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On Oct. 1, 1904, at about 6:30 p.m., an impatiently awaited train pulled into the railroad station in the Arizona mining town of Clifton. On board were the reasons for the large crowd that had gathered: 40 young children, orphans being ''placed out'' by New York's Foundling Hospital.
The arrival of these ''orphan trains'' were invariably major events in the small towns of the West and Midwest, where by 1900 they had become a significant expression of the prevalent child-welfare principle that children needed a proper environment in which to thrive.
''Placing out,'' and the arranging of orphan trains to accomplish that policy, was initially a mission of Protestant child-welfare agencies. But as the children were mostly Catholic, and the receiving families mainly Protestant, the policy became one of increasing concern to Catholic leaders. By 1880, the Sisters of Charity at the Catholic-run Foundling Hospital had organized a rival system.
But in Clifton that October evening, the very concerns that Catholics had felt about interreligious placements were transformed into ''Anglo'' concerns about the interracial placement of mostly Irish orphans with Mexican families.
The result, as social historian Linda Gordon skillfully, and suspensefully, details in ''The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction,'' was an armed confrontation, just short of ''a lynch mob,'' she writes. The children who had been placed upon arrival with Mexican families were rounded up that very evening by a posse and handed over to Anglo families. Most of the remaining children were taken back to New York.
The Foundling Hospital attempted unsuccessfully to get the abducted children back with a habeas corpus petition that ended up before the US Supreme Court. On a technicality, writes Gordon, the court upheld a decision by the Arizona Supreme Court, which validated ''the claim of the vigilantes'' and, in effect, the child-saving policy of the Protestant orphan train movement, by stating that ''the child in question is a white, Caucasian child ... abandoned ... to the keeping of a Mexican Indian [who is] by reason of his race, mode of living, habits and education, unfit to have the custody, care and education of the child.''
If Gordon's book did nothing more than redeem from obscurity the story of the Arizona orphans, it would be an extraordinary contribution to social history. But Gordon, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and the author of well-regarded books on working-class women, has gone beyond the scanty written record, mainly from the court proceedings, to explore the motives of the Mexican and Anglo women.
The Mexican women, Gordon writes, were doing ''something daring'' in volunteering to take a child when the request from the Foundling Hospital was relayed through their local priest. As they took the children home from the railroad station, Gordon writes, ''they were warmed by righteousness,'' while ''chilled by just the least bit of anxiety.'' They were ''no strangers to race talk and Anglo chauvinism,'' but sensed that bringing an American child into their homes ''was a way to become American'' themselves, for ''such a child might go to school, might learn perfect English, might marry a white man or earn a white man's wage.''
But against that, writes Gordon, ''the orphans were literally drawing Anglo women out of their homes and into an adventure in which they felt that they had an obligation to lead.'' The Anglo women, writes Gordon, were motivated at least partly by self-interest, being immediately charmed by the sight of the Irish-American children and wanting one for themselves. But ''in their vigilance in noting the danger and then acting to protect children at risk, they were performing a public duty and thus making themselves citizens'' because women have traditionally ''aspired to and reached citizenship ... through defending children's welfare.''
Of course, Gordon notes, to accomplish that end in 1904 Arizona, the Anglo women had to mobilize their husbands, being ''cautious not to overstep a normative line into the male sphere.''
In a footnote, Gordon credits sociologist Robert Merton for pointing out that the Arizona orphan story is an example of ''a strategic research site,'' an event so interesting in itself that it allows the investigation of broader social issues. But Gordon's achievement is that she so effectively and fair-mindedly delved into the site and unearthed this appalling and poignant story.