Prologue: Working for Human Happiness
On the morning of October 1, 1854, forty-five children sat on the front benches of a meetinghouse in Dowagiac, Michigan. Most were between ten and twelve years old, though at least one was six and a few were young teenagers. During the week the meetinghouse served as a school, but on that day, a Sunday, it was a Presbyterian church, and more than usually crowded, not only because the children had taken so many seats, but because the regular parishioners had been augmented by less devout neighbors curious to see the “orphans.” For the last couple of weeks notices had been running in the newspapers, and bills had been posted at the general store, the tavern, and the railroad station asking families to take in homeless boys and girls from New York City. The children had arrived on the train from Detroit at three that morning and had huddled together on the station platform until sunup. They had spent the previous night on a steamer crossing Lake Erie from Buffalo, New York, and not a one of them had avoided being soiled by seasickness -- their own or their fellow passengers’ -- or by the excreta of the animals traveling on the deck above. The night before, they had slept on the floor of an absolutely dark freight car, amid a crowd of German and Irish immigrants heading west from Albany. During their first night out from New York City, on a riverboat traveling up the Hudson, they had slept in proper berths, with blankets and mattresses -- but only because the boat’s captain, after hearing the tales they told of their lives, had taken pity on them.
The children’s days of hard travel were clearly evident in their pallor and the subtle deflation of their features. Their clothes -- which had been new when they left New York -- were stained and ripped and emitted a distinct animal rankness. Their expressions were wary, as if they had been caught doing something wrong and were wondering whether they were going to be punished. In some of the younger children this wariness verged on fear, but most of the older boys and girls had known too much disappointment and loneliness to be afraid of what was about to happen to them, or at least to reveal that fear, even to themselves. Some of them cast glances -- challenging, or ingratiating -- back at the men and women seated behind them; some looked down at their shoes, while others stared straight ahead at the young man beside the altar, whose enthusiasm, accent, and fluid gestures marked him as a city preacher. His name was E. P. Smith, and he was telling the audience about the organization he represented: the Children’s Aid Society, which had been founded only one and a half years earlier by a young minister named Charles Loring Brace.
Brace, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, had come to New York in 1848 to study theology and had been horrified both by the hordes of vagrant children -- beggars, bootblacks, flower sellers, and prostitutes -- who crowded the city’s streets and by the way civil authorities treated them. Mass poverty was a new problem during that era. Up through the early nineteenth century there had been no slums in American cities. There had been poor people, of course, and run- down houses on the back streets and disreputable taverns on the waterfronts, but none of the large, decaying neighborhoods of fear and despair that are so ubiquitous in urban America today. Beginning shortly after the War of 1812, torrential immigration and the nation’s uneasy transition to industrial capitalism had divided American cities into hostile camps of the affluent and the desperately poor. In no city was this division more pronounced than New York, which started the nineteenth century with a population of less than 40,000 and ended it with close to a million and a half. In 1849 New York’s first police chief reported that 3,000 children1 -- or close to 1 percent of the city’s total population -- lived on the streets and had no place to sleep but in alleys and abandoned buildings or under stairways. At first the au-thorities had dealt with these vagrant children mainly by incarcerat-ing them in adult prisons and almshouses, and then, beginning in the 1820s, by building juvenile prisons and asylums, which were barely less harsh or punitive.
Brace believed that most of these children were not criminals but victims of miserable economic and social conditions. Incarceration did nothing but “harden” them in the ways of crime. What they really needed, he maintained, was education, jobs, and good homes -- and in March 1853 he established an organization to provide them with just such benefits.
During its first year the Children’s Aid Society primarrily offered its young beneficiaries religious guidance at Sunday meetings and vocational and academic instruction at its industrial schools. It alsooooo established the nation’s first runaway shelter, the Newsboys’ Lodging House, where vagrant boys received inexpensive room and board and basic education. From the beginning Brace and his colleagues attempted to find jobs and homes for individual children, but they soon became overwhelmed by the numbers needing placement. Un-able to raise enough money to increase his staff, Brace hit on the idea of sending groups of children to the country and letting local residents simply pick out the child they wanted for themselves. The forty-five young people sitting in the Dowagiac meetinghouse were the first of these groups -- and the first riders of what would come to be called the “orphan trains.” As Smith explained the program to his audience, he appealed equally to their consciences and pocketbooks. These were the “little ones of Christ,” he said, who had the same capacities, the same need of good influences, and the same immortal soul as “our own” children. Kind men and women who opened their homes to one of this “ragged regiment” would be expected to raise them as they would their natural-born children, providing them with decent food and clothing, a “common” education, and $100 when they turned twenty-one. There would be no loss in the charity, Smith assured his audience. The boys were handy and active and would soon learn any common trade or labor. The girls could be used for all types of housework.
When he had finished speaking, bench-legs squawked on the floorboards and the congregation came forward to get a better look at the children. Some of these men and women were shopkeepers, carpenters, or blacksmiths, and one was a physician; most, however, were farmers. Their faces were gaunt (only the wealthy were fat in the nineteenth century) and reddened by sun, wind, and, in not a few cases, whiskey. As they mingled with Smith’s party, some blinked back tears that such innocents should already have known so much hardship, others looked them up and down and asked questions, trying to assess their strength and honesty, while one or two went so far as to squeeze the children’s muscles or plunge a finger into their mouths to check their teeth.
The actual distribution of the children commenced the following morning at the tavern where they were staying. In an account of the trip published by the Children’s Aid Society, Smith said that in order to get a child, applicants had to have recommendations from their pastor and a justice of the peace, but it is unlikely that this requirement was strictly enforced. In the early days the society’s agents tended to be very casual in both the acquisition and dispersal of their charges. Smith himself had let a passenger on the riverboat from Manhattan take one of the boys and had replaced him with another he met in the Albany railroad y...