On this day: Orphan Trains

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day, a century ago, "Sixty-six babies from the New York Foundling Hospital were shipped . . . to foster parents in the South and West in a special car on the noon train for St. Louis from the Grand Central Station.

"The sixty-six foundlings were in charge of two sisters of charity and Agent O'Hara, who has been conducting the hospital's semi-annual transcontinental foundling tours for a great many years."

Click here to read the rest of the New York Times article.

This is the form that the Sisters of Charity mailed out to the couples who had "kindly ordered" children. The New York Times articles includes the note Sister Theresa Vincent sent along with each child.

For a little background on "How It All Began", click here.

Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, by Stephen O'Connor, University of Chicago Press, 2001, is a history of Brace's Children's Aid Society and the orphan trains, including information about the New York Foundling Hospital, started by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in 1869. Among the Foundling Hospital's controversial practices was changing the names of Jewish children to place them with Catholic foster parents.

This is the link to the book's Amazon page. (Sample pages not available at one site may be found at the other.)

How was Charles Loring Brace so successful at convincing donors to contribute to his efforts to rid New York of thousands of abandoned children, "street Arabs", "newsboys"? He appealed to their charitable nature and he frightened them: "These boys and girls, it should be remembered, will soon form the great lower class of our city. They will influence elections; they may shape the policy of the city; they will, assuredly, if unreclaimed, poison society all around them."

The Sisters of Charity rivaled Brace at placing unwanted children with families far from New York. O'Connor's book provides gruesome details of what the orphans endured. One foundling, taken out west by the Sisters of Charity, was Marguerite Thomson:

"The silence imposed by shame and fear was so pervasive that it is only within the last few years that some surviving female orphan train riders have begun to talk about unwelcomed sexual encounters. Marguerite Thomson, who was placed in Nebraska by the New York Foundling Hospital in 1911, reported that she had to leave four out the five homes where she worked as a housekeeper during the 1920s because the men made sexual advances toward her. When she turned one man down, he raped her and fired her the next morning. Thomson also had sex forced upon her when she was twelve years old by the husband of a woman who had given her refuge after her original placement had become too much to bear." Page 224.

"Once a year the Foundling Hospital's agent . . . came to visit . . . But she was never allowed to talk to him in private, nor did he ever ask for a word with her."

Marguerite's foster mother had her incarcerated in a House of Good Shepherd where she stayed for three years before neighbors of the abusive foster mother "threatened to call the authorities". Page 227.

Boys, too, were victims of sexual abuse. See page 230, where O'Connor tells of Horatio Alger's pedophilia.

Many of the orphans left the families with whom they were placed at the first opportunity. A two-year-old taken out west by the Sisters of Charity in 1911 was still alive in 2007, when this article about her appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.

The New York Foundling Hospital is still operating. Their records are held by The New York Historical Society. Click here for a Guide to the Records and for a Historical Note about the Foundling Hospital, the Sisters, the orphan trains, etc. Scroll down a quarter of an inch to Arrangement and click on XIII to read "Notes Left with Children".

Click here for an article about "Orphan Trains" from the Petaluma Paper, Nov., 2010.

Click here for the National Orphan Train Complex, Inc.

Click here for Google Images of orphan trains.

Over 200,000 children were sent out on the orphan trains. The Sisters of Charity and the other agencies were doing their best for the children. Today, agencies no longer send children away, but foster homes in cities can be as dangerous for children as distant farms were a hundred years ago.

"Foster care can never be painless. It begins, always, with tragedy -- the death, depression, illness, insanity, cruelty, or addiction of parents. Usually the tragedy is not a discrete event but a series of individually horrific incidents that occur over a period of years and can build up such a collective force that they permanently deform a child's character. But even when the tragedy is comparatively minor, and even when the child is in foster care for only a short period, she is still suffering a child's most primal nightmare: separation from her mother and father."

--O'Connor, p. 314.

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