Charles Loring Brace (June 19, 1826 – August 11, 1890): Congregational Minister, Child Welfare Advocate, Founder of the New York Children’s Aid Society and Organizer of the Orphan’s Train.
Introduction: Charles Loring Brace was born into a well-connected New England family. At the time of his birth, his father, John Brace, was principal of Litchfield Academy; and in 1832 the family moved to Hartford, CT where John Brace directed a female seminary. John later became editor of the Harford Courant. Young Brace was home-schooled by his father until 1842 when he entered Yale University. Following graduation in 1846, Brace taught for a year before enrolling in the Yale Divinity School, and additional studies at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He was ordained in 1849 as a Congregational minister.
After completing his education, during 1850-51, Rev. Brace traveled with friends through Europe learning about correctional and philanthropic institution, primarily in Germany and Great Britain. While touring, he met Letitia Neill and in 1854 he returned to Belfast, Ireland to marry her. Also while touring, Reverend Brace began to realize he had more of a calling toward missionary work than to church ministry in a parish or congregation. Returning to the United States, Brace took a position as assistant to the Rev. Lewis M. Pease a Methodist minister directing the Five Points Mission, located in one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City. He began to dabble in journalism, creating a regular column for the New York Times, entitled, “Walks Among the New-York Poor,” which provided sensational portraits of “poverty and vice” for mostly middle-class readers. Both Brace and Pease became disillusioned with their efforts to work with and improve the lives of impoverished adults. They came to believe these poor adults were already intractably “poisoned” by a life of poverty. As a result, they turned their attention to poor children, who seemed to offer genuine hope for change.
Children’s Aid Society: Rev. Brace had witnessed close up the hordes of children in New York City who lived in poverty with parents who abused alcohol, engaged in criminal activity and otherwise demonstrated they were unfit parents. The children of these families were often sent to beg for money or sell newspapers and matches in the streets. There were other children who were homeless and unemployed, wandering the street. These children became notorious as “street Arabs” or “the dangerous classes” due to the street violence and gangs with which they inevitably became members. In some cases, children as young as five years old would be sent to jails where adults were imprisoned as well. The police referred to these children as “street rats.” Rev. Brace with several colleagues set out to give children an alternative to life in the squalid slums and teeming New York City streets.
In 1853, at a time when orphan asylums and almshouses were the only available resources for poor and homeless children, Rev. Brace and several ministers created the Children’s Aid Society. At the age of twenty-six, Rev. Brace was chosen to be the chief officer of the new organization, a position he held until his death in 1890. Rev. Brace’s theory of an organization devoted to helping poor children was radical. His progressive ideas translated into far-reaching services and reforms for poor and homeless children, working women, needy families and disabled boys and girls at a time when services for these groups were few and far between. His first efforts included lodging houses for the thousands of newsboys who lived on the streets, as well as industrial schools, a farm school and even a summer home on Long Island. But his most ambitious endeavor, and the one for which he will forever be known, was “placing out.”
The Orphans Train: Rev. Charles Brace was determined to give children an alternative to life in the squalid slums and teeming New York City streets. His theories were grounded in the conviction that institutional care stunted and destroyed children. He believed the answers to transforming New York’s orphans and street children into self-reliant members of society were gainful work, education, and a wholesome family atmosphere. Rev. Brace strongly believed that the best place for a child to grow up was in the home of a Christian farmer. With an idealized view of what life was like in the Mid-West, and the realization that the growing number of homeless children in the city would one day result in a serious crime problem, Brace began his “placing out” program in 1854 with a group of forty-six boys traveling by train to Michigan with an agent. The children were taken before an assembly of townspeople in a local church where the agent explained the children’s need for homes. Within one week, local farm families had claimed all the children. This type of “placing out” effort was a success and began what would be a seventy-five year movement on the part of the Children’s Aid Society to save more than 100,000 urban children living in poverty.
Below is a segment of one of the many articles written by Rev. Charles Loring Brace. In this piece he describes the kind of existence children in the slums experienced. He also revealed his belief that if nothing was done, there could be an “…explosion from this class which might leave this city in ashes and blood…”
“The Life of the Street Rats” By Charles Loring Brace, (1872)
”…The intensity of the American temperament is felt in every fibre of these children of
poverty and vice. Their crimes have the unrestrained and sanguinary character of a race
accustomed to overcome all obstacles. They rifle a bank, where English thieves pick a
pocket; they murder, where European proletaires cudgel or fight with fists; in a riot, they
begin what seems about to be the sacking of a city, where English rioters would merely
batter policemen, or smash lamps. The “dangerous classes” of New York are mainly
American-born, but the children of Irish and German immigrants….
“There are thousands on thousands in New York who have no assignable home,and “flirt” from attic to attic, and cellar to cellar; there are other thousands more or less connected with criminal enterprises; and still other tens of thousands, poor, hard-pressed, and
depending for daily bread on the day’s earnings, swarming in tenement-houses, who
behold the gilded rewards of toil all about them, but are never permitted to touch them.
All these great masses of destitute, miserable, and criminal persons believe that for ages
the rich have had all the good things of life, while to them have been left the evil things.
Capital to them is the tyrant.
“Let but Law lift its hand from them for a season, or let the civilizing influences of
American life fail to reach them, and, if the opportunity offered, we should see an
explosion from this class which might leave this city in ashes and blood.
Seventeen years ago, my attention had been called to the extraordinarily degraded
condition of the children in a district lying on the west side of the city, between
Seventeenth and Nineteenth Streets, and the Seventh and Tenth Avenues. A certain
block, called “Misery Row,” in Tenth Avenue, was the main seed-bed of crime and
poverty in the quarter, and was also invariably a “fever-nest.” Here the poor obtained
wretched rooms at a comparatively low rent; these they sub-let, and thus, in little,
crowded, close tenements, were herded men, women and children of all ages. The parents
were invariably given to hard drinking, and the children were sent out to beg or to steal.
Besides them, other children, who were orphans, or who had run away from drunkards’
homes, or had been working on the canal-boats that discharged on the docks near by,
drifted into the quarter, as if attracted by the atmosphere of crime and laziness that
prevailed in the neighborhood. These slept around the breweries of the ward, or on the
hay-barges, or in the old sheds of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets. They were mere
children, and kept life together by all sorts of street-jobs-helping the brewery laborers,
blackening boots, sweeping sidewalks, “smashing baggages” (as they called it), and the
like. Herding together, they soon began to form an unconscious society for vagrancy and
idleness. Finding that work brought but poor pay, they tried shorter roads to getting
money by petty sic thefts, in which they were very adroit. Even if they earned a
considerable sum by a lucky day’s job, they quickly spent it in gambling, or for some
“The police soon knew them as “street-rats”; but, like the rats, they were too quick and
cunning to be often caught in their petty plunderings, so they gnawed away at the
foundations of society undisturbed….”