"New York as a Nursing-Mother to her Foundlings"

February 26, 1859

William A. Rogers

"New York as a Nursing-Mother to her Foundlings"

Charity, Poor Relief; Children; New York City, Public Health; Public Health; Symbols, New York City; Women, Charity; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

(See the Evidence in the Carlock Case.)

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Frank Bellew condemns the neglectful and abusive treatment of orphaned infants under the auspices of the New York City Almshouse.

During the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the streets of New York City were filled with children.  In the late 1840s, nearly one-third of the city's population consisted of children under 15 years of age.  As the apprentice system of child labor--which provided steady employment, room, and board--declined over the decades preceding the Civil War, poor families sent their children to work at street trades, such as bootblacks and newspaper boys.  Many of the street children, though, were runaways or orphans (poor parents often died young in those days).  In 1853, the New York state legislature passed a truancy law, empowering the police to arrest homeless children (aged five to fifteen) and institutionalize the orphans.  The law was so harsh, however, that it was often not enforced. 

This cartoon was provoked by the revelation of neglect and abuse by one of the wet nurses hired by the New York City Almshouse.  The institution hired poor women to nurse and care for some of the infants and young children.  The meager payment was sometimes less than the cost of adequate care.  During 1854-1859, nearly 90% of the children cared for by the private nurses died.

This case began when a Mr. Barker, suspicious that his maid was stealing from him, entered the tenement apartment of her friend and apparent accomplice, Mary Carlock.  He found not only the stolen household goods, but three children in cradles, who were emaciated and stupefied.  The children were removed from Carlock's authority, and she was arrested.

The Almshouse governors reported that they discharged 200 infants a year to wet nurses, who were paid to care for the children until they reached two years of age, at which time they were transferred to the Almshouse nursery on Randall's Island.  The board of governors claimed that their wet nurses were strictly supervised, receiving a certificate of approval from a physician before undertaking the task and subsequent visits from a nurse, once or twice a month. 

The physician who signed Carlock's certificate testified that he had no evidence of neglect or bad character, so judged her to be competent.  He admitted that the largest number of infant deaths had occurred under her care, but argued that she was given ill and debilitated children.  The nurse testified that she visited Carlock "frequently," including one month before to the arrest, and always found the apartment and children clean and well cared for.  The nurse also attested that the children had been sick with whooping cough and cholera when Carlock received them.

Harper's Weekly pointed out that poor women like Carlock could easily get a reference through the efforts of their landlord, who knew their employment as a wet nurse would pay the rent.  The newspaper also contended that the visits by the supervising nurse were "pure matters of form" because they were known ahead of time by the wet nurses.

The New York Tribune interviewed other tenants in Carlock's building, who painted an unflattering picture of the woman.  Her violent temper had alienated many in the building.  The tenants reported that Carlock often left the infants in the care of a girl while she left the apartment for hours at a time (to do laundry, she testified), and that she had visitors until one or two in the morning.  The other residents had been concerned about the children, who arrived healthy but became skin and bones, with an unusually large number dying.  Her neighbors also believed that the children were drugged because they rarely cried.

Although Harper's Weekly approved of Carlock's arrest, conviction, and sentence of jail time in a state penitentiary, the newspaper blamed the Almshouse system for the problem of neglected and abused infants.  To the board of governors' argument that the high mortality rate was due to disease already prevalent among the infants, not to neglect or abuse by the hired wet nurses, editor John Bonner sharply suggested that if the children were so sick, they should be in a hospital under a physician's care, not "cooped up in ... some tenement-house ..."  

Bonner's proffered solution was to end the practice of using ill-paid, unfit wet nurses, and, instead, house all the orphans in Almshouse facilities.  He believed ample space existed currently, but insisted that the institution spend its funds more wisely on erecting a new building if needed, rather than on "fanciful fencing, and other superfluities ..."  The editor forcefully concluded: "How long shall the city remain a convicted murderer?"  A letter to the editor from a physician associated with a private charity urged the city to establish a foundling hospital.  (At the time, Bellevue was the only hospital in the city which would treat orphaned children or any sick child under two.)

This gruesome cartoon presents a scene worthy of Dickens.  Carlock is transformed into a symbol of New York, wearing an apron patterned with New York crests and dollar bills--a clear criticism of a system which valued profits over children.  Several glassy-eyed, emaciated children sit or crawl on the floor unattended.  The one (on the right) sucking its hand alludes to testimony that one of Carlock's wards had been nursing a scabbed sore.  The child held under the water faucet is based on reports that the wet nurse repeatedly "put the children naked under the hydrant."  A bottle of laudanum, an opium derivative, appears on the table (left) in accord with her neighbors' suspicions that the children were drugged.  With no drug laws, opium was widely available in the nineteenth century and was a common remedy used by parents, especially poor ones, when their infants suffered from teething or other pains.  (See the archive for the Harper's Weekly cartoon of January 29, 1859, Opium--The Poor Child's Nurse.")

As New York City had been one of the leaders of the movement to institutionalize orphan children, so it became one of the leaders of the counter-movement of removing them from congregate care to foster homes.  In 1853, Charles Loring Brace, organized the Children's Aid Society, which transported 90,000 children to foster homes in the Midwest.  While a few of the children were apprenticed, most were adopted eventually by their foster parents.  The Children's Aid Society provided homeless children remaining in New York City with lodging houses, kindergartens, industrial schools, baths, gymnasiums, and a hospital.  In 1874, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed.  Although a private organization, it attained the status of a law enforcement agency and influenced public policy.  In 1875, the New York state assembly passed the Children's Law, which prohibited keeping children aged three to sixteen in almshouses.

Robert C. Kennedy

"New York as a Nursing-Mother to her Foundlings"
May 29, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design İ 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content İ 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to