In the early years of what was then the New York Foundling Asylum, distraught mothers left their babies anonymously outside its doors, sometimes with heart-rending notes: “She is sick and I can no longer care for her.” “Please care for my beloved, as I have been shamed and lied to by his father. I beg for your compassion.”
The city and some religious groups ran similar institutions at the time, but the Foundling was notable for its willingness to take in any baby left on its doorstep, said Julie Miller, a history professor at New York’s Hunter College and the author of “Abandoned: Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City.”
Some scholars of adoption criticize the Foundling for the large-scale orphanage that characterized its early decades, when diseases such as measles sometimes spread fast and lethally among the close-quartered children. The organization was slower than some of its peers to seek an alternative, said E. Wayne Carp, a historian at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.
The leading alternative at the time — the “orphan trains” that carried thousands of children west from the Foundling and other urban East Coast institutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s — also proved problematic. What were envisioned as wholesome country homes sometimes amounted to indentured servitude, and some families selected children explicitly on the basis of their appearance.