Writing British Infanticide: Child-Murder, Gender, and Print, 1722-1859

By Jennifer Thorn | Go to book overview

Fractured Narratives of Infanticide
in the Crime and Execution Broadside
in Britain, 1780–1850

Miriam Jones

Young women all, where e'er you be,
Draw nigh and listen unto me;
O! pity me, and hear my mournful tale.
I wrote these verses in the gaol.

—Lines on the Occasion (1830)1

PUBLIC DISCOURSE ABOUT INFANTICIDE, OR "CHILD-MURDER," ALREADY substantial at the end of the eighteenth century, reached a crescendo within fifty years.2 Like any public debate, it was full of contention and contradiction.3 Broadsides about infanticides, a vital and understudied component of this phenomenon, are generally consistent with what social historians tell us, not about who committed infanticide, necessarily, but rather about who was caught and tried: young female servants, away from home, unprotected, and living communally under constant scrutiny. Representations that could be described as sympathetic to these women are rare, though they exist. Even when middle-class tactics for dealing with unwanted children are the focus, as in discussions of wet nurses and baby farms, broadsides, like the criminal justice system, typically punish the working-class surrogates and not the absent birth-mothers.4 Indeed, even a cursory examination of broadside representations of infanticide in the period indicates that the culture of the street was, by and large, even less forgiving of women drawn from their number who were accused of infanticide than was the middle-class press.5

But even as infanticide broadsides thus reinforce the tendency of the criminal justice system to focus on the transgressions of the most vulnerable women of the laboring classes to the exclusion of all others, their embrace of generic hybridity opens a space for alternate visions of women accused of child-murder.6 I argue here that it is

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