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Lawful Abuse: How the Century of the Child became the Century of the Corporation

Lawful Abuse: How the Century of the Child became the Century of the Corporation

by Robert Flynn

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A powerful indictment of America’s abandonment of human beings, and children in particular, in favor of corporations, this account exposes the child labor, indentured servitude, and child slavery aspects that are undeniable parts of American history. Arguing that, in the wake of the election of Ronald Reagan, legislation began to support corporations at the


A powerful indictment of America’s abandonment of human beings, and children in particular, in favor of corporations, this account exposes the child labor, indentured servitude, and child slavery aspects that are undeniable parts of American history. Arguing that, in the wake of the election of Ronald Reagan, legislation began to support corporations at the expense of the American people, this book demonstrates how this nation’s intellectual capital was squandered. Discussing how deregulation and lax enforcement caused unnecessary deaths to workers in many fields, this work argues that the number of deaths and disabilities to fetuses, babies, and children will only increase until voters decide to stop the destruction of America and its children.

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“I’ve read many books about the Great War and about Stalingrad and the other horrors of World War II, but The Last Klick, because it comes out of a contemporary sensibility, presents a greater challenge to the feelings. . . . Written with passion and great skill.”  —Saul Below, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, Humboldt's Gift on The Lask Klick

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Lawful Abuse

How the Century of the Child became the Century of the Corporation

By Robert Flynn

Wings Press

Copyright © 2012 Wings Press, for Robert Flynn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60940-280-8


The Battle for the Family

Families were expected, and sometimes required by law, to care for relatives, but some poor, especially recent immigrants, had no families, no support system. Most of them had no way to return to their native lands, no source of help with language to know where jobs were, how much the jobs paid, or what the jobs required. Some had no way to support a family and no place for a family to live. Wives or daughters could usually work as servants but that sometimes required that they live on the premises, separating them from their family. Those families that did remain together lived in squalor with no schools, churches or social life. Their plight was similar to the southern slaves they replaced. And they kept wages low for workers across the country.

Christians and moralists agreed that poverty was a blot on the American Dream of unlimited economic opportunity and upward mobility. It weighed heavily on their consciences. They resolved the conflict by calibrating between the "worthy" poor and the "unworthy" that Jesus had called "the least of these." The worthy poor, sick, elderly, disabled, widows and children were provided, sometimes temporarily, "outdoor relief:" food, firewood, medicine. The "unworthy poor" taxed a diminishing faith in the biblical requirement of charity. The poor were blamed for their poverty. They were lazy and their drunken licentiousness gave them more children than they could feed. Nevertheless, Christian morality required that assistance be given the degenerates.

Assistance came in the form of the vendue system, the privatizing of public poverty for private profit. The unworthy poor, sometimes the worthy poor were lumped with them, were auctioned to the lowest bidder who would provide a poorhouse and care for a fee and whatever work he could get from them. Usually that meant "picking oakum," loosening hemp or jute fibers in rope. The fibers were soaked in tar and used to calk seams in boats. It was work that even children and the physically and mentally disabled could do as long as there was light. Providence, Rhode Island reported that picking oakum was the only labor required of the poor.

Understandably, some counties and states pushed the poor into an adjoining one resulting in "warning out" paupers, telling them they were unwelcome. Before aid was given, the poor had to prove settlement, that they had been a resident of state or county for a specified period of time. An 1823 Massachusetts law stated that "Overseers of the Poor ... shall certify that no part of such account is for the support of any male person, over the age of twelve, and under the age of sixty years, while of competent health to labor.

With little regulation the welfare of the paupers depended almost entirely upon the kindness and fairness of the bidder. If motivated by Mammon a bidder could increase his profit by cutting expenses, denying wholesome or adequate food or necessary medical care. And there was little protection from abuse.

In 1859 Thomas Hazard reported a visit to a poorhouse "in the most deplorable condition imaginable. The house in which they were huddled, was old and dilapidated ... the furniture was absolutely unfit for the use ... of savages. The mattresses and bed clothing were filthy and ragged. Not a sheet nor a pillow case was to be seen ... An insane woman ... was ordered from her filthy lair (where she was confined by the corner of a bedstead being pushed against the door) ... a caricature of despair clothed in filth and rags ... a dish of unripe, watery potatoes, was all the food to be seen, or that was visible in the house ... When stripped of all disguise, selling the poor to the lowest bidder, is simply offering a reward for the most cruel and avaricious man that can be found to abuse them."

By the middle of the 19th century as many as 150 infants' bodies were found in New York City each month as parents tried to avoid the poorhouse. There were an estimated 30,000 "orphans, foundlings, waifs, half-orphans, street arabs, street urchins" living on the streets of the city. Their only options were confinement in jails, almshouses and orphanages. Twenty-six-year-old Congressional minister Charles Loving Brace believed that institutional care harmed children. Work, education and family life could turn them from drains on society to useful adults. Brace formed The Children's Aid Society that in 1854 sent street children west to live with families that could raise them as their own and educate in them moral and spiritual values. That was the beginning of foster homes.

Rural areas in the west were free of vice and rich in farmers who could use extra field hands. Housewives could train and use homemakers. From 1854 to 1929 "orphan trains" took more than 200,000 newborn babies, infants, children and teenagers who were orphans or whose families could not feed them from the streets of the city to rural homes in the west, Mexico and Canada.

The children got off the train in Midwestern towns and were placed on a platform or a church altar to be examined for health, strength, intelligence in a manner similar to slave auctions in the South. Children not selected returned to the train for a trip to the next town. Few families could take more than one child so siblings were separated and the children were told to never speak of their other parents. Two orphan train boys grew up to be state governors. One grew up to be Billy the Kid.

Some children were adopted by loving families, some were abused, some were indentured servants until they were old enough to escape. But it was the best thing that Americans had done for unwanted children.

The trains were controversial from the beginning. Abolitionists believed it to be a form of slavery and defenders of slavery saw it as a plot to make slaves unnecessary. The trains transported 250,000 unwanted children until the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl left few families able to feed and care for any child. The last orphan train carried unwanted children from New York City to Sulphur Springs, Texas in 1929.

The New York Foundling Society, operated by the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, kept a cradle in the foyer of their building where mothers could secretly leave babies. As knowledge of the cradle spread there were too many babies for the Sisters to care for. They began "baby trains" so that devout Catholic families could request the child of their dreams.

In 1856 a New York report stated ... "The poor houses throughout the State may be generally described as badly constructed, ill-arranged, ill-warmed, and ill-ventilated. The rooms are crowded with inmates; and the air, particularly in the sleeping apartments, is very noxious ... with low ceilings, and sleeping boxes arranged in three tiers one above another ... inmates sicken and die without any medical attendance whatever. In one county almshouse, averaging 137 inmates, there were 36 deaths during the past year, and yet none of them from epidemic or contagious disease.

"Many of the births occurring during the year are doubtless the offspring of illicit connections. During the last year, the whole number of births was 292. The indiscriminate association of the sexes generally allowed strongly favors this assumption ... the only pretence (sic) of a separation of the sexes consisted in the circumstance of separate stairs being provided at each end of a common dormitory; and a police regulation, requiring one sex to reach it by one flight, and the other sex by another, appeared to be deemed a sufficient preventive of all subsequent intercourse."

In two counties, "the food supplied was not only insufficient in quantity, but consisted partly of tainted meat and fish. The inmates were consequently almost starved. They were also deprived of a sufficiency of fuel and bedding, and suffered severely from cold."

Personal Note: A modern reader of these accounts, not knowing the origin, could be excused for believing they referred to Nazi concentration camps.

Other laws provided that "any child ... hereafter be found begging for alms, in any of the cities in this state, and whose Parent or Parents, is or are not a charge to such City, as a pauper or paupers, it shall and may be lawful for any magistrate of such city to take up and send such child or children to the almshouse ... there to be detained and supported until such child ... shall become of sufficient age to be bound out ..." Bound out was indentured servitude and the age of the child varied by state. Mothers saw their families split up as minors were bound out, boys bound to farmers usually until the age of 21; girls bound as household servants until 18. After which they were at the further mercy of an ofttimes blind society that could not see them as "worthy."

In 1835 "Simeon Bingham aged seven years who is now a pauper" was bound until he was twenty-one "to learn the craft, mystery and occupation of a farmer, and at the end of the said term shall and will allow and deliver unto the said apprentice one good new suit of holyday (sic) clothes, of the value of at least twenty five Dollars suitable for winter and also two good suits of common or every day clothes, of the value of at least twenty Dollars and also one new bible (sic) and shall pay him fifty Dollars if the said Apprentice shall faithfully serve his said master during the said term." The master would decide whether or not an apprentice deserved such a reward.

The Records of the Court of Wardens, 1846-1848, Orange County, reveals the melancholy story of an infant orphan. "September 7, 1846: Ordered that the Treasurer pay to Mrs. Kendall W. Wait thirty Dollars for taking care of Elizabeth Truelove for six months. Ordered that the Treasurer pay to Mrs. Wait Four dollars per month for taking care of Elizabeth Truelove, an infant, for two months and twenty Dollars for the next six months. Ordered that the Treasurer pay to Howel Gilliam five dollars for taking care of Lucy Truelove (mother of Elizabeth).

"Ordered that the Treasurer pay to John W. Carr four dollars for finding coffin & burying clothes of Lucy Truelove. September 6, 1847: Ordered that the Superintendant (sic) pay to Mrs. Price twenty dollars semiannual allowance the support of Elizabeth Truelove from 1st April last & fifteen dollars for the next six months up to 1st April 1848. April 5, 1848: Ordered that the Superintendant (sic) pay to Mrs. Price fifteen dollars semi-annual allowance for the support of Elizabeth Truelove to 1st Oct. next. September 4, 1848: Ordered that the Superintendant (sic) receive Elizabeth Truelove, an infant, as a pauper at the Poor House."

War brought more separation of families. 1847 Orange County, North Carolina ordered the Superintendent to "bring the children of Young Barbee to the poor House," that $12.50 be paid to C. W. Johnston "for the support of the children of Young Barbee who is at present a volunteer in the N.C. Regiment in Mexico. Ordered that the Superintendant (sic) pay to Murrell Chisenhall twenty dollars for taking care of the children of Young Barbee before they were brought to the poor House ... Ordered that Superintendant (sic) be directed to bring the children of Calvin Bacon (who is now a Soldier in Mexico) to the poor House."

Husbands and wives, or adult children and parents who were dependent on each other, were also separated and sometimes moved every year depending on the bids. Marjory Boyes and her children were separated. "Marjory Boyes was struck off (auctioned) to Israel Merrill at 16 cents per week. Mary Boyes was struck off to Nathaniel Baker at 37 cents per week Elenor Boyes (sic) was struck off to Reuben Sawyer at 48 (sic) per week Jonathan Boyes was struck off to Peter Young at 42 cents per week."

A reformer reported, "I really don't know what meaning the county superintendents of the poor attach to the word Education ... But if they mean anything which elevates the mind-anything which ministers to the moral feelings or the intellectual powers-anything which will help to get a living, or to discharge intelligently the duties incident to citizenship-there is no such thing given to the youth in our county houses. ... In many cases the teacher is a pauper, generally an old drunkard, whose temper is soured and whose intellect is debased, and who spends the school hours in tormenting, rather than in teaching his pupils.

"I have found many children bound out by the superintendents who never received one hour's education during their apprenticeship, and who, at the age of twenty one, were cast loose on the world no better than the heathen. How can children brought up in this way be expected to become anything else than criminals or paupers? They have no ambition to acquire property, and if they had, they have no means to acquire it. They cannot enter into trade, because in order to do this with any success they must be able to read, write, and cypher, and this they cannot do. Each of these is a seed of pauperism, which will bear plants that will again bear seed, and in time will overrun the State with a burden of pauperism and crime, which it will be unable to bear."

Reformer Dorothea Dix wrote, "There was no school for the children; they were at one time sent to the district school in the immediate vicinity, but parents objected to having their children associate 'with the children of the paupers,' and these were sent home. The county provided no teacher, and the house afforded no person supposed competent to teach. The children took their education therefore into their own hands, and were acquiring a sort of knowledge which years of careful instruction will fail to eradicate."

Despite such conditions many were convinced that "the greatest evil of all (sending needy children to almshouses), creates and perpetuates paupers, by accustoming all the children in them to an easy, happy life in an almshouse, where they are well fed, clothed and instructed, so that the inducement for them to labor for their own support–and that of their parents–is completely lost sight of."

Others believed that the vendue system was corrupt and degraded both those in and outside the system. By 1875 some states took over regulation of poorhouses, and placed the poor in county-owned farms or workhouses managed by a superintendent where they could grow their own food or work to pay for their own care. It would also allow them to live in permanent homes rather than being threatened with moving every time they were auctioned. Then, as now, an overriding concern was to provide adequate assistance at the lowest possible cost.

The efforts to make paupers self-supporting failed and reformers pointed out that poorhouses and poor farms were poor places to raise children. Some states prohibited children in poorhouses and removed mentally ill patients and others with special needs to separate facilities. Nevertheless, a few persisted until the middle of the 20th Century.

In the East, state boards dealt with the poor, but in Texas, as in most other western states, the poor were another job for the county commissioners. A federal government report regarding Texas poor laws in 1904 stated, "The County Commissioners have the duty to provide for the support of paupers, resident of their counties, who are unable to take care of themselves, to send indigent sick to county hospitals where such are established, and to bury the pauper dead. The commissioners may, by contract, bind a county in any reasonable sum for pauper support, and are authorized to employ physicians to the poor, etc. The almshouses are under the management of the county commissioners. Except for these general provisions, there are no special statutes governing in detail poor relief and the management of almshouses."

Popular opinion decided who was worthy and who was not. In Texas there was a general opinion that poverty was a crime and poorhouses were sometimes a combination jail and poorhouse. Although not debtors prisons, the poor were punished for being poor, regardless of the reason.

The Poor House Story includes records by states and in some cases counties. In the 1887-88 Texas census 35 counties reported poor farms. Bexar County (San Antonio) had 167 indigents, 10 colored, 114 foreign born, $7.50 cost per month. Bandera County reported 7 indigents, no colored, 1 foreign born, cost $10.80. Baylor County, 1 indigent at $15. Bosque County: 15 indigent, 1 colored, $17.50. Somerville County paid the most: 2 indigents, no colored, no foreign born, $20.

Personal Note: My father was born in 1887. I have not been able to find a poor farm in Hardeman County where he was born, or in Wilbarger County where he spent most of his life after 1888, and where I was born in 1932. I remember as a child hearing my parents speak of the "poorhouse." They pretended it was a joke but even as a child I was aware of the fear and horror that they might live there some day.

There were private orphan asylums some founded for the benefit of children whose parents perished in epidemics. In 1846 an epidemic in the German settlement of New Braunfels in the newly minted state of Texas left a number of orphaned children. Private citizens, incorporated as the Western Texas Orphan Asylum, reared and educated those who had no relatives. In addition to regular school courses the girls were taught housekeeping and the boys agriculture. The name of the asylum was changed to West Texas University, and in 1853 advertised elementary, Latin, and high school departments.

Others shelters were established by philanthropists, benevolent societies and religious organizations limiting their charity to particular religious, racial, or ethnic groups. Most were selective in admission and able to dismiss children when they wished. Some of them received public as well as private funds, regardless of the First Amendment, but they served a small number of the children who needed charity.

Texas was rural but in the cities churches attempted to address the need. In 1867 the Catholic Diocese of Galveston, with fifty-five churches, built an orphanage on the grounds of St. Mary's Infirmary. The hospital had originally cared for orphans, but yellow fever required a separation of orphans and patients and in 1874 St. Mary's Orphan Asylum opened. Girls were kept until they were eighteen years old. At the age of ten, boys were sent to St. Mary's College to continue their education.

1892, Dr. Arthur Carroll Scott was appointed chief surgeon for the Santa Fe Railroad's hospital in Temple. In 1898 Scott and Dr. Raleigh White established the Kings' Daughters' Hospital for the care of the indigent which became the Temple Sanitarium in 1905, a general hospital and nurses training school. In 1922 the name was changed to Scott and White Memorial Hospital.


Excerpted from Lawful Abuse by Robert Flynn. Copyright © 2012 Wings Press, for Robert Flynn. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert Flynn is the author of 17 books, including Jade: Outlaw, The Lask Klick, and North to Yesterday, and a two-part documentary for ABC-TV as well as a fellow at the Texas Institute of Letters. He is the recipient of a Lon Tinkle Lifetime Achievement Award, two Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, and two Wrangler Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.

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