In 19th century England, it was quite common to find adverts soliciting for the adoption of infants.
Ah how nice. Here’s one quoted from James Greenwood’s Seven Curses of London:
NURSE CHILD WANTED, OR TO ADOPT—The Advertiser, a Widow with a little family of her own, and a 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 month; or would adopt entirely if under two months for the small sum of Twelve pounds.
Spoiler alert: There was no adoption going on. The childless couple and kindly widow are actually thinly veiled offers to dispose of one’s infant for a fee.
Unwed mothers had a tough time during the uppity Victorian age. In response to widespread complaints about welfare abuse, Parliament passed the Poor Law of 1834 with a specific Bastardy clause barring the mothers of illegitimate children from child support. As Thomas Carlyle argued, giving them relief would effectively become “a bounty on unthrift, idleness, bastardy and beer-drinking.” It’s not so different from Bill Clinton railing against the welfare queens.
So what’s a single mother to do? Orphanages refused to accept bastard kids because immorality was thought to be a disease, and children conceived in sin might contaminate the minds of legitimate orphans. Similarly, unmarried mothers couldn’t find work because no one wanted to employ a moral imbecile. That’s not my terminology – The 1913 Mental Deficiency Act specifically classified unwed mothers as moral defectives to make sure they were institutionalized.
To avoid this trouble altogether, the mother of an illegitimate newborn might simply pay a baby farmer to poison the child and throw the body in the Thames. Extremely late-term abortion, if you will.
Baby farming was a lucrative profession: Amelia Dyer reportedly got paid to dispose of four hundred infants before getting caught. Several decades’ worth of cases came before hers, but baby farmers were rarely convicted if investigated at all. Given the high infant mortality rate and poor medical science of the day, it was difficult to attribute a death to murder vs neglect – and there was nothing illegal about neglect. There simply wasn’t much sympathy for unwanted babies. The Irish Potato Famine was going down, and people were actively starving to death.
There’s a Chinese idiom, 易子而食. It literally translates to “Swap kids to get food.” The phrase first appears in a 4th century BC text describing events of the Zhou Dynasty Spring and Autumn period . Ancient Chinese parents were understandably reluctant to slaughter and consume their own offspring; thus in times of famine, parents would exchange children with their neighbors and eat each other’s kids instead.
To this day, I’m not entirely sure if 易子而食 was a real thing or if it was just a story that my parents told to scare me into submission. Come home with good grades or we’ll eat you, was the Battle Hymn of my Tiger Mother.
Sometimes I wonder if Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal was really all that modest.