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|'Children of Accident and Mystery': Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City|
|In the 1850s civic leaders in New York first became alarmed about the rising number of foundlings on their streets and doorsteps. In my paper I will look at how public officials, physicians, reformers, and the press defined and dealt a problem that was long familiar to Europeans.
Foundlings were traditionally understood to be the unwanted babies of unmarried mothers. As a result, in New York as in Western Europe, the stigma of illegitimacy defined their status. In antebellum New York, stigma prevented private charities from accepting foundlings, making the the public almshouse their only refuge. The charities' rejection of foundlings was made respectable by a traditional apathy toward the welfare of infants and young children that was also based on their fragile hold on life.
By the middle of the nineteenth century the rising number of foundlings, combined with the dissipation in apathy toward young children traced by historians from Philippe Aries to Viviana Zelizer, led to plans for four foundling asylums. All four opened immediately after the Civil War. Despite their newfound empathy, the efforts nineteenth-century New Yorkers made to help foundlings were directed as much toward their mothers as they were toward the children.
At a time when anxiety about prostitution and abortion was high, all agreed that the root cause of infant abandonment was the moral failings of women. Even the rejection of motherhood that practices like wet-nursing and baby-farming seemed to imply were drawn into the debate about foundlings and foundling asylums. The new foundling asylums—two Protestant ones, one Catholic one, and a fourth run by the city—made the reform of fallen women central to their programs.
Other, less disinterested concerns were also in play. Physicians associated with the American Medical Association’s mid-century antiabortion crusade hoped the foundling asylums would cut into the trade of their professional rivals, the abortionists. Members of the notorious Tweed Ring saw the foundling asylums as incubators of immigrant votes. And the press, increasingly eager for sentimental stories to feed its growing readership, hovered.
Very soon after they opened the foundling asylums were attacked by Abraham Jacobi, an influential physician and a founder of the new field of pediatrics, who publicized their inability to keep their infant inmates alive. By the Progressive era new paradigms overwhelmed the foundling asylums. As foster care replaced institutionalization, three out of the four of the foundling asylums closed.
Using records of the institutions; records of the almshouse, the police, the Common Council, and other city departments; writings of physicians; newspaper and magazine articles; personal papers; and notes left by abandoning mothers, I will show how currents of reform and self-interest swirled around the issue, and how New Yorkers adapted centuries-old English and Continental ideas about foundlings to fit the requirements of their own landscape.