Setbacks and Tragedies Among the Orphans of Jeffersonville
Many Sad Endings
While most people think of orphans as children with no parents, most orphaned children had one or more living parents. The events that left children with in the custody of the orphanage included diseases and accidents that killed or disabled older relatives, financial hardship, abuse, neglect, and rejection. A widow or widower might have abandoned children at the behest of a new spouse; authorities might have removed children from the homes of low income single parents; sometimes, intact biological families abandoned “difficult” children. European colonists in the Americas viewed children as owing their parents for their upkeep, and by 1900, this view had budged little.
According to Johns Hopkins University political science professor Matthew Crenson, nearly 100,000 children lived in American orphanages in 1900. Crenson's study found that cruel treatment, forced labor, sexual abuse, poor diet, and disease made orphanage life unsafe. Children often experienced mistreatment at the hands of their fellow orphans.
Although no records remain from Jeffersonville's orphanages, newspaper articles and death certificates from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries paint a grim portrait of life for children in local orphanages, abandoned children, and children placed as servants with local families. The county sometimes placed children in jail with adults. The crowded conditions of the orphanage led to the spread of diseases. Some children behaved violently. Careless staff failed to keep track of some children, even leaving one stranded in a distant city. Other orphans attempted suicide. At least one succeeded.
Like Belle Moore, the subject of one of the stops on this tour, other Jeffersonville orphans must have experienced sexual abuse. At the time, few laws protected children from abuse, and the public rarely questioned claims that child victims invited their own mistreatment. Abused children who came forward found themselves the subjects of vicious gossip, and like Belle Moore, risked ending up friendless, penniless, and homeless. Many children suffered in silence rather than bear the severe social consequences of exposing their abusers.
Today, a church occupies the approximate site of the second Jeffersonville Orphans’ Home on the west side of the street.