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The Poorhouse Waif | Isabel C. Byrum

The Deserted Child

In this wide world the fondest and the best
Are the most tried, most troubled, and distressed.


“Why, woman, you are not thinking of leaving that child in this place for us to look after, I hope! Our hands are more than full already. You say that the child is scarcely a month old. How do you suppose that we could give it a mother’s care? More than this, the board that governs the affairs of this institution has given us orders to accept no children under seven months of age whose mothers are not with them. So if we should take the child, as you say we must, you would be obliged to remain for that length of time, at least, to help us care for it.”

It was August Engler, steward of the county poorhouse in one of the eastern counties of Pennsylvania during the sixties, that spoke these words, and the circumstance that called forth the language was the appearance and request of Mrs. Fischer, a well-dressed young widow. The latter had come to the poorhouse with the intention of leaving her infant child. To this plan Mr. Engler had objected unless she was willing to comply with the rules of the place.

Mrs. Fischer, the mother of three little children, had recently heard that her husband, a soldier in the Civil War, had been killed in battle, and immediately she had gone into deep mourning as far as her dress was concerned. The care of her family, however, she felt was too great a responsibility to assume alone, and she had decided that the best thing for her to do was to give her three small children away and that the sooner it was done the better it would be. It was not hard to find homes for the girl and the boy, but with baby Edwin it was different. He was so young that nobody cared to be bothered with him, and although she had tried hard, she had not succeeded in finding him a home.

In her perplexity she rushed to the infirmary. So confident had she been that it would be the duty of this institution to help her out that she had not thought of asking the privilege of leaving her baby as a favor.

As steward and matron of the poorhouse, Mr. and Mrs. Engler did what they could to keep things going smoothly and in order, but the work was too large for them to handle it properly. At that early date no special place except the poor farm had been provided for the simple and the insane; so it was necessary to have several buildings, both large and small, to provide for the needs of the people.

In the building that was known as the poorhouse proper was the main office. It was here that Mrs. Fischer appeared. Several other rooms of importance were also in this building, such as the dining-room and some living-apartments, but the bakery and the kitchen were in a building just a short distance away. And there was still another building, a large brick structure close to the main building. This was used for the confinement of such persons as the insane and the unmanageable, and the doors and windows, as well as the transoms, on both the inside and the outside were secured by iron bars. From these dark prison walls many strange and hideous sounds could be heard at any hour of the night or day.

In the entire establishment the furnishings were scant and poor, and in every way things were vastly different from what we find them in the poorhouse of our modern times. In the main office, where Mr. Engler transacted his business affairs and entertained strangers, there was simply a rude desk, a homemade couch without springs or mattress, and a few rush-bottomed chairs. For years the walls had been growing darker because of the constant use of tobacco by those who frequented the place.

Had it not been that the steward and the matron of this home for the poor were capable persons and able to get considerable help out of the inmates, they could not have managed to keep up the place at all. To conceal the fact that the poorhouse was a miserable place to stay would have been an impossibility.

To the selfish mother it mattered not that the office within which she was standing was an index to the entire building. Regardless of consequences, she cared only to be freed from her burdens and responsibilities as a mother. So the answer that Mr. Engler gave her only stirred within her evil heart the anger and cruelty already there, and with a fiendish glare of derision toward the one who was endeavoring to do his duty, she took a step toward the hard couch and threw, rather than laid, the bundle she held in her arms upon it. An instant later she disappeared through the open doorway. When Mr. Engler recovered from his surprise and went to look for her, he saw her running up the road as fast as her feet would carry her.

Realizing in part the seriousness of the situation, Mr. Engler went at once to notify his wife, and, leaving her in charge of the little one, he, with others, set out to find the runaway mother. The task proved to be difficult. Owing to the fact that the woman was a stranger in the community and had gotten the advantage of her pursuers, it took some time to find her, but at last she was returned to the infirmary and was given orders by the authorities not to repeat the offense of deserting her baby.

As the feeble-minded people at the poorhouse sometimes caused trouble by running off, large balls of iron had been provided to be chained to the feet of such persons. Thus their progress would be hindered and their escape be less probable. Still they could take a part in the work that had been assigned them about the place. It was thought best to use this method of securing Mrs. Fischer. When the chains were fastened about her ankles, one of the authorities who had helped in capturing her remarked, “I guess now you’ll not raise your feet for a while as nimbly as you have been doing of late.”

That evening Mr. Engler said to his wife: “It’s the strangest case I ever heard tell of. Surely that woman has made the future of her infant son dark and uncertain. It doesn’t seem possible that any mother could treat her child in such a shameful manner. I’m sure if that woman could get loose this minute she’d run away again, and we’ll have to watch her closely while she’s here.”

“Did you see the baby’s large brown eyes?” Mrs. Engler asked, as her husband ceased speaking. “He’s certainly a nice child, and it’s a shame to see him grow up among all these paupers; but if his mother doesn’t care, I don’t know who will.”

“Well, I don’t know that it’s any of our business, either, except to see that she takes care of him while she’s here, and after that I guess we can manage some way as we always have,” Mr. Engler replied. “You’ve got too much to do to take any of her responsibilities on your shoulders, and you must not try. If people will force their children on the charity of the community, they must take the consequences.”

The constant work and worry incident to caring for so many poor, disheartened people was indeed great, and Mr. Engler was right when he told his wife that she already had too much work to do; but it was very hard for her to think of the neglect that the poor little child would undergo even while its mother was there, for such a heartless woman could not be expected to do her duty. As the days and weeks glided by, it was as Mrs. Engler had feared, and the cruel manner in which the babe was handled was pitiful to behold. But scolding and criticizing the mother did neither the mother nor the child any good, and Mrs. Engler endeavored to forget about the matter and to let the baby get along as well as it could.

When at last the seven months had expired and the day for the departure of Mrs. Fischer had arrived, the woman who had so disgraced the name of motherhood was glad. The pretty costume of black was faded and worn, and the glossy hair was tangled and unkempt, but within the eye the light of evil was shining brighter than ever. It was indeed a glad moment for her when she heard the chains about her ankles clanking heavily upon the floor and she knew that she was once more a free woman and could go and do as she pleased. And without a thought for the comfort or a plan for the future of her helpless child, she left him to the generosity of the people.

It truly might seem that the young life was blighted, but there was One far better than mother, brother, or sister who cared and was ready to lend a helping hand.

“The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.”* (Proverbs 15:3)

“Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?”* (Luke 12:24)