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Accusations of Infanticide

Women accused of murdering their newborn babies were tried under the 1624 Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children. However, treatment of these mothers changed in London, from 1674 to 1803. Historian Mary Clayton analyzed these changes via the Old Bailey trials of England. For example, the “childbed linen” defense was first used in 1689 by Mary Campion. This defense stated that the mother had, in fact, prepared for the birth of her child, and therefore, it was wanted and its death unintentional.39

Likewise, Caron investigated the changing attitude of medical professionals toward infanticide cases in Providence, Rhode Island from 1870 to 1938. During this time, doctors began to legitimize the defense of postpartum insanity as a cause of infanticide. This defense was often used among women who gave birth alone; a difficult and disorienting endeavor. Some factors that pointed to guilt, with respect to intentional infanticide, were the lack of preparation for the impending birth, violence to the infant’s body, or evidence of strangulation. Hydrostatic tests could also be used to prove guilt. With a hydrostatic test the lungs are removed from a child thought to be a victim of infanticide. The organs are then placed on the surface of distilled water. If the lungs sink, then there is no evidence that the child ever breathed, and therefore, it is unlikely that it was killed after birth. The procedure is controversial in that decomposition of the body could cause gases to accumulate in the lungs without the infant breathing, causing the lungs to sink- incorrectly signifying murder. Many people, including doctors who could not fathom killing one’s own flesh and blood, were also willing to reason that no lucid mother would kill her child, thus making a case for temporary insanity. During this particular time period in Rhode Island the infanticide rate had actually decreased, which is attributed, in part to the opening of a the Sophia Little Home for unwed mothers and their babies. Additionally, abortion became a crime in 1861. A campaign for the consideration of the importance of the unborn child may have mitigated situations where women considered infanticide.40

In light of options for women with regard to unwanted or inconvenient babies, Burnston attempts to explain what she describes as the abnormal behavior related to the placement of two infants found in a “privy pit” of a wealthy home. One infant was dated from 1750—65 the other 1780—85. There are several possible explanations for these findings, but none are satisfactory. Burnston refutes the arguments that children who died of natural causes were discarded in the trash because it was too expensive for poor women to bury them properly; charity funerals were always an option. Further, during the eighteenth century fear of contagion of yellow fever might preclude anyone from disposing of even a tiny infected corpse in the communal garbage. Poor women might have abandoned a bastard child; a wealthy woman pregnant with a “bastard” child might have paid someone else to care for it, or she might have gone away at the beginning of her pregnancy and returned without the child.41 Despite all of these apparently logical reasons for burying a dead child properly, or avoiding killing an unwanted child, it is likely that a desperate or mentally ill person, who committed the irrational and unfeeling act of putting a baby in a toilet, cannot be puzzled out so easily, if at all.

During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many changes in behaviors and perceptions could be noted. Prior to the Industrial Revolution a shift in women’s attitudes toward children and child death was observed. Previously, Divine Providence or “god’s will” could be blamed for a child’s death. As responsibility for the survival of the young shifted to parents, and mothers in particular, grief became a more private affair. Further, as positive changes in public health policy induced lower mortality rates, women’s relationships with their children began to change. Further, women worked harder to ensure that their children survived. Diaries left behind from the colonial and Victorian Eras are contradictory; some show evidence of debilitating grief, while others demonstrate resignation to frequent child death. Burial practices, too, began to shift. While the burial of slave children tended to reflect the practices of African cultures, epitaphs on colonial tombstones demonstrated an evolution towards more personalization. Further, laws pertaining to infanticide protected both the accused and young victims, although neglect and illegitimacy were still major factors contributing to both natural deaths and infanticide, respectively.

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