From Baby Farm to Table

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 [1]. 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.

1. 春秋左傳 – Chun Qiu Zuo Zhuan Book VII: 宣公十五年 (English translation)
2. James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869.

5 thoughts on “From Baby Farm to Table

  1. Dear Elaine,

    A disturbing history, but please check your source for claiming ” It’s not so different from Bill Clinton railing against the welfare queens.” Ronald Reagan was the apparent major political originator of the term, which was used mainly to characterize the fraudsters in the welfare system, not merely needy unwed mothers. (You can thank Bill Clinton for “ending welfare as we know it…”)

    “In 1976, former California Governor and Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan issued a wholesale condemnation of Black female welfare recipients as ruthless con artists robbing the federal government blind and undermining the moral fabric of U.S. society. The so-called “welfare queen,” as Reagan stated in his diatribe, “has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veterans benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” Although the story itself rode the fine line between fable and farce, Reagan’s yarn about poor Black women as liars, cheats, and manipulators gained huge political traction. Both in popular memory and public policy, the long shadow of Reagan’s “welfare queen” imagery still looms quite large within the national psyche.”

    Quote is from:

  2. This has been going on in Ireland till recently. The Catholic Church had a baby farm where nuns buried infants, although they allowed many of the so-called bastards to live awhile before they starved them or worked them to death. The Irish authorities are still digging up the bodies, much to the annoyance of Rome. But nuns needed to have fun too — after all, priests were chasing altar boys round the sacristy. Such perquisites were a recruiting tool that the church used for thousands of years.

    Today the pope’s throne sits above the rock where the chief pope of pagan Rome sat. A college of popes existed for centuries before the supposed birth of Jesus, after which it became the college of cardinals. Virgil wrote about the virgin birth decades before Paul heard of it. This is why Peter ruled the faithful from Rome even though Jesus never set foot there. Juvenal made the best early comment on Jesus — hilarious

  3. In those days infant mortality was commonplace. People were more used to babies just dying all the time, remember people also had more children. Makes sense that services existed to manage disposal of the literal piles of dead babies. So glad we discovered germ theory, phew. I mean it might seem very obvious to us, but at the time, evil spirits and catholicism was the forefront of innovation. I’d like to think in the the future when we’ve discovered artificial general intelligence and pointwise genomic medicine people will look back and wonder how so many babies died!

  4. “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.” — ROFL!

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