NL 2010/06a

Unwanted children were a substantial source of income – 'Baby farming' and abortionists saved women from social ostracism.

Kids Suffered Too

Due to their desperation, unwedded mothers were a perfect target for liars and criminals. These women would scratch their last cent together to secure an adoption or foster home, as well as the ongoing costs of child care. Little of their efforts in fact benefited the health and nourishment of their babies. World literature is rife with the horror stories of the living conditions suffered by foster children, as for example in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, published in 1867: "Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny – quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children, and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them....“

In most cases, illegitimate children did not reach a mature age. This solved at least one problem: Their premature death removed concrete evidence of their mother's "misconduct" and additionally removed further financial burden. Ödön von Horvath depicts just this in his Tales From The Vienna Woods: "Precious young lady! Yes indeed, you young lady! Unfortunately we have to bear news that will be quite sad for you to hear. God Almighty has excercised his imponderable will in wanting you, precious young lady, to no longer be with child. The child merely caught a little cold, and thereupon swiftly expired, period. But be comforted: God Almighty loves innocent children."

Yet their were other cases in which the mother was made to believe that her child was most alive and thriving. Meanwhile the opposite was true:

"A child has never departed the house of Couillard alive. This is their specialty. When one sees an nurse-agent like Couteau for example, bring a child to Couillard, one immediately understands the implication. Couteau has by then no doubt agreed upon the death of the child. This transpires in a very simple manner. The parents pay a sum of one or two thousand Francs, which is to be kept until the time of the child's first Communion - obviously the child thereupon dies within eight days. One merely needs to leave a window open. My father knew an attendant who had six infants in her care, leaving their room with the door wide open one Winter and simply walking out." Emile Zola, Fruitfulness, 1899

The accomodation of a "foster child" or boarder – whose German term ‚Kostkind’ sounds just neutral and caring - was named "baby farming" in English.  The actual treatment of the child as an object can be gleaned from the term - a focus on making money is implied in the term. In fact, the living conditions of the children were often so scandalous that the English government eventually was impelled to intervene, reorganize and watch over foster care, as well as broaden the responsibility taken by both parents for the children.

Quick Death Brings More Money

Spectacular cases were pivotal, in which supposedly honorable women and couples would adopt children or take them into foster care and promptly murder them. Such was the case with the domestic, friendly, and maternal Amelia Dyer (*1829) who adopted unwanted children over the course of 30 years, dispatching them to their deaths in a variety of ways. She even schooled her daughter in this form of breadwinning. She finally was discovered through her carelesness. The bundle with the murdered baby flowed to the shore of a river with evidence that lead to her investigation and standing trial. She was hanged on June 10, 1896.

The duo Amelie Sach (*1873) and Annie Walters (*1869) proceeded in a similar fashion. They both had addopted babies which they poisoned. They were convicted because of the large amount of infant clothing in their possesion that drew the suspicion of their tenant – a police officer! They were hanged on February 3, 1903 for multiple young children murders. Margaret Waters was another English baby murderer. She was executed in 1870. Minnie (Williamina) Dean (*1844) from New Zealand was executed in 1895 for the same crime. There even was a ballad dedicated to her.


Amelia Dyer: Angel Maker. The Woman who Murdered Babies for Money. London, 2007

Angela Buckley: Farmed Out, BBC-Printmagazin ‚Who Do You Think You Are?’, Feb. 2010, 71-74

Dorothy L. Haller, Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England, The Student Historical Journal 1989-1990

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