The Children’s Migration


And the numbers were immense. At a time when New York City’s population was around five hundred thousand, the police estimated that there were ten thousand homeless children wandering about. Later, after close observation, Brace and his colleagues came to the conclusion that the number ran as high as thirty thousand. In 1849 city Chief of Police George W. Matsell warned New Yorkers of the perils posed by these “almost infants,” with their “degrading and disgusting habits in the school of vice, prostitution and rowdyism.” Ragged, verminous, barefoot, the vagrant children slept where they could: in doorways, under stairways, in privies, on hay barges, in discarded packing boxes, and on piles of rubbish in alleys and littered back yards. The older boys often became members of street gangs who terrified respectable citizens when they weren’t bashing one another’s heads in; many of the girls were accomplished streetwalkers by the time they were twelve or thirteen years old.

Even when they had families, the children of the poor were under fearful pressue. Crime, drunkenness in epidemic proportions, and unbelievable overcrowding made growing up in New York a hazardous gamble. In some wards of the lower east side several families frequently lived in a single cellar room, even renting out space to an occasional lodger. One huge barracks—the “Old Brewery” at the Five Points, where Worth, Baxter, and Park streets intersect—was “home” to an estimated fifteen hundred men, women, and children. Policemen feared to show their faces there, even though some luckless individual was reportedly done to death within its dank walls nearly every night.

Of course, unwanted and orphaned children were not new in the human experience. Since the dawn of history various methods have been used to solve the problems they pose. Some civilizations have favored exposure—putting the superfluous infant out to die in a wild spot—while others preferred infanticide or selling into slavery. By the early nineteenth century these practices, though socially unacceptable except for the selling of black children, still continued in America. Exposure was not uncommon, only now it was called abandonment and was sometimes refined by leaving the baby in a basket at the door of a dwelling or on the steps of a church. As for infanticide, in New York City in the middle years of the last century it was a common occurrence. Scarcely a day passed without the discovery of the body of an unwanted baby, suffocated in an ash can, thrown into a back alley, or floating on one of the rivers. “Birth control” was a term as yet unknown; and abortion, of course, was illegal and hazardous.

The unwanted child who was lucky enough to stay alive under these circumstances got treated in pretty much the same way as the destitute adult. In those days the authorities saw nothing special about children. One of the quainter methods of handling indigents was known as a poor vendue. At a vendue the town fathers simply auctioned off paupers—individuals and whole families—to the bidder who offered to care for them at the lowest cost for the entire year or per month. The almshouse, or poor farm, was considered an improvement on vendue; the idea here was that the able-bodied poor would work for their keep in public institutions. But not everybody was ablebodied. The almshouse saw children of all ages thrust in with the sick, the senile, the handicapped, and the insane. Then, here and there in the i83o’s, private orphan asylums started cropping up. Here at least children had a chance to get some schooling and learn “deportment” in a relatively clean environment.

But the notion of putting a child who had done no real wrong into an institution of any kind was anathema to young Charles Loring Brace. The impersonal custodial care of an institution, he felt, not only stunted children, it destroyed them. In those days most abandoned or illegitimate babies ended up in the Infant Hospital on Randall’s Island in the East River. In some years the mortality rate there soared as high as 95 per cent. The truth, in Brace’s opinion, was that “if you place these delicate young creatures in large companies together in any public building, an immense proportion are sure to die.”

Orphan asylums, Brace felt, were at best dubious solutions. The regimentation did little to build self-reliance, to prepare the child for practical living. Brace contended that institutional life, like charity handouts, perpetuated pauperism and that both were dismal failures when it came to helping people to learn to stand on their own.

And so in 1853 the idealistic twenty-six-year-old and a handful of likeminded reformers founded the Children’s Aid Society. Brace lost no time in putting into effect his theories about how best to transform New York’s orphans and street children from social menaces and potential criminals into self-reliant members of society. Gainful work, education, and a wholesome family atmosphere were his answers.


In March the society issued a circular outlining its intentions:


This society has taken its origin in the deeply settled feelings of our citizens, that something must be done to meet the increasing crime and poverty among the destitute children of New York.