How Far to Go

Last time I applauded the work of Jacob Riis, an early photojournalist who made the public aware of just how bad the slums of New York City were in the Nineteenth Century.  When a friend said her book club had discussed the orphan trains which went to western states many years ago, I shot back that yes, I knew about them.  I’d written a short Christmas story about the efforts of the Children’s Aid Society to move homeless “street Arabs” into lodging houses or to completely new locations.

I started looking at more details.

My story told about Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (anyone surprised?) taking his sons to visit the Newsboys’ Lodging House, which he and his minister friend Charles Loring Brace started.  The men went weekly, encouraging the boys to work hard so they could become good citizens.  Eventually there were several such homes in the city for boys and for girls.  But the more ambitious program of the CAS was to “put faith in the kindness of strangers,” and move the children by rail to “Christian homes in the country.”

The trains carried needy children westward for 75 years, from 1855 to 1929.  Three times a month, groups as small as six and as large as 150 boarded coaches or box cars with small suitcases and new changes of clothing.  A card with a number was pinned on each child.  Some placements had been arranged in advance, notably by the priests of the Foundlings Home.  The trains stopped in Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, and eventually 40 other states.

Fortunate children had families waiting with a corresponding number.  Other boys and girls were lined up on a stage to be surveyed by “kind Christian people” who had read advance handbills or newspaper notices.  Of course I’m being sarcastic, because all the adults weren’t what Brace had hoped for.  Some of the children remembered how farmers poked their muscles or looked at their teeth and passed them by.

Reminiscences from some of them late in life are tough to read.

It is no excuse to say that of the 150,000 children placed, some were bound to be in worse situations than others.  We know that children were treated as indentured servants, doing farm work or housework.  Some were beaten, mentally abused, or both.  Agents followed up with visits, and supposedly the children had the opportunity to return to New York.  Many ran away.  Sometimes the parents of the host family died, and a new family agreed to take the child or children on.  Siblings were separated.  Sometimes children were shunned by schoolmates who knew they were illegitimate.

“They said I had bad blood.  How could anyone have blood that is bad?” one lady remembered, many years later.

Orphan train

Some stories, though, met with Brace’s vision.  How many is difficult to tell.  “I have a father and a mother and brothers and sisters and they are kinder to me than my own ever were,” a girl named Anne wrote.

Another, Alice, said, “I got a chance to do what I was capable of doing, making something of myself.”

One man reflected in Guideposts many years later, in 1991.  His first two placements were not successful, but the third was, with a devout family who treated him as their own.  “I had found not one but two new fathers, and I could talk to both of them.

Some of the children, reports the Children’s Aid Society, which is still active today, grew up to be very visible citizens.  John Brady, taken in by an Indiana judge (who called John “the most uncompromising of the lot”), became governor of Alaska; Andrew Burke became governor of North Dakota.  Others were businessmen, teachers, office workers, journalists, bankers, ministers, physicians, and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression.

Brace investigated disturbing reports in the 1880s, and found that some communities were not thorough in the screening process for host families.  He died in 1890, the year How the Other Half Lives came out; the Children’s Aid Society continued to send children on the trains until 1929, when the government began foster care.

In his diary, Brace noted, “The human soul is difficult to interfere with.  You hesitate how far to go.”  A century and a half later, those truths still haunt us.

Some information in this post comes from “Orphan Trains” on PBS’s “American Experience,” and

The Fashionable Four Hundred

Emma Stone    (

     Golden gown once worn by Carrie Astor, daughter of  “the Mrs. Astor.”  (

What would Manhattan maven Caroline Schermerhorn Astor think of the dresses at the Oscars this week?  The one Emma Stone chose was reminiscent of one worn by Mrs. Astor’s daughter at the turn of the Nineteenth Century.  In her time, she set the style and tone for gatherings of the wealthy.  Her family included husband William Blackhouse Astor and children Emily, Helen, Charlotte, Carrie, and John Jacob IV.

They were Knickerbockers: descendants of the Dutch in New York City: old money.  They were long-established, and caretakers of family fortunes.

Railroad people, the Vanderbilts especially, were new money.  The Industrial Revolution made it possible for men like Vanderbilt, Harriman, Carnegie and Frick to start with nothing and amass fortunes to leave their heirs (or in the case of Carnegie, philanthropic causes).

With secretary Ward McAllister, Mrs. Astor pretty much ruled over four hundred people who could be counted as members of “fashionable society.”  One requirement of this group was that to be invited to a party, one must first have received an official calling card from her.

When daughter Carrie found out she was not invited to Mrs. Vanderbilt’s elaborate costume ball of 1883, her mother bit the bullet and left her card.

In the center of this sketch, the leader of the social register.  Note the tiaras (

Mrs. Astor’s daughter Helen married “Rosy” Roosevelt, son of James Roosevelt and his first wife.  Theodore Roosevelt’s niece Eleanor married Franklin Roosevelt, son of James and his second wife.  An even more interesting twist to the family makeup is that Anna (Bamie) Roosevelt, TR’s older sister, had the opportunity to marry either widower, Rosy or James.  Instead she chose an admiral in the United States Navy.

Once Bamie was asked how it was to be a part of history, living among the Four Hundred, and replied that that was just how life was.  They didn’t think of it as being unusual.

Novelist Edith Jones Wharton (The Age of Innocence), herself included, described these elite as the “little inner group of people, who, during the long New York season, disported themselves together daily and nightly with apparently undiminished zest.”  For dinners,  cotillions and musicales, women wore elegant floor-length gowns (ankles were only to be seen by husbands or doctors) and expensive jewelry.  Stiff-collared men in formal attire accompanied the ladies.

Mrs. Astor had a feud with her nephew, who replaced his father’s home next door to her mansion with the first Waldorf Astoria Hotel.  She called it a tavern.  Today it is the site of the Empire State Building, and the current hotel is further north on Fifth Avenue close to Central Park.

She suffered from dementia in her last few years, walking through her ballroom talking to people who had already passed away, and died herself in 1908.  Four years later her son, John Jacob Astor IV, lost his life on the Titanic.  He was worth $85,000,000.  When his body was found, there were $2400 in U.S. bills — and 225 pounds in British notes — in his pockets.

Fashion always returns to certain themes, as does the show of monetary worth.

Sites of Dee-light

What websites would Theodore Roosevelt be interested in if he were here today?  Taking into consideration his wide range of interests and his enthusiasm, probably a great many.  But like us, he would have favorites, and since he was fascinated with technology, they’d probably be stored on the latest laptop, I-Pad or phone.


  1.  Because he was president of the Long Island Bird Club in his later years, he might be a site administrator.
  2.  The Cornell University Lab of Ornithology (of which is an extension) gets right to the point of sharing research, and educating citizens about birds.
  3.   This organization has urged us to “explore, enjoy and protect the planet” since his friend John Muir started it in 1892.  Recent titles “The Man Who Survived a Polar Bear Attack,” and “Watching Over the World’s Forests” would catch his eye.
  4.  George Bird Grinnell, editor of Field and Stream magazine, and TR originated the Boone and Crockett Club to protect western game.  He’d spend more time hunting than reading about it, though.
  5.  The Library of Congress collections of primary sources are available within a few clicks, much faster than the couriers who used to fetch books and other materials for him.
  6.  What would he think of television?  Its best offerings on history and culture come from PBS, which was begun during Lyndon Johnson’s administration.
  7.  Working in Washington, he used to visit the Smithsonian Institution on his lunch hour.  Now much expanded, it includes the Air and Space and American Indian buildings which would especially please him.  The Museum of Natural History sponsored his his 1910 African safari and houses some of his big game animals and birds.
  8.  Political Science Quarterly is a quick drop-by for people with “a keen interest in public and foreign affairs.”
  9.  Bartleby has a wide selection to quench a thirst for reading the classics.  But I don’t believe he would use the Internet or a Kindle exclusively: he referred to books as being as “individual as friends.”  He liked turning pages.
  10.  This website provides family-friendly ideas for treks around the country; however, there is no guarantee here that they would be “point to point,” as he liked.  His family and friends knew the requirement that they must go “over or under, but never around.”
  11.  There are more areas than ever in need of reform in the 21st Century.
  12.  He may be discouraged at some of the updates on the armed forces’ official website, but he would be reading them.
  13.  Here the former police commissioner could see current challenges faced by the New York City Police Department.
  14.  The acreage of pristine forests and natural beauty we can enjoy was drastically increased during his presidency.  Theodore would be looking to see if the legacy continues.  Besides the outdoors, the National Park Service oversees homes of famous Americans, including his birthplace in downtown Manhattan.  He could help keep the information accurate and answer questions we’d all like to ask.
  15.  Theodore would peruse as many print and electronic media as possible for the news (searching for a writers like Jacob Riis), before making his mind up about the truth.

Henry Adams’ Salon

The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt ends with Theodore’s entrance to college.  The ten years previous to that event had been, for the most part, an tranquil period of growth in his theatre of family and friends.

Henry Adams was teaching medieval history at Harvard when the teenager landed on campus in 1876.  Adams had experimented with the seminar system, having a half-dozen students read for themselves and discuss/debate rather than giving a straight lecture to them himself.  He reportedly said to a student with a question, “How should I know?  Look it up!”  The Brahmin professor invited the Knickerbocker Roosevelt to dine at his home on at least one occasion during his freshman year.

If there was such a thing as American blue blood, it ran in the Adams family.  Henry’s great-grandfather and grandfather were presidents, and his father was ambassador to England during the Civil War.  Henry worked as his secretary.

Adams in 1858, when Theodore Roosevelt was born.  Photo: Massachusetts Historical Society.
With practical experience abroad observing matters of state, Henry moved on to political writing in Washington, D.C.  An intellectual (“You shoot over the heads of most people,” his father admonished), Henry said that Ulysses S. Grant would have seemed archaic even to cave men.  His wit and word orchestrations served him well as editor of the National Review.  By 1889 when Theodore Roosevelt came to Washington as a civil service commissioner, Henry had been to Boston and back.  His wife died in a tragic manner, but he eventually resumed having friends over for food and conversation.

The mansions of Henry Adams and John Hay on H Street.  An elegant hotel, the Hay-Adams, now occupies the site.  Washington Life Magazine photo.

Henry’s neighbor was best friend and equally short-in-stature John Hay.  Hay had been secretary to Lincoln during the Civil War and co-authored his biography.  He would later serve as Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt.  The Hays, Henry Cabot Lodges, Donald Camerons, and Roosevelts, all political insiders, were regular company.  At a time when women were constrained by more than corsets and floor-sweeping skirts, the ladies took as much part in the talk as the men.  Other close friends were geologist Clarence King, British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice, and artists Augustus Saint-Gaudens and John La Farge.

Across the decades the gang that John Hay found so happy knew more than a few others: Henry Hobson Richardson, Mark Twain, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Rudyard Kipling, Edith Wharton, Horace Greeley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Matthew Arnold, and the royal family of Tahiti.  Henry said that his circle’s alliance “was undisturbed by power or patronage,” for neither first family Harrison nor Cleveland shared the same interests.

Adams and Hay were condescending to the brash young Roosevelt behind his back.  In ten years when Theodore became president, he invited Henry across Lafayette Square to his mansion for dinner.  Henry complained the occasion was like a boys’ school out of control, and later assigned two words to the chief executive: “pure act.”  With his wealth Henry could pursue whatever he wanted, and continued to write and travel.  His nine-volume history of the United States during the Jefferson and Madison administrations is a classic, as are his novels and autobiography.  The latter, written in third person, won a Pullitzer Prize the year after he died.

Massachusetts Historical Society photo.

One of the places I’d like to go back in history to is a Sunday morning breakfast at Henry Adams’ house in the early 1890s.  Providing a forum for pliable minds is a wonderful gift.  Isn’t that what teachers do?  Adams was irreplaceable as a patron of the age, and even though he wouldn’t say so, as a teacher.

Now if I could just find his menus.

A blog of this length about a man with so many insights into history has limits. For more reading, and more tangents, try Henry Adams, a Biography by Elizabeth Stevenson; The Five of Hearts, An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends 1880-1918 by Patricia O’Toole (a near-miss for a Pullitzer); and especially his self-summary, The Education of Henry Adams.