The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History

Khalid Elhassan - March 28, 2021

Children usually bring out people’s protective instincts, triggering a natural desire to treat them kindly. Throughout history, however, many unfortunate children, whether through ignorance, indifference, or deliberate malice, were unprotected, treated, unkindly, or both. Take the health fad that got people to dangle babies from cages outside apartment windows, in the belief that it was good for them. Or the many royal children whose existence blocked somebody’s path to power. Following are thirty things about those and other unfortunate children.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Dr. Holt’s ‘The Care and Feeding of Children’. Amazon

30. This First Lady Was an Early Pioneer of Putting Babies in Cages Outside Windows

The nineteenth-century saw the growth of modern health fads. One of them eventually led to dangling babies in cages outside apartment windows. It began in 1884 when Dr. Luther Emmet Holt published The Care and Feeding of Children. In it, he advocated that babies should be “aired”. As he put it: “Fresh air is required to renew and purify the blood, and this is just as necessary for health and growth as proper food … The appetite is improved, the digestion is better, the cheeks become red, and all signs of health are seen“.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Baby dangling over the street in a cage. The Sun

Fresh air and exposure to cold temperatures, both from the outdoors and from cold baths, would supposedly toughen the babies, and increase their immunity against illnesses ranging from the common cold to tuberculosis. Dr. Holt and other physicians advocated that parents simply place a baby’s basket near an open window. Some parents, however, took it further. They included Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As seen below, Mrs. Roosevelt had a cage built outside her apartment window, in which she stuck her daughter Anna.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt in 1908 with their first two children. Franklin D. Roosevelt Public Library

29. The Unfortunate Roosevelt Who Was Dangled in a Cage Outside a Window

In 1906 Eleanor Roosevelt, then 21 and a new mother, was told by her doctor that her newborn daughter, Anna, needed lots of fresh air. The future First Lady had a brainstorm: she had a chicken wire cage, with a wooden basket in it, attached to a window. As she described it in her autobiography, it was: “a kind of box with wire on the sides and top” out of a back window, in which Anna was placed while her mother napped. The unfortunate Anna was understandably terrified and made her feelings known. However, Mrs. Roosevelt’s doctor had also told her to ignore babies’ screams and cries, so she ignored Anna’s shrieks.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Baby in a window cage. Fox Photos

The neighbors, however, were alarmed by the caged baby’s continuous cries, and threatened to call The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Toward Children. Mrs. Roosevelt, who by her own admission “knew absolutely nothing about handling or a feeding a baby“, had thought that she was being a good modern mother, following the best childcare recommendations. She was thus shocked by the neighbors’ negative reaction. As seen below, Eleanor Roosevelt was ahead of her times: a few years after she was criticized for sticking her baby in a window cage, the practice became widespread.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Baby in a window cage. Fox Photos

28. Dangling Babies Over the Street in Window Cages Became Highly Popular

In 1922, Emma Read of Spokane, Washington, filed the first commercial patent for a “portable baby cage”. It was supposed to be suspended from a window’s external edge, with a baby inside. The cages were intended mainly for infants in city apartment buildings, who lacked backyards or easy access to gardens, so they could get fresh air. As a contemporary newspaper put it: “Flats have notable advantages for residential purposes, but life in them involves undeniable hardships for babies and very young children, who have little opportunity to play out of doors and to get their proper allowance of fresh air“.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Illustration from Emma Read’s patent application. United States Patent Office

The materials used differed, but the general concept was the same. A mesh cage allowed sunlight and air to pass through to the baby within while keeping it from falling to the street below. Some of the fancier baby cages had a roof, to keep rain, snow, or debris dropped from above from reaching and harming the infant. Things had changed since Eleanor Roosevelt had stuck Ana in a cage. In the 1920s, baby cages became popular in America and abroad.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Child in a window cage. Rare Historical Photos

27. The Decline of a Hazardous Fad That Terrorized and Endangered Many Unfortunate Children

Baby cages hit peak popularity in 1930s London. They were handed out by neighborhood communities, such as the Chelsea Baby Club, to all members who lacked a backyard. Even The Royal Institute of Architects pushed for the increased use of baby cages. In 1935, it all but called for making baby cages mandatory. The organization, which warmly praised the Chelsea Baby Club’s practice of giving contraptions to members, wrote that fixtures for the cages were essential features that should be standard in all middle-class housing windows.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Children in a baby cage. British Pathe

World War II and the years of German bombers, rockets, and missiles, ended the use of baby cages in London. They made a comeback after the war, but were not as popular as before, and sales gradually declined. The world, and attitudes towards safety, had changed. There was growing awareness of the immediate risks of the cages failing, and sending babies plummeting to their doom on the street below. There were also long-term health concerns. Increased automobile traffic led to an increase in exhaust fumes and other pollutants, which made city air anything but “fresh”. Since getting fresh air was why baby cages existed in the first place, the contraptions lost their chief purpose.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Babies in prams lined up outside an SS Lebensborn birth house. Bundesarchiv Bild

26. The Nazi Kidnapping Program That Abducted Hundreds of Thousands of Unfortunate Children

During WWII, SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered that children meeting criterion of “racial purity” be abducted in German-occupied territories. Accordingly, hundreds of thousands of unfortunate children were forcibly seized from their homes and off the streets, mostly in Eastern Europe and the USSR. The assumption was that such children were of Germanic stock, and thus too racially valuable to “waste” in a sea of Slavs or other inferior races. The children were to be repatriated to Germany, and taken to Lebensborn homes – facilities originally established for a racial selective breeding program.

The program, which resembled the process for breeding prize cattle, sought to increase the “racially pure” population by increasing the “Aryan” birthrate. Unmarried and racially pure Aryan women were mated with SS men. Upon impregnation, they were often housed in SS-administered maternity homes, and upon giving birth, the children were adopted by pure Aryan families. The Lebensborn facilities were repurposed to warehouse the kidnapped children. There, they were to be Germanized, and then be put up for adoption alongside the offspring of the breeding portion of the Lebensborn program.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
SS chief Heinrich Himmler with his daughter, who was presented as an exemplar of what an Aryan girl should be. Bytes Daily

25. The Start of the Nazi Child-Kidnapping Program

The Nazi child-kidnapping program began in November, 1939, shortly Germany conquered Poland, when Adolph Hitler entrusted Himmler with overseeing the occupied territories. The latter produced a 40-page document titled “The Issue of the Treatment of the Population in Former Polish Territories From a Racial Point of View“. The gist of it was to annex part of Poland and settle it with ethnic Germans, while expelling the native Poles into a rump Poland. However, one segment of Poles was marked out for special treatment: Polish children with “Aryan” traits.

As Himmler’s document put it in targeting the unfortunate – although the Nazis thought they were fortunate for being “rescued” from living among non-Aryans – children: “we should exclude from deportations racially valuable children and raise them in old Reich in proper educational facilities or in German family care. The children must not be older than eight or ten years, because only till this age we can truly change their national identification, that is “final Germanization”. A condition for this is complete separation from any Polish relatives. Children will be given German names, their ancestry will be led by special office“.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
The kidnapping of unfortunate Polish children, so they could be Germanized. Wikimedia

24. The Nazis Wanted to Eradicate the Poles, Except for a Minority of Polish Children of Aryan Stock

Himmler’s document about taking “racially valuable” Polish children in order to Germanize them kick-started a full-blown child kidnapping drive across Nazi-occupied Europe. It is estimated that over 400,000 unfortunate children were abducted in this portion of the Lebensborn program. About half of the victims, roughly 200,000 children, were kidnapped from Poland. Other significant sources included today’s Belarus, from which about 30,000 children were abducted; the rest of the Soviet Union furnished another 20,000; while roughly 10,000 were seized from Western and Southeastern Europe.

In May, 1940, Himmler issued another circular, this one titled “The Treatment of Racial Aliens in the East“. It called for the destruction of Poles as an ethnicity. They were to become a pool of slave labor that would toil on behalf of the Third Reich, in conditions calculated to kill most of them within a decade. Within 20 years, Poles were to be completely eradicated. Not all Poles, however: a select minority, children of Aryan stock, were to be salvaged, Germanized, and added to the Third Reich’s population.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Unfortunate Polish children in a Nazi labor camp. Wikimedia

23. Over 400,000 Children Were Kidnapped by the Nazis to Germanize and Raise in Germany

A portion of Himmler’s plan to eradicate Poland called for depriving unfortunate Polish children of all but the most basic of education. Writing was deemed unnecessary for Poles, so children were to be taught only how to scribble their names, and count up to 500. Polish parents who wanted more education for their children were to apply to the SS for special permits, which were to be granted only if the children were deemed “racially valuable”. If so, they were to be taken to Germany and Germanized under the aegis of the Lebensborn program. Additionally, an annual selection was to be made of Polish children between ages six and ten, to identify any who met German racial criterion.

Those who met the criterion were to be taken from their families, shipped to Germany, given German names, and placed in the Lebensborn program. Once sufficiently Germanized, they were to be put up for adoption. Those who did not meet the racial criterion were sent to labor camps. Hitler approved of Himmler’s child abduction directives on June 20, 1940. Orders to implement the Polish plan, and variations thereof in other conquered territories, were issued to the SS and German governors and occupation officials throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. By 1945, over 200,000 children had been abducted in Poland, plus another 200,000 from the rest of Europe.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Examination with a Nazi eye color chart. Pintrest

22. The Nazi Child-Kidnapping Program in Action

Various measures were adopted by the Nazis to seize “racially valuable” children throughout Europe. A representative example of one of the methodologies used occurred in the town of Cilli, Yugoslavia, in today’s Slovenia, from August 3 to 7, 1942. It took place during a crackdown on resistance activities in the region. It began with the rounding up and herding into a schoolyard of about 1,300 people of all ages. Many of them were relatives of people executed by Yugoslavia’s German occupiers for partisan or suspected partisan resistance activities.

After all the families were accounted for, the Germans divided them in into three groups: men, women, and children. Crying children, including toddlers and infants, were separated from their families and placed in pens, where they were examined. Working with clipboards and charts, Nazi officials noted down each child’s physical and facial characteristics to assess his or her “racial value”. Based on their findings, the unfortunate children were divided into four categories. As seen below, the category a child was assigned to could spell the difference between life and death.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
A German ‘racial specialist’ examining a child to determine whether she was ‘Aryan’ or ‘Alien’. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

21. The Unfortunate Kidnapped Children Were Sent to Nazi Facilities for In-Depth Examinations by “Racial Specialists”

Categories 1 or 2 were for children who met Himmler’s criterion of what a German child should look like, and who were deemed potentially useful additions to the Third Reich. Any hint of Slavic features or signs of Jewish heritage consigned a child to the lower racial Category 3 or 4 – untermensch, of no value to the Nazis except as future slave labor. Assuming they were allowed to grow up into slave laborers, of course, and not simply liquidated. In Cilli, Yugoslavia, the children of categories 3 and 4 were handed back to their parents.

430 children classified as Category 1 or 2, ranging in age from infants to twelve years old, were taken by their captors, placed on trains, and transported to a holding center outside Graz, Austria. There, the unfortunate children were examined by “racial specialists” who compared their noses to official charts, that depicted ideal lengths and shapes. Their teeth, lips, hips, and genitals were also examined, and compared to charts of ideal measurements. Those who failed this second cut were reclassified as Category 3 or 4 and sent away. Those who passed and maintained their classification as Category 1 or 2 were handed over to the Lebensborn program.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
The unfortunate Aleksander Litau, who was renamed Folker Heinecke after his abduction and subsequent adoption by a German Nazi family. Awesome Stories

20. The Unfortunate Toddler Whose Cuteness Got Him Kidnapped by the Nazis

In 1941, Hitler ordered a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. The following year, as German tanks plunged deeper into the USSR, they were followed closely by Nazi officials tasked with administering the newly conquered territories. In the Crimea, they encountered a blond toddler named Aleksander Litau, who possessed striking blue eyes. The kid’s cuteness attracted not only admiring looks from mothers, but also from SS men who thought that he represented the ideal of what an Aryan child should look like.

Little Aleksander’s cuteness was a blessing, but when the Nazis came across him it became a decided curse. As the SS saw it, leaving what they viewed as a perfect Aryan specimen in the middle of a sea of inferior Slavs amounted to a crime against the Germanic race. So they snatched the unfortunate kid from his family, and shipped him to Germany in order to enroll him in the Lebensborn program, Germanize him, and see to it that he was raised as a German.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Folker Heinecke in later years. WDR

19. This Kidnapped Toddler Became a Literal Nazi Poster Child

Photos of Aleksander Litau made their way to Heinrich Himmler. The SS chief was captivated by the cute kid, and ordered that he be subjected to an extra rigorous battery of racial testing to ensure that there was no Jewish trace in his background. When Himmler was finally satisfied that the kid was “pure Aryan”, he personally oversaw his adoption by a wealthy and fanatical Nazi named Adalbert Heinecke. In his new home, the unfortunate Aleksander was renamed Folker Heinecke. His photos were released to the public, as the poster child of an ideal Nazi toddler’s appearance.

When he was in his late 60s, the abducted Crimean kid recalled seeing Himmler when he visited his home and had drinks with his “father”. Folker’s first inkling of his background came after the war, when a local child taunted him: “you know you’re a bastard, don’t you? They’re not your real mom and dad“. He never discussed it with his parents, who although they remained unreformed Nazi fanatics to their dying day, nonetheless loved him dearly. After their deaths, Folker spent much of his adulthood in a quest to discover who he was. The quest, which finally led him to his Crimean origins, became the subject of a BBC documentary.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Civil War child soldier John Lincoln Clem, who holds the record as the youngest sergeant in the history of the US Army. Pintrest

18. America’s Child Soldiers

The United States Civil War was the last conflict in which significant numbers of American children served as soldiers. About a fifth of all military personnel in the Civil War were under eighteen, and more than 100,000 soldiers in the Union Army alone were fifteen-years-old or less. There were even cases in which children as young as eight were put in uniform. Most US Army child soldiers were utilized as drummers, buglers, cooks’ assistants, nurses, orderlies, general gophers, or in other non-combatant positions. However, during battles, those children were often just as exposed to bullets and artillery as were the grown men on the firing line.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Confederate drummer boys. Library of Congress

In the US Navy, children often served as “powder monkeys” in warships. Tasked during combat with rushing gunpowder from magazines to canons, they were just as exposed to danger during action as were all other sailors aboard ship, regardless of age. Indeed, as they scurried about toting sacks of gunpowder that could go off if they came into contact with any spark or shard of flaming timber or scorching shell fragment, the little powder monkeys might have been at greater risk than the rest of the crew.

Related: Heartbreaking Photographs of Child Soldiers from WWI and WWII.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Edward (William) Black. The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes, Vol. 9

17. The Civil War’s Youngest Child Soldier

Born in 1853, Edward (William) Black was the youngest child soldier known to have served during the Civil War. He also holds the unfortunate distinction of being the youngest known soldier to have been injured during the conflict. Joining the 21st Indiana Infantry Regiment in 1861 when he was eight, Edward served as a drummer in that regiment. Sent home after a few months, he returned, this time with his father, and reenlisted in the regiment as a drummer boy.

During the war, Edward traveled widely throughout the United as the 21st Indiana’s drummer. Early in his service, he served in the regiment as it garrisoned Baltimore. He then accompanied the 21st Indiana on an expedition to the Eastern Shore, and from there to Newport News, Virginia, before getting shipped to serve in the Department of the Gulf. There, the young lad’s unit fought in Louisiana as part of the campaign that resulted in the Union’s capture of New Orleans.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
The 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery Regiment, formerly the 21st Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, outside Port Hudson in 1863. Library of Congress

16. A Young Child Soldier’s Extensive Service

In 1862, Confederates captured Edward Black during the Battle of Baton Rouge, and he was imprisoned in Ship Island. However, he regained his liberty when federal troops overtook his captors and freed the Union prisoners. Soon thereafter, in September, 1862, Edward was discharged from the Union Army. He did not stay out of uniform for long, however. Edward reenlisted in February, 1863 with his old unit, which in the interval between his discharge and reenlistment had been converted from infantry to artillery.

The 21st Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment was reconstituted as the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery Regiment. Edward returned to his old comrades, and served with them as the regiment was kept busy until war’s end. During that time, Edward saw active duty in Berwick Bay, and took part in operations in Western Louisiana. He also participated in the advance on and subsequent siege of Port Hudson, joined the Sabine Pass Expedition, and finally settled in for garrison duty, first at New Orleans, and then at Baton Rouge.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Edward Black. Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

15. Gaining the Unfortunate Distinction of Being the Youngest Soldier Injured During the Civil War

During his extensive service, Edward Black was wounded more than once. In one instance, when he was twelve years old, he was grievously injured when an exploding shell shattered his left hand and arm. The injuries earned Edward the unfortunate distinction of being the youngest Civil War soldier injured on active duty. At war’s end, Edward and his unit remained in Baton Rouge as garrison troops, until January 1866, when the 1st Indiana Heavy Artillery was finally mustered out, and its personnel were discharged.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Edward Black’s drum. Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Edward Black never fully recovered from the injuries he received during the war, nor from the mental trauma of what he had been exposed to at such a tender age. He died in 1872, when he was seventeen, and was buried in Indianapolis. His drum was passed on down his family over the generations, before it was finally gifted to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. There, it remains on display to this day as one of the museum’s most prized and popular exhibits.

Read More: Tragic History of the U.S. Child Warriors.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Boer refugees, before they were sent to concentration camps. Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science

14. The Children of the Second Boer War

In the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902), Britain had a rough go of it trying to subdue the Boers of the Orange Free State and of the Republic of Transvaal. The British initially assumed that the fighting would be quickly over after a swift campaign, but their opponents proved tougher than expected. Although greatly outnumbered, the Boers went on the offensive and achieved some remarkable early successes. Before they knew it, the British had a full-scale war on their hands, that required the commitment of roughly 600,000 troops and auxiliaries to the fight.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
A Boer woman and an unfortunate emaciated child in a concentration camp. Errol Lincoln Uys

The Boers’ numerical inferiority forced to avoid pitched battles, and rely instead on hit and run tactics and guerrilla warfare that flustered the British. In late 1900, Herbert Kitchener was put in charge of the British effort, and he proceeded to defeat the guerrillas by depriving them of the civilian support upon which they relied. The British adopted a scorched earth policy of burning down Boer farms and homesteads, killing their livestock, poisoning their wells, destroying their crops, and salting their fields. By the time the British were done, tens of thousands of civilians – mostly women and children – had perished. Things got worse when the British rounded up Boer civilians and sent them to concentration camps.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Tents in the Bloemfontein concentration camp. UK National Archives

13. The Unfortunate Children of Britain’s Concentration Camps

In addition to their scorched earth policy, the British adopted an ominous innovation recently introduced by the Spanish while suppressing guerrillas in their Cuban colony: concentration camps. Tens of thousands of Boer civilians from the countryside, mostly women and children, were rounded up and interned – thus literally “concentrated” – in vast camps behind barbed wire. Conditions in the camps were atrocious. The administrators were incompetent, supplies were spotty, and the internees suffered from bad sanitation, poor hygiene, overcrowding, inadequate shelter, often nonexistent medical care, and hunger.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Women in an African concentration camp during the Boer War. Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science

Food was scant, and the British targeted the families of Boer men who were still fighting, giving them even smaller rations than the meager portions provided the rest. Malnutrition killed many internees, and left many more vulnerable to contagious diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and measles. Roughly 115,000 Boer women and children were herded into 45 concentration camps. In the eleven months from June, 1901, to May, 1902, about 28,000 Boer internees, a tenth of the population, died. The Boers’ African servants were held in separate concentration camps, where conditions were even worse. Those camps did not garner the same attention as the camps housing the white Boers, but an estimated 20,000 Africans perished in them.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
An African concentration camp during the Boer War. Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Roman envoy Gaius Popillius Laenas confronting the Seleucid King Antiochus IV, drawing a circle around him in the sand, and telling him to choose by the time he leaves the circle between leaving Egypt or war with Rome. White Mountain Independent

12. History’s Most Dysfunctional Dynasty

In the annals of history, few ruling families have been as dysfunctional, perverse, or given to more intra-familial murders, than the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 323 to 30 BC. All fifteen kings were named Ptolemy, numbered I through XV, and of the Ptolemaic queens, there were seven Cleopatras, and four Berenices. The family had a tradition of incestuous marriages, mostly with brothers marrying sisters, with the occasional uncle-niece and nephew-aunt weddings. There was also at least one possible mother-son marriage, thrown into the mix. In addition to marrying their close relatives, the Ptolemies were also into murdering each other, and their history abounds with them killing their brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and even mothers.

One of the more unfortunate Ptolemaic intra-familial murders was that of the child King Ptolemy VII (died circa 145 BC). The events leading up to it began when the neighboring Seleucid King Antiochus IV captured Alexandria and made King Ptolemy VI his puppet. The Alexandrines rioted, and chose the puppet king’s obese younger brother, Ptolemy VIII Physcon, or Ptolemy Potbelly, (182 – 116 BC) as monarch. After the Seleucids were forced out of Egypt by Roman threats, Ptolemy Potbelly agreed to a three-way joint rule with his brother Ptolemy VI, and their sister Cleopatra II, who was also Ptolemy VI’s wife.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
The unfortunate Ptolemy VII’s mother, Cleopatra II. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

11. It Was Unfortunate for This Child King That His Mother Trusted His Uncle-Stepfather, Who Was Also Her Brother-Husband

The three-way joint rule agreement of Ptolemy VI, his wife-sister Cleopatra II, and their brother Ptolemy VIII Potbelly, was complicated and icky. It did not take long for the situation to get even more complicated and icky, and for the deal to collapse. It was an unstable arrangement that lent itself to intrigues, conspiracies, betrayals, and further destabilized Egypt. Ptolemy Potbelly was not in Egypt when his brother Ptolemy VI died in 145 BC. Their sister Cleopatra II, the deceased king’s wife, promptly declared her child son as King Ptolemy VII.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
The unfortunate Ptolemy VII’s uncle, stepfather, and murderer, Ptolemy VIII Potbelly. Wikimedia

When Potbelly returned, he convinced his widowed sister to marry him instead, and promised that the sibling-spouses would rule jointly. It was unfortunate for the child king Ptolemy VII that his mother trusted her brother-husband to keep his word. Ptolemy Potbelly double-crossed his sister/ new wife in the worst way possible. During their wedding feast, Potbelly had his new wife’s son and his nephew, Ptolemy VII, murdered. He also reneged on the promise to rule jointly with his sister-wife and declared himself sole ruler.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Bust believed to be of Ptolemy VII’s mother, Cleopatra II, or of her daughter and his sister, Cleopatra III. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

10. This King Not Only Did In His Nephew-Stepson But Also Dumped His Sister-Wife to Marry Her Daughter

Understandably, Cleopatra II was steaming mad that her husband-brother, Ptolemy Potbelly, had murdered her unfortunate son and reneged on his promise to share the rule of Egypt with her. Then Ptolemy Potbelly made things worse by seducing and marrying Cleopatra II’s daughter, Cleopatra III. She was his stepdaughter, as well as double niece, being the daughter of both his sister Cleopatra II and his deceased brother, Ptolemy VI. Adding insult to injury, Potbelly did not bother to divorce Cleopatra II, before marrying her daughter.

Cleopatra II retaliated by engineering an uprising that forced her brother/ husband/ son-in-law, and his stepdaughter/ niece/ wife, to flee Alexandria in 132 BC. The resultant civil war pitted Cleopatra II, supported by the city of Alexandria, against her daughter and Ptolemy Potbelly, who had the backing of the rest of Egypt. When things turned against Cleopatra II, she offered her throne to the neighboring Seleucids, but their armies were unable to rescue her, and she was forced to flee to Syria in 127 BC. Chaos reigned in Egypt until Rome intervened once again, in 116 BC, to restore order.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
The unfortunate Ptolemy XIII. Wikimedia

9. The Murderous Ptolemaic Dynasty Ended With the Murder of Two Unfortunate Children

The reign of Cleopatra VII, the Ptolemaic Dynasty’s most famous ruler and the last one who wielded actual power, was rife with the Ptolemies’ typical intrigues, betrayals, and perversions. Carrying on the family’s tradition of incest, she married her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII (61 BC – 47 BC). The sibling-spouses fell out, however, and plunged Egypt into a civil war. It ended with Cleopatra’s henchmen killing her unfortunate kid brother after Julius Caesar intervened and took her side. She then married another kid brother, Ptolemy XIV, while carrying on an affair with Caesar.

Cleopatra bore the Roman dictator a son, Caesarion, the future Ptolemy XV – the dynasty’s last nominal ruler. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra took up with his chief lieutenant, Mark Antony, with whom she had one of history’s most famous love affairs. The couple were eventually defeated by Antony’s rival, Gaius Octavius, the future Emperor Augustus. Antony fell on his sword, and Cleopatra committed suicide via snakebite in 30 BC. She was nominally succeeded by Ptolemy XV Caesarion, but Augustus had the sixteen-year-old killed when he was captured a few weeks later. The deaths of Cleopatra and Caesarion brought the Ptolemaic Dynasty to an end, and Egypt was made into a Roman province.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Roman children. Alamy

8. A Roman Father Could Legally Kill His Children, or Sell Them Into Slavery

Modern sensibilities would be shocked by the degree of authority that a Roman head of household, or pater familias, exercised over his family. At the lower end of the spectrum, Roman law and tradition granted the family patriarch the power to reject or approve the marriages of his sons and daughters. On the more extreme end, those laws and traditions granted Roman patriarchs a literal power of life and death over their families. In some instances, such as when it came to deformed babies, Roman law mandated that the patriarch put to death infants with obvious deformities.

Roman law also granted fathers the right to sell their children into slavery. It typically happened only in dire circumstances, when hard-pressed patriarchs sought to ease their burdens. While the practice was not widespread, it did take place from time to time. However – and for what it was worth for the unfortunate kids – their father’s right to sell them was not absolute. He could only do so a maximum of three times – assuming the kids regained their freedom after each occurrence – before the thrice-enslaved kids were freed from his familial authority for good.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Augustus’ daughter, Julia the Elder. Altes Museum, Berlin

7. Augustus Killed His Infant Great Grandson

Despite the ancient Romans’ reputation for licentiousness, debauchery, and wild orgies, they indulged in such carnal excesses while simultaneously frowning upon adultery. Not just on moral grounds, but also because it introduced the possibility of illegitimate heirs to a pater familias’ estate. When Augustus became emperor, he sought to restore traditional values with a slate of morality laws aimed at combating adultery – defined as a woman having relations with a man who was not her husband. A man having relations with female slaves and prostitutes did not count.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
‘Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno’, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1774, imagining the lot of the Augustus’ exiled granddaughter, Julia the Younger. Pintrest

One of Augustus’ morality laws codified a father’s traditional rights regarding an adulterous daughter. He could legally kill his daughter, as well as her lover, whether in his own house or that of his son-in-law. Ironically, Augustus’ own daughter, Julia the Elder, ran afoul of the anti-adultery laws. He did not kill her, but to save face, he exiled her in 2 BC, first to a small island, then to a tiny village in the toe of Italy. She remained in exile for the rest of her life. In 8 AD, Augustus’ granddaughter, Julia the Younger, also got caught up in an adultery scandal with a Roman Senator. He had her exiled to a remote island, where she gave birth to a love child. Augustus ordered the unfortunate infant exposed.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Messalina and her son, Britannicus. Louvre Museum

6. The Child Who Had an Unfortunate and Brief Life Despite – or Because of – Being the Son of a Roman Emperor

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus (41 AD – 55 AD), usually referred to as Britannicus, was the son of the Roman Emperor Claudius and his third wife, Valeria Messalina. Being born the son of a Roman emperor should have been fortunate – the equivalent of hitting the birth lottery. In Britannicus’ case, it was – but not for long. He was Claudius’ heir for a while, but in 48 AD, it was discovered that Britannicus’ mother, Messalina, had been cheating on her husband nonstop.

Messalina (circa 20 AD – 48 AD) went so far as to get bigamously married to another man in secret. Britannicus’ mother was Emperor Augustus’ great grand-niece and was also a cousin of emperors Caligula and Nero. Along with Augustus’ daughter Julia, who was banished by her father for promiscuity, contemporary writers described Messalina as one of the most notoriously promiscuous women in Roman history. Understandably, when Claudius found out, he was not happy. Messalina’s subsequent downfall was unfortunate for Britannicus.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Messalina on a coin from circa 42 AD. CNG Coins

5. The Rise of Britannicus’ Mother

The path of Britannicus’s mother to becoming a Roman empress began in 37 AD. That year, the future Emperor Claudius picked Valeria Messalina, who was thirty years younger than him, to be his third wife. As with many unions between young women and significantly older men, it was not a great marriage. Aside from the age difference, Claudius was not a physically appealing man: he limped, stuttered, and drooled. Those shortcomings had led the imperial family to sideline him as an embarrassment and borderline idiot.

Claudius was no idiot, however. Indeed, he was a scholar and the Roman equivalent of a nerd. Still, he was not exactly the type to set pretty girls’ hearts aflutter. Thus, his marriage to the young and pretty Messalina proved disastrous. Claudius doted on his younger wife, and she used her physical allure to wrap him around her finger. When Claudius became emperor in 41, Messalina got him to execute or exile anybody who displeased her. A whole lot of people displeased Messalina, including Claudius himself. Such undercurrents of his parents’ relationship proved fatal to Britannicus.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
The unfortunate Britannicus. Wikimedia

4. The Downfall of Britannicus’ Mother

Messalina despised her husband, and cheated on him nonstop. Brazenly so: in one instance during her marriage to Claudius, salacious contemporary accounts had her winning a competition with a prostitute to see who could sleep with the most people in one night. Messalina’s most infamous affair was with a senator, Gaius Silius. She plotted with him to murder Claudius, so Silius could replace him on the throne. Considering the recklessness with which she went about it, Messalina might have been a bit unhinged. While Claudius was out of Rome, his wife married Silius, and celebrated it with a huge banquet. Claudius rushed back to Rome, confirmed the affair, and had her executed.

Claudius had terrible luck when it came to marriage. He had divorced his first wife, Plautia Urgulanilla, for adultery after she became pregnant by one of Claudius’ freedmen. She was also suspected of having murdered her sister-in-law. His second marriage, to Aelia Paetina, also ended in divorce, because she abused him mentally and physically. Claudius’ first two wives cheated on or abused him, but at least they had not tried to murder him. His third wife did. That was most unfortunate for Britannicus, who was still a child when his mother tried to kill his father.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Bronze coin with the heads of Claudius on one side, left, and Britannicus on the other, right. Wikimedia

3. The Unfortunate Britannicus Was Poisoned by His Stepbrother, Shortly After His Stepmother Had Poisoned His Father

Messalina seemingly slept with half of Rome, publicly wed another man while still married to Claudius, and plotted with her lover and bigamous husband to murder her imperial hubby and usurp his throne. That marriage ended in Messalina’s execution. An incorrigible optimist, Claudius married for a fourth time, this time wedding his niece Agrippina Minor (15 – 59 AD). Thirty-three years Claudius’ junior, Agrippina was the granddaughter of Emperor Augustus and the younger sister of Emperor Caligula. At age thirteen, she married a cousin, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, and bore him a son, the future Emperor Nero. Ahenobarbus died in 41 AD, and when Claudius executed Messalina in 48 AD, he chose Agrippina as his fourth wife.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Agrippina crowning Nero. Pintrest

The marriage ended with her poisoning him to death. She convinced Claudius to adopt her son, Nero, and make him his heir and successor instead of his biological son with Messalina, Britannicus. By 54 AD, Claudius seemed to have had second thoughts about marrying Agrippina, and began favoring Britannicus and preparing him for the throne. So Agrippina poisoned Claudius at a banquet with a plate of deadly mushrooms. For the remainder of her life, she jokingly referred to mushrooms as “the food of the gods” (because Roman emperors were deified as gods after their deaths, and by killing Claudius, mushrooms had made him a god). Shortly after Nero ascended the throne, he had the unfortunate Britannicus, then thirteen years old, poisoned.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Maurice Duplessis campaigning in 1952. Montreal Star Publishing Company

2. The Social Program That Cynically Exploited Unfortunate Orphans

The Catholic Church used to hold significant – and sometimes pernicious – sway over Quebec until the mid-twentieth century. The 1940s and 1950s in particular were an era of widespread poverty, few social services, and Church predominance. In those dark days, Maurice Duplessis, a strict Catholic politician, became Quebec’s premier. He immediately placed the province’s schools, orphanages, and hospitals, in the hands of various Catholic religious orders. Duplessis then hatched a scheme with Church authorities to game the Canadian federal government’s subsidy assistance program to the provinces.

The idea was to divert as many taxpayer dollars as possible into the coffers of Quebec’s Catholic Church. Canada’s federal subsidy program incentivized healthcare and the building of hospitals, more so than other social programs and infrastructures. Provinces received a federal contribution of about $1.25 a day for every orphan, but more than twice that, $2.75, for every psychiatric patient. So Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church hit upon the idea of transforming $1.25-a-day orphans into more profitable $2.75-a-day psychiatric patients. As seen below, that was terrible news for thousands of Quebecois orphans.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Some of the Duplessis orphans. Monitor Telegram

1. A Vile Politician and Vile Clergymen Deliberately Misdiagnosed Unfortunate Orphans as Psychiatric Patients to Make Money

To exploit the Canadian federal government’s subsidy program, Maurice Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church conspired to turn unfortunate orphans into psychiatric patients. To implement their idea, they set up a system to falsely diagnose orphans as mentally deficient, in order to siphon more federal subsidy dollars into the Church’s coffers. As a first step, Duplessis signed an order that instantly turned Quebec’s orphanages into hospitals. That entitled their religious order administrators – and ultimately the Catholic Church of Quebec – to receive the higher subsidy rates for hospitals.

The Weirdest Ways Children Were Treated in History
Some of the Catholic Church of Quebec’s misdiagnosed orphans. Sputnik International

It took decades before the scandalous state of affairs was finally uncovered. By then, over 20,000 otherwise mentally sound Quebecoise orphans had been misdiagnosed with psychiatric ailments. Once they were misdiagnosed, the orphans were declared “mentally deficient”. It was not just a paperwork technicality. Once they were misdiagnosed as “mentally deficient”, the orphans’ schooling stopped, and they became inmates in poorly supervised mental institutions. There, the unfortunate children were often subjected physical, mental, and other abuse by nuns and lay monitors.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Bingen, Jean – Hellenistic Egypt: Monarchy, Society, Economy, Culture (2007)

Cassius Dio – Roman History

Encyclopedia Britannica – Valeria Messalina

Exberliner, November 22nd, 2010 – Third Reich Poster Child

Factinate – 42 Bizarre and Disturbing Facts About the Ancient World

Guardian, The, December 9th, 2001 – ‘Spin’ on Boer Atrocities

Harvey, Brian K. – Daily Life in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook (2016)

History Undressed – Keeping it in the (Ptolemaic) Family: When Incest is Best

Jewish Virtual Library – The Lebensborn Program

Judd, Denis, and Surridge, Keith – The Boer War: A History (2013)

Lost Indiana – Edward Black (d. 1872)

Lukas, Richard C. – Did the Children Cry? Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-1945 (2001)

Madden, John, Classics Ireland, University College Dublin, Vol. 3, 1996 – Slavery in the Roman Empire: Numbers and Origins

New York Times, May 21st, 1993 – Orphans of the 1950s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec

New York Times, November 6th, 2006 – The Reverse of the Holocaust: The Nazis’ Chosen

Post Star, The, July 31st, 1923 – A Fresh Air Cage for the Baby

The Ptolemies, History’s Most Dysfunctional Family

Rare Historical Photos – The Bizarre History of the Baby Cage

Spies, Burridge – Methods of Barbarism: Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics, January 1900 – May 1902 ­(1977)

Star News, May 8th, 2007 – Stolen: The Story of a Polish Child Germanized by the Nazis

Strange History Net – The Most Dysfunctional Family in History: The Ptolemies

Suetonius – The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Wikipedia – Kidnapping of Children by Nazi Germany

Wikipedia – Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator

Wikipedia – Second Boer War Concentration Camps

Wikipedia – William Black (Soldier)