In 1652, New Netherland Dutch Director General Peter Stuyvesant granted land to the Dutch Church in Albany to construct a house to shelter the poor. In 1683, English Governor Thomas Dongan convened the first representative Assembly in the Colony of New York.
One of the first laws passed by the Colonial Assembly was a law regarding the treatment of orphans.
In 1810, Albany, New York’s new jail housed criminals but also provided housing for the poor and sick, including many suffering from alcoholism and/or who had violated Albany’s laws against vagrancy. In the early 1820s, Albany constructed its first Poor House to house and care for the indigent portion of the jail population, but there were no facilities for caring for orphaned children.
Before 1820, the New York Legislature passed a law that for “children found begging … a magistrate may send such child to the Alms-house until … some proper person shall be found to take such child.”
Just before Christmas in 1825, the Albany Advertiser reported there were 13 infants in the alms house without either mother or father and at least 50 more small children at large in the city who needed the care of a charitable institution. This situation prompted the formation of the Albany Ladies’ Orphan Society, who discussed the problem at length and sought help, but made little progress.
Since the Erie Canal had opened in 1825, Albany was a bustling town with extensive manufacturing, banking and shipping interests. Its population in 1830 was 24,238. By 1860, population would be 65,000 (5th largest in the United States).
In 1830, the streets were lighted by 586 oil lamps that had to be ignited by a lamplighter every evening. Albany had ten fire engines in 1830, and 415 taverns. The community’s first purpose-built public school (since a failed attempt in the 1810s) was constructed in 1832 at 218 State Street, a building that included space for fire equipment.
The Ladies’ Orphan Society’s Orphanage
In May of 1829, Orissa Heely gave birth to her second child. Within a short time, the child died and her husband abandoned her. Living with her mother and stepfather, John G. Wasson, and her surviving child, Orissa suffered from an extended period of depression. Her close friend, Eliza Wilcox, who taught at her own school on Beaver Street, read to her and consoled her.
As Orissa Heely recovered, she became determined to start an orphanage and Eliza Wilcox enthusiastically joined her effort. They were encouraged and supported by Heely’s pastor, Reverend Bartholomew T. Welch of the First Baptist Church on Green Street, and Orissa’s stepfather John Wasson who was the senior deacon of the church and himself an orphan.
When the Ladies’ Orphan Society heard of the plan, they enthusiastically endorsed it and held a meeting in the North Dutch Church. Orissa Heely wrote to a friend concerning her stepfather’s offer to guarantee the rent: “Oh, dear! Dear Mr. Wasson has been here and has treated our project with so much feeling, and appears to realize our motives. It is the Lord a-going to own and bless and honor this offspring institution.”
And later, “Mother called on Mrs. Dyer Lathrop and mentioned the orphan home plan and she in a moment said that there was a child next door that she would pay for. Last Sabbath Day this child was tied by a rope around his neck out in a shed and whipt by a stepfather so that the marks are all visible on his back today.”
It was said their first donation of $5 came from six-year-old Sara Weed. Other founding donors included:
Then New York State Governor but about to step down to serve as the 10th U.S Secretary of State under Andrew Jackson Martin Van Buren, $10;
William James, a psychology professor, philosopher, and brother of Henry James, $40;
Merchant, and future Albany Mayor Erastus Corning $20;
Temperance advocate Edward C. Delavan (who helped to found the New York State Temperance Society that same year and would later operate Albany’s Delavan Hotel), $50;
Dyer Lathrop, the future father-in-law of Leland Stanford, $20,
Clerk of the Albany Justices’ Court John G. Wasson $26;
Leather merchant, social reformer, and later State Senator and Albany Mayor, Friend Humphrey $50;
and John T. Norton, merchant in the firm of Corning and Norton, later President of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the New York Central Railroad, $20;
Plus six-year-old Sara gave another $1.
Orissa’s stepfather John Wasson gave 10 gallons of molasses, two fowls, 14 Christmas cakes, a bushel of apples, eight pounds of cheese, a ham and a piece of beef; his wife gave seven yards of bed ticking, ten yards of factory sheeting and four pieces of tape.
J.P. Brayton sent 40 heads of cabbage, a bushel of beets, and a half-bushel of onions. Walter McIntosh gave six mackerel and 68 pieces of crockery. Edward Corning gave a piece of smoked beef, seven-dozen spoons and three-dozen knives and forks.
Hanson Corning gave four gross of buttons, and Erastus Corning gave 11 dozen spoons, and, in company with Jared Rathbone, 18 cords of hard maple firewood. Albany Mayor John Townsend sent a load of lumber from City Hall, and there were many other donations.
Ten frantic days later, on December 2nd, 1829, the orphanage was opened in a small cottage on Washington Street with Orissa Heely and Eliza Wilcox in full-time residence. The first day, a five-year-old boy, Lewis Klean, was entrusted to their care. (A note later appeared on Lewis’ record that “his nature did not prove well adapted for the experiment”).
The second day, Lewis was joined by little Caroline Bulson and by the end of the month the orphanage housed 20 children and needed larger quarters. They moved to Gallup’s Tavern at Washington Avenue and Swan Street (near the current Alfred E. Smith State Office Building) and within three months they housed 70 children.
The orphanage received little municipal assistance; in fact, city officials felt that it was unconstitutional for public funds to be used to support a private charity. In its early days it was supported solely by the people of Albany, but unquestionably it was Orrias Heely and Eliza Wilcox who kept the effort going. They were said to be present at the orphanage 24 hours a day, seven days a week, teaching the children reading and writing and also sewing, quilting and food preparation.
In its first days, Orissa made a very charitable decision that almost sank the orphanage. She decided to admit any child determined to be destitute, orphan or not. This decision caused almost uncontrolled growth and nearly made the two women’s efforts impossible. Unfortunately, restrictions to admission became necessary and additional financial help became critical to its survival.
The Society for the Relief of Orphan and Destitute Children
On May 19th, 1830, Mayor Townsend, Chancellor Reuben Walworth and others including Edward Delavan, James Wasson and Rev. Bartholomew T. Welch met at the orphanage to draft a constitution for operation, develop a budget and apply to the Albany Common Council for aid.
On June 3rd, The Society for the Relief of Orphan and Destitute Children in the City of Albany was formally created. Edward Delavan was elected president, Dyer Lathrop treasurer and John Wasson secretary. Admissions were restricted to children approved by the admissions committee. Others could be admitted for 50 cents per week.
The city of Albany transferred all of the children from the Poor House and began paying 50 cents per week for each of them, but felt that they could not legally provide additional funds. The Albany Argus reported that by the end of the year 130 children from two to eight years old lived at the home and another 150 applicants had been turned away for lack of room.
A later report said that 122 children occupied 52 bedsteads, indicating that children were sleeping at least two to a bed. Three new staff members, Sally Herrick, and Susan and Mary Ann Greenwood were added without compensation. Fundraisers were held at several churches and at the Albany Academy.
One year after opening Orissa Heely reported to a friend: “the public are becoming more and more awake to the interests of this institution.” She said that she hoped a new and larger building would be built. She praised the children:
“They do wonders considering the experience they have had. During the summer our little girls have pieced up twenty-two quilts, besides other sewing” (remember that the oldest child was 8!).
Orissa complained to her friend that “slanderers” had spread rumors that “we have wipt and starved children to death.” She said that she hoped that she could live down these prejudices and also reported that “Since you left, we have buried five children.”
In the spring of 1831, the board petitioned the New York State Legislature to enact a law permitting the society to incorporate. They asked for permission to hold real estate, to receive legacies as well as other donations, to provide for the children in their charge, and to have the authority to bind children over eight years of age to “some suitable employment.”
The incorporation was approved at the end of March, 1831. It further provided that the child was to be released complete with a new suit of clothes, a bible, and $100 (the same amount as a long-term prisoner at Albany County Jail at the time). An amendment in 1835 made the mayor of Albany (at this time Erastus Corning) the ex-officio guardian of all orphan children in Albany.
The 1832 Cholera Epidemic
In the spring of 1831, the Albany Common Council granted the orphanage the northeastern corner of what is today Washington Park, requiring only that the managers provide for the removal of a powder house on the property. This grant was opposed by the military and their supporters, who did not want to lose the powder house.
Subsequently six prominent Albanians (Edward C. Delavan, William James, Stephen Van Rensselaer, John T. Norton, Friend Humphrey and Erastus Corning) offered to finance the construction, estimated at $12,000 to $13,000, but they were turned down as it was felt that a broad campaign may raise more money and wide public support was needed on a regular basis to continue the operation. A public effort was initiated.
The budget for the orphanage by now was $2.54 per child per month. A cook at $3 per month, a nurse at $2 per month, a chambermaid at $3, a washerwoman at $2, two sewing women at $4 each and a handyman who was not paid but received free lodging, were added to the staff.
The public effort, which included the contributions of the six civic leaders, totaled $17,044.65. In 1832, five acres of land was purchased, bounded by Washington, Robin and Western Avenue, and construction was started. At the time, this parcel was considered to be just outside the developed area of the city.
Construction of a three-story building with a barn, outbuildings and furnishings was started. The building included classrooms, a dining room, separate dormitories for boys and girls, parlors, a kitchen and a laundry. Outside were pastures and a vegetable garden. Optimism ran high until summer, when suddenly Albany was hit by a dreaded unexpected visitor: cholera.
The 1832 Cholera Epidemic hit 1,150 of Albany’s 26,000 residents; over 400 died. People fled the city. Businesses were closed; theaters closed; streets were empty; social gatherings cancelled. Barrels of tar were burned on street corners as it was felt that the black smoke and strong odor would kill anything in the air. Doctors hurried door to door to do what they could. Masked laborers picked up bodies. Cemeteries and churches held multiple funerals daily.
The managers of the orphanage reported; “that awful pestilence made its appearance amongst the children… so suddenly and universal in its attack, that in one night, nearly all the individuals residing in the house became subjects of the cholera.” They credited Doctors John James, Henry Green and Carroll Humphrey with providing free medical assistance to the children and Richard M. Meigs, a druggist, who furnished medical supplies at his own expense, with saving many, but they recorded deaths of eight children. They also praised John Westervelt of Bethlehem who took 28 children to his residence and offered to take all of them to get them out of the city.
That year was a difficult financial one for the orphanage, but contributions from many residents, especially Stephen Van Rensselaer III and John Wasson, helped. William James, then the orphanage’s president, died that year but left them $2,500 in his will; Stephen Van Rensselaer took over as president.
Late in 1832, the orphanage moved into the new facility at Washington, Western and Robin Streets that it would occupy for the next 75 years, until 1907.
In 1834, Orissa Heely left the orphanage, but mentioned in a letter that after she left, an orphanage had been started in Troy, one in Boston and another in Brooklyn “upon our plan. We little thought or expected four years ago to have witnessed such glorious results from our feeble beginnings, for there is no doubt that the Lord granted us the privilege of laying the foundation upon which many institutions shall arise in this country for the benefit of orphans and destitute children.” She directed her efforts into starting a school in Albany for Black children.
In 1833, the day-to-day operation of the orphanage was turned over to the members of the Ladies Orphan Asylum, with the Board of Managers retaining responsibility for the financing.
Financing continued to be primarily fundraisers held in Albany. An annual one revolved around the presentation of the orphans, who appeared at a church where they recited poems, sang hymns, gave spelling, reading, geography and history demonstrations. There also was a Christmas season sacred music concert and the Ladies’ Fair.
When Stephen Van Rensselaer’s century plant (Agave americana, or American Aloe) bloomed in July 1842, he placed it on display for the benefit of the orphan asylum. It raised $1,328.57 in Albany and $1,972.74 in the city of New York. Van Rensselaer had purchased the plant at an auction of a confiscated loyalist estate in New York at the end of the Revolutionary War.
In the early 1840s, some members of the board sponsored one of the orphans, Rachel Ramsey, at the Albany Female Academy. For a while, she boarded with the family of orphanage treasurer Dyer Lathrop and his family. After graduating she became a teacher at the orphanage and a notable artist.
In 1852, a three-story 50 by 30-foot addition was added to the orphanage, which by then was known as the Albany Orphan Asylum. The number of residents at that time was 100, with a reported 100 applicants turned away that year.
In 1864, the children were sent to the public school just across Robin Street, but met with strong opposition from the teachers and other children. The experiment was dropped and they returned to classes at the orphanage. The Civil War created many more orphans. Orphanage president James Wasson died and General John T. Rathbone succeeded him.
Rathbone had been Brigadier General of the 9th Brigade of the National Guard of New York, and at the beginning of the War was made commandant of the Albany volunteer depot, from which he sent to the front 35 regiments. After the war, he was appointed New York State Adjutant General by Governor John A. Dix. (His cousin was Henry Reed Rathbone, who was with Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated; his brother served as Consul General in Paris in the 1880s.)
In 1875 and 1878, additions were added to the orphanage buildings. In 1891, Jane Lathrop Stanford, daughter of long-time orphan asylum treasurer Dyer Lathrop and wife of by then former California Governor Leland Stanford, returned to Albany after her mother’s death to settle some family affairs.
She turned over the family mansion at 132 Washington Avenue, to the orphanage for use as a crèche or infant nursery. Her gift allowed the orphanage to accept younger children and was dedicated as the Lathrop Memorial. Jane Lathrop Stanford also donated $100,000 in Central Pacific Railroad bonds (Leland was also president of the Central Pacific), the interest from which was used to help support the Lathrop Memorial.
By 1890, the Albany Orphan Asylum housed 600 children and had another 600 placed with responsible families, investigated and overseen by the asylum. The asylum now had eight buildings, the Lathrop Memorial and an 85-acre tract on New Scotland Avenue.
In 1902, a report to the board stated that the past two years had been especially trying from a health standpoint. In 1900, there was a measles outbreak; 1902 brought 150 cases of diphtheria. A smallpox outbreak at the Lathrop Memorial had affected 42 of its 45 infants. There were also outbreaks of whooping cough, chicken pox, scarlet fever and impetigo, although these supposedly resulted in no deaths. There were ten deaths in 1901, but these were attributed to “inherited conditions” and not diseases contracted at the orphanage. (A list of 457 children living there in 1900 can be found here.)
On September 12th, 1855, the Albany Rural Cemetery donated a 200-grave plot in Lot 46, Section 92 to the Albany Orphan Asylum. Burials started there in 1875 and up until 1905, 203 children were buried there, but since no interments had been made in almost 100 years, the site became forgotten.
In 2000, volunteer restoration workers noticed a large section with no headstones. It was first felt that the headstones had fallen over and become naturally buried under the grass. Further examination proved there were no headstones, this was the Albany Orphan Asylum plot where 203 children lay in unmarked graves.
A second plot (Lot 20, Section 100A) was donated to the Albany Orphan Asylum in about 1905. It contains five orphans buried between 1916 and 1942 indicating the much-improved conditions and medical treatment that had become available.
In the early 1900s, the orphanage board decided to move all of its facilities to the New Scotland Avenue property. The Western Avenue property was sold, buildings torn down and it became part of the downtown campus of the State University at Albany.
The Lathrop property was sold in 1922 and cottages were meanwhile being constructed at the New Scotland Avenue facility, with one named the Lathrop Memorial Cottage, and other named for past leaders James D. Wasson, Archibald MacIntyre and General John T. Rathbone.
The Albany Orphan Asylum eventually became the Albany Home for Children in 1935. In 1953 it merged with the Fairview Home for Friendless Children, and in 1976, the organization became the Parsons Child and Family Center.
Meanwhile, in Schenectady in 1888, The Home for Destitute Children was formed (later The Children’s Home of Schenectady), followed by the Schenectady County Humane Society (for children) in the early 1900s. In 1983 those organizations merged to form the Northeast Parent & Child Society.
In 2012, Albany’s Parsons Child and Family Center (formerly the Albany Orphan Asylum) and the Northeast Parent & Child Society from Schenectady merged to form Northern Rivers Family of Services. In 2019, Northern Rivers’ added Unlimited Potential in Saratoga Springs, which was founded in 1979, to provide vocational rehabilitation and support to those recovering from mental illness.
Illustrations, from above: Children at the Albany Orphan Asylum in a photo probably taken at the Waashington Avenue and Swan Street building in the late 19th century; Albany Orphan Asylum (front of Main Building on Washington Avenue), ca. 1900; Dyer Lathrop (courtesy the Lathrop family, provided by Albany Rural Cemetery); and “New Buildings of the Albany Orphan Asylum” on New Scotland Avenue, ca. 1905 postcard.