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A Five Points "Orphan" Is Taken In by Reverend Pease and the Five Points House of Industry

The Five Points House of Industry was organized by the Methodist minister Lewis M. Pease and headquartered in a notorious former slum building known as the Old Brewery. It was the first missionary effort in the neighborhood to offer vocational training and employment for adults and free meals and schooling for children, in addition to the more traditional Bible classes, temperance meetings, and religious services. More controversial, at least to the largely Catholic residents of the neighborhood, were efforts by Pease and other Protestant missionaries to adopt impoverished children like "Wild Maggie," the subject of an 1853 news story. Perhaps a majority of the so-called "orphans" put up for adoption in the Five Points had at least one living parent, which furthered tensions between residents and missionaries. Historian Tyler Anbinder describes the "Wild Maggie" case below.

. . . the majority of children put up for adoption by the Five Points charities were not actual orphans; at least 60 percent put up by the mission had living parents. Anecdotal evidence from the Monthly Record of the Five Points House of Industry suggests that most of the children it sent to adoptive homes also had at least one living parent. A variety of circumstances prompted parents to give their children up for adoption. Alcohol abuse frequently played a role. . . .

The most famous adoption case from the two Five Points institutions also involved alcoholic parents. In 1853, the Tribune published a story by Solon Robinson titled “‘Wild Maggie,’ of the Five Points.” Pease had apparently bestowed this nickname on a disheveled little girl named Margaret Reagan who lived in a basement on Centre Street near Anthony. Maggie came to Pease’s attention because of the way she relentlessly taunted and berated him. In a typical tirade, Maggie called Pease an “old Protestant thief. . . . I heard Father Phelan tell what you want to do with the poor folks at the Points; you want to turn them out of house and home, . . . and make them all go to hear you preach your lies.” After many attempts to lure Maggie into the House of Industry, Pease finally succeeded by offering to let her lay out the sewing work for the women he trained, a task she agreed to undertake only if he left the door open so he could not steal her and send her to “the Island.” She asked for more tasks of this sort and the apparently neglected girl soon began living at the House of Industry. They eventually consented to her adoption by a farming family living near Katonah in Westchester County. Her story touched New Yorkers deeply.

The vast majority of non-orphans given up for adoption had lived not with alcoholics but with widowed mothers who simply could not earn enough to support their children.

Most adoptees were given up voluntarily by desperate parents. But when charity workers found children’s treatment or living conditions abhorrent, they sometimes took the youngsters forcibly. Pease usually tried to cajole these parents into parting with their offspring by describing the fresh air and material comforts their children would have in new homes. In one such case, Pease went to a tenement to determine why three sisters had stopped attending his day school. He discovered that their widowed mother had sent them out begging. The minister convinced the mother to let her two eldest daughters, Eliza and Maggie, live at the House of Industry, but she would not part with little Jane. “We felt that we could not give her up to a life of beggary and shame,” reported a House of Industry publication; so when a man came to the House of Industry a few weeks later looking to adopt a girl Jane’s age, Pease returned to see her. He found Jane eager to go, and because her mother that day was in the “state of inebriation characterized by good nature,” she granted her permission, swayed in part because the adopting father gave her “a bonus” which “kept her in good humor.” Pease saw no harm in brokering such deals if they removed youngsters from such miserable circumstances.

On other occasions, Pease withheld assistance from desperate women and their children to force reluctant mothers to part with their offspring. His newsletter described one such mother whose husband had abandoned her “for the companions of the grog shop.” After selling all of her possessions to sustain herself and three children, she was evicted from her apartment, at which point she appeared at the House of Industry seeking shelter. She was told she could stay only if she would allow Pease to put her children up for adoption. At first she agreed, but as the day of their departure approached she changed her mind and took them away, insisting “she would sooner beg, or even starve with them, than be parted from her innocent babes.” Pease had once taken in and trained such women. By 1857, however, he had apparently concluded that the prospects for unmarried women with young children were so dismal that adoption was the best solution for both generations.

Source | Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 258-261.
Creator | Tyler Anbinder
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Tyler Anbinder, “A Five Points "Orphan" Is Taken In by Reverend Pease and the Five Points House of Industry,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 21, 2017, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/605.

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