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Ben Bruce: Scenes in the Life of a Bowery Newsboy: Plot Summary

Ben Bruce: Scenes in the Life of a Bowery Newsboy, New York: Frank A. Munsey, 1892

          Ben Bruce, the hero, is fifteen years old and the possessor of a "bright, intelligent face and a fearless look" (5). His stepfather is Jacob Winter, a miser with a wrinkled face and bowed shoulders that married Ben's mother for money. Jacob strongly dislikes Ben because of his independent and self-reliant nature. He resents Ben for not giving him the respect that he thinks he deserves. Ben's mother is more perceptive; speaking with Jacob about Ben, she remarks that he "has spirit, and if you undertake to drive him he will be sure to rebel" (11). Ben wants to go to school, but Jacob, who wants a free farm hand, refuses to pay the tuition.
Ben Bruce cover image is borrowed from the Dime Novels Collection of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester          Ben is motivated to find a job so he will not rely on Jacob in any way. He turns to his friend, Mr. Foster, the superintendent of a leather board factory for employment, an arrangement to which Foster readily agrees. Unfortunately, and as the narrator mentions explicitly: "Man proposes, but God disposes" (15). The dam the factory depends on is destroyed by vengeful ex-employees. Foster is no longer able to hire Ben; he must look for work elsewhere.
          While Ben is looking for another position, he encounters his friend, Albert Graham, who tells Ben Bruce that he saw Jacob burying money in a deserted field at night. Uncertain what Jacob's motivations are, the two plan to spy on him the following night. From their hiding place, they see a highwayman preparing to rob Jacob. Although Ben and Albert foil the attempt, Jacob suspects their intentions. Nonetheless, since he is quite fearful of another robbery attempt, he thanks them and invites Albert to spend the night at the house. That night, the two boys foil a second attempt by the burglar.
          The next day, Ben learns Jacob has sold him into the shoemaker's care as apprentice. Ben chooses to run away: luckily, the railway fares into Boston are at an all-time low ("Man proposes, but God disposes," or realizing the situation?)
          In Boston, Ben Bruce meets Adelbert Bruce, his cousin. The two witness a mad dog attack a small child. Ben Bruce leaps to his aid by covering the dog's head with his coat, ruining it. The father, Franklin Wentworth, gives him credit at a men's store to buy a new suit. ("Man proposes, but God disposes," or right place, right time?) Ben Bruce gets his picture put in the paper. After buying his suit, Ben is invited to the Wentworth's for dinner. He earns the respect and admiration of both Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth, who remarks: "I hope he will prosper. He deserves to do so" (74). She rewards Ben herself by giving him a silver watch and chain. Ben leaves Boston by boat to New York City, where he feels that his opportunities will be greatest.
          On the boat to New York, Ben Bruce meets villain Tom Tidd, the burglar who had attempted to rob Jacob. While on board, Ben foils another burglary attempt and Tom Tidd is arrested. The victim is a rich patron named Grant Griswold, who takes a liking to Ben Bruce. They share a berth and enter New York together. Although Grant is preparing to leave for Europe, he takes Ben Bruce into his employ as an errand boy for a few days before he leaves. He pays Ben well and promises to be a good reference for Ben's next employer. Once Grant leaves, Ben looks into inexpensive lodging. In the boarding house he chooses, Ben makes the acquaintance of another boarder Sylvanus Snodgrass, a self-important serial writer and spendthrift
          Ben has difficulty finding a position immediately; he is forced to hock his watch for five dollars for his room and food. Finally, he gets a job as a newsboy; it is a job that he learns quickly. He skill excites the jealousy of bullies and fellow newsboys Patsy Blake and Mike Farley, who feel that he is invading their territory. They try to drive him off, and they fight. Ben beats them both, thus earning their respect. He also impresses a gentleman, John Wilkins, who offers him a part in a play as a newsboy for a high sum. Although he is nervous, Ben prepares for opening night and performs remarkably well. Patsy Blake, Mr. Foster, and Sylvanus Snodgrass are all in the audience, and present their compliments following the show. The play runs for four weeks, during which time Ben is able to pay for his boarding and food in addition to saving sixty dollars.
          Ben next encounters flashy pool shark spendthrift George Greyson, who thinks Ben is a miser. Reasoning that it would help Ben if he had no money, he steals his bankbook. When Ben discovers the theft, he goes to the bank. Once there, Ben and the teller prepare a trap for George, which works perfectly. The police apprehend George, and although Ben is inclined to be lenient, they insist he prosecute.
          Time passes; Ben's newsboy business falls off, and a mysterious lady, Maria Harcourt, takes him in to act the part of her dead son. Although odd, she seems a perfect patron. However, it is revealed by the narrator that she wants to use him to get a false trust of $10,000 per annum from her uncle. Ben is given fine clothing and money to spend as he likes. Occasionally, he must present himself to Maria's uncle, but he is otherwise permitted to spend his time as he likes. By chance one day, he encounters a poor newsboy that he had worked with. It is revealed, although Ben fails to make the connection, that this newsboy is a relation of the family that Maria is working to defraud; it is his family specifically that would receive the money if it was discovered that Maria's ward is dead.
          Maria's family begins to become too inquisitive for her liking; they know that her ward was ill, and they are surprised to see Ben look so healthy. In addition, Maria had come from Europe, and they begin to suspect that Ben cannot speak French or German. To avoid detection, Maria takes Ben on a steamboat to Europe. Ben Bruce's stateroom roommate is the young English gentleman, the Hon. Cyril Bentley, younger son of the Earl of Bentley, who takes an immediate liking to Ben Bruce.
          Once in Europe, Ben rises well: Maria Harcourt has him taught in French and German to complete his disguise. While in France, Ben meets John Wilkins at the Louvre. The playwright is surprised and intrigued by Ben's story.
          Meanwhile, in Ben's hometown, Jacob has given power of attorney to his swindling nephew, Ezra, in the hopes of making money in the mining business. Ezra slowly begins to work his way through the whole of Jacob's fortune.
          Back in Europe, Maria dies of a stroke; she leaves a confessional letter for Ben, who is aghast at the truth of the role he played. An American industrialist, Obed Flint, offers to help Ben while the situation is sorted out. Basil Wentworth, Maria's cousin, who has come to Europe in pursuit to find the truth, sees Ben's honorable behavior and swears to stand behind him. Although Ben thus loses the inheritance that Maria had been tending, she leaves him her entire personal estate: $40,000. Obed remarks that it is a large enough sum for a young man just starting out in life.
          Ben returns to New York, where he catches up with all his old acquaintances. He also hears of his stepfather's financial difficulty and obtains passage on the next steamer headed to Boston. On the boat home, Ben overhears Ezra Winter, who is bragging to a friend about defrauding his uncle. As soon as he reaches home, Ben employs the help of local lawyer John Bentham. He then goes home and explains the facts to Jacob. They go to Boston and arrest Ezra. Although Jacob has lost a good deal of his money, he has enough to live on, and he is indebted to Ben.
          Time passes; Jacob dies, Ben takes a job as a clerk and performs well. Although he remains in touch with Cyril Bentley, the narrator concludes by remarking that Ben is "a true American, and as much as he may like individual Englishmen he will never become an Anglicized American" (287).