Orphan train riders, later in life, have described a wide range of experiences in their “adoptive” families. Some children were dearly loved, while others provided utilitarian roles as farm workers and servants. And, some were abused.
For modern eyes, the idea of placing children on a train and shipping them off to new families to raise them seems naive at best. But rather, than judging the orphan train experiment from a present-day viewpoint, we need to consider the situation at the beginning of the 20th century.
For this, let’s turn to an article from 1902, in Leslie’s Weekly, a popular publication of the time. The story begins:
Darkness in the narrow hallway; the sickening odor of the tenements; a woman stumbling along, her hands outstretched; the small, weak, pathetic cry of the very little child; a bundle in the corner which the woman lifts into her arms; the flutter of excitement in the tenement, and the crowding in of neighbors; a policeman arrives; and the baby, a foundling is taken to Bellevue hospital. Then a blank like this is filled out…All quotes from Leslie’s Weekly magazine, 1902
The form lists where the child was found, its appearance, clothing, approximate age, sex, and by whom found. The magazine story conservatively estimated that 250 infants were “found” in New York every year.
When the little child, most helpless of all living things, lifts its tiny arms in appeal the answer is spontaneous. Whether you are man or woman you do not hesitate; your hand would at once give the little suppliant a gentle caress; your voice assumes a tone of soothing; the spirit of protecting kindness has entered into you. It is this same spirit which is saving the lives, every year of these two hundred and fifty foundling babies, who until recently, for the very want of it died. It is the balm of the mother’s kiss and the cradle of a mother’s arms that give health and growth and happiness to New York’s foundlings; and the system by which this beautiful work of mercy is done is one of the most unique and interesting in the metropolis.
Prior to the work of the New York Foundling Asylum and similar institutions, all foundlings were sent to Randall’s Island (commonly referred to as one of New York’s “island of the undesirables”). Historically, Randall’s Island has had an almshouse, psychiatric hospitals, a juvenile reformatory, and other city-run institutions. Randall’s Island reportedly had a facility with fine furnishings and qualified nurses, nearly 95% of all infants sent there died there. Before the development of modern infant formula, babies died of malnutrition. Disease was also rampant.
“Well, the little fellows are better off dead,” the attendants would say; “they wouldn’t have much to look forward to, anyway.”
With a change in how the little ones were cared for, a remarkable improvement is survival rate was noted. The new approach was summarized in one word by Leslie’s Weekly magazine–“mothering.”
It supplied that which the hospital (on Randall’s Island) could not give, the comforting and fondling and the little attentions, as well as the food and love of them…It is this “mothering” that has reduced the death rate among the foundlings of New York from 99 to a percent lower than all the other children of the city–a remarkable fact when one considers the conditions under which these foundlings begin their journey through the world, the lack of care and the exposure to which they are subjected at the outset.
Earlier, we looked at how a baby might be found. What would happen next to the little one? In 1902, the foundling would be taken to Bellevue Hospital, a city-run facility, and admitted to a children’s ward. By the next morning, the baby would be taken away by what today would be called a caseworker. One caseworker worked for the Catholic charities, and one for the Protestant charities.
Prior to being taken to the orphanage, the infant is baptized at the hospital, christened in the faith of the organization taking custody–half of the foundlings are marked Catholic and half are officially Protestant. Thus, all these babies are Christian.
Not long ago there was a protest from a Hebrew mother whose child, neglected by those in whose charge it was placed, was carried to Bellevue as a foundling and baptized in the Roman Catholic church. When she learned of this the shock against the strong religious faith of the mother was so great that she fainted. The woman herself sick, was unable to care for the child and it had remained in the care of the Guild of the Infant Savior.
The fact that the government agency provided for the baptism of infants, alternating between Catholic and Protestant, is unusual from a current-day perspective. The 1902 magazine story, though, emphasizes that the resulting care of the baby primarily arises from a “human,” not religious feeling, and that caretakers are…
…touched by the sight of the frail bit of flesh struggling for life; they hear the pitiful pleading of their little voice, and the tiny hands and feet, the soft eyes, the little body, all speak in irresistible argument. The religious ceremony is a formality to be quickly disposed of, so that the real personal care of the child may begin.
Rather than staying in the orphanage, the baby would be placed with a mother, often a woman who had recently lost a child. The foster mother would be paid $10-$12 a month to care for the baby until it is old enough to be weaned.
While the majority of foundlings are discovered in or near tenements where the poor and recent immigrants reside, some of the babies are left in expensive baskets or at locations suggesting they were born to women who are more economically well off. In the end, many of the little ones travel great distances on orphan trains to become part of new families.
And these foundlings grow to manhood and womanhood and to their graves under the shadow of their unknown origin. There are those, of course, who may never learn that they were foundlings; but in most cases guardians feel that their charges should be told the truth. Letters come frequently to the city officials from men who know that they were foundling babies. They ask to be told all that is known of their origin. The department of charities looks over the books and finds a record on bland No. 30 for lost children, and that is all that is ever known.
The New York Foundling Asylum led the way in developing a new system of care for abandoned infants and other children turned over for care. The Foundling recognized that children needed to feel loved, in addition to having their physical needs met.
While it now seems obvious that children have emotional needs, this was a revolutionary concept at the time. Placing the youngest of children in a home setting, allowed for these children to have better nutrition and to progress along a healthy emotional trajectory. The Foundling also closely monitored the children’s progress while in this foster care.
While the experiences of the children placed on orphan trains was mixed, it can be argued that these children may have had better chances at life than if they had remained in New York at that time.