IN AUGUST 1903, the New York Evening Journal devoted an editorial to the case of a fourteen-year-old girl who had set fire to a barn in Poughkeepsie. As the Journal saw it, the most noteworthy feature of this otherwise unremarkable case was the fact that the accused arsonist had recently been placed out from an orphanage, and as a result of her offense, she was likely to be returned there. "She will go back to a scheme of life," wrote the Journal,
which is largely the cause of her disordered cravings, to a kind of life that ruins with its dull routine hundreds of thousands of children. In a big asylum, no matter how good the intention of the management or how kind the attendants, the lives of the unfortunate children are dull beyond belief. Everything is routine, commonplace, dead-level monotony. They sleep all in uniform little beds side by side, they get up, go to bed, ear, walk -- do everything in one monotonous routine. And worst of all nothing is left to their own initiative, to their own imagination . . .
The juvenile arsonist in Poughkeepsie had succumbed to inflammatory temptation because, after the monotony of institutional life, she could not resist the seductive thrill of a barn in flames. The orphan asylum - created to shelter children from a disordered and corrupting society --
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Publication information: Book title: Building the Invisible Orphanage:A Prehistory of the American Welfare System. Contributors: Matthew A. Crenson - Author. Publisher: Harvard University Press. Place of publication: Cambridge, MA. Publication year: 1998. Page number: 246.
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