Many newspaper accounts of orphan trains in the late 19th and early 20th century describe the children as little more than freight to be delivered. There is no acknowledgement of the complicated experiences of the little ones who come from New York City–the only place they have ever known–and then ride a train for hundreds of miles to be handed over to strangers who will be their new “parents.”
The Detroit Free Press, in 1883, provided a remarkably well-rounded depiction of a train from the New York Foundling Asylum.
The story begins by reporting that an unusually large number of men and women were at the train station that Tuesday morning. A telegram arrived informing the depot employees that a train with 40 children was running late.
The rail workers wondered why so many children were on board. A “benevolent-faced” woman in the crowd commented that the “little ones ‘ll be frightening hungry when they get to Detroit.” With this, members of the crowd began talking and realized they were all there to pick up children from the New York Foundling Asylum.
When the train finally arrived, the reporter went on board, and saw “dozens of bright young faces either comfortably surrounded by tiny blue hoods or looking out from under new felt hats.”
Then, Hugh Hughes, the placement agent for the Foundling Asylum, “a rosy faced, rather fat and decidedly jolly man stepped upon the platform of the car with a small note book in his hand and began calling names.”
As the crowd grew excited, the reporter focused on the children–“some were busy with their dolls, others hugging a picture book, and yet others with an apple or an orange, trying to eat. They were a bright, merry, yet tired lot. The first epoch of their lives had arrived.” A couple boys might have been about eight, but all the other children were from three to five years old.
The reporter was attuned to the experience of the little ones, giving voice to their trauma: “Knowing no parents and no home, save the asylum where they were on family, they were now to meet strange men and women who were to be fathers and mothers to them; they were to go to homes new to them, and entirely different from any they had ever known; they were to bid each other goodby forever.
“Did the babies realize their situation? Answers to such a question were plentiful. The older boys looked around on the smaller ones in a pitying sort of way, and quietly walked through the cars, kissing a baby here and there, yet withal speaking words of adieu to them in manly, hopeful tones. Then the little ones prattled good-bys to each other, exchanged dollies, kissed one another, and in many babyish ways proved conclusively that they knew the meaning, young as they were, of the occasion.
“Then the distribution began, and for over an hour there were scenes enacted which would have touched the heart of the most stoical. Each orphan had a bit of white cotton cloth sewed on his or her outer garment underneath the collar and between the shoulders. On this bit of cloth was written in indelible ink the asylum number–for each child in such institutions is numbered–its name age, nationality and any other necessary matters of record. It was both curious and sad to see the look of expectancy on the faces of the little ones as some new foster mother or father would enter the car…”
“They seemed to be mentally considering the disposition of those who were to take them, and as the distribution went on–the final separations becoming realities–many a curly head settled into the cushioned corner of a car seat, while an occasional sob told the sad story; then the little one last chosen accepted the caresses of its new friend silently sometimes wonderingly, but more frequently with a repose and confidence entirely at variance with its age.”
As the transfer of children to adults continued, the reporter turned his attention to the “parents.”
“It was a study, too, to see the efforts of those who took the children. There was the demonstrative woman who began at once to kiss, fondle and use baby-talk; there was the man who wanted to be tender and make a good first impression, but who couldn’t say anything but the manliest kind of manly things; there was the careful mother who at once wrapped her charge in shawls and cloaks and things; and in fact, men and women who had nearly every kind of notion as to the care of children, and with various ideas as to the best way in which to win the affections of little ones at once.”
The reporter was very observant of the varied emotions of the event: “Among others was a lady dressed in the deepest mourning, and her selection was a rosy-faced little girl whose hair fell in a shower of gold over the pretty little blue cape. Whether the choice was because of a resemblance to a baby lost does not matter. The recognition between the baby and her now mother was instantaneous and mutual. Both mother and child cried. The mother took her to her bosom as though afraid death or some evil agency would steal the treasure, and the baby nestled there as confidingly and contented as though she held the place by right of birth.”
The placement agent, Mr. Hughes, commented: “Now that will be a happy choice, because they took to each other naturally.”
The reporter replied: “It seems hard, though, this breaking up of infant associations…” In response, the placement agent stated: “It does at first glance, and especially to those who have given the subject no thought.”
The reporter challenged Mr. Hughes a bit: “Well, isn’t it paid?”
To which the placement agent replied: “In a measure, yes. But if you will study the subject in all of its phases, I think you will agree it is a noble work and the best system possible.” Mr. Hughes explained that parents are only chosen after a “careful, personal investigation by the agent of all who expressed a wish to adopt children. Their homes, their religious, social and business habits were investigated, and finally recommendations are required. Generally these recommendations are from the priests to whose parishes the applicants belong.”
When questioned further, Mr. Hughes responded: “Bless you, we don’t lose sight of a child! Not a child ever leaves our care until it has reached manhood or womanhood. The children are distributed as you have seen, and we keep a record, a complete, accurate record of everything. The parish priests and other persons among the laity keep watch and guard over them. Each orphan has a sub-guardian so to speak, who assumes the duty of watching over its growth.”
And if a child has been “placed where improper social or religious influences exist, or where for some other reason the child is not happy?”
“We invariably recall it and care for it until we can find a desirable home for it. We are very seldom called upon to do this, but when we find it necessary we do not hesitate or fail in correcting the evil.”