The Traffic in Babies in Baltimore

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Sun/January 11, 1916

That strange mixture of scientific accuracy of statement and sentimental looseness of inference which characterizes the Vice Report as a whole, and gives to it its peculiar beauty and mellowness, is especially conspicuous in the volume entitled “The Traffic in Babies,” a tome of 229 pages, of gruesome horrors and pious platitudes all compact. On the one hand, the facts it so persuasively sets forth are of a sort to raise the hair and freeze the spine, and on the other hand the moralizing in which they are soused and embalmed is of a variety to blue the nose and roll the right-thinking eye. The missing element, of course, is pornographic interest, and herein lies the failure of the volume to engage the newspapers and inflame the Sunday-schools. It is outdone in raciness by the other four volumes, and therefore it is forgotten already. But setting aside the volume which deals with venereal disease, it is, of all the five, the most original, and painstaking, and informing, and valuable. What is true in it is newly said, and surprising, and important. What is merely “moral” may be very comfortably and tolerantly disregarded.


When I say that its facts are surprising, I mean not only to laymen, but also to the great majority of physicians, including, I dare say, many denounced by the learned commissioners for disregarding them. At all events, I tried some of them, just prior to the publication of the report, on a selected half-dozen medical men, all of good education and standing, and every one of them professed incredulity. Their guesses at the death rate among foundlings ranged from 33 1-3 to 50 per cent. Not one seemed to be aware, or even to suspect, that it ran up to 80 per cent, year in and year out, and that, at certain periods and for certain classes of children, it actually touched 100 per cent. These men, true enough, were not directly connected with either of the two big local foundling asylums, but three of them were in general practice and all of thorn were more or less interested in public medicine, and so their unfamiliarity with the exact facts may he accented as typical. There is, indeed, plenty of reason for believing that Dr. Walker himself was vastly surprised when he began studying the death lists. He expected, no doubt, a slaughter, but what he found was a massacre.

I pass over the worst horrors, and briefly summarize some of these exact facts. In Institution No. 1, excluding babies whose mothers were with them and those removed in less than a month after entrance, the death rate in 1913 was 95.55 per cent! In Institution No. 2, among babies 1 month old or less on being received, the death rale was 97.50! In Institution No. 2, during the eight months between January 1 and August 30, the average life of a baby (that is, of those who eventually died) was 1 month and 14 days! In Institution No. 1, during the whole of the year, it was a few days more than two months. In 1909, in the last-mentioned place, there were no fewer than 338 deaths! And of this number 88.16 per cent, were due to bad feeding, to the lack of mother’s milk!


Well, what is to be done about it? Dr. Walker, after pointing out the carelessness frequently prevailing in both institutions in the preparation of the babies’ food and in the isolation of those suffering from infectious diseases, confines himself chiefly to solemn denunciations of the persons who send babies to them, that is, of the physicians, clergymen and uplifters who recommend them to expectant mothers, and so get them trade. But to what end? Even supposing that some of these persons derive a profit from the transactions that they arrange, and that most of those who do so know exactly what they are doing and are thus arrant knaves and hypocrites, even supposing all this to be true, does it follow that their retirement, whether voluntary or forced, would produce any appreciable reduction in the death rate among foundlings?

I think not. On the contrary, it seems to me that the only effect likely to be produced by driving these itchy-palmed humanitarians out of business and closing the two institutions aforesaid would be the effect of increasing the present death rate, perhaps to a flat and invariable 100 per cent. In other words, the babies that are now sent into barracks to die so copiously of malnutrition would then die even more copiously upon doorsteps and in ash barrels, or perhaps by the direct application of lethal doses and engines. This thing, at least, such places accomplish, for all their defects: they make infanticide unnecessary, and thus rare. If they were abolished forthwith, or if the present secrecy regarding their operations, and particularly regarding the identity of their patrons, were exchanged for that “pitiless publicity” which is the moralist’s dream, servant girls with fatherless babies would go back to the ancient custom of leaving them casually in inconvenient places, thus multiplying the scandals of the town without in any sense improving its morals.


Obviously, it was by some such consideration of the plain facts that the more honest of the philanthropists visited by the commission’s arrived at their willingness to arrange the separation of mother and child immediately after the birth of the latter, a cruel enough business in all conscience, even disregarding the dangers to the child. To depict them as heartless ghouls, deliberately seeking a profit out of the murder of babies, is grotesquely unjust, for in the cases of most of them it is not shown that they stood to make any personal profit at all. And in the cases of many it is highly probable that they exhausted every effort to dissuade the snouter who wept upon their necks (a he-sleuth representing himself to be the father of a girl in trouble) from his purpose.

The reports of these conferences in the report, indeed, are unpleasantly fragmentary, and there is always a suggestion that something essential has been left out. Moreover, there is sometime a very plain suggestion that the snouter has doctored the story to make it more shocking. This is obviously true of the report of an interview with a social worker so well known that his identity cannot be disguised, even by the ingenious code used by the commission. This man is represented as agreeing to take $100 or $125 as a private honorarium for his services, whereas it is notorious that he collects money only for the organization with which he is connected and that he has devoted a large part of his private means to its work. He tells me that he demanded nothing whatever, but that he told the agent provocateur that any reasonable donation would be gladly received by his society, and I believe him. More, I would believe his unsupported word in the face of sworn testimony, supported by dictographs and flashlight photographs, of all the snouters and snouteuses in Christendom.


I am no admirer goodness knows, of many of the rev. clergy, but I am surely not one to deny that, taking one with another, they believe in and practice a morality that is considerably closer to the austere and impossible morality that they preach than the morality practiced by any other large class of men, or by the community in general. Even my learned brethren of the Methodist persuasion, whose floutings of decency I have frequently lamented in the past, are at least a great deal more decent, year in and year out, than the average lawyer, journalist, bartender, judge, doctor or honorary pallbearer. They represent not the lowest moral thought of the community, nor even the mean, but almost the highest. No class of men could beat them in a fair match, whether under catch-as-catch-can rules or those of the late Marquis of Queensbury.

If, then, one finds (as the Vice Report alleges) that twenty-nine out of thirty Baltimore clergymen picked at random, or 96.67 per cent., give their ready assent to the separation of an unmarried mother from her child immediately after birth, then it must be obvious to any sane man that such a separation, whatever its perils to the child, is not in violation of the prevailing morality—that, in any event, it appears appreciably less immoral than any readily imaginable alternative. This being the case, it is idle for Dr. Walker to shed tears over what goes on in foundling asylums. For good or for evil, that business is condoned by the mores of our place and time, just as many another dangerous and dirty thing—e.g., yellow journalism, snoutery, cornet-playing—is condoned. Rare men like Dr. Walker and myself, whose morality makes even that of a bishop seem licentious, may sorrowfully deplore the fact, but it does us no good to blubber over it, and it surely gets us nowhere to denounce the honest men who accept it and try to make the best of it.


What, then, is to be done about it? How cut down the present vast butchery of the newly born? Two ways suggest themselves, the one medical and the other moral. The first involves so great an improvement in nursing, and particularly in the concoction of artificial infant foods, that the baby in a foundling’s crib will have, to all intents and purposes, the same chances of life as the baby at its mother’s breast. At the moment the former dies nine times out of ten, whereas the latter dies but one time out of ten; but this ratio is by no means inevitable, nor even invariable today. The science of pediatrics is still at its beginning, but already it shows the way toward a great revolution in feeding. Perhaps the time will come when a baby fed artificially will be, not only as well off as a baby at the breast, but even better off. That, indeed, is not merely a possibility, it is a strong probability, for the ways of nature, particularly under civilization, are anything but perfect, and it is only a lingering theological superstition that makes us blind to the fact that her handiwork is often a sorry botch. The feeding of babies, as managed by nature, is so far a good deal better than the feeding of babies as managed by the doctors, but it is surely not as satisfactory as the feeding of adults by first-rate cooks, for a large number of babies die every year of their mother’s milk, and the charitable are constantly besought to save them. Maybe the day is not far distant when the way to favor and insure a baby will be to take it away from its mother and put it in a foundling asylum. If that day ever comes, then all the present causes and excuses for Dr. Walker’s indignation will fade away, and his report will lose all save academic interest.


The moral change that I have alluded to is a possible change in our present barbarous attitude toward the unmarried mother. Nothing could be more cruel than the way she is now treated by society, and yet nothing could be plainer than the fact that her offense against it is purely artificial, and not only frowned upon by nature, but even desperately and irresistibly encouraged. The very worst that can be honestly said of a girl of 17 or 18 with an illegitimate child is that she has been foolish and unlucky, and yet society treats her with the most fearful rigors, and it is only the blest dullness of conscience of such persona as Dr. Walker denounces that ameliorates her lot in the slightest. To argue that she should keep her child will remain idiotic just so long as her public possession of it disqualifies her for all decent associations, and even for a respectable livelihood. The thing to do, if there is any actual desire abroad to save the babies now so cheerfully batted into Heaven, will be to make it not only possible, but also comfortable and profitable for their mothers to keep them and nurse them.

How? God knows! Maybe, in truth, the thing is unimaginable. Maybe the theological prejudice against the unmarried mother is too strong to be overcome. Maybe the odium she bears is inevitable demanded by the welfare of society. I’m sure I don’t know. But this I do know: that it is vain to denounce poor girls for farming out their fatherless infants so long as the social punishment for acknowledging and keeping them is worse than the penalty for robbing a bank. And it is vain, too, to howl down the foundling asylum so long as its only alternative is the ash can.


But meanwhile, it is good to know exactly how we stand, and exactly what we are doing. The greatest difficulty in the way of solving all such social problems is that they are approached as a rule in the light of insufficient knowledge. On this one, at least, Dr. Walker has thrown a very brilliant beam, and the facts revealed will well repay prolonged and sober consideration. I say facts, not opinions. Every opinion expressed in this report, even including the opinion that abortion is invariably wrong, has been attacked at some time or other by some man or woman of undoubted intelligence and good intent. This is always the defect in moralizing: it never gets us anywhere. But the discovery of a new fact always helps us toward the ultimate truth, however little; and in this report Dr. Walker has discovered and displayed a large number of novel and highly important facts.

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