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

By Jennifer Thorn | Go to book overview

Beyond "Lewd Women" and "Wanton
Wenches": Infanticide and Child-Murder
in the Long Eighteenth Century

Dana Rabin

THE MEN AND WOMEN OF EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND DEFINED infanticide as a woman's crime, strongly associated with insanity, poverty, and illegitimacy. In this century historians have done the same.1 By focusing their research exclusively on unwed mothers, historians have uncritically accepted early modern legal categories and definitions of infanticide. Unwed fathers and married fathers and mothers have not generally been the subjects of the study of infanticide and illegitimate pregnancy. Infanticide has, for the most part, been portrayed as a secret crime, perpetrated out of desperation or insanity, by women alone, motivated by shame, fear of unemployment, and poverty.2 I will demonstrate here that although the crime often happened in just this way, closer attention to eighteenth-century legal records reveals that many of those accused of the crime were neither unmarried nor female. Court documents for a considerable number of homicide and infanticide cases disclose the involvement of fathers in the murder of either their pregnant partners (married or unmarried) or their partners and children.3 These cases expose early modern domestic tensions brought to the surface by a pregnancy or a child's birth, especially in the case of pregnancy outside of marriage, exemplifying the early modern "anxious masculinity" that several recent historical and literary studies have contended coexisted with traditional patriarchal order.4 If male resentment of the financial, emotional, and civic burdens of illegitimate children recurs in the cases I survey, so too does male discomfort with the limited independence provided to women by maintenance agreements. Similarly complex are the processes by which juries exonerated some men who explained their crimes of child-murder in terms of their despair at being unable to provide for their children, even as juries convicted men who deliberately sought to induce abortions in their unmarried partners.5

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