Infanticide: a case study

In West London, on the evening of 1 September 1856, a grisly discovery was made. The bodies of newborn twins were found wrapped in a bloodstained petticoat and chemise in the front garden of a house at Pentridge Villas, Notting Hill. Mr Guazzaroni, the surgeon who conducted the post-mortem at the Kensington workhouse, found that the twins had died because of intentional suffocation and exposure. A verdict of wilful murder by persons unknown was returned at the coroner’s inquest but the twin’s mother was never traced. Infanticide was disturbingly common in Victorian Britain.[1] Lionel Rose estimates that of 113,000 deaths of children under the age of one in 1864, 1,730 were due to ‘violence’ with only 192 of those being classified as homicides. Contemporaries maintained that Britain was suffering from an epidemic of child-killing blamed on ‘puerperal insanity’, a form of post-natal mania that accounted for as much as 15% of female asylum admissions in some years. [2]

From the early 1840s, questions were being openly asked on the floor of the House of Commons where Thomas Wakley, coroner, surgeon and MP shocked his audience by claiming that infanticide[3], ‘was going on to a frightful, to an enormous, a perfectly incredible extent.’[4] By the 1860s, the problem was believed to have reached crisis proportions and figured as one of the great plagues of society, alongside prostitution, drunkenness and gambling. According to some experts, it was impossible to escape from the sight of dead infants’ corpses, especially in the capital, for they were to be found everywhere from interiors to exteriors, from bedrooms to train compartments. One observer commented that

…bundles are left lying about in the streets… the metropolitan canal boats are impeded, as they are tracked along by the number of drowned infants with which they come in contact, and the land is becoming defiled by the blood of her innocents. We are told by Dr Lankester that there are 12,000 women in London to whom the crime of child murder may be attributed. In other words, that one in every thirty women (I presume between fifteen and forty-five) is a murderess.[5]

Even The Times was forced to concede at the end of a long list of Herod-like statistics on the subject that ‘infancy in London has to creep into life in the midst of foes’.[6] At every new ‘epidemic’ of dead babies found abandoned on the streets of the capital, there was a public outcry focussed on society’s responses. In 1870, in London, 276 infants were found dead in the streets and in 1895, this figure reached 231. For the Ladies’ Sanitary Association, civilisation itself was under threat:

…an annual slaughter of innocents takes place in this gifted land of ours… we must grapple with this evil, and that speedily, if we would not merit the reproach of admitting infanticide as an institution into our social system.[7]

Many of the women involved were from the lower classes and many of the babies were illegitimate. However, pleading this form of temporary insanity when taken to court was frequently met with a sympathetic response from judges, despite the obvious suspicion that some cases were murders. The problem of infanticide was brought into strong focus by the case of Mary Newell.[8] Born in south Oxfordshire, Mary had been a servant since she was 16. Without work in the summer of 1857, aged 21, she travelled to Reading where she met as old acquaintance, poulterer William Francis who invited her for a drink at his house. Mary ended up pregnant and Francis showed no further interest in her. Although she soon found employment within two months she left and single, pregnant and unemployed and having failed to persuade Francis to marry her, she was admitted to Henley workhouse on 11 January 1858. In May she gave birth to a son, Richard and remained at the workhouse until August when she walked the eight miles to Reading to seek help from Francis who refused. Unclear what to do and confused, Mary wandered round all night and eventually she undressed her baby son, laid him by the bank of the Thames and let him roll in.

At Mary’s trial, there was outrage at Francis’ attitude as it was believed that had he shown any willingness to help, the baby would not have died. Although he admitted his neglect at the trial, this did little to moderate local feeling and after the verdict he was attacked by a mob, beaten and left semi-naked, an event repeated when news of the trial’s outcome reached his new home at Wallingford. Mary was condemned to death but was in such a state that she was committed to the local asylum. A petition was launched asking Queen Victoria to commute her sentence and it was signed by the local mayor, magistrates and nearly 800 others. A deputation of people from Reading visited the Home Office to lobby and this intervention appears to have saved Mary’s life.

Infanticide was an act of murder and as such, the guilty parties could be exposed to the full force of the law. Yet, on this politically delicate question, sentencing by the courts depended as much on the facts as on the medical interpretation placed on them. Victorian leniency towards infanticide was shaken in 1865 when a woman from London, Esther Lack, killed her three children by slitting their throats. After the court backed an insanity plea, one newspaper openly questioned the willingness of courts to find in favour of such defendants. Evidence from London shows that most women charged with infanticide between 1837 and 1913 were in their early to mid-20s though some were as young as 16 and that the younger the woman, the more likely she was to be acquitted or guilty only of the lesser offence of concealing a birth. However, it was not until the 1922 Infanticide Act that the death penalty was abolished for women who murdered their newborn babies if is could be shown that the woman in question had had her balance of mind disturbed as a direct result of giving birth.

The advent of the life insurance business brought a further motive for murder but in particular infanticide. Arsenic poisoning was difficult to identify since its symptoms were similar to those of dysentary, gastritis and other causes of natural death and magistrates were generally unwilling to squander public funds while the chances of detection were so small.[9] Families could enrol their children in a ‘burial club’ for a halfpenny a week and when the child died the club would pay out as much as £5 towards funeral expenses. Since a cheap funeral cost around £1, this left a valuable surplus for feeding the remaining children and some families enrolled each child in several clubs to increase the payout. There was a saying in Manchester, though it existed across the country that a burial-club baby was unlikely to survive for long. The burial-club scandal became so widespread that legislation was passed in 1850 prohibiting insuring children under 10 for more than £3. However, the lure of life insurance remained a potent cause of infaticide. Mary Ann Cotton, a former school-teacher from County Durham murdered most of her 15 children and step-children, as well as her mother, three husbands and her lodger, before she was hanged in 1873.

The harshest decisions were certainly those meted out to the professional baby farmer found guilty of infanticide. One of the first and most sensational trials was that of Margaret Waters, the so-called ‘Brixton Baby Farmer’ in 1870, who was found guilty of conspiracy to obtain money by fraud and the murder of a baby.[10] She was executed amid extensive popular agitation and press coverage. In a sense the pattern had been set and when, in 1879, Annie Took was similarly found guilty of smothering and dismembering an illegitimate physically handicapped child she had been paid £12 to look after, she too was executed. Other high-profile baby farmers such as the Edinburgh murderess Jessie King in 1887[11] and Amelia Dyer[12] suffered a similar fate. Yet not all of these criminals were sentenced to death and other cases that received front-page coverage such as those of Catherine Barnes and Charlotte Winsor resulted in verdicts of life imprisonment.

There was a growing body of evidence by the 1870s that infanticide was a crime committed primarily by women and, more often than not, by the mothers or the surrogate mothers of the infants themselves. Undoubtedly, the more ‘acceptable’ of these two explanations was the latter, that these crimes were the work of depraved, unscrupulous women who had lost all sense of their maternal instincts and indulged in a commercial trade with life itself inside a profession known popularly as ‘baby farming’.[13] The term first appeared in The Times in the late 1860s, and, according to one medical practitioner of the period, was coined ‘to indicate the occupation of those who receive infants to nurse or rear by hand for a payment in money, either made periodically (as weekly or monthly) or in one sum’.[14] It was regarded with a great deal of suspicion in many quarters, as an ‘occupation which shuns the light’[15] and not simply a primitive form of child-care. However, its popular appeal and social function were immense at a time when illegitimacy was stigmatised and single mothers excluded from the most elementary means of supporting their child.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the mechanics of the system had become well-established. The ‘baby farmer’ was usually a woman of a mature age and poor working-class background who would offer either to look after the ‘unwanted’ child or ensure that it was ‘passed on’ to suitable adoptive parents. The fee for this transaction varied according to the specifics of the contract but was usually situated between £7 and £30.[16] In the majority of cases there was also a tacit understanding between the two parties that, in the harsh conditions of life in working-class areas of the nation’s cities, the child’s chances of survival would be extremely slim. What particularly outraged public feeling was that this trade had a visible, almost respectable, side to it for it was practised openly through advertising, in national, regional and local newspapers. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, the financial considerations involved in this extensive traffic in infant life gradually became the focus of deep suspicion. For the British Medical Journal of 1868, these ‘baby farmers’ would not have,

…the slightest difficulty in disposing of any number of children, so that they may give no further trouble, and never be heard of, at £10 a head.[17]

Baby farms were denounced as nothing more than ‘centres of infanticide’, a convenient way for women to solve the problem of unwanted and illegitimate births. It was, for instance, widely believed that these babies were often left to wilt away and die, sometimes helped along with a little soother known as ‘Kindness’. These rumours found credence in the fact that at this time it was common practice, not only among those whose looked after children, but also among mothers themselves, to use a certain ‘Godfrey’s Cordial’ to quieten the babies, and that this, if dosed incorrectly, could lead to ‘the sleep of death’.[18]

Little however was known about the role of the mothers in this trade. The Times had no doubts that the women who sent their children to baby farmers were complicitous and selfish and not naive and impoverished victims in their own right.[19] Yet a survey of those implicated in the more spectacular trials of the period suggests that most were guilty only of the crime of having a child outside of wedlock. Crime reports invariably refer to the biological mothers’ occupation as that of bar-maid, prostitute, factory or mill worker, domestic servant. Much more rarely are there references to ‘outraged’ middle-class girls and unfaithful upper-class women having recourse to the infamous baby farmers. In the Margaret Waters case, for instance, the court heard of 17-year-old Jeanette Cowen, who had been raped by the husband of a friend and, on the birth of her son, her father arranged ‘adoption’ procedures with Waters without the mother’s consent.  Evelina Marmon, a barmaid from Bristol, confided her 10-month-old child to the safe keeping of Amelia Dyer because she was temporarily unable to look after it. She was unaware that the baby had been strangled and disposed of until the trial, as Dyer sent her regular reports about its progress. The illegitimate child of Elizabeth Campbell, who died in childbirth, was ‘adopted’ for a generous fee by Jessie King to avoid a family scandal but nobody apparently suspected that any harm would befall the child.

The problem of ‘baby farming’ proved intractable, despite the sustained pressure of such groups as the Infant Life Protection Society that called for the registration and control of all people in charge of babies on a professional basis.[20] Not only was this activity an integral part of the social regulation of the nation’s sexuality, it also fulfilled a valuable economic role by allowing working-class women to occupy paid employment. Government interference in such a private sphere was therefore problematic in the extreme. The breakthrough only came through a private member’s initiative which became the Infant Life Protection Act in 1872. This reform made registration obligatory with the local authority for any person taking in two or more infants under one year of age for a period greater than 24 hours. Furthermore, deaths of infants in such care had to be communicated to the Coroner within 24 hours. It was a timid start since the scope of people exempted from the Act was significant; relatives, day-nurses, hospitals and even foster women were all excluded and no ‘authentification’ of contracts between parent and baby farmer was required. Moreover since the registration of all births, live and dead did not become compulsory until 1874, unless the authorities actually knew that a baby had been born, it was possible for it to die, be killed or be disposed of without anyone even noticing its existence. Only after other sensational ‘epidemics’ of infanticide in the ensuing years did a further Infant Life Protection Act force its way through Parliament in 1897. This Act finally empowered local authorities to control the registration of “nurses” responsible for more than one infant under the age of five for a period longer than 48 hours.[21]

[1] Rose, Lionel, Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Britain 1800-1939, (Routledge), 1986 and more generally Jackson, Mark, (ed.), Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, (Ashgate), 2002, Thorn, Jennifer, (ed.), Writing British infanticide: child-murder, gender, and print, 1722-1859, (University of Delaware Press), 2003 and McDonagh, Josephine, Child Murder & British Culture, 1720-1900, (Cambridge University Press), 2003, pp. 97-183.

[2] Puerperal psychosis is now a well-recognised event, affecting perhaps one in every 500 births in the UK. It normally happens in the first month of the new child’s life and takes the form of a severe episode of mania similar to that suffered by manic depressives. Patients may become confused and delusional, and in the most extreme cases try to harm themselves or their new child. See, Marland, Hilary, ‘Getting away with murder? Puerperal insanity, infanticide and the defence plea’, in ibid, Jackson, Mark (ed.), Infanticide: historical perspectives on child murder and concealment, 1550-2000, pp. 168-192 and ‘Disappointment and desolation: women, doctors and interpretations of puerperal insanity in the nineteenth century’, History of Psychiatry, Vol. 14, (2003), pp. 303-320.

[3] William Ryan described infanticide as ‘the murder of a new-born child’ although there is no specific time applied to the term ‘new-born’; it is not restricted to days after the birth. Ryan, William Burke, Infanticide: Its Law, Prevalence, Prevention and History, (J. Churchill, New Burlington Street), p. 3

[4] Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, 3rd Series, 76, 1844, col. 430-431.

[5] Ibid, Ryan, William Burke, Infanticide: Its Law, Prevalence, Prevention and History, pp. 45-46.

[6] The Times, 29 April 1862.

[7] Baines, Mrs M.A., Excessive Infant Mortality: How can it be stayed?, (J. Churchill and. Sons), 1865.

[8] National Archives: PCOM 4/36/37 and the review of Ryan, William Burke, ‘Infanticide: its Law, Prevalence, Prevention and History’, The British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review or Quarterly Journal of Practical Medicine and Surgery, Vol. xxxi, (1863), pp. 1-27.

[9] See, Whorton, James C., The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play, (Oxford University Press), 2010, pp. 27-33.

[10] On Margaret Waters’ case, see HO 12 193/92230 for her statement and the judge’s reply.

[11] One of the children in her care apparently died from an overdose of whisky. King was executed on 11 March 1889 in Calton Prison, and had the unenviable distinction of being the last but one woman to be hanged for murder in Scotland.

[12] Dyer’s reputation as a mass-murderess stems from her modus operandi for after strangling her victim with tape, she placed it in a carpet bag (nicknamed the ‘travelling coffin’) and threw it into the Thames. She stated in her confession ‘You’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks. Fifty-seven-year-old Dyer was responsible for at least 17 deaths before her arrest in 1896. For a detailed police report, her trial and sentencing, forensic detail, incriminating evidence as well as her written confession, see Thames Valley Police Archives. See also, Vale, Alison, Amelia Dyer, angel maker: the woman who murdered babies for money, (Andre Deutsch), 2007.

[13] See, Behlmer, George K., Child abuse and moral reform in England 1870-1908, (Oxford University Press), 1982, pp. 25-42, 150-156 and 211-221.

[14] Curgenven, J.B., On Baby-farming and the Registration of Nurses, Read at a meeting of the Health Department of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, March 15, 1869, (National Association for the Promotion of Social Science), 1869, p. 3. See also, Greenwood, James, The Seven Curses of London, (S. Rivers), 1869, pp. 29-57.

[15] North British Daily Mail, 2 March 1871.

[16] Ibid, Rose, Lionel, Massacre of the Innocents. Infanticide in Great Britain 1800-1939, p. 94.

[17] Cit, Altick, Richard D., Victorian Studies in Scarlet, (W.W. Norton & Co.), 1970, p. 285

[18] See, Findlay, Rosie, ‘‘More Deadly Than The Male’…? Mothers and Infanticide In Nineteenth Century Britain’, Cycnos,  Vol. 23, (2), (2006), URL:

[19] The Times, 4 July and 24 September 1870.

[20] The Infant Life Protection Society, created in 1870 and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children established in 1889 campaigned relentlessly for the introduction of better ‘policing’ of working-class families: Allen, Anne and Morton, Arthur, This is your child: the story of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, (Routledge & K. Paul), 1961, pp. 15-33. They recommended more foundling hospitals to be set up as well as public nurseries for the children of the poor, as they believed that working-class mothers’ lack of education and standard of living both conspired against infant life. See, Arnot, Margaret L., ‘Infant death, child care and the state: the baby farming scandal and the first infant life protection legislation of 1872’, Continuity and Change, Vol. 9, (2), 1994, p. 290 and ‘An English Crèche’,  The Times, 8 April 1868.

[21] The Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act was passed in 1889 to protect children under the age of fourteen from ill-treatment. Although in 1881 the Midwives Institute was founded, it took almost another twenty years before the first Midwives Act was passed in 1902; the Central Midwives Board were to govern training and practice of midwives in England and Wales, and it was illegal to practise without qualification (Scotland 1915 and Northern Ireland 1922).

This entry was posted in Population. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Infanticide: a case study

  1. Pingback: Murder and assault: crimes against the person | HISTORY ZONE

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s