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The Memory Keeper: Child Labor Photos

The Memory Keeper: Child Labor Photos
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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.

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