Actor Christoper Meloni appeared on a recent episode of “Finding Your Roots” with ancestry expert Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. During the show, Meloni learned shocking facts, including that his sixth great-grandfather had been abducted as a young teen in Massachusetts by Native Americans and was set free by Catholic priests in Canada before becoming a Catholic himself and starting a new life.
But in an even earlier episode (seen in the video clip below), Meloni learned that his great-grandfather on his father’s side was saved as an infant by a church in Italy — in what appears to be the original “baby box.”
Meloni’s great-grandfather Enrico was from a tiny town in Italy, but his parents were not listed on his marriage license, which led the “Finding Your Roots” team to delve deeper. Gates gave Meloni a document to read regarding Enrico.
“Enrico, at birth, received from ‘the wheel,’ wrapped in swaddling clothes of cotton rags,” read Meloni, asking Gates, “Do you know what ‘received from the wheel means?'”
Gates replied, “Have you ever heard of a foundling wheel? Essentially, they were wooden cradles built into the sides of religious buildings where parents could abandon their newborn child. You’d have the baby and you’d go to the foundling wheel. The wheel was a rotating platform in the outside wall of the building. The person leaving the baby would rotate the wheel and [the baby] into the building and then ring a bell to alert the attendant and they would leave without being identified.”
This is essentially the same concept as a baby box, which is still in use today — albeit with more safeguards to ensure the infant’s safety and quick rescue.
Nothing is known about Enrico’s parents, but the fact that he was left in ‘the wheel,’ or a rudimentary baby box, means they were likely poor, and had abandoned their son to give him a better chance at a successful life. It appears that he was raised by a nurse up to the age of 12.
Meloni was moved to tears by the revelation. His great-grandfather and great-grandmother eventually made their way to the United States, where his great-grandfather sold olive oil on the streets of Boston… and later, his son and grandson would become doctors.
“I think you see something like that,” said Meloni through tears, “and I’m sure almost everyone must react this way, in that all of a sudden you go, ‘Oh! I owe you a debt.”
Baby boxes like ‘the wheel’ are still in existence today. Since 2016 alone, Safe Haven Baby Boxes have saved the lives of at least 125 babies, allowing their mothers to safely surrender them instead of leaving them in harm’s way. Every single state has a Safe Haven law that allows parents to anonymously surrender their baby of a certain age at specific locations. According to the National Safe Haven Alliance, 4,778 babies have been saved by these laws.
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