Back in those days illiterates would often pay someone to write a note for them. Some of these women may have skipped several meals to pay for the note to attach to their babies. It’s all they could give their babies.
I was reading something the other day that made me wonder if illiteracy was as common as we imagine. In the 1890s there were two brutal murders in my home town. In both cases a former slave who had migrated north was suspected. In one case, he was tired and convicted and the conviction was overturned on a technicality. So he went free.
Several years later he was caught placing fake ads in the newspaper pretending to be an elderly lady seeking a young woman to be a live in companion. Someone got suspicious when he showed up to pick up a girl who had responded and they laid a trap, getting him to sign for a letter and proving that his signature was identical to the one of the fictitious lady who placed the ad. That woman was certainly lucky, nothing good could have come to her if he'd had his way.
But here we have a man born a slave, a poor man who made his living as a farm laborer and hog slaughterer. He was in and out of jail and very probably killed two women brutally. Yet he was literate, and apparently articulate enough to pass himself in writing as an elderly woman of means. It made me wonder if the stereotype about poor folk back then all being illiterate was really fair.