Nineteenth-century New York City. Thousands of immigrants crammed into tenement housing, clamoring for employment. Dreams of America dashed by the harsh reality of the streets. Families forced to give up their children, handing off newborns to churches and releasing mere youths to fend for themselves as newsboys or bootblacks. Times were challenging, but the truly visionary found ways to make a difference in children’s lives.
As the New York Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital cared for increasing numbers of abandoned infants, Charles Loring Brace and the Sisters of Charity of the Foundling Home, saw opportunities for the children. They knew that families in the western United States could take them in, offering them provisions, a healthy environment, and opportunities unheard of in the city. And so ran the “orphan trains” from New York to points west, over the course of decades carrying more than 250,000 children to their new lives in rural America.
As for the older children who made their living on the street, Charles Brace realized that what they needed most was wholesome food and a warm place to sleep. He and others established newsboys’ lodging homes, which provided an environment in which these young wage earners could enjoy a semblance of family.
Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York collects stories of children who faced nearly insurmountable odds. From agonizing letters written by desperate mothers to news stories of the latest train or of newsboys looking out for each other, the humanity of individuals caught up in the sweep of history is unmistakable. Author Renée Wendinger, herself the daughter of an orphan train rider, assembles biographical sketches of “foundlings” who in many cases rose above their circumstances with an unsullied spirit to become outstanding citizens. Period illustrations reach out in essence and lend authenticity to these fascinating stories of kindhearted benefactors and the irrepressible youngsters they served.
Last Train Home: An Orphan Train Story uncovers the individual stories of two orphan train riders, Johnny and Sophia, who encompass great historical change and upheaval. From a very young age, both children learn to adapt and inhabit new identities. Change has been the defining principle in the lives of these two children. As their stories unfold, the children learn triumph over tribulation, and regard of strength of mind and character.
Street Arabs nightly quarters in 1888. Jacob Riis Collection, Library of Congress
Brief Citations from Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York:
Ten thousand vagrant children lived in the city in eleven wards, and over three thousand children, of whom two thousand were girls between the ages of eight and sixteen, were regularly trained to theft. New York was unable to deal effectively with the tides of immigration that tripled the city’s population. Industrialization and the Civil War induced adversity and encouraged epidemics such as cholera, typhus, trachoma and favus. Delinquents, prostitutes, beggars, and drunkards dwelled in contaminated tenements and rat infested slums.
In 1853, sixteen thousand criminals were arrested during the year, one fourth were less than the age of twenty-one and eight hundred were under fifteen. These children had no other way to earn a living and no one to teach them better. Two thirds of New York lived in cramped apartments or tenements. Thousand of children ended up working on the streets of New York in the 1850s, for any number of events could send parents and children reeling in opposite directions. The children were feared and reviled as street rats and guttersnipes, vagrants, beggars and waifs of the city.
Newsboys were the sons, and occasionally the daughters, of day laborers, piece workers and traders. Many were the children of immigrants. In the 1850s, New York claimed between five and six hundred newsboys, most of whom came from poor Irish or German families. The adolescent labor force expanded in the 1880s and 1890s when eleven million new immigrants poured into the country. Working-class children entered the adult labor force between the ages of six and fifteen.
Relief and social welfare agencies were unknown, and the city lacked resources for help. New York had the highest death rate of any major city in the world. Thousands of vagrant children roamed the streets of Lower Manhattan seeking food and shelter. They lived by their wits, sleeping in barrels, under steps, and in old boxes. They dined on discarded remnants. The city was unwilling to accept responsibility for them, and most ignored the urchins. Though many children were referred to as newsboys, as it was challenging to differentiate among them. Their suffering and neglect lasted three quarters of a century.
The first organized effort to help the homeless newsboys was made in 1853, when Charles Loring Brace, a Protestant minister, started a newsboy’s lodging home and founded the Children’s Aid Society. The society was responsible for placing out newsboys, bootblacks, and children of the street on orphan trains headed west, where they found new family homes. Decisions to go West, stay in New York, or move to an alternative East Coast location were made by the society and the child. The children were called orphans, yet many had living relatives. Once a child departed on the train, neither parent nor child knew how to find each other. Others were orphans, “half orphans” and neglected children abandoned on the city streets.
" When a child of streets stands before you in rags, with a tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him. And yet, you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go."----Charles Loring Brace