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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

From the Cradle to the Unmarked Grave

The Fate of an Impoverished Nineteenth-Century Woman

Orphans, JSTOR
Orphans, JSTOR

It’s fascinating 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 and mills and were sentenced to the poor farms, some ending up on the streets and “placed out” to the emerging new lands of the fast-growing New World.

Boys and girls—the placed out—were often previously jailed, in and out of the Aid Societies, Reformatories, State Schools, Orphan Asylums, Poor Farms, and plucked from the city streets, placed on trains, and put to work where there was a great need for labor as the country grew.

Some orphans or half-orphans were born in institutions, and foundlings were dropped off at birth. In contrast, others were indentured or taken from their destitute parents. If 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 level a woman belonged to; this sisterhood was a life force and the understanding of her place in society as a dutiful wife and mother.

Friendships between women thrived in all ages and 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 women being the central figure throughout the ages, yet remaining subordinate.

A woman who knew her station in life was a wise woman. Sermons, magazine articles, and society’s general attitude 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 companionship was a safe haven. Until well into the twentieth century, a rigid, patriarchal society viewed females in the sense that they did not know of substantial matters relating to business, politics, or church affairs. Progress has occurred, but it is still problematic as we confront the issues of unequal pay for women and a dramatic disadvantage in Social Security benefits for those who chose childrearing over a career outside of the home and for widows, whose pensions are significantly slashed upon the death of their spouses.

Women’s opinions were rarely valued or considered during the early days of America. Of course, some women dared to speak out on various issues. They were usually dismissed as being out of control or ungrateful, which likely provoked her even more.

It was and still is expected that a woman is the one who comforts the anguished heart and quiets those who exhibit tempers and daring attempts to rock the boat. This reference to perceived upheaval is 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 a keyword during this time and in today’s society.

How does this fit into my area of research and writing? I conclude that women of all social stations quietly went with the flow when the homeless and the poor were placed in poor farms, orphanages, and asylums or “placed out.” Women and children were subordinate. It was nature.

There was a great deal of heartache and compassion for these unfortunate souls, but few answers. I ask now, have we found solutions? Are we headed in the right direction?

Armed with endearing maternal instincts and characteristics, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for women not to have a voice regarding the fate of the paupers, orphans, and others of misfortune in their society. In most cases, it was morally and socially unacceptable for the common woman to speak out. They witnessed the dilemma of the suffering and poor, often unable to help the less fortunate or utilize practical nurturing skills.

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 drastically concerning ethnic groups, immigrants, drunks, beggars, and unwed mothers. During the era of the orphan trains, or placed out, it was commonly understood that girls were beyond redemption. They had much to prove and worked hard amid a sea of lost souls within the walls of the institutions and in the slums. Industrial schools were in place to save the children; after that, sterilization was thought to improve future generations and uplift the poor.

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. If an unwed mother went to a Mother and Baby Home, she might leave alone. Or a girl may end up in a Magdalene Laundry, experiencing a social death, meaning that she does not die physically but is no longer in society. Many girls and women in these institutions did not have a way out.

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

Sarah and Bess from The Angels’ Lament are based on my mother’s family history. Offering more information is a definite spoiler.

Abigail’s sister, Sarah, is inspired by a particular 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 farm’s enslavement for the loom.

In the Etched in Granite Series, 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 the rain, snow, and summer heat, we collected eggs, milked the cows, fed the pigs, cows, and chickens, and 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 Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series Book One


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