Roots & Branches: Genealogy at HSP

Filling in Family Details: Benevolent Society Records

Tuesday, 6/24/14

Names, dates, and locations are oftentimes the only information known about an ancestor, even after years of genealogical research. It is exciting to learn the birth, marriage, death dates and locations of your ancestors. If you’re lucky, you might uncover their occupation or a document that includes their own signature. This is especially true of working class folks, who rarely left detailed records of their lives. But what about the personality quirks, likes and dislikes, talents, struggles, and aspirations of your ancestors?

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds several collections that contain detailed records from benevolent societies in the state of Pennsylvania. One such collection is the Children’s Aid Society of Pennsylvania records (collection 3026), which includes case files for over a thousand children that came under the care of the Children’s Aid Society (C.A.S.) from 1882 to 1908. These records are extremely detailed, as C.A.S. visitors recorded every visit, letter, and interaction with the children and their family members throughout their time with the organization. The records are captivating, rich in genealogical information, and cause a reader to feel as if they know each child personally.

Concerned citizens founded C.A.S. in 1882 as one of the first organizations to provide care for the city’s children in need. The founders of C.A.S. believed in placing children in private homes rather than institutions. They worked to care for orphans, delinquents, children without homes or from broken ones, and even the children of parents who just needed a bit of short-term help.

As I’m sure you can imagine, the stories of many of these children are difficult to read. They were oftentimes on their own before entering the care of C.A.S., neglected, starving, dirty, or misunderstood. But other children were well loved, with parents who had run out of options and wanted the best for their child. Many parents contributed what they could towards the clothing and board of their child, and many of these children were returned to their parents after their situations improved.

I’ll share the case of one C.A.S. child with you, to give you an idea of just how detailed some of these records are. Laura Briggs, (page 641-642, book 18) along with her older brother Theodore, entered the care of C.A.S. on November 9, 1892. C.A.S. sent Laura to live with a family in Montgomery County, PA. Less than two years later, Laura’s C.A.S. placement family adopted her. She appears on the 1900 census, not as Laura Briggs, but as Laura Appenzeller, daughter of David and Ida Appenzeller.

What if Laura did not remember or share much about her early childhood with her descendents? If that was the case, descendents of Laura Briggs might have no idea that an entire branch of their family tree even exists. Fortunately to those unknown descendents of Laura Briggs/Appenzeller (and all of you interested in genealogy and history!), Laura’s case file is particularly rich in genealogical information.

Laura Briggs was born on September 5, 1887 on what is now Hancock Street in Philadelphia. Laura’s parents, Theodore, a sailor, and Addie Briggs, separated shortly after her birth. Laura’s mother died after falling down a staircase and was buried on October 26, 1892. Addie Briggs was a member of St. Peter’s Church and is likely buried there.

Addie left three children in “destitute condition” when she passed: Lizzie, Theodore, and Laura. The children’s aunt took them in briefly, but could not provide for all three children, so sent Theodore and Laura to C.A.S. in 1892. According to the records, the Briggs children did not have much contact with each other after 1893.

C.A.S. placed Laura with the Appenzellers, who took “the child with the idea of adopting her in the future providing she gives satisfaction.” Ida Appenzeller soon wrote to C.A.S. that Laura was “quite well and happy; forgetting her past life.”

In 1904, when Laura was about seventeen, the C.A.S. office received a letter from Ida Appenzeller. Laura’s adopted mother wished to know the addresses of Laura’s brother and sister. The same letter noted that Laura was “self willed and hard to manage”—not too out of the ordinary for a seventeen-year-old!

This is just a brief overview of Laura’s detailed case file. She is just one example of over a thousand children who came under the care of C.A.S. during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Each record is unique and contains various genealogical information and anecdotes. Stumbling across the case file of an ancestor who was under the care of a benevolent organization could be just what you need to finally get past that brick wall in your genealogical research.

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