Thursday, July 4, 2013

Tour Through a Chicago Baby Farm in 1912


FULL TEXT: “Baby Farming” has extended as a profitable business in Chicago.

The profits accrue from starved bodies, neglected and ill treated children, homeless and dependent upon the “farmer,” whom with which they are “boarded” at from $3 to $7 per week.

Most of the “farms” are situated in districts where tumbling buildings are decaying in filth and neglect. The babies are helpless and have no right of selection; they must suffer in silence and often die from disease and neglect.

The first baby farm visited by a reporter for the Sunday Tribune was kept by a middle aged woman trying to care for eight or ten small children in cramped quarters and under poor conditions. Undoubtedly this woman meant well enough. But she needed the money. She simply could not devote enough time to each child to give its little life a fighting chance.

A “baby farm” does not mean a place where the grass is green and there are plenty of trees and cows, but a dingy flat in the “yards” or a four room cottage on a corner where five car lines meet. There is comfortable about a “baby farm” but the income of the woman, who often appears corpulent and luxurious in contrast to the emaciated infants in her charge. They look like cadaverous birds, opening their months continuously for nourishment for nourishment which they do not get.

~  Inspection Fear of Keepers. ~

When a Tribune reporter went unbidden to one “baby farm” in the suburbs, the woman in charge turned pale and her lips trembled. She almost dropped a bottle of soothing syrup she was carrying and gained control of herself only when told that the reporter had a baby to board.

“O,” she said, taking a long breath, “I thought you were from the board of heath. They are inspectin’ the babies somethin’ fierce. Don’t allow more than four children to a house they are getting’ so strict.”

Wails from several distressed voices floated down from the attic as she spoke, and there were five children in the room. It was one of those problems of two times two are five, which the essayists used to write about in school on composition week.

Mental calculation was interrupted by the door bell. A pale mother, almost lost under a sailor hat, and in a cheap long coat, stood on a little stoop before the door. She wished to board her 10 days’ old baby, as she had to go to work in a restaurant the next day. A whispered conference followed in the doorway. The frail mother crossed the woman’s palm with three silver pieces of silver before she hurried off to fetch her baby.

~  Infants the Choice Boarders. ~
“How old is your baby?” was asked.

“A year old,” I stammered, not knowing whether to make my fictitious child real young or not. Then I realized my mistake.

“I like infants best. Infants sleep most of the time and don’t bother me,” she said, shaking the bottle of cordial significantly.

“What do you charge?” I asked.

She picked up a weak child from a dirty gray blanket on a bare floor and said” I get $5 a week for boardin’ this one. She’s getting’ her teeth and looks puny, but she’s strong.”

“I’ll pay you $5 a week, but I must look over the place and see just where the baby will sleep and what attention you can give it.”

The woman slanted her shrewd eyes demurred, haggling for a bargain.

“I hain’t got much room. I have four children of my own, and there are my two boarders, my husband, and myself. My father lives with me, too. I can’t take no more babies in the attic, but I’ll put your baby in the parlor for $7 a week.”

I was afraid of the cats in the front room

~ Cats the Lesser Danger. ~

“Nothin’ is going to hurt your baby sleepin’ down here, she insisted a little coldly, lifting her voice above the wails of infants in the attic. “I’ve boarded children goin’ on six years, and nothin’ has ever happened to one of them.

I insisted upon placing my child in the attic. Then she reluctantly led the way through the kitchen, where I discovered more children. A 2 year old child boarder in a dirty dress rocked herself wearily near the range. Two other wais stood on chairs, hacking at a loaf of bread lying on the mussy oilcloth on the kitchen table. A bare back yard decorated with scraps of old iron and many tin cans could be seen its whole length to the high, unpainted board fence, through the open doorway, This is where the children play.

I stumbled up the stairs behind the woman, who became wedged in the narrow passageway now and then and stopped to catch her breath. At last we reached the top. It was only a half room up there. I could stand up straight only when I gained the middle of the room. On a bed in a dark corner lay eight babies, half undressed, and crying and unsquirming in uncleanliness. Empty milk bottles and dirty clothes were scattered over the floor. The one window in the in the attic was closed were scattered over the floor. The one window in the attic was closed securely by a nail. I hurried down.

~ All for the Greed of Money! ~

Eight babies in the attic, eight below, four children of her own, two boarders, an aged father, her husband, and herself to care for, all living in four rooms and an attic, this is what the greed for money had led one woman to. Besides, she washed and ironed and did all her housework while caring for the boarding babies.

A bleak wall on an unpaved street was the exterior of a certain was the exterior of a certain “baby farm” in a third floor flat down in the “yards.” Pushing the button above the speaking tube in the middle of the wall, I listened.

“Who’s there?” came down through the mouthpiece.

“I wish to come up.”

“Take the back stairs,” came the answer.

Following the broken board walk, I squeezed between two walls and climbed the rickety back stairs. The surprised German maid announced that her mistress was not at home when I pushed through the screen door. I felt relieved that it wasn’t necessary to have the responsibility of a six weeks’ old baby on my hands to board. (I changed the age of the child from one year to six weeks on the way down on the street car.) All I had to do at the second “baby farm” was to look around.

~ Room in General Disarray. ~

On the floor in the kitchen lay four babies kicking first one pink sock in the air and then a white one. I noticed that the stockings of most of the babies were not mates. On the kitchen table stood three clothes baskets, and in each was an infant wailing pitesly. In the corners, on chairs, beside the kitchen range, hanging like cocoons everywhere were baskets with babies sleeping on pillows turned brown from uncleanliness.

There were nine in the kitchen alone. In the next room were more frail babies, howling from the go-carts, cribs, and baskets. And in the front room more babies cried. An infant covered by a mosquito bar lay apart. She had sore eyes.

~ Milk Not Even Boiled. ~

A 17 year old mother stood leaning over a sleeping baby in the parlor. “He’s nine. His name is red,” she whispered. “Doesn’t he look bad? They almost killed him after I left him here three weeks. He was so neglected that he had spasms. I had to give up my work in the factory and watch him for three weeks. He’s still thin. The doctor said he was starving by inches.

“One time I came to visit him I found him drinking raw milk that had not been boiled. That is how they looked after the babies here. Another time when I came unexpectedly to see my baby I found a strange baby wearing my baby’s clothes.

“The superintendent of the ‘baby farm’ is cruel to the older children. She’s too strict, doesn’t allow them to play in the yard, and makes them sit in a chair all day when she is around. She sends them off to school without breakfast, and they have only bread and molasses for lunch. One morning I had a spare hour before I had to be at the factory. I ran down to see my baby. I did not see the older children eating breakfast She answered that none of the children had.

“As a punishment, the superintendent of the ‘baby farm’ makes the children stand in a corner for hours when they are naughty. She had a dark closet for the mischieveous ones. She pours castor oil and other lubricants down the throats of youngsters who tell falsehoods or washes their mouths out with strong soap to keep them from telling ‘stories.’ They must play in a subdued way in the kitchen, if they play at all.”

~ Little Incentive to Laughter. ~

I glanced at the three little girls and the one little boy sitting around the kitchen table stacking a deck of greasy playing cards. They looked as if they never smiled.

The maid fished a bottle of milk from the tin boiler, full of hot water, on the kitchen range. She carried it to the second room. A loud scream of pain came from a second room. The 17 year old mother and I ran to the rescue of the infant in distress. The mother reached the child first. She cooled the hot bottle of milk under a faucet in the kitchen.

“How they attend to babies, giving them boiling milk,” snapped the mother, trying to relieve the burned child’s pain, while the maid mumbled” “I know how the milk should be. It’s not too hot,”

It is usually one long, hard struggle with neglect and continuous discomfort for the children. Two infants were killed from underfeeding at one “farm,” the records show; one child was whipped with a rawhide by an attendant, the mother claimed; a baby’s fingers were burned; an infant was scalded on the side when the mother called for a visit. Anyhow, the sixteen infants in this “baby farm” in the third floor flat down in the “yards” looked like plants kept away from the sun.

~ Many Reasons for Seclusion. ~

The children are kept housed for many reasons; because the neighbors do not like to have so many children around, and give the superintendent of the “farm” trouble in finding a flat, because there is danger from contagious disease when infants are taken abroad, or because the woman “farmer” is too proud to let it be known that she boards babies for a living.

One proprietor of a “baby farm” has four grown daughters who are devotees of fashion. These daughters object to the “baby farm” and the infants, although they have no compunction against spending the income from this source. One daughter attends normal school from money earned by her mother in the “baby farm,” yet daughter will do nothing for the babies while at home. She dislike to have them around.

[“Baby Farms in Chicago – Infants Boarded For $3 To $7 Per Week At A Big Profit Because They Require Little Care,” Chicago Tribune (Il.), Jun. 9, 1912, p. F-4]

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For more cases of “Baby Farmers,” professional child care providers who murdered children see The Forgotten Serial Killers.

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