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.

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?