Bette Cahill’s Butterbox Babies is a true story of baby deaths and black market adoptions in East Chester, Nova Scotia.
Butterbox Babies describes the scandalous activities of the Ideal Maternity Home and Sanitarium in East Chester. The Home was owned and operated by William and Lila Young. William was a chiropractor who impersonated a medical doctor at the Ideal Maternity Home. He disguised himself in a white lab coat while delivering babies.
Lila was a midwife who was illegally assisting with childbirth. The Home was established in 1928, and what started off to be a tiny cottage-based business became a million-dollar enterprise in a 54-room mansion. The Ideal Maternity Home seemed to be a great place where unmarried women could, secretly, give birth to their babies- for a great price though! In the 1930’s and 1940’s, a woman was considered a disgrace to the town and, more importantly, her family if she was pregnant and not married. To some women the Ideal Maternity Home was a saviour- a place where they could give birth and then have the baby put up for adoption, hassel-free.
However, the price for board and the birth cost a fortune. The service fee was $300 (a years wage). Despite the price, many women turned to the Home when in need. The women who entered the home signed a contract drafted by the Youngs’ lawyer, Charles Longley, stating that they would pay the $300.
Mothers who had difficulty paying their bills were hounded by the Youngs and threatened with “police action . . . “.
The Youngs were aware that if a mother had taken the case to court, then no money would be awarded for their illegal service. Thus, the Youngs had many different ways of getting their money. One of the ways was by threatening to expose the baby and shame the mother. The women were then forced to somehow scrap up the money, either by taking a loan from the bank or even borrowing money from her family.
Another way the Youngs would get the money would be by convincing one of the men the mother had slept with into thinking that the baby was his. If he did not pay the $150 they threatened to take him to court. If there was no other alternative, the mother was put to work at the Maternity Home. If a baby was born “imperfect”, meaning it had a defect or a sickness, they were only fed molasses and water. They would get a small amount of iron, sugar, and vitamins and minerals necessary for survival. On a diet of molasses and water, a baby will die within a few weeks.
This was done to increase space in the Home for more babies. The dead babies were either buried in butterboxes that were 22 inches long, ten inches wide and ten inches deep- just the right size for the little corpse, or were burned in the furnace in the basement of the home. For the $300 the mother had paid she could have the baby put up for adoption. If a couple wished to adopt a baby they would have to be assessed by the government to see if they were able to support a baby. The Youngs found this bad for business, so if a couple was from the United States the baby was given a false visa to be able to enter the country.
To adopt a baby there was another charge of $1,000 to $10,000 for each baby. Based on the consumer price index, $10,000 in 1940 would be the equivalent of more than $103,000 in today’s money. On March 4, 1936 Lila and William Young were arraigned on two counts of manslaughter. The charges stated that the Youngs ” did unlawfully kill and slay the said Eva Margaret Nieforth and her infant male child. ” The Youngs spent a few days in jail before being releases on bail. With help from Lila’s brothers, William and Lila were able to post the bond of $3,000.
The arrest was made possible after an RCMP investigation prompted by the Youngs’ application for burial certificates. Autopsies were preformed by the provincial pathologist Dr. Ralph P. Smith. After the autopsies had been completed Smith concluded that the baby had been born alive and that Eva suffered from peritonitis.
The cause of infection, common after childbirth and often fatal, Smith suspected, was unsterilized instruments. In front of the jury with all the facts against the Youngs the jury reached a “not guilty” verdict. Since so many people liked the idea of the Ideal Maternity Home they did no want to see William and Lila go to jail. On November 17, 1945 after 17 years of business the Ideal Maternity Home was shut down because the Home failed the inspection. In March of 1946 William and Lila were arraigned in the county Magistrate’s Court for seven different charges:Unlawfully boarding a child under 12 without proper consent from the Director of Child Welfare;Unlawfully advertising babies in the newspaper;Operating without a license;Unlawfully boarding mother and infants for profit;Unlawfully using the title DoctorBoth were charged with practising medicine in Nova Scotia when their names were not registered on the medical register, contrary to provisions of the Medical Act.
The judge found William Young not guilty of using the title doctor due to the evidence shown, but found the Youngs guilty of the other charges and handed them the maximum fine under the law: $400. The Youngs continued their operation of selling babies illegally by using a hotel as their front, but on a much smaller scale than before. The Youngs had borrowed $6,000 from a friend, Edward Corkum, for renovations to the Home. After the death of Edward his children initiated legal action against the Youngs to recoup the debt. The Youngs were unable to pay the debt and were forced to give the five properties that they own to the Corkum family since no one was willing to purchase the property. Ray Corkum entered the former Maternity Home to find papers everywhere.
Ray thought the papers and files found in the building were personal, probably adoption records that no one should see so he lit fire to them. On that day most of the records from the Youngs’ adoption business were forever lost. Many different legal aspects were discussed in this novel, some not mentioned in the summary. Fraud was committed by William imposing as a doctor and falsifying the visa documents. The Youngs should have been charged with manslaughter of Eva Nieforth and most of the babies that had died in the Ideal Maternity Home.
William and Lila should have been charged more on the selling of babies. I could not believe that the Youngs got away with so many criminal activities. I feel that if they would have been tried in front of a jury that was not from East Chester and did not know of the Young family, William and Lila would surely have been spending the rest of their natural lives behind bars. Butterbox Babies was a well researched and written novel. It went into great depth of events, that had occurred over 65 years ago, with a great deal of information.
Many great interviews were written in the novel and both sides of the story were shown. Bette Cahill showed no sides in the novel, she presented the facts and left the choice of guilty or not guilty up to the reader.