In the 1800s, it was commonplace for unwed mothers to send their children to live elsewhere in order to preserve their reputations. They generally would pay an older woman or a couple a few dollars a week to care for their offspring but these homes were often themselves overcrowded and in squalid condition. The infamous “Maspeth Baby Farm”, as it came to be known, was no exception.
55-year old Bernard and 60-year old Catharine Klaus had moved from a tenement in Ravenswood to a “dilapidated shanty” built on stilts on Fisk Avenue (69th Street) near the edge of the Maurice Woods at what is today 53rd Avenue in Maspeth in the summer of 1890. Their adult son, Otto, lived with them. Forty-five infants had been found abandoned over the course of a year in LIC and the couple had been under suspicion in those cases. The Long Island City police alerted the Newtown Police Department when it was discovered that the family had quietly picked up and moved from one precinct to another under cover of darkness.
One night, Justice Brandon of the Newtown court noticed that a crying baby had been left on the porch of the Dominican Sisters’ residence at St. Mary’s of Winfield. The child later died. Brandon knew of the Klauses and decided to keep an eye on them. His investigation discovered that a professional nurse named Mrs. Karch had been bringing babies to the Klauses from Manhattan and they had in turn been leaving the children on doorsteps in the dead of night in order to dispose of them. He petitioned the court to issue arrest warrants for the couple on charges of failing to obtain proper authorization from the Board of Health, which was required in order to legally board children. On September 12, 1890 the Newtown Police Precinct executed the warrant.
Upon arriving at the Klaus home, the officers found Bernard outside, working on a foundation for the house. He said his wife was inside tending to the children and his son was at work in Manhattan. The officers proceeded to enter the home and were shocked to find a dead male infant in a crib and a baby girl lying motionless, but alive, on a bed. They also discovered enough clothing for 75 infants. When they asked Mr. and Mrs. Klaus to accompany them to the stationhouse, the wife threatened to commit suicide and then tried frantically to bring the deceased baby back to life.
At the courthouse, Catharine became hysterical. Mr. Klaus, meanwhile, communicated that they had been baby farmers for 20 years, starting just after their son was born, and that they never had more than 2 children in their care at one time. The judge remanded them to custody until their trial date.
It happened that Miss Josephine Kuehne of West 40th Street, Manhattan, arrived at the Klaus home to make her monthly payment to them while the police were conducting their on-site investigation. It was then the responsibility of the officers to inform the mother of the dead child that he had passed away. She revealed that the child’s father had moved to Newport, R.I., and she did not want the baby sent to a Potter’s field so she made arrangements with the Newtown coroner for a proper burial.
Otto Klaus was arrested later that day and brought to the same cellblock inside the courthouse where his parents were holed up. He would not disclose his occupation when asked but it was later reported that he worked as a plumber. He was paroled after denying involvement in the ring and agreeing to testify as a witness against his parents.
The dead child’s body was sent for an autopsy and it was found that he had died of starvation. The following day, constables returned to the Klaus home to conduct a more thorough search. They found another deceased baby boy inside a mattress and came to the preliminary conclusion that he had been smothered.
Meanwhile, in jail, Mrs. Klaus confessed that a week earlier she had placed a baby in a soap box and her husband admitted that he left it in front of Theodore Christman’s grocery store in return for a $1 fee.
On September 15, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Mrs. Klaus had been overheard telling a jail visitor in German that she had killed 15 children in her care. This prompted the paper’s columnist to call the Klauses “the most vile couple that has ever infested a community”.
Maspeth Company #4 of the Newtown Fire Department was brought in to pump out a pond behind the Klaus home and the remains of 3 more infants were found at the bottom of it. This brought hordes of gawkers to the scene with the crowd at times swelling to about 2,000 people. Otto moved out of the house, escaping to Manhattan to avoid being part of the spectacle.
The police decided to drain a second pond near the property and also dug up the ground surrounding the home to look for more victims but they came up empty. The female infant found alive upon the initial inspection of the house initially improved but ultimately did not survive. Except for Miss Kuehne’s baby boy, none of the children were ever identified.
Four of the five midwives involved in the ring, including Mrs. Karch, either never had charges brought against them or saw them dropped due to lack of evidence and uncooperative witnesses. The fifth midwife, Mrs. Schroeder, was held for trial.
On September 29, the Klauses pleaded guilty to violating the rules of the Board of Health but their sentences were suspended due to their impending trial on more serious charges.
The outcome of this story was not what anyone had predicted. Mrs. Schroeder was found guilty of trafficking but walked away with a fine. Then on October 6, 1890, Bernard and Catharine Klaus received just 90 days in jail for their baby farming. That’s right – although the coroner eventually attributed each child’s death to starvation or opium poisoning, the couple escaped murder, manslaughter, child abuse and child endangerment charges, shocking Maspeth to its core. As baby farming was the product of the stigmatization of unwed motherhood, it is likely that someone with political influence was involved in this scandal and did not want their secrets revealed. Due to the restrictive social mores of the Victorian era, at least 5 innocent victims were denied proper justice when the Maspeth Baby Farmers literally got away with murder.