England,  Western Europe

Infanticide in England

The rise of infanticide in early modern England was a result of limited options and lack of support for unmarried mothers. With the rise of foundling hospitals and a support system for unmarried mothers, the fall of infanticide cases was inevitable. Women not under control of a male householder were considered potential leaches on society; neighbors were often encouraged to police the single woman around them, not only to watch their activities but also to watch the curve of their bellies. Women that found themselves in the care of midwives that often denied help during labor until they named the father of their child, the man that is to be held financially responsible for the bastard.

In the northern circuit courts, ninty percent of all persons charged in infanticide cases were women and of those women charged, nighty present of those were single, unmarried and rarely widows. Of the 430 cases heard at the Old Bailey from 1674 to 1913, 422 were female. Only 168 came back with guilty verdicts and 67 of those received a death sentence. There was a great reluctance to hang women during this period and only a quarter of those condemned to death ever met the hangman. Such was the case in 1595 when Margery Preston was convicted of killing but not murdering her infant; reprieves and pardons were more common with infanticide than any other homicide perpetrated by a woman.

In a 1576 a statute was enacted to prevent a parish from carrying the economic burden of a bastard born within, a result of the common practice of shifting a woman in labor from one parish to another to place the burden on another. This statute could prosecute both men and women for infanticide, but often because women were easier to recognize by their growing bellies or production of breast milk more often prosecuted for their crime. A 1610 statute added the additional punishment for women carrying bastards to serve out one year in a house of corrections.12512391_243996539275769_3937604087759266550_n

By 1624, infanticide caused the first major official act to prevent the murdering of bastard infants and made concealing the pregnancy itself a crime. Before the 1624 statute the judge would need proof that the child was born alive and then murdered by the mother. The 1624 statute changed that and now it was assumed that the child was born alive and then murdered to conceal its birth, unless there was witnesses to the birth that the child was stillborn.

The year 1741 saw the rise of foundling hospitals, given a new option for their infant and with a no questions asked policy for any infants that were taken in, the number of infanticide cases was nearly halved. With community support for unmarried women that found themselves with child, the option of killing to conceal pregnancy was moved further down the list. By 1767 the first lying in hospitals that assisted unmarried women during birth and post-natal care for her and the infant, including clothing for the child opened, bringing in yet another option with the help of a support system.

The rise and fall of infanticide in Early Modern England was influence by the legislation of the day as well as alternatives that became more and more available to unmarried mothers.


Sources available on request