Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"Driven to the Commission of This Crime" Women and Infanticide in Baltimore, 1835-1860

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"Driven to the Commission of This Crime" Women and Infanticide in Baltimore, 1835-1860

Article excerpt

In March of 1838, the Baltimore Sun printed a letter that noted an "alarming increase''' of infanticide in the city. The letter's author, Coroner John I. Gross, had grown concerned after investigating die deaths of six infants found dead in a period of only two weeks. He attributed what he perceived as the "growing evil" of child murder to the moral judgment passed upon women who bore illegitimate children. Gross claimed that women discovered to be pregnant out of wedlock faced "the scorn of the world, and the execration of friends," despite the fact that many were actually victims of seduction at the hands of unscrupulous men. Out of their desperation to conceal their shame, such women were "driven to the commission of [infanticide]." In order to decrease the incidence of the crime "which fills the breast of the philanthropist with the unmingled emotions of the most profound sorrow," Gross urged his fellow citizens to be more sympathetic to such women. Gross also asked his "fellow citizens" to support the creation of a foundling asylum where women could anonymously abandon unwanted newborns, a plea that resulted in the City Council launching an investigation into the feasibility of such an institution.1

In the end, Gross's proposal went nowhere, but it generated a report from a joint committee of the City Council that is interesting for what it reveals about the prevailing and profoundly contradictory imaginings of the infànticidal woman and her motivations. Gross and his allies on the Sun's editorial staff cast the perpetrator of infanticide as an otherwise chaste and respectable women tricked by a cunning man and then driven to madness by the certainty of social ostracism. The Trustees of the Poor and the head physician at the Alms House, on the other hand, argued in their reports to the council committee that she was a profligate, sinful woman who murdered her progeny to avoid the responsibilities of motherhood.2

Largely absent from this middle-class discourse on infanticide was attention to the role poverty played in the crime. Of all the responses to Gross's proposal, only a single, convoluted letter to the editor of the Sun acknowledged that unstable financial situations might be a motivating factor in infanticide cases. The general absence of poverty from the discussion of infanticide is a curious one, as an examination of archival sources reveals that poverty was an important factor in nearly every stage of infant death investigations and infanticide prosecutions. The process by which infant deaths were deemed "suspicious" and thus meriting a coroner's inquest tended to target poor women and families, and the vast majority of women indicted by inquest juries for killing their infants were unmarried working women. Many of the women who can be traced through the record were socially marginalized because of their race or their lack familiar connections within the city, and they labored in ways that could be greatly hindered by pregnancy. There was thus a disjuncture between rhetoric employed by men like Gross, which described the infanticida! woman in distinctly middle-class terms, and the realities of the types of women who were most commonly suspected of and arrested for the crime.3

Research into the stories and circumstances of such women not only provides a window into the poverty and high mortality that plagued segments of Baltimore in the early republic but also exposes the ways in which the poor themselves influenced the course of investigations and navigated a criminal justice system that did not always share their interests or sentiments concerning moral economies of reproduction. Coroner's inquests were inherently local proceedings whose juries often included men from a much broader swath of the city population than grand or trial juries. Inquest juries frequently declined to find that poor women had murdered their infants, turning instead to more mundane explanations for the death or attributing them to accident. …

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