Infanticide, 9th September 1674

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Original trial account of two women found guilty of committing infanticide, September 1674. (source: oldbaileyonline.org, reference number: t16740909-2, accessed 29/11/16)

Featured image: a mother murdering her infants with the help of Satan. (http://psychohistory.com/books/the-origins-of-war-in-child-abuse/chapter-9-bipolar-christianity-how-torturing-sinful-children-produced-holy-wars/,accessed 29/11/16)

Infanticide /ɪnˈfantɪsʌɪd/

[mass noun] The crime of a mother killing her child within a year of birth[1]

Origin: mid-17th century: via French from late Latin infanticidium, from Latin infant- (see infant) + -cidium (see -cide).

Two young prostitutes were found guilty of having committed infanticide in September 1674 and were sentenced to death. One threw her infant into a House of Office (an old English term for a toilet), and the other buried hers in a cellar. Both crimes were as horrible and barbarous as each other, but the most important question is why exactly these women chose to commit infanticide.

In the early modern period, infanticide was considered one of the most horrible sins a woman could commit, and it isn’t difficult to see why as how could a woman even consider wanting to kill her small bundle of joy that God has bestowed upon her? Well, the reason for this was because apparently murdering your own new-born child was considered less embarrassing than having your village know that you, an unwed woman, gave birth to a bastard. In the case of these two women, their situation was made worse as they were both young prostitutes.

Organised prostitution in early modern England was well established by the mid-sixteenth century (mainly in the London area) and whilst it was technically a legal act, it was prosecuted in practise. Prostitution was considered as a gateway into a criminal lifestyle, accompanied by the idea that “whoring is succeeded by robbery”[2]. Now, if we return to our two guilty women, we can see quite plainly from the trial account that they were both ‘Young Wenches’, who chose to ‘cover one great sin with another’. Apparently, many women who committed infanticide were prostitutes[3], due to the issue that contraception was not fully understood and of course this meant that accidents were bound to happen.

Early modern literature about prostitution and pregnancy often gave the impression that it was difficult for prostitutes to fall pregnant due to having sex so frequently and thus their wombs became unsuitable for carrying a child.[4] So, perhaps our two young prostitutes were shocked to learn that not only they had fallen pregnant, but the birth of the infants would surely hinder their profession and the only solution to the problem was to murder the infants.

[1] Definition of infanticide. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/infanticide

[2] Houston-Goudge, Sydney, Common Woman to Commodity: Changing Perceptions of Prostitution in Early Modern England, c.1450-1750. Thesis from Dalhousie University. http://dalspace.library.dal.ca/bitstream/handle/10222/14359/Houston-Goudge%2c%20Sydney%2c%20MA%2c%20HIST%2c%20December%202011.pdf?sequence=1 (accessed 03/12/16)

[3] Sharpe, J.A., Early Modern England: A Social History 1550-1760, (Arnold, second edition, 1997). pp.45

[4] Sharp, J. The Compleat Midwife’s Companion: or the art of Midwifry Improv’d (exact publishing date unknown) http://earlymodernmedicine.com/pregnancy-and-prostitution/ (accessed 03/12/16)

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One thought on “Infanticide, 9th September 1674

  1. This is an interesting take on a case that several of your class mates have also undertaken and you’ve followed through on your speculation that the two women being called ‘wenches’ definitely means they are prostitutes. That could certainly be an interpretation of the phrase ‘covered one sin by a greater’, but this could also simply refer to falling pregnant outside wedlock and then committing the crime of infanticide. But you argue a decent case for the prosecution here, and cover some interesting ground within the framework of the blog.

    A point about referencing: you could have looked up the Sharp text online at Historical Texts, and that would have given you a definite publication date. In fact, you need to give a full and proper reference to the blog post in which you found reference to the Sharpe, and not just the URL, since the whole post is about ‘prostitution and pregnancy’…

    Like

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