Heartbreaking historic letters from mothers giving up their babies

Lia Grainger
Shine On
October 17, 2012

What instructions would you leave if you were giving up your infant child? Some sentiments don't change with time, and the letters left with babies abandoned on the doorstep of the New York Foundling Hospital in the 18th century are just as heartbreaking today as they were when they were written.

The New York Historical Society has collected these letters, left by women who dropped off their babies in the dead of night on the front steps of the 17 East 12th Street in Manhattan.

The nuns who founded the hospital in 1869 would leave a basket on the step each evening, and almost every morning when they went to collect it, a baby would be there, often accompanied by a note or letter, reports the Daily Mail. By the end of their first year they had collected 81 babies.

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Many of the letters give detailed instructions on how to care for the child, and some express a profound regret at not being able to keep their baby.

"'I would not part with my baby were it in any way possible to make a respectable living with him, but I cannot . . . his name is Joseph Cavalier," reads one note, the paper browned and the words written in a delicate cursive script.

Some are so simple, yet devastating, like this one dated March 13, 1877.

"Sister, I will give my child to you that I never will have back again. His name is James Smith. Minnie Smith."

Here in Canada, we've got our own carefully documented history of orphans, and one of the most well-known generations of parentless children are Irish youth whose parents died in the crossing from Ireland to Canada in the mid-19th century.

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According to the Historica Dominion Institute, the most tragic crossing took place in the late 1940s, when as many as 28,000 families were crammed into a single ship. Many would die of malnutrition and typhoid fever.

The orphaned children were taken in by French-Canadian families and kept their Irish names. There are records of their addresses in Ireland as well, but unfortunately, those are not online like the stunning letters from the New York Foundling Hospital.

If you are curious about Canadian Irish orphans, Historica Dominion Institute has made this neat little video about the crossing from Ireland to Canada that would prove deadly for so many onboard.

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