Notes pinned to babies at the Foundling Asylum

“My Dear Good Sister, please accept this little outcast son of mine trusting with God’s help that I will be able to sustain him in your institution. 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.”

Dear Madam, knowing my little infant will get better care in your Institution than I am able to give it, I for the present leave it in your charge. . . . Born Monday 7 a.m., she has not been christened, I call her Mary. Yours ever truly, a Poor Mother.”

These notes, records from the New York Foundling Hospital that are part of the collections of the New-York Historical Society, are heartbreaking glimpses into a growing social problem of the 19th century city: infant abandonment.

Unwanted babies were often left by poor unmarried mothers on stoops and streets, then brought to the City Hall Park almshouse or the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island. Their odds of surviving weren’t good.

But in October 1869, three nuns took action. They renovated a red-brick brownstone at 17 East 12th Street and opened what they called the Foundling Asylum.

One sister placed an empty wicker cradle on the front step, and that very night, a bundled baby was left inside it, a note pinned to her chest saying her name was Sarah.

By the end of 1869, they took in 81 infants.

The next year, as they took in more babies, they moved into a larger facility on Washington Square, then in the 1870s to a block-long building at Lexington Avenue and 68th Street.

The Asylum pioneered adoption and participated in the “orphan trains” that sent thousands of homeless kids to families across the rural U.S.

Long renamed the Foundling Hospital, it’s now on Sixth Avenue and 17th Street, overseeing thousands of kids in foster care as well as running a pediatric center for kids with special needs and a maternity center.

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24 Responses to “Notes pinned to babies at the Foundling Asylum”

  1. Sadia Reza Says:

    Aw this made me sad and yet happy. Can’t imagine how heart-wrenching it must have been for those mothers to leave their children, some never intending to be able to see them/support them again. But it makes me glad there are people in the world who care enough about something that has nothing to do with them and take it into their own hands to start something to help.

  2. Jeb Says:

    Thankfully we have abortion now, so this does not have to be an issue anymore.

  3. Sam Says:

    Yes. Thank God we kill them now, instead of helping them. What a society we’ve become.

    • RD Wolff Says:

      In case you hadn’t noticed we have a dire overpopulation crisis, there’s also 250,000 unwanted children in the US foster care system alone, enough is enough! till there are none in foster care peopel shouldn’t be breeding more unwanted babies in the first place!

      • Sam Says:

        If you’re suggesting that abortion can be justified based on there being too many children alive already, then let’s apply that same solution to having too many old people alive already with no place to care for them. We can call that “euthanasia” to make it acceptable. How about we move on to dealing with too many homeless people in the same way? I’m sure we can find a polite word for that too. What kind of society will we be like in another 20 years?

  4. Craig Says:

    um, re: Jeb – ouch. not a lot of tact there. very sad article, I suppose Jeb is bitter that his own mother didn’t choose to leave him behind somewhere…..

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Looks like the UK Daily Mail ran Ephemeral NY’s story practically word for word without credit:

    • Joe R Says:

      Hate to say it but several EV, LES, and Brooklyn neighborhood bloggers have complained about similar “borrowing” from the NY Post.

    • RD Wolff Says:

      It’s been removed from the UK site, but in any case the photos don’t belong to either party at all, two of them belong to someone on and one of them is old enough to have fallen out of copyright and would be in the public domain for anyone to use.

  6. Tastbare herinneringen aan de vondelingetjes van The Foundling Hospital in Londen | Tina Somberg Says:

    […] Notes pinned to babies at the Foundling Asylum Share this:Vind ik leuk:LikeWees de eerste die dit leuk vindt. […]

  7. [image] Letters of Note: I beg you to take my child « slendermeans Says:

    […] Notes pinned to babies at the Foundling Asylum ( […]

  8. Notes from the Foundling Asylum Says:

    […] via Notes pinned to babies at the Foundling Asylum « Ephemeral New York. […]

  9. Andy Says:

    My great-grandfather was born in 1898 at St. Ann’s Maternity Hospital, part of the Foundling Home organization, and he lived in the Foundling two years, until he was sent to Kansas via the Orphan Train. The New York Foundling staff was kind enough to copy his entire file for me when I provided proof of relationship. The identify of his parents remains a mystery.

  10. Mike's Meandering Mind Says:

    […] notes pinned to abandoned […]

  11. A Harlem mother saves the city’s fragile babies | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] A century before Mother Hale, New York’s foundlings were taken care of in a different setting. […]

  12. Linda Says:

    What a wonderful thing these sisters did they saved life’s of many babies my grandmother was left there when she was born in 1909 and was taken in by a wonderful couple that gave her and a little boy a good home although I have her birth mothers name I do not know anything about her and why she left my grandmother I would love to know all I can said is thank you to these sisters and the hospital. Too bad young mothers now just throw those sweet babies in the trash . What a horrible thing even the lowest of animals take care of there own

  13. kathy Says:

    My mother lived at the Foundling Hospital for 5 years. As was common, parents would register as boarding parents and take care of a child in their home in exchange for a stipend. This was the depression and dire economic times. My grandparents stayed with her their entire lives. The Sisters of Charity saved hundreds of thousands of abandoned infants and children. Their work speaks for itself.

  14. The fourth day of Christmas: Ephemeral New York « Books Can Save A Life Says:

    […] Many a bittersweet tale, as well:  “The Tragedy of the Loveliest Woman in America” and “Notes Pinned to Babies at the Foundling Asylum.” […]

  15. Letters of Note: I beg you to take my child [image] | feimineach Says:

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  16. Says:

    […] Notes pinned to babies at the Foundling Asylum ( […]

  17. Pat Hien Says:

    I wonder if any of the mothers ever return looking to find out what happened to their babies? My brother was left on their steps either late 1948, 1949 or 1950. To this day he doesn’t know anything about his background.

  18. One girl’s 1899 travel diary of New York City | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] on Randall’s Island, she was distraught by a hospital for abandoned babies—a terrible problem in the post–Civil War […]

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