As my daughters are fans of the Disney play and movie, “Newsies,” and as I’ve taken interest in the early 20th century, they’ve asked me to find out what happened to Jack Kelly, the main character of the play/movie. If you’ve never seen it, Newsies is a musical about the New York newsboy strike of 1899. According to the play/ movie, as soon as the strike ends (the newsboys win), the strike leader, “cowboy” Jack Kelly goes off with Theodore Roosevelt, presumably headed to Santa Fé, New Mexico to become a real cowboy. But a simple search did not reveal what actually happened to the real Jack Kelly; here’s what I found.
Without looking, I told my daughters that, if Jack Kelly had gone to Santa Fé in 1899, he would have found something very interesting: a cowboy school for young men. As it happened one of Roosevelt’s rough riders from the battle of San Juan Hill, retired to Santa Fé and set up a cowboy school for boys in the mountains above the town. He built a very outdoorsy operation in an area called “Los Alamos”. It ran until 1942 when the location was taken over to become “Site Y” of the Manhattan Project. This is where J. Robert Oppenheimer and co designed and built the first Atom Bombs. That Jack would have gone there would make for a nice, tidy story, but the truth appears to have been more messy, and more interesting. Jack got involved with William Hearst and George M. Cohan, the Titanic, a famous murder, and eventually with the fall of Tammany Hall. Here’s a picture.
First, there was an actual newsboy strike in 1899; it was about raising the price the newsboys paid per paper, but the problem was that the price had been raised earlier, for the Spanish-American War, and not decreased after the war ended. The newsboys did win, and there was a leader named Jack, but according to the papers, the name of the leader was “Jack Sullivan”, not Jack Kelly or Francis Sullivan. The New York Tribune, July 22, 1899, lists Jack Sullivan as the leader of the strike Arbitration Committee and a leader of “the first group of newsboys to declare and demand their rights.” There are other leaders too: Louis “Kid Blink” Baletti, and David “Dave/ Yaller” Simmons. “Kid Blink” (he wore an eye patch and appears in the movie) got an award from the newsboys for making the best speech. I’ll guess that the Dave “the mouth” character is based on David “Yaller” Simmons, but it is not clear that he had any close relationship with Sullivan.
As for the movie showing Jack leaving with T. Roosevelt. it might have suited Roosevelt, but the real Jack appears to have stayed in New York, and appears to have taken a job as a bodyguard for William Randolph Hearst, one of the newspaper moguls who’d raised his rates and precipitated the strike. But it doesn’t end there. In 1904, Jack Sullivan, “the Boss Noosie” has gotten a charter for a Newsies Club to be set-up on 4th street in lower New York (the Bowery). A New York Times article (at left) includes an interview with Jack that fans should find pleasing, if only for his grammar. He uses the word, “papes” instead of papers or newspapers. I suspect this is a put-on affect for benefit of Times-readers, but who knows? It is sometimes the height of wisdom to appear stupid.
By 1909, Jack has lost control of his newsboy’s club. He appears to have used the club to teach boxing (how crude) and on at least one occasion used club assets to post bail for women accused of “loitering,” a jail-able offense in corrupt, Tammany-era New York. The club closed 2 years later. And then Jack gets married (November 27, 1910), and it appears that Jack’s real name was not Sullivan at all, but Reich. He marries Sarah Siegel at the Ohav Tzedek synagogue as “Jacob Reich”. The name Jacob Reich appears on his marriage license, on his death certificate, and on various court records, though he still appears as Jack Sullivan in other activities. Jack/ Jacob appears to have chosen the Irish-sounding name “Sullivan” as an homage to the leader of the Tammany (Democratic) machine, “Big Tim” Sullivan, shown in the photo below.
By March, 1912, Jack appears again in the news, this time suing two film companies for use of his story and likeness without payment to him. It’s a film called “the Gangsters.” It would be interesting to see if a copy still exists.
A month later, April 15, 1912, The unsinkable Titanic goes down, and six days after that, April 21, 1912, Jack is selling papers at a charity baseball game to benefit the survivors. The game takes place on a Sunday, normally prohibited by New York blue laws, between The New York Giants and The New York Yankees (the Yankees are still called the Highlanders in those days, but are already wearing pinstripes). In the picture below, Jack is under the red arrow with lots of “papes” under his arm, just behind famous song-writer, playwright, George M. Cohan. Both are dressed as newsies. George M. Cohan, known for the WWI song “Over there”, had four plays on Broadway at the time. He is one of the very few successful New Yorkers to have avoided major attachment to the crooked, New York political machine.
And now Jack Kelly / Sullivan/ Reich enters history as a tragic bystander. When he got married, Jack borrowed $1000, from a Jewish gambler and gambling hall owner, Herman (Beansy) Rosenthal. Rosenthal was a good friend of his, and of “Big Tim” Sullivan, but he (and Sullivan) had enemies. Among them, the crooked police Lieutenant, Charles Becker, who headed the city vice squad and delighted in shaking down the gamblers, pimps, etc for protection money. Becker wanted Rosenthal dead, in part to keep him from going to the newspapers with stories of police corruption.
By 1912, “Big Tim” lost control of the Tammany organization and was put in seclusion under Tammany guard. Within a year he’d be dead. Someone (Becker?) then hired four hit men to kill Rosenthal (1:30 AM, July 16, 1912 in front of The Metropole Hotel). It’s an event recounted in “The Great Gatsby.” Several beat-policemen were there to see the shooting, but every one looked away. Not one shot back or took the license of the car. In fact, the police did nothing to catch the murderers except to lock up the only honest witness to keep him from testifying. Before the shooting, Becker took Jack Sullivan out for an evening at Madison Square Garden; he then dropped Jack at the Metropole just before the 1:30 shooting. Becker and the police then blamed Jack and four others for the murder based on testimony that they had concocted. In the end, Jack was acquitted, but not the other four, or Becker. All five went to the electric chair; all five protested their innocence.
Becker was the first US police lieutenant to be put to death for murder. It seems unlikely that he was innocent, but was he a murderer, or just an accomplice. As for the other four, perhaps they were guilty, perhaps not; it’s hard to tell from Tammany-era records. The judge was crooked; Police chief Devery was at least as crooked as Becker in terms of shaking down hoodlums. And Devery had as much motive as Becker to want Rosenthal dead. The witnesses were lying from a script they’d been given — that’s what justice was like in those days. Within a year of the murder, Big Tim was dead and Charles Francis Murphy had gained firm control of Tammany Hall. The police spent the next decade in criminal activities while trying to pin something on Jack, now a cigar store owner. He was busted for gambling and related offenses, but nothing much came of it. Jack cleared his name from the charge of murder only in 1936, two years before his death — three years after Fiorello La Guardia was elected mayor. Republican/ Fusion candidate, La Guardia ran against Tammany and did much to end their police corruption.
As for The Refuge, The New York House of Refuge is a real place. It sat on Randal’s Island between Manhattan, The Bronx, and Queens. The Island is now famous as the center of The Triborough Bridge. There is now a park where The Refuge was. Was The Refuge run honestly? If it was, it would have been virtually the only public institutions to run that way. Tammany was corrupt to the core.
Robert E. Buxbaum, October 25, 2015. Much of the information here comes from a tumbler exchange called, “newsies historical research.” I organized it and added some background about Baseball, Tammany, etc. If you like Newsies, or the era, I can recommend the novel (and movie), The Great Gatsby, or Fiorello!, a musical version of La Guardia’s unlikely rise to power. Hearst is treated somewhat positively in Newsies, but less-so as “Citizen Kane.” If someone’s seen, or has a link to “The Gangsters” please tell me.