Immigrant at Risk Children and the Orphan Trains   (1854-1929)

By: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                 December 2014


 America’s first experience with the large scale immigration of poor individuals starts with Irish Immigrants fleeing the ravages of the Potato Famine in the mid 1840’s. In all close to two million Irish men, women and children arrived in the U.S. between 1845 and 1930. Most of the immigrants were poor, uneducated and unskilled and they clustered in urban centers, especially the east coast port cities when they arrived. American cities and social services were ill equipped to handle this surge of new arrivals and urban conditions quickly deteriorated. Massive ghettoes developed within the cities where the poor huddled in substandard housing, with poor sanitation and limited employment opportunities. The worst of these ghettoes was the Five Points section of lower Manhattan which the English author Charles Dickens described as the worst slum in the world. The Five Points ghetto served as the back drop of the movie “Gangs of New York”.

 Over time America would also witness the arrival of millions of poor immigrants from other European countries especially eastern and southern Europe. These later waves of immigrants often landed and then displaced earlier immigrant groups in these ghettoes. There they competed for the bottom rung of U.S. society’s economic ladder. It is hard for us today to appreciate the poverty and conditions that were the norm in these ghettoes in the mid to late 1800’s. Disease, malnutrition, and crime were rampant. The child mortality rate for instance was three to four times higher in the Five Points than the rest of Manhattan. The weak, sick or young were particularly at risk.

 Not surprisingly a great many children in these mid-19th century American cities became orphaned or abandoned to the streets. American society struggled with this developing problem and how to deal with it. As many of our ancestors arrived during this period, their children, especially were families became fractured, were affected by the American social mores of the time. As our San Felese/Lucanian immigration story unfolds the conditions experienced by their children will come up as a topic in greater detail. However, at this juncture in the writing the following brief explanation of American thought and attitudes toward abandoned street children and orphans of the mid-19th century might be helpful.

 Literally millions of immigrant children, and the children of newly arrived immigrants found themselves effected by the U.S. child welfare system, such as it was between 1846 and 1929. Poverty, homelessness, illness and crime took its toll on immigrant family structure. Two of the major U.S. cities which had to cope with particularly large numbers of such abandoned, homeless or orphaned children were Boston and New York. Hundreds of thousands of these children over the course of eighty years of intense immigration found themselves placed in group homes, foster homes or adopted usually in the cities and surrounding suburbs. However the numbers were so great that a unique solution, the so-called “Orphan Trains” solution developed starting in 1854 and lasting until 1929. In all some 200,000-250,000 mostly children of immigrants were shipped out by train from Boston and New York for placement with people across the width of the U.S.


                                                     Early U.S. Handling of Orphans and Abandoned Children


 In colonial and early U.S. society White male rights were primary and a woman’s legal status was considered basically as secondary property of their husbands as were the children of a union. This traditional outlook placed children who were abandoned or orphaned in an interesting legal position. Essentially, the State could step in as parent/protector under a legal principle known as Parens Patriae and determine placement/custody of homeless or orphaned children. The legal principle that the State has the right to step in as Parent/Protector was and continues to be the basic legal principle for all State intervention on behalf of minors. The State in effect becomes the “father” entity.

 Based upon this principle the State had authority to step in where a child was abandoned, unable to be cared for by a parent or was orphaned. In the early days of the Republic when most of the country’s population lived in rural or small town communities the orphan child issue was handled at the local municipal level. In unindustrialized America and its early farming communities most labor was manual. As a result the placement of orphaned children with related or unrelated farming families or apprenticed out to local tradesmen was a workable solution to the problem. Communities made an effort to protect bloodlines and enforce family structure.

 This method of dealing with orphaned children however became less viable as farming and industry became more mechanized and the labor pool grew. In addition as America’s cities began to grow, often without adequate sanitation and medical care, children became orphaned at a higher rate. As a result what we see in American cities starting around the 1806 are charitable homes and houses of refuge set up for the housing of abandoned, orphaned, vagrant, delinquent, or abused children. Children could be placed in these homes with or without formal legal action upon action by local municipal authorities. However, public institutions were quickly overwhelmed by demand and charitable institutions began to be established. The first private charitable children’s home was founded by the New York Orphan Asylum Society in 1806. By 1850 a total of sixty such Charitable Society asylums were established in various U.S. cities. However, in both private and public institutions attempts to arrange for local work placement was made with an eye toward developing the child into a productive member of the society.

 The legal issues relating to children such as custody, legal adoption outside of bloodlines, and inheritance were highly unsettled in the U.S. as late as the 1850’s. The first formal State adoption laws did not begin to pass in America until the 1850’s. Court’s struggled with the issues especially inheritance rights of adopted children especially where no blood relationship existed.

 In addition, the question of whether a minor had any individual rights was open for debate.  In a landmark case in Pennsylvania in 1838 the Supreme Court of the State found; “the basic right of children is not to liberty but to custody”. Essentially children needed to be cared for and that placement of at risk children in homes etc. was not punishment but treatment. The State had the right and obligation to step in where parental responsibility had failed for whatever reason.

 Without doubt these laws and the creation of these children homes were made with good intentions. As we can well imagine however, many of these places for a variety of reasons created some horrific situations for those innocents so confined. This becomes especially true as the U.S began to experience its first wave of truly mass immigration in the 1840’s. The influx of poor Irish immigrants necessitated by the Potato famine to east coast cities was a circumstance that American society was wholly unprepared for at many levels. 

 For one thing the wave of at risk children were for the first time in American history not of the Angelo-Saxon Protestant stock of the majority of the country. The immigrant wave of Irish and Germans were not only different ethnically but many/most were Catholic. Social attitudes and prejudice became a part of the debate.

 By the mid 1840’s the ever increasing numbers of at risk children, many coming from these immigrant parents ran head first into an anti-immigrant and growing “nativist” sentiment. The combination was not good. By 1849 a turning point seems to have been reached. To explain the sense of main stream America at this time sociologist often site the 1849 report of George W. Matsell New York’s first Chief of Police. In that report he estimates that New York City has about 10,000 “street children”. Others reviewing the data available indicate that Boston and New York combined had about 30,000 at this time. Chief Matsell describes the situation this way, “ the constantly increasing number of vagrants, idle and vicious children… who infest our public thoroughfares, hotels, docks… are destined to a life of misery, shame and crime, and ultimately to felon’s doom”. He goes on to report that “a large proportion of these juvenile vagrants are in the daily practice of pilfering wherever opportunity offers, and begging when they cannot steal”. The sentiment was that these children needed to be removed.

 In 1849 the board of governors of the New York Almshouse began lobbying the legislature for a bill to allow placement of New York City’s street children to be indentured to out of State rural families and work settings. The Boston Children’s Mission sent its first 150 children to out of State placements in 1850. To be clear, not all of these children were orphans and not all of the displacements were with parents’, if living, permission or knowledge.



                     Photograph of first thirty children sent from Boston for placement in New Hampshire and Vermont



 In 1855 the New York State Legislature authorized “trustees, directors or managers of any incorporated orphan asylum or institute or home for indigent children” to bind out any male orphan or indigent child under the age of 21 or female orphans under the age of eighteen to either local or out of State placements. Again, such placements of determined at risk children did not require judicial process as the authority was vested in the institutions management.

 To the question of how the above stated situation effected our early immigrating ancestors we need only look to the immigration lists from the 1800’s on our site. Most of the early immigrants arrived with little or no capital and sought out mostly low paying work where they could find it. By necessity they lived in these poor ghetto communities. By looking at the lists one can see that while most of the individuals were adults many were younger than eighteen or twenty-one. The laws of the time could be used to declare them vagrant or homeless and place them within the system, including for indentured out of State placement. Escaping this type of fate especially for non-English speaking immigrants was a serious concern to 19th century immigrant children.

 Thus began an era in which at risk children, were involuntarily transported without geographic limit to undetermined destinations for the purpose and intent of binding them to indentured servitude. Again of significant note is that the action did not require judicial oversight or sanction only institutional placement. At that point the child’s rights were irrelevant. The trains taking these children West began being referred to in the press as Orphan Trains.

 Again, the actions taken by the authorities involved were regarded by them as in the best interests of the child or the only way to deal with an ever growing social problem. That the problem was growing is evidenced by the fact that the number of private charities dealing with at risk children doubled between 1850 and 1860. Many prominent members of New York and Boston’s social elite concerned with the growing problem support the transport solution and generously gave in support of the homes and sponsored the children’s train tickets. However it does not take much imagination to understand that many of the children bound out wound up in abusive and horrific circumstances.

 Children shipped westward in this fashion were sent to prearranged stations where local representatives would advertise the children’s arrival to those interested in providing local homes. The children were unloaded at each station and those accepted would remain while the rest were reloaded for the next phase of the trip. One of the obvious tragedies that siblings were often separated and were never able to reconnect.

 If the children were young enough they would lose their identities, families and religions. Younger children were preferred as they were generally more adaptable and obedient. Older children often would retain memories of their past lives and either run away or seek to return to their former communities when they became adults.

 I would note that even children that were outsourced more locally suffered the same sort of issues. One notable case in point involved a child by the name of Mary Ellen Wilson. Mary Ellen was born in 1864 in New York City to Francis and Thomas Wilson. Shortly after she was born her father died. Her young mother was forced to go to work and boarded the infant with a local woman whom she paid. Employment being scarce and her mother forced to work long hours for little pay she began to fall behind in child care payments. The woman with whom the child was boarded then called the City’s Department of Charities and the now two year old girl was placed under their authority.

 Without any paper work, background check, supervision or continued oversight the N.Y. Department of Charities placed the two year old Mary Ellen in the home of Mary and Thomas McCormack. Mr. McCormack then filed documents declaring the child to be his natural daughter. Shortly thereafter Thomas McCormack died leaving the three year old Mary Ellen in the home of Mary McCormack. Mrs. McCormack then married Francis Connelly and moved to another tenement. Mrs. McCormack/Connelly was a deeply troubled and violent woman and Mary Ellen became the object of horrific corporal and psychological abuse which included daily beatings and cutting over the course of the next seven years.

 The story of young Mary Ellen would have no doubt had a tragic and probably fatal end but for a fortuitous incident involving a young woman by the name of Etta Angell Wheeler. Ms. Wheeler was involved in Methodist ministry in the area. On a visit to a home bound invalid parishioner who lived in the tenement where Mary Ellen also lived the parishioner complained of the daily screams she heard of a child in the neighboring apartment. Concerned, Ms. Wheeler under false pretenses managed to gain access to the Connelly apartment where see observed firsthand the deplorable conditions, and the ten year old Mary Ellen, dirty, malnourished in threadbare clothing and covered in bruises and lacerations on the arms, legs, and a six inch laceration across the child’s forehead and cheek inflicted by Mrs. Connelly on the child with a scissor.

 Ms. Wheeler went to the authorities and although there was a law on the books that allowed for the authorities to remove a neglected child from a home they were reluctant to get involved in this case. There were no laws that allowed for the prosecution of an adult guardian for abuse of a minor. Ms. Wheeler was undeterred and made it her mission to save this child. Through her church contacts she enlisted the local press and the services of an attorney who was the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (A.S.P.C.A.). The attorney Mr. Henry Bergh was so disturbed by the situation that he started a private action of removal and prosecution of Mrs. Connelly. The case was able to garner wide spread notoriety. While there were no laws protecting/punishing cruelty against children there were laws protecting/punishing against cruelty to animals.

 Mr. Bergh was able to successfully have the child removed, placed under Court jurisdiction, and to argue as a case of first impression that a child’s right to protection from cruelty should rise at least to the level of an animal. Mrs. Connelly was sentenced to a year in prison in 1874. Ten year old Mary Ellen was placed by the Court in a New York orphan asylum.

 I mention this case specifically because the laws we have today in the U.S. against abuse of children basically all flow from this case. The public as a result of the media coverage in the case became so outraged by the situation that in 1874 they formed the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It is hard to imagine today that our country had laws protecting animals before laws protecting children from abuse and cruelty.



                                                                        Picture of Abused ten year old Mary Ellen Wilson



 For those curious about what became of the young Mary Ellen Wilson, to her credit Ms. Wheeler was not satisfied with the Court’s placement of the child in an orphan asylum as she had been through so much.  As she was not married there was little Ms. Wheeler could do directly but she convinced the authorities to place the child in the foster care of her mother. Mary Ellen was raised there until her mother’s death and then became a member of Ms. Wheeler’s married sister’s household. Ms. Wheeler continued to be a part of Mary Ellen’s life and a lifelong advocate for the rights of children.

 Mary Ellen for her part married in her twenties and raised two daughters of her own, one became a business woman and one a school teacher. Throughout her life Mary Ellen remained reluctant to talk about her childhood experiences. However in the early 1900’s she did become more public in order to advance child advocacy issues.

 I hope in writing this that it will help frame the social conditions that our early immigrant ancestors faced. The social security nets that exist today were not available to them. Many of their actions in adjusting and surviving in the environment of mid-19th America were predicated on a social climate that is very foreign to us today. Our own society and its predecessor society, the Garibaldi society were set up as mutual benefit societies in order however modestly to provide social safety nets that didn’t otherwise exist.





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