Serious crime committed by a child is usually front-page news. In the case of Otto Newman, his crime barely made a paragraph in the newspapers. That Otto was ten years old when he murdered a playmate was evidently not so fascinating.
December 8, 1896, and Hilliard Otto Newman, 10, played a game of “tag” with Frank Pfeister, 12. They were in the small village of Weber, New Jersey. It was fun and games until the fight. For whatever reasons, the boys began a heated argument. Otto, as he was called, left the game and returned with a gun. He shot Frank dead.
The information is limited, so it’s difficult to know exactly what transpired. It is recorded that police took Otto into custody the same day. Officials locked him up in the Brunswick jail. Otto became one of the youngest prisoners ever arraigned in the state of New Jersey.
|Child laborer (see description below)|
This is not Otto Newman
Times were tough on children Otto’s age. The New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children had been in operation for a little over 20 years, but child labor laws were just seeing change. Children under 14 were no longer working in the factories (legally). The legislation now banned cigar making in tenements, a job done primarily by children. It would be three years before John Dewey, President of the American Psychological Association, began championing children’s rights. Despite the legal changes, thousands of children still worked in factories, toiled in the fields, found work where they could, which was often dangerous and unsafe.
Because Otto’s crime was a capital offense, there was no bail. Otto’s parents tried to visit him weekly. Newspapers listed Otto’s father as Gottlieb Newman, and the family lived in Weber, Middlesex County near Brunswick. Weber, located near the Raritan River, was just southwest of Hopelawn.
The Grand Jury eventually indicted Otto for murder. Until then, the ten-year-old sat incarcerated in the adult jail. Newspaper journalists reported that the boy looked thin and pale and how Otto stayed in a constant state of worry over the case.
Otto did not spend Christmas of 1896 with a turkey dinner, the press noted. The jail served inmates fricasseed chicken, a soup where the meat is pan fried and then stewed in a broth or gravy. Little Otto received several visitors on Christmas day. Some people brought him books. Otto sat in his cell and read for most of his time.
An attorney advised Otto Newman to plea bargain. The attorney asked the courts to reduce the charge of “capitol murder” to “manslaughter.” The day of sentencing, the public packed the courtroom, pushing for a chance to see the child murderer.
On the day of sentencing, Gilbert Collins, the newly appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, was presiding. County Prosecutor John Vorhees agreed to the plea bargain and a suspended sentence. In return, Hilliard Otto Newman was sentenced to the Jamesburg reform school in New Jersey.
Jamesburg, later called the New Jersey Training School, opened in 1867. It would become New Jersey’s largest youth detention center. For Otto, it was a place focusing on rehabilitation and healthy living, destined to keep boys out of trouble and out of adult prisons.
And then the case dropped from the news.
In 1898, the town of Weber became Keasbey. “Postmaster General Gary has ordered that the name of the village … to be changed” (Weber, N.J., Is… 1898). 150 years later, protesters insist the New Jersey Training School be closed.
The fate of the ten-year-old killer is now history, his name only surfacing in the small paragraphs of newspaper archives. There are no photos, no legal paperwork existing. Hilliard Otto Newman lives on only because of a few paragraphs in tattered newsprint.
A Ten-Year-Old Murderer (1897, March 21) The New York Times
Hawes, J.M. (1991). The Children’s Rights Movement. Twayne Publishers: Woodbridge, CT.
His Christmas a Sad One. (1896, December 26). New York Journal
Weber, N.J., Is No More.; Name Changed to Keasbey After a Long Fight Between Rivals. (1898, April 15). The New York Times
Zoppo, A. (2019, January 16). Hundreds call for closure of N.J.'s largest youth prison. https://www.nj.com/middlesex/2017/06/jamesburg_protest.html
IMAGE: Source: Lewis Hine/Library of Congress, photo by Lewis Hine, photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. The boy is Giles E. Newsom. “While working in the Sanders Spinning Mill, a piece of machine fell onto 11-year-old Giles’s foot, crushing his toe. As a result, he fell onto a spinning machine and his hand went into the unprotected gearing, tearing off two of his fingers” (https://socialnewsdaily.com/76614/these-horrific-photographs-from-the-1900s-will-make-you-glad-child-labor-was-abolished/)