Between 1854 and 1929, a quarter million abandoned babies and “street rats” (as the older children were referred to by police) left slums in New York, Boston, and other coastal cities aboard trains, headed for new lives in the country. Their experiences are recounted at the new National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas, as well as in the new documentary, Placing Out, both sponsored by the Kansas Humanities Council.
When the trains stopped, the children were paraded from the depot into a local playhouse, where they were put up on stage, thus the origin of the term “up for adoption.” Here, “they took turns giving their names, singing a little ditty, or ‘saying a piece,’” according to an exhibit panel from the National Orphan Train Complex. Less cute scenarios, said Richter, resembled slave auctions. “People came along and prodded them, and looked, and felt, and saw how many teeth they had.”
The demand was fierce, with many trains visiting the same towns over and over. Holt told of one instance in Maryville, Kansas, where “there were 150 families wanting to adopt, or take in, fourteen children, and they almost had fisticuffs out in the street because there were so ma
ny people who wanted these few children.”