Opposition to the Orphan Trains

  • Sumo

Cleveland Morning Leader
April 2, 1857 (page 2, col. 3)
Five Points Mission, New York, Arrest of Rev. W.C. Van Meter

We publish, by request, the following letter, for which as a matter of justice to the writer, we solicit a perusal.  We believe him to be a good man, and engaged in a good work.  The kind of  contemptible persecution practiced against him, deserves public condemnation:

Mr. Editor;

Since notice of my arrest in Illinois, on the charge of taking paupers from New York into that state has been so extensively circulated, and the statements often so unjust, will you have the kindness to publish this communication?

For a few years past, I have been called to labor among the most wretched and degraded people on earth.  The saddest procession we ever witnessed, composed of the children of poverty, vice, crime and degradation, passes daily before us.

These neglected, suffering, crushed little ones appeal to us as no others can.  Their cry, the wail of perishing infancy and neglected childhood–has been heard and hearts, and arms, and homes, have been opened, and daily, the invitation comes to us send us one, and we will take it and bring it up in the fear of the Lord.  It shall be tenderly, cared for and share with us what God gives us.  Those to whom the children are given, are well recommended, and assume all the responsibility in reference to their future.  The Mission exercises a constant watch care over them, and should the party prove unfaithful, would at once remove the child.

Near twenty years ago, when starting West, in behalf of this Mission, I was requested by C.L. Brace, Esq., Secretary of the Children’s Aid Society, to take some of their children [Note-the society sends more children to homes, than any other similar society in the world.  I often take children from there when I go West.]  This I cheerfully did; but had no more responsibility in the matter than would any stranger of whom the same favor might have been asked.  I was merely morally and honorably bound to be faithful.  I took them and placed each in a good Christian home.  I do not know of one of that number that is not doing well.

With one of them (a boy about 17 years old) there has been some trouble; but a letter recently received, informs me that he is doing well.  He had been in an excellent home more than one year, when through the influence of mischief-makers, he became dissatisfied and left.  He spent several weeks working, hunting, loafing–staying a few days in one place and then changing to another.  When he was told that if he continued in that way he would be arrested for vagrancy, he made arrangement sto live with a farmer, with whom he still dwells.

During the severe weather of the past winter, I went West to place in homes another lot of children, and to visit those I had previously taken there.  Upon my arrival in Washington, Tazewell Co., Il. I met at the depot, the proprietor of one of the hotels, who is also Overseer of the Poor.  He has one that I had taken West of whom he speaks in the highest terms.  He inquired after children in taht region.  He told me that he feared that the boy first alluded to would some day come on the county, as he was unwilling to work and would not remain long in place.  I said, “If I can find him, I will remove him.”  He told me he was with a farmer several miles off in the country.  As he was Overseer of the Poor, I told him that should anyone I had brought become a tax to the county, or to any one not under obligation to take care of it, to inform me of it, and I would at once remove it and pay the bill.

I found the children in that region doing well, except one boy, who in consequence of death in the family, had been three days with another family.  Upon consultation with some of the citizens, I regarded it as an unsuitable place, and therefore felt it my duty to remove him.  The man having learned my intention, had so prepared the boy’s mind, that he said he would rather remain than go and risk getting a better place.

I had thus given offense and two days after, when passing through with some of the children, I was, through his influence, arrested for bringing paupers into Illinois.  The officer was commanded to bring my body at once before the Judge.  He obeyed only when my body was taken before the Judge (Justice of the Peace).  The Judge was not there.  I must wait until next day, and be tried at eight o’clock, A.M.  I went, but for no particular reason, it was delayed until near eleven o’clock.

[Note: I learned the cause of the delay after the trial was over; a messenger had been privately sent in great haste, to the other county, to find the boy and bring him back.  He was brought, dressed in such a manner as to make him look as badly as possible.]

The gentleman who first took the boy testified that he had been willing to keep him–that he studied geography, read books and papers like other boys and that he considered him mentally and physically competent to earn his living and that he was still willing to keep him.

The Overseer of the Poor testified that he had not paid a cent for him or any other one I had brought to the State.  He said a bill of $5 had been presented to him since I was arrested, but he refused to pay it.

[Note:–this was presented by the man who went in such haste after the boy.  It said “for taking care of the boy, Tom, for one month,” yet, when put under oath admitted that the boy assisted in cutting wood, doing chores and etc., and was absent three weeks of the time!!!  I offered to pay any bills against the boy and remove him.]

This testimony and these offers were of no avail.  “If these children are provided with good homes out here, they were paupers in New York, and you must be punished for bringing them,” seemed to be the Judge’s view of the law.  I was fined one hundred dollars and the costs.  I appealed and gave bonds for my return to the State in April to be tried again.

Not one ever taken by me has been in a poor house or in any wise a tax to any, county in Illinois!!

Last Monday, we sent twelve to good homes in that state, and I am preparing to take another lot with me when I go back to stand my trial.  It is said in some of the anonymous communications that I preach persecution this is not so.  I seldom allude to it and would not now if it were not that my silence might cause some to think that it is because of conscious guilt.

It is said I do not appeal for sympathy.  I ask none for myself.  I am not in distress.  But I do ask for sympathy in behalf of thousands of neglected children in this city.  I do beg for help for the hundreds of those poor, little perishing ones under our care.  At an expense of about $500 a week, I do beg that 500 persons would for the next five weeks send us one dollar each week, then our pressure would be over.

It is gravely charged that this is abolition movement.  I admit it.  It has abolished the degradation, drunkenness, hunger, rags, sorrow, tears, and poverty of thousands, and by God’s help will abolish it in ten thousand cases more.  But that this work of saving children is under any particular political or religious creed, is not true.

But this last, lowest, and meanest effort to injure the noblest work ever attempted in behalf of the poor, and needy, and helpless by the cry of Baptist minister abolition, kidnapping white children in New York and selling them like beasts etc., I need not notice.

The Children’s Aid Society is alone responsible for the sending of this boy, and they do not shrink from that responsibility.  The boy having gone under my care, causes me to be legally responsible, which responsibility I promptly and cheerfully meet.

The Five Points Mission has had nothing whatever to do in the matter.

In conclusion, permit me to present our thanks to the press all over the land for their kind aid from time to time in noticing this work, and to beg the favor of a place for this.   Also, to gratefully acknowledge the noble liberality of Mr. W.H. Adams, a Banker of Chicago, who says “draw on me for the amount of your fine.”

In behalf of the poor,

W.C. Van Meter

Five Points Mission

March 24, 1857

P.S. We do not inttend to wrong or violate any law, but what ought we to do in cases like the following:

A beautiful little Yankee girl, sixteen months old has just been given to us.  A bright little German boy eight years old was brought yesterday by his brother, an orphan.  Today two unusually handosme intelligent little American boys, five and seven years old, were given to us.  They are for adoption.  If good men in Illinois send to us for them, will it be wrong to send them?  Shall I risk the $100 fine, for taking “paupers” into the State, or shall I leave them to live in the Five Points, or go to the Alms house!  What answer do you give, Mr. Editor–Reader!  So far as I am concerned I ahve but one answer to make–“When a poor homeless, friendless, child comes to us for sympathy and protection, and a kind home is offered to it in Illinois, or any other place, may God do so to me and my children, and much more, if I do not send it.”

Back to Orphan Train History