Building the Invisible Orphanage: A Prehistory of the American Welfare System

By Matthew A. Crenson | Go to book overview

1
The Decline of the Orphanage and the Invention of Welfare

JAMES WEST was still an infant at the time of his father's death, and not quite six in 1882 when his mother left him at the Washington City Orphan Asylum so that she could enter Providence Hospital, where she died of consumption three months later. At the orphanage, James soon complained of pain in his leg, and he developed a decided limp. The asylum staff suspected him at first of "shamming" to get attention, but they finally took him to the Washington Children's Hospital where the doctors found a tubercular infection in his hip. They kept him there for twenty-one months. For more than a year of that time, James was confined to bed and strapped to a wooden frame that was supposed to straighten his bones.

The treatment did no good. The hospital declared him incurable and insisted that the orphanage take him back. But the orphanage complained that it was not equipped to care for crippled children. James was eight and a half when hospital attendants deposited him on the doorstep of the orphanage, rang the bell, and left.

Asylum boys were usually prepared to be placed out on indenture, but there was little hope that James, with his crutches, would find anyone willing to take him on. He was sent to join the girls in the sewing room. There he remained until he was almost twelve, when one of his mother's friends persuaded the asylum managers that he should be allowed to attend the public elementary school across the street from

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