How to Become a Juvenile Delinquent in 5 Easy StepsOn October 2, 2019 by Elyse
Frank Abagnale, Jr., whose youthful felonies—er, indiscretions—inspired the book and film “Catch Me If You Can,” may have slipped away from the police twice before his 22nd birthday, but Floyd Merrill could give him a run for his money, literally.
In 1911, Floyd was a teenager living with his aunt and uncle in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. Like many cliché antiheroes, he was extremely bright. At the age of 16, while working as an elevator operator at a local department store, he reportedly invented an electric device to prevent railroad accidents by warning engineers about displaced rails and bridge washouts.
A telegram, supposedly from the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, shows young Floyd had a promising future ahead of him:
In its profile of him, the newspaper quoted a letter he was said to have sent his aunt and uncle while away at school: “I will make you proud some day, and that before long. I am going to startle the world with an invention which I am about to complete. I will be a second Edison.”
Floyd startled the world alright. . . just not in the way his relatives might have hoped. His name was back in the Seattle Star later that year, but not to announce his next great invention. Instead, the newspaper gleefully recounted the beginning of a wave of petty crimes and madcap misadventures that would change his reputation from a “boy inventor” to a “joy riding kid” and an “automaniac.”
The historical record is silent on the motivation for Floyd’s transformation from genius to juvenile delinquent, but it reveals a clear, if unexpected, career trajectory over a few days in June 1911. By no means do I endorse juvenile delinquency. However, if you’re still bitter about whatever track your high school’s career aptitude test recommended, Floyd’s story will remind you early indicators don’t always predict future success—or at least, not conventional success.
1. Start early.
I don’t know about you, but I spent most of my early teenage years fawning over boy bands and stressing out about pimples. Not Floyd; he found his calling early, and by the time he was 13 or 14, he was already making inroads in the criminal justice system.
As best I can tell, his name first appeared in newspapers in 1908, after he was arrested for “numerous depredations in Ballard, some of which had been very annoying to the local police.” These “very annoying crimes” must have been more serious than egging a neighbor’s house or playing loud music late at night because the court sentenced him to reform school. Cue ominous music.
He was saved from what could have been a darker version of Hollywood’s many heartwarming boarding school-themed movies by his aunt, who promised to ship him off to his grandparents in Kansas within 24 hours. I’m not sure which fate would have made the teenage Floyd more distraught.
It’s unclear if he ever did any hard time in Kansas, but he evidently didn’t learn his lesson. Three years later, he was back in court—and in the newspapers—for passing a bad check for $24.50. (That’s $666.78 in 2018 dollars, for those of you keeping track.) Floyd was off to the races.
2. Assemble your squad.
In addition to a black leather jacket and copious amounts of hair gel, every juvenile delinquent needs a love interest and a sidekick. Floyd didn’t have to look far for either.
Shortly after the forged check incident, he met 15-year-old Daisy Pierce (or 16-year-old Sadie Pierce, depending on the source). It must’ve been love at first sight because the pair were reported to have almost immediately set off to elope in Everett, Washington in a chauffeured car—which he allegedly tried to pay for with another bad check. Nothing makes a girl swoon like a stereotypical “bad boy,” amirite?
Tragically, the star-crossed lovers were intercepted by police before they could marry. Floyd was subsequently arrested for the third time that week.
However, there was a silver lining: While locked up in King County Jail, he made the acquaintance of 15-year-old Archie Jamieson. Floyd may have lost the girl, but he found the Robin to his Batman.
3. Go on the lam.
No self-respecting juvenile delinquent remains in police custody for very long, and Floyd had developed a well-earned reputation as a flight risk. After two days in King County Jail, he and Archie decided they had places to go and people to see.
The boys called the matron to the door, and the moment she unlocked it, they pushed her aside, and then set a new world’s record for the 100-yard dash, she says. Before she could summon any aid they were out of sight.– The Seattle Star, June 15, 1911
So much for “Catch Me If You Can.” However, credit where credit is due: Floyd showed more consideration than most teenagers who break curfew and apparently called the sheriff to assure him he’d be in juvenile court Friday morning.
In case you need a recap at this point, the Seattle Star was keeping count, reminding readers, “Floyd is the youth who has escaped from the Seattle police twice, from the Tacoma police once and from the county jail once. . . All this within the past 10 days.”
4. Be bold.
Subtlety had never been Floyd’s strength, and rather than stay under the radar, he and Archie reportedly made the most of their newfound freedom:
Since [his escape from King County Jail] Floyd has been leading the merry life. On three occasions within the past 48 hours he has phoned for renting machines [chauffeured cars], and with Jamieson as his guest has ridden all over the state. Each time he has slipped the chauffeur, and the chauffeur has returned sadly to town.– The Seattle Star, June 16, 1911
5. Repent, and beg forgiveness.
All good things, including adolescent crime sprees, must come to an end. The law caught up to the “sensational automobile youth” in Bellingham about a week after his felonious adventure began. Floyd was said to have been guarded by “six husky policemen” and brought back to Seattle by “a double platoon of heavily armed deputies.” Between the police’s VIP treatment and the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s previous offer, it’s a wonder his head wasn’t too big for his cell.
The newspapers checked in with Floyd after a few days in jail and reported he had undergone a transformation:
Floyd Merrill, the 17-year-old automaniac, so called, presented anything but the appearance of the happy, careless, joy-riding individual who figured so sensationally in the news items for the past week, when seen at the county jail this morning. He is completely depressed with the realization that he had been guilty of “bad doings,” and expresses thorough repentance.– The Seattle Star, June 19, 1911
In his own words:
Home or jail?
When I think of my recent auto experience, I realize that I must make a choice between the two.
And Home is the answer. I have had my lesson.
I am not a crook. [Editor’s note: President Richard Nixon becomes latest politician caught up in plagiarism scandal.] But I certainly see that I had started on the road to be one. I got a wrong start and I am now glad to have it ended.– Floyd Merrill, quoted in the Seattle Star, June 19, 1911
With such an eloquent change of heart, no wonder the court let him off the hook:
Floyd grew up to be a well-adjusted, law-abiding, productive member of society. The end.
. . . Just kidding.
Bonus step: Never grow up.
Almost immediately, Floyd reportedly stood up his probation officer, joined the U.S. Navy and was preparing to ship off to Norfolk, Virginia, uniform in hand. “Join the Navy, see the world?” More like, “join the Navy, see the back of Washington’s jails.”
He might have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids—whoops, wrong story—Seattle’s chief probation officer, who spotted him on a street car. Floyd found himself not in Norfolk but in reform school.
However, it apparently didn’t do him much good. Three years later, when he was 20 years old, he was still up to his old tricks:
Believing that Floyd, with a friend, is in an auto speeding northward, Deputy Sheriff John W. Roberts and Deputy Herbert Beebe today are speeding toward Everett in hope of finding Floyd, who is alleged to have violated parole from the Chehalis reformatory.
When Guard J. T. Gerald called at the Merrill home, 2230 W. 63rd st., yesterday afternoon, Floyd “wanted to change his overcoat.” He jumped from a second-story window and escaped.– The Seattle Star, May 7, 1914
Some things never change.
What happened next is anybody’s guess. Like many of my favorite stories, Floyd’s trail goes cold. The only later mention of him I can find comes from 1915, when he was arrested in Detroit for robbery.
We can certainly hope the rest of his life was less newsworthy than his early years. Regardless, for anyone considering their future career, I hope Floyd’s story serves as a helpful guide for what not to do with your life.
Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above historical articles. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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