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Angel-makers, baby-killers—take your pick.
It was a problem that was all too common during the 18th and 19th centuries.
In an era before contraception and abortion became widely safe and affordable, women who found themselves pregnant and unmarried were often faced with harsh choices. Though abortions were still available to those who could afford them, they were extremely dangerous, not to mention illegal in most places. Some desperate women resorted to infanticide of their newborn infants, though the ones who were caught often faced imprisonment, or even execution.
And then there were the economic and legal barriers women trying to raise children by themselves faced. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the English Poor Laws declared all illegitimate children to be the sole responsibility of their mothers until they were sixteen years old. Mothers of illegitimate children were also deemed "immoral" and banned from mixing with "respectable" women in the workhouses that were often the only real alternative for women left to fend for themselves. In some countries, women who had given birth to illegitimate children were often sent to Magdalene laundries while their children were abandoned to orphanages until they were old enough to be put to work (typically before puberty).
Even the traditional practice of "abandoning a baby on a doorstep" was illegal and mothers faced prosecution if caught. Being an unwed mother was considered a dark sin in many households and social services as we know them today were nonexistent. Those women who could not be safely married off (usually in marriages of convenience) were sent away to prevent bringing shame to their families.
And thus the "baby farming" industry sprang up in many countries. The term "baby farming" was first coined in a British Medical Journal article published in 1867, though the practice was already well-established by then. For a modest fee, women in need could arrange for their newborn babies to be cared for and educated with no awkward questions being asked. Pregnant women could conceal their pregnancies by appearing to take a rest holiday in a country setting far from home. After giving birth, they could recover and return to their normal lives with nobody being the wiser while their infants were left in the baby farmer's care.
Unfortunately, there were no real child welfare laws in place and no safeguards to prevent actual abuse taking place. While most baby farmers were conscientious in caring for their charges, the prospect of turning a quick profit drew in many unscrupulous people as well.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, baby farms were completely unregulated until 1872 (though laws preventing animal mistreatment had been in place far longer). In his classic novel, Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens attempted to raise public awareness of what was happening on the baby farms of his time and the appalling conditions some children had to endure.
In leaving their children with baby farmers, mothers either made a lump-sum payment or else arranged regular payments of a few shillings per week. While many baby farmers promised to find a good home for their charges, whether through formal adoption or foster care, actual follow-up was rare. In many cases, mothers were fully aware of the high mortality rate and even took that into account in deciding what to do with their infants.
As for how the baby farmers found customers, that was rarely difficult. Discreet newspaper ads listing just a post office box would read:
Nurse child wanted, or to adopt—A Widow with a little family of her own, and moderate allowance from her late husband's friends, would be glad to accept the charge of a young child. Age no object. If sickly, would receive a parent's care. Terms: Fifteen shillings a week or would adopt entirely if under two months for the small sum of Twelve pounds.
With no questions asked, more sinister baby farmers could make their money by taking in as may sickly infants as they could. Infant mortality was high in those days so few suspicions would be raised if the baby farmer's charges died as soon as possible. Drugging an infant's milk with laudanum or some other discreet poison would be followed by the body being quietly dumped into a river, abandoned in the street, or buried privately (funeral costs were expensive). Older children, whose mothers had tried to care for them for a while, often lived grim lives and frequently starved to death.
One of the most notorious baby farmers of the 19th century was Margaret Waters of Peckham, London. After her husband abandoned her, she eventually turned to baby farming but quickly discovered that the fees she charged did not cover the expenses involved in caring for the children she took in. Along with drugging her charges to keep them quiet and slowly starving them, she would also abandon them whenever she could do it discreetly. Not surprisingly, many of the babies in her care ended up dying, whether due to starvation or one of the various diseases associated with malnutrition. To save on burial fees, she would wrap the bodies in paper and leave them in the streets to be found.
This was what led to her undoing as police began investigating the infant deaths. Sergeant Richard Rief of the London Metropolitan police began investigating all the local baby farmers to discover the source of the infant bodies being found. When he came to Margaret Waters' house, he found numerous children living in appalling conditions. Some were on the verge of death from starvation. He found one baby that looked barely human due to extreme emaciation living in a makeshift crib. As he would later tell the court, the baby seemed "more monkey than child." There were also older children in Waters' care as well but they seemed little better off. She was eventually convicted for the murder of five infants but was generally believed to have killed as many as nineteen. On October 11, 1870, Margaret Waters was hanged making her the first woman to be executed for baby-farming in the United Kingdom.
But she was hardly the only baby farmer who would come to police attention. One notorious baby farmer, Amelia Elizabeth Dyer, was likely the most prolific baby murderer of all. Her trademark involved strangling babies with white tape, which often forced her to move her operations to different towns to avoid suspicious doctors. By the time police caught up with her, she had been a baby farmer for fifteen years and may have killed as many as 400 babies. Despite an insanity plea, she was hanged in 1896.
Other criminal cases involving baby farmers committing murder were reported across the United Kingdom as well as Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Denmark. In German and Scandinavian countries, there was a gruesome euphemism for this practice: "Engelmacherin," meaning "angel-maker."
Publicity over cases such as those of Margaret Waters and Amelia Dyer led to widespread outrage. Even honest women who truly cared for their charges didn't dare call themselves baby farmers due to the widespread notoriety associated with the term. The Infant Life Protection Society (ILPS) was founded in Britain and Societies for Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the United States, largely due to the publicity surrounding cases of murder associated with baby farming. Through pressure from members of the Infant Life Protection Society, the U.K. government passed the Infant Life Protection Act of 1872. The act was a dismal failure though and unscrupulous baby farmers (such as Amelia Dyer) were still free to murder infants.
Eventually, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children spread across the U.K. as it had in other countries and the first act to protect children from abuse was passed in 1889. That this act was still inadequate because obvious enough with the shocking testimony at the Amelia Dyer trial. This led to the passage of the Infant Protection Act of 1897 giving even more extensive protections for children. The Act stated that "no infant could be kept in a home that was so unfit and so overcrowded as to endanger its health, and no infant could be kept by an unfit nurse who threatened, by neglect or abuse, its proper care and maintenance." Police also had the power to investigate all suspected baby farms to weed out the criminally unfit ones.
In 1906, one of the first modern children's acts was passed which established formal supervision for all foster mothers, but eradicating criminal baby farming took a joint effort by society, various police agencies, and local governments. By 1920, criminal baby farming had virtually disappeared. Adoption of illegitimate children became more acceptable and many of the legal loopholes that had allowed the baby farmers to work undetected had been plugged. By 1946, baby farming was made illegal across the U.K.
Most other countries that had allowed baby farming largely followed the same pattern with modern child welfare agencies forming to regulate child adoption and foster homes. In the United States, the crackdown on baby farms was spurred on by exposés such as George Walker's 1918 book, The Traffic in Babies, which dealt with his findings relating to two baby farms in Baltimore.
As the stigma surrounding illegitimacy largely subsided, mothers were free to raise their infants themselves without the need to abandon or farm them out. By the 1940s, the Victorian concept of the "fallen woman" had been replaced by the more practical view that mothers and their children were better off remaining together. For those mothers unwilling or unable to care for their children, adoption agencies allowed for a humane alternative. Still, despite the advent of better contraceptive methods and safe abortion, the problem of unwanted pregnancy remains in many places.
While the era of the baby farm seems truly over, at least in most countries, the current backlash against making abortion and contraception freely available to women of all ages has helped unravel many of the gains of previous decades. When even child welfare services are being undermined by legislators and sexual abstinence programs are being promoted despite their ineffectiveness, the desperation faced by pregnant women forced to resort to baby farmers seems far too familiar.
We may not have seen the last of the baby farmers.