New York Foundlings

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Moralists and social economists do not all agree as to the merits of asylums for foundlings. it is alleged by some that they are a cloak for vice, and an encouragement to immorality. it is maintained on the other hand, that they partially, at least, prevent the shocking crime of infanticide, and that, when properly organized and conducted, they afford means for the reclamation of unfortunate mothers.

Without going any further into this question, it must suffice to say that the advocates of the asylum system find, in the practical working of foundling asylums in Europe, and also in the operation of the asylum established a few years ago in New York, many facts to sustain their argument.

Three institutions of this class are available to residents of New York City. One is the Infants' Hospital on Randall's Island, under control of the Department of Public Charities. Another is the new York Infant Asylum, organized in the latter part of 1871, under a charter granted by the Legislature several years before. The most important, however, is the Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity, which was established in the autumn of 1869, on the general plan of celebrated foundling asylum conducted by the same religious order in Paris. This institution is most important, for the reason that, since it was opened, it has received nearly all the outcast infants abandoned to charity in the great city.

Previous to October 11, 1869, the date of the opening of the Foundling Asylum, all abandoned infants were taken to the Infants' Hospital. Since the opening of the asylum of the Sisters of Charity, however, a great decrease has taken place in the number of children entered as foundlings on the books of the Randall's Island institution. The asylum conducted by the Sisters was opened, as already stated, in October, 1869. The number of foundlings received on Randall's island during that year was one hundred and twenty-eight. In 1870, the number decreased to forty-five, and, in 1871 it was only thirty-two. Since the beginning of 1872, but very few foundlings have been received there, and it is not improbable that their reception will soon cease altogether.

But foundlings are not the only infants abandoned to the care of public officials. For many years it has been customary for mothers to take or send their offspring to the Randall's-Island hospital, and then hire out in the city as nurses. The object in these cases is chiefly mercenary. The mother is required to pay five dollars a month for the support of her infant in the hospital, but, as she can earn from fifteen to twenty dollars a month as a nurse in the city, she abandons her own child temporarily, at least and nurses another child instead. Of course, only the poorer classes do this, and possibly, in some instances, the circumstances of the mother oblige her to do it, but generally it is done from purely mercenary motives. Naturally the mortality among the infants thus forsaken is very great, although the officials in charge of the hospital do their utmost to save the lives of the helpless little ones committed to them.

Perhaps the statistics on this point may possess some interest. Before giving them, however, it is proper to say that the infants in the hospital are divided into two classes, namely, mothers' children and orphan children. In the first class are all children nursed by their mothers. In the second are those not accompanied by their mothers, including, of course, the foundlings. The word "orphan" is used merely for convenience of classification. From the report of the hospital physician, Dr. Dunkster, it appears that the mortality in the first class in 1869 was 20.44 per cent, while in the second class, during the same year, it was 70.32 per cent., or over three times as great. Since 1869 there has been a marked decrease. In 1871 the mortality among mothers' children had fallen to 12.26 and among those classed as orphan children, to 38.53. This decrease is at least partially attributable to the fact that many of the children in the hospital in 1870-'71 were past the most critical period. Most of them were beyond their first year, and many beyond the second, the proportion becoming larger in 1871 than in the year before. This accounts, in a large degree, for the lower rate of mortality. By the foregoing figures show a vast difference in the chances of life between a child nursed by its own mother and a child nursed otherwise.

The New York Infant Asylum, generally called the protestant Asylum, in contradistinction to the asylum of the Sisters of Charity, was not opened until the latter had been established over two years, although the charter of it had been granted many years before. it is located in Clinton Place, within a short distance of Broadway, and in its board of managers are some of the foremost medical gentlemen in New York, and also several ladies of distinction in charitable work. The building occupied was formerly a private dwelling, and the neighborhood was, not many years ago, the headquarters of the old and wealthy families of the city. The system of management is much more strict than that of the institution conducted by the Sisters of Charity, and the asylum is not, strictly speaking, a foundling establishment at all.

One of the rules is, that women taking infants to it shall also become inmates of it themselves. This is to keep mother and child together, and prevent the former from going astray. Another is, that the mother shall make a formal transfer of her child to the asylum for eighteen years. A third is, not to admit any child tainted with hereditary disease. Neither of these rules, however, is enforced to the letter, though, whenever compliance with all is practicable, it is required. Sometimes an infant is received without its mother. If a woman desires to withdraw her child after one year, and satisfies the managers that she will make proper provision for it, she may, on making suitable compensation for its support while in the asylum, take it away, notwithstanding the formal transfer for eighteen years. The object of the rule in regard to the health of the child, is to keep the mortuary rate as low as possible, but this rule, like the others, is sometimes departed from.

During the first four months after the asylum was opened, the number of children received was about thirty, or less than is frequently left at the other asylum in one week. The managers propose to have children adopted out in suitable families when old enough to leave the asylum, and to have motherless infants adopted at any age, but only upon condition of good nursing, training, and education. In regard to the transfer of the child to the institution, they say that "this nominal relinquishment of the newly-born, and the immediate reengagement of the needy mother to save her offspring, is but reenacting the historical example of the Hebrew mother being employed in saving her infant from the perils of the bulrush-basket and of dry feeding, by Pharaoh's daughter."

Under its charter the Infant Asylum is entitled to an appropriation of five dollars per month from the county for each child maintained in it. The sum, however, is so small that the managers have not applied for it. They have requested the legislature to so amend their charter that they will be entitled to a much larger appropriation for each child, and they also desire an appropriation toward supporting the women received into the asylum. As soon as their means will enable them so to do, they intend to erect a number of detached cottages outside of the city for the accommodation of children and mothers for whom provision cannot be made in the asylum itself. These cottages will be located in Westchester County, within easy visiting distance from the city.

If you pass northward through Washington Square the most spacious and beautiful of our city pleasure-grounds, Central Park alone excepted, you cannot fail to notice, in the block of solid and somewhat stately brick houses between University Place and fifth Avenue, one building that externally, differs from the others only in color. It stands almost in the shadow of the pale-gray pile of masonry, ancient-looking and impressive, known as the University of the City of New York, and presents a front of pure white, emblematic of the innocence within. This building is the Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity. The location is one of the pleasantest and most central in the city, and is in every respect advantageous for the purposes of the asylum.

When the Sisters determined to establish here an institution similar to the great hospital for infants in Paris, they hired a smaller house in Twelfth Street. They had not then any idea of the magnitude which their undertaking was destined to assume, though they fully understood its importance, and believed it was a necessity. In a short time they discovered that the house was not at all adapted to their aims. Within one month it was full, and they found that it was not only inadequate in size, but also that, in construction, it was not suited to the purposes of an asylum. As soon as they could make a change, they leased the building which they now occupy in North Washington Place, and they will probably remain in it until their new asylum buildings are erected.

How many murders have been prevented by the establishment of this institution? An accurate answer cannot be given, yet the great decrease in the number of cases of infanticide reported by the police since the asylum was opened, proves, beyond doubt, that the enterprise of the Sisters has been of very great value in checking this horrible crime. Formerly cases of child-murder were of almost daily occurrence, as the police statistics plainly show; and, up to the time of the opening of the asylum, there was a steady and alarming increase in their number. Since that time, however, the decrease has been so great that infanticide is now as rare as it had previously been frequent. Mothers are not so desperately tempted to destroy their children when they know that near them is a place where they can consign their little ones to gentle and loving hands, without making themselves known, if for any reason they desire secrecy, and where the support of the children does not involve any expense to them.

In the basement vestibule is placed a comfortable basket-crib, in which the unconscious little stranger may be left. Near the crib is a door-bell, which the person leaving the child need only pull to secure immediate attention to the helpless innocent. The castaway is removed from the crib at once and transferred to a nurse. It is duly registered in the books of the asylum, with sufficient description and statement of circumstances to guarantee facility of identification, if at any time the mother desires to reclaim it, and thenceforward it is cared for with constant solicitude. The whole system is, in fact, almost identical with that of the great French asylum upon which the institution of the Sisters is modeled.

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Website: The History
Article Name: New York Foundlings
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 BIBLIOGRAPHY: Serial: Appleton's' Journal: a magazine of general literature. New York Foundlings by Daniel Connolly. From the collection of Making of America Journal articles.
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