Amelia McGee

Author: Madison Vlass

Amelia McGee, officially admitted to the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls on December 10th, 1866, was not one to stay put. She was born in 1861 in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada to Mary Phillis and Alexander McGee and was the fourth of four girls. After her brother John was born two years later, Amelia’s father either abandoned his family or was killed. Either way, this left her mother the sole provider for five children. Therefore around 1865, Mary Phillis emigrated from Canada with her young family, including Amelia. They moved to South Boston, probably in search of work and opportunity for the children.

36 K Street

Location of 36 K Street in South Boston where Mary Phillis was working in 1867 as a seamstress.
The State Library of Massachusetts

Mary Phillis worked as a seamstress or dressmaker in a building located at 36 K Street.  Although this profession was at the higher end of domestic work, it can be assumed that her earnings alone likely did not support five children. Amelia, along with her older sister Martha, were admitted to the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls on a month’s trail and fully surrendered by their mother in February 1867. Amelia was about 6 years old. The proximity of the ISFG allowed their mother to visit on visitor’s day but also allowed Amelia to break the rules and run back home with ease. Many of the other girls attending the Industrial School were orphans, had incapacitated parents, or the School was distant from their family homes. Amelia’s geographic and emotional closeness with her family was atypical and probably contributed to her conflicted and peripatetic existence.

While Amelia’s early tenure at the school was quiet, as she got older, the managers remarked on her bad-behavior and numerous escape attempts, mostly back to her family. The first time Amelia ran away on May 5, 1869, her mother returned 8-year-old Amelia to the school. That July, she ran away twice in ten days and both times was punished severely for her actions. The matron, Miss Howard, believed she had made an impression by whipping the girl, but less than a month elapsed before young Amelia once again ran home to her mother in South Boston. This pattern of flight continued into 1870. Once, at the age of 9, she went missing for more than a month and was found living with a minister’s family. Another time Amelia convinced a student, Mattie Stevens, to escape with her. The matrons at the Industrial School finally decided that she was a negative influence on the other girls and arranged to send Amelia to the Newton Centre Home for Girls. Despite discharging her, the ISFG managers attempted to keep track of their young charge throughout her subsequent moves.

Jackson House

The Boston Children’s Aid Society managed The Home for Girls at Newton Centre, 1868-1873. Mrs. Rebecca Pomroy served as matron at the home, which was located at 125 Jackson Street, Newton.
Massachusetts Historical Commission

Rebecca Pomroy headed The Newton Centre Home for Girls, which was run by the Boston Children’s Aid Society, a private non-profit that focused on the care and rehabilitation of wayward, or homeless, youths. It “had strong hopes of reforming a class of young girls exposed to particular dangers” and teaching them “duties and devotions, morality, sewing and household industry.” This society was just one in a large loose network of Massachusetts child welfare charities run by wealthy Brahmin men and women, religious organizations, and the state government. Both public and private institutions became more prevalent in the later years of the 19th century as reform efforts increased due to the social consciousness of Progressive Era America. Mrs. Pomroy, the matron of the Home for Girls, which housed about 30 “unfortunate little girls who were on the broad road to ruin,” reported on Amelia’s encouraging and troublesome behavior to the ISFG. After only six months, Mrs. Pomroy resigned charge of Amelia to Mrs. Gwynne of The Temporary Home for the Destitute, located at 1 Pine Place in Boston, another privately operated charity. Here Amelia contracted scarlet fever but generally was well behaved. Mrs. Gwynne hoped to find a new family or domestic work position for her young charge that would set Amelia up for a better life. In February 1872, Amelia was sent to live with Mrs. Charles E. Tucker at 41 Hancock Street in Boston for a trial adoption. It seems, however, that in October, Amelia was returned by her potential family to the Home. Her temporary guardians could not condone the 11-year-old’s “untruthful, dishonest and immoral behavior.”

HNE The Temporary Home

The Temporary Home for the Destitute at 1 Pine Place in Boston, 1870, run by Mrs. Gwynne
Historic New England

In November of 1872 the Temporary Home for the Destitute, in agreement with the managers of the Industrial School, officially turned their troublesome ward over to the state of Massachusetts welfare system. Amelia’s case was presented before a judge and he recommended that she be sent her to the Tewksbury Almshouse. During her admission interview to the state-run institution, Amelia could not remember when she immigrated to the United States and struggled to recall her absent father’s name. The record does reveal, however, that her mother Mary was still working on K Street in South Boston, and that her sister Martha and brother John were in the care of a farmer, Horatio Boyden in South Walpole. Amelia’s connection to her family was obviously strong despite the distance between them. She only stayed at the Almshouse for fifteen days. It is unclear whether she left under her own volition or was discharged.

Amelia’s name ceases to appear in official federal records after 1870. The Industrial School for Girls records only have the vague notation that at 11-years-old, she was “placed her with her mother for a time – Now in a place.” It is encouraging to read that she was finally allowed to live with the mother that she clearly longed for, if only for a short period. The Temporary Home for the Destitute records contains the only viable clue to Amelia’s sad fate. A scribbled line in the bottom corner, obviously added later, reports “Died at the Mass Gen’l Hosp May 25th 1873”, which was just shy of her 12th birthday. Amelia’s death does not appear in the Suffolk County death certificate lists, nor is her grave recorded. Her tragically short life is representative of many children involved in the social welfare system during a time of severe class differences in America and progressive social change. Amelia was moved through four different benevolent institutions in five years and sent away when reform efforts failed to change her; she was clearly a troubled and unhappy youth. We recount Amelia’s life in order to honor her memory, but also to illuminate the many untold stories of children like her who struggled through the system. Their hidden histories are worth remembering for they are an integral and often overlooked part of America’s past.

Notation of Death Amelia McGee The Temporary Home for the Destitute

Notation of Amelia’s Death, May 25, 1873, from the Temporary Home for the Destitute Records
Healey Library Archives and Special Collections

Massachusetts General Hospital, 1925

The Massachusetts General Hospital where Amelia McGee died in 1873.
Historic New England

Sources Consulted (Click Here)

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