Butterbox Babies

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Monument to the Butterbox Babies, East Chester, Nova Scotia

Butterbox Babies is a 1992 book by Bette L. Cahill describing life in the 1930s at the Ideal Maternity Home in East Chester, Nova Scotia.


The Ideal Maternity Home, a discreet residence for unwed pregnant mothers, was operated by William Peach Young, an unordained Seventh-day Adventist minister and chiropractor, and his wife Lila Gladys Young, a midwife. They opened "The Life and Health Sanitarium", later called the Ideal Maternity Home in East Chester, Nova Scotia in February 1928.

From 1928 to 1945 the unlicensed Ideal Maternity Home promised both maternity care for local married couples and provided private birthing and placement of children of unwed mothers. However, it faced serious allegations of profiteering from the fees charged to female residents and adoptive parents, and for the home's high rates of infant mortality which were later proven to be caused by starvation. Any baby deemed "unadoptable" due to physical or mental handicaps was allegedly starved to death on a diet of only molasses and water. Within two weeks the child would succumb and was either buried behind the IMH property, in a field adjacent to a nearby cemetery, dumped into the ocean or burned in the home's furnace.The nefarious methods allegedly used by the Youngs also included separating or "creating" twins to meet the desires of their customers. And, they were said to have sold newborns belonging to local married women who were told that their child had inexplicably died. Since many births and deaths went unrecorded, the full extent of the atrocities committed at the Ideal Maternity Home will never be known.

During WWII, business at the IMH was booming because nearby Halifax was a major port that was the departure point for convoys crossing the North Atlantic Ocean to England. The sailors & merchant seamen left behind many unmarried or widowed expectant mothers. The IMH provided the only place that could provide for these women and their offspring. The birth mothers would be charged $500 and they would work at the Home for many months in order to pay their maternity bills. Although the Nova Scotian government officially closed down the IMH in November 1945, the Youngs continued to operate and sell babies under the illusion of a hotel for a while longer. However, the heyday of the war years had ended.

The Ideal Maternity Home was the source for an illegal trade in infants between Canada and the United States. During this period, the laws in the U.S. forbid adoption across religious backgrounds. There was an acute shortage of babies available for Jewish couples to adopt. The home provided these desperate people "black market" adoptions charging up to $10,000 for a baby (in 1945 prices). A few babies were never legally adopted and yet they were brought across the border to the U.S. Hundreds of babies ended up in Jewish homes in the United States, mainly in New York and New Jersey.

This dark chapter in Canadian history has been documented in several books, plays and a movie. The title of Bette Cahill's book, Butterbox Babies, and the subsequent movie is a reference to the "butter boxes," wooden grocery crates from a local dairy used as coffins for the babies murdered at the Ideal Maternity Home.[1]

A group of the Survivors of the Ideal Maternity Home, now scattered throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe continue to meet, provide support, and assist one another with birth family searches. See the link for their website: idealmaternityhomesurvivors.com at the bottom of this article.

Film adaptation[edit]

The book was made into a 1995 film starring Susan Clark, Peter MacNeill, Catherine Fitch, and Michael Riley, and directed by Don McBrearty.


  • Butterbox Babies, Seal Books 1991. ISBN 978-0-7704-2517-3
  • Butterbox Babies: Baby Sales, Baby Deaths-New Revelations 15 Years Later, Fernwood Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-1-55266-213-7


  1. ^ "The Story Of The Ideal Maternity Home". Archived from the original on 2001-08-08. Retrieved 2009-01-04.

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