|Baby Monsarrat, by Clarence H. White (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
They put the babies in shopping bags. In laundry baskets. In pasteboard boxes.
They carried them to tavern restrooms. To ash cans. To park benches. To shrubbery. Then they left them.
The past is a foreign country, the saying goes; they do things differently there. And as universal as the act of abandoning a child may seem, they did it differently in the 1940s, as I learned after finding an envelope of old newspaper clippings marked "CHILDREN -- ABANDONED: 1950 AND PRIOR" and entering a world both very strange and sadly familiar.
The heart-wrenching notes struck me first. The mothers wanted to explain:
"I'd give my soul to keep her myself but what sort of life would she have being born out of wedlock? This is the best way I know," wrote the woman who left her baby in the Milner Hotel in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1946, phoning the clerk afterward and asking him to "take care of the valuables left in Room 138."
That was typical. They wanted the babies found.
The mother of a 2-week-old boy left in the shrubs across from 2440 Lakeview in July, 1945, phoned police and told them where to look. The same night, a 6-week-old girl was found in the hallway at 4840 S. Paulina. The mother had awakened residents, then fled.
The notes tout bloodlines and tweak finders toward pity.
"Please take good care of him—I can't keep him—Haven't the money—But I love him—Born June 29, 1941," read a note on the baby found in a pew at St. Mary's Catholic Church.
Mothers left poignantly precise instructions: "He gets baby cereal three times daily and orange juice once and cod liver oil," read a note pinned to the blue sweater of the 5-month-old baby boy left in the foyer of 1726 Augusta, in 1949. "He has a light cold and I fear for his health. He takes eight ounces six times daily. I left my home and I do not know what to do.
"Maybe somebody can do better than I can."
They were abandoning their children, but with an eye toward their welfare. The woman who asked a stranger to watch her 6-week-old boy at the La Salle Street train station "for a few minutes" never returned. But she left behind a little suitcase of baby clothes.
"Please take care of my baby," read a note on a stroller containing a chubby toddler left in the foyer of a home at 4011 N. Lowell. "I can't afford to take care of him any longer. Please don't turn him out."
Sometimes they didn't.
Switchman Jack Bowen, who had four boys, found a newborn girl in a pasteboard box under a railroad viaduct near 45th Street in 1944, and said he'd like to adopt her. Mrs. Francis Weprin already had a newborn in 1942, but when she discovered a 10-day-old in a white bonnet in her building's foyer, she offered to keep him anyway.
I do not want to suggest that women did not leave their babies to die in freezing alleys in the 1940s. They did. They murdered their babies and mailed the bodies to the post office.
But such callousness was the exception; lately it seems the rule. Mothers of today do not leave notes, according to Chicago police. "They don't want to get caught," a spokeswoman said.
The problem was seen as a crisis then.
"Unwanted, neglected and abandoned children are becoming Chicago's biggest headache," columnist Sydney J. Harris wrote in 1944. "Social workers admit they are almost licked. Police can do little. The courts fume, but are impotent to halt the wave of derelict mothers who leave their children."
The crisis isn't so keenly felt today. Which is odd, because in 1946, there were 4,200 children in Cook County being cared for by the state.
Last year, that number was 35,559.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 8, 1998