“Here Lies a Stupid Person”
They say there is no substitute for experience, and as far as bad luck goes, I have about as much experience as anyone.
I have been told that just before I was born my father headed out to join the Union Army at the end of the Civil War. He left his family, which at the time was just my mother, me, and my sister Amy Lee who was one. We never heard from him again. My mother died of typhoid when I was four, and I was sent to live in the orphanage on Fourteenth Street. I was adopted five times, each with families that said they were grateful to God for bringing me into their lives, and they would raise me as their own. I was brought back as unsuitable each time. The longest I made it with one family was seven months. After the fifth return, I just ran away, and started living on the street. I was nine years old.
There has been a lot that has happened between then and now, and many of the details are sketchy, even to me. I will write my remembrances as best I can, but I already know that some details have become exaggerated a bit by time, and some have been lost in the fog of memories over the last years. It is while listening to the sawing of boards and the hammering of nails as men build the gallows which are to be my fate in two days that I find myself wanting some sort of explanation of how I got both in this place and in this situation.
My father’s name was Wesley Harold Adams. I was named after him, except my middle name is Arthur, from one of my mother’s relatives. I’m not sure which relative, and I’m not sure if it was his first name or last name. The orphanage workers made a point of telling people who might adopt me that I certainly was not from the Boston Adamses, but from some other, inferior line. From their conversations, I also know he was a carpenter, and a gambler of no repute. Mother had a picture of him, but I don’t really remember anything about how he looked.
My mother was sick for the whole time I remember her, which wasn’t long. Her name was Marie Antoinette Adams. I still have a picture of her in my saddle bags. I would say that she certainly was pretty. I do not remember her ever being cross with me. That’s all I know and remember of my parents.
The orphanage we were sent to was called the St. Luke’s Home for Less Fortunate Children. I was told that they thought if they called us “less fortunate” it would be easier on us than if they called us orphans. To tell the truth, at four years old, it really made no difference to me.
I remember my first days at the orphanage as being a confusing mix of new sounds, smells, words, and people. There were seventeen orphanage rules which each child was required to memorize and recite regularly. We said them as a group before breakfast and supper, and individually whenever we broke one. They had most of the Ten Commandments, except for the ones about your neighbor’s wife, and some others they made up themselves, like how you would make your bed and pick up your own messes and things like that. Looking back, I do not think that the official orphanage rules had as much to do with shaping my life as the rules among the orphans themselves.
Every kid that comes into the orphanage, regardless of age, starts at the bottom of the pecking order. Things like which chair you can sit in and who can steal your blanket and whose food you can steal are determined by your own strength or the strength of any alliances you might have. Since I was only four when I entered St. Luke’s, I had no strength, and did not know what an alliance was.
I learned very early, at another Less Fortunate Boy’s expense, that when someone steals your food, you do not scream and make a fuss. I learned that if you were going to point a finger at someone, you had better point it at someone you could whip, because the opportunity was coming, probably some time later that day, or certainly that night. It took me about two weeks to figure out that if I went to the top dog group and offered to steal food for them, it would be good for both of us. For me, I would get to eat regularly, and adequate amounts. For them, it meant they could get all the food they wanted, and not have to expose themselves to the wrath of the friars for breaking the rules. I would steal food from someone older, bigger, and stronger than me. It would be humiliating for them to claim to the friars that I, among the smallest and weakest of all, had stolen food from them. Archer McFadden, who was the top dog when I got there, would put his arm around me and call me his little buddy, which meant keep your hands off. This arrangement worked for about a year, until he was adopted out, and I suddenly had no protection. I took my lumps for almost two months from everyone I had stolen from while under Archer’s protection.
The first family I was adopted to was a nice family. They were an Irish couple who didn’t have children of their own, so they adopted my sister and me. I can’t remember their whole name, but I remember it started with Mc, as did most of the Irish names. When we had only been there for a few months, Mr. McSomething cut three of his fingers off at the factory where he worked, and lost his job. They couldn’t afford us anymore, and took us back “with much sadness.”
Amy Lee stayed with the third family when I was brought back for being incorrigible. When I left, she said she loved me, but she was tired of me ruining everything for her. I never saw her again.
The fourth and fifth families both prided themselves in being able to bring problem children around to their senses. I never did take much to being beaten, even if it was my fault, and both families thought the way to bring children to their senses was to beat some sense into them. The last family didn’t even take me back to the orphanage. They just put me out on the street and told me to find my own way back. I never returned to the orphanage, and, after I left town three days later, never returned to Baltimore.
I made it to New York by stowing away on the top of a railroad freight car. When I got to the rail yard, the engine for this train was steaming up, getting ready to go. The doors were already shut and locked. I wasn’t strong enough yet to open a door, so I climbed up the ladder to the top of a car. I think it would have been a rather pleasant trip if it had been summer and the sun had been out. It was not pleasant at all sometime in October, in a drenching rain. When we got to New York, it was early in the afternoon. The yard guards were thick as flies looking for stowaways, ready with their sticks and clubs to extract payment from anyone who had not paid for the trip. By the time evening came and it was somewhat safer to leave, I was so cold, and shivering so much, that I could barely crawl down the ladder.
The first two trash piles I went to already had people in them, and they flushed me away. I finally decided that I should take my chances inside the depot itself. One of the yard guards grabbed me by the neck of my shirt and started to haul me away to somewhere, but there was a kindly woman there who stopped him long enough to ask me why I was in the depot, cold and wet. I told her I was cold and wet because it had been raining. She clarified her question to ask me why I was in the train station. I told her that I was supposed to meet my mother, who was supposed to be on the last train from Pittsburgh, but she wasn’t, and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. She asked why I was in New York and my mother was in Pittsburgh, and I told her that she had put me on the train to come and visit my grandparents, but when I got here, they had both died, and I had been forced to live on the street since then until my mother came, but she didn’t come. I think I was very convincing, because she pulled me from the yard guard’s grip and said that what I needed was a warm bath and some dry clothes, which she could provide. I said, yes, ma’am, that sounds fine, as long as I am back here in time to meet the train tomorrow, which my mother is sure to be on.
That lasted most of three days before she tired of taking me to the train station to meet my mother who didn’t come. She caused me to confess my sin of lying, which I claimed to do only out of desperation, and only because she seemed at the time like the only person who could save me. She told me she might have considered taking me in if I had told the truth, but the one thing she can’t abide is a liar. She admitted that as a fault of hers which she hoped someday to correct, as it seemed very close to being judgmental, but as she had not corrected it as yet, I must collect my things and go. Since I really did not have any things to collect, I lifted a few pieces of jewelry which fit nicely into my pants pocket, thanked her for being nice to me for three days and told her that if she had a change of heart before I starved to death or froze to death on the street, I would return just to return the favor of the kindness she had shown me. When that didn’t work, I tried crying as loudly and profusely as I could, begging her to let me stay, and promising not to lie again. When that didn’t work either, I told her I hoped she went straight to hell to meet up with all the misbehaving Less Fortunate Children who went there for crossing the friars one too many times, and left.
I was walking back to the train station, seriously considering hopping a train back to Baltimore, returning to the orphanage, repenting of all my sins to the friars, and promising to do it right this time when I heard a muffled scream down an alley I was passing. I had heard enough screams and cries at the Home to know the difference between a mad scream and a fear or pain scream. This was the latter. Knowing it was none of my business, but not being able to stop myself, I headed quickly down the alley. I found a piece of pipe on the ground, which I picked up for protection. I could hear the ruckus of a struggle going on behind a pile of trash. It was a bigger boy stealing the coat and shoes from a boy about my age. His back was turned away from me, and he was bent over some trying to remove the coat. Before he knew it, he was lying face down in the alley, out cold.
The boy whose clothes were being stolen said thanks, put his shoes and coat back on, and promptly started to strip every useful thing from the bully. I asked him if maybe we should be going, and he said that in the street everything is winner take all. I helped myself to a pair of gloves which were much too big, but warmer than what I had, which was nothing. Before we left, Marcus whacked the bully a couple of times on the bottoms of his feet and on his ankles for good measure. He said that was a trick he learned from an Italian. He said that pain in the foot and ankle area stays with a guy longer than on his arms, for instance, because they have to walk on them to get around.
Among the things the bully had were a few coins and some paper money. After we were a couple of blocks away, Marcus put all of the money on the ground and we split it as evenly as we could. He got a few pennies more than me, but I figured after all, it was technically his money to start with. I think we each got around $1.40. Marcus said we should go get something to eat, so we went to a café where they knew him and had a good breakfast. I still had over a dollar on me, as well as the jewelry. I was feeling pretty flush, thinking life isn’t so hard after all, which turned out not to be true.
It was Marcus who introduced me to the orphan trains. He said if you play it right you can get a trip to almost anywhere. He explained that the people who were going out west couldn’t breed and keep their kids alive long enough to get them raised old enough to do all the work that needed done, so they solved that problem by rounding up orphans and occasionally some hooligans off the street and sending them west on a train, to be adopted out by whoever happened to need another laborer at the time the train passed. He said he had already been on the train twice, and was now trying to get picked up so he could go another time. When I asked him why he wanted to go again, he said that the train cars they ride in aren’t always warm, but they are mostly dry, and the food isn’t too bad. He said the perfect ride is to be the last one chosen, at the furthest point of the train’s journey, lift something valuable from the house, along with a piece of a newspaper that proves you were where you said you were, and then be the first one back to New York. They then meet at a secret place in Brooklyn. The first one there gets the valuables from the others who arrive later. I asked him how many kids played this game, and he said just two for now, but they were hoping it would catch on and more would play.
I was surprised to find that the other person playing the game was a negro. All three of his names were from presidents. He went by Lincoln. He was older than Marcus and I, about thirteen, I guessed. Lincoln told me that his parents had been slaves in South Carolina, and had been freed during the Civil War, but had chosen to stay on the plantation because it was all they knew, and the owner didn’t beat them more than a few times a year. Also, when the war ended, they had just had a new baby, which was Lincoln, so they stayed. Lincoln said he wasn’t going to be nobody’s slave, so he hopped a freighter two years ago and headed to the promised land up north. He said if he hadn’t run into Marcus, he would probably have hopped a freighter back to South Carolina and returned to the plantation with his hat in his hand and asked if he could please be a slave again, but he didn’t have to now. He said he had more in his pockets now than his parents ever had, so he wasn’t doing too bad. I asked Marcus if he had ever thought about going back to wherever and whoever he came from, and he said he had felt much the same as Lincoln and me, thinking about it once, and then casting it aside forever. He said that the world had cast lots and the three of us had lost, so that was that.
Marcus said he had it on good word from a friend of his that the next train was going to leave in a couple of months. That’s not much time to get yourself into an orphanage and have them vouch for you that you are neither sick nor incorrigible so you could get onto the train and begin your new life, so he made up a new rule on the spot. We would have to stow away on the train. After a few days, we would just blend in with the other orphans who had not been chosen, and enjoy the ride. He said this train was supposed to go all the way to Omaha. If we all made it to there, maybe we should just keep going west until we hit China. I said that maybe Omaha was far enough for me the first time.
Lincoln and I discovered each other in the baggage compartment. I had made myself a small space in a corner, and had arranged luggage so it would protect me from being seen. I was already used to being quiet and still when new baggage was brought into the car, which usually only took a few minutes. I heard bags being moved all around, and peeked from my spot to see what was going on. It was Lincoln making a spot for himself in a different corner of the car. He had on a railroad worker’s outfit that he said he stole from a closet in the train station. It was a trick he had learned earlier from someone whose name he could not remember, and who he had never seen again.
When the train left the station, we had not seen Marcus. I guessed that he had not made it onto the train, but Lincoln said he was sure he would, that he had not known Marcus to miss out on any kind of challenge, and since stowing away was his idea in the first place, he wouldn’t be able to show his face again anywhere if he was the one who didn’t make it.
We rode in the baggage car for nearly three days without food or water. I was both hungry and thirsty, planning my escape at the next stop, when Marcus came into the car. He had some food scraps for us to eat. When we asked him where he had been, he said he had been with the rest of the orphans. He said he had asked a boy in the station what his name was, and then had just walked up to the conductor and said he was the other boy, and just like that he was on the train. There had been a small concern when the passenger counts did not add up, but they had spent little time trying to correct it. He had been eating regularly and walking all around the train while we had been cramped into our baggage caves. He said he had looked all over for us, and it had taken him this long to find us, and that we sure were smart to think of hiding in the luggage hold. He certainly had won round one.
Lincoln started feeling poorly somewhere around Chicago, and got himself picked. Since he wasn’t going as far as we were, it wouldn’t be fair for him to be the first one home straight up. Marcus decided that he should have to handicap himself with waiting at least a month until he returned. As it has been with so many people in my life, that was the last time I ever saw Lincoln Washington Jefferson.
Wesley Adams was an orphan on the big city streets. He is put on an orphan train and ends up out west where he bounces from home to home.
At his first opportunity, he heads out on his own, and his journeys take him from Montana to Mexico. Along the way, he marries and fathers a daughter. When his wife dies during childbirth, Wesley gives up the child and his life becomes a downward spiral. Marie Anna, his daughter, is left with a ranch family in Arizona. When she finds out that she is adopted, it becomes her desire to meet her father, to have a joyous reunion with him, at her wedding.