"In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet entitled “The New Colossus.” Her words expressed the invitation sent from America to foreign lands describing the newly formed country as the land of milk and honey. Engraved on a bronze plaque that stands beside the Statute of Liberty, her words were:
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In 1853, to combat the growing problem of orphaned children, Charles Lorring Brace along with a group of associates formed the Children’s Aid Society of New York City. He concluded that pioneer families located in central and western states with few family members to help with the heavy workload could benefit from housing these homeless waifs. In turn, orphans would be given a home. Thus began the orphan train movement that would last until 1929.
Some orphans found loving homes and were adopted, but just as many were treated as little more than indentured servants and suffered both emotionally and physically from the experience. Agnes Stanley Schenk David was one of these unfortunate orphans. While her adventures as an orphan train rider began in 1906, the heroine in Once Jilted was loosely fashioned from Agnes’s story.
With permission from W. Joseph Stell, who organized a series of interviews recorded by Elizabeth Herzig, a neighbor of Agnes in Schulenburg, Texas, I would like to summarize some of Agnes’s tale.
Born in 1901, Agnes was the offspring of an unwed mother and immediately after her birth in the Saint Ann’s Foundling Hospital was given into the care of that same hospital. Though early memories had faded, Agnes recalled her home as being “one cot among many standing at attention along the bare plaster walls (except for the occasional crucifix or painting of Mary) of the girl’s ward; her few possessions kept in a wooden trunk beside her bed. Days began early and ended early: meals in large communal halls, daily chores and, for those who were old enough, lessons.”
In 1906, a family from Texas filled out an application to adopt a child, and Agnes found herself on a ship bound for Galveston. “I remember being in a new place watching nuns cover windows so we couldn’t see outside. We stayed in that room and were kept busy for what seemed to be several weeks.” From Galveston, they boarded a train for Houston. Afterwards, the group of orphans was split into two, with Agnes’s group put on a train that would take them farther west.
Along the way, the train made stops, and the children were “paraded, inspected, marched, and, hopefully accepted by the families previously approved by the Foundling Hospital.” Those that weren’t accepted found themselves back on the train. Finally, it came time for Agnes to meet her new family. She remembered stepping off the metal steps to the dirt of the station landing. Strangers surrounded her, and excitement filled the air. A snack of jelly bread was passed out, but in the confusion, Agnes was missed. “No one cared if we ate or not.”
The family slated to receive Agnes decided after a few hours in her company they no longer wanted her. They spoke only German, and Agnes could not understand their words. They returned her to Father Szymanski at the rectory of St. Michael’s Church in Weimar. “Humiliated without knowing why, she crawled into a lonely bed to sleep. Now there were no whispers, no giggles, no teasing, no fussing, no crying, no one else tossing and turning in the moonlight. For the first time in her short life she slept by herself.” The five-year-old had been abandoned to an unknown fate.
Agnes remained at the rectory for an undetermined amount of time where she entertained herself by playing the piano. One of the church visitors, Mrs. Schromanek, became enamored of Agnes and wanted to adopt her, but Father Szymanski claimed she was too old to take on the care of an active child. Later, Josephine and Frank Schenk wanted to adopt her, but again, Father Szymanzki refused, saying the Schenks already had two adopted children. However, taken by Agnes, Josephine came up with another solution. Her son Franz and his new bride were childless, so she suggested they take Agnes, and the priest agreed.
“Agnes’s arrival was so unexpected that Franz and Annie had not had time to prepare a bed for her. Agnes watched Annie make a mattress by stuffing a sack with corn shucks, while Franz quickly constructed a bed by stretching chicken wire over a frame of 2 x 4’s. Crude though it was, this bed would be hers for most of the years of her childhood, and the former storage area would be her sanctuary and refuge.” Agnes would suffer many hardships and abuse while in Annie’s care for Annie considered her an indentured servant.
“This was a new life, indeed. But it was very far from the fairyland of her dreams. At times, this new life would seem more of a nightmare than a dream come true. No matter how hard she tried to please her new ‘family,’ it seemed to Agnes that she was always being scolded, spanked, or otherwise punished. She never heard an endearing word or a word of encouragement. She was never hugged. At least the Sisters had an occasional kind word or brief hug--something to allay the hunger of a small child for affection. Now there was nothing, and the need grew. Here in the midst of her new ‘family,’ Agnes felt more alone than ever and, more than ever, had to rely on her own resources.”
In fact, Agnes’ home life proved so miserable that she ran away as a teenager and made a life for herself with the help of neighbors and nurses at a hospital in a nearby town.Agnes was but one of many such orphan train riders to suffer unspeakable hardships as America sought to alleviate the growing population of homeless children in New York. With an unbreakable spirit, she survived to later wed and have children of her own. It’s this very fighting spirit that shaped America and helped other orphans find their way."
I first heard of Agnes' tale from my mother who was best friends with Agnes' daughter. After hearing the story, I knew I had the background story for my own heroine, Shauna Joyce. Like Agnes, Shauna was resilient and managed to carve a place in the hero's heart.
Enjoy another excerpt from Once Jilted:
"You can’t stop the Clevingers from taking what they want, Shauna. People like that don’t care who they hurt along the way."
"Perhaps. But I can sure slow them down."
"Shauna. You have that look in your eye."
Shauna smiled and clutched Lora Lee’s shoulders. "I can’t stop them from knowing about the orphans, but I can stop them from going to the auction. You’ll see. I’ll figure out a way to prevent their attendance when the children are put on display. The Clevingers will not get another child to abuse."
The jingle of the bell and the entrance of five laughing men put a halt to Shauna’s tirade. She glanced at the boisterous bunch with a curious eye. Nyesville didn’t get many strangers. They sobered once they were inside the small store. A square brick of a man separated from the others and tipped his head. "Morning, lassies."
"Morning to you," Lora Lee answered, and he turned magnetic green eyes her way.
Shauna just stared. His thick Irish accent tickled her memory. Lora Lee shoved an elbow into her side. Surprised, Shauna whirled toward her friend, catching her funny bone on the corner of the pickle display.
Everything happened at once. Lora Lee’s eyes widened. She reached around Shauna to steady the jars. Shauna, not sure what Lora Lee was doing, leaned back. The pickle display toppled to the ground.
"Shauna Joyce!" Kupert’s surprised cry filled the store.
Horrified, Shauna’s hand flew to her mouth. Ten jars rolled around beneath their feet. Thankfully, only one had broken. Pickles littered the floor, and pickle juice saturated the hem of her dress.
"Oh my." Lora Lee giggled, clamping a hand to her mouth.
Shauna let her gaze follow the trail of liquid. Two large boots stood in the middle of the mess. Her eyes darted upward and met the amused gaze of the Irishman.
"Oh. I’m so sorry." The vinegar-dill liquid had splattered on his pants and coated the tips of his boots. She should offer to wash them, but the idea of touching a strange man’s britches seemed too intimate to suggest. Besides, he looked as if he’d just come from a bout of hard work. A little pickle juice couldn’t do too much harm to his mud-spattered pants. Could it?
"Nay trouble. I was growing a wee bit tired of the scent of bay rum anyway."