Talitha Cumi Home, a Personal and Historical Perspective
Although I was raised in the State of Maine and always knew I was born in Boston and adopted, I had never inquired about the circumstances of my birth until I found out in 2003 who my birth mother was from her daughter, my half-sister. To make a long story short, I was adopted by my birth mother’s sister and her husband, so it was rather easy to make contact with the woman whom I had known all my life as my aunt.
At our first meeting after the revelation, I learned that my mother had spent five months in 1946 at a home for unwed mothers called Talitha Cumi (a phrase from the Bible meaning “Arise, young woman”) in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. One entry on the internet surmises, “I can well imagine that once the facility was built, few in Jamaica Plain would have been aware of it. Set off at the edge of a residential district that still was not filled in, it was probably out of sight as well as out of mind. Still, if not of Jamaica Plain, it was certainly in Jamaica Plain.” It was not unusual for these maternity homes to be in more isolated areas to keep a curious public from disturbing the calm and peaceful environment that was being created for the girls who were seeking secrecy and anonymity.
I visited Jamaica Plain in 2007 after doing some research on the Home. I found the building that had housed the Talitha Cumi Maternity Hospital and Home at 200-215 Forest Hills Street, which now housed the Parkside Christian Academy and the Parkside School of the Bethel AME Church. Talitha Cumi had been run by the New England Moral Reform Society, described as “an extreme wing of the American Protestant movement known as the Second Great Awakening,” whose members “believed in social action as a moral imperative and, in particular, conducted a vigorous crusade against the double standards of a male-dominated society.”
At the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, I found more information about the Society in the rare book room which housed the 56th Annual Report of the Society (1892 and some statistics for the year 1900). The group had been organized in 1836 by “earnest Christian women” who longed to open a “door of hope” to “those hopeless and helpless girls who found themselves facing the sadness and shame and wrong of unwed motherhood.” The Home “has been opened all these years to such girls in the hour of their despair, when they know not which way to turn.” Thousands of girls had been helped and “encouraged to seek forgiveness of the past and strength for the future.” Many were very young when they “made the terrible mistake which might lead to a suicide’s death or an abandoned life.” Some were “helplessly ignorant of the gravity of their wrong,” and were able to avoid the “publicity of hospital care.” They needed a place to hide before their condition began to show. Hospitals would discharge them after a couple of days, while the Talitha Cumi Home cared for them for four weeks after delivery.
Critics of the Home argued that the Society encouraged promiscuity, but members of the Society pointed to the fact that the girls who received care did not know of its existence prior to their crisis pregnancies. And the girls admitted to the Home had to present a doctor’s certificate showing that this was their first pregnancy and that they were free of venereal diseases. The Home apparently did not admit patients facing a second pregnancy. The 1892 annual report states that, “It is not the mission of this House to deal with degraded women who have been promiscuous sinners, but rather young girls who have slipped through ignorance and unguarded surroundings … and are in need of care for the first time.”
The constitution of the Moral Reform Society summarizes the philosophy of its members (any woman who paid $1.00 a year dues could belong). Article II stated its objectives: “Maintain a home for the shelter and salvation of erring girls;” “to receive and instruct them during the waiting period bringing such influences to bear upon them in their sorrow that they are led to God’s forgiveness and hope;” “to follow them with Christian love and care as they go forth to begin life anew,” and “to assist them in finding suitable occupation if they are without funds.” Article V discussed the goal of the Home in placing the girls in suitable employment. The 1892 annual report states that domestic work in the homes of Boston’s prominent families was considered ideal employment because it allowed for mother and child to live together. At the Talitha Cumi Home, the young girls were encouraged to keep their babies, in the 1890s at least. The Home’s founders believed that helping the girls meet “the sacred obligations of motherhood” would lead them to a more productive and happy life, and help them avoid the mistakes of their past.
The Home made a special effort to keep in touch with its former patients. The 1892 annual report notes that the Home stayed in touch with 18 of the 22 girls living “nobly and purely.” Twenty-four women had babies at the Talitha Cumi Hospital 1891, two of whom had died of “puerperal fever,” it was noted, because they were very ill when they made their way to Jamaica Plain. The report stated that they were the first maternal deaths at the Home in 20 years. Fifteen of the babies born there in 1891 lived with their mothers; four had been adopted; two were in the care of the State of Massachusetts, and 3 had died. The Home, by the way, did not provide adoption services. The four children who were adopted were presumably the result of private adoptions or state-assisted procedures.
In 1892, the average stay at Talitha Cumi was 12.5 weeks, including four weeks after delivery. In the appeal for funds, director Caroline Hastings cited statistics for 69 young woman admitted to the Home in the several years before the fund drive of 1892. Fifty-four were Protestants; 15 were Catholic; 20 were from Massachusetts; 37 were U.S. born; 19 were from Canada; two were Black and three were from Ireland. Fees were $3.50 a week, but 30 girls were charity cases; 19 had paid in full and 15 had paid part of the room, board and hospital costs. (A total of 64 girls are accounted for by ability to pay – I do not know how the other five girls were classified.) The ones who were able to pay in full had probably been placed there by middle- and upper-class parents who wanted to avoid the social shame of an unmarried pregnant daughter.
In the fund-raising section of the 1892 annual report, a more frank and informal description of the “guests” is presented. To allay any fears among potential donors, patients at Talitha Cumi were portrayed as the girl next door. Phrases such as, “So many are like the girls we know,” and “Some of them even look touchingly like that sweet girl at home, daughter or sister,” give the 1892 report its tone. Some of these “girls betrayed by boyfriends” came from homes where a parent had died and were banished from their own homes by angry and embarrassed parent(s) to fend for themselves. (The annual report notes that one young girl arrived at South Station in Boston and had to rely on the kindness of strangers for directions to the Home.) Twenty-eight of the 64 girls were under twenty years old: one, a victim of rape, was thirteen years old; another was 14 years old, and 18 girls were between 15 and 17 years old. There was seldom a mention of the fathers except for the betrayal comment noted above, but this section of the report did note that 16 fathers were under age 20. It was also noted that some of the residents had been victims of sexual abuse and violence, but that they were a small minority. For the most part, wrote the administrators of the Home, these girls had yielded to temptation.
The purpose of the 1892 fund drive was to move the Home from its Shawmut Avenue address because it was too small. The Moral Reform Society had set about raising $25,000 “for this work so that it may be carried on in a ‘Home’ suited to its necessities.” A 1910 Boston Globe article quotes Dr. Julia Plummer appealing for funds for “unfortunate girls, most of whom have come to their unhappiness through no fault of their own and many of whom are under 16 years of age.” Dr. Plummer said the work of the Home embraced not only the hospital work, and the educational work to which many people preferred to give their money, but it “healed the broken hearts of helpless young women, who nowhere else in the state could find tender, sympathetic care in their time of awful need.” The fund-raising campaign was successful, and by 1912 (according to an article in the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy), the new home and hospital were in operation on Forest Hills Street in Jamaica Plain.
I searched for information about what the girls did at the Home while awaiting the birth of their children. In 1900, the girls were given tasks to perform in the kitchen and laundry, and were required to keep their rooms clean and clutter free. They were given cooking lessons and taught the domestic arts such as sewing and mending. They were taught higher standards of behavior that inculcated a “vision of womanhood,” stressing “dignity of Christian purity.” “The girls who leave our Home,” it was written, “will have had a share of our home life that can remain with them in the future. The goals and philosophy of the Home were repeated: “We believe that although they have been wronged, the best hope for the future of these women lies in mother love and mother responsibilities. We expect our girls to support their child either as a maid where the child lives with her or by paying the child’s board in some suitable place.” Apparently, not all prospective employers were keen on having their household domestic bring an out-of-wedlock child with her to live in the family hearth. But given what has been written about Homes for Unwed Mothers in the post-World War II period, and the trauma suffered by mothers who were for all intents and purposes forced to surrender their children, the system at Talitha Cumi in the 19th century appeared more enlightened.
The Library’s rare book room at Copley Square also had statistics for the Talitha Cumi Home from March 1, 1900 to March 1, 1901. Of the 65 births that year, none were adopted, at least not by the time the statistics were compiled. Fifty babies were kept by their mothers; six became wards of the state; five babies died (soon after birth I assume), and four were still-born. No maternal deaths were reported.
Administrators that year stressed that each girl was given a Bible and were helped to use it intelligently. “Somebody cares” was the message imparted to each patient. As noted above, the Home did admit Catholics but only if they promised to read the Bible and participate in religious activities.
Fast forward to 1946. I was born on July 1. My mother’s roommate had her baby on July 5. Although they were almost 10 years apart in age, they were paired because they were both French speakers of French-Canadian origin. My mother died in 2003 before I had started doing research on the Talitha Cumi Home, and before I had the opportunity to ask her about her stay there. But Mom did remember knitting baby clothes for me during her stay in Jamaica Plain. Her roommate remembers knitting baby clothes also and performing kitchen chores as part of her daily routine. She also read a lot, she told me, but not the Bible, as that was no longer a requirement for Catholics at the Home. Nor were compulsory religious services. And the girls were allowed to receive visitors. Mom’s roommate also remembers going as a group to visit the Franklin Park Zoo and remembers the railroad trestle that crosses that park. But they did not take many day trips since they travelled as a group. There was nothing inconspicuous about a group of seven or eight pregnant young girls visiting any local landmark.
I was baptized on August 6 at Our Lady of Lourdes church in Jamaica Plain, not far from the Home. In speaking to the pastor there in 2007, he told me that the Home would regularly bring three or four children to the church for baptism. The pastor would scurry to find sponsors. My grandmother was one of my sponsors. She probably came down to Boston to discuss adoption arrangements with her daughter who, I surmise, was still residing at Talitha Cumi. Her roommate stayed at the Home until September because of unsettled conditions with the baby and at home. So the Talitha Cumi Home was still extending its care and hospitality to its patients long after they had given birth. My Mom’s roommate also gave her child up for adoption. She does not remember any offers of domestic employment during her stay. The Home, which after 1948 was called the Hastings House, presumably named after Caroline Hastings, closed in 1951. I have not been able to find out why, but I would surmise that the State of Massachusetts began to take a more active role in supporting unwed mothers-to-be, and that the cost of running the Home and providing top-of-the-line care proved to be more than private charity could raise.
My mother had very pleasant memories of the Home even though she had been there under very trying circumstances. Although my grandfather would not let her bring me home, she had refused to surrender me. I actually lived in a foster home in Caribou, Maine (with a very nice family, she told me) for the first six months of my life, while she continued living at home 35 miles away. She visited as often as she could. In telling this story to my kids, they have asked, “Your mom was almost 26 when you were born, why didn’t she just get an apartment somewhere and a job and just keep you?” The research that I have done on out-of-wedlock births in the post-World War II era gives one a clear understanding of why I was surrendered for adoption: no job, no money, no support system, no government aid programs. Mom could not go back to her hometown (hey, who’s that little kid with you, anyway?). And my grandfather had what he considered a perfect solution. “Let your sister (who can’t have any children) and her husband, who live in Maine, adopt your baby.” Six months later I came to live in Biddeford, Maine.
My first post-discovery opportunity to speak with my Mom came on February 24, 2003, four months before she died. One of the first things she said to me was that she had not wanted to surrender me. But in retrospect, she was present at my high school graduation, my college graduation, my wedding, and our three children’s baptisms. I was even at her wedding in 1948. We spent Christmas together for many years as we travelled to my grandparents’ house where my birth mother and her husband lived and cared for my maternal grandparents. Her roommate, who was from Massachusetts, tells me that they would often meet in Biddeford, Maine for family gatherings where I was present. In short, my birth mother saw me growing up.
My kids ask, “Your parents died in 1987 and 1988 respectively. Why didn’t your birth Mom tell you then,” especially since her husband had always known who I was. “Shame? Embarrassment?” My half-sister found out the secret by accident and she was the only one of my four siblings who knew my true identity. The State of Massachusetts now makes one’s real birth certificate available. Listed under “mother” is my birth-mother’s maiden name. I am listed as Michael with Mom’s maiden name. My baptismal certificate lists me as Michael Guignard, but Church authorities note that I was not legally adopted until 1953, when I made my First Communion. I am sure there is a story behind that fact pattern.
But I am indebted to the Blue Bloods and Boston Brahmins who founded the Talitha Cumi Home and gave my birth-mother refuge in her time of need. It is ironic that the French newspaper in Biddeford, Maine often railed against the Yankees, who the editor said were a dying breed losing their religion and closing their churches. Those Yankees saved many children – and mothers too – when they were abandoned by their families, communities, boyfriends and fiancés, churches, pastors and local governments. The Social Gospel and Christian compassion were alive and well at 215 Forest Hills Street in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
Michael Guignard, Ph.D
The Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives contain a hand-written nursing certificate certifying that Miss Alberta Ray Wright had completed a six month course as an obstetric nurse and was signed by Julia Plummer M.D. at the Talitha Cumi Home when it was located at 206 West Brookline Street in Boston. The certificate is dated April 12, 1894 and was donated in January, 2015 by William H. Jenkins of West Brookfield, Massachusetts to the Jamaica Plain Historical Society. See below.