In this article Janet Ford discusses the horrific act of infanticide in the nineteenth century with the help of records from London’s Old Bailey court – with cases from London and (from 1856) further afield. It provides an insightful look into this terrible crime in Victorian England…
In the nineteenth century there were 203 cases of infanticide recorded in the Old Bailey.
Of the 203 cases, 83 people were found guilty, 114 were found not guilty and one was a ‘misc’ verdict. Out of the 83 who were found guilty, only 18 were actually found guilty of killing, with three of those being found insane and two with a ‘recommendation’. 65 were not guilty of killing but guilty of the lesser crime of concealing the birth. This shows that even though it was a highly emotional and shocking crime women were not automatically found guilty. The reason why so many were found not guilty of killing was often due to medical evidence, such as the health of the baby and mother. There was also an increased involvement of character witnesses in the courts, who could explain the background of the person, and an increased interest in the criminal mind, especially those of women. Finally, there was more of an understanding of childbirth itself.
What the cases show about the crime and society
The role of Medical people
As all the cases involved doctors, surgeons or midwives, there was a need and want to have physical evidence, rather than just hearsay, in order to get the right verdict and justice. They would have knowledge and experience of all types of childbirth, and so they could provide evidence of it being accidental, deliberate or it being too difficult to tell.
What it shows about Childbirth and its effects on crime
The records show two main aspects of childbirth: the physical effect on the baby and the emotional aspect. The emotional aspect of childbirth was the shame of having a baby out of wedlock – but also of having the father run out during the pregnancy, not being sure who the father was, not wanting to be a single mother, or sexual assault. It meant that women felt they had to injure or kill their baby, conceal the birth or self deliver. They were seen as criminals, which many were, but many were also victims of social attitudes and even of crimes themselves. The physical aspect of childbirth was the consequence of these elements, as women felt they had to deliver on their own. This meant there was no other person to help if the delivery was difficult. An example of the physical affect can be seen with this statement from Doctor Thomas Green in Ellen Millgate’s case.
Health of the mother and child
The cases show that the health of both the mother and baby were taken into consideration and used as evidence. The health of the mother, such as if she was epileptic, would have affected her ability to care for the baby properly. Poor health helped the mother’s case, as it was out of her control, as did the baby being premature. An example of health being used as evidence is shown with Ellen Middleship, who was found not guilty.
One of the main reasons why so many were found not guilty or only guilty of concealing the birth was the baby being born dead on delivery. It was out of the mother’s control, and so she would have been found not guilty. In many cases, it was too difficult to tell if the baby had been born alive during the delivery, as shown with the case of Elizabeth Ann Poyle.
Along with medical evidence, personal aspects were also taken into consideration. Personal elements such as good character, age, previous children and the relationship with the father were all taken into account. These elements could show that the mother could not have committed the crime, as it was out of character, or at least helped to lessen the punishment, which did happen with many women. An example is shown with Sarah Jeffery giving a statement about Jane Hale, who was guilty of concealing but not of killing.
The most shocking aspect of the cases, whether the women were found guilty or not guilty, was violence. Violence could have been caused by cutting the cord, getting the child out, falling, or hitting. This was one of the most difficult aspects of a case, as it could be difficult to determine if injuries were caused by the birth or on purpose. What helped resolve this was medical knowledge, an understanding of childbirth, or eyewitness accounts. The understanding of childbirth helped to explain why there were marks on, for example, the neck and head. This was due to ribbons or rope being used to get the baby out, or the baby falling during childbirth. Even though the marks caused by childbirth were not committed on purpose, it is still shocking to read, as shown with Ellen Millgate – the marks were around a vulnerable part of the baby. With the help of eyewitness accounts, it was only in a few cases where it was determined that the injuries were committed on purpose. An example of this can be seen with Ann Dakin giving evidence in the Joseph Burch and Caroline Nash case, who were both found guilty and given four year penal servitude.
It is one of the most shocking cases due to the violence and a reminder that parents could abuse their own children. But also, as with many of the other guilty cases, it shows that women could be quite cruel and violent. Another element of violence was getting rid of the body. The main example is from this description by James Stone of what he found in Martha Barratt’s room. She was found guilty of concealing the birth but not of killing.
Mercy towards women
Even with the violence, and the shame of committing the crime, the verdicts and the punishments show that there was an understanding and sympathy towards women, as the majority were found not guilty of infanticide or guilty of a lesser crime. This was due to a better understanding of women, society, childbirth, and the criminal mind over the century.
The cases show that infanticide was a very complex crime, as it involved and was affected by so many factors – health, childbirth, social attitudes, babies, violence and high levels of emotion. It also shows the various sides of the 19th century…
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Anne-Marie Kilday,A history of infanticide in Britain, c. 1600 to the present(Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
M Jackson, Infanticide: historical perspectives on child murder and concealment, 1550-2000(Ashgate, 2002)
Old Bailey Online, January 1800-December 1899, Infanticide
Ellen Millgate, 28th November 1842
Ellen Middleship, 21st October 1850
Elizabeth Ann Poyle, 22nd May 1882
Jane Hale, 28th November 1836
Joseph Nash and Caroline Nash, 24th October 1853
Martha Barratt, 9th April 1829