Understanding Infanticide in Context: Mothers Who Kill, 1870-1930 and Today

By Oberman, Michelle | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Understanding Infanticide in Context: Mothers Who Kill, 1870-1930 and Today


Oberman, Michelle, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


INTRODUCTION

On July 29, 1911, the Chicago Tribune reported the story of a Miss Mary Stastch. An immigrant from Austria, Stastch was arrested in connection with the death of her three-week-old baby, which was found behind a residence in the city. The twenty-one-year-old mother stated that, after leaving the county hospital with her new-born, she wandered about Chicago for two days with the baby in her arms, seeking work. She could find nothing to do. On the afternoon of the third day, she claimed that the baby dropped from her arms. She grabbed the baby's bonnet string as it fell, which then pulled tightly around the baby's neck. She felt too weak to pick up the child immediately, and when she finally lifted it, she found that it was dead. Too poor to bury it, Miss Stastch carried the body to 1546 Carroll Avenue, where she abandoned it. (2)

For almost a decade, I have followed cases involving contemporary women in the United States who kill their children. Infanticide in our present society seems to be an anachronism, given our relative wealth and the widespread options for women seeking to avoid pregnancy or parenting. Cases like that of Miss Stastch belong to another era--one which seems as distant to us as the yellowing photos Miss Stastch might have carried with her from the old country. And yet, as I will explain in the course of this essay, in many important ways, her plight remains a contemporary one and is replicated day after day in cities and towns across this country.

The path to understanding the terrible crime of infanticide, both in bygone eras and in our own, lies in examining the circumstances that shape the lives and realities of mothers. To date, my research on infanticide has consisted of collecting stories from the media about mothers who kill their children, and fleshing them out as completely as possible by tracing their resolution through subsequent news stories, and also through the legal system. Occasionally, I have become involved in these cases as a scholar and a lawyer. In one instance, I interviewed and ultimately befriended a young woman accused and convicted of killing her newborn baby. In another case, I worked on a clemency petition and testified at a hearing on behalf of a woman serving a life sentence for killing her young child while suffering from postpartum psychosis.

Over the course of time, I have identified a distinct set of patterns in contemporary cases involving women who kill their children. In addition, my close examination of the circumstances surrounding these cases reveals a profound commonality that links these seemingly unrelated crimes. Specifically, infanticide may be seen as a response to the societal construction of and constraints on mothering.

The opportunity to juxtapose this contemporary vision of infanticide with the historical data arising out of the Chicago Homicide Database is helpful in several ways. First, this new historical data reveals several surprising shifts in the patterns of infanticide killings over the course of time. Second, it helps to lend perspective and clarity to the contemporary crime of infanticide. Finally, and most importantly, it provides powerful support to my earlier point: historically, as well as today, infanticide may be seen as a response to the societal construction of and constraints on mothering.

This essay begins with a brief overview of the patterned nature of contemporary infanticide cases in the United States. I then turn to the historical data, exploring both the striking similarities and the marked differences discovered when comparing today's cases with patterns of infanticide between 1870 and 1930. Finally, I consider the lessons we can glean from these cases in terms of the relationship between society, the structure of motherhood and the crime of infanticide.

I. PATTERNS IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN INFANTICIDE

My contemporary research is compiled in a book I co-authored on infanticide, which draws on a database of 219 cases occurring between 1990 and 2000. …

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