Shortly after the American Civil war, New York was a bustling and chaotic place. As Stephen O’Connor described it, “torrential immigration and the nation’s easy 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.”
The commissioner of the almshouse (poorhouse) stated that many of the Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine would have been better off “cast in the deep sea than linger in the pangs of hunger, sickness and pain, to draw their last agonized breath in the streets of New York.”
Desperate parents discarded infants or left them at churches. These abandoned babies died at extremely high rates from disease, exposure, or malnutrition. Those providing care to infants generally accepted that they may simply be providing the child with a “better death.”
Older children living in the streets may have lost a parent to illness or alcohol. These children might sell newspapers or find some other means to make a little money. They often slept in alleyways.
Traditionally, cities dealt with these children as young criminals. Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, wanted to provide the young ones with an education, jobs, and a place to stay. He opened a home that fed them and offered classes and religious services. He eventually came up with the idea of “orphan trains” where he would send children away from the filth and disease of the big city, and to Protestant farm families, where the children would learn the value of hard work and they would have fresh air.
Around the same time, Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbons approached her superior, Mother Mary Jerome, about her idea for a hospital for foundlings. Mother Mary Jerome took the idea to Archbishop John McCloskey who enthusiastically supported the idea.
In October 1869, the Sisters of Charity purchased a four-story brownstone, and they planned to open within a few months. They had to adjust their plans when, the very first evening they occupied the new home, October 11, they heard a crying baby. And later that night, another arrived. Within three weeks, the nuns were caring for 45 babies. Two and a half months later, the total was 81. Their mission had begun, as the New York Foundling Home.
Within a year, they had to move to a new location. In their first two years, they cared for over 2,500 infants.
While the need was tremendous, not all were supportive. Some people argued that such a home would make it easier, or would even encourage, parents to commit adultery or to abandon their children. On the other hand, babies were already dying in large numbers, and the need was great. The archbishop also knew that the Children’s Aid Society was a “competitor,” and was providing children with a Protestant faith foundation.
Taking care of so many little ones was physically and emotionally exhausting. Little was known about germs and disease, and this was a time where illnesses could spread rapidly. Prior to the invention of infant formula, malnutrition was common, and infants often died for lack of mother’s milk. The Foundling developed a program where babies were sent to live with women who served as wet-nurses throughout the New York and New Jersey area. The Foundling would check up on the condition of the little ones, and once a month, the women were required to bring the infant in for a medical examination. If the child was in good condition, the woman would be paid a small amount. All infants placed out would be returned to the institution when they reached the age of two.
While many of the children at the Foundling arrived there as infants, some children arrived at older ages, frequently due to a change in life circumstances in a family. Perhaps the death of a parent, loss of work, alcoholism or other illness–a desperate parent would leave a child for safekeeping, hoping to return later when things improved. Sometimes a mother would stay at the Foundling, nurse her own child and one other. The Foundling hoped to get the mother back on her feet and she’d be able to leave and care for her little one.
By the 1870s, multiple organizations were following the example of Charles Loring Brace’s Children’s Aid Society and using “orphan trains” to place children in new homes. The most widely accepted estimate is that approximately 250,000 children were sent on trains, but there is no single record to verify the actual number.
While modern thought may see the placing of children on trains and shipping them to new families to be naive and unimaginable, the sheer number of children coming into the small number of aid organizations in the big Eastern cities dictated that something had to be done. The Foundling, for example, within 25 years of opening its doors, had over 2,000 children in residence, plus additional children in outplacements, and had an active program of sending children to new homes. All of these children had immense needs, and the Foundling did its best to meet those needs. And while the exact numbers cannot be calculated, there are millions of descendants of those children who survived because of the care provided by the Foundling.
Coming Next: Part II–The Early Years
Then: Part III–The Orphan Trains
Part IV–Searching for Orphan Train Ancestors