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

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

by Stephen O'ConnorStephen O'Connor


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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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226616674
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/01/2004
Edition description: 1
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 655,193
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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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The Good Father

CHARLES LORING BRACE was born on June 19, 1826, in Litchfield, Connecticut, a small but prosperous village, wholly lacking in urban luxury or vice, but providing its residents with something approaching urban levels of learning and culture. It was the home of the nation's first law school, founded by Tapping Reeve in 1784, which numbered among its graduates Vice Presidents Aaron Burr and John C. Calhoun and the educator Horace Mann. It was also the home of one of the first secondary schools for girls in the United States, the Litchfield Female Academy, graduates of which included Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catharine Beecher. Litchfield's best-known native son was Ethan Allen, leader of a Revolutionary War militia group, the Green Mountain Boys, but during the Brace family's tenure the village's most illustrious resident was the Congregational preacher Lyman Beecher — the father not only of Catharine and Harriet but also of the celebrated (and at times infamous) liberal minister Henry Ward Beecher. The Braces and the Beechers would become deeply intertwined over the years, and each family would exert a profound influence on the development of the other's social activism.

One of the most important of these influences was in some ways the most indirect. Among his many other accomplishments, Lyman Beecher was a founder of the social movement in which Charles Loring Brace would make his career. In 1812, distressed by increasing drunkenness, crime, and irreligious behavior, especially in America's rapidly growing cities, Beecher told some thirty Congregational clergymen whom he had invited to a meeting in New Haven: "The mass is changing. We are becoming another people. Our habits have held us long after those moral causes that formed them have ceased to operate. These habits, at length, are giving way." If swift action were not taken, Beecher warned, the nation would soon be overrun by a tide of "Sabbath-breakers, rumselling, tippling folk, infidels" and "ruff-scruff." Beecher proposed combating this tide through the foundation of a "Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Good Morals." This organization would be a "moral militia" composed of "wise and good" citizens who would oppose vice and "infidelity" by preaching to likely perpetrators, holding prayer meetings, and passing out religious literature.

Partly through Beecher's example and vocal advocacy, similar moral reform societies were soon founded all along the Eastern Seaboard and as far west as Saint Louis. The "wise and good" who staffed these societies were generally evangelical clerics whose primary goal was to attract converts. Over time, however, these domestic missionaries learned that the best way to draw people to their sermons was by offering benefits such as food, clothing, and schooling. This was the aspect of the movement that ultimately would most impress Charles Loring Brace. He would carry it a step further, however, and thereby help pave the way for the emergence of modern social work, all but abandoning conversion and making service (or "aid") the top priority of his own moral reform society.

Lyman Beecher never played any direct role in Brace's choice of career. He moved to Boston the year Brace was born and was living in Cincinnati when Brace began working with the poor in New York City. The elder Beecher and the Brace family also stood on opposite sides of their era's culture wars. Whereas the Braces, though devout Congregationalists, were dedicated rationalists with a strong interest in natural science, Lyman Beecher was a conservative Calvinist who saw science and rationalism as the enemies of faith. It was Lyman's children, especially his two famous daughters, who would forge the strongest ties with the Brace family. But, at the very least, Lyman Beecher presided over Charles's childhood and youth as an exemplar — a man who made the career of activist-minister a compelling possibility.

John Pierce Brace, Charles's father, first knew Lyman Beecher as a landlord. John Brace came to Litchfield to be chief instructor at the Litchfield Female Academy and rented a room in the Beechers' plain, often added-to clapboard parsonage — described by Stowe as "a wide, roomy, windy edifice that seemed to have been built by a series of afterthoughts." Despite their philosophical differences, John Brace soon won at least the cordial respect of the famous minister, if for no other reason than that Brace was the favorite teacher of Beecher's younger daughter, Harriet. In her autobiography, Stowe called John Brace "one of the most stimulating and inspiring instructors I ever knew" and made him the model for Mr. Rossiter, the brilliant teacher in her novel Oldtown Folks:

Mr. Jonathan Rossiter held us all by the sheer force of his personal character and will, just as the ancient mariner held the wedding guest with his glittering eye. ... He scorned all conventional rules in teaching, and he would not tolerate a mechanical lesson, and took delight in puzzling his pupils and breaking up all routine business by startling and unexpected questions and assertions. He compelled everyone to think and to think for himself. "Your heads may not be the best in the world," was one of his sharp off-hand sayings, "but they are the best God has given you, and you must use them for yourselves."

John Brace had come to the Litchfield Female Academy through sheer nepotism. His aunt, Sarah Pierce, founded the school in her dining room in 1792, and she seemed to have pegged her nephew as a potential teacher from his earliest childhood. She and her sister Mary oversaw his education in Hartford, where he had been born, and paid his tuition at Williams College. For a while John seems to have considered entering the ministry, but in 1814 he acceded to Sarah's wishes and moved to Litchfield to become the head teacher at her school.

By the time John Brace arrived, the academy had long since moved from the Pierce sisters' dining room to a large, white, Greek Revival building, on the village's fashionable North Street, just one hundred yards closer to the center of town than the Beechers' roomy residence. Each year up to 140 students came to the school from as far away as Ohio and the West Indies, as well as from New York and all parts of New England. Although Sarah Pierce had intended the school to "vindicate the equality of the female intellect," she had not herself received the level of education she desired to provide her students and had been heavily influenced by condescending British advice books on teaching young women. Catharine Beecher, who attended the academy before John Brace's arrival, recalled in her autobiography: "At that time, the higher branches had not entered the female schools. Map drawing, painting, embroidery and the piano were the accomplishments sought, and history was the only study added to geography, grammar, and arithmetic." In their assigned essays the girls were expected to meditate only on such "female" virtues as contentment, cheerfulness, charity, and forgiveness.

All this changed once John Brace became the head teacher. His first assignment to Catharine's younger sister Harriet, for example, was to write about "The Difference Between the Natural and the Moral Sublime." And Harriet's earliest literary triumph was an essay responding to Brace's question: "Can the immortality of the soul be proved by the light of nature?"

Under John Brace's direction, Litchfield girls undertook a curriculum — including science, higher mathematics, logic, and Latin — that at the very least equaled that of most boys' academies. In one subject area Litchfield girls clearly exceeded their counterparts at the male schools, and that was moral philosophy, which boys were not expected to study until college.

Although John Brace was far from being above the sexist double standards that prevailed in his day, his educational agenda had a decidedly feminist slant. He specifically worked against the stereotype of women as charming but superficial creatures who lacked the intellectual fortitude to master their emotional impulses. In an address to the graduating class of 1816, he explained that he wanted students "to feel but to feel in subordination to reason." Education, he told the new graduates, would improve woman's "rank in society, placing her as the rational companion of man, not the slave of his pleasures or the victim of tyranny."

As significant a figure as John Brace would be in Harriet Beecher Stowe's life, and later also in Catharine Beecher's, it was in fact through his marriage that he became most intimately connected with the Beecher family. Lucy Porter, Lyman Beecher's sister-in-law, came to Litchfield for an extended visit in 1819. By early 1820 she and John Brace had married, and later that same year their first child, Mary, was born. The Braces continued to live with the Beechers until 1822, when they moved to a home of their own nearby. It was in this house, some four years afterward, that John and Lucy's second child, Charles, was born.

During the early nineteenth century the United States was undergoing a dramatic shift in social organization. An economy composed primarily of small-scale independent entrepreneurs — farmers, craftspeople, and shopkeepers — was giving way to one of large-scale capitalists and industrialists, and decidedly economically dependent wage earners. Many people became wonderfully rich as a result of this transformation, and many became desperately poor. All of these changes — especially the fact that people increasingly worked outside the home — profoundly altered the roles of men and women, and the ways in which they understood and raised their children. Charles Loring Brace's upbringing, like that of most of his generation, was the product of a clash between the old and the new ways — a clash that affected both the sort of "aid" he came to feel poor children most needed and the way that aid was understood by the larger society.

The Puritans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries believed that children were born damned. This was not mere theology, but a fact parents witnessed every day in their children's behavior. To Anne Bradstreet, sinning commenced with a child's first breath:

Stained from birth with Adams sinfull fact,
In essence, the Puritans had what most people today would think of as an inverted image of the soul's progress: starting in corruption and, through God's grace, ending in innocence. The mechanism by which the soul was cleansed of original sin ("Adams sinfull fact") was "conversion," or being "born again"— a spontaneous and often ecstatic union of the individual with God. The problem was that there was no way to achieve conversion. God was almighty, absolutely free, and could not be constrained even by the obligation to reward goodness and punish sin. He had chosen that small portion of humanity he was going to save — the "elect" — for his own inscrutable reasons back before the beginning of time, and there was no way for men or women to change his mind. There was also no way to know for certain who was among the elect. Even one's own apparent conversion might be an illusion spun by the Devil to lure one into the sin of pride. Some theologians maintained that the elect would not know they were saved until they found themselves in Paradise. Although God was technically free to grant second birth even to the most loathsome of sinners, most people assumed that he did not have much use for this freedom, and that the elect could be identified by their superior virtue — especially by their capacity for self-denial.

Adam and Eve fell because they were ambitious and put their own desires ahead of God's. They wanted knowledge and to move up in the world ("Your eyes shall be opened," said the serpent, "and ye shall be as gods, knowing both good and evil"). The child in Anne Bradstreet's poem was not merely stained by the consequences of their ambition, but still possessed, from birth, by their "perverse will, a love to what's forbid." Puritans believed that virtue lay only in the suppression of what they called "self-will" and its replacement by a desire to serve, obey, and glorify God. For many Puritans the mere existence of a child's will was nigh unto a perversity all by itself. John Robinson, the original minister at the Pilgrims' Plymouth Colony, advised his parishioners:

Surely there is in all children ... a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down; ... Children should not know, if it could be kept from them, that they have a will in their own, but in the parents' keeping; neither should these words be heard from them, save by way of consent, "I will" or "I will not."

Puritan parents loved their children as much as parents ever have, but they did not see love as the unalloyed blessing we generally understand it to be today. Love was, after all, yet another carnal impulse, and as such it might lead parents to shirk their responsibility both to God and to their children. Letting a "pleasing face" divert one from subjecting a child to necessary discipline was not only sinful but possibly a sign that both parent and child were headed for eternal damnation. According to one Puritan adviser, parents were to keep "due distance" from their offspring because "fondness and familiarity breeds and causeth contempt and irreverence in children."

In certain instances, parental love could even be equated with sin. When an impoverished couple in Northampton, Massachusetts, went to court in 1680 to stop their children from being forcibly indentured by the civil authorities, the judge rejected their arguments, declaring that "what the Parents Spoke [was] more out of fond affection and sinful Indulgence than any Reason or Rule."

Slowly during the eighteenth century, and more rapidly during the nineteenth, the foundations for many of these beliefs began to crumble, partly under the assault of rationalism and Romanticism, but mostly through the successes of capitalism. Between 1820 and 1860 per capita income rose 50 percent — although not among industrial workers — and thanks to the advent of mass production and inexpensive transportation, many goods became much cheaper. Women no longer had to spend days weaving cloth and stitching it into clothing but could outfit their families through a single shopping trip. Infection rates declined because of the piping of fresh water into cities and the easy accessibility of factory-produced soap and cotton underwear. And both heating and cooking became more efficient through the development of cast-iron stoves. For many people, especially in the expanding middle and upper classes, life was much easier, and the idea of a strict and vengeful God no longer seemed as natural as it had during earlier, harder eras. More to the point, growing numbers of people began to believe that the true elect were not those who most loved God, but those who most loved money.

Puritan culture was also undermined by capitalism's disconcerting effect on sex roles. Many affluent women found that they had become what some scholars call "economically superfluous." Whereas their mothers had added to the family coffers by tending livestock and gardens and making clothing, these women only spent their husband's money at stores and on the servants who performed almost every household labor. Understanding, at least intuitively, that in most ways life would have gone on unchanged in their homes without them, affluent women increasingly tied their sense of self-worth to the noneconomically productive aspects of their lives — to their roles as wives, hostesses, and, especially, mothers.

The Victorian enshrinement of motherhood came to pass, in part, because of the equally disconcerting effect that capitalism had on the male sex role. During the colonial era farmers, artisans, and merchants alike had tended to work at home and were hardly ever out of earshot of their wives and children. But by the early 1800s ever greater numbers of men — manufacturers, merchants, and bankers as well as their employees — were spending their days away from home. As a result, they could no longer perform one of the most essential duties allotted them under Puritan tradition: the religious and moral instruction of their children. When "economically superfluous" upper-class women quite naturally stepped into the breach, prevailing notions of childrearing, and of the nature of children themselves, were radically transformed.


Excerpted from "Orphan Trains"
by .
Copyright © 2001 Stephen O'Connor.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

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

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