All but lost to the ages were the lives of child laborers in Winchendon, Massachusetts, photographed a century ago by Lewis Hine. Then Joe Manning went looking for “the most beautiful girl in American history.”
DON’T MISS: More Child Labor Photos by Lewis Hine
Joe Manning first met Mamie Laberge 31 years after she died. She was standing nonchalantly in a simple white dress, a matching ribbon tied in her hair. Between her fingers and around her arm ran a thin thread of cotton that seemed to tether her to the long rows of spinning machines flanking her on either side. She was thin, but not gaunt. Her eyes were fixed, her mouth a straight line. She betrayed no inner emotion. In the hazy distance, almost out of sight, a man in a black suit looked on ominously.
The picture was given to Manning by Mary Lou Woolley in a half-filled auditorium in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 2008. He’d never seen the photo before, but he instantly knew who had taken it. Manning had just finished giving a lecture on his research into Lewis Hine. From 1908 to 1917, Hine, a sociologist, traveled the country taking photos of child laborers. His collection of more than 5,000 images now sits in the Library of Congress as a record of a grim practice that was all too common in American factories in the early 20th century.
For the previous three years, Manning had made it his mission to find out what had happened to these children. It was something no one had ever tried before. In each case, he’d had little to work with–just the name of the child and the town in which the photo was taken–but thus far he’d been improbably successful, piecing together the life stories of dozens of children that history had forgotten.
Woolley told him the photo had been taken in Winchendon, Massachusetts. He’d never heard of the town before, but it would soon become his second home. “I think this girl is my great-aunt,” Woolley said to him. “You have to help me.”
Manning deals in the stories of common folk. He’s been captivated, in one way or another, his whole life by the lives of people who don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. But then, Manning has never been sold on the wisdom of the grand scheme. “There are too many George Washingtons in our history,” he says with a wry smile. “Not enough other people named Washington.”
Manning spent 28 years as a social worker in Connecticut. He arduously avoided every promotion that came his way, preferring to stay in the community. “I liked being with my clients,” he says. The best way to get to know a town and the people in it, he explains, is to be the person on the front line.
In 1999, Manning retired to Florence, Massachusetts, with his wife, Carole, and turned his life over to his other passions. He’s always fancied himself a songwriter and a poet, but his greatest talent may lie in oral history. Deep down, everyone has an interesting story to tell, but sometimes it takes a talented listener to draw it out. Manning is that kind of guy. He exudes a sense of unflappable interest that makes people want to suddenly narrate their own life stories. He’s published two books of history based on his interviews with residents of North Adams, Massachusetts.
Lewis Hine entered Manning’s life at a dinner party in 2005. His friend Elizabeth Winthrop had just finished writing a novel, Counting on Grace, about a Vermont mill girl, based on a real photo taken in North Pownal by Hine in 1910. The photo is one of Hine’s most captivating. In it, a wisp of a girl leans against her bobbins, staring directly at the camera. She looks malnourished, and her unshod feet are black with dirt. In his caption, Hine refers to her as “an anemic little spinner.”
Winthrop told Manning that she had become obsessed with the story of the real girl but hadn’t had much luck tracking down the details of her life. She offered to hire him to take a shot at it. “I wanted to forget dessert and just bolt out the door and start looking,” Manning recalls.
The search took three months. In his notes, Hine had called the girl “Addie Laird,” but that was a misspelling. Winthrop had found through census and town records that she’d been born Adeline Card, her name until she married Edward Hatch in 1915.
Manning then discovered that Hatch had divorced Addie for “abandonment” when their daughter was 6 years old. At that point the trail went cold. But Manning looked for Addie’s daughter and found that she had one living descendant, a daughter of her own. He tracked down her phone number, and, though she’d met her estranged grandmother only once, she was able to point Manning toward Cohoes, New York.
There, he picked up the scent again, finding a document referring to Addie as Mrs. Ernest LaVigne. She and her second husband had adopted a daughter, and Addie had lived to see the birth of two more grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren. In January 2006 Manning interviewed two family members. They shared with him their loving memories of a woman they’d called “Granmma Pat.” Apparently, she’d always hated the name Adeline. She’d died in 1993 at the age of 94.
Not long after the Addie Card quest, Manning cloistered himself in his home office and tried to track down some of the other Hine children. He kept it a secret from his wife at first, but once he’d found his second child–a North Carolina spinner named Minnie Carpenter–he showed her his work and the list of leads he had for other children. Manning recalls his wife looking at him tenderly and saying, “Well, I guess I’ll never see you again.”
Lewis Hine was an artist working in the medium of guilt. When he arrived in Winchendon in September 1911, he knew exactly what he was looking for. Though he prided himself on never staging a photo, he deliberately looked for images that supported his position. Hine believed that child labor was wrong. By today’s standards, that moral stand seems hardly daring, but at that time, child labor was an accepted practice. Where child-labor laws existed, they were poorly enforced, and Hine routinely found children under the age of 10 working amidst the whirling gears of American industry.
Hine is remembered as one of the pioneers of documentary photography. In his day, social reformers were just learning to appreciate the power of images. It was harder for people to condone a sin once they’d seen it for themselves, so reformers would hire photographers to produce images of working-class realities that they could then inject into the parlors of middle-class homes. Hine was one of the best.
Manning always keeps this in mind when he’s working. Though Hine is never in the photo, he’s there, behind the lens, telling a story of his own. Manning can see that story clearly in the photo of Mamie Laberge.
“I don’t know whether there’s any girl in American history who is as beautiful as this photo is,” he says. “When you look at Hine’s pictures, you say, They could be my ancestors or They could have been my kids.” Hine spent two days in Winchendon and took 40 photos there. Mamie is in 12 of them. He was fixated on her; she had a grace and an innocence that made her the perfect model. She didn’t look entirely like a victim, but she definitely wasn’t free–like a defiant princess locked in a tower. When you look at her, you don’t see someone you want to pity; you see someone you want to save.
When Manning first saw her photo, he knew he’d found his next big project. Until this point, he’d worked primarily online or over the phone. Hine had taken photographs all over the country, and Manning couldn’t afford to chase after him in person. But Winchendon was only an hour and a half from his home. He could do this one. He could see the whole story for himself.
It took Manning only a couple of hours to determine that Mamie wasn’t Woolley’s great-aunt, but by then the question was irrelevant for him. The project had grown: When Manning first drove into Winchendon in September 2008, 97 years after Hine, he brought with him all 40 photos, printed and collected in a three-ring binder on his passenger seat. He was going to find them all.
Joe Manning scans the long rows of graves in Calvary Cemetery on the southeast side of Winchendon. It’s March 2010, and the onset of spring has taken some of the bite out of the air. He paces up and down the rows in a button-down flannel shirt and an old crumpled jacket, his wrinkled blue eyes searching for one grave in particular.
Henry Smith, who as a child worked in the Glenallan Mill, is eluding him. In a predominantly French Canadian cemetery, it should be easy to pick out such an English name from the sea of Gauthiers and Morins, but Manning is having no luck.
He’s been given a tip that Smith was buried next to a LaRochelle. A friend who’s helping Manning search shouts over to him that he’s spotted a grave with that name. “Where?” he replies. The friend points to a large stone with LaRochelle carved in big block letters. “Oh, that’s Clarinda,” Manning says offhandedly, as if she were an old acquaintance. “We’re looking for a different one.”
After a year and a half working in Winchendon, Manning knows the town’s story better than most people who’ve lived there their entire lives. Overall, Winchendon is a mundane place–a small community on the New Hampshire border that few people in Massachusetts go out of their way to know. Like a lot of other New England towns, it never fully recovered after the mills closed down, and now it just persists. It’s a quiet town with a lot of old people and a lot of old buildings, and Manning is fascinated by every last one of them.
“Winchendon has a history that’s still on the lips of people who talk,” he says. “These kinds of towns interest me. I call them ‘used to be’s. You can still see a lot of what used to be. And if you can’t, you can see a parking lot, and you know that there was a ‘used to be’ in that parking lot.
“If you’re curious, you can ask someone on the street what used to be there, and there’s going to be somebody who’s going to be able to tell you that. If you don’t do that now, in 25 years there won’t be anyone left who can tell you what used to be. They’ll tell you what used to be is now. And there ain’t nothing here anymore.”
In every case he works on, Manning tracks down and interviews any living descendants of the child in the photo. More often than not, they’re the worker’s grandchildren. They remember the person in the photo only distantly, as an elderly person. They can recall family reunions in parlors and what kind of candy he or she kept in the house, but little else.
All memory eventually reaches a vanishing point, and for the children in Hine’s photos, that point is coming up fast. There’s no one left alive who remembers these children as children. There’s no one left who recalls what they were like as teenagers or as young parents. Those memories are gone forever. Manning knows all too well that he’s running out of time, because sometimes he shows up too late.
In Calvary Cemetery there’s one stone that no one visits. The name on it is Eva Caouette. She died of leukemia at the age of 28, two years after she married. Manning couldn’t find a single person in town who remembered her. Her three nieces, daughters of her brothers, had never heard of her. She’s gone.
“Nobody walking through Calvary Cemetery past Eva Caouette is going to look at that and say, ‘I know who she was,'” Manning observes. “That’s it. She’s just a name on a gravestone.”
There’s a lot of truth to the old axiom that a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s especially true of Hine’s work for the National Child Labor Committee. The only problem is that his photos tend to say the same thousand words over and over again. Hine wasn’t interested in telling the stories of the children he photographed; he cared only about telling the story of child labor.
A cynical view finds Hine as exploitative as the mill owners. He used these children, even if it was for the best of intentions. He took what he needed from them, and by the time they’d blinked the phantom glare of his flash from their eyes, he was gone, never to be seen again.
In today’s society, Hine’s pictures would lead to something. Police would bust down the doors of these factories and ferry the children away to better lives. But that’s not what happened at the turn of the 20th century. These children returned to their spinning machines and their looms and went back to work. They grew up and lived their lives. Many of them likely forgot their brief encounters with Hine. Almost none of them ever saw their photographs or heard how they were used.
“For me, this is an enormous album of unfinished stories,” Manning says, gesturing to his binder. Hine had taken only snapshots: two-dimensional renderings of a single moment in time. Manning needs more than that: “I look at one of these kids, and my reaction is: Whatever happened to this kid? Is that it? Is this all I know? Is this all I’ll ever find out?” That’s Manning’s goal: He wants to find out what happened next. His work is a gigantic footnote that can be filed away someday next to Hine’s photos in the Library of Congress as a reminder that these children were more than just sad pictures. They are more than names on headstones.
When Manning finally catches up to Mamie Laberge, he finds her as an old woman. She appears to him, once again, in a white dress. Her youthful grace has been replaced by the stooped plumpness of age, but she’s smiling. Surrounded by her siblings, she stands on a manicured lawn as they pose for a family portrait in the late 1960s. By this time, Mamie has been married to the same man for more than 40 years. She’s had three children, and, although no one today remembers how, she’s lost parts of two fingers on one hand. In another 10 years or so, she’ll pass away after a long illness, but of course she doesn’t know that yet. Manning does.
“You see their whole life histories in fast-forward,” Manning reflects. “It’s so haunting to see them as children and then see them as 60-year-olds. These kids in 1911 … Think about all the things they didn’t know about the future of the country. Most of them probably thought, like most kids, that their lives would always be the way they were then.”
The photo had come from Karen Czelusniak, one of Mamie’s great-nieces. There were 14 Laberge children in Mamie’s generation, 11 of whom survived to adulthood, so there are plenty of descendants for Manning to track down. He’s taken his time, doing more face-to-face interviews than he has for any other case. Mamie brought him to Winchendon, so he feels it’s only right that hers should be the last story he completes before he leaves.
In the spring of 2010, Manning knocks lightly on the side door of Esther Grimes’ home. She’s the granddaughter of Henry Laberge, one of Mamie’s older brothers, and one of the few direct descendants of the family still living in Winchendon. She shows him into the dining room, neatly decorated with keepsakes and photos. Manning places a bulky tape machine on the table and hits Record.
It doesn’t take long for Manning to realize that Esther is a kindred spirit. As he places his binder of photos on the table, she matches it with one of her own. Esther is a keeper–one of those people whose calling is to tend the family tree and ensure that none of its branches ever falls off. The two of them talk shop for a time, comparing the usefulness of various genealogical Web sites and other resources. “Have you ever been to the Worcester library upstairs? The third floor?” she asks. Manning shakes his head no. “Oh, oh,” she replies. “The directories are there, the microfilm. The whole third floor is what you want to do.”
As the conversation turns to Mamie and her siblings, an outline begins to emerge. Like most of the Laberge children, Mamie left Winchendon as a young adult. She moved to Worcester, where she married Frank Mossey, a shoe salesman, in 1921. She lived there for the rest of her life. Esther visited her home only once and remembers little about it other than its extreme cleanliness. Most of Esther’s memories of Mamie are from family reunions at her grandparents’ house. The Laberge children had grown up on Mill Circle, a small loop of factory-owned houses in the shadow of the Spring Village Mill in Winchendon Springs. Most of the family left, but Henry stayed, and so when the siblings would meet, it was often in the same neighborhood where Lewis Hine had found them.
Esther shows a photo that was taken before her time. It’s 1944, and 24 members of the family, spanning three generations, are crammed in front of the camera at Henry’s home at 4 Mill Circle. His son, Amedee, has come home from the service, and he’s standing in the center in his uniform. Mamie has swiped the hat off his head, and in the photo you can see her wearing it as she peers over his shoulder with a guilty grin. It’s the most alive she’s looked in any of the photos she left behind.
Esther’s own memories of Mamie are less vivid. She remembers Mamie’s big personality and her laughter. Mamie and her siblings would swap old stories in French and reminisce. But Esther was a child then, so she didn’t stick around to listen to those old stories, or if she did, she doesn’t remember them. “I went up there when I was small and I played with my cousins,” she explains.
Manning tries to get a little more out of her. He’s become an expert at tracking down the skeletons of people’s lives–when they were born, when they died, where they lived, whom they married–but those things are just facts. A personality is harder to find. Manning is always looking for some small window into his subjects’ souls–a joke, a habit, or just one good story–anything that might help put some flesh back on their bones.
“What do you miss most?” he asks. It’s a question he turns to whenever an interview runs dry. It makes people think of the little things–details they might have thought too frivolous to mention. When he posed the question to one of Addie Card’s great-granddaughters, she surprised him by answering, “The shuffle of her slippers.” When Addie was very old and her great-granddaughter would visit, it was the sound of her slippers that would reach her first through the closed door, letting her know Addie was all right.
Esther mulls over the question for a moment, then explains that she really just misses people getting together. “Nobody lives at 4 Mill Circle now,” she tells him. “That’s sad. That was the center of everything for us, and it’s empty. It’s been empty for years.”
It isn’t the kind of answer Manning was looking for, but it doesn’t really surprise him, either. These are the kinds of things that matter to people. Manning often argues that all history is local history. Every great war was fought by individual soldiers. Every president was someone’s son. Every story, no matter how epic, consists at the molecular level of dining-room tables and family reunions.
On a hill in Riverside Cemetery, not far from the Glenallan Mill, a 20-foot-tall stone cross reaches up to the treeline. Its front is intricately carved with flowers and leaves. Around its base are a handful of graves, all bearing the family name White. The Whites were the people who built the cotton mills, which in turn built Winchendon. They went north to recruit French Canadian workers, whom Hine in turn came to document. They were, in all regards, very important people. But as Manning wisely points out, they’re just as dead as everyone else. “The guy with the mausoleum isn’t any more important than the guy with the flat stone. He may claim to have greater importance in the context of his community, but for the family of the person on the flat stone,” he says, with a touch of sadness, “that person is who’s important to them.”
By the late spring of 2010, Manning is wrapping up his work in Winchendon. Of the 19 surnames identified in Hine’s captions, Manning has finished the family histories of 17. The final two migrated back to Canada. He’s beginning to turn his attention elsewhere–to Eastport, Maine, and to other towns where Hine set up his tripod. Still, there are a few last interviews to do before he’s done.
In June, Manning once again finds himself sitting at someone’s kitchen table, the clunky cassette recorder whirring in front of him. He’s found Ronald Paradis, Mamie’s son-in-law, still living in Worcester. Two of his daughters, Cheryl Szlyk and Deborah Begonis, are also sitting at the table, telling Joe what they remember of their grandmother. A few minutes into the interview, Deborah’s 27-year-old daughter, Jenn Ford, walks into the kitchen, and Manning stops short. “You probably don’t know this,” he says, “but you look exactly like your great-grandmother, Mamie.”
Manning has always harbored a hope that he might one day meet one of the Hine children in person, but he knows it isn’t likely. Even those photographed late in the project would be over 100 years old by now. But seeing Mamie’s face–the same eyes, the same mouth, the same earnest stare–reborn three generations later is soberingly close. As he drives home, he can’t shake the sensation that he’s just seen a ghost.
A few days later, he receives an e-mail from Jenn. At first she found the resemblance amusing, she says. Her father had always told her she had a Frenchman’s nose, and staring at the photos Manning had brought, she thought, Oh my God, I do get my honker from her. But she hasn’t been able to shake that haunting sensation, either, and she’s writing Manning for advice on how to get started doing family research of her own.
Jenn has never known anything about her great-grandmother. On the wall in her mother’s home is a picture of Mamie and her husband in an antique oval frame. She grew up in that house, passed that photo every day, but until she met Joe, she’d never questioned who those people were. Now she passes it and she thinks of the name Laberge. She doesn’t see just an old photo; she sees one moment in a long story that begins with a mill girl and ends with her own life, and when she thinks about all the hardships that came in between, she feels connected.
“It makes me proud,” she says, “to have that name in my blood.”