NYC births in 1890s--Giving up baby to relative and unofficial surname change

+9 votes
I have written several times about a family "mystery": the disappearance of my grandmother's sister soon after birth. My great-grandmother was an impoverished Irish immigrant living in Brooklyn. In 1898, two related events occurred: she sent my grandmother (then 3 years old) to live with a relative in Ireland, and she gave birth to twins: William and Theresa. My great-grandmother raised William, but after much searching, I can find no other records of Theresa. There's much more to the story, but I'll ask my questions instead. I believe that, by 1898, all NYC births had to be recorded by the physician at the time of birth (he filled out a birth certificate).

QUESTION 1: How difficult would it have been for my great-grandmother to give Theresa to one of her siblings living nearby and have Theresa raised as if she were their biological child (i.e., there would have been no official adoption)? She would have been given my great-grandmother's maiden name--one that differed from the surname on the birth certificate.

QUESTION 2: Has anyone discovered something similar in their research?
WikiTree profile: Theresa Brew
in The Tree House by Jeffry Ricker G2G4 (4.2k points)
retagged by Jeffry Ricker

I guess this is even more difficult to answer than I had already suspected. My question could be revised to this: were babies ever born in NYC at this time where no medical professional was present? And if no medical professional was present, would the birth certificate and registration have been completed at a later time based on the parents' testimony?

I also suppose that officials could have been bribed. Tammany Hall was still going strong.

Hi Jeff,

Good question.

We are running into a similar brick wall. Our father Cecil Parish b. abt. 1900 does not exist on record until he is fostered and baptized in 1906 by the Samuel Edwin Johnston family of Lansdowne, Ontario Canada. The parents names look like they have been removed from the document. I doubt very much his name is Cecil Parish.

1 Answer

+2 votes
Hi, Jeffry & Theresa,

I have seen similar.  The answer to both questions is yes!  Well, a couple answers, actually.  But first, let me tell my story briefly, then ask you a couple of questions...

When  my grandmother passed, I grew even more interested in my family history.  I obviously knew her name, and her mother, my great grandmother, passed when I was under 2, but I know here name was Lillian May Perry Attlesey.  My desire was to learn more of Lillian's husband, Andrew Richard Culver Attlesey, because all I knew of him was that he had died at Arbuckle's Coffee Stables in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn on New Year's Eve in 1932.  I knew no more about his line beyond that.  Here's what I have since learned, in my 10 year quest...

I came across old notes taken by a great grand aunt, Emma Attlesey Smith, who must have passed them down to my great grandmother or grandmother prior to her death in 1946.  In these notes, she names her siblings, one of them being Andrew, my great grandfather.  With regard to her parents, she names Robert Henry Attlesey and Keziah Ayres Hayes.  She further names her own father as having been raised by a man named Samuel Hart.  No idea who he is...and so my research and many, many, many trips to Manhattan and Brooklyn began.

Here's what I learned: My 3x great grandparents, William and Alice Attlesey, sailed from England (they lived in Soham, Cambridgeshire) in 1852.  They sailed with eight of their children. Only one of those children, maybe two, were of legal age.  The others were all ranging in age from infant to 12 years old.  Unfortunately, both of them fell ill aboard ship--William with small pox, Alice with dysentery.  Both died within two weeks of arriving--mid May arrival, end of May/early June deaths.  Both were buried by Alice's sister, Sarah Martin Lusk Binger, in Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  One of those eight children was my 2x great grandfather, Robert Henry.  I was fortunate enough to have a name to go by as to who raised RH, but I had no idea WHY.  So I spent a lot of time researching what happened to orphans in Brooklyn in the mid to late 1800s.  

Short answer is yes, children were given away to relatives and even strangers all of the time.  There were also orphan asylums, almshouses, and even the Orphan Train in existence and employed during this time in Brooklyn.  That is what happened to the seven other siblings.  It has taken 10 years, but I have finally located what happened to them all, and even made contact with a cousin today who is a descendent of one of my great grandfather's sisters!

Here are some resources for you:

*Italian Genealogical Group: BMD records for early Brooklyn and Manhattan.  Although records were not REQUIRED to be filed city wide until late 1800s, some individual boroughs did or asked.  You can search all of the boroughs for a cert number here, even if you do not know the exact spelling of the last name.  Some records even back to 1840s.  If you live close to Manhattan, you can go to the Chambers St location of the Municipal Archives and look up these certs on microfiche.  This is free.  To make a copy costs money.

*Ancestry: Many times, baptismal records are the best bet for records.  

*Churches: many NYC churches will, for a fee, do records searches.

*Cemetery records: All of the cemeteries will do a search if you have any dates.  Calvary in particular charges an arm and a leg and doesn't yield much results aside from names and dates of who is buried.  Green Wood is fantastic, if it is a private lot.

*I've found Perrazzo's Funeral Home in the village to be another treasure trove.  I imagine some of the others might be helpful, as well.

Bear in mind, since at a certain date NO cert had to be filed for the birth, there may never have been a file.  Example: one of Robert Henry's sisters, Mary, had a child out of wedlock at 16.  His name was John Henry Attlesey (his mother's maiden name because she was not married).  Mary gave her son to her cousin to raise.  That cousin changed his surname to Powell, as that was her married name at the time.  At some point, John Henry returned to his mother, and I found him using the name John Henry Jones.  No idea why.  Did his mother marry a Jones?  Have found no record thus far.  BUT, between what I knew and what another woman in Australia knew, he apparently traveled to Australia in 1880 and had a family there.  The ironic part, as I knew his first half of his life, and she knew the other, we were able to answer one another's questions--like both her brother and father were given the middle name Powell, but they had no idea where that came from. Instead of his true birth name of John Henry Attlesey, he traveled, lived and raised his children as Jones.  In honor of his adoptive mother, he must have given his oldest son her married name Powell!  No clue is insignificant!

Finally, let me know if you need any help--I live about 30 minutes outside of Brooklyn and am willing to help you research or do it for you!

Valeri Shafer
by Valeri Shafer G2G6 (7.0k points)
edited by Valeri Shafer

Thank you, Valeri. I have not been on Wikitree for a long time because of some serious medical problems I was dealing with, and the need to catch up on work because of them.  I have only glanced through your response, but I noticed a few things I will comment on very soon. And thank you for your offer to help.I may take you up on that at some point. :-)

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