Occasionally, I find an old photograph of a messenger boy, and always pause to admire these cute little guys. Messenger boys are sort of a cousin profession to the iconic newspaper boy, These scrappy, uniformed little boys are a staple of Disney tales, Charles Dickens novels, and many movies made in the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s a profession that no longer exists, and was driven in large part by inventions such as the telegraph.

But today, I realized I bought a romanticized version of this profession. The scales fell from my eyes when I found these images captured by Lewis Wickes Hine, the prolific photographer. Hine’s works is credited with being a key factor in passing child labor laws in the early twentieth century.

The short bios that Hine included with many of his photographs that has made me see the messenger boy profession quite differently.

Preston DeCosta


Preston DeCosta, 15 years old, Messenger #3 for Bellevue Messenger Service in San Antonio, Texas in 1911. Hine encountered Preston carrying notes between a prostitute in jail and a pimp in the Red Light district. “He had read all the notes and knew all about the correspondence. He was a fine-grained adolescent boy. Has been delivering message and drugs in the Red Light for 6 months and knows the ropes thoroughly.”

“A lot of these girls are my regular customers,” Preston told Hine. “I carry ’em messages and get ’em drinks, drugs, etc. Also go to the bank with money for ’em. If a fellow treats ’em right, they’ll call him by number and give him all their work. I got a box full of photos I took of these girls – some of ’em I took in their room.” Hine noted he works until 11:00 P.M.

Raymond Bykes


The little one in the front is Raymond Bykes, Western Union No. 23, Norfolk, Va. “Said he was 14 years old,” Hine wrote skeptically in June 1911. “Works until after 1 A.M. every night. He is precocious and not a little ‘tough.’ Has been here at this office for only three months, but he already knows the Red Light District thoroughly and goes there constantly. He told me he often sleeps down at the Bay Line boat docks all night.” Hine wrote, “Several times I saw his mother hanging around the office, but she seemed more concerned about getting his pay envelope than anything else.”

Richard Pierce


Richard Pierce, Messenger No. 2 from Western Union Telegraph Co in Wilmington, Delaware. “14 years of age. 9 months in service. Works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Smokes. Visits houses of prostitution.” May, 1910.

(On a personal note, there is no way this child is 14 years old. He’s probably closer to 8 or 9.)

Frank F. Gibson

This is 14-year-old Frank Gibson, of Wilmington, Delaware in May, 1910. Western Union Telegraph Co., Messenger No. 7. He’s been a messenger for 1 year. This boy visits houses of prostitution and guides soldiers to segregated district. He smokes. Still at school and works from 8:30 P.M. to 12:30 A.M.

Marion Davis


Marion Davis, Messenger #21 for Bellevue Messenger Service in Houston, Texas in October 1913. He’s 14 years old. Marion told Hine, “Been messenger, off and on, for two years. Not supposed to go to the Reservation (Houston’s Red Light district) under 16 years, but I do just the same. The boss don’t care and the cops don’t stop me.”

Isaac Boyett


This is Isaac Boyett. Something about this little boy makes me smile and breaks my heart at the same time.

In November, 1913, Isaac told Hine: “I’m de whole show.” The 12-year-old was the proprietor, manager, and messenger of the Club Messenger Service in Waco, Texas.

“The photo shows him in the heart of the Red Light district where he was delivering messages as he does several times a day. Said he knows the houses and some of the inmates. Has been doing this for one year, working until 9:30 P.M. Saturdays. Not so late on other nights. Makes from $6 – $10 a week.”

Percy Neville


Percy Neville, age 11, in the heart of the Red Light district in Shreveport, Louisiana, November 1913.
“Just come out of one of the houses with message (which see in his hand),” Hine scribbled. “He said gleefully, ‘She gimme a quarter tip.'”

Emmet Brewster (left)


“Extremes meet,” Hine noted. “One of the youngest and one of the older messenger boys in Mobile. The small boy is Emmet Brewster, Postal messenger #3. 11 years old; been working there 7 months. Makes $10 to $15 a month. Finished the third grade in school. I saw him carrying messages late at night. Mobile, Alabama. 1914 October.”

Luther Wharton


Luther Wharton, drug store delivery boy, twelve years old. San Antonio, Texas. 1913 October
“Works from 4:00 P.M. to midnight in Sommers Drug Store. I saw him working at midnight. He goes to school in the daytime, then works from four to twelve. Sundays half a day. Gets $5.00 a week,” Hine wrote.

The boy confided to him: “I take medicines to the Red Light places several times a day. Yes I know some of the people there.” The photographer later reflected, “This is a pretty heavy burden, both physical and moral, to place on this adolescent boy.”

Danville, Virginia Messengers


“The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5, is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy in Danville, Virginia. He said he was going to be laid off as the manager told him he was too young, but an older messenger told me the reason was that the other messengers were having him put off because he cuts into their earnings. 1911 June,” Hine wrote.

Note: All photos courtesy of Library of Congress.

This is Part 4 of The Kings of Louisiana. Be sure to read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3!  

The trial opened in September.  The large audience was almost entirely male, except some family members. Leo’s stepmother sat with his sister Hazel. “The defense says they are not fully decided to put Miss Olivier on the witness stand. It may not be necessary and if it can be avoided they would be glad of the opportunity,” the New Orleans Times–Democrat reported.

Mrs. Sallie King, Dr. King’s mother, appeared in heavy mourning. She sat next to her daughter and son-in-law. The doctor’s wife, Mrs. Phoebe King was present with one of her daughters, probably Phoebe, who was 14 at the time. This was the extent of the coverage of the doctor’s wife and daughters in the papers. They were never mentioned again.

The prosecution immediately ran into difficulties. A jury could not acquit Leo due to the unwritten law, but they suspected the case hinged on whether jurors were sympathetic to the idea. To their alarm, they were forced to accept several jurors who admitted they agreed with the unwritten law. However, they promised to put aside their personal feelings to act according to their oath as jurors.

The opening argument of Samuel Montgomery, ex-District Attorney of New Orleans, lasted over two hours. “This is the most horrible murder that has ever stained the fair name of our state,” he declared. “You have it from [Leo’s] own lips that he went to the office of Dr. King on a peaceful mission to force the doctor to marry his sister or leave the community.”

He snickered. “Think of it, gentleman! That big infant going to a man the size of Dr. King to force him to marry his sister. He knew Dr. King was already married. Then what did he go there for? He went there on a peaceful mission, armed with a big pistol.”

After the medical testimony and character witnesses, the defendant took the stand. The boy was calm and answered the questions put to him clearly. He said the family had known Dr. King about five years.

The defense contended that Hazel told Leo her story the night before he killed Dr. King. “She wanted to go see him,” Leo said, “but I said, ‘No, I’ll go see him myself.’”

“I went to Dr. King’s office to demand an explanation,” the defendant testified. “I wanted him to do the right thing and marry my sister.” Leo said when he entered the office, Dr. King at once tried to draw a weapon. “I fired as he rose. He staggered toward me.”

After shooting the doctor, Leo thought he may not have killed him. He returned to the room and found Dr. King struggling to get up. “I struck him once or twice with my revolver.” And shot him again.

“You went there mad enough to kill him, didn’t you, Leo?” the DA demanded.

“I can’t say I was mad,” Leo replied slowly. “I was not ready to shoot him down like a beast. I was not in the heat of a passion.”

“You went to see Dr. King to force him to marry your sister or leave the community?”


“Would you have tried to force him to do so to the extent of killing him?”

“I might’ve done so,” the boy said coolly.

Closing arguments lasted over eleven hours. The prosecution railed against the unwritten law and ridiculed the self-defense plea, speculating that Leo brought the brass knuckles with him to Dr. King’s office and planted them in his victim’s hand.

The defense argued that Dr. King was the aggressor; Leo was just defending his sister. They said if Miss Olivier had been allowed to tell her story, it would have made the jurors’ blood run cold. It was an odd point for the defense to make, as they worked hard to ensure Hazel would not testify.

At 7 o’clock, Judge O’Neill charged the jury. He told the jury they could not consider the unwritten law. “You are not to arbitrarily substitute your private opinion of what the law ought to be. This would violate your oaths as jurors.”

The jury was out for 40 minutes. They voted unanimously to acquit Leo Olivier. A Semi-Weekly Times and Democrat reporter wrote, “The whole courtroom rose to its feet when the verdict was read and it was evident a noisy demonstration would’ve ensued had not the sheriff stopped the cheers.”

Leo Olivier received the verdict with surprising composure. He had been so confident of his acquittal, he packed his suitcase before leaving for court that day. He shook his lawyers’ hands and hugged his sister. Hazel Olivier pushed back the heavy veil she had worn throughout the trial, “her face was wreathed in smiles.”

Mrs. Sallie King was not in the courtroom to hear the decision.

Counsel for Olivier claimed this wasn’t a vindication of the unwritten law. “I regard it as an endorsement of our strong case of self-defense.”

The reporter took the trouble to state that no one believed that. In his judgement, it was primarily the jury’s sympathy for the unwritten law that caused them to acquit Olivier. The enthusiastic handshaking and back-slapping as the boy left the courtroom spoke volumes.

I have some thoughts, and I’d love to hear yours. Go to Part 5 of The Kings of Louisiana!

This is Part 3 of The Kings of Louisiana. Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 first!  


According to the Hattiesburg Daily News, the doctor’s killer was 15-year-old Leo Olivier.

“Last Tuesday, Dr. King returned to the city and immediately resumed his practice. The day following his return the town was placarded with large printed posters which heralded his return and branded him as the betrayer of women. It is believed that the poster was what inflamed the youthful brother with a desire to avenge the wrong.

“Arming himself with a 32-caliber automatic revolver, young Olivier proceeded to the office of the physician yesterday morning. The boy told police he had committed the murder because Dr. King took advantage of his sister Hazel.”

By the time the Marshal arrived at Dr. King’s office, a number of people were crowded into the tiny room. Deputy Sheriff Leroy Olivier arrived first. He had the same name as the boy who killed the doctor, but they were not related or connected in any way. Shortly afterward, Dr. E. G. Cherrault, was summoned to assist the doctor. But Dr. Allen King was beyond help.

Marshal Maitland glanced at Cherrault, who shook his head. Rather than examine the body at once, Maitland pulled Deputy Sheriff Olivier aside. “Tell me what you found.”

“The doctor was lying on his face with his hand stretched out,” Olivier said, demonstrating with his own hand. “He had a pair of brass knuckles on his right hand.”

The marshal looked up sharply. Brass knuckles would indicate that possibly Dr. King had intended to defend himself. How could he have known about the boy’s intention?

Dr. Cherrault corroborated the deputy sheriff’s statement. “I’m absolutely positive Dr. King had on a pair of knuckles when I came to his side.”

Brass knuckles


And indeed, the brass knuckles were still clutched in the doctor’s hand.

“While the town is divided to a certain extent, those who are in sympathy with the boys seem to be in the majority,” the Hattiesburg Daily News declared. “However, there are those of friends of the dead doctor who said that he was a particularly honest and upright man, and that he is the victim of unfortunate circumstances.”

The details of the story, as told to the police by the boy, seemed to check out. Multiple eyewitnesses had seen him throughout the morning. Miss Bibbins had seen him, heard two gunshots, and peered around the corner to watch as Leo descended to the ground floor. Leo had said he fired twice before his gun jammed, and a third cartridge was found stuck in the chamber.

The death record of Dr. King (Terrebonne Parish)


Leo spent the night in jail and was escorted on to the train the following morning. He would be tried for the murder in Franklin, Louisiana. At the depot, a reporter from the New Orleans Times–Democrat called out to him, asking why he killed the doctor.

Leo shook his head. “I cannot say.”

When the reporter persisted, the teenager continued, “I would rather not talk of the affair. One of my attorneys is on the train, and you will have to see him. I would rather that he do the talking if there’s a need for any to be done.”

After a moment, Leo added, “But I don’t think that either of the attorneys is prepared to talk as we have it pretty well understood not to say anything for publication just at this time. However, all of the facts will be made known later and then the whole world will be told.”

Reporters freely opined Leo’s real defense would be the unwritten law.

The unwritten law typically referenced cases in which a woman was compromised and the man who had seduced her was likely to go unpunished by the law. In these cases, the unwritten law compelled a woman’s male relatives to punish the man who “ruined” her. In this case, Dr. King had seduced Leo’s sister, caused her to have an abortion, and destroyed her reputation, and it was his duty, as Hazel’s brother, to ensure the doctor didn’t get away with it.


The unwritten law was not legally valid, of course, so the official defense was a plea of self-defense. Bail was set at $10,000, far out of reach for the Oliviers. Prominent citizens of Morgan City paid Leo’s bail for him.

A snippet of the Morgan City Daily Review.


Read Part 4 of The Kings of Louisiana!