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  • The Loneliness of Nineteenth-Century Infanticide December 22, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Today an unmarried mother, in a western country will be, assuming that the father is nowhere to be seen, taken care of by the state or by her family. This was not necessarily the case in the nineteenth century, and in that period an unmarried mother would find herself the object of scorn to boot. An unmarried mother would almost certainly lose her job, and might very well leave her lodgings or even be turned out of the family home. In these extreme situations women did extreme things: some would abort, though this was dangerous; some would give birth and then quickly hand over the baby to a local charitable institution; and some would give birth, kill the baby, suffocation was the typical method, and then dispose of the body as best they could. Most readers of this post will find all these three choices distasteful, as the women themselves will have done, but, in fact, the task of any woman who wanted to survive the birth of an illegitimate child was not just about horrid decisions but about practical details. If the mother in waiting wished to keep her job and, all too often, a roof over her head then not only was it necessary to kill or abandon the newborn, but it was also necessary to conceal the birth. The result was that women would have to keep working through nine months of pregnancy, while disguising a swelling belly, the tiredness that often goes with pregnancy and, of course, morning sickness and other joys of somersaulting hormones. If the woman made it through the nine months she would have to give birth (of course), but in giving birth she would be alone or have to rely on a trusted confederate. Women today give birth with a certain amount of trepidation, but in the period before c sections, particularly for the first pregnancy, there must have been terror: multiply that by ten times for a woman who was not even able to call in a midwife and had to make off for a nearby barn or field where she wouldn’t have the luxury of screaming as the contractions started.

    We feel sympathy for women who went through these ordeals, but then our sympathy will rapidly run out once the decision to kill comes. Why not just give the child to the local vicar and have done with it? (A version of the modern abortion vs adoption debate.) In a city a woman who had just given birth, always supposing that she was able to undertake a long walk immediately after labour, could have limped for a mile and left the child in a church porch anonymously: though the danger in her house or place of work of a screaming child has to be remembered. But for a mother in the county things were far more dangerous. If you lived in a parish in the Scottish lowlands, say, there would be one or two churches in the locality and as soon as a baby appeared the authorities would try to find out where the child came from: the mother had committed a crime. In a small Scottish village there will have been thirty or forty women of child-bearing age: it would have been an easy matter to narrow the list of names down…

    One instance now of infanticide and its consequences from nineteenth-century Wales to make these matters as vivid as possible. Mary Morgan was 17 in 1804 and was in service as a cook at Maesllwch Castle (Radnorshire) when she gave birth in secret. When the time came she retired to her room, pretending to be ill, and had the child there, presumably in relative silence. She killed the baby as soon as it was born and tried to hide the body (under the bed), but the truth quickly came out. (Several servants had asked whether she was not in labour earlier that day, and she had angrily said ‘no’: was her pregnancy even an open secret?) She was hung six months later, 3 April 1805 and the judge who had sentenced her to death (an unusual decision in Wales at that time for this crime) wrote a poem on later visiting Mary’s tomb in the graveyard at Presteigne. Of course, none of this is to justify the killing of newborn children then or ever: Mary used a poultry knife and almost decapitated her baby. But poor humanity…: Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com