Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Benevolence Became a Mania in Rivertown"

In our serialization of the original Gossips of Rivertown, we've arrived at the final segment: "Sketch the Sixth, and Last. RETALIATION." Central to the plot of these chapters is the founding of the Hudson Orphan Asylum, which actually occurred in 1845.

There are two interesting bits of background information for this chapter. Eliza Robinson Starbuck Gifford, the mother of Hudson River School painter Sanford Gifford, was one of the central figures in founding of the actual Hudson Orphan Asylum. Alice B. Neal, the author of The Gossips of Rivertown, had her own experience of being a near-orphan. She was born Emily Bradley in 1827. Her father, Giles Bradley, died on her third birthday, and when she was six, she was adopted by an uncle. Three years later, she was returned to her mother, after her mother's remarriage.

Our readers may recollect that a project was set on foot in Rivertown to establish an Orphan Asylum. This may perhaps seem an unnecessary institution in a country place, but recollect that Rivertown claimed by right of incorporation to be a city, and there is always more or less wretchedness, poverty and want, in the narrow lanes and dusty streets of every suburb. The lower part of the town which bordered upon the river, was composed almost entirely of low wooden houses, which had been among the first buildings erected at the time of its settlement, and were now rotten and dilapidated. These were principally inhabited by boatmen, negroes, and in fact the sediment of the population. This uninteresting district was familiarly termed "Wapping"—and was rarely entered by the better class, save on some charitable errand, or when an extra "washerwoman" was to be hunted up from among the idle and wretched creatures that inhabited it. In some such excursions, the ladies of the "Tract Distribution Society" had noticed several children who seemed to have no claim on any one, and were ignorant in the extreme. They were supported after a way of their own by the different families of the district, for it is a well-known fact to those who have visited much among the poorer classes of society, that they are often more truly generous than those who have the means to give liberally.

These children refused to go to the county poor-house, which was considered an open disgrace; and besides these, there was now and then some child of more respectable but equally destitute parents, left to the solitary lot of orphaned poverty.

There was no reason why these should not be comfortably cared for. Mrs. Townsend, who had often visited our best city institutions of the kind, at once proposed an Orphan Asylum. They could rent a convenient house until one could be built expressly for them, and a suitable person could be found at once to take charge of the institution.

Benevolence became, on the instant, a mania in Rivertown. Even the children were infected, and the little girls, we beg their pardon, the young ladies of the French Seminary—instituted a sewing and charitable society. This, however, proved rather an unfortunate movement, if it be true "that charity begins at home." There was a quarrel at the outset, as to who should have the honour of the official appointments,—the Secretary refusing to serve because she was not President, and the Treasurer being equally indignant that she was nominated third in command. One visiting committee of two was appointed, who lost their slippers in the mud of the unpaved alleys, and splashed their pantalettes to a terrible degree. Besides this, not being au fait in such matters, they gave mortal offence to one old lady by entering her room, and asking if she "was very poor," because they saw no carpet on the floor, a sufficient indication in their eyes of extremest penury. Their next attempt was repulsed by—"Whose child be you? Won't you just mind your own business?"—and on the whole, the little ladies "retired in disgust."

At the first quarterly meeting, the report was as follows:—

"ON HAND—Four pair of woollen socks knit by twenty-seven different young ladies.

"Two coarse shirts commenced.

"Three small aprons spoiled in cutting out by Miss Bradley.

"Five night-caps finished all but the strings, the borders, and sewing in the crowns.

"Sixty-two cents in the Treasurer's hands, and all the officers resign."

The society called a meeting of its creditors and ceased to exist. But first there arose a terrible broil on account of the disappearance of the "cash in hand," from the treasurer's work-box, and that young lady, of course, falling under the suspicion of defalcation, she was at once removed from school by her indignant mamma, who, from the hour of departure, lost no opportunity to speak ill of the Seminary—its teachers, and the mothers of the three principal accusers of her "darling Sarah Ann."

But to turn from this junior display of misplaced benevolence, which we should not have dwelt upon, but that it daguerreotypes so many mismanaged schemes for good, that have ended with similar disastrous results.

For a time the project of the Orphan Asylum progressed delightfully. The house selected for the purpose had been furnished by the contributions of different ladies, and the matron of the establishment seemed really to love the fifteen motherless little creatures placed under her charge. But the novelty wore off— dissatisfaction arose among the managers, and a few months after the death of their former director, Mrs. Townsend, the crisis of their poverty arrived. Winter was at hand—fuel and comfortable clothing must be provided, and there was not a dollar to commence their purchases with.

At this juncture, Mrs. McCloud, the wife of the principal lawyer in Rivertown, proposed the popular expedient of a fair. Miss Seymour, who thus beheld a grand opportunity for social gatherings in perspective, eagerly seconded the proposal. Mrs. Jackson rather discouraged the movement at first, but finding that it was decided on, resolved to lend any assistance in her power, as did Mrs. Jorden, who was once more re-established in her northern home, her health being fully restored, and herself as happy as the devotion of her husband could make her.

It was October when the first movement was made, and it was decided that, from that time until December, which was appointed as the end of their labours, they should meet for the purpose of preparing fancy articles, etc., once every week. Their meetings were to be held alternately, at the houses of the committee, which consisted of the ladies above mentioned with Mrs. Miller, who is also an old acquaintance.

Meanwhile storekeepers and milliners were besieged for "remnants" and "pieces"—while a standing advertisement was placed in a conspicuous part of the "Republican " and the Rivertown "Gazette," to the effect that donations would be thankfully received by the committee at their respective residences.

The young ladies worked most industriously at pin-cushions and needle-books, while dolls enough to supply several rising generations were distributed for the completion of their wardrobes. Younger sisters were pressed into the service, and made to hem towels, or quilt "holders" for the "kitchen table," and consultations were held over receipt-books, that the greatest quantity of cake should be made with the smallest possible outlay.

Sketch the Sixth, and Last. RETALIATION. Chapter I. 

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