UNWED AND PREGNANT IN 1893
To be pregnant and unwed in the late 1800s was a terrifying proposition for a woman.
In some cases, a shotgun wedding ensued. There was a great deal of social pressure, particularly on the soon-to-be mother, to get married. As long as the father of the child did not desert the mother, the mother could retain some degree of respectability in the community. It also wasn’t unheard of for a desperate family to hide the pregnancy and arrange a quick marriage with another man, either hoping to pass the pregnancy off as his or offering him a good sized dowry to keep quiet about it. If this wasn’t feasible, the family might say that the girl had gone to visit a distant “relative” in another community; in reality, she may have gone off to a maternity group home where she would give birth to her child and give it up for adoption. She would have no choice in the matter because virtue and virginity were synonymous. A woman who lost her virginity outside of marriage—regardless of the circumstances surrounding that loss–was ruined.
It was particularly hard for the village girl who was taken advantage of by a man of higher social status who had no intention of marrying her. A single woman with a child faced considerable social stigma in addition to economic hardship. Though rare, some mothers resorted to killing their infants because they knew they could never provide for them.
The attitude toward unwed mothers became more tolerant in the years between 1880 and 1900. By 1900, the Florence Crittenton Homes, originally founded in 1883 as refuges for “fallen women” had become homes for “unwed mothers.” Still, even at the turn of the century, it was typical to consider a woman “ruined” if she were to find herself pregnant with no prospects of marriage. Even researching the topic in historical newspapers that were published between 1880 and 1900, I found very few articles under the search for “unwed mothers.” It was only under the more pejorative search terms of “bastard child,” “bastardy,” and “fallen women” that my search was rewarded with an abundance of articles.
It wasn’t until almost 1920 that the attitude toward illegitimate children began to change significantly. People started to see that it was unfair to punish the innocent child born of illicit relations by making the child a social outcast.
Here is an article about an unwed mother that appeared in the November 10, 1893 issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Her child was stillborn and is buried in the Mt. Washington Cemetery.
Asks the Police to Find Her Babe
Which the Records Show Was Buried
in the Mt. Washington Cemetery
Kitty O’Brien, the music teacher, called on Chief Deitsch yesterday, and told him that she thought her baby was alive, and was being used to blackmail some one.
Kitty, it will be remembered, figured in a sensation some months ago. She lived at No. 190 Mound Street a year ago, and made a living by giving piano lessons. There she met Rena Gelwichs, who had a flat at No. 301 Central Avenue. She visited the flat, and met several gentlemen there. One of them, she says, was Captain Powers, formerly one of the proprietors of the New Era Restaurant on Vine Street. She claims that he got her drunk and ruined her.
Last July she found that she was about to become a mother, so she called the Captain to account. The result was that she was sent to Mrs. Shaw’s house, at No. 1616 Eastern Avenue. There her child was born. Kitty says that she never saw the child, and Mrs. Shaw told her that it was dead. Kitty now says that her brother wrote to her and told her that he had received a letter from some one saying that the child was not dead, but was being used by some one for black-mailing purposes. If the child was alive, she wanted it. Detective Crawford was detailed on the case, and he made an investigation. He found from the records in the Health Office that the child was still-born and had been buried by Undertaker Watkins, and was interred in the cemetery in Mt. Washington. The certificate was signed by Dr. Countryman.
Kitty says that she never received a cent of money from Captain Powers, and that her brother paid all of her expenses. She claims that Rena Gelwichs, who is now in Dayton, received money from Sam Conn, of Winchester, Ky., to pay Kitty’s expenses, and that Mrs. Shaw received double pay for her services as nurse. Chief Deitsch will investigate further.