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Posted: 1395318959000
Classification: Query

I have just published a large book on the subject of Orphans and Orphanages entitled “Can You Hear the Children Cry?” I don’t know what triggered my interest in this subject, likely it was from my study on the Spanish Influenza pandemic, but once I started investigating in books and on-line, I became intrigued to see what I could find out.

Maybe one or more of you were orphans and raised in an orphanage. These institutions could be very good where the children were treated with love and compassion – or they could be places of abuse, hunger, loneliness.

If you have ever read any of the old County court records during your research I’m sure you have come upon “Indentureships.” I have written of this in the past. You can find references to indentureships both in the county order books and, most likely, in the Indentures book themselves. This was called “the binding out of the children.” Why were they bound out in the first place?

As explained before, these children fell into one of three categories:

1 – Both parents were deceased
2 – One parent was deceased and the remaining parent could not care for the child. Called a “half-orphan”
3 – A parent wanted their child to learn a trade from someone.

I won’t go into the details of how this was done, but the child physically lived with another family, unlike guardianships where they would remain in their home. It was a system that was often abused, again as I have covered before.

The State of Kentucky did have “Orphan Courts” and gave detailed rulings on how orphans and the mentally handicapped or physically handicapped child was to be treated, especially in matters of inheritance. However, the placement of the children was often a different story.

There were orphanages as early as the 1840’s in Kentucky, and I’m sure earlier than that. In the beginning the child was placed there by the State under a recommendation of a Judge in the county. Not much effort was placed upon the education of the child or the comforts either. Some children had no place to go and were kept in jails where at least they would be warm and fed a prisoner’s ration. Some ended up in early reform schools with other children and/or adults. Thus began the early orphanages.

The “big cities” had more money, more facilities and could do more for the children. In Louisville there was a “receiving home” where orphans from all over the state could be sent. From there some were able to be transferred to orphanages and hopefully, into a good home. Other larger cities in Kentucky had similar facilities. In Eastern Kentucky the normal orphanage might just be a depilated house with many other children and regular whippings. (Some were much better of course).

Institutions – homes – asylums – they were called by many names – soon sprang up statewide. In Kentucky. There were large Catholic homes, Presbyterians and Baptists orphanages. There were Jewish homes and German homes. There were orphanages just for “colored children”; some took in only boys and some only girls. With the exception of the larger orphanages, money was always a problem along with space. One such home in eastern KY reported that they had more children than they had room for and the boys slept three to a bed. Another reported that the children were beaten regularly.

With more money raised either through endowments or fund raisers, other facilities could offer more spacious surroundings and education for the children. Many were taught crafts and skills that would provide an income after they reached the age limit. Some schools housed both children and widows, as did the Masonic Orphanage in Louisville and elsewhere. If the institution had the money, there was likely acreage where the children could plant gardens, tend farm animals learn to make shoes, domestic skills for the girls.

Over the years, some institutions merged and some changed names making it more difficult to track the records down. I was able to locate only 44 orphanages of any size and over 2,000 names of the children. This I’m sure is only a drop in the bucket.

If one will web search under Kentucky orphanages (or any state), one can find websites dedicated to adults who grew up in an orphanage. Some tell horror stories, some tell times of happiness and security. One board relates of their orphanage being haunted. Many are trying to track down children with whom they shared facilities and remember names of the teachers.

Orphans were called many things in the census records. Some census takers called them orphans. The majority called the children “inmates.” To us today inmate means prisoner, but this was the term used to designate the homeless.

Each child waited for the time when they could either be on their own – or most likely – to be adopted by a loving family. Inspections of the adoptive parents character and facility was pretty shoddy in many institutions. There were no background checks, no training courses, no home visits. So I fear that some children were placed in homes where it was worse for them than being in the orphanage. The family was merely looking for a child who could do labor.

You’ve all heard of the Orphan Trains where children were bundled up, put on a train and sent west, stopping in towns along the way. There they were put on display to the town people and given up for adoption. The Orphan Train did not pass through Kentucky but there was a Kentucky Orphan Train. Some poor children were raffled off as a prize in Cadiz, KY. The individual buying a raffle ticket was not guaranteed a boy or girl, age or anything. They just won a orphan. What tragedy!

Why were there so many orphans in the earlier times? What caused the leap in numbers than now? Two things: The Civil War and the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-1920.

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