Written in 2003 and 2004 by Lawrence Sullivan, 51 Beechwood Ct., Glasgow, KY 42141, based primarily on research done by Jean Kirsch-Sullivan, a great-great granddaughter of Henry W. and Hester Wortman. E-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments and corrections gratefully accepted.
This story began as a search for the family that Seth Worthman (1848 – 1919) left behind in New York City when he hopped aboard an Orphan Train, headed for Noblesville, Indiana, and a new start as a Hoosier farm boy.
Taking on a will of its own, the tale evolved into a history of a unique but short-lived children’s almshouse known as The Nursery Schools and Hospital for Poor and Destitute Children. The facility caught Seth and his brothers in its web -- or safety net -- depending on your point of view. We think safety net describes it better.Sources
“i wish i ner cam to new york. it is a hell on erth.”
-- Annie Kennedy in a letter home to Ireland, 1858
It isn’t hard to imagine Hester Brennan Wortman adding her woeful tears to Annie Kennedy’s bitter lament. Hadn’t she herself lost seven sons – four of them forever – to this godforsaken place?
The family was torn apart in the summer of 1852, during a killer heat wave, some 17 years after Hester and a handful of relatives arrived in “the promised land” from troubled, downtrodden Ireland. There she met and married a short and swarthy German-Dane named Henry Wortman, who’d also reached these shores in the 1830s.
The young couple crammed themselves into dark, dank and stuffy tenement quarters in Lower Manhattan where the children came quickly and often, as good Catholic families were told they should. Within 14 years there were 10 mouths to feed from a cupboard too often utterly bare.
Then, in a flash, all the boys were gone, the home shrouded in silence.
All seven wound up in New York’s bursting juvenile-care facilities where they would wait years for indentured placement somewhere – anywhere – safe from the city’s mean streets. One died waiting, two were farmed out and never heard from again, and one ended up in Indiana. Only three found their way back to the fold.
Scant records of the humble couple – an early-day version of “Abbie’s Irish Rose” or “Bridget Loves Bernie“ -- reveal only this one dramatic event in their long marriage. And we don’t know whether they were driven to give up the boys by some calamity, a disabling illness, or crushing poverty. Perhaps it was a combination of all three.
The Wortmans pretty much stayed put during their early years in Manhattan, spending a dozen years or so at two tenement apartments on the Lower East Side. The buildings, only a couple blocks apart on Oliver and Hamilton streets, probably looked something like this “typical” tenement-house from a contemporary print.
At the time of the boys’ fateful roundup, Henry and Hester kept only their daughter, Mary Selina, who was barely a year old.
The oldest son, bearing the double handle of John Henry but often called Jake, had left home before the wholesale surrender of his brothers, but ironically met a similar fate. He ran away after being pulled out of school and put to work learning the cigar-making trade. After weeks of roaming the streets, scrounging and begging for food, sleeping in haylofts and outhouses, he was hauled in for vagrancy.
A magistrate sent John to the House of Refuge, a reform school in Midtown Manhattan. Seven weeks later, on 22 July 1852, his six younger brothers were “surrendered” to an affiliated almshouse for children called The Nursery on Randall’s Island in the East River.
A coincidence? Perhaps. Or it may be that the parents, like countless other New Yorkers in those hard times, decided grimly the children were better off there.
First of the boys lost for good was William, who at 12 years of age was the oldest of the brothers rounded up on that gates-of-hell-hot Thursday and taken to Randall’s Island. He died there six years later, in September 1858, according to Children’s Aid Society records. Family lore says his death was caused by an infected snake bite or insect bite.
Little brother Joseph was only 6 when torn from the family’s tenement dwelling. He was released from Randall’s Island in his early teens indentured to a Brooklyn industrialist as an apprentice furnace maker.
Two others, Francis (or Frank) and Seth were 8 and 4, respectively, when they first saw Randall’s Island. Seven years later, in 1859, they were turned over to the fledgling Children’s Aid Society, which put them on an Orphan Train bound for central Indiana and placement with “wholesome farm families.”
Both Joseph and Frank disappear from the records after 1870 or so; there’s no evidence anyone in the family ever saw them again. Seth we know about, but more of that later.
Of the six boys surrendered to Randall’s Island, only twins Henry and Robert, 9 years old when admitted, found their way home. Children’s Aid Society records show they were given back to the parents, but don’t say why, nor when that occurred.
John also returned, but it took about seven years. A month shy of 14 when collared by police in Lower Manhattan, he spent a year at the reform school and then was indentured to a farmer in central New Jersey. After completing his period of indenture, he continued to work at the farm for wages. He “came home” in 1859 or early ’60, by which time the family was living in downtown Philadelphia and his father was tending a shop that sold tobacco products and “sundries.”
The 1860 census finds the Wortmans – reunited but reduced in number from 10 to six -- in the hamlet of Newfoundland in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, some 100 miles removed from the perils of New York. Henry and son John are listed as merchants, sharing ownership of inventory for what was apparently a general store.
The enumerator checked a column indicating sons Henry and Robert, now 17, and daughter Mary Selina, 9, had attended school the previous winter.
Deed records show it was young John who bought the property. This was in the spring of 1860. Almost exactly two years later, getting ready to go to war, he sold it back to the original owner.
The family apparently was still in Newfoundland in 1861 when the Civil War broke out, for young Henry enlisted in a locally recruited company of the 32nd Pennsylvania Infantry in June of that year. A year later, however, John joined the 127th New York Infantry, indicating he at least had returned to Manhattan. And after Henry was mustered out of his Pennsylvania infantry unit in 1864, he chose to re-enlist in a New York engineering regiment.