In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM is the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. I believe presentism is a form of cultural bias, and it creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. I'm well aware that historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present articles that are fact based and well researched, without interjecting any of my personal opinions.
Family members accused the mother of being paid to stage the photo, which may have been part of the story, but unfortunately, she was dead serious about selling her children. No one knows how long the sign stood in the yard, whether it was long enough for the camera to take the picture or whether it was years. Within two years all of the children pictured, as well as the baby she was carrying at the time, were sold off to different homes.
Before being picked up for national newspapers, the photo first appeared in The Chicago Herald-American Newspaper - August 4, 1948. The children looked posed and a bit confused as their pregnant mother hides her face from the photographer.
|Original caption from the Chicago Herald-American Newspaper - August 4, 1948, Chicago, Illinois: "They're on the auction block. These small children of Mr. and Mrs. Ray Chalifoux of Chicago, Illinois. For long months 40-year-old Ray and his wife, Lucille, 24, waged a desperate but losing battle to keep food in the mouth and a roof over their heads. Now jobless and facing eviction from their near barren flat, the Chalifoux has surrendered to their heartbreaking decision. The photo shows mother sobbing as the children pose wonderingly on the steps. Left to right: Lana,6. Rae[Ann], 5. Milton, 4. Sue Ellen, 2 years old." — Posed Image by Bettmann.|
NOTE: The Vidette-Messenger of Valparaiso, Indiana is usually given credit for publishing this picture first on August 5, 1948, but on August 5th thru the 10th, dozens of newspapers around the country published this picture with nearly the same caption.According to the New York Post Newspaper, several days after the sad photo and its caption ran in a newspaper called the Chicago Heights Star, A Chicago Heights woman offered to open her home to the children. Offers of jobs, apartments, homes, and financial assistance poured in. However, it's unclear if and where the financial assistance was distributed, and whether it merely held the family together for a couple years before all the children were sold off.
Sometime later, Lucille Chalifoux had four more children — this time, she kept them.
THE RESULTS OF BEING SOLD AS A CHILD
In 2013, the scattered siblings tried to find each other, and their stories are of raw survival and heartbreaking.
“No one believes it,” Lance Gray said about his mother RaeAnn’s horrific and dramatic life story. In 2013 the then 70-year-old RaeAnn Mills reunited with her 67-year-old sister Sue Ellen Chalifoux for the first time since they were seven and four. By the time of their reunion, Sue Ellen was dying of lung cancer but RaeAnn was grateful for the brief, bittersweet reunion. “It’s one of the happiest days of my life,” RaeAnn said of the trip she took with her son to visit Sue Ellen a few months before she passed away. Sue Ellen could no longer speak when they met, but she could write. “It’s fabulous. I love her,” she wrote of her sister RaeAnn, but minced no words about her birth mother: “She needs to be in hell burning.”
David McDaniel, who was in his mother’s womb at the time of the photograph, never got to meet Sue Ellen before she passed away, or their older sister Lana, who died before the siblings started reconnecting.
According to RaeAnn, she was sold for $2 ($22 today) to farmers John and Ruth Zoeteman on August 27, 1950. Her brother Milton was crying nearby during the transaction, so the Zoetemans took Milton for another $2 as well.
|RaeAnn Mills left, and her brother Milton was sold to the Zoeteman family.|
Although it seems that RaeAnn and Milton were never officially adopted by their abusers, their brother David (born Bedford Chalifoux) was legally adopted by Harry and Luella McDaniel, who only lived a few miles away. David was given away at two years of age. When his adoptive family, the McDaniels, received him, he had bed bug bites all over his body. They raised him in a strictly religious fashion, but their proximity to his siblings RaeAnn and Milton allowed him to visit them at the farm on which they lived. He remembers untying them in the barn.
David, who says his adoptive parents were strict but loving and supportive, remembers riding out on his bike to see his siblings and unchaining them before going back home.
RaeAnn left home at 17, shortly after undergoing a brutally traumatic situation. As a young teen, she was kidnapped and raped, which resulted in a pregnancy. She was sent away to a home for pregnant girls and had her baby adopted when she returned.
As Milton grew older, he reacted to the beatings, starving, and other abuses with violent rages. A judge deemed him a menace to society, and de spent a number of years in a mental hospital after being forced to choose between that and a reformatory (a juvenile detention center.)
The woman in the photograph remarried after selling/giving away her five children and had four more daughters. When her other children eventually came to see her, she’s described as completely lacking love for her estranged children, or having any regret for letting them go.
David McDaniel defended his mother’s coldness as evidence of a different, hardscrabble world. “As soon as my mom seen me, she said, ‘You look just like your father,’” McDaniel said. “She never apologized. Back then, it was survival. Who are we to judge? We’re all human beings. We all make mistakes. She could’ve been thinking about the children. Didn’t want them to die.” He also met the four daughters she had during a later marriage: the children which she kept.
Milton had a different perspective on the situation: “My birth mother, she never did love me. She didn’t apologize for selling me. She hated me so much that she didn’t care.”
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.