating story even more fascinating. What a life for a kid, huh? And that was probably better than he would have had if they had not immigrated. Thanks for all your research.