Thursday, January 23, 2014



It's written in Mark 14:7 of the Christian Bible, "For you have the poor with you always . . .", and it's obvious that many of their children will always be there as well. It's of these innocent human bequests that author/historian Michael T. Keene writes in "Abandoned: The Untold Story of Orphan Asylums".                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Charles Dickens wrote, "What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? They are a kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs.  What lies beyond . . . all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here."

Dickens was writing of England's major cities. Those of the New World were just as bad.

Michael T. Keene writes of like conditions. His account begins back in the mid-1840s when Ireland's essential potato crop begins failing. In September of 1846, the 'great hunger' is devastating the farming population. Landowners often evict their tenants for non-payment of rents, by the following year forcing them to scavenge the countryside for wild food, including roadside grass and weeds. Cholera and typhus begins taking their toll. Keene tells us, "It became common to find entire families, homeless and infected with the disease lying dead on the roadside." To many of those still surviving, there finally seemed to be one solution.

America! Which for most of the new arrivals meant lower Manhattan.

In 1865 an estimated 30,000 homeless children were living on the streets around lower Manhattan's Five Points neighborhood - (seen on the book's cover; the name coming from the intersection of the streets known today by the names of Baxter, Mosco, and Worth). Wikipedia reports it was a, "disease-ridden, crime-infested slum for well over 70 years."

For many of us growing up in the second half of the last century the word "orphan" brings to mind Oliver Twist, Fagan, Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks. More recently the musical "Newsies" would come to symbolize the problems faced by the parentless in this lower part of the state's largest city.

Keene has set out to fill in the blanks regarding the solutions arrived at over the following century, with emphasis on the state of New York. Beginning with the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which began weaning the public from the viewpoint that poverty was the result of a lack of morality. Already New York had passed a law back in 1824 requiring each county to purchase land, and erect one or more buildings to serve as a "poor house".

Even as far back as 1735 pioneering Bellevue Hospital had been founded in Manhattan to provide services for the poor of all varieties, as well as the aged, the insane and even criminals. But it would prove incapable of providing for hundreds of orphans, especially when the casualties of the upcoming Civil War would greatly decrease the numbers of fathers across the country. The time for orphanages had arrived.

The seeds of such institutions had been sewn in 1807, when Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton founded the Orphan Asylum Society also in New York City. The book recounts a number of successive heroes, especially those in New York (only a few names relatively recognizable - Susan Fenimore Cooper, Cadwallader D. Colden, John Guy Vassar) who down through the decades have eased the situation of those children deprived of home and family, finally ending with the founders and participants in the Orphan Train Movement whose young passengers aided the settlement of the midwestern U.S. from 1854 on through 1929.

During the book's course "Orphans" touches on a number of tales of special interest to New York City and State residents.

Many Rochesterians will remember reading newspaper accounts looking back to the 1839 Rochester Orphan Asylum and the 1901 fire that destroyed this forerunnner to today's Hillside Children's Center, drawing some 1200 people searching for the bodies of their children and the young relatives of acqauintances.

Some Syracuse readers may learn for the first time of their own 1851 New York Asylum for Idiots (it was definitely a far-less sensitive period - the term "politically correct" had yet to be coined.

Finally, moving westward, the book ends with brief  personal experiences by four of the Orphan Train "riders". And a discussion of the program's failures.

As seen in hindsight.

The book will not actually be available until February 15th but interested people can
pre-order the book by contacting me via or by calling,

The price of the book and audio book will be $22.95 each.

The book will be available on Amazon as well but probably not for a month or so

My four books are:

Folklore and Legends of Rochester
Murder, Mayhem and Madness
Mad House

All of the books also have been recorded and are available as an audio books

I have also produced a documentary series titled, Visions which is available on DVD

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