To the police of Albany, New York, the Small brothers were well-known troublemakers. The two boys, Henry and Stephen, were born in Albany to Irish immigrant parents in the 1840s. Their mother Hannah died when they were little, leaving them in the care of their father Hugh, who kept a grocery business, selling liquor and cigars and occasionally hosting dances. Hugh was himself no stranger to law enforcement; local newspapers reported he had been arrested for assault and battery as well as trespassing. His sons could neither read nor write and rarely attended school. Henry, the eldest, occasionally found work in Albany, while Stephen spent some time roaming the nearby countryside, finding work with local farmers in exchange for meals and a place to stay. (1)
Hugh Small had Henry committed to the New York House of Refuge in June 1861 after he accused the boy of stealing his pistol. Stephen Small followed his big brother a month later, after the Albany Court of Special Sessions found him guilty of petty larceny for robbing fifty cents from a store’s money drawer. Henry and Stephen were respectively fourteen and thirteen years old at the time of their commitments. The House of Refuge in which they were imprisoned was a state-run reformatory located on Randall’s Island in New York City. Juvenile inmates were housed there in solitary, windowless cells and wore drab gray uniforms stitched and mended by the youths themselves. In addition to providing a classroom education to its inmates, the House also included a shoemaking workshop and other manufacturing facilities that employed boys to outside contractors for low wages. Investigations in the late 1860s into the early 1870s revealed that these contractors frequently abused the boys in their care, beating them, whipping them, and stomping on their bare toes for infractions such as speaking during work hours, or making poor quality merchandise. (2)
The House staff knew of the Small boys’ “bad reputation” in Albany, but they were surprised to find that both fared well within their institution. Perhaps the brothers likewise knew of the House’s bad reputation and feared what would happen if they stepped out of line, or maybe they were eager to make the best of a lousy situation and saw an opportunity to receive an education and learn new trades. To be sure, poverty, abuse, and neglect were common root causes of juvenile crime in the 19th century as much as they are today. Henry was incarcerated at the House for about two years, and was finally discharged in June 1863 to the care of his uncle in Albany. At about the same time, the House indentured Stephen to a farmer named Isaac Price in Riverhead, New York, a small town on Long Island. The House of Refuge regularly employed indenturement contracts for the conditional release of its inmates. The institution had an Indenturing Committee which reviewed each case and sought to find suitable places for many boys and girls, often in rural communities. They justified this policy as a means of removing troubled children from previous sources of temptation in the cities while instilling them with better work ethics and teaching them new vocations in the process. The arrangements usually also included barring children’s parents from knowing their whereabouts. The system was deeply flawed, and indenturements often ended with unhappy children running away or being sent back to the House by frustrated masters. (3)
The following April, the staff of the House of Refuge received an anonymous letter indicating that Stephen Small was being abused by his master Isaac Price. The House wrote to the local police, who in turn paid a visit to Price to investigate the matter further. They were too late; by the time they arrived at Price’s farm, the teenage laborer was long gone. Price, it seemed, had coerced Stephen into enlisting in the Army and claimed the boy’s bounty money for himself. Stephen Small was enrolled as a private in the 51st New York Infantry, a veteran regiment of the Army of the Potomac’s Ninth Corps, on 31st March 1864. The regiment’s descriptive lists indicate he stood 5’3 ¼ inches tall and had hazel eyes, black hair, and a dark complexion. Stephen gave his occupation as shoemaker, a trade he likely picked up while employed in the shoemaking shop at the House of Refuge. Although his age was recorded as nineteen, in reality he was just sixteen years old. (4)
Stephen Small was not long in the 51st before the regiment was thrown into the “meat grinder” of the 1864 Overland Campaign, suffering heavy casualties in the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. On 18th May, in the midst of the latter engagement, Private Small was recorded as a deserter on his unit’s muster rolls. He was captured by Confederate troops ten days later and sent to Camp Sumter, the notorious prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. After six months of captivity, Stephen Small died in November 1864. His cause of death was listed as scorbutus, also known as scurvy, almost certainly the result of malnutrition due to the starvation conditions of the prison. The House’s records note that after hearing of his son’s death, Stephen’s father Hugh repeatedly wrote the institution for more information. They do not indicate how they replied, what became of the boy’s bounty, or whether Isaac Price ever faced any repercussions for sending a minor off to war for his own financial gain. (5)
While the House of Refuge’s case history file provides some glimpse into Stephen Small’s brief but eventful life, it does not catalog his dreams and aspirations, nor indicate if he had any at all. It doesn’t say whether he loved, or was loved, if he doodled on his writing slate in class, or had a favorite song that played in his head through lonesome nights in his dark cell. It can’t tell us how long a dirt road in rural New York felt to a young immigrants’ son as he trod through unknown countryside pursuing visions of a warm meal and a cozy barn to sleep in just around the bend somewhere. And it fails to mention whether a stolen half dollar bought Stephen bread or tobacco or a new pair of shoes. It does, however, trace the bare bones of how that fistful of coins led Stephen down a different road, one that ended with starvation at a place called Andersonville.
(1) New York House of Refuge case histories; Albany Morning Times.
(2) Case histories; House of Refuge Annual Reports; 1871 Report of the NY State Commission on Prison Labor;
(3) Case histories;
(4) Case histories; New York Muster Roll Abstracts.
(5) Case histories; New York Muster Roll Abstracts.