In recent months I have been working with a client’s DNA, and researching adoption practices in the first decade of the 1900s in Des Moines, Polk, Iowa, and Chicago, Cook, Illinois. This post is not a comprehensive study about the issue or any individual establishment.
A baby boy was born in the summer of 1906 and adopted shortly after his birth. I knew from documented sources for him, that he had spent time in the Iowa Children’s Home, so this is where I started. Moving to newspapers, I soon discovered that the Iowa Humane Society was investigating what was commonly known as baby farms. The newspaper was full of news.
In the usual back and forth of newspaper research, I soon focused my attention on Mrs. S. M. Ingraham who ran a baby farm in Des Moines “where women could become mothers, and their shame be concealed.”1
Mrs. Ingraham had taken out an ad for her home in 1906. She stated that she operated a “retreat for unfortunate girls” where the “home like surroundings and the kindness and skill of its treatment of patients, has defied all competition for more than 14 years past.” She declared that both she and her assistant, Mrs. Mary Gilson, were trained nurses who “stand at the head of the profession in the city of Des Moines.”2 Mrs. Ingraham retired later this year, moving from the home and passing her work to Mary Gilson.
The newspaper advertisement may have led young women to believe that they would be treated with kindness, but the Iowa Humane Society’s research discovered that these young mothers were “in a position to ‘ask no questions’ as to what becomes of the infants. In many cases, they are told the infants are dead and never see them after they are born.” At this point, there was no state supervision over baby farms and the subsequent “disposal” of the babies.3 The Iowa Humane Society was determined to change this and worked to create new regulations and laws to require these institutions to be licensed and to submit to regular inspections.
In November 1907 this story came to light. A woman, the mother of two boys, one four years old, the other a “little over a year” was in court because she had admitted to her husband that the babies were not her own. Mrs. Ingraham and Mrs. Gilson were both in court to testify on behalf of the younger child. They testified that the woman had “secured the baby from them when it was but a few days old.” The husband had “left the city for a short time and when he returned he found the little stranger awaiting him. Never until last week, when his wife confessed, did he know the baby was not his.” The woman also admitted that she had “worked the same scheme” on her first husband, from whom she was divorced. While her first husband was away “on a long business trip she secured an infant twenty-four hours old from the West baby farm and palmed it off to her husband as hers and his. Not only that, but she had a doctor present her husband with a bill for attendance during her sickness.”4
The judge ultimately ruled that the youngest child, whose “real mother is a farmer’s daughter living near Stuart, Ia.,” be turned over to the Iowa Children’s Home. The older boy was to be given into the custody of his paternal grandmother.
Mrs. West, from whose establishment the older boy was “secured,” was the topic of news throughout much of 1907 as she stood trial for the murder of a young baby boy. As a result of the ongoing trial, the inner workings of her “lying-in” hospital were revealed. In February 1907 The Evening Times-Republican from Marshalltown, Iowa, wrote: “Mrs. West now has at her home thirty-eight unfortunate girls, young mothers, for whose care she has charged the father in the case $200 spot cash, that being the minimum fee. [I can’t find the source, but I read that if the girl would not name the father, they waited until the time of birth to coerce her to name him.] The birth records show that there is an average of nearly one baby a day born in this institution. This means that over three hundred and fifty girls annually cover their shame in the place, and the officers say it will be shown that few of the babies live. There are ten such institutions in Des Moines.” The article goes on to state that “the monthly receipts from persons standing sponsor for unfortunate mothers is close to $30,000, and the annual receipts way beyond a quarter of a million.”5
Chicago homes were run differently than those in Des Moines. Here my attention was focused on Dr. William Farmer Briney, in whose home a baby girl was delivered, and then “adopted” out.
As early as 1903 Dr. Briney was advertising himself as the “great women’s specialist,” “reliable and skillful treatment of all diseases and complications peculiar to women.” “Positively the only physician who owns, manages, and operates personally a first-class, strictly private maternity home for ladies before and during confinement.”6 By 1911 he was operating the Anna Ross Hospital on Kedzie Avenue, advertising for young women to take a three months training in maternity nursing, and also a six months hospital training in obstetrical nursing.7 He was also advertising babies “For Adoption.”8
In 1913 the Curran Commission was investigating foundling asylums and infant “homes” in Chicago. After each session, the newspapers gave a full report of their findings providing much anecdotal information. On April 15, 1913, The Day Book had this to say about the Anna Ross Lying-in Sanitarium: “Mothers who go to the sanitarium are induced to sign contracts giving away their children before the children are born. Five unmarried women were found in the place. The rates charged by the sanitarium depend on how much money the mother has.”9
When the Curran Commission met the following week, the newspaper reported new findings: “Testimony of witnesses disclosed the fact that physicians received one-third of the fees charged patients for care and treatment in the institutions. This money is paid by the superintendents for recommending their establishments. It also was shown that babies are sold when only twelve hours old to total strangers, without any understanding whatsoever regarding legal adoption.” The first witness called that day was Dr. Briney who stated: “he had eight mothers in his institution, and that the standard charge for each of these cases was $60. The mothers, he said, had been sent to him by physicians. Asked what he paid the doctor, Dr. Briney replied that he gave them $20 for each of the cases sent to him. ‘This is pay for their trouble,’” “If I did not give them this fee they would not send the cases to me.” He went on to say that he placed advertisements in medical journals with distribution in Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. “It is a simple matter to get rid of the babies left at the institution by the young mothers,” “‘We have three times as many calls for babies as we have babies to give away.’ he said 95 per cent of the mothers were willing to leave their babies.” When he was asked, “What do you charge a person who desires to adopt a child?” He replied: “Absolutely nothing.”
Dr. Charles S. Wood’s testimony gave a deeper look at the industry. He stated that since 1894 he had “disposed of 665 babies, none of which was legally adopted.” One child born at 4 a.m. was on its way to McGregor, Ia., before noon the same day.” He “insisted there was nothing inhuman about the incident. He said it was the best time for a newly born babe to travel, as it did not require nourishment for twenty-four hours. He keeps no records of adoptions or the fathers, and held ‘It is nobody’s business.’”
His contract was presented to the commission and reads:
“This statement is to certify or declare that I gave birth to a baby on …. and being unmarried and unable to properly support and care for it I have authorized and directed Dr. Charles S. Wood to procure a home for it as best he can, and I do release all right I have in such child, and declare I have abandoned it forever. I also authorize and direct Dr. Wood to consent for me to its adoption at any time or in any manner he may see fit. I promise and declare I will never claim that child or seek it at any time or in any manner, but do abandon it forever.”
He firmly believed that he was doing “a lot of good,” as he had “saved the lives of many girls who might have become suicides, and I have saved the lives of their babies.”10
One final story about deception and discovery. In September 1915 two couples were in court discussing the custody of a 21-month-old baby boy who had been born in Dr. Briney’s establishment. “Twenty-one months ago from somewhere in Minnesota there came to Chicago” a woman “whose husband had long wished for a baby and consequently assented gladly to his wife’s suggestion that at a critical time she should visit the maternity and infant hospital conducted by Dr. William F. Briney.” The article states that she “did not wish to rear a baby.” She told Dr. Briney that her husband had left her, and asked that he find a family to adopt him. “He [Dr. Briney] says she signed a release. He says he did not know she wrote to her husband and said the baby had died.”
At that time residing in Chicago was a husband wishing for a child, the wife, did not wish to bear a child. The wife approached a doctor expressing her wish to adopt one. The doctors stated they knew nothing of the situation other than “One simply knew that there was a 1 day old baby to spare. The other simply knew there was a 1 day old baby wanted. It was as simple as the transfer of a pound of sugar from a grocer who did not want it to a housewife who did.”
Twenty-one months later the birth mother confessed. Her husband immediately left for Chicago, hiring an attorney upon his arrival. Dr. Briney’s records “told the entire story” and the two sides met in court. The baby was given to his birth father, who returned with him to Minnesota. The adoptive parents “left the courtroom. In the evening people at their residence said the owners had ‘gone out of town’ for an indefinite stay.”11
- “Grand Jury Investigates Baby Farms,” The Des Moines Register and LeaderI, 13 Dec 1906, Thursday Morning, p. 1, col. 7; digital images, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 28 Jul 2022).
- “The Greenwood Park Home,” Personal, The Des Moines Register, 4 Feb 1906, Sunday Morning, p. m8, col. 6; digital images, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 20 Jul 2022).
- “To Cure Horrors At Baby Farm,” The Marshalltown Evening Times-Republican, 13 Nov 1906, Tuesday, p. 1, col. 5; digital images, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 29 Jul 2022).
- “Admits Babies Are Not Her Own,” The Des Moines Register, 10 Nov 1907, Sunday Morning, p. 10, col. 7; digital images, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 20 Jul 2022).
- “Stirred By Sense of Shame,” The Evening Times-Republican, Marshalltown, Iowa, 5 Feb 1907, Tuesday, p. 2, col. 7; digital images, Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 28 Jul 2022).
- “Medical and Hospitals” The Chicago Daily Tribune, 24 Sep 1903, Thursday, p. 12, col. 7; Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 28 Jul 2022).
- “Trade Schools” Chicago Examiner, 30 Apr 1911, Sunday, p. 3, section V-II, col. 3; Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 28 Jul 2022).
- “For Adoption” Chicago Examiner, 6 Nov 1911, Monday, p. 14, col. 4; Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 1 Aug 2022).
- “Find Shameful Conditions in “Homes” For Foundlings” The Day Book, 15 Apr 1913, Tuesday, p. 6, col. 1; Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 31 Jul 2022).
- “Hear How Babies Are Signed Away” The Chicago Daily Tribune, 19 Apr 1913, Saturday, p. 2, col. 2; Newspapers.com (www.newspapers.com : accessed 28 Jul 2022).