“I was thinking about where [my father] worked as a child and the fact that he died of emphysema. There was dust flying around in those textile mills. I am curious whether that would have contributed in any way.” –James Dempsey, son of John Dempsey.
The above photograph was taken by famous child labor investigator Lewis Hine, who made more than 5,000 such photographs for the National Child Labor Committee between 1908 and 1924. The Committee believed that exposing child labor to the general public in such a graphic way would persuade state and federal legislators to pass laws regulating or prohibiting the practice. That effort would prove successful, and most child labor in the United States is now a thing of the past, though in many other parts of the world, it is still a massive problem.
Since 2005, I have been tracking down and interviewing the descendants of many of the children that Hine photographed, and then writing stories about how the lives of those children turned out, what they were like, and how they are remembered by their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The story of John Dempsey is one of over 350 stories I have written so far. My work, which I call the Lewis Hine Project, is posted on my website.
My research shows that young John was only 10 years old at the time, even though Rhode Island had passed a law in 1906 which specified that no children under the age of 14 were allowed to work in mills and factories. That law, and many others in various states, were often poorly enforced. In this case, John was working illegally.
To see my entire story of John Dempsey, including an interview with his son James, click the following link on my website:
To see all of my stories, plus information about Lewis Hine and child labor, click the following link:
Joe Manning is an author and historian. His Lewis Hine Project has been featured on CBS Evening News and National Public Radio, and in Yankee Magazine and Time Magazine. Joe lives in Florence, Massachusetts.