Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed

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In mid-nineteenth-century New York, vagrant youth, both orphans and runaways, filled the streets. For years the city had been sweeping these children into prisons or almshouses, but in 1853 the young minister Charles Loring Brace proposed a radical solution to the problem by creating the Children's Aid Society, an organization that fought to provide homeless children with shelter, education, and, for many, a new family in the country. Combining a biography of Brace with firsthand accounts of orphans, Stephen ...
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Overview


In mid-nineteenth-century New York, vagrant youth, both orphans and runaways, filled the streets. For years the city had been sweeping these children into prisons or almshouses, but in 1853 the young minister Charles Loring Brace proposed a radical solution to the problem by creating the Children's Aid Society, an organization that fought to provide homeless children with shelter, education, and, for many, a new family in the country. Combining a biography of Brace with firsthand accounts of orphans, Stephen O'Connor here tells of the orphan trains that, between 1854 and 1929, spirited away some 250,000 destitute children to rural homes in every one of the forty-eight contiguous states.

A powerful blend of history, biography, and adventure, Orphans Trains remains the definitive work on this little-known episode in American history.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review

"O'Connor tells these stories lucidly and gracefully. He is particularly evocative in his descriptions of the transportation conditions the children endured, the conditions of urban poverty in New York in the 1800s, and of a typical day of a New York newsboy."

— Ruth Wallis Herndon

Los Angeles Times

"O'Connor's immensely readable book vividly portrays Brace and the world in which he operated. Orphan Trains not only offers us a trip to the past but provides historical context crucial to understanding and evaluating present-day attitudes and policies about poverty, families, and children."

— Merle Rubin

Annals of Iowa

"O'Connor tells the story of the orphan trains in a beautifully written book. . . . It is an intellectual history of an enterprise that was part genius and part folly, one that continues to haunt the American imagination."

— Joan Gittens

New York Times Book Review - Ruth Wallis Herndon

"O'Connor tells these stories lucidly and gracefully. He is particularly evocative in his descriptions of the transportation conditions the children endured, the conditions of urban poverty in New York in the 1800s, and of a typical day of a New York newsboy."
Los Angeles Times - Merle Rubin

"O'Connor's immensely readable book vividly portrays Brace and the world in which he operated. Orphan Trains not only offers us a trip to the past but provides historical context crucial to understanding and evaluating present-day attitudes and policies about poverty, families, and children."
Annals of Iowa - Joan Gittens

"O'Connor tells the story of the orphan trains in a beautifully written book. . . . It is an intellectual history of an enterprise that was part genius and part folly, one that continues to haunt the American imagination."
director of the PBS series New York - Ric Burns

“With grace and precision, and a novelist’s sense of time, place, and character, Stephen O’Connor has thoughtfully retraced the gripping, often harrowing tale, showing us in the process how a great city came both to abandon and to redeem some of its most vulnerable citizens.”

New York Times - Richard Bernstein

“In chronicling one of the first ambitious, privately sponsored social welfare programs in the United States, Mr. O’Connor provides an absorbing portrait of the nation at a moment of wrenching change, a moment that has in many ways not yet passed. . . . Orphan Trains is a moving and instructive story, and as he tells it, Mr. O’Connor never loses sight of the real people and real lives at its center.”

Louis Menand

"Once again, O'Connor has used his empathetic genius to bring to life the world of children—this time, the poor children of nineteenth-century New York City. The human problems this book illuminates are problems we have not yet solved."

New York Times

“In chronicling one of the first ambitious, privately sponsored social welfare programs in the United States, Mr. O’Connor provides an absorbing portrait of the nation at a moment of wrenching change, a moment that has in many ways not yet passed. . . . Orphan Trains is a moving and instructive story, and as he tells it, Mr. O’Connor never loses sight of the real people and real lives at its center.”

— Richard Bernstein

Bob Minzesheimer
Stephen O'Connor , a creative-writing teacher, is at heart a storyteller and makes good use of the remarkable narratives the children left, as well as interview with survivors of the last of the Orphan Trains. Orphan Trains is an instructive and fascinating slice of social history.
USA Today
Los Angeles Times
[An] engaging and thoughtful history...immensely readable book.
USA Today
An instructive and fascinating slice of social history...O'Connor, a creative-writing teacher, is at heart a storyteller.
New York Daily News
A fascinating, important, and revealing commentary...a meticulous, overdure and serious look at a little-known chapter of history.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From 1854 to 1929, an estimated 250,000 children were "emigrated" out of "vice-ridden" urban areas and put up for grabs in the West, where labor was in short supply. Brace (1826-1890) educated himself for the ministry, but under the influence of Darwin and progressive European experiments like the Rauhe Haus, a children's settlement house, he set about saving lives. Rather than work with adults ("saving" prostitutes or banning rum), Brace chose to save their children. As organizer of the Children's Aid Society (CAS), he devised a series of projects to help street kids help themselves: lodging houses, industrial schools and, finally, the infamous "orphan trains." As haphazard and casual as Brace's adoption system may have been, it was the only solution to child abuse and neglect in America at the time. O'Connor intercuts his narrative with the life stories of a few orphan train successes and failures, as if to emphasize that there's no clear verdict on the CAS and what they did. While the book is organized as a biography of Brace, O'Connor digresses compellingly, drawing readers into accounts of rancher warfare, protestant philosophy and Horatio Alger's pedophilia. With a fast-forward to modern times, he reveals that there's nothing new about the crises in what we now call the foster care system. (Feb.) Forecast: From the typeface to the footnotes, this effort is too scholarly for general interest audiences, although it's bound to be required reading for anyone in the social work field. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
Charles Loring Brace invented the idea of placing city orphans in the countryside of late 19th-century America as a way to help the children as well as to help families who needed young people on their farms. As a minister and the first director of the Children's Aid Society, he placed children in every one of the 48 states, often with little regard to record keeping or appropriateness of the placement. While two of these children became governors of states and a number of others became criminals, most of the children's lives were left unrecorded. In spite of his unfounded optimism as to the success of this process, he did understand the need for what has become the foster care system still in place today. The book concludes with the history of foster care since Brace's time and an analysis of the problems with the system today. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2001, Univ. of Chicago Press, 362p. illus. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Kirkus Reviews
O'Connor (Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, 1996) crafts a vibrant, wide-ranging narrative of Charles Loring Brace's child-welfare movement, which had a profound influence on America's treatment of disadvantaged youth. Born in 1826 and raised in a staunchly religious New England household, Brace was seemingly made to serve his fellow human beings-specifically the homeless children of New York City. He founded the Children's Aid Society in 1853, and one year later the first load of street kids hoping for job training and perhaps new families steamed toward Dowagiac, Michigan. They were never called "orphan trains" during Brace's lifetime; he referred to his practice of sending children to the country to be indentured or (in the best cases) adopted as "placing out." In marvelously evocative and eminently readable prose, O'Connor relates an all-American story of explosive urban growth, of families destroyed by a nascent capitalism, of the West's myths and promises. First-hand accounts from some of the 250,000 orphans who rode the trains between 1854 and 1929 provide a window into this era, and much space is dedicated to the movement's most stunning successes and failures-from John Brady (who became governor of Alaska) to Charley Miller (who was hanged for a double murder). O'Connor balances these stories with a well-constructed chronicle of the ups and downs of the Children's Aid Society. He also delineates changing perceptions about disadvantaged children that eventually led much of the nation to dismiss Brace as a figurehead for outmoded philosophies. O'Connor's meticulous research studs the narrative with many marvelous details, from a description of Frederick Law Olmsted'sStatenIsland farm to the atmosphere of Brace's Newsboy's Lodging House. Extremely engaging history.
From the Publisher
"An instructive and fascinating slice of social history...O'Connor, a creative-writing teacher, is at heart a storyteller."

- USA Today March 1, 2001

USA Today

"[An] engaging and thoughtful history...immensely readable book." - Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2001

The Los Angeles Times

"A fascinating, important, and revealing commentary...a meticulous, overdure and serious look at a little-known chapter of history." -New York Daily News, February 18, 2001 The New York Daily News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226616674
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2004
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 362
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author


Stephen O'Connor teaches creative writing at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, an account of his years teaching creative writing at an inner-city school in New York, and a collection of short fiction, Rescue.
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Read an Excerpt

Prologue:
Working for Human Happiness On the morning of October 1, 1854, forty-five children sat on the front benches of a meetinghouse in Dowagiac, Michigan. Most were between ten and twelve years old, though at least one was six and a few were young teenagers. During the week the meetinghouse served as a school, but on that day, a Sunday, it was a Presbyterian church, and more than usually crowded, not only because the children had taken so many seats, but because the regular parishioners had been augmented by less devout neighbors curious to see the "orphans." For the last couple of weeks notices had been running in the newspapers, and bills had been posted at the general store, the tavern, and the railroad station asking families to take in homeless boys and girls from New York City. The children had arrived on the train from Detroit at three that morning and had huddled together on the station platform until sunup. They had spent the previous night on a steamer crossing Lake Erie from Buffalo, New York, and not a one of them had avoided being soiled by seasickness — their own or their fellow passengers' — or by the excreta of the animals traveling on the deck above. The night before, they had slept on the floor of an absolutely dark freight car, amid a crowd of German and Irish immigrants heading west from Albany. During their first night out from New York City, on a riverboat traveling up the Hudson, they had slept in proper berths, with blankets and mattresses — but only because the boat's captain, after hearing the tales they told of their lives, had taken pity on them. The children's days of hard travel were clearly evident in their pallor and the subtle deflation of their features. Their clothes — which had been new when they left New York — were stained and ripped and emitted a distinct animal rankness. Their expressions were wary, as if they had been caught doing something wrong and were wondering whether they were going to be punished. In some of the younger children this wariness verged on fear, but most of the older boys and girls had known too much disappointment and loneliness to be afraid of what was about to happen to them, or at least to reveal that fear, even to themselves. Some of them cast glances — challenging, or ingratiating — back at the men and women seated behind them; some looked down at their shoes, while others stared straight ahead at the young man beside the altar, whose enthusiasm, accent, and fluid gestures marked him as a city preacher. His name was E. P. Smith, and he was telling the audience about the organization he represented: the Children's Aid Society, which had been founded only one and a half years earlier by a young minister named Charles Loring Brace. Brace, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, had come to New York in 1848 to study theology and had been horrified both by the hordes of vagrant children — beggars, bootblacks, flower sellers, and prostitutes — who crowded the city's streets and by the way civil authorities treated them. Mass poverty was a new problem during that era. Up through the early nineteenth century there had been no slums in American cities. There had been poor people, of course, and run- down houses on the back streets and disreputable taverns on the waterfronts, but none of the large, decaying neighborhoods of fear and despair that are so ubiquitous in urban America today. Beginning shortly after the War of 1812, torrential immigration and the nation's uneasy transition to industrial capitalism had divided American cities into hostile camps of the affluent and the desperately poor. In no city was this division more pronounced than New York, which started the nineteenth century with a population of less than 40,000 and ended it with close to a million and a half. In 1849 New York's first police chief reported that 3,000 children1 — or close to 1 percent of the city's total population — lived on the streets and had no place to sleep but in alleys and abandoned buildings or under stairways. At first the au-thorities had dealt with these vagrant children mainly by incarcerat-ing them in adult prisons and almshouses, and then, beginning in the 1820s, by building juvenile prisons and asylums, which were barely less harsh or punitive. Brace believed that most of these children were not criminals but victims of miserable economic and social conditions. Incarceration did nothing but "harden" them in the ways of crime. What they really needed, he maintained, was education, jobs, and good homes — and in March 1853 he established an organization to provide them with just such benefits. During its first year the Children's Aid Society primarily offered its young beneficiaries religious guidance at Sunday meetings and vocational and academic instruction at its industrial schools. It also established the nation's first runaway shelter, the Newsboys' Lodging House, where vagrant boys received inexpensive room and board and basic education. From the beginning Brace and his colleagues attempted to find jobs and homes for individual children, but they soon became overwhelmed by the numbers needing placement. Un-able to raise enough money to increase his staff, Brace hit on the idea of sending groups of children to the country and letting local residents simply pick out the child they wanted for themselves. The forty-five young people sitting in the Dowagiac meetinghouse were the first of these groups — and the first riders of what would come to be called the "orphan trains." As Smith explained the program to his audience, he appealed equally to their consciences and pocketbooks. These were the "little ones of Christ," he said, who had the same capacities, the same need of good influences, and the same immortal soul as "our own" children. Kind men and women who opened their homes to one of this "ragged regiment" would be expected to raise them as they would their natural-born children, providing them with decent food and clothing, a "common" education, and $100 when they turned twenty-one. There would be no loss in the charity, Smith assured his audience. The boys were handy and active and would soon learn any common trade or labor. The girls could be used for all types of housework. When he had finished speaking, bench-legs squawked on the floorboards and the congregation came forward to get a better look at the children. Some of these men and women were shopkeepers, carpenters, or blacksmiths, and one was a physician; most, however, were farmers. Their faces were gaunt (only the wealthy were fat in the nineteenth century) and reddened by sun, wind, and, in not a few cases, whiskey. As they mingled with Smith's party, some blinked back tears that such innocents should already have known so much hardship, others looked them up and down and asked questions, trying to assess their strength and honesty, while one or two went so far as to squeeze the children's muscles or plunge a finger into their mouths to check their teeth. The actual distribution of the children commenced the following morning at the tavern where they were staying. In an account of the trip published by the Children's Aid Society, Smith said that in order to get a child, applicants had to have recommendations from their pastor and a justice of the peace, but it is unlikely that this requirement was strictly enforced. In the early days the society's agents tended to be very casual in both the acquisition and dispersal of their charges. Smith himself had let a passenger on the riverboat from Manhattan take one of the boys and had replaced him with another he met in the Albany railroad yard — a boy whose claim to orphanhood Smith never bothered to verify. When applicants did not have the required documents, Smith probably did what was done routinely by later CAS agents: he looked at the quality and cleanness of the applicants' clothes, asked them about their property, professions, and church attendance, and, if he saw no evidence that they were liars or degenerates, gave them a child. By the end of that first day (a Monday), fifteen boys and girls had gone to live with local farmers or craftsmen, and by Thursday evening, twenty-two more had been taken. On Friday, Smith and the eight unclaimed children — the youngest and therefore the least able workers — continued west from Dowagiac by train. In Chicago, Smith put them by themselves on a train to Iowa City (one and a half days' journey), where a Reverend C. C. Townsend, who ran a local orphanage, took them in and attempted to find them foster families. As for Smith, he caught the first train back to New York. Despite the fact that the Children's Aid Society heard practically nothing of most of these children ever again, this first expedition was considered such a success that in January the society sent out two more parties of homeless children, both to Pennsylvania. Over the next seventy-five years the CAS orphan trains carried an estimated 105,000 children to all of the contiguous forty-eight states except Arizona. For most of those years the children were distributed to their new "parents" or "employers" (both terms were used) much as they had been by E. P. Smith, through a sort of auction held in a church, opera house, or large store. Applicants for children were supposed to be screened by committees of local businessmen, ministers, or physicians, but the screening was rarely very thorough. The monitoring of placements was equally lax. Because of the great difficulty and expense of travel in nineteenth-century rural America, CAS agents rarely checked up in person on the boys and girls they had placed. The society tried to keep tabs on placements by sending both the children and their foster parents regular letters of inquiry, but these mostly went unanswered. Sustained by a monitoring system that seriously underreported failure and by a prodigious quantity of blind faith, Charles Loring Brace tirelessly promoted what he called the "Emigration Plan" during his thirty-seven years at the head of the Children's Aid Society. In moving and persuasive books, articles, speeches, and annual reports, he portrayed his system of placing needy and orphaned children in families as more humane and effective than even the best institutional care, and also as vastly cheaper. As a result, Brace's system was imitated by many organizations, initially only in the East but eventually all across the country. The New York Foundling Hospital alone sent some 30,000 children west. All told, by 1929, when the CAS sent its last true orphan train to Texas, roughly 250,000 city children had found foster homes through these programs. Some of these children were abused by their new families in all the ways that we are familiar with from present-day news reports about the tragedies of foster care, and some were just as happy as the literature of their placement agencies said they were. Two boys placed by the CAS became governors, one became a Supreme Court justice, and several others became mayors, congressmen, or local representatives. Many children grew up to become drifters and thieves, and at least one became a murderer. The vast majority led lives of absolutely ordinary accomplishment and satisfaction. And many, perhaps also a majority (because there is nothing extraordinary about unhappiness), saw no end to the misery into which they had been born. This book concentrates on the CAS orphan trains, not only because the society placed considerably more children over a much longer period than any other agency, but because Charles Loring Brace almost single- handedly forged the philosophical foundations of the movement, and of many other efforts on behalf of poor children, and remains to this day perhaps the preeminent figure in American child welfare history. Until well into the twentieth century, virtually every program seeking to help homeless and needy children was either inspired by or a response to Brace's work and ideas. His notion that children are better cared for by families than in institutions is the most basic tenet of present-day foster care. And his abiding belief in the capability and fundamental goodness of poor city children, while occasionally echoed in the speeches of politicians and child welfare experts, is one that our nation dearly needs to reclaim. Brace was an exceedingly hardworking, intelligent, and complex man whose life can hardly be defined by his work with the Children's Aid Society. He was jailed in Hungary for supposed revolutionary activities, and he was a prominent abolitionist, author, and journalist. As a New York Times correspondent during the Civil War, he was present at some of the Union Army's most stunning early defeats. Brace's best friend for much of his young manhood was Frederick Law Olmsted, the celebrated designer of Central Park, and his social contacts included Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, and George Eliot. With all of his drive and accomplishment, Brace was a man of many contradictions. He was ferociously ambitious, yet believed that ambition was a sin. He constantly excoriated himself for not living up to his own ideals — for not working hard enough, loving well enough, or having motives that were pure enough — but he never seems to have doubted the exemplariness of his character. He could speak quite openly about his "abounding courage and hope." He proclaimed without the slightest shred of irony, "I am striving after perfect truth," and admitted, as if it were only self-evident, that "few human beings have ever had a more real sense of things unseen than I habitually have." And yet he believed that virtue existed only in humility and self-denial. He wanted always to live more simply and to endure greater hardship. What he called his "brightest of all visions" was "a humble, self-controlled life, all devoted, given up, to working for human happiness."2 As much as Brace's work with the Children's Aid Society may have satisfied his desire for prestige and power, it was nevertheless the single greatest moral effort of his life. In simplest terms, this book is an attempt to measure the virtue of that effort by examining its motives and by tracing its consequences, both during Brace's lifetime and after. The earliest chapters explore what in Brace's experiences and era made the idea of sending even small children hundreds of miles from home to live with total strangers seem natural and good. Later chapters discuss the successes and failures of Brace's efforts, and those of his imitators, and show how changing ideas of childhood, work, bondage, and the nature of society caused what had once seemed an act of nearly unassailable wisdom and compassion to ap-pear cruelly indifferent to the very children it had been designed to help. The true measure of the virtue of Brace's effort lies in its effect on the lives of these children. This book illustrates that effect by looking at the fates of orphan train riders in aggregate, and by telling the stories of particular children: John Jackson, who at five years old walked off after a marching band and never found his way home again; a lame street peddler named Johnny Morrow, who won over the Children's Aid Society staff by fulfilling their most sentimental fantasies; Lotte Stern, a ragpicker's fourteen-year-old daughter who, like so many girls of her time, was forced into prostitution and then damned for it by society; John Brady and Andrew Burke, who rode the same orphan train in 1859 and became, respectively, the governors of Alaska and North Dakota; and Charley Miller, who shot two young men dead on a boxcar in Wyoming because, as he put it at his trial, he was lonely and cold and so far from home. A cautionary note: although the term "orphan trains" has a poetic resonance and a degree of recognition that made it the all-but- inevitable title for this book, in some ways it misrepresents the placement efforts of the CAS and other agencies. During the orphan train era itself, none of these agencies ever actually used the term in their official publications. The CAS referred to its relevant division first as the Emigration Department, then as the Home-Finding Department, and finally, as the Department of Foster Care. The Foundling Hospital sent out what it called "baby" or "mercy" trains. And almost everybody else referred to the practice as "family placement" or "out-placement" ("out" to distinguish it from the placement of children "in" orphanages or asylums). The term "orphan trains" may have been coined by a journalist sometime in the early twentieth century, but it did not come into its present wide currency until long after the close of the era, perhaps as recently as 1978, when CBS aired a fictional miniseries entitled The Orphan Trains. One reason the term was not used by placement agencies was that less than half of the children who rode the trains were in fact orphans, and as many as 25 percent had two living parents. Children with both parents living ended up on the trains — or in orphanages — because their families did not have the money or desire to raise them or be- cause they had been abused or abandoned or had run away. And many teenage boys and girls went to orphan train sponsoring organizations simply in search of work or a free ticket out of the city. The term "orphan trains" is also misleading because a substantial number of the placed-out children never took the railroad to their new homes, or even traveled very far. Although the majority of children placed by the CAS went to the Midwest and West, the state that received the greatest number by far (nearly one-third of the total) was New York; Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania also received substantial numbers of children. The main goal of the Emigration Plan was to remove children from slums, where opportunities were scant and "immoral influences" plentiful, and to place them in "good Christian homes." In part because Brace considered the country fundamentally more beneficent, and in part because the demand for children (as laborers and for adoption) was always highest in the least-settled areas, the typical good Christian home was a farm. But the CAS did place many children not only near New York but right in the city itself. What is more, for most of the orphan train era, the CAS bureaucracy made no distinction between local placements and even its most distant ones. They were all written up in the same record books and, on the whole, managed by the same people. Also, the same child might be placed one time in the West and the next time — if the first home did not work out — in New York City. The decision about where to place a child was made almost entirely on the basis of which alternative was most readily available at the moment the child needed help. Because distant and local placements were so functionally interchangeable, discussing only what might be called "classic" orphan train placement — groups of children distributed far from New York City — would distort the nature and goals of orphan train programs and misrepresent the experiences of many of the placed children. Such a focus would also obscure the fact that, in an important sense, the orphan train era never ended. What really happened is that during the first decades of the twentieth century, as a result of demographic, political, and social changes, fewer and fewer children were sent to homes in other states and more and more were placed locally. Decades before the last orphan train left for Texas, all of the main placement organizations — including the CAS — had become primarily what we would call foster care and adoption agencies. But for the people operating these agencies, the transformation was only in how they did their work (more screening and monitoring of placements), not in the work's fundamental nature and goals. It is important — even consummately important — not to obscure the connection between the orphan trains and our own child welfare programs, because the consequences of Brace's moral effort end — if they may be said to have ended at all — only now, in this moment, and in each succeeding moment, as we ourselves decide what we can and should do to help the "poor and friendless" children of our own time. It is my hope that, as we discover how well or ill Brace and his followers promoted the happiness of children during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we will better understand how we might serve those children who most need our help at the start of this new millennium. Copyright © 2001 by Stephen O'ConnorPrologue: Working for Human Happiness
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments
Prologue: Working for Human Happiness
Part I: Want
Testimony: John Brady and Harry Morris
1. The Good Father
2. Flood of Humanity
Part II: Doing
Testimony: John Jackson
3. City Missionary
4. Draining the City, Saving the Children
5. Journey to Dowagiac
6. A Voice Among the Newsboys
7. Happy Circle
8. Almost a Miracle
Part III: Redoing
Testimony: Lotte Stern
9. Invisible Children
10. Neglect of the Poor
11. The Trials of Charley Miller
12. The Death and Life of Charles Loring Brace
Conclusion: Legacy
Notes
Bibliography
Index
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