Vintage print of lunch time in farmhouse: boy, girls and children eat together in the kitchen and feed a pet dog
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Helping New York Orphans: What Went Wrong, and Right


The past two weeks I’ve given a largely positive view of how Charles Brace and others helped homeless children in New York (and other northeastern cities). But when orphan trains headed west from 1853 to 1929, sometimes things went wrong.

Since extra hands were so useful on farms, some observers worried that the “farmer, while he appeared to be influenced by high motives, might be thinking too much of the economic gains he would secure through the children placed in his home.” Charles Brace noted, though, that taking in and suffering with a child from the slums should not be financially draining, since it was already emotionally draining: “habits are patiently corrected, faults without number are born with.”

This was particularly true because reports of “incorrigibility” were more common than reports of neglect or abuse. Some children who had spent years developing bad habits did not readily set them aside. J. Macy, assistant secretary of the Children’s Aid Society, minimized the problem, telling a Senate committee in 1871 that out of 21,000 children placed, “not over twelve children have turned out criminals.” Other observers, skeptical of that figure, estimated that about five percent of the children sent west committed crimes.

Some midwestern and western officials pushed back against the immigrants from New York, in the same way that some push back now against immigrants from Mexico or elsewhere. Hiram H. Giles, chairman of the Wisconsin prison board, objected to the placing of “juvenile criminals among the peaceful homes” of his state. Brace complained, as defenders of immigration now complain, that “a single offense is heard for hundreds of miles. A theft of one lad is imputed to scores of others about him.”

The Children’s Aid Society retained guardianship of the children, unless they were formally adopted — and most were not. The informality of arrangements created both advantages and problems. Children were “free to leave, if ill-treated or dissatisfied,” but children without much experience of love sometimes became aware of the lack of formal commitment and remained uneasy. Some farmers gave ponies, calves, lambs or land to their charges, and in that way provided permanent material ties to supplement whatever emotional bonds were growing.

Records in the Library of Congress paint pleasant portraits of formerly homeless teens, such as this one from a placement agent in 1868: “John Mahoney, age 16, with Mr. J____ T____ (farmer); came in town Sunday to show me a fine mule his employer had given him. J___ C___, age 14, went with Mrs. D___, who has a farm; came in to tell me how well pleased he is with his place; says he will work the farm as soon as he is able, and get half the profits. D___ M___, age 17, went with A___ H. B___ (farmer); came back to tell me his employer had given him a pig, and a small plot of ground to work for himself.”

These days, though, we are well aware of adults abusing children, and children bullying others. AP reporter Dana Kennedy in 1990 interviewed elderly men and women who rode the rails after being orphaned or abandoned in the 1920s. Alan Bankston told Kennedy how “in 1929, me and my twin brother were put on the last orphan train out to Kansas. We wound up with adoptive parents. They gave us everything we needed, except love. And love is what we needed the most.” Bankston said he and his wife had six children and then took in two foster children “because I knew how important it was to have someone love you.”

Kennedy quoted one child taken in “by a loving family” but another who said he was abused after being stuck with “an old lady who was a tyrant and her five daughters.” The Children’s Aid Society did prosecute two cases of child abuse and occasionally removed children, generally when parents reneged on their agreement to provide education. Records show occasional cases of farmers working children too long, and of a few even evicting children when the demands of the harvest were past.

In general, though, Society records unsurprisingly accentuate the positive. By century’s end, three placed-out children had become governors, 498 were merchants, bankers, or businessmen, 81 teachers, and so on. One inspector found orphaned children “treated as well as any other children. Some whom we had seen once in the most extreme misery, we beheld sitting, clothed and clean. . .and gaining a good name for themselves in their village.”

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.