Beyond the Orphanage
Peggy Thomson Greenwood, M.A.
Published in the St. Louis Genealogical Quarterly, XXIV, 4.
Please, sir, I want some more was the plaintive cry of Oliver Twist as the 1960 musical Oliver turned the scathing social condemnation of Charles Dickens into sweet poignancy for our modern world. But the Dickens novel was muckraking reality, not sweet poignancy. And like London, St. Louis in the mid-19th century had a shadow world of juvenile delinquents, child indigents and orphans.
Between the years 1850 to 1870, the focal point of this study, the number of institutions for dependent children in the St. Louis area more than doubled. A variety of historical events contributed to this phenomenal growth. It was in 1849 that the residents of St. Louis experienced the greatest of the cholera epidemics that periodically struck this river port city. About 10% of the total population—7000 people—died of cholera between January and August of that year. And the orphan population multiplied.
It was in 1849 that the great fire destroyed much of the river front and left behind unforgettable death and destruction. And the orphan population multiplied.
It was in 1849 that St. Louis became a center for outfitting caravans bound westward to the gold fields, to Oregon and to Texas. Whether the cause was death or financial circumstance or deliberate choice, again the orphan populations multiplied as children of the pioneers were abandoned to the grime and pain of the streets of the city.
It was in 1849 that St. Louis experienced a peak in the great German immigration. Added to the large influx of the Irish in the mid-1840s and a continuing high birth rate, St. Louis suffered all the travails of an over-rapid urbanization. Impure water, foul sewage, and improper garbage disposal were just a few of the by-products that added untold numbers of children to the ranks of the institutionalized indigent and orphaned. Because there was no extended family to take in the orphaned children of immigrants, a large number of foreign-born children are found in these institutions. Add to this situation the social alienation associated with immigration and the de-humanizing poverty, and the result was an increasing number of illegitimate births. The orphan population multiplied.
Each year until 1925, the orphan population continued to grow and the number of institutions existing to house the orphans also grew. The problem of tracing one’s family history beyond the orphanage is an acute one. The types of records kept vary from orphanage to orphanage and, if extant, are often difficult to locate. But there are some avenues of investigation for the persevering genealogist. Following is a survey of 17 institutions for the orphaned, indigent or delinquent children in existence in St. Louis between 1850 and 1870. If the institution no longer exists, the successor organization is named. If the records still exist, the location of the record is given. If the records have been mis-placed or destroyed, it is noted.
In St. Louis, Juvenile Court Records begin in 1917. All adoptions before 1917 were recorded in the Recorder of Deeds office. These adoptions are not found in the Land Records indices, but they are found in the Land Records books dispersed indiscriminately between the real estate transactions. To save hours of time researching these books in the basement of City Hall, there is a card file in the office of the Recorder of Deeds. The file is not open to public scrutiny. Given a name and a date, a staff member may inform the researcher if there is a record of adoption and the volume and page number of the deed book in which the information is recorded. Family historians are welcome to research in the Land Records Office of the City of St. Louis. Written inquiries are also welcome. Written inquiries should be sent to the Recorder of Deeds Office, 1200 Market Street, St. Louis, Missouri 63103.
According to a file card at the Missouri Historical Society, there was also an Orphan’s Court in St. Louis as early as 1804. Early records of this (Orphan’s) court are currently (1954) filed with the record books of the Probate Court in the Civil Courts building. Their records date from 1804 and are arranged chronologically. In later years they have been indexed for names. Mr. Adolph Thym, Office of the Probate Court, 6/16/1954.
These record books can no longer be found at the Probate Court. The staff now working at Probate believes the books were turned over to Juvenile Court. The Juvenile Court division does not say they now hold these records. It was stated that no information from historical records would be released to the inquirer without a court order. Probate Court does hold guardianship records available to the family historian.
In 1827, John Mullanphy granted to Philippine Duchesne a 999 year lease for property on Broadway and Convent Streets. One of the stipulations of the lease was that 20 orphan girls or girls from indigent families should be cared for. Thus began the Mullanphy Orphanage. These girls entered the orphanage and thereby the academy directed by the Religious of the Sacred Heart upon recommendation by Mullanphy’s daughters, and later his descendants. This stipulation has been carried out to the present day with the exception that now, in lieu of institutional care, financial-need scholarships are awarded to students attending Villa Duschene who require assistance. Inquiries concerning girls who were cared for are accepted, but in most cases there is little or no information. Inquiries should be sent to: Society of the Sacred Heart, National Archives U.S.A., 801 South Spode Road, St. Louis, MO 63131.
The St. Louis Protestant Orphan Asylum was established in 1834 as a direct response to the growing number of homeless children created by the westward movement and the 1832 cholera epidemic. It was a united effort of Presbyterian, Episcopal and Methodist congregations. Some records may be found at the Missouri Historical Society. Volume I covers the years 1834 -1852. In the early years the record sometimes mentions residents by name as recently indentured or newly admitted to the home. But this type of information is not a regular part of the bi-monthly journal until 1850. In 1865, this home merged with the Soldiers Orphan Home of Webster Groves, a home established to meet the needs of the Civil War. Volume II of the Missouri Historical Society holdings covers the years 1882 – 1916. This volume lists the name of the resident, the date of entry, the age, birth place and by whom placed.
In 1853, to care for vagrant girls, the Girl’s Industrial School was established. It was intended to be a learning center for elementary English education as well as to provide training in cooking, sewing and cleaning. The successor organization to the St. Louis Protestant Orphan’s Asylum, the Soldiers Orphan Home and the Girl’s Industrial School is Edgewood Children’s Center. Some early records are extant. Inquiries of family historians should be sent to the attention of the Executive Director, 330 North Gore Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63119.
St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, established in 1835, was staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. From 1850 – 1870 it was one of the largest institutions for indigent boys in St. Louis. Still in existence today, this home will not answer inquiries concerning specific residents of the home at any time period unless there is a court order.
The Episcopal Home for Children was established in 1837. In this home lived many boys and girls orphaned when their families were moving west. The home closed in 1939. Written inquiries should be sent to Mr. Charles Rehkoff, Diocesan Archivist, Christ Church Cathedral, 1210 Locust Street, St. Louis, MO 63103.
Dr. William Greenleaf Eliott, founder of the Unitarian Church in St. Louis, opened in the basement of the Church of the Messiah a day school for the children of the poor. By 1840 this day school had become the Mission Free School and Home, a social settlement center providing short-term residential care for indigent boys and girls. From the beginning the brighter students were educated. Dr. Eliott later founded Washington University, in part to provide a local institution where the boys aof poor families could finish their education. Residents of the Home who were judged to be more manually oriented were taught a trade. To accomplish this task, the Manual Training School, the forerunner of O’Fallon Technical School, was established.
Extant records of the Mission Free School and Home are held in the archives of the Unitarian Church. There are very few names recorded. Much of the content of the early journals may be found in The Mission Free School by Elizabeth Chapin Carson, Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society, July 1953. It is sometimes possible to trace a resident through the Sunday SchoolRrecords of the Church of the Messiah. Inquiries are welcome. They should be sent to Archivist, Unitarian Church, 4967 Pershing Place, St. Louis, MO 63108.
St. Mary’s Orphanage was formally established in 1843. However, records show that an asylum under the supervision of the Daughters of Charity had been in existence since 1831. St. Mary’s was a Home for orphanedgirls ages five to 14. Opened first in a home donated by Mrs. Ann Biddle, there was no regard for race or religion. St. Mary’s Orphanage ceased operations in 1952, but the building continues in use today as St. Mary’s Special School.
The extant records of St. Mary’s Orphanage date from 1843 to 1900. They are held in the archives of the Provincial House of the Daughters of Charity. The records include the name, date of entry, why the child was an orphan, the date of departure and where the child went. Inquiries by mail are welcome and should be sent to: Archives, Marillac Provincial House, 7800 Natural Bridge Road, St. Louis, MO 63121. Because there is a small staff, answers are sometimes delayed. Family historians are welcome to make an appointment to do research in the archives. (314.382.2800)
Most homes for dependent children in St. Louis between 1850 and 1870 were church affiliated. The notable exception to this was the House of Refuge, chartered by the State of Missouri in 1851. In theory the House of Refuge was a progressive social reform intended to preserve society’s juvenile offenders from the influence of hardened criminals. In brief, it was a reform school. In practice, the House of Refuge became a residence for indigent and orphaned as well as delinquent boys and girls in St. Louis. The Journal of the House of Refuge for the years 1854 – 1899 may be read at the Missouri Historical Society. The Journal has as alphabetized index. The entry for each resident lists the date of entry, the name, the cause or by whom placed, the date of departure, to whom released and the relationship, if any.
The German St. Vincent Home for Children was established in 1851. Originally under the direction of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, this Home for boys and girls was directed to receive, maintain and educate orphans of German parentage. It was financed by German Catholics throughout the city. St. Vincent’s Home is still in existence today. Few records of the earliest years remain, but inquiries are accepted if a name and date of residence are provided. Inquiries should be sent to St. Vincent Home for Children, 7401 Florissant Road, Normandy, MO 63121.
A Home for aged widows, a maternity hospital for illegitimate children and a foundling asylum were established in 1853and incorporated as St. Ann’s Foundling Asylum and Widow’s Home. Again it was a donation by Mrs. Ann Biddle, the daughter of John Mullanphy, that allowed the Daughters of Charity to respond to the increasing social problem of illegitimate births. Located at 10th and O’Fallon, the first St. Ann’s constructed a turn by the alleyway door where a desperate mother could anonymously commit her baby. Babies abandoned in doorways or on church steps could freeze to death or worse before being discovered. The turn was intended to protect infants from this danger-fraught practice. St. Ann’s Foundling Asylum received about 350 infants annually. There are no extant records. But at age five orphan girls were transferred to St. Mary’s Orphanage, and orphans of German heritage were sent to the German St. Vincent Home.
The Evangelical Children’s Home was established in the basement of St. Peter’s Church in 1858 to take care of Geman immigrant children orphaned due to yet another raging cholera epidemic. Many children in this Home were only half-orphans. But the working hours of the laboring class, often 14 to 16 hours a day, prohibited childcare. And because these were children of immigrants, there was no extended family to step in and fill the gap left by the death of one parent. This home was also intended to break the pattern of creating indentured servants or child-slaves from orphans. The Evangelical Children’s Home is still in existence today. There are records from the early years, but they are sparse, usually just a name with a date for entry and departure. Sometimes there will be a description or cause for entry, but not often. A name and a date are needed for research. Written Inquires should be sent to 9240 St. Charles Rock Road, St. Louis, MO 63114.
The House of the Guardian Angels opened as an orphanage for girls ages seven to 12 in 1859. Under the direction of the Daughters of Charity, it quickly evolved into a half-orphanage and technical school. The school was self-supporting through the sewing skills of the residents. In 1906, the House of the Guardian Angels ceased operation as a technical school and became Guardian Angels Settlement, still in existence today.
Records of the residents of the House of the Guardian Angels from 1859 – 1906 are held in the archives of the Provincial House of the Daughters of Charity. The records contain the name, date of entry, age, who brought the child, sometimes place of Baptism, date of departure and where the child went. Inquiries by mail are welcome. (See St. Mary’s Orphanage.)
By the year 1860 there were almost 1500 orphans in the City of St. Louis. It became common practice to indenture or apprentice children at a very young age in order to make room for the little ones. With no one to protect the child slaves they were frequently over-worked or physically abused. To alleviate this problem St Philomena’s Technical School was established in 1864 by the Daughters of Charity. This was a Home for girls ages 12 – 18 where basic education and training could continue. The main source of income was from the sewing of layettes, trousseaus. Extant records from 1864 to 1930 are somewhat incomplete, but available to family historians at the archives of the Daughters of Charity. (See St. Mary’s Orphanage.)
St. Bridget’s Church in St. Louis found itself in the orphan business when people began to leave orphans at the door. In 1862, under the direction of the Daughters of Charity, St. Bridget’s Orphan Asylum was established. It quickly became a half-orphanage for deaf and deaf-mute children. Very early the Home was given into the care of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet because of their renowned reputation in training deaf children. But some few of the records of the earliest years can be found in the archives of the Daughters of Charity. (See St. Mary’s Orphanage)
The Methodist denomination was also involved in providing care primarily for German Methodist orphans. The early efforts eventually evoloved into three incorporations: the Central Westland Orphan Asylum in Warrenton chartered in 1864; the Methodist Children’s Home of St. Louis chartered in 1879;and the Epworth Home for Girls chartered in 1909 in Webster Groves. Because of the affiliation with the Methodist Church and because of the location of Epworth near the railroad track, the present administration believes that this Home was part of the route of the Orphan Train. These Homes seem to be outside the general scope of this study. They are included because the modern-day researcher of early Methodist child care will find the few extant records in the archives of the present day successor organization, the Epworth Children’s Home in Webster Groves. Records begin in the 1800s. Inquiries are welcome. They should be sent to Epworth Children’s Home, 110 North Elm, Webster Groves, MO 63119.
The Lutheran Orphan’s Home (Evangelical Orphan Home) was established in 1868 in Kirkwood (Des Peres) Missouri. This home served orphans from the German Lutheran community. The early journals and annual reports, written in German, can be read at the Concordia Archives. The successor organization to this institution is Lutheran Family Services. Inquiries are accepted. To receive information from any records still extant, the inquirer needs to have a direct relationship such as: biological parent, an adoptive parent, the child him/herself, or a biological sibling. So, a grandchild will be given no identifying information, but may receive a lead such as a church where a christening took place. Inquiries should be sent to Adoption Intake, Lutheran Family Services, 4625 Lindell, St. Louis, MO 63108.
This research centered on institutions for children in St. Louis between t1850 and 1870. For those researchers who need to find information for a later date, a good starting point is Adoption Agencies, Orphanages and Maternity Homes: An Historical Directory by Reg Niles, Phileas Deigh Corporation, Garden City, New York 1981or Trends in Child Dependency in St. Louis, 1860 – 1894 by Edwin Olds, Research Bureau of Social Planning, St. Louis, Missouri, 1946. Those researchers who need to track an Orphan Train might try the collection at the Missouri Historical Society, Forest Park, St. Louis, or contact Heritage Act, Suite 1510. St. Louis, Missouri.
Was Fagin, Oliver Twist’s nemesis, in St. Louis? It is doubtful, but you may have seen an Artful Dodger or two darting in and out of this report.