Transcript: 56. The Butterbox Babies | Canada

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In the spring of 1935, Eva Nieforth of Nova Scotia was in love with a young man called Walter. When she found out she was pregnant, they had to keep it a secret, as it was still very much a scandal to have a baby out of wedlock in Canada in the 1930s.


Unmarried and alone, Eva did not have many options. She had heard about the Ideal Maternity Home in East Chester and decided to have her baby there. She arrived just before Christmas and the home’s owners, William and Lila Young took her in. 


Eva had only been at the home for a week or so, when she contracted an abdominal infection. She was bedridden until the end of January when she went into labor. The labor was harrowing, and Eva nearly didn’t make it. Sadly, her baby passed away shortly after being born. 


A day later, Eva was still hanging on, fighting for her own life. William young wrote a letter to Eva’s boyfriend, Walter, informing him of the situation. When Walter arrived, he was shocked to see Eva. She had not been given antibiotics for her infection, as the Maternity home did not have any available. When Walter insisted, they called a doctor, William Young was offended and told him that he was a doctor and there was no need to involve a third party. 


Lila Young took the concerned Walter aside and told him that Eva’s baby did not survived. She gave him an invoice for $25. $5 for a shroud and $20 for the burial of the baby. Once Walter paid the money, the Young’s told him that visitor’s hours were over and that he should leave.


Two days later, Eva Nieforth was dead.


Eva was not the only person who had died at the hand of the Youngs. But the story of the Ideal Maternity Home was dormant for almost 40 years, when journalist Bette Cahill published a book called ‘Butterbox Babies: Baby sales. Baby deaths. The Scandalous Story of the Ideal Maternity Home’, exposing what went on behind the doors of the Ideal Maternity Home in East Chester, Novia Scotia for two grueling decades.


>>Intro Music


Lila Gladys Coolen was born in Fox Point Nova Scotia in 1899. Her parents, Salem and Bessie Coolen were devout members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.


After high school, Lila became a teacher. She met 27-year-old William Peach Young when she was 26 and the couple forged a strong bond. William came from Oregon and lived in New Brunswick. He had aspirations to become a Seventh Day Adventist missionary and worked as an unordained priest. He graduated from the Medical Evangelists College in 1923.

On his own steam, William, embarked on an evangelical mission of sorts, caring for the sick and frail along the South Coast of Nova Scotia, all the while spreading the Gospel. 


William and Lila married in 1925. Soon after the wedding, Lila fell pregnant to the first of their five children. Lila trained as a midwife and William studied chiropractic. The couple moved to Chicago in December 1927 where William was a licenced chiropractor. This was an interesting career choice at the time, as chiropractors were regarded as quacks by the American Medical Association. An article by J Keith Simpson gives an idea of the challenges chiropractors faced in those days:


“In the first thirty years of the chiropractic profession's existence, there were more than 15,000 prosecutions, about 20 percent of which resulted in incarceration… On one occasion there was a mass arrest of 100 chiropractors in New York City.”

 

Although chiropractic was a popular alternative medicine at the time, with many schools offering training, it was not without risk. The Youngs only stayed in Chicago for two months before moving to Nova Scotia.  


They did not have a lot of money but were able to purchase a small home. The property was a four-bedroom cottage in the picturesque fishing village of East Chester, south of Halifax. The Youngs had a vision, they wanted to open their home for people in need of medical care, so they started ‘Life and Health Sanatorium’ with the slogan: “Where the Sick Get Well” 


Lila’s midwife-qualification came in handy and the couple soon realised there was a big demand for maternity care in the area. Especially for destitute young mothers. There were absolutely no social support programs in place for unmarried mothers in Nova Scotia. This was a time when having children out of wedlock was still very much a social taboo. Even families would turn their backs on their unmarried pregnant daughters, who were kicked out of their homes to fend for themselves.


As more and more unwed mothers came through the doors of the Sanatorium, the Youngs decided to change the name of their facility to the ‘Ideal Maternity Home and Sanatorium’. They promised to be discreet and protect expectant mothers from societal judgement. The ad one newspaper read:


“Ideal Maternity Mother’s Refuge – Also department for girls. NO PUBLICITY. Infants home in connection. Write for literature. East Chester Nova Scotia.”


Another ad was more elaborate:


"Dame gossip has sent many young lives to perdition after ruining them socially, that might have been BRIGHT STARS in society and a POWER in the world of usefulness HAD THEY BEEN SHIELDED from gossip when they made a mistake."


The ‘literature’ or brochures painted a picture of a safe and welcoming haven. Mothers were promised entertainment and recreation in modern facilities, while the babies would have a ‘scientific start in life’ with the Ideal Maternity Home offering a complete adoption service. William Young was the superintendent and his wife Lila the director. 


The Youngs also performed abortions, which were illegal at the time. In Canada – before 1969 – the maximum penalty for a doctor or anyone else who conducted an abortion was life imprisonment. This was obviously not an advertised service, but if expectant mothers chose to end their pregnancies, they had the option to do so at the Ideal Maternity Home.


But for the main part, the home was a maternity business. And it didn’t come cheap. The women had to pay between $100 - $500 to have the baby delivered and then stay a couple of days to recover. Expectant mothers were required to pay on arrival.


Bear in mind the weekly wage for clerks at that time was $8, domestic workers would get paid about $4. So many women couldn’t pay for the services at the Ideal Maternity Home. The Youngs were also known to resort to blackmail and extortion of the women’s families or boyfriends to make sure that they received their money. As a last resort, the unwed mothers were given the opportunity to work as cleaners, cooks or nannies in the home to pay off their debt in a form of voluntary enslavement. Many of the women had no other choice and remained hostage at the home for years.


The Youngs ran their business in a way that is similar to modern-day budget airlines, where every add-on bears an additional cost. At the home, they charged $12 for diapers and baby care products, as well as $2 for babysitting per week, during the time the mother was recovering from childbirth. 


If an infant were to pass away, the amount of $20 was charged for the funeral. The Youngs would perform the memorial service and the little corpses were placed in wooden delivery boxes from the LaHave Creamery – referred to as butterboxes – that served as coffins. They buried the bodies at the home, in the town cemetery or on a piece of land owned by Lila’s parents. If the mothers could not pay for funeral costs, babies were discarded of by burning their corpses in the incinerator. Other little corpses were given to a local fisherman, who threw them into the sea. 


If mothers could not care for their babies, Lila had a proposition. If they paid the home $300, the Youngs ensured lifetime care of the infant. That meant, they would find an adoptive family for them. The mother could leave and sever all ties with her child. The official document for this agreement was called an ‘adoption transfer agreement’. This was an unusual arrangement. Expectant mothers would typically pay for their board at a maternity home, but never paid for adoption services.


Sometimes, women would have their babies elsewhere and bring them to the home for adoption services. They were charged a substantial fee for leaving the babies in the care of the home. These kinds of transactions were perfect for the Youngs as they would not have the trouble of providing birthing services to the mothers, but they were still able to extract money from them.


Once the Youngs had the cash and the mothers were long gone, some babies were taken care of by neighbours, who were paid $3 a week until they were adopted. Others did not live very long. 


The Youngs got rid of ‘unmarketable babies’, by ending their lives. These were babies who had imperfections, abnormalities or birthmarks. Ones who were sickly or of mixed race were also deemed to be useless. They fed these children a diet of water and molasses which caused their deaths in less than two weeks. 


The Youngs only kept the ‘best babies’ for adoption. That is, healthy Caucasian babies. Newspaper advertisements, looking for adoptive parents read: 


“Lovely babies for adoption. Excellent background and healthy bodies; write for information.”


The Ideal Maternity Home had many supporters, as the Youngs appealed to the community for donations. The fact that they gave unwed mothers a safe haven to have their children and then found suitable homes to raise the children, all the while doing so in the name of God, made their service a noble one. A booklet for adoptive parents had a quote from Senator Duff, who sang the Youngs’ praises for keeping true to their "strong faith in God and determination for the betterment of humanity". The same booklet contained a picture of the son and daughter-in-law of Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor who had adopted a baby from the Ideal Maternity Home.


What supporters did not know, was that the Ideal Maternity Home was a blatant money racket, void of the empathy and discreet care the Youngs advertised. They went to extremes to garner more business. Both Lila and William claimed to be doctors, it even stated so on their stationary and correspondence. Lila passed herself off as an ‘obstetrical expert’ and she was the main person who delivered the babies. She was known to be rough and brutal and mothers in labour did as they were told. William was said to have knelt in the room and prayed whenever a child was born.


One mother, a woman called Violet Eisenhower, recalled her labour in the Ideal Maternity Home. This time, the roles reversed. Lila Young freaked out and said that Violet’s baby was choking on her own umbilical cord and that she did not know what to do. She fell to her knees and started praying. William Young, who had been in the room, praying, stepped in and managed to deliver the baby who was breech. That means the baby came out bottom first – a painful and dangerous situation.


Violet was in tremendous pain and only too thankful that both her and her baby girl survived. A couple of days later, Lila brought the baby to Violet’s room. She stood far away from Violet, so she could not see her daughter. Lila told her that the baby was ill and things were not looking good. Violet nursed her baby and found it strange that her healthy baby girl was suddenly sick. Soon after, Violet was told that the baby was dead. 


Violet was shocked but immediately felt suspicious. She had heard rumours about a wealthy family from Winnipeg who had come to the Ideal Maternity Home, asking to adopt a girl. At that time, Violet’s baby was the only girl in the nursery. But with nothing but rumours to support Violet’s suspicions, there was nothing she could do. She had lost her child and even though Violet felt her daughter was still alive, she had no proof and no way of finding her. 


The average age of mothers who came to the home was 17. They were alone and often went there without their families knowing they were ever pregnant. They were vulnerable and completely at the mercy of the Youngs. The sad part is, even with the brutality of the Youngs, the Ideal Maternity Home was still the best option for most of the ‘women in trouble’. Although medical care was questionable, it was available, and at least they had a place to stay and food to sustain them.  


On one occasion Lila took one of the babies to a neighbour for care, as was the usual arrangement. The neighbour was immediately concerned about the child who looked limp and sickly. She called for a doctor who said that the baby was severely malnourished. Sadly it was too late to intervene and the infant passed away in less than a week.


Between 1928 and 1935, 148 babies were born at the Ideal Maternity Home. During this time 12 infants did NOT survive. In the early 1930s, infant mortality rate in Nova Scotia was 3.1%. The Ideal Home’s mortality rate was 8.1%, that is almost three times as high as the average of the province. What was going on inside the home?


Dr Frank Roy Davis from the Liberal Party came into office in 1933 and heard many rumours and suspicious theories about the baby deaths at the Ideal Maternity Home. He ordered sporadic investigations into reported incidents and became a nuisance for William and Lila. From that time on, they Youngs were under constant investigation. Provincial authorities had no legal right to search the premises, so their hands were tied. The Youngs were well aware of the shortcomings of Nova Scotia’s social welfare system and took full advantage of it.


Dr Davis found a loophole in legislation and managed to force The Youngs to employ a registered nurse, to ensure better care for mothers and their infants. The problem was, one nurse could not be on duty 24/7 and she was only exposed to a small part of the operation. 


The Youngs were not people who took intimidation well. They knew how to play the game and decided to fight back. They had many supporters who were prominent members of the community: politicians, academics and other high society influencers. The Youngs fooled these people into believing that they ran a charitable service and welcomed donations. But there was another dimension to their influence in the community. Some people in power had used the services of the Ideal Maternity Home in delicate situations like abortions from illicit affairs, or confidential adoptions. The Youngs did not hesitate to remind them about that. The threat of exposing their secrets was always strongly implied. That would mean politicians turned a blind eye and the Youngs were free to carry on.


However, they were not above the law. On March 4th 1936, William and Lila were both charged with the manslaughter of 27-year-old Eva Nieforth and her newborn baby. They were accused of negligence and it was proved that the conditions in the home were unsanitary. 


Dr Ralph Smith, provincial pathologist testified that he had performed post mortem examinations on both Eva and her baby. He concluded that Eva had contracted peritonitis thanks to the use of unsterilized obstetric instruments. The infection had spread from her uterus to her perineum causing abscesses that ruptured. Eva’s death was slow and painful, complete torture. As for her baby, the results were every bit as horrendous. Forceps had loosened the scalp and snapped the occipital bone – that is the bone at the base of the skull through which the spinal cord passes. 


The Youngs were called to the stand and denied all charges. They were both so convincing that they were acquitted.


Although there was no justice for Eva Nieforth and her baby, the case did bring the Youngs onto the radar of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (or RCMP). They made it a matter of priority to investigate all reported deaths at the home. What they did not know was the growing number of unreported infant deaths that occurred at the home.


Bu the late 1930s, there were so many incriminating stories about the Youngs, that they were kicked out from the Seventh Day Adventist Church.


In 1940, the Maternity Boarding House Act came into effect in Nova Scotia. As the Ideal Maternity Home was the largest facility of its kind in the province, it was a clear message from law enforcement that they were onto the Youngs. It forced the home to keep records of patients’ names, ages and addresses and make it available for review by the director of child welfare. Routine inspections could be conducted without prior warning. All deaths had to be reported to the director of child welfare within 24 hours. The Youngs were also prohibited from advertising adoption services, something they openly ignored.


Despite restrictions and the growing reputation of the home, business was booming. With the outbreak of World War II, the Ideal Maternity Home received more patients than ever before. Halifax was a major port from where NAVY vessels departed to cross the Atlantic to England. Sailors and soldiers sought out female company as soon as they hit dry land and many women found themselves with unwanted pregnancies. The Ideal Maternity Home was the only facility in Nova Scotia where unmarried pregnant teens or young women could find refuge.


The home expanded. William did most of the building work himself. In 1939, the Youngs paid off their mortgage and the money was flowing in. What started as nothing more than a cottage, had become a sprawling homestead with 54 rooms, 14 bathrooms and many nurseries. At any given time, one could find between 75 – 125 babies at the home. Green, parklike gardens surrounded the home and from the outside in, it looked like a thriving and happy organisation. By 1943, the home had no less than 70 servants – all mothers who worked for free in order to pay off their debt to the Youngs.


The largest source of the home’s income came from adoptive parents. Many of their clients were well-to-do couples who could not adopt legally, as they were too young or state laws prohibited them from adopting. Couples who were informed about the possibility of adoption visited the Ideal Maternity Home and were taken to one of the nurseries where they were presented with rows and rows of basinets. The selection of babies on display all suited the requirements of the prospective adoptive parents. If needed, even twins were separated, sometimes twins were randomly matched if the clients said that they wanted twins.


The geographic location of the Ideal Maternity Home was also beneficial. People from New York and New Jersey visited the coast line as a popular holiday spot. Childless Jewish couples frustrated at the adoption waiting periods back home, would pretend to visit the area for a holiday, but actually came to adopt a baby. Adoption across religious lines were not permitted in the US and there was a severe shortage of Jewish babies at the time. The Youngs would simply fabricate a suitable back story for each baby, to tailor-fit prospective parents’ needs. If they wanted a Jewish baby, the Youngs would say the mother was Jewish.


One adoptee said that her adoptive mother told her they chose her because she was the only baby with dark hair, like both her parents. Soon after she arrived in her new home, her new mom realised that she was sick and took her to a pediatrician. She was diagnosed with pneumonia, a condition that was clearly not treated at the Ideal Maternity Home. If her adoptive parents did not choose her that day, chances are she would have been one of the countless babies who died in the care of the Youngs.


Adoptive parents paid handsome sums of money that was said to be ‘donations’ or ‘contributions’ to the home. The Youngs charged anywhere between $1,000 to $10,000 per child. The price was set once they had an idea of what prospective parents were prepared to pay. William Young banked $3.5 Million from adoptions alone in the space of ten years between 1937 and 1947.


The Youngs were keen and eager to deliver babies and then sell them. They did not care too much about the families who adopted them. As long as they had the financial means, they were good to go. There was also no follow-up or inspection done to ensure that the children were in safe and happy homes. As soon as the transaction was completed, the Youngs washed their hands of the babies.


In August 1945 public health officials finally went to the Ideal Maternity Home to investigate, after years of receiving complaints about conditions. They could not believe what they saw. It was disgusting. Bedding was filthy, each room was over-crowded with flies swarming around small infants… There was even a note about vermin infestation in the report. 


The children were in such bad shape, most of them weighing in at 50% of the expected weight for babies of similar ages. They had soiled diapers and puddles of vomit were found in many of the shared cots. Of course, these were the conditions in the majority of the nurseries. The nursery that was used as the presentation room for prospective adoptive parents was well-presented and spotless.


A handyman who worked for the Youngs, called Glen Shatford, came forward with a shocking confession. He said that it was his job to bury the babies. He took them to Fox Point to bury them on a property owned by Lila’s parents. The piece of land was adjacent to an Adventist cemetery. He buried them in rows, so it would be easier to keep count. Shatford claimed there was between 100 to 125 babies in the make-shift cemetery. 


One incident: in April 1938, the corpse of a baby was kept in Young’s tool shed at the Ideal Home for five days before he was taken to Fox Point.


In the end, between 800-1500 babies were born at the home of whom 400-600 babies lost their lives at the hands of the Youngs. If you work out the percentage, it means that approximately 70% of babies born at the home never made it out alive.


Lila fought back and said they were being harassed by public health officials and that the media was blowing the story out of proportion. But it was too late, their reputation had been tarnished and many of their influential supporters turned their backs on the Youngs and the Ideal Maternity Home. The couple were seen as black-market baby traders and nobody wanted to associate with them any longer.


The home was ordered to shut its doors in November 1945. Or rather, their license was revoked. That did not bother the Youngs one bit. They simply carried on, welcoming more unsuspecting young mothers-to-be with nowhere else to go into their care. License or no license.


Then an investigation came, this time from US Immigration. A whole new side of the business was revealed to authorities. It came out that Lila had smuggled black market babies across the border into the United States.


What many of these adoptive parents didn’t know, was that siblings were separated, even twins. Sometimes infants were taken when the mothers were asleep. The mother was told the child passed away in the night. With no support or resources, there was not much the unwed young mothers could do.


In 1944, Nova Scotia amended its adoption legislation, making things difficult for the Youngs. However, they simply found a way around it. They informed prospective adoptive parents that the adoptions would take place in New Brunswick, where the adoption conditions were better. 


In March 1945 the Youngs were charged with practicing medicine without a license, violation of the Boarding House Act. However, they were let go and only had to pay a $150 fine.


The Youngs fought dirty. Lila actively campaigned to block the re-election of the provincial minister of public welfare. The Youngs were aggressive and never backed out of a confrontation. It became obvious that politicians were wary of the Youngs and for a period, backed off the Ideal Maternity Home and their adoption scheme once again.


In June 1946, they were found guilty of selling babies to four American couples. Again, they only faced a fine. This time $428.90. William was later charged for perjury at this trial.


The legal battles were a public spectacle. The Youngs held their heads high and maintained that they were performing a charitable service, helping both unwed mothers and childless couples. They played on the emotion of the community, stating that they gave abandoned babies a chance to be part of a loving family.


Although they had announced the closure of the Home after the trial of 1946, the Ideal Maternity Home was still operating at the beginning of 1947. Baby farming was done on a smaller and more secretive scale, but the Youngs were still generating income. Because of all the legal pressure and perhaps a slight attack of conscience, William had turned to drinking and became less discreet about his affairs with some of the women working at the home. Lila was as fierce as ever and sued a Montreal newspaper, The Standard, $25,000 for libel. But this would in fact be their final downfall. 


The newspaper decided to find as many witnesses as they could and finally expose the Youngs for who and what they were. Pediatricians were sent to inspect the home and reported that children were malnourished and that the fly-infested nurseries were unsuitable and unhygienic. 


During the trial of May 1947, the testimonies of unwed mothers who gave birth at the home were the last nail in the Young’s coffin. One mother said that the Youngs had made her pose as a nurse during an inspection by the health department. Another mom said that they forced her to say that she was Jewish on her baby’s adoption papers.


Taking the stand, Lila Young was asked how the babies were buried. She described the make-shift coffins and said that they were ‘lovely butterboxes’ made with smooth pine wood. According to Lila, each one was lined with satin before it was used to bury the little bodies.


Some of the baby corpses were dug up, but as it was impossible to determine the causes of the deaths, the Youngs could not be charged for murder.


Canadian and American officials kept a close eye on the Youngs and babies leaving the Ideal Maternity Home, especially looking out for unauthorised border crossings. The Youngs were aware that they were being watched, but that did not make them stop what they were doing. Instead they found a way to convince the birth mothers to travel across the border with their newborns. Authorities found other ways to intimidate the Youngs, making it clear that they were onto them. After more fines and more charges, the Youngs had no choice but to admit defeat. They announced that they were planning on closing down the Maternity Home and opening a Hotel.


After all legal costs and fines were settled, the Youngs were in dire straits. The wealth they had accumulated over the years was all gone and they were up to their elbows in debt.  When they left East Chester, they were in the same desperate financial position as the one they found themselves in when they arrived there some 30 years before.


They sold the property and moved to Quebec. The whole family split up. Two of their grown children decided to stay in Nova Scotia, another two moved to Sudbury, Ontario and one left for America. The atrocities the Young’s children witnessed growing up, is not very clear. But they must have been scarred by a lifetime of growing up in an overcrowded home with little time love or sympathy as one pregnant lady after the other rolled into the home. 


 In 1962, the new owners of the home in East Chester were in the process of renovating, when a fire broke out which destroyed the building. Many people felt that it was for the best, perhaps. The building was no longer there to remind people about the atrocities that occurred behind closed doors for so many years.


In the same year, William Young died of cancer. In 1967 Lila moved back to Nova Scotia and two years later, when she was 70, she died of Leukemia. She was buried in the Adventist cemetery next to her family’s property where countless butterbox babies had been buried.


An organisation has been formed, called ‘Survivors of the Ideal Maternity Home’ which helps people who were born in the home and adopted to find their birth mothers and or siblings. Survivors live far and wide, some as far as Europe. The group arranges support groups and meet ups in order to help survivors locate their lost families. Even if they are not able to establish communication with their blood relatives, the group of survivors feel that they have a bond. They feel lucky that they were chosen by adoptive parents, many of them believing that adoption saved their lives.


A website called ‘IdealMaternityHomeSurvivors.com’ is dedicated to reuniting a generation of stolen babies with their birth families. Although they have had some success, there are still mothers searching for their lost children as well as people seeking their birth mothers. Almost 100 survivors have reconnected with their families. 


Sometimes it was too late, as their mothers had passed away, sometimes the birth mothers did not want to meet. The website gives a brief description of the reunions. One example is that of Greg Haines, born on the 16th of November 1942. This is Greg’s story, quoted directly from the website:


“Greg has been reunited with his birth mother and is searching for information about his birth father. Greg's mother may have been married to his father at the time of his birth. His father was Jewish, and owing to the strong anti‑Jewish feeling on the part of his mother's father, she had to dissolve the marriage and perhaps get rid of the unwanted result of that union. Greg was adopted by a Jewish family from New York and raised there. Greg still lives in New York.”


Another story with a happy ending is that of Janet Marie Hatt, known as Barbara Potter who was born in February 1942. Her birth mother, Madeleine Hatt, had placed a birthday message in the Halifax Daily News on her 51st birthday in 1993. When Barbara read the message, she immediately knew it was meant for her. The mother and daughter had the chance to be a part of each other’s lives for 22 years before Barbara’s death in 2015.


It is a tough task tracking down family members. All records of the Ideal Maternity Home have been destroyed. However, a guest house across the road kept all their guest registration records. Some survivors were able to confirm that their adoptive parents had stayed at the guest house around the time of their births. 


In 1997, during Nova Scotia Labour Day weekend, a monument was unveiled. Survivors wore white ribbons to honour the victims of the Ideal Maternity Home. They attended a touching memorial service for the ones who were not as lucky as them.  


In the crowd was Violet Eisenhower. When she heard about the extent William and Lila Young’s actions – how many babies were taken from their mothers, she felt vindicated in her belief that her daughter never died back in 1940. She had her baby’s remains excavated and requested DNA tests. The tests were inconclusive. For Violet, that means the baby was not hers and that there is still a chance that she might find her daughter one day.


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