In 1848 Ireland was gripped by famine. Nearly a million people died of starvation. Desperate, a million more abandoned their homeland and immigrated to America. Many settled in Five Points, an area of Lower Manhattan infamous for its squalor, gang violence and disease.
By the mid-nineteenth century, an estimated 30,000 orphaned and homeless children roamed New York City. They survived by resorting to petty crime, by begging and by selling newspapers for a nickel a piece. They slept in alleyways, in cellars and even sewers. For protection, they joined the violent gangs of the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits, and the Roach Guards.
In response to this crisis, the age of orphan asylums began, culminating in one of the most improbable and audacious episodes in American history. Called the Orphan Train Movement, it endeavored to rescue these children lost to the streets and our institutions, by heroes who fought for their welfare.