Monday, August 6, 2018

The Unwanted Child

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

In the autumn of 1832, the Village of Elmira was rocked by scandal. On the morning of October 19th, a baby, about three weeks old, was found abandoned on a wood pile. There were few clues as to the baby’s identity. No note. No monogramed cap. Just a simple white flannel blanket over superior-quality underclothes. No one knew how long it had laid there, but it was lucky to be found alive. The child spent the next few months in the care of Mrs. Atkins, who had milk enough to nurse it, before being sent to the poor house. 

Article about the baby from the Elmira Republican, October 20, 1832

The baby on the woodpile was not the last to be abandoned in Elmira. On April 7, 1898, police were called to the Erie Railroad Depot to take custody of a three-week-old infant found in a cloth satchel on the train which had just arrived from Corning. Luckily, the baby was unharmed. Others have not been so lucky. The same year the baby was abandoned on the train, another was found dead on the banks of Newtown Creek on November 26, 1898. Others have been found in the Chemung River and at the Sullivan Street dumping grounds. It would be nice to think they died before they were left like garbage. In the case of Baby Smith, her father confessed to weighing her down in a creek with rocks after he lost his job and couldn’t find anyone willing to adopt her. 

Floyd Smith drowned his infant daughter in a creek after losing his job at the Willys-Morrow plant in 1920

In most cases, no one had any idea who the parents were. In 1832, suspicion landed on Miss Sally Armstrong. Sally had spent the spring and summer working on her brother’s Elmira farm before returning to her parents’ home in late October. The timing was right and a young, unmarried girl like Sally would have every reason to dispose of an unwanted child. In those days, having a child out of wedlock could destroy a woman’s marital prospects and doom her to a life of poverty. In March 1833, the rumors got so bad that her brother’s neighbors, Richard and Ann Smith, felt compelled to write a letter to the local newspaper saying that they knew for a fact that Sally had not been pregnant. 

Richard & Ann Smith's letter to the Elmira Republican, March 30, 1833
In 2000, New York State passed the Abandoned Infant Protection Act which made it legal for parents to anonymously abandon newborn infants so long as they left them at a designated safe area such as a hospital, social workers’ office, or police or fire station. In 2010, the law was expanded to include infants 30 days or younger.

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