This Baby Had Hard Luck: 1890

hart's island open trench jacob riis
Laborers placing coffins in an open trench at Hart Island, Jacob Riis


From The New-York Evening Sun.

The funeral of Baby Call-Him-Anything-You-Please took place yesterday, and it was not in the least an ostentatious affair. There were no ceremonies worth mentioning. The casket was a raisin-box, and on it was stamped a great purple bunch of grapes and the word “Malaga.” But it was second-hand when it came to Baby What-Do-You-Call-Him, and was banged up and seedy even for an old raisin-box. But that was the way from the beginning with Baby; he never had even the very smallest chance from the time he came into the world until he left it. If ever there was a case of a start in life with no earthly show whatever it was the case of Baby. Yet he was not a bad baby. In the face of circumstances which would have made the general run of babies protest until they were black in the face, this baby never made it a point to yell.

He even smiled as amiably as he could whenever the remotest chance offered. He never knew exactly how he got here, but he was healthy, and from the very limited glimpses he saw of life and the world he was disposed to like them both. He would have taken a pleasant, humorous view of things if he had not been so unmercifully sat down upon. At times he became desperate and squared off at all humankind with his very small red fists clinched, while he expressed his opinion of the way the world used strangers with all the baby bad language at his command. But they gave him a slug of diluted laudanum on those occasion, and that soon settled the matter. It was no use. He couldn’t propitiate anybody by being amiable, and if he kicked he got stuffed with laudanum. Most babies of his age boss an entire household. If they sneeze there is a panic. If they condescend to smile there is a family festival. If they yell, able-bodied men grovel before them and hardened nurses are flustered. They have flannels and fine linen and millinery, and skilled physicians superintend their diet.

But this Baby didn’t have anything. He hadn’t a name. Nobody bothered enough about him to give him so much as a nickname. He hadn’t even a birthplace that was in any way official. There were some hazy rumors about Newburg, but you couldn’t prove it. When he was three weeks old he came to New-York and started in life. He came in an old valise and in response to an advertisement of somebody who wanted babies.

That was the queerest thing that anybody ever heard of—a person who actually wanted babies. The impression this Baby had got was that the one thing that this world didn’t want was babies. The way he had not been wanted amounted to enthusiasm. But here was a preposterous person who yearned for babies, who doted on them—for a reasonable consideration, of course. The thing struck the people who had Baby in charge as the greatest piece of luck they had had in their lives, and they packed Baby up in the valise and started off by the first train to catch this queer person before the authorities found out she was out of her head on babies and locked her up.

That was the way Baby came to new-York and tackled the world at the age of three weeks. But his guardians were not lavish with him. They didn’t believe in pampering a young man with his way to make in the world. When they left him with Mrs. Roggenthine, up in Eldridge-st., his entire personal property consisted of a piece of calico and a bottle of water.

“He eats water,” they told Mrs. Roggenthine, “and his name is—oh, call him what you please.”

They were lively, pleasant people, Mrs. Roggenthine told the newspaper reports, just bubbling over with humor. They laughed all the time they were with her, and Baby’s solemn dark eyes as he looked at them after the handsome send-off they had given him seemed to strike them as very funny. Of course it did look ridiculous to see a young man with only three weeks’ experience in the world and unable to speak the language, come down to tackle the big metropolis with a piece of calico and a recommendation to a water diet—the big metropolis which many strong men have tussled with only to be floored. And then, of course, there was the comic figure Mrs. Roggenthine cut, as a person, who for a consideration wanted babies and would have them around. It certainly was an absurd situation, and the last Mrs. Roggenthine saw of these pleasant, merry people they were laughing heartily over it as they went away.

There were three people in the party—a man, an elderly woman in black, and a fine, dashing young woman in navy blue. Doubtless they went off and had a jolly little dinner and drank success to Baby and his water bottle. It was very funny. Perhaps they laid a few bets with one another as to Baby’s chances, for they left an address to send to “if anything happened.” Something did happen, as a matter of course. Baby made a game fight of it and tried to rise superior to circumstances and live. But he wasn’t fairly treated: there isn’t a doubt about that. Handicapping is all very well, but there ought to be some ghost of a show for winning left. Baby didn’t even have a ghost’s shadow of a show. Mrs. Roggenthine even took off the bar against everything but water in the way of nourishment, and allowed good milk. But it was no use. The weather was so hot, and Baby had had rather a stuffy ride down here in the valise, and he never got himself together again. He stuck it out until last Saturday night, and then, with a very slight sigh, he gave up his short fight with a world which had been dead against him from the start. He might as well have given in at the beginning, when it was such a settled thing that he was to have no show whatever.

The funeral was from the Morgue yesterday, and the burial was quietly performed in the Potter’s Field. There were sixteen other dead people who had played a losing game in the world buried with him, and as there were not enough services to go around, Baby got left again, as usual. But he got into the one place in all the wide world where he was not in the way, when they dropped him in his raisin box in a little corner of the Potter’s Field trench.

Some people are born lucky and some art not. Baby was not. Yet ether are rumors of some respectable people up in virtuous Massachusetts who might properly have taken charge of Baby. It is even said that an elderly man and a pillar in the church, who lives near Pittsfield, might with justice, if not with propriety, have taken a fatherly interest in him. But Baby’s luck was against it. His mistake in ever coming into the world at all. But to be sure, he wasn’t consulted.

New York [NY] Tribune 16 July 1890: p. 5

The Potter’s Field trench would have been on Hart Island, as it is still today. Pauper infants were often buried in whatever container was available.


Many Little Bodies Find Nameless Graves.

            “We have many people bring us little babes in boxes, ranging in size from a cigar box to a coffin a foot or so long,” said a sexton. “They hardly ever leave instructions, so we just put the boxes at the bottom of some grave we dig for a grown person.”

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 31 January 1892: p. 9

NOTE: The practice of “filling in” a gap at the foot of an adult grave with a child’s coffin, was a source of much pain to bereaved pauper parents. They much preferred that their babies be buried in a plot with other children.


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.  And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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