In the 1800s women's reproductive options were few. Married women in poor circumstances had no reliable contraception and little choice but to continue having babies, despite being unable to feed, clothe, or care for the children they already had. Being pregnant out of wedlock ruined a woman’s reputation. Abortion was illegal and even those not morally opposed to it were at risk for death by the procedure.
An unwanted infant could be tragic for mother and baby. Social services as we now know them were non-existent, and proper adoption agencies were few. One option was a foundling hospital (from whence came some of the orphan train children). Another was a baby farm.
Baby farmers were mostly women, often unscrupulous, who offered fostering and adoption services—for a price. They placed ads in the newspaper, making themselves appear legitimate, reputable, and legal. Desperate mothers would answer the ads in hopes their baby would be re-homed quickly, with very few questions. Sometimes the baby farmer also ran a “lying in” hospital and would promise (again, for a fee) to dispose of the infant once it was born. With the assurance of a good future for their babies, women with few options felt they'd found the perfect solution.
Some of the infants from baby farms were adopted by families (who paid for the infant), and others were fostered out. But many baby farmers employed a more diabolical method of disposing of unwanted or hard-to-place infants, "murdering children without rendering themselves amenable to the laws of the land, and who, 'for a consideration,' [were] ready to polish off any number of infants at the shortest notice. In these baby-farms there [was] a wholesale slaughter of the innocents constantly going on."(1) To get rid of the infants, baby farmers often used opiates in lethal doses. One smothered the babies and threw them in a river.
The 1800s was a time of high infant mortality. Diseases like cholera infantum* ran rampant. The death of a baby or a small child wasn’t questioned like it would be today, and many of these crimes remained undiscovered. However, a few baby farmers were caught and hung.
Amelia Dyer was one of the most prolific baby farm murderers in England. In 1896 she was tried and hung for the death of one baby, although it was suspected she murdered hundreds more babies over many years. Read more about her here:
In New York City, Madame Parselle (Catherine D. Putnam) ran a lying-in hospital where mothers (mostly unwed) could have their babies, after which she would dispose of them (for a fee). Several infants in her care died under suspicious circumstances.(2) In countries like the United States, England, France, and Australia, social service reforms to protect children began in the late 1800s, partially because of these baby farmers.
Unfortunately, baby farming still exists. In an article published on November 15, 2008, Fox News reported about an alleged network of baby farms in Nigeria. Anti-trafficking campaigners say that baby breeding is widespread and run by crime syndicates. (Article: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,452613,00.html )
(1) Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In the Slums, by the Rev. D. Rice-Jones, 1884 - Chapter 24 - The Slaughter of the Innocents
*For more information about cholera infantum, see my blog article dated March 28, http://theborrowedbook.blogspot.com/2012/03/write-rightmerciless-killers-asiatic.html
(2) Save the Babies, American Public Health Reform and the Prevention of Infant Mortality, 1850-1929; Richard A. Meckel; The Johns Hopkins University Press; 1990; page 30.