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Providing room at the inn

Helping late 19th century Debbies in distress


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Providing room at the inn

Mary in the Gospels survived her crisis pregnancy well, through God’s grace. As Christmas approaches many Christians today think through the same questions our predecessors in the late 19th century faced. Here, from chapter seven of my book published earlier this year, Abortion at the Crossroads, is a brief look at how Christians then worked to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies, and offered help once pregnancy occurred.

Let’s start out with a composite representing hundreds of young women I’ve read about: Call her “Debbie,” who in 1895 breaks away from her farm family and moves to Chicago to become a shopgirl or a stenographer. She steps off the train and receives a courteous greeting from a well-dressed man who asks if she needs help to find a job or a place to live. He’s actually a sex-trafficker. Confused and nervous, she’s about to accept his offer—but then a matron from the Traveler’s Aid Committee of the Chicago YWCA steps in. The matron explains what the man really wants, and offers Debbie a safe room at the YWCA.

The next day, Debbie rents a bed in a rooming house and scrutinizes Help Wanted newspaper ads. She plans to head out the next morning to visit potential employers. But that evening, in the parlor of her rooming house, she sees several young women meeting with a volunteer from the Girls’ Protective League, who notes the importance of spurning “improper proposals when applying for positions through newspapers and employment agencies.” The volunteer shows Debbie a “blacklist of dangerous places” that includes an address of one of the places Debbie was planning to visit.

Debbie navigates early difficulties and gets a low-paying, entry-level job. After the initial satisfaction of making it on her own, boredom sets in, and temptation grows. A friend who’s a bookkeeper trades her salary of eight dollars per week for “massage parlor” work that pays twelve dollars per week if she just gives massages, or twenty dollars and up per week for sex. Another friend goes out evenings with a “gentleman caller” who takes her to restaurants and theaters, but pushes for sex in return.

Churches and charities offered entertainment alternatives and chaperoned activities where young men and women could meet in living rooms rather than bedrooms. Debbie was likely to find a legitimate suitor and get married. But what if she didn’t wait, and she became pregnant? Then she could enter one of Chicago’s dozen centers for the pregnant and unmarried, including the Florence Crittenton Anchorage Mission, the Life and Hope Mission, the Salvation Anny Rescue Home No. 568, the Rescue Mission, Beulah House, the Jewish Home for Girls, the Boynton Refuge Home, and the Erring Women’s Refuge.

These organizations were usually realistic. The women who entered them had sinned, but the Bible teaches that “all sin and fall short of the glory of God.” Reverend Peter O’Callaghan wrote in the Illinois Medical Journal, in 1904, “The woman who in conscious knowledge of the obstacles before her, calmly faces the world with her illegitimate child, is a heroine, for her path throughout is beset by daily perils and pitfalls that demand all the resourcefulness of her intellect and courage.”

O’Callaghan wanted the unborn children to survive, and saw a way for the mothers to thrive: “Support homes and places for refuge for the woman awaiting confinement. Teach chastity, teach restraint, but above all protect the devoted victim.” At a symposium sponsored by the Chicago Medical Society in 1904, Dr. Rosalie M. Ladova called for establishment of more “homes for the care of unfortunate girls and women, so they can be delivered from the physical as well as moral burden.”

That was all very well at an abstract level, but how did it work out for Debbies in trouble?

That was all very well at an abstract level, but how did it work out for Debbies in trouble? I sat in the Chicago Historical Society one fall afternoon, and as the sun went down, paged through twenty years of records of the non-euphemistically-named Erring Women’s Refuge, a red brick building with an octagonal rotunda and wings radiating in the shape of a Maltese cross.

I read about homeless, pregnant, seventeen-year-old E.C., fresh from the Home for the Friendless, and fifteen-year-old P. H., four months pregnant and dropped off by her sister. The Erring Women’s Refuge embodied diversity and desperation: “L.M. is a colored girl brought by her mother. She is sixteen years old and pregnant …. R. D. was brought by Mrs. Arnigh from the German Home. She is pregnant.”

Some women gave birth and married the fathers. “C. S. said her husband had been so kind to her, and was happy and doing her best to make her home cheerful. B. F. brought her marriage certificate to show me she was really married, and said she had a kind husband and good home.” The Refuge director, Helen Mercy Woods, wrote that a young deaf woman “brought her little boy of two years and told me of her good husband and nice home.”

The Refuge helped the babies, sometimes by placing them for adoption: “Two infants were adopted last month, good homes being provided for them.” But the goal was also to help the Debbies physically and spiritually. One young woman later wrote that the Refuge was “the first place I ever lived that any person cared enough about the salvation of my soul to make it a matter of interest to me.” A second learned “the beauty and joy of living with Christ and of being pure and true to yourself and others. Jesus can and does save even me.”

YWCA reports included many stories of women who moved to big cities when their husbands abandoned them or refused to continue support. One woman came to Chicago from Wisconsin when her husband “fell in love” with another woman and kicked her out. Her purse contained only a dollar and a half. Another woman came to Chicago in 1888, after a farmer in a nearby community seduced and impregnated her. A third arrived in Chicago at midnight, without hat or coat, seeking protection from the assaults of her stepfather. They all received help.

Immigrants’ Protective Leagues in Chicago and other cities gained support out of similar concerns. “The great majority of young immigrant women” found in brothels, according to the Chicago Vice Commission, “were ruined because there was not adequate protection given them after they reached the United States.” Most came to Chicago by train, but “because of her ignorance of English a girl may … be left at the wrong station or persuaded by some unscrupulous person to get off and see some town en route.” Some do not find relatives or friends “because of incorrect addresses and the carelessness or vicious intent” of cab drivers.

Other cities had similar hazards. Here’s a typical story from the files of a Boston charitable society: A young man promises a young woman that he loves her. They become intimate. He promises to marry her if she becomes pregnant, but when she does, he deserts her. Another story: A young woman falls into “a blind affection” for a traveling salesman. She becomes pregnant. He tells her he’s married. Later efforts to locate him are unsuccessful. One more: A teenaged orphan wants “a mother’s love,” but can’t get it. She develops “an awful longing for someone to love me.” She meets a young man who “represents himself as her dearest friend.” They have sex, she becomes pregnant, he disappears.

What then? Today, the two big choices are single-parenting or abortion. Before Roe, adoption was frequent. Historian Joan Brumberg found that more than two-thirds of the babies born in an Elmira, New York, refuge between 1890 and 1907 gained adoptive homes. The legal framework for adoption a century ago was not clear in every state. Courts only gradually endorsed the rights of adoptive parents to move a child’s residence and act in every other way as parents do. But as long as public interest in adoption was high, barriers could be overcome.

Before Roe, adoption was frequent.

Harvey Rice, trustee of a Cleveland industrial school, reported that “so rapid is the transfer of the child to homes that very few remained for a year in the institution.” A Chicago study of adoption groups such as the Children’s Aid Society and the Foundlings’ Home concluded, “The children generally remain at the homes but a few weeks, there being more calls for their care and adoption than the supply can meet.”

Annie Richardson Kennedy, founder of the Heartsease Home in New York City, did not see a conflict between loving a woman and loving her unborn baby, nor did she push women to assert a false independence. Kennedy wrote, “It has been found best that some of these children are adopted into families where they will have the love and care for which they are entitled.”

Kennedy described to donors “a few cases. No. 2681, student-teacher, engaged, betrayed. Her beautiful child was adopted.” She wrote of a young Southern girl who joined a touring vaudeville act, slept around, and became pregnant: “When her employer discovered her condition, she was practically abandoned in New York and was sent to us from a hospital. When she came to the door she was literally without funds, clothing and alone. We have since written her mother and she will care for the girl and her baby. They are very poor but respectable people. The girl has been led to see the folly of her way.”

Heartsease helped young mothers reconcile with their mothers. When one donor in 1912 asked about a pregnant fifteen-year-old helped seven years before, Kennedy recalled, “Mayb and the boy stayed with us nearly 6 months. We also taught her stenography. Her whole life and nature changed, due to her fellowship with her Lord and Master.” Kennedy then described a recent visit with Mayb, her son and her mother: “The boy came in from school while I sat there. First thing he did was to get a book and sit down and read …. His school card bears the highest mark. The old mother said to me over and over with tears running down her cheeks, ‘Mayb is my good girl, my good girl.”

Kennedy described “a young English girl, age 17, ruined by a widower. [She] remained in the home about one year, has connected herself with the church and in every way is proving herself true.” Another young woman “loved a young man and he ruined her and left her. Inside of six weeks she had lived in an illicit way with three other men. She came to our home through a member of church; she did not know what it meant to be ‘born again.’ She knows now. The girl was to become a mother. This was what she wrote home to an old heartbroken aunt and uncle whom she had lived with since a baby: ‘I am glad this trouble has come upon me, it has saved me from worse things. God has led me here where I have been taught the way of life, and I know now that my Savior forgives and saves.’”

Contributions came on a just-in-time basis. Kennedy wrote, “Heartease always seemed on the brink of insolvency, but then one of our good friends sent us vegetables during last summer in such a quantity that we were able to can enough for our winter supply. We were in need of kitchen utensils—a friend sent in a box of odds and ends.” When Heartsease need cribs, a wealthy woman whose daughter recently died told Kennedy, “Today is Betty’s birthday,” and offered “for your babies” the money she would have spent on Betty over the next year.

Kennedy also sent out frequent calls for volunteers: “We still need other helpers. Girls need taking to the hospital; positions must be secured; every home for a baby investigated thoroughly. Our boarding-out homes for babies require constant attention.” Volunteers emerged: “Many babies are adopted. We have a long list of prospective foster parents waiting … to give a child a chance.” So did support from journalists. Skeptical reporter Jacob Riis endorsed the Home, “No work that I ever came across seems to go nearer the heart of things than that of these devoted women. Heartsease deserves the enthusiastic support of all our people.”

I’ve gone through records of many more shelters and homes throughout the United States. Many worked toward prevention of unmarried pregnancy by providing group lodging and affiliation for young women who would otherwise be alone and vulnerable. Among these were the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, the Association for Befriending Children and Young Girls, the Free Home for Young Girls, and the New Shelter for Young Women.

Many worked toward prevention of unmarried pregnancy by providing group lodging and affiliation for young women who would otherwise be alone and vulnerable.

Charles Crittenton, the “millionaire evangelist,” founded in 1883 the first rescue home of the chain that would become the National Florence Crittenton Mission (NFCM), named after his daughter, Florence. Her death plunged him into despair, until he became a Christian. Crittenton homes—the number grew to sixty-five by 1927—helped 500,000 unmarried girls and women. The Salvation Army, in 1900, had thirty-four homes for unmarried mothers. The “Door of Hope” group had forty homes built “in hopes of not simply sheltering and furnishing them with employment, but through love and sympathy to lead them to a Christian life.” The Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s Department of Rescue Work had at least five shelters, and the Protestant Episcopal Church twelve “Homes of Mercy.” Lakeview Home, operated by a Jewish association, provided industrial training and personal counseling for twenty-five young women, each with a baby.

I looked at shelters in Jacksonville and Montgomery, Alabama. Delilah, a sixteen-year-old orphan, eloped with a young man whose car supposedly broke down on the way to the county courthouse. While they waited for the car to be repaired, she agreed to “show him” her love. He then abandoned her. She went to a shelter in Jacksonville, gave birth to a child, and placed him for adoption. In Montgomery, sixteen-year-old Ida “capitulated to the blandishments of a young man” and became pregnant. She gave birth, placed the baby for adoption, and returned to school. Eudora, eighteen, gave birth to a boy adopted by a farmer. Later, she married a railroad engineer and had other children. Delenia, a minister’s daughter, came to Montgomery five months pregnant, stayed in a refuge, gave birth, and became a nurse.

Most large cities in the late nineteenth century had private placement agencies modeled after the New York Children’s Aid Society (NYCAS), founded and run for decades by Charles Brace. Brace’s belief was that “the child, most of all, needs individual care and sympathy. In an Asylum, he is ‘Letter B, of Class 3,’ or ‘No. 2, of Cell 426.’” Brace worked to get the orphaned and abandoned into families as quickly as possible. “As Christian men, we cannot look upon this great multitude of unhappy, deserted, and degraded boys and girls without feeling our responsibility to God for them,” he wrote. “We bear in mind that One died for them, even as for the children of the rich and happy.”

The New York Children’s Aid Society in the late 19th century successfully placed close to 4,000 children each year. One boy who was helped described his experience after he was sent to a farm in Indiana, where “care was taken that I should be occupied there and not in town. In sickness I was ever cared for by prompt attention. In winter I was sent to the Public School. The family room was a good school to me, for there I found the daily papers and a fair library.”

NYCAS intervened in a few abusive situations. Generally, though, investigators found that “Wherever we went we found the children sitting at the same table with the families, going to the school with the children, and every way treated as well as any other children. Some whom we had seen once in the most extreme misery, we beheld sitting, clothed and clean.”

Little of this would have happened without pastoral support. Pastors after the Civil War spoke of slavery and abortion as evils. Minister and bestselling author John Todd told a reporter, “We have rid ourselves of the blight of Negro slavery, affirming that no man may be considered less than any other man. Now let us apply that holy reason to the present scandal.”

A Congregational church conference in 1868 declared that because of abortion, “full one third of the natural population of our land, falls by the hand of violence; that in no one year of the late war have so many lost life in camp or battle, as have failed of life by reason of this horrid home crime. We shudder to view the horrors of intemperance, of slavery, and of war; but those who best know the facts and bearing of this crime, declare it to be a greater evil, more demoralizing and destructive, than either intemperance, slavery, or war itself.”

The following year, Congregational minister E. Frank Howe preached in Indiana a “Sermon on Ante-Natal Infanticide” that received wide reprinting. Howe spoke of the “destruction of unborn children” and acknowledged that “no demonstration of the criminality of this thing will deter some of those who practice it from a continuance of the practice.” He argued, though, that many women and men “have fallen into the practice thoughtlessly,” particularly since news media were not communicating the truth about abortion. Howe said he would try to get out the message as best he could: “In the ears of the thoughtless I would sound the cry of MURDER! so clearly that henceforth they cannot fail to think.”

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1869 resolved: “This assembly regards the destruction by parents of their own offspring before birth with abhorrence, as a crime against God and against nature.” Those guilty of abortion were excommunicating themselves: “except they repent, they cannot inherit eternal life.” Strong preaching was essential: “We also exhort those who have been called to preach the gospel, and all who love purity and truth, and who would avert the just judgement of almighty God from the nation, that they be no longer silent or tolerant of these things, but that they endeavor by all proper means to stay the flood of impurity and cruelty.”


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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