'Killed by Its Mother': Infanticide in Providence County, Rhode Island, 1870 to 1938

Article excerpt

  In July 2002 nineteen-year-old Sophia Whitey gave birth alone to a
  live baby boy. Sophia placed him in a plastic hag, and then in her an
  trunk. No one in her family knew she was pregnant. (1)

As the Whitley case demonstrates, infanticide is not merely a historical topic. By 2009, all fifty stares responded to it with laws that established "safe havens" at which parents could abandon unharmed infants within seven days of birth and face no legal repercussions. Yet infanticide continues: one study estimates that eighty-five infanticides occur annually in the United States. Women now and in the past generally committed infanticide due to fears of social ostracism, attempts to conceal illicit affairs, and/or dire economic straights. Based on Coroners' Records for Providence County, Rhode Island, this article analyzes medical attitudes toward mothers who killed from 1870 to 1938. This period extends past most historical studies of American infanticide, in turn a crucial aspect in modern society. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a medical discourse on the possibility of postpartum insanity as a cause of infanticide. While some women claimed temporary insanity, and some doctors legitimated this defense, its application was arbitrary at best. Doctors determined who deserved this diagnosis based on the woman's character, forthrightness, and extenuating circumstances. Physicians were not a monolithic bloc: infanticide divided the profession both nationally and locally and prevented them from speaking in a united voice on the issue. This article does not follow infanticide cases through to jury verdicts. Instead, it uses a case study approach to analyze the circumstances women faced that led them to kill their newborns, and the doctors', coroners', and medical examiners' responses to these women's actions. Age, marital, or immigrant status were not as important as visible violence to an infant's body in determining a finding of infanticide.

Scholars have examined infanticide from legal and social standpoints. Peter C. Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull argue that this crime became "highly visible" in colonial New England. While laws against it were harsh, the legal system gave mothers the benefit of the doubt unless overwhelming evidence existed against her.-Michelle Oberman examines infanticide in Chicago between 1870 and 1930 and finds that courts convicted only one woman, demonstrating the leniency of judges and juries to defendants often seen as victims of male seduction, a conclusion substantiated by Mark Jackson.' Johanna Greyer-Kordesch argues the opposite: mothers who killed were not victims but active agents with "aspirations" who took decisive steps to protect their jobs and reputations, and to "reject the gendered trajectory" of motherhood. (4) What is missing from the literature is an examination of the medical profession's view of infanticide. (5) James C. Mohr's Doctors and the Law discusses medical jurisprudence with particular attention to insanity, but not infanticide. The present article adds to the historiography by arguing that American physicians did not reach consensus on infanticide and insanity. Applying the discourse in American medical journals on infanticide and insanity to case studies based on Coroner's Reports provides otherwise absent information on the circumstances of individual women's lives that led them to kill and professional responses to this crime. (6)

This study also allows a comparison of American with European, particularly British, reaction to infanticide. The American legal system regarding infanticide differed, and continues to differ, from Western Europe. Colonial Massachusetts, for example, applied the death penalty to these women, while many Western European nations defined them as mentally ill. Ian Lambie argues that in Europe "madness after childbirth was historically considered a frequent affliction." Fifteenth-century French courts sometimes granted leniency to women based on mental disturbance. …