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  • Mj Pettengill

From Cradle to Unmarked Grave: The Fate of an Impoverished Nineteenth-Century Woman

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

It’s interesting to compare the women of the late nineteenth century, who were able to enjoy piano lessons, needlepoint, and reading, with the women who worked on the farms, mills, and were sentenced to the poor farms, some ending up on the streets and “placed out” to the emerging settlements of the fast growing New World.

The placed out included young girls that were taken out of the Aid societies, orphan asylums, and off the city streets with the boys, placed on trains, and put to work where there was a great need for labor as the country grew. Yes, some were considered orphans, while others were indentured or simply taken from their destitute parents. It was nothing more than resettling the overpopulated, urban poor to the emerging rural regions of the country. It was a solution. Although, it was thought to be taking care of the young, homeless wanderers and saving them because as we know all too well, idle hands becomes a product of evil. Charity begins at home had a much different meaning than we might imagine. Whenever possible, it was critical for women of all classes to share strong bonds with one another and to maintain close family ties. It did not matter which economic class a woman belonged to, this sisterhood was a life force as well as the key to understanding her place in society as the dutiful wife and mother.

Friendship between women has thrived throughout the ages and in all cultures. This perpetuates the role of women’s dependencies on their relationships with others and individual contributions to family, church, and community. An example is the importance of the nuclear family and the role of a woman being the central figure while remaining subordinate. A woman who knew her station in life was a wise woman. Sermons, magazine articles, and the general attitude of society reinforced this viewpoint and significant personification of a woman. This is precisely why the element of women’s friendship was critical to their preservation.

The bond of women’s friendship was a safe haven. Well into the twentieth century, a rigid patriarchal society viewed women in the sense that they did not know of substantial matters pertaining to such things as business, politics, or church affairs. This is still problematic as we confront the issues of unequal pay for women and a dramatic disadvantage in Social Security benefits for those who elected childrearing over a career outside of the home, and for widows, whose pensions are significantly slashed upon the death of their spouses.

During the first three centuries in America, women’s opinions were rarely valued or even considered. Of course there were women who dared to speak out on various issues, and they were usually dismissed as being out of control or ungrateful, which likely provoked her even more.

It was (is) expected that a woman be the one who comforts the anguished heart and quieted those who exhibited tempers and courageous attempts to rock the boat. By rocking the boat, I am referring to those who questioned their stations in life to pursue the role they were destined to fill. A woman who challenged her place in society was considered a troublemaker. Acceptance was the key word during this time, and even somewhat in today’s society. How does this fit into my area of study and writing? I conclude that the majority of women of all social stations quietly went with the flow when the homeless and the poor were placed in poor farms, orphanages, asylums and “placed out.” Of course there are always exceptions. However, during this era, for the most part, women and children were subordinate. It seems that there was a great deal of heartache and compassion for these unfortunate souls, but few answers. Armed with endearing maternal instincts and characteristics, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for women not to have a voice when it came to the fate of the paupers of their society. They dared not speak out, only watch and help the less fortunate, utilizing the best nurturing qualities permitted.

Of course, Christian religious judgment was a factor in dealing with the poor. The paupers who could not meet the needs of their families and themselves, fell into the “unfortunate soul,” “waif,” or even “friendless” categories. As a culture, it was time to take drastic measures. This perception changed sharply in regard to ethnic groups such as Indians, Negroes, and certain immigrants, as well as drunks, beggars, and unwed mothers.

During the era of the orphan trains, or placing out, it was thought by some that girls on the street were unredeemable. Tongues wagged without as much as a second thought when it came to condemnation. Once a name was blackened, there was no turning back. Even after an unwed mother gave birth, the families rarely, if ever, accepted their sinful daughters back into their homes. They preferred never to hear of them again; hence, the perpetuation of shame that still trickles down today leaving them in their numbered graves.

Regarding research for “Etched in Granite” and my current novel, for an insider’s point of view, I refer to letters, diaries, town histories, and church sermons, in addition to numerous other historical sources. I am greatly affected by letters. I believe that the most extraordinary experiences are within the accounts of ordinary people.

Abigail’s sister, Sarah, is inspired by a particular young woman whom I came to know through a collection of letters. She was a New Hampshire girl who worked in the textile mills in the mid-nineteenth century. Her letters illuminate the guts and fortitude required to leave home — the dreary yet familiar farm — and set out to work grueling hours, all in the name of independence. For pennies (often spent on required pew rent) and wretched conditions, these brave women paved the way for the feminist movement.

Sarah is conflicted about leaving her best friend and sister, Abigail, at home with their mother. She represents the pioneering, self-determined women of the era. She had no choice; she sought a ‘way out’ and wanted to experience freedom and independence, which simply meant trading the enslavement of the farm for the enslavement of the loom. In “Etched in Granite,” the reader is afforded a glimpse of this lifestyle through her letters written to Abigail. Both women endured a great deal, but maintained a strong bond through minimal but vital correspondence.

After losing their father in the Civil War, the sisters grew up with their mother on their small farm. They worked tirelessly under the constant threat of ending up on the County Farm.

Mother kept us in line. “You girls get out here and help. You don’t want to end up like them folks at the County Farm, do you?” In rain, snow, and in the heat of summer, we collected eggs, milked the cows, fed the pigs, cows, and chickens, and we even stacked wood.

We knew that the County Farm was a place to fear, but we didn’t know for certain why. Silas wouldn’t speak of the goin’s on. Rosie Wiggins told us that they beat the women and children and chained up the men like animals. Some folks who went there never returned, while others went for the winter and came back in the spring like nothin’ happened. It was a wicked place meant for the weak minded and sinful. We would not end up there, not if we could help it. ~ Abigail Hodgdon, June 30, 1872

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