In late 19th & early 20th century New York, newly arrived Irish Catholics were considered low-class by other ethnically “Anglo-Saxon” groups, such as German, English, & Dutch, who were mostly Protestant.
“Low-class” is perhaps too mild a term. The Irish were considered hardly better than Negroes, whom most whites believed were sub-human. Odd as it may seem to us today, the fair-skinned, blonde or red-headed Irish were not considered white in an era when white supremacy was a given.
Consequently, migrants from the Emerald Island faced horrific discrimination. “Irish need not apply” was a common sign in the windows of many Eastern businesses. The Irish in New York City languished in hopeless poverty, where they had inferior housing, food, medical treatment, and education (if at all).
Moreover, there seemed to be no end to the number of Irish street urchins. The orphanages run by Catholic nuns could not accommodate them all. Public records show that about 150 Irish children were abandoned every month and there were not nearly enough adoptive homes in the area to save them from a hellish life on New York City streets.
At the same time, out west in Arizona, the Anglo pioneers accepted the Irish as just another group of Western European descent. In other words, in the West, the Irish were considered white. Mexicans, however, were another matter.
Like the Irish, most Mexicans were Roman Catholic. Yet Mexicans, most of whom were low-wage laborers in the fields or mines, were treated as badly by the dominant Anglo communities as were the Irish in New York. Mexican workers were often physically abused by their Anglo employers and cheated out of hard-earned pay.
In the American Southwest in the late 19th & early 20th century, most Mexican-American children grew up in shacks with dirt floors; where water was too scarce for bathing; where they received inferior food, medical treatment, and education (if at all); and where hope for a better future was almost non-existent.
These distinctions of race and religion were seldom more apparent than in October 1904 in the bustling copper mining communities of Clifton & Morenci’ in Southeastern Arizona.
Weeks earlier, three Catholic nuns and four nurses from the New York Foundling Hospital along with 40 Irish orphans boarded an “orphan” train headed for Arizona. There, according to plan, these children would be adopted by good Catholic families and grow up with opportunity in a labor-starved region of the Country. For these nuns, the primary, and perhaps only, criterion for adoption was that the new families had to be good Catholics.
In Southeastern Arizona, Catholic meant Mexican, and Mexican meant inferior. From the perspective of the Arizona white population, Mexicans were down there with other people of color: Negroes, Chinese, and American Indians. Of course, in a pre-politically correct era, whites would have used common pejorative terms for these they considered inferior. Such were the racial attitudes in Clifton and Morenci’ when the New York nuns, nurses, and orphans arrived at the Clifton Catholic Church on October 1, 1904.
What the nuns apparently did not realize was that the long, hot, arduous train ride across this vast United States had miraculously transformed their despised Irish charges into superior “white” children.
They proceeded according to plan and 16 pale, blond, primly-dressed children were given to various Mexican families that had been chosen by the local priest. Afterward, the nuns took the remaining orphans 4 miles up to Morenci’ and repeated the simple adoption process until all the Irish orphans had homes with good Catholic families.
The dominant Anglo communities of Clifton and Morenci’ were incensed. To them, the very idea of placing white children with Mexican families was nothing less than child abuse. The nuns were vilified as “white-slavers selling children to drunken-whore savages.”
First, an armed white mob formed in Morenci’ where it threatened to lynch the priest and nuns if they didn’t retrieve the Irish children and hand them over to white families.
Then a similar mob gathered in Clifton armed with buckets of tar and feathers, a rope and gasoline. Here they “persuaded” a local posse to kidnap the orphans from their new Mexican families.
One white woman who led the revolt said, “They (Mexican women) all had dirty faces, and wore black shawls over them, and they had ragged dresses on.” Another white women said, “…most of the Mexicans are unwashed and infested with vermin.”
One of the New York sisters later wrote. “(white) Women called us vile names, and some of them put pistols to our heads. They said there was no law in that town; that they made their own laws. We were told to get the children from the Spaniards (meaning the Mexicans). If we did not we would be killed.”
No criminal charges were ever brought, but the matter ended up in civil court. The trial judge sanctioned the “vigilante justice” and awarded the orphans to the Anglos who had kidnapped them. No Mexicans were allowed to testify.
An appeals court agreed with the lower court and approved the placement of the orphans with “the good women of the place.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction.
For a more on this historical event, read The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction By Linda Gordon. Harvard University. 480 pages.