For one of the chapters in Women and the Gallows 1797-1837 (Pen & Sword, 2017) I am looking at women tried for murder and manslaughter in the Regency period.1
As a first stop, I went to the Old Bailey website and did some number crunching. I was not surprised to find that almost half of the 120 prosecutions in this category were for infanticide, or attempted infanticide. Poor unmarried women who found themselves pregnant could expect to lose their reputation as well as their domestic situation, if they had one. If they were not already in the workhouse, they soon would be. A number of them would have taken desperate measures.
In many cases the women who were prosecuted had given birth to their babies in secret, often in the privy. Often in these circumstances the child was delivered straight into the pit, where it would be likely to perish. If the child was not lost this way, the dangerous and awkward conditions in the privy or in other closeted out of the way places, the dark, the complete absence of equipment and of human assistance, combined with the mother’s lack of experience and ignorance of childbirth, led to the almost inevitable death of the child.
Of the 47 infanticide cases I read, 13 ended in acquittal of the manslaughter or murder charge but conviction of the less crime of concealing a birth, for which the defendants were given prison sentences ranging from 14 days to 2 years. In 32 cases the defendant was found not guilty and was free to go. Two cases resulted in conviction for murder. Neither were commuted and the defendants were hanged.
There were various factors that would lead to an acquittal. One of the most important was proof that the mother prepared normally for the birth, that is, she behaved as if expecting to care for a live baby. For this she usually needed evidence that she had borrowed or otherwise acquired baby linen. In 1833 Catherine Weeks2 was accused of killing her newborn baby girl, who had been delivered in the privy of St Giles workhouse. Catherine claimed that the baby was stillborn. Three respectable tradesmen and a local washerwoman in whose house the body was later found, probably concealed by Catherine herself, gave her a good character, but it was her sister’s evidence that tipped the balance. She told the court that Catherine had come to her lodgings and borrowed baby linen. Catherine was found guilty of concealing a birth but the jury recommended mercy, and she was punished with 14 days’ confinement.
Some of the cases seem pointless and you wonder why the authorities bothered to bring them to court. In 1837 Sarah Blacklock3 was accused of killing her six-week-old baby boy, who had died shortly after Sarah had flitted from her lodgings owing rent. Her landlady testified that the baby had always been “sickly and poorly” and “did not cry”, and after surgeon James Carter gave evidence that the baby “died of convulsions occasioned by a slow inflammation of the lungs, occasioned by a cold or want of food, and other things” the jury exonerated Sarah.
The court records are in the main quite perfunctory, giving an account of what was asserted rather than what was actually said in court. It is clear that sometimes there was far more going on than could be conveyed in the account of the trial. What led Rebecca Merrin4, for example, to deny to everyone who asked not only that she was pregnant but that she had ever had sex, even to John Wallis, a surgeon and man midwife to whom she had gone complaining of the “dropsy”? Her behaviour before and after the child was born was bizarre, and could point to mental disturbance.
“The prisoner came into my room with the child in her hands,” testified Mary Hoskins, who lodged with her. “I said: ‘What have you got there, Beckey?’ She said: ‘A child.’ I said: ‘Take it away, I will have nothing to do with it.’ She made answer: ‘I will put it in the closet.’ … She wanted to put it in my bed.” John Wallis told the court the child may have died because the navel cord had not been tied, but also may have died after being “rolled up” in linen and left in the closet: it was impossible to know. The jury found Rebecca guilty of concealment and she was fined a shilling and sent to the House of Correction for six months.
Reading through these cases it is clear that often the witnesses, the lawyers and sometimes even the judges themselves really did not want to convict women. There was an unspoken understanding of the extreme difficulties a baby born to an unmarried woman would present to that woman, and also that giving birth alone and in secret had major risks. Sometimes the judge made pointed remarks, particularly to the medical witnesses. The following exchange, at the end of the trial in 1802 of Elizabeth Harvey,5 who had denied being pregnant but who later gave birth alone in her lodging room in Tottenham, north London, leaving her bed drenched in blood, and was seen putting the body of her child into a pond, is fairly typical:
Judge: Might not the navel-cord, not being properly attended to, of itself occasion the death of the child?
James Sheffield, assistant to a surgeon: It would undoubtedly.
Judge: I believe it is a very frequent thing for the child to die in the birth in the very act of delivery?
Sheffield: Most assuredly.
Judge: Even where a skilful practitioner attends the birth?
Judge: It is the more likely when an ignorant woman delivers herself?
Judge: And you yourself can form no judgment how the child came by its death?
There were no marks of violence on the body, although it had deteriorated considerably, and Elizabeth was acquitted.
There were two cases at the Old Bailey in which the courts felt unable to give the accused leeway. What made them different to the others? As with any murder case, it was all about intention. In the first of these, there was little doubt over what had happened or over the guilt of the accused. Like many in her predicament, 33-year-old Sarah Perry,6 who worked as a cook for the King family in Manchester Square in 1817 and claimed to be married, denied to all that she was pregnant.
Early one morning she was taken ill in the scullery in the basement. Her sceptical fellow servant Charlotte Armstrong went to her aid but Sarah refused to let her in, and then, when Charlotte was called away by her mistress, locked herself in the kitchen. After a while Mr Roots, the footman, heard the cry of a child.
Charlotte later found blood in the scullery and on the floor of the bedroom she shared with Sarah, and saw blood on Sarah’s nightdress. When Sarah told her the stains were from a calf’s heart, which the household had not ordered for months, Charlotte knew Sarah was lying and told her mistress, who reported her to the authorities. After two searches of the house the body of a baby girl was found buried in the coal cellar and wrapped in Sarah’s petticoat. Her mouth had been stuffed with a dishcloth.
The surgeon Edward Leese told the court that the child was certainly born alive.
Sarah’s only line of defence had obviously been composed for her: “The prisoner never had a child before, and being inexperienced, thought she had two months of her time to go. Her reason for not making her situation known was that she might remain in her place as long as she could.” She was executed outside Newgate five days later. The plug of dishcloth was the clincher. Sarah had intended the baby to die and then concealed the body.
The other case that ended in execution is much less clear cut. Twenty-four-year-old Catherine Welch’s7 baby was found in a watery ditch in a field in Parsons Green, west of London, on 2 March 1828 by Mary Inglefield. He was over a month old when he died and, according to surgeon Joseph Holmes, had sustained a wound to his temple and his eyes had burst blood vessels. He told the court he thought the child had been strangled. Witnesses said they had seen Catherine near the ditch where the child with a bundle under her clothes, but she claimed that her child had been born in Saffron Hill, died a month previously and been buried in the old burying ground in Marylebone High Street. But she could provide no details of the woman whose son had taken the baby to be buried.
Her defence was simple and ineffective. “I am as innocent as a baby unborn and leave it to the gentlemen of the Court to look into my case, for I have not a person in the world to do anything for me.”
The jury found her guilty and Lord Chief Justice Tenterden (Charles Abbott) sentenced her to death. Three days later she was hanged outside Newgate, having confessed that she had intended to kill her child, having no prospect of being able to feed him as her husband had abandoned her when she became pregnant by another man.8
On the face of it, and leaving aside Catherine’s later admissions, I cannot see much that is different here to Elizabeth Harvey’s case, and the court report does not indicate whether her version of events was investigated. Did anyone go to Marylebone to look at the parish records? I suspect not.
No one can read the transcripts of these cases without feeling for the women in the dock. Each story is tragic in multiple ways. The loss of the baby itself (whether through a deliberate act, sickness or accident), the mother’s shock and distress at giving birth alone is awful enough, even without the suspicions, accusations, arrest and imprisonment, and in a handful of cases, judicial death of the alleged perpetrator.
In general, I had expected the justice system to be more severe in their treatment of the defendants but they showed humanity, understanding and not a little human compassion.
- I have taken the Regency to be the period 1800 to 1837. The definition of the Regency is an interesting topic, but it will wait for a future post.
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 12 October 2015), July 1833, trial of Catherine Weeks (t18330704-33).
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 12 October 2015), April 1837, trial of Sarah Blacklock (t18370403-1112).
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 12 October 2015), September 1809, trial of Rebecca Merrin (t18090920-114).
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 12 October 2015), October 1801, trial of Elizabeth Harvey (t18011028-8).
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 12 October 2015), February 1817, trial of Sarah Perry (t18170219-31).
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 12 October 2015), April 1828, trial of Catherine Welch (t18280410-17).
- Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 14 April 1828.
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