The Height of Hildy

Hildy McCoy, Hildy Ellis, 1957
Mr. & Mrs. Melvin Ellis with Hildy (in May of 1957)

The rare baby name Hildy — which can be traced back to the Germanic name element hild, meaning “battle” — saw successive increases in usage in 1955, 1956, and 1957:

  • 1959: 13 baby girls named Hildy
  • 1958: 19 baby girls named Hildy
  • 1957: 36 baby girls named Hildy [peak popularity]
  • 1956: 24 baby girls named Hildy
  • 1955: 15 baby girls named Hildy
  • 1954: 9 baby girls named Hildy
baby name Hildy popularity graph

What caused all this heightened interest in the name Hildy?

A little girl named Hildy who was at the center of “the most controversial and mass-mediated adoption struggle of the 1950s.”

She was born in Boston on February 23, 1951, to a 21-year-old unmarried Roman Catholic woman named Marjorie McCoy — a nursing student who’d had a romance with an intern at the Children’s Hospital.

Before the birth, Marjorie had arranged (through her family physician) for the baby to be privately adopted. So, in early March, when she was ten days old, the baby was taken home by Melvin and Frances Ellis, a “childless Jewish couple from nearby Brookline” who had paid Marjorie’s medical bills as part of a prenatal adoption agreement.

The Ellises named their new baby Hildy Carol Ellis.

Six weeks later, Marjorie learned that the Ellises were Jewish.

She didn’t want the baby back, but she also didn’t want the baby placed with a non-Catholic family. So she asked the couple to hand the child over to the Catholic Charitable Bureau. When the Ellises refused, Marjorie filed suit.

The legal battle lasted for four years, with Massachusetts courts continually siding with Marjorie (because state adoption law at the time required that, “where practicable, a child be placed with foster parents of the same religious faith as the mother”). On February 14, 1955, the highest court in the commonwealth handed down the final ruling — in Marjorie’s favor, yet again.

Now out of appeals, the Ellises promised to raise Hildy as a Catholic. The court rejected their plea and ordered them to surrender the child by June 30th.

The Ellises, unwilling to surrender Hildy, fled from Massachusetts in April. When that happened, “Hildy’s custody battle quickly became national news, captivating a large audience.”

The fugitive family “lived secretly in no less than six places” while on the run. The media was still able to keep tabs on them, though. For instance, in January of 1956, a recent photo of Hildy ran in newspapers nationwide (but her location was not disclosed).

The Ellises eventually settled in Miami, Florida — this is where Massachusetts discovered them in March of 1957. The state requested that Melvin Ellis be extradited immediately in order to face kidnapping charges.

In May, Florida governor LeRoy Collins eloquently denied the request. He said, in part:

It is clear to me that the criminal proceedings against Mr. and Mrs. Ellis are synthetic. No crime of kidnapping in a proper sense is involved.

[…]

It has been argued that the natural mother has the right to have Hildy reared in the environment of her own faith. This is a right I respect, but it must yield to more fundamental rights. The great and good God of all of us, regardless of faith, grants to every child to be born first the right to be wanted, and secondly the right to be loved. Hildy’s mother has denied both of these rights to her.

[…]

It was the Ellises in truth and in fact who have been the persons through whom God has assured to Hildy these first two rights as one of His children. It was the Ellises who wanted Hildy to be born. It was they who anxiously awaited her birth with tender emotions of excitement, anticipating fulfillment of the joys and obligations of parenthood. It was the Ellises also who have given of themselves to Hildy, as only parents can understand, thereby fulfilling Hildy’s right to be loved.

With no feeling against the natural mother, except that of pity and compassion; with no antagonism toward our great sister State of Massachusetts; I further deny this application based upon the equities involved.

In July, a Dade County judge formally approved the adoption under Florida law.

“The child shall be hereafter known as Hildy Ellis,” the judge decreed.

Sources:

Image from The New York Times, 24 May 1957, page 1.

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