This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The New York Orphan Boys' Band

11 June 2011


As American cities made the turn into the 20th century, they struggled with a major social problem - the care of widows. orphans, and the elderly. The rapid growth in industry and business, as well as immigration, saw rising populations in all classes of society, but especially in the numbers of abandoned and orphaned children living on the streets. In 1902, New York City had over 60  Homes for Children devoted to the care of foundlings, orphans, half-orphans, and destitute children. This circa 1905 postcard shows the band from one such institution,
the New York Orphan Boy's Band.

The band's military style uniforms, complete with leggings, are different than those of most other boys bands of this time. A few of the older "boys" sport broad-brimmed boyscout hats. Presumably the band furnished  parade music too, as the little drum major stands next to a fancy bearskin hat. On the bass drum the printing company has added the image of the manager, J. De Forest.

But  this card is more an advertisement than a postcard, because on the back is Roy De Forest, the youngest LEADER in the WORLD imitating SOUSA. Wearing a smart embroidered coat, he strikes a confident pose with a heavy bandmaster's baton.

But what is the back-story to this promotional ephemera from 1900 New York? My research took an unexpected direction that led to an exploration of the early sporting history of boxing.
The name "De Forest" presented problems because of alternative spellings, and "Roy" and the initial J were insufficient for a good confirmation. But then I found another copy of this same card on a website for boxing memorabilia. It was the only band photo amid thousands of boxing photos, and it seemed an odd entry for such a specialized subject. But the answer came when I found another photo with the name Jimmy DeForest posing with the celebrated boxer, Jack Dempsey. 

This photo comes from Boxrec.com , and shows James "Jimmy" DeForest, the trainer who helped Dempsey win his famous championship fight against Jess Willard on July 4, 1919.

Willard was the 6'6" heavyweight who had defeated Jack Johnson in Havana in 1915, and this bout was no less controversial. Dempsey knocked Willard down 7 times in the first round, leading to a claim that he had used weighted gloves on the larger man. Willard sustained a broken jaw, cheekbone, and ribs, and threw in the towel after the third round. The charge of fixed gloves has since been proven baseless but it still inspires heated debate.

Though he is older in this photo, the resemblance to the man on the bass drum is striking. With this better search term, the 1910 Census found James DeForest age 41, living in Ocean township, New Jersey with his wife Catherine age 29, and son James R. age 10.  His occupation then and in the 1920 Census was physical instructor. His work with Dempsey seems to have ended shortly after the championship match, but DeForest trained other boxers and was a promoter of prizefighters and  matches at the Polo Grounds. In the mid-1920's he also offered a boxing correspondence course, advertised in magazines like this issue of Popular Mechanics June 1927.

But how does a boxing trainer  connect to a boy's brass band?
More research provided an answer in a book titled The Luckiest Orphans a history of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York By Hyman Bogen. In 1900 a new superintendent, David Adler, added physical training to the curriculum of the orphanage, and engaged an ex-circus trapeze aerialist, James DeForest to teach the boys.
Hebrew Orphan Asylum, NYC. Digital ID: 805109. New York Public Library

Evidently he was a popular teacher who befriended the boys and made a lasting impression beyond the gym. These postcard views of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum give a view of a hard institutional life, but one that was probably better than many other orphanages in the city. The main building on Amsterdam Ave. listed a capacity for 850 children and provided support, education, and industrial training. 

But thanks to the Amazon.com snippet view of this book, I found the confirming detail that Jimmy DeForest's duties at the HOA also included rehearsing a boys' band once a week. Perhaps music was a talent he learned in his early life in the circus. The band only lasted about two years, as Jimmy moved on in 1907.  And Roy, no doubt grew out of his expensive uniforms.

This obituary clipped from the Plattsburgh NY Daily Press of Oct. 13, 1932  gives extra details on DeForest's life, including a rare story of running away from the circus, when his trapeze artist parents chose to dress him as a girl. And his entrepreneur's story in the New York boxing world of the 1900's when there were opportunities to win big, reads like a novel, and no doubt typical of  most sporting men, contains much that was embellished for better effect.

But the part about the New York Orphan Boy's Band wasn't told so often and probably had more influence than Jimmy would ever know. Many of those boys that Jimmy trained would serve in the trenches of World War I. Perhaps some of the band members marched with the army bands in the victory parades, or at least ended up in Broadway theater orchestras. And how many of those boys would brag that their gym teacher had trained Jack Dempsey, heavy weight champion of the world?

But it was heartening to learn that the little boy imitating Sousa was in fact not an orphan, or even a half-orphan. Did he save the baton?

My contribution to Sepia Saturday.
Click the link for more enthusiasts
of antique photos.


  UPDATE: 

Click this link to read another story
about little Roy DeForest
The Youngest Band Leader

9 comments:

Postcardy said...

That was a very interesting post. I never would have guessed that the band leader was also a boxing trainer and former circus member.

Bob Scotney said...

I read a lot about Jack Dempsey when I was a boy, but knew nothing about his trainer. Very interesting post.

Brett Payne said...

Fascinating story and some wonderful photos, thank you Mike.

Howard said...

Wonderful post Mike and brilliant research. Do you know what happened to little Roy De Forest?

Rob From Amersfoort said...

Interesting story! I love to read these kind of old newspaper clippings.

Mike Brubaker said...

Little Roy or James R. DeForest Jr. shows up in the 1930 Census living in East Orange, NJ. He is married with one child and lists his occupation as: Instructor of Physical Culture. Presumably helping to run the boxing correspondence course with his father.

Tattered and Lost said...

Wonderful story pieced together. I so love when the net allows us to take these journeys. Really well done.

Barbara said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. Jimmy Deforest was my great- grandfather and we know so little ( oddly) about him that it is always interesting to read what other people are able to uncover. Thanks!

Mike Brubaker said...

Barbara - Thank you for your comment. I do hope I've got your family history correct. If not, send me an email. The story of Jimmy Deforest's orphanage band really adds a nice unexpected twist to the life of a boxing legend.

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