Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Louisville: Plight of the Melvin Children 1908-1919

U.S. orpans 1913 - From the Library of Congress

This is the record of Susan Marie Melvin's stay at the Louisville Industrial School (click to enlarge) and is just one page of a dozen or so that I received on her and her siblings from Louisville a few years ago. Although the text is short in length, it tells a clear story on what went on during the childhood of my husband Mike's grandmother Florence Polly and her siblings. I often think how different Mike's family was from mine; his lived in the big city and mine were farmers from rural areas. Being poor in a large city was a meaner life than being poor in the country, at least that's the way it appears to me.

I'm sure Michael R. Melvin was a decent guy when he wasn't drinking. His father, Nathan Melvin, was a Civil War veteran and a good one apparently, since he was promoted twice in less than a year. His mother was Elizabeth Gollaher, daughter of Austin Gollaher who was a childhood friend of Abraham Lincoln. Michael was the youngest of five children. He married Edna Metcalf  in 1893 when he was 21 and she was just 18. By 1905 Edna had given birth to Bessie, Bud, Ruth, Susan, Florence, and little William who died within 2 days of birth. In 1908 Edna was pregnant again when Michael deserted his family and left them with no means of support. In June of that year all the children, with the exception of Bessie, were removed to the Louisville Industrial School to be cared for until they each turned 21 years of age. The school, formerly called "Louisville House of Refuge", was created to house orphans and delinquent children. (Click here to see many old photos of the L.I.S. and some of the orphans). The Melvin children were neither orphans nor delinquents.

Sisters Florence and Myrtle Melvin
and "Mr. B..."? - circa 1919
Four years later, in August of 1912, the children were early released to their mother and the following year Edna was able to obtain a divorce from her husband. However, Michael refused to stay away and ended up beating his wife to the point she had to be hospitalized and so, in November of 1913, the younger children were once again placed in the Industrial School. Bessie, Bud and Ruth were free to work and contribute to the family welfare but Susan and Florence had to go back as well as their youngest sister Myrtle who had apparently lived at home since her birth in February of 1909. 

Michael R. Melvin died slightly less than a year later on October 25, 1914 from cancer of the stomach. His death certificate says he was a distiller. Sounds like he had plenty of access to liquor which was unfortunate for his wife and children, and likely had much to do with the cause of his death.

As can be seen from the Louisville Industrial School record above, Susan Marie Melvin contracted the flu and died from pneumonia in 1919 before she was old enough to leave the school. Florence, my husband's grandmother, was paroled to their sister, Mrs. Bessie Church, later that same year and Myrtle was paroled to their other sister, Mrs. Ruth Moore, at the same time. It is unclear why the children were not returned to their mother at this time. Edna had remarried in 1915 but it appears it was a short marriage and she finally married again in 1921 to retired police officer, Thomas Jesse Price.

Despite their hard childhood, Bessie, Bud, Ruth, Florence and Myrtle were a close knit family and all managed to become responsible, hard working, and apparently, well balanced citizens in the end.



  1. Great insight in this post Lisa. Could you tell some more about how you actually obtained the record???

  2. Lisa,
    What a wonderful post! So many of us had ancestors who spent part of their formative years in institutions. It is amazing that despite hard times, many of them did do well post institutionalization.

  3. Carol..if I remember correctly, my sister-in-law, Rose, went to the courthouse to get these records for me. She was curious to see them too.

    Kathy, on my side, my great grandmother had to put her 5 children in the Mason's orphanage in Louisville. Before that, her half siblings had to be put in an orphanage after her mother and step father died. So, I was able to obtain records on all of them: my grandfather and his siblings in one, my half grand aunts and uncles in another and my husband's family in yet another, all in Louisville. I guess big cities had a lot of orphans and still do. Even though my people lived in a rural area of Kentucky, Louisville was the closest place with an orphanage.

  4. Hi Lisa! I haven't read your blog or emailed you in some time and found this post intriguing. My grandmother's siblings all went to the German Children's Orphan Home in Louisville after their mother died and their alcoholic father was incapable to care for the younger ones.

    Still not making any additional headway with Margaret who married your Nathan Melvin but maybe someday.

    Take care!

  5. Ooohh Jamie! Great to hear from you! Louisville sure had a lot of orphanages! Just be sure not to forget me when you crash that wall. I am curious about Nathan's second wife too!

  6. Very interesting and well-written story.