Illegitimacy and Child Abandonment


Ruota.Santo Spirito. Rome-1Illegitimacy is determined by parentage.  Just because you are illegitimate doesn’t mean you were abandoned by your ‘real’ parents.  We all know this, however when researching our Italian ancestors we need to look for the clues that will tell us if they were illegitimate or abandoned since their birth records may not include one or both of their parents’ names.

Abandoned children were literally abandoned in the local ‘ruota’ or left on doorsteps.  They may have had some item included in the bundle that would identify them later should either parent want to reclaim the child at a later date.  No parent names are included on their birth records.  What will be included is a description of where they were found, and the disposition of the child to a local family or a nearby orphanage.

Italy went through a period of extreme poverty during the latter half of the 1800’s and many good Catholic families found them selves with more children than they could feed.  This situation affected legally married couples who simply could not bear the expense of yet another child, especially if it was female. Many of these children where in fact abandoned and the family never looked back.  In some cases the mother would deliver the child, take it to the ruota, then tell her husband and family the child had died.  (read  Ange Coniglio’s book)  Others devised a way to keep their child but also benefit from the Government monthly payments to foster mothers.  The child would be formally abandoned, the birth registered and the child then ‘fostered’ to it’s own parents.  The mother was usually still breast feeding the previous child so could effectively offer a home to the child.  She also was paid the monthly fee.  This small amount was often just what was needed to help support the entire family.   Since these payments continued to age 18 it was a good reason NOT to reclaim your own child just to give it your surname!

At a certain point the number of babies being abandoned by unmarried women was so great and the death rate among these babies so high that the Government also decided to offer a monthly payment to those single women  who would keep and raise their child, despite objections that it would increase immorality.  This payment also continued until the child was 18 years old.

Looking for clues:

If a midwife declared the birth you can be sure she knew who the mother was and would be in a position to name this same family as a suitable foster family.  Research the foster family and see if the birth could fit with the family birth order.  Be sure to look for a infant death record for that family around the same time.  If you find one then the foster child would not likely have been theirs.

Where the birth occurred matters.  If the town is located in the former Papal States and the birth occurred after 1870 then no names on the birth record may have been a case of the parents not having registered their earlier (than 1870) marriage civilly.  If the father or mother registered the birth the child would have been given one of their surnames, but if the midwife did the declaration then the child may have been given an invented surname ( the midwife would supply the first name given to her by the birth mother).  If there is no notation of disposition of the child i.e. sent to orphanage in Rome, fostered to a local family etc. then you can assume the child was returned to its parents by the midwife.  This child is illegitimate until the parents’ register their marriage civilly which could be up to 20 years later.

Does this  ancestor still have contact with his ‘foster’ family?  Was he raised as ‘one of theirs’?  Was he considered adopted and considered an heir, equal to his foster siblings?  There were very few formal adoptions in this period but using the word ‘adopted’ may have been the family’s  way of explaining his different surname.  If he was adopted legally his surname would surely have changed.  If the surname change occurred after they arrived in America, you can be sure it was done either accidently (officials assumed all the children had the same surname) or by choice (the family seeing this as a way to ‘put things right’).  New country, new beginning!

If your ancestor accompanied his foster family to America chances are he may have been related in some way.  The ship passage had to be paid for and the monthly Government payments would stop on their leaving the country.  If the child was close to, or past age 18, then he might have been considered a potential source of income support in the new country but if he was still a child and not earning would they have paid his fare if there wasn’t any ‘family’ connection?


You won’t find any written proof in Italian civil records unless someone wrote the name in error  on some record card, then crossed it out.  Even the priest’s were obliged to record the baptism as the civil record was written (although you may find some that didn’t).  Perhaps the Godparents were really the parents!

 The only way to prove or disprove any of the above theories is a DNA test.

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