Black street kid does a card trick for 3 white boys

Black street kid does a card trick for 3 white boys
Closeup of "The Card Trick", 

a painting by John George Brown

This American painting from the late 19th century shows poor shoeshine boys or bootblacks entertained by a magician who has obviously found their card. Is this true? Could this have happened? Did black and white boys mix freely on the street in the 1880s, or was this the artist’s illusion about race relations and poverty? Was the artist trying to hide the effects of racism, or envision a world without racism? (It’s definitely the dream of any magician – black or white – to have such rapt attention paid to a card trick.)

Black street kid does a card trick for 3 white boys
The Card Trick, 1880-89
John George Brown (1831-1913)
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska
(Click to greatly enlarge)

I don’t know about the racial implications, but Mr. Brown’s painting might have been inspired by Horatio Alger’s serialized 1867 story Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks, which told of the rise of a virtuous 14-year-old street kid to become a respectable citizen. Maybe this painting suggests that the dishonest swindling skills these children needed to survive on the street, such as pickpocketing, could be channeled into more socially acceptable skills, such as sleight-of-hand magic. (And that black and white children could teach the adults how to get along.)

Here’s an excerpt (a quick 1,600 words) from Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick, where city boy Dick and his friend Frank encounter the country boy victim of a swindling con-man, and Dick uses his skills to confront the swindler in return. Note that Dick does the right and honest thing, and contrast it with what a real kid living on the streets might do. This saccharine honesty made Horatio Alger’s books the target of much future parody.

Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York – Horatio Alger

…At length they descended, and were going down the granite steps on the outside of the building, when they were addressed by a young man, whose appearance is worth describing.

He was tall, and rather loosely put together, with small eyes and rather a prominent nose. His clothing had evidently not been furnished by a city tailor. He wore a blue coat with brass buttons, and pantaloons of rather scanty dimensions, which were several inches too short to cover his lower limbs. He held in his hand a piece of paper, and his countenance wore a look of mingled bewilderment and anxiety.

"Be they a-payin’ out money inside there?" he asked, indicating the interior by a motion of his hand.

"I guess so," said Dick. "Are you a-goin’ in for some?"

"Wal, yes. I’ve got an order here for sixty dollars, — made a kind of speculation this morning."

"How was it?" asked Frank.

"Wal, you see I brought down some money to put in the bank, fifty dollars it was, and I hadn’t justly made up my mind what bank to put it into, when a chap came up in a terrible hurry, and said it was very unfortunate, but the bank wasn’t open, and he must have some money right off. He was obliged to go out of the city by the next train. I asked him how much he wanted. He said fifty dollars. I told him I’d got that, and he offered me a check on the bank for sixty, and I let him have it. I thought that was a pretty easy way to earn ten dollars, so I counted out the money and he went off. He told me I’d hear a bell ring when they began to pay out money. But I’ve waited most two hours, and I hain’t heard it yet. I’d ought to be goin’, for I told dad I’d be home to-night. Do you think I can get the money now?"

"Will you show me the check?" asked Frank, who had listened attentively to the countryman’s story, and suspected that he had been made the victim of a swindler. It was made out upon the "Washington Bank," in the sum of sixty dollars, and was signed "Ephraim Smith."

"Washington Bank!" repeated Frank. "Dick, is there such a bank in the city?"

"Not as I knows on," said Dick. "Leastways I don’t own any shares in it."

"Ain’t this the Washington Bank?" asked the countryman, pointing to the building on the steps of which the three were now standing.

"No, it’s the Custom House."

"And won’t they give me any money for this?" asked the young man, the perspiration standing on his brow.

"I am afraid the man who gave it to you was a swindler," said Frank, gently.

"And won’t I ever see my fifty dollars again?" asked the youth in agony.

"I am afraid not."

"What’ll dad say?" ejaculated the miserable youth. "It makes me feel sick to think of it. I wish I had the feller here. I’d shake him out of his boots."

"What did he look like? I’ll call a policeman and you shall describe him. Perhaps in that way you can get track of your money."

Dick called a policeman, who listened to the description, and recognized the operator as an experienced swindler. He assured the countryman that there was very little chance of his ever seeing his money again. The boys left the miserable youth loudly bewailing his bad luck, and proceeded on their way down the street.

"He’s a baby," said Dick, contemptuously. "He’d ought to know how to take care of himself and his money. A feller has to look sharp in this city, or he’ll lose his eye-teeth before he knows it."

"I suppose you never got swindled out of fifty dollars, Dick?"

"No, I don’t carry no such small bills. I wish I did," he added

"So do I, Dick. What’s that building there at the end of the street?"

"That’s the Wall-Street Ferry to Brooklyn."

"How long does it take to go across?"

"Not more’n five minutes."

"Suppose we just ride over and back."

"All right!" said Dick. "It’s rather expensive; but if you don’t mind, I don’t."

"Why, how much does it cost?"

"Two cents apiece."

"I guess I can stand that. Let us go."

They passed the gate, paying the fare to a man who stood at the entrance, and were soon on the ferry-boat, bound for Brooklyn.

They had scarcely entered the boat, when Dick, grasping Frank by the arm, pointed to a man just outside of the gentlemen’s cabin.

"Do you see that man, Frank?" he inquired.

"Yes, what of him?"

"He’s the man that cheated the country chap out of his fifty dollars."

Chapter 11 – Dick as a Detective

Dick’s ready identification of the rogue who had cheated the countryman, surprised Frank.

"What makes you think it is he?" he asked.

"Because I’ve seen him before, and I know he’s up to them kind of tricks. When I heard how he looked, I was sure I knowed him."

"Our recognizing him won’t be of much use," said Frank. "It won’t give back the countryman his money."

"I don’t know," said Dick, thoughtfully. "May be I can get it."

"How?" asked Frank, incredulously.

"Wait a minute, and you’ll see."

Dick left his companion, and went up to the man whom he suspected.

"Ephraim Smith," said Dick, in a low voice.

The man turned suddenly, and looked at Dick uneasily.

"What did you say?" he asked.

"I believe your name is Ephraim Smith," continued Dick.

"You’re mistaken," said the man, and was about to move off.

"Stop a minute," said Dick. "Don’t you keep your money in the Washington Bank?"

"I don’t know any such bank. I’m in a hurry, young man, and I can’t stop to answer any foolish questions."

The boat had by this time reached the Brooklyn pier, and Mr. Ephraim Smith seemed in a hurry to land.

"Look here," said Dick, significantly; "you’d better not go on shore unless you want to jump into the arms of a policeman."

"What do you mean?" asked the man, startled.

"That little affair of yours is known to the police," said Dick; "about how you got fifty dollars out of a greenhorn on a false check, and it mayn’t be safe for you to go ashore."

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," said the swindler with affected boldness, though Dick could see that he was ill at ease.

"Yes you do," said Dick. "There isn’t but one thing to do. Just give me back that money, and I’ll see that you’re not touched. If you don’t, I’ll give you up to the first p’liceman we meet."

Dick looked so determined, and spoke so confidently, that the other, overcome by his fears, no longer hesitated, but passed a roll of bills to Dick and hastily left the boat.

All this Frank witnessed with great amazement, not understanding what influence Dick could have obtained over the swindler sufficient to compel restitution.

"How did you do it?" he asked eagerly .

"I told him I’d exert my influence with the president to have him tried by habease corpus," said Dick.

"And of course that frightened him. But tell me, without joking, how you managed."

Dick gave a truthful account of what occurred, and then said, "Now we’ll go back and carry the money."

"Suppose we don’t find the poor countryman?"

"Then the p’lice will take care of it."

They remained on board the boat, and in five minutes were again in New York. Going up Wall Street, they met the countryman a little distance from the Custom House. His face was marked with the traces of deep anguish; but in his case even grief could not subdue the cravings of appetite. He had purchased some cakes of one of the old women who spread out for the benefit of passers-by an array of apples and seed-cakes, and was munching them with melancholy satisfaction.

"Hilloa!" said Dick. "Have you found your money?"

"No," ejaculated the young man, with a convulsive gasp. "I sha’n’t ever see it again. The mean skunk’s cheated me out of it. Consarn his picter! It took me most six months to save it up. I was workin’ for Deacon Pinkham in our place. Oh, I wish I’d never come to New York! The deacon, he told me he’d keep it for me; but I wanted to put it in the bank, and now it’s all gone, boo hoo!"

And the miserable youth, having despatched his cakes, was so overcome by the thought of his loss that he burst into tears.

"I say," said Dick, "dry up, and see what I’ve got here."

The youth no sooner saw the roll of bills, and comprehended that it was indeed his lost treasure, than from the depths of anguish he was exalted to the most ecstatic joy. He seized Dick’s hand, and shook it with so much energy that our hero began to feel rather alarmed for its safety.

"’Pears to me you take my arm for a pump-handle," said he. "Couldn’t you show your gratitood some other way? It’s just possible I may want to use my arm ag’in some time."

The young man desisted, but invited Dick most cordially to come up and stop a week with him at his country home, assuring him that he wouldn’t charge him anything for board.

"All right!" said Dick. "If you don’t mind I’ll bring my wife along, too. She’s delicate, and the country air might do her good."

Jonathan stared at him in amazement, uncertain whether to credit the fact of his marriage. Dick walked on with Frank, leaving him in an apparent state of stupefaction, and it is possible that he has not yet settled the affair to his satisfaction.

– American Stories, Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765 – 1915, The Metropolitan Museum of Art>>
– Alger, Horatio, 1832-1899. Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library>>

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