Newsies: the real story compared with the Movie/Musical

Newsies, the movie from Walt Disney Studios, was a major influence in the writing of Calling Extra. I was ten years old when it was released in theaters, and I replayed my VHS so much, that it wore the tape down and distorted the audio of the musical numbers.

My profound interest for the actual event that occurred in the summer of 1899, fueled the need to know more. In doing so, I’ve spent years of research in the time period to better understand the world the newsies lived in, why they striked, and how they won (if you would even consider it a “win” at all).

The major differences between the movie and the acutal events have much to do with the basis of Hollywood movie-making and I do not fault the screenwriters or producers in their modification.

Below are a few false portrayals of the history and some clarification:

1. Jack Kelly was not the leader of the strike – and falsely, as other websites and books report who relate the real history of the newsboys strike, Kid Blink wasn’t either. There was a “Jack” Sullivan and he is mentioned in one newspaper as someone who spoke before the crowd and ignited the newsies to strike. But reporting of him stops there. Kid Blink, an Irish newsboy of fifteen who was blind in one eye, is peppered throughout the papers with rousing speeches. There’s no description that he wore an eye-patch, despite how he is portrayed in my novel as well as in Newsies.

The real leaders of the strike? The boys elected a Newsboy Strike Committee that consisted of:

Kid Blink (sometimes referred to a “Blind Diamond”) as the chief organizer, Dave Simmons (a boy “prize-fighter”) as the president, Little Mikey – orator, Jim Gaiety, Young Monix, Barney Peanuts, Crutch Morris, Crazy Arborn (who I later discovered was not a newsboy at all, but sold pretzels), Scabutch or Scabooch, and Abe Newman.

However, this Strike Committee restructed itself after Dave and Kid were voted out for fear they had betrayed the newsboys. This included electing a grown-up as the President and Racetrack Higgins as the Vice-President.

Interestingly, it was Racetrack Higgins that was the real “voice of Brooklyn” and not Spot Conlon, as portrayed in Newsies. Although Spot Conlon is mentioned once in the papers as the “Grand Master Workboy of Brooklyn,” Racetrack is throughout all the papers, and a majoy influence on the strike.

2. The newsboys didn’t officially win, but compromised. Yes, it was a great accomplishment to halt the distribution of New York’s most popular papers for two weeks. But the newsboys got very restless as the Newsboy Union’s Strike Committee turned down offers from Pulitzer and Hearst throughout the two weeks. These offers included 55 cents a hundred, compared with the demand for 50 cents a hundred the boys were asking for (reduced from the contested 60 cents a hundred – the reason they were striking) .

After two weeks, Pulitzer and Hearst spoke through their circulation managers to the newsboys, and not the Union Committee, a compromise of offering the boys 100% return rights (they could return the unsold papers for  refund). The newsboys jumped on it – much to the disagreement of the Newsboy Union’s Strike Committee. In fact, the official decision makers of the Union committee did not agree to the compromise and said they would continue to strike. The newsboys, however, went back to work anyway.

3. The newsboys’s were not unique in their decision to strike, and they did not strike immediatly after a price hike. The newspapers for the summer of 1899 are full of strikes, from the surface railroad “trolley” strikers of Brooklyn to the messenger boys of Manhattan. Strike fever was everywhere. In fact, the  Spanish-American war, what had driven the price of the papers up to 60 cents a hundred on the newsboys, ended in April and the boys striked in June. That’s two months of the boys feeling the pinch of the price hike. To summarize their grievances, they were selling a lot of papers and “extra” editions during the war. This justified the price hike since the papers were printing more editions, however when the war ended ALL the other papers reduced their prices back to previous costs before the way EXCEPT Pultizer’s Evening World and Hearst’s Evening Journal. Although many women and men sold newspapers, newsboys (including those that went to school during the day) preferred selling these evening papers, and were taking a loss.

….There are many more interesting comparisons that will be addressed in a future post. Please comment below about any elements of the real strike verses Newsies that you would like addressed, and I’ll answer them in the next post.

Excerpt from Chapter 5: Vincent Boys

I ran to catch up to Grin, who was already on the move. I remembered his mentioning the Vincent boys but had no idea what it meant. As we rounded Broadway onto Warren Street it became clear where we were headed: St. Vincent’s Newsboy Home.

53 Warren Street was just two blocks from Newspaper Row. It looked like a religious boarding house, similar to the asylum. I was hesitant to approach.

“It’ll be fine,” Grin laughed. “We won’t go inside.”

Grin walked around back to the alley. Sure enough, there was a band of about ten boys, from ages ten and seventeen, gathered in secret. I wondered what it was about these particular boys that was enough to scare Rat off when Grin mentioned them.

The one leading the conversation had red hair and a black eye patch over his left eye.

“The Long Island boys had it right. The deliverymen was cheatin’ ‘em, givin’ them a stack with a few papes less than their order. They had to soak ‘em,” said the boy with the eye patch.

A tall kid with a heavy brow and rather clean clothes leaned forward. “We don’t need a strike. We all gotta eat. We all gotta pay board.”

“But Abe, ever since de war, it’s still six cents a ten. News ain’t the same now, yet we are still payin’ the same,” said the boy sitting next to him, who looked older than most of the boys.

“I know what we pay, Jim,” sneered Abe.

“It’s Hearst and Pulitzer too. Both are stickin’ to their price,” added the smallest one of the group.

The leader took notice of Grin.

“Grin! Just in time.”

“Kid.” Grin spat in his hand, and the two shook. Kid’s smile faded when he saw me.

“Why the dame?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Why the strike?” Grin countered.

“Boot’s takin’ all his boys up to City Hall Park tomorra. Dave too. They’ll make a decision there.” Kid took a seat without recognizing my presence. I kept standing.

“We need to stand on our own no matter what,” chimed in a stocky little boy with a very round face.

“We always do, Indian” Grin said.

A skinny boy chewing on a pretzel, lifted it in agreement,. “Cheers to that.”

“It sounds like all gangs will be on their own, even if we do strike.” Kid appeared to be the leader of the Vincent boys, and they hung on his every word.

“Will there be enough of us?” Grin challenged.

“There’ll be a hundred boys at Park Row. That’s enough to strike. I say we Vincents lead the cause, rally the others around us,” another boy added.

“We ain’t leadin’ anythin’ yet Fitz.” Kid said, clearly annoyed by him. “But imagine Grin, if de Brooklyn boys are behind this, even Jersey.”

“What about the cops?” Grin took the dice off the table between the boys and shook it in his hand.

“They’re all tied up with the trolley strikers. They don’t care ‘bout us.” The smallest boy interjected, now gnawing on half of the pretzel he seized from the tall skinny boy.

Grin nodded, taking this in.

“So, you with us?” Kid asked.

Grin rolled the dice: snake eyes.

“I’m with ya.”

Excerpt from Chapter 1: July 15, 1899

The last day of my youth began with the shatter of a plate and the piercing scream of an infant. I awoke in my small tenement before the sun had barely stirred. The air filtered in through cracks in the wall and was bitter cold, but the upcoming hot summer day would change that soon enough.

It was Friday, and my father was already roused and dressing for work. He glanced down at me with a smile. “Guten Morgen.”

“Good morning,” I mumbled back in English.

“Now, up,” he said sharply.

I exhaled, bit my lip, and pulled back the covers, exposing myself to the frigid air. I slipped on my rubber-soled boots, a gift from my mother before she died. She once told me they represented equality and would lead me places beyond my wildest dreams, but all they did was constantly break apart at the seams, forcing me to wrap the laces around the bottom to keep the soles on my feet. I often searched for ways to slip them off. Maybe my bare feet didn’t represent equality, but they felt freer than being bound in broken shoes.

“Keep them on today,” my father stressed. “Muss immer getragen werden.”

Every day my father felt he needed to remind me to keep my boots on “at all times.” But I knew at thirteen that my father wasn’t truly giving reminders—he was giving instructions.

As usual, deafening screams interrupted us. Our tenement was always filled with the noises and smells of Mrs. Krol, the Polish widow with whom we boarded, and her five children. The bitter woman often lingered close to our half of the room, bouncing her wailing child on her hip to calm him.

Mrs. Krol frequently pleaded for me to take the screaming boy in my bed since there was no room in hers. She sometimes bribed me with a Liberty Head nickel, but I would decline. No amount of money was worth having such shrieks so close to my ear.

That morning I didn’t have a job waiting for me. The day before, the Joseph Luby tailor shop suffered a terrible fire, nearly killing three workers. This was the first day since my mother’s death that I was not spending at the shop.

I leaned forward behind the calico sheet that divided our small tenement so that I didn’t have to see Mrs. Krol struggling through her morning routine. “I knew it was going to happen,” I said softly.

Was, Elsie?” Papa asked in German, slicing a stiff loaf of bread for our breakfast.

“I knew the fire was going to happen. There were always spare scraps on the floor near the gaslights. There was only one exit for the girls and one small bucket of water. I should have said something.”

Papa kneeled down and took my hands in his. “It’s not your place to get involved in such matters. You would have been let go for saying such things. There will always be someone else for that. You stay quiet and keep to yourself. It’s the only way to keep your job.”

I always believed what Papa said, but there was something inside of me that knew my silence in that instance had been wrong.


“Yes…” I nodded in agreement.

“Good, so you come with me to the railroad today. There are flower girls who work outside Vanderbilt. You will ask them where you can do the same. But keep those boots on!” he scolded.

The sun was now peeking over the tenement across the street, and the warmth was creeping across the laundry line toward our window.

“Come.” He lifted me up off the bed and nestled me into his six-foot frame. He was my protector and all I had.

“Dietrich, if the child is not going to work today, she should stay here and help with the small ones,” Mrs. Krol demanded.

I cowered. Her stare was sharper than my father’s razor. “We pay to board,” my father said. “Unless you desire to pay her for her time?”

Mrs. Krol scoffed. She would never pay me. Too often she treated me like a child. I was thirteen, but because of my small frame I still looked ten, so people often treated me like a child.

“Well, that settles it.” Papa winked as he whisked me out the door.


In the dark hallway of the tenement, I stepped over two young street traders curled up along the wall. They were no more than eight years old and reeked of sewers and spoiled milk. I tried to cough out the smell. I wasn’t sure if the stench came from the two boys or if it was the normal smell of the hallways. In our tenement, most of the time it was hard to determine where unpleasant aromas came from.

“They shouldn’t be sleeping here,” I mumbled to my father.

“Elsie, quiet,” Papa scolded.

Papa was right. I knew I had no place to look down on them, but I hated their crass voices and the freedom they flaunted. We paid four dollars a month for our half room shared with Mrs. Krol. These boys paid nothing and still received suitable shelter in our hallway.

In fact, as we approached Vanderbilt and 42nd, a similar newsboy was yelling on the street corner, crowing on about his wares. “Man found dead by railroad. Crushed skull! Killer on the loose!”

I sped up to escape the shrill of his call, but the front lip of my rubber sole caught on the pavement and bent backwards, sending me diving to the ground. Immediately a hand scooped me upright.

“Thank you, Papa.” I brushed myself off. Yet when I looked up, it was not Papa’s face that peered down at me but the shouting newsboy’s wide, toothy grin.

“Ya all right, lady?”


He let out a light laugh. It was carefree. I clenched my teeth, reminding myself to be polite, and forced a smile as I scurried to join my father a few paces ahead.

Curious, I looked back at the boy who had already returned to hawking the daily paper. I noticed he wasn’t a boy at all. Nearly fifteen, he was tall with messy brown hair tucked under his cap. His face had soft features, but his wide smile wrinkled at the corners with a simple right dimple. It held the most weight on his face, drawing an admirer right to it. No dirt had collected around his brow like the other newsboys, but it was still early in the day. Most unusual, though, was a book tucked neatly in the rear of his trousers between his pants and the small of his back.

Suddenly, he peeked over his shoulder and caught my stare. I flinched. But just as I was about to turn away, he offered me one more wide, sly grin.



Timeline of the Newsboy’s Strike

In Calling Extra, Elise’s personal story, as well as her adventures with Grin, are interwoven into the real timeline of the strike. Below are a list of dates and events from the strike that we have gathered together from the newspaper articles of that time.

  • July 18th: Long Island City Newsboys feel they are being cheated and riot
  • July 19th: Manhattan Newsboys gather in City Hall Park to meet about the possibility of a strike
  • July 20th: Manhattan Newsboys officially strike
  • July 21st: Striking newsboys attack delivery wagons and scabs
  • July 22nd: Boys are arrested for disturbances throughout the day. There’s a demonstration outside The World office and a four boys actually meet with Hearst
  • July 23rd: Various arrested newsboys are arranged, strike committee makes plans for their mass meeting, and there are no fights or disturbances since its a Sunday (no Evening papers sold on Sundays)
  • July 24th: Violent attacks during the day, Mass Meeting of Newsboys at New Irving Hall at night
  • July 25th: Newsboys lay low with fewer fights due to the night before’s meeting
  • July 26th: Newsboys meet in a salon in Park Row to talk about allegations of Dave and Kid Blink turning on the union. Later that day, Dave Simmonds demotes himself as president.
  • July 27th: Boys “parade” but it is broken up by Police because they have no permit. The boys discover Kid Blink in a fancy suit and attack. Police arrest Kid Blink thinking he is part of the attack and not the victim.
  • July 30th: Union elects new officers and president,  a grown-up – James G Neill. Three boys are arrested for blackmail.
  • July 31st: The boys arrested for blackmail are arraigned.  Kid Blink aids the police. West Side Newsdealers Association declares the strike “a failure”
  • August 2: Hearst and Pulitzer put forth resolution of 100% returns right to keep the price at six cents a ten, which is then accepted by newsboys. The strike is over, the newsboys consider it a success.

Talk like a Newsie: Newsboy Slang

Newsie Slang

Many of the newsboys at the turn of the 20th century were not schooled, and therefore lacked proper grammer. As a result, the newsies made up their own vocabulary or slang. Many of the popular slang words are used by Grin and his fellow newsies in the book. See if you can spot them among the list below:

slang definition
mutt a trespassor
track a kid’s spot
scab someone whose on a job that’s being striked
hawk to sell
lick to fight
soak to fight
punk to fight
five-fingered to steal
swiped to steal
hooked to steal
extras papers sold as special editions
pitch to throw
dreamin through a pipe mistaken
skipped ran away, ran out
grafter a newsie that runs away with the change
blow it in/ blowed spend money
White Way Broadway
pluck honesty
mouth-organ hermonica
sand the track stop
yellows New York Journal and World Papers

Comment below: If you were a newsie, what slang would you come up with?