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Antebellum Charleston’s Most Vulnerable: Foundlings at the Akin Hospital
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I’d like to share a story that evokes the duality of Charleston’s colorful and painful history. Many of the stories we tell ourselves and visitors about our community’s history have a bright side and a not-so-bright side, and both aspects deserve to be told. Consider, for example, the story of Eliza Akin, who in 1842 donated her worldly possessions to establish an institution to shelter the most vulnerable of our citizens—the abandoned newborns of Charleston. Miss Akin’s bequest to the city was intended to protect innocent children, but the politics of discrimination succeeded in stunting her benevolent design and failing those most in need.
Recently I published a pair of essays about the forgotten Akin family of early South Carolina, and the building on the west side of Meeting Street that the family left to the City of Charleston. All of that material was intended as a sort of prelude to today’s program, in which I’d like to draw your attention to the brief but important history of that little-known city institution formally known as the Akin Hospital, or the Akin Foundling Hospital. I’ve already discussed the donation that created this institution and the building that housed it, so today we’ll take a closer look at its purpose and its failures. As a charitable institution founded on good intentions, there was nothing unique about the Akin Hospital. As a benevolent enterprise launched in a society built on the institution of slavery, however, the Akin Foundling Hospital might have been doomed from its inception.
Charitable institutions known as “foundling hospitals” first appeared in the English-speaking world in the early eighteenth century, first in Dublin (1704), then in London (1739), and then in Cork (1747). The principal aim of these institutions was to care for the abandoned children of the urban poor, but they also received a steady stream of infants from their respective rural neighborhoods. Here in the United States, the Akin Hospital in Charleston appears to have been our nation’s first municipal institution dedicated to the reception of foundlings. The Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, established in 1751, opened a maternity ward in the early nineteenth century, but it didn’t begin accepting foundlings until shortly before the Civil War. New York, Boston, and other large American cities didn’t get into the foundling business until after the war.
Outside of Charleston, many foundling hospitals also functioned as orphanages. That is, they cared for the helpless infants until they reached their teenage years, at which point they were sent out of the institution as apprentices. Here in Charleston, however, we already had the Charleston Orphan House, which was established in 1790 as the first municipally-funded orphanage in the United States. That institution housed, fed, educated, and reared thousands of children in its time, but it did not accept children under three years of age. The ratio of staff to children at the Charleston Orphan House was such that there were no resources available to nurture the youngest and neediest of infants. To be admitted to the Orphan House, children needed to be able to dress, wash, and feed themselves, and they were required to respond to verbal commands with a minimum of mollycoddling and hand-holding. From the founding of the Charleston Orphan House in 1790 until the creation of the Akin Hospital in 1843, therefore, the City of Charleston contracted with private individuals, and eventually with Ladies Benevolent Society (founded in 1813), to hire private nurses to care for any abandoned infants found in the city until such children were deemed sufficiently mature to be admitted to the Orphan House.
In her 1842 will, Miss Eliza Akin instructed the City Council of Charleston to convert her home on the west side of Meeting Street into “a suitable Hospital for the reception and maintenance of Foundlings within the Parishes of St. Philip and St. Michael in the said state [of South Carolina], until they arrive at the proper age for admission into the Orphan House of the City of Charleston.” Miss Akin’s will specified that the hospital should be established within two years of her death. or the city would forfeit the property. Eliza Akin died in early April 1842, and, by passing an ordinance to create the Akin Hospital in August 1843, Charleston’s City Council had met that legal requirement with time to spare. So, in Charleston of the 1840s, were there so many foundlings that a hospital was needed to house them all? Apparently not. It seems that the Akin Hospital was largely devoid of foundlings, but the city was receiving income from renters who occupied various rooms in the building. To an outsider who did not know the details of its origins and operations, the institution might have appeared like a questionable enterprise.
In 1845, more than a year after the official creation of the Akin Foundling Hospital, Eliza’s brother, James Akin (1773–1846), filed suit against the City Council of Charleston. Mr. Akin, who lived in Philadelphia, alleged that the city had established the hospital in name only, but, in fact, was not actively maintaining any foundlings at the property devised to the city by his sister. In its defense, the city reported that during the two years since the opening of the Akin Hospital, “one infant has been as yet received into the institution, and no application has been made to the commissioners for the admission of any other.” Nevertheless, James Akin argued that the city had defaulted on its obligations, and asked the court to require the City Council “to vacate the premises, and account for the rents” of the building, so that “the premises may be sold and dealt with, as part of the residuary estate of the testatrix [Eliza Akin].” After hearing the arguments from both sides and considering the evidence, South Carolina’s Chancellor in Equity, Benjamin F. Dunkin (1792–1874), sided with the City Council of Charleston and dismissed the case in October 1845.
So, at the end of 1845, two years after the official opening of the Akin Foundling Hospital, the institution had received just one infant. Over the next decade and a half, prior to the hospital’s destruction in the great fire of 1861, the surviving documentary evidence of the infant population at the Akin Hospital is similarly sparse. In fact, it’s so sparse that I can pretty quickly walk you through everything I’ve been able to find.
In March 1846, the trustees of the Akin Hospital received a foundling from the Commissioners of the Poor on Charleston Neck, who said the child had been left “at the door of a house in Pinckney Street [now part of Rutledge Avenue] on the 18th October last.” Similarly, in June 1848, the Rev. Dr. John Bachman brought to the Akin Hospital a foundling left on his doorstep one evening, but the child died a few days later.
In May 1849, an infant was “discovered on the premises” of the Charleston Orphan House, where it had been abandoned by some unknown person. The steward of the Orphan House brought the child to the attention of the chairman of the institution’s board of trustees, who ordered him to take it to the Akin Hospital. The chairman later reported to his colleagues that, “upon ascertaining the condition of the hospital to be such, that the child could not be properly attended there, he had retained it in the [Orphan] House” for the time being. After considering the matter, the trustees ordered “that the said female foundling be received into the [Orphan] House, for the present, that the chairman be requested to make some arrangement with the mayor, to have the child put upon the Akin Hospital (Foundling) Fund.”
The century-old Akin family home was simply not in the best condition to serve as a nursery, and it was apparently too large to warrant the maintenance of one infant at a time. As I mentioned in a recent episode about the Akin Hospital building on the west side of Meeting Street, in October 1849, Charleston’s City Council directed its attorney to find a more practical solution for the implementation of Eliza Akin’s benevolent idea, and “more effectually carrying out the charitable intentions of the donor.” From the beginning of the year 1850 onward, the City of Charleston rented out the entire building known as the Akin Hospital, and applied the income from its rental to the care of foundlings who resided with private nurses elsewhere. The City Council’s modification to the workings of the foundling hospital might seem like a corruption of Eliza Akin’s original plan, but it was really more of a practical adjustment than a rejection of her benevolent intent. The Akin property on Meeting Street generated income for the city, and that income could be used to honor Miss Akin’s bequest, but the number of foundlings brought to the city’s attention was far too small to warrant the expenses of a maintaining an entire house solely for that purpose. Throughout the 1850s, the sparse numbers of unwanted infants in the city remained unchanged.
In February of 1850, a female infant was “placed inside of the gate” of the Orphan House. The commissioners of that institution ordered their steward to “procure a nurse for it [the child]” and made plans to ask the mayor to have the child “put on the foundation of the Akin Foundling Hospital.” Two years later, in February 1852, a female infant named Nina, described as being “about ten days old,” was transferred from the city’s Main Guard House (police station) to the Orphan House. The chairman informed the board of trustees that he had made arrangements with the mayor to hire a nurse for the child, whose expenses would be “paid out of the fund of the Akin Foundling Hospital.” In mid-March 1858, “a male child with the name of ‘Hubert’ pinned to its dress, and about a few hours old, was placed in a basket inside the gate” of the Orphan House. As customary, the commissioners of that institution directed the staff to transfer the child to the custody of the commissioners of the Akin Hospital. This was the last white foundling mentioned in the antebellum minutes of the Charleston Orphan House.
I draw your attention to the “race” or skin color of this foundling to remind ourselves of the discriminatory, segregated nature of Charleston’s legal system during the Antebellum period. The city’s 1843 ordinance creating the Akin Hospital specifically articulated that its policy was “to receive into the said Hospital . . . such white infant foundlings as may be deemed proper objects of admission by the Commissioners.” Was this restrictive clause part of the original intention of the institution’s benefactor, Eliza Akin? The Akin family, as I described in a previous episode, had built their wealth on the backs of African slaves in the early eighteenth century. The family’s fortunes diminished after the American Revolution, and the family withdrew from the business of plantation farming, but at the time of her death in the spring of 1842, Eliza Akin still owned a few household slaves. In conveying her earthly inheritance to the City of Charleston in 1842, the childless Miss Akin sought to transform her wealth into a resource to improve the lives of disadvantaged children by creating, as she stated plainly in her will, “a suitable Hospital for the reception and maintenance of Foundlings.” Whether or not she intended its benefits solely for the use of white children, we’ll never know. Perhaps this color issue was the real question in James Akin’s 1845 lawsuit against the City Council of Charleston. Again, without more detailed records, we might never know the answer.
Between 1840 and 1860, the population demographics of urban Charleston teetered right around the 50% mark, almost equally divided between free white inhabitants and the non-white population composed of enslaved people and free people of color. According to the Federal census of 1850, the total population of urban Charleston (including the Neck) was 42,986 people, of whom 20,012 (or 46.6%) were white, 19,532 (or 45.4%) were enslaved, and 3,441 (or 8%) were free persons of color.
When an enslaved woman gave birth to a child in South Carolina prior to the spring of 1865, that child legally belonged to the man or woman who owned the enslaved mother. An enslaved mother or father who wished to see their child grow up free could do no more than dream of that distant opportunity. If he or she secretly abandoned their baby, hoping the infant might find a better life elsewhere, the child’s skin color was a sufficient cause to ensure that he or she would be treated as a piece of property—not a human being—and fall right back into the web of slavery. Furthermore, an enslaved woman caught in the act of trying to abandon or even murder her own child would be punished vigorously by her white owner for the attempted destruction of his or her “chattel” property. In the eyes of the law, enslaved women who felt unwilling or unprepared to raise a newborn child were powerless to act in any way that might provide the child with a brighter future.
Charleston’s free women of color, who formed less than 3% of the city’s population in 1850, paid taxes and their labors contributed to the city treasury, but they enjoyed very few civil rights and their children were ineligible to receive the city’s charity. Free colored children had never been welcome at the Charleston Orphan House since its establishment in 1790, but the city’s Poor House had, on a few occasions, granted limited access to elderly persons of color were known to be long-standing, tax-paying denizens of good reputation. The 1843 charter of the city’s Akin Hospital specified that its purpose was to admit only “such white infant foundlings as may be deemed proper objects of admission.” But what about non-white foundlings? Would the city really turn its back to a helpless newborn whose skin just happened to be of a darker complexion? Was the corrupting influence of slavery so strong that it could induce men to withhold charity from the most vulnerable of the fellow human beings in their own community? Yes, in fact, it was, as the case of one poor girl in 1852 demonstrates.
On the night of June 24th, 1852, a female newborn was left in a basket at the front gates of the Charleston Orphan House on the north side of Calhoun Street. When discovered by the staff, the child and basket were immediately taken into the big brick Orphan House and the little girl received food and care from one of the resident nurses. In the days following her discovery, however, some of the staff members began to express doubts about the girl’s ethnicity. Something about the hue of her skin did not seem quite right to them. The staff mentioned their concerns to William Bell, one of the Orphan House commissioners, who each took turns visiting the institution once a week. By this time in the summer of 1852, the normal protocol for handling foundlings was to alert the mayor, who would arrange for a private nurse to be paid out of the Akin Hospital fund to care for the child. Commissioner Bell apparently communicated the news of the most recent foundling to Mayor John Schnierle, who then instructed the physician of the Orphan House, Dr. George Logan (1778–1861), to examine the child. Dr. Logan, a 73-year-old pediatric specialist who served as chief physician to the Charleston Orphan House for forty years, promptly examined the infant and, in turn, summoned two of his colleagues—John Bellinger (1804–1860) and Eli Geddings (1799–1878)—to solicit their professional opinions. On the last day of June, William Bell submitted a brief report of the week’s events to his fellow commissioners and mentioned the “female infant” recently left at the Orphan House gate. “Its colour being suspected,” said Bell, “the child was subjected to the examinations of doctors Logan, Bellinger, and Geddings, who have not reported yet. Meanwhile, she is under the care of a nurse.”
The board of commissioners of the Charleston Orphan House learned of this situation when they gathered for a regular meeting on the afternoon of July 1st. Later that same day, George Logan penned a brief report to the board summarizing his preliminary thoughts on the matter of infant girl. “In pursuance of instructions from his Honor the Mayor,” reported Dr. Logan, “I have held a consultation respecting the caste of the last foundling—surreptitiously introduced into this institution.” He noted that the infant exhibited certain features that, in his professional opinion, were typically Caucasian, including “the absence of hair on the scalp, the nose not flatted, lips not remarkably developed, [and her] heels not unusually projecting.” Determining the child’s true color was difficult, however, said the doctor, because the little girl was ill and her “complexion [was] deeply tinged with infant jaundice (in common language the Green).” Despite the passage of seven days, Dr. Logan reported that “it is still difficult or impossible with precision as yet to determine whether this little female subject is entitled to the privileges of a white person.” Several days of further treatment and feeding would be necessary before the aged doctor could offer his professional opinion on her true skin color.
Four days later, on July 5th, 1852, George Logan reported to the commissioners of the Orphan House that the child’s jaundice had improved sufficiently for him to diagnose “the caste of the foundling.” In a terse and sterile declaration, Dr. Logan stated “I am now enabled unequivocally to pronounce the infant, recently brought to the institution, as the child of a coloured person.” No further mention of this child appears in the minutes of the Charleston Orphan House or any other surviving records of the City of Charleston. We are simply left to wonder what happened next to this poor infant girl. Simply because of her skin color, she was shunned by a group of adult men, ostensibly the most respectable men in the community, who volunteered their time to superintend an institution founded explicitly for the purpose of caring for needy children. The archival silence regarding the fate of this non-white child in 1852 suggests, but does not prove, that the erudite commissioners and physician of the Orphan House felt a total lack of concern about her safety and her future. Considering the realities of that era, however, let’s try to imagine their viewpoint: what interest or motivation would a group of slave-owning men in Antebellum Charleston have in protecting the freedom of an anonymous non-white infant?
We have no evidence of the conversations and actions regarding their disposal of this innocent child in the summer of 1852, but I can think of a few possible trajectories. If the little girl survived her neonatal illness, she might have been offered to a free woman of color in the community, who could have raised her in that narrow world that existed in Charleston between slavery and freedom. Considering the callous behavior of the Orphan House commissioners, however, it’s also possible that she was sold, or perhaps simply handed off to another enslaved woman, gratis, and raised as the enslaved child of a more caring foster mother. Regardless of which path fate chose for her, if she survived to the spring of 1865, she would have been a thirteen-year-old young lady who witnessed the death of slavery and the dawning of a new era in Charleston.
This small story offers us a chance to reflect on the persistent duality of Charleston’s past. For most of our community’s long history, the advantages derived from our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were denied to at least half of our population. For most of the stories that make up Charleston’s colorful history, there is a both a positive side and a negative side. I’m not talking about differing interpretations of the facts, but rather acknowledging the divergent implications of those facts. The opening of the Akin Foundling Hospital in 1843, for example, was a positive step that expanded the City of Charleston’s benevolent care of the urban poor. At the same time, however, the city government’s decision to exclude the infant children of the poorest citizens in our community—the most vulnerable of the already disadvantaged population—represents a serious shortcoming in the city’s municipal leadership. As we begin a new year, it’s my hope that the people of Charleston will continue to acknowledge both the beauty and the ugliness of our shared and troubled past. Instead of letting our history drive a wedge between us, let’s strive to see both sides and to tell the whole truth.
 See John Murray, The Charleston Orphan House: Children’s Lives in the First Public Orphanage in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 55–57. For more information on the LBS, see E. Marie McGahan and Jesse Bustos-Nelson, The Ladies Benevolent Society of Charleston: Two Hundred Years of Service (Charleston, S.C.: by the society, 2013).
 See the city attorney’s summary of the case of James Akin vs. the City Council of Charleston, in [Charleston] Southern Patriot, 4 November 1845.
 See the proceedings of the City Council meeting of 30 March 1846 in [Charleston] Southern Patriot, 1 April 1846.
 “The Schirmer Diary,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 80 (January 1979): 90.
 Charleston County Public Library, Records of the Commissioners of the Charleston Orphan House, minutes of 31 May 1849.
 See the proceedings of the City Council meeting of 9 October 1849 in Charleston Courier, 11 October 1849.
 Records of the Charleston Orphan House, Minutes of 14 February 1850.
 Records of the Charleston Orphan House, Minutes of 19 February 1852.
 Records of the Charleston Orphan House, Minutes of 18 March 1858.
 The text of this ordinance first appeared in Charleston Courier, 24 August 1843, and in subsequent issues of that newspaper through February 1845. It can also be found in George B. Eckhard, comp. A Digest of the Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, from the Year 1783 to October 1844. To Which Are Annexed the Acts of the Legislature Which Relate Exclusively to the City of Charleston (Charleston, S.C.: Walker & Burke, 1844), 121.
 The will of Eliza Akin is dated 12 March 1842, and was proved on 8 April 1842; see WPA transcript volume 42A (Will Book I–J), 404–7. On 19 March Eliza made a codicil directing her executors to allow her enslaved servants “to choose their owners” and to not sell “my aged slave Sue.”
 Frederick A. Ford, Census of the City of Charleston, South Carolina, for the Year 1861 (Charleston, S.C.: Evans and Cogswell, 1861), 8.
 CCPL, Records of the Commissioners of the Charleston Orphan House: Minutes of 1 and 8 July 1852; Commissioners’ Correspondence, letters from Dr. Logan dated 1 and 5 July 1852. William Bell was not present at the commissioners’ meeting of 1 July, but the commissioners read his report of the week’s events. For a brief biography of George Logan, see Joseph Ioor Waring, A History of Medicine in South Carolina, 1670–1825 (Charleston: South Carolina Medical Association, 1964), 260–63.