A Wasted Life

In my last post, “Young in Years – Old in Crime”, I am afraid I may have left you, dear readers, with the impression that J.W. Johnson’s life of crime was the result of an inadequate upbringing and hellish treatment in his teens at the Boys’ Industrial School in Lancaster, Ohio. I can’t comment on his upbringing, but after researching the school, I no longer lay the fault for his incorrigible behavior on them.

The school began as the Ohio Reform School in 1858 a reformatory for boys between eight and eighteen years old. In 1884, the name was changed to the Boys’ Industrial School.

Administration Building Lancaster Boys Industrial School

Administration Building, 1907

I confess that my image of reformatory schools in the late 19th century was Dickensian: miserable inmates enduring harsh treatment inflicted by cruel guards and matrons. However, according to the sources I cite at the bottom of this post, the Boys’ Industrial School at Lancaster was nothing like that.

The school used an “open system” where the boys lived in cottages and moved freely about the grounds. They spent their mornings in class, and afternoons working on the school’s farm, or learning a trade.

Although it probably was not a bed of roses,

Bob Hope

Bob Hope as a boy in England

the school was not a hell hole, either. Bob Hope spent time there as a boy, and from what I understand, he turned out okay. Later in life, he donated a substantial amount of money to the school, so apparently he had fond memories of the place.

Long story short, in my humble opinion, J.W. Johnson’s life of crime cannot be laid at the door of the Boys’ Industrial School. Whether it was the result of his early upbringing, I cannot say. I have no idea what who his parents were or what kind of life they gave him, no more than I know if he reformed his ways in later years. Perhaps some day, I will look into his heritage, and his life post 1907. If you know anything about him, dear readers, please let us know in the comments below.

That’s it for the saga of J.W. Johnson–for now. Here are links to the previous two posts in this series, if you’d like to catch up.


More Basketball – Class of 1907: Which Side of the Tracks.

Young in Years – Old in Crime.



“Boys’ Industrial School,” Ohio History Connection.

State of Ohio boys industrial school inmate case records, 1858-1918. Family Search

Boys’ Industrial School at Lancaster, Asylum Project:

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Young in Years – Old in Crime

In my last post, I reported that on Friday, March 7, 1907, the Norwalk High School boys basketball team lost to Elyria in a close match–then I drifted off subject to wonder about young people of the day who did not attend high school at all.

The report of the game was in the Saturday issue of The Norwalk Daily Reflector one-hundred and ten years ago today. In that same edition that reported on the advantages of sport and scholarship for those fortunate enough to receive a high school education, was an account that may shed light about life on the other side of the tracks in 1907.


J.W. Johnson did not go to high school, of that I am confident. He did, however, spend four years attending the Boys’ Industrial School in Lancaster, Ohio, where he was sent at the age of twelve for burglary and larceny.


Boys’ Industrial School, Lancaster, Ohio

The Boys’ Industrial School was not successful in instilling in J.W. the values and morals undoubtedly impressed upon the minds of students in the Norwalk High School Class of 1907. Within four years of his “graduation” young Johnson was convicted of larceny and sentenced to a year in prison, an institution he was in and out of the next few years.

His most recent incarceration came on February 12, 1907: eighteen months for stabbing and wounding a man in Huron County. Sheriff Snyder, who transported J.W. to the penitentiary,  later learned of the young man’s criminal record. The sheriff did not ponder whether a life of crime begun at such a young age might be the result of a disadvantaged upbringing. He did, however, lament that, if the facts had been known, J.W. would have received a longer sentence.

How many students in the Norwalk High School Class of 1907 do you think were shown this article by their parents? When I was their age, I was warned of the horrors of “reform school,” so I’d say it’s a good bet they were.

What were the conditions at the Boys’ Industrial School where J.W. Johnson was an inmate from his twelfth to his sixteenth year. How did his experiences there contribute to his later life of crime. We’ll find out in my next post.



“Young in Years, Old in Crime,” The Norwalk Daily Reflector, March 9, 1907, page 2, column 4.

“Boys’ Industrial School,” Ohio History Connection.


Please like this post and let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you.

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