Juvenile Delinquency Posed Problems For Utahns A Century Ago

Yvette D. Ison
History Blazer, June 1995

Utahns have longed struggled with the question of how to most effectively respond to and prevent juvenile delinquency. Rowdy teenagers were a menace to Salt Lake residents during the early years of the city’s development. During a church meeting on May 14, 1868, a custodian of the Mormon Tabernacle complained of “indecent words being written on the walls and the backs of seats being very much cut up.” The Deseret News recorded on March 2, 1870, that Martin Lenzi had seen teenagers tearing up foot bridges and ripping off mail boxes and throwing them over the fence. Several days later the News reported a similar complaint from Thomas Jones, who said that a group of boys broke people’s windows while they were attending church on Sunday.

In the 1870s youth groups became more defined with their own names and objectives. The Deseret News recorded on December 10, 1873, that the “Bummers Brigade” and “Whittlers’ Squad” had cut a street lamppost in two at the Exchange Buildings corner. On December 17 an article reported that a group of teenagers called the “Squirter’s Squad” spent their time squirting tobacco juice on goods put out for sale along the streets of the city.

Before 1889 youths who committed crimes were prosecuted as adults in district courts. According to law, all children were liable for punishment, regardless of age. But judges treated each case individually. While some delinquents were let off without trial or punishment, others were sentenced to harsh treatment in local prisons. Problems with punishment led to the development of a separate institution for juvenile delinquents. In 1888 the Reform School bill was passed by the legislature through the initiative of James Moyle, Salt Lake City attorney. The measure provided for a reform school in which juveniles could develop new skills and change their previous habits.

Efforts to organize the school began shortly after the bill was passed. In May 1888 a committee investigated fifteen schools throughout the nation to determine which model would be best for Utah. The group reported that they preferred the schools that had “no walls, no heavy frowning buildings with barred windows” but “nice pleasant homes, surrounded with lawns, gardens, trees,…where a boy is held more by a sense of honor than by bolts and bars.” They decided to build the reform school under this model.

The Utah Territorial Reform School was officially opened in Ogden on October 31, 1889. Resident halls were located on the top two floors of the building. During the first ten years, girls and boys lived in the same dormitories. Daily activities, however, were divided according to gender. Boys learned practical skills such as shoe repair, printing, carpentry, typing, and barbering. They also tended a garden in the seven acres of land surrounding the school. Girls spent most of their time in cooking, housekeeping, sewing, hygiene, music, and drama classes. Boys and girls came together on the weekends for dances and entertainment. For daily recreation children participated in basketball and baseball games, boxing, a school band, and theatrical performances.

Discipline was a matter of concern for the school. Even though it was based on the concept of positive support and encouragement, some disciplinary measures were deemed necessary to keep children in line. Among the most severe punishments were solitary confinement, whippings, and the use of handcuffs and chains. Children were often deprived of meals and privileges when they openly disobeyed school authorities.

The school faced a setback on June 24, 1891, when a fire destroyed most of the building. Though the first and second floors were saved, both resident halls were destroyed. The Ogden Military Academy offered the school several vacant buildings until restoration was completed. But the school’s emergency housing soon became permanent. In 1896 the school moved into the site of the old Ogden Military Academy and, with the coming of statehood, officially became the Utah State Industrial School.

The school continued in operation until the early 1970s when government officials decided that overcrowding and a lack of adequate facilities made the institution unsuccessful in creating a positive change in the lives of delinquent youths. Though it ended with the stamp of inefficiency and failure, the initial creation of a school for troublemaking youth marked the beginning of a new approach to the problem of juvenile delinquency in Utah.

See Davis Bitton, “Zion’s Rowdies: Growing up on the Mormon Frontier,” Utah Historical Quarterly 50 (1982); Martha Sonntag Bradley, “Reclamation of Young Citizens: Reform of Utah’s Juvenile Legal System, 1888–1910,” 51 (1983); Milton Hunter, Beneath Ben Lomond’s Peak (Weber County, 1944); Mary Louise Storey, “The Care and Treatment of Delinquent Girls from Salt Lake at the Utah State Industrial School” (Master’s thesis, University of Utah, 1931).