Saturday, April 14, 2018

Beware the Hoodlums!

Ann Parker--science/corporate writer by day and crime fiction author by night--writes the award-winning Silver Rush historical series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, set in 1880s Colorado. The newest in the series, A Dying Note, brings Inez to the golden city of San Francisco, California, in 1881. Publishers Weekly calls this latest addition to the series "exuberant" adding that it "...brims with fascinating period details, flamboyant characters, and surprising plot twists."

Hoodlums in 19th Century San Francisco by Ann Parker

As a writer of historical mysteries, I'll admit I am a fool for period slang, intriguing turn of phrase, and the etymology of words. Language-related trivea is a rabbit-hole I disappear down time and time again when I should be doing other things. . .such as putting words on the page of whatever book I'm working on. So, it was with great delight that I sumbled across the background of the word "hoodlum" during my research for A Dying Note, the newest book in my Silver Rush historical mystery series.

Hoodlum is hardly an uncommon word, even today. In fact, you can view its image over time with a neat-o-Google algorithm called the Ngram Viewer in Good Books. (NOTE: The Ngram Viewer graphs the frequency in percentage terms, of the text being searched, over the time period being specified.)

As you can see right away, "hoodlum" first cropped up around 1870 and ascended in popular usuage from then. However, were you aware that the term was originally coined in San Francisco?

I wasn't!

That is until I stumbled across an online SFGate article titled "'Hoodlums,' a distinctive San Franciso product of the 1870s," by Gary Kamia.

For more historical edification, I turned to (take a deep breath, here comes the title) Americanism, Old and New: a dictionary of words phrases and colloquialisms peculiar to the United State, British America, the West Indies, &c., their derivation, meaning and application, together with numerous anecdotal, historical, explanatory and folk-lore notes. This vastly entertaining reference book by John Stephen Farmer was published in 1889, and you can read it, and download it from the Internet Archive here.

Farmer's definition of hoodlum is a whole lot shorter than the title of his book:

Hoodlum.--a young rough. The term originated in San Francisco, but is now general throughout the Union. 

For a historical perspective on hoodlums and hoodlumism, check out Lights and Shades in San Francisco by Benjamin E. Lloyd published in 1876, which has an entire chapter on the subject (and yes, you can view and download the book with this link I've provided).

A couple of passages from Lights and Shades involving hoodlums caught my eye. The first--quoted below--discusses the sorry state of San Francisco's "corner groceries," which, as it turns out, are not at all what I initially thought they were (i.e., local stores to buy canned goods, mild, cheese, what-have-you):

Of evenings, these corner grocery bar-rooms are largely patronized as "loafing places," by the mechanics, laborers and idlers, whose home are in the neighborhood. A simple lunch is set out here, and also a card table is provided. Here young men and middle-aged men, boys and grey beards congregate at night, to talk vulgar slang, play cards for the "the drinks," and smoke and chew--to go home at a late hour with heavy heads and light purses. It is at these places that the youthful San Franciscan Hoodlums are developed.

This second excerpt is the opening of the Lights and Shades chapter on hoodlums:

THE Hoodlum had his origin in San Francisco. He is the offspring of San Francisco society. What particular phase in social life possesses the necessary fertility to produce such fruit is not obvious. It is certain, however, that the seed has been sown in productive soil, for the harvest is abundant.

The hoodlum has been called a "ruffian in embryo." It would be a better definition to call him simply a ruffian. He has all the essential qualities of the villain. He is acquainted with crime in all its froms. The records of vice are his textbooks. He is a free-born American in its widest sense...

If these passages pique your interest, I encourage you to wander on over and read the rest of Lights and Shades, which offers an intriguing perspective on the world of 1870s--1880s San Francisco (and proved a very useful reference to me for A Dying Note.)

Finally, I just have to add a coda to this post. Th illustration below is from a book titled Quad's Odds by M. Quad 9 (publication date 1875). Here is the text that accompanies the picture:

It requires nerve and courage to be a hoodlum. The boy has got to have the heart of a man, the courage of a lion, and the constitution of an Arab. Only one in a hundred gives him credit for half his worth. No one cares whether he grown fat or starves: whether Fortune lifts him up or casts him down; whether night finds him quarters in a box or a comfortable bed. He's a hoodlum, and hoodlums are generally supposed capable of getting along somehow, the same as a horse turned out to graze. Not one boy in ten can be a hoodlum. Nature never overstocks the market. If left an orphan the average boy dies, or has relatives to care for him, or falls in the way of a philanthropist and comes up a straight-haired young man with a sanctimonious look. The true hoodlum is born to the business. He swallows marbles and thimbles as soon as he can creep, begins to fall down stairs when a year old, and found in the alley as soon as he can walk.

Beware the hoodlums! (The title of this illustration from Quad's Odds is, believe it or not, "The Future Presidents." I shall refrain from political comment, difficult though it is...)

For more information about Ann and her series, chick out


Ann Parker said...

Hi Charlotte -- Thank you so much for hosting my guest post here on Type M for Murder. I do love sharing bits and pieces about historical slang, as well as the reference guides I stumble across... It's easy to go looking for one word in a dictionary and get sidetracked by others. Serendipity rules!

Irene Bennett Brown said...

Ann, I'm reading your San Francisco novel, A Dying Note, now--and I'm enjoying it immensely.
Fun to know the origins of 'hoodlum' from your post.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Loved your post Ann. Sometimes words sound "new" and they've been around forever.
As to politics. . .my dear, I don't dare. I'm from the reddest state in the Union and often at variance. I would lose half my readership.

Donis Casey said...

Wow, do I now have plenty of new reference material to examine! I love old slang, Most of the slang/dialect I use is more a matter of memory than of research, but I often have to check when it came into common usage.

Ann Parker said...

Hello Irene! Glad you are finding A Dying Note a fun read. It was a big switch in setting for me... lots of new stuff to learn!

Ann Parker said...

Hi Charlotte!
I know what you mean about "old" words sounding new. Take the word "dude," for instance. It's a very popular term, currently, but you can type it into N-gram and find dude goes baaaaack to early 19th century. Who'd guess, right?
And as for politics... I'm with you on that! (Someday we should grab a cup of coffee and have a chat about such.)

Ann Parker said...

Hi Donis!
I too have bits of slang surface from the depths of my mind as I'm zipping along in a draft. They "sound" right, and old-fashioned "enough," but sometimes when I chase a term down it hails from the 1920s or so... which means I probably heard it from my grandparents. Too "modern" for my fiction!