Heartbreaking History of the “4 Children For Sale” Photo
Valparaiso’s defunct Vidette-Messenger ran “4 Children for Sale” photograph on August 5th, 1948. The story went national afterwards, with newspapers around the country clamoring for the story. The original caption:
A big “For Sale” sign in a Chicago yard mutely tells the tragic story of Mr. and Mrs. Ray Chalifoux, who face eviction from their apartment. With no place to turn, the jobless coal truck driver and his wife decide to sell their four children. Mrs. Lucille Chalifoux turns her head from camera above while her children stare wonderingly. On the top step are Lana, 6, and Rae, 5. Below are Milton, 4, and Sue Ellen, 2.
Given the subject and dramatic photo, it’s no wonder the story has been told and retold a hundred times in the last seven decades. Most disturbing of all is the mother’s turned face—whether she’s hiding tears or raw shame, we don’t know—because there’s a chance the photo might be fake or a joke. It has to be a hoax, right?
It is not.
It is likely a posed photo and rumors floated around that the reporter paid the mother to stage the photo. The posted sign is too professional, the subjects’ positions too posed. However, the story is true. Equally alarming to the story’s truth is its position on the Vidette-Messenger‘s front page.
In the parlance of print journalism, the biggest stories can be found “above the fold” on newspapers, meaning it would be instantly visible to readers in a bundle of papers. While this story did make the front page, it was nestled in the bottom of the page: a medium-sized photo with a lengthy caption, but no more. Today, we might call it a photo blurb.
For those that miss the “Good Ol’ Days,” it is hard to miss a cynical or tired America where four children flagrantly sold on a Chicago street wouldn’t warrant an in-depth story, “above the fold.” Certainly it would receive that position of any regional paper today.
Although the pictured family did receive assistance from generous readers across the country, the family’s circumstances didn’t improve. By 1950, all the children in the photo would be sold off. RaeAnn and her brother Milton would find themselves at a farm in Jasper County, Indiana, where they were purchased not as family additions, but as farm labor. Both claimed their foster “parents” imprisoned them in the barn with chains to prevent escape—a cruel echo of the Orphan Trains that carted children from the East Coast to the farms of the Midwest from 1854 to 1929.
A family only a few miles away adopted their youngest brother, David (as yet unborn in the infamous 1948 photo). David’s adopted family As he grew older, David frequently visited his older brother and sister. Both RaeAnn and Milton (renamed Beverly and Kenneth) had obviously troubled childhoods which trailed into their adult life.
Decades later, Milton, David, and RaeAnn searched for Lana and Sue Ellen. Although Lana had died in 1997 or 1998, Sue Ellen was still alive (she passed in 2013) and told them about growing up on the East Side of Chicago. Although she didn’t have the troubled childhood of her two siblings, she had no qualms in voicing her opinion of their shared mom: “She needs to be in Hell burning.” A harsh, but understandable feeling.
The youngest, David, doesn’t hold the same resentment. Their biological mother had been living off welfare for several years, ever since her husband (and the father of the five children) had abandoned the family, fleeing an unknown criminal charge. In his mind, his derelict father shouldered most of the blame. In an interview with the Times in 2017, David said, “I mean, what father is going to father five children and then turn around and abandon them?”