The Early Years

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In March of 1806, Mrs. Isabella Graham, President of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, found herself faced with the problem of caring for six children whose widowed mothers had recently died. Rather than commit the children to the grim confines of the local almshouse, Mrs. Graham enlisted her daughter, Joanna Bethune, her recently widowed friend Elizabeth (Mrs. Alexander) Hamilton, and several other prominent New York City women and together they created the Orphan Asylum Society in the City of New York. Soon thereafter, Mrs. Graham’s young charges were living in a small house in Greenwich Village and the institution we now know as Graham Windham had embarked on its two-hundred year mission serving the needs of New York City’s neediest children.

Mrs. Graham’s six orphans were exceptionally lucky to have her as their protector. New York City in 1806 was a harsh place for children even in the best of circumstances. Poverty, hunger, and diseases like malaria, small pox, yellow fever and cholera were rampant. Life expectancy was short and countless children lost one or both parents while immigrant children whose parents died at sea further contributed to the orphan population. And in 1806 there were no official child protective services and no public child welfare agencies; indeed, no notion of child welfare as we know it today. While churches and families did their best to take care of their own, their efforts fell woefully short. Many orphans and children of impoverished families were indentured or placed in almshouses. Forced to work for food and shelter, frequently exploited and abused, childhood became a bleak experience for many.