Monday, 11 June 2012

Victorian baby stranglers

He was ashamed of a foolish and imprudent passion, and strangled it as poor women do their illicit children, not on account of the crime, but of the shame, and from dread that the finger of the world should point to them.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) – Pendennis

The comment drops so casually from Thackeray’s pen. Was it relatively common for poor women to strangle their illicit children, or was it largely a Victorian urban myth circulating among Thackeray's middle class readers?

It certainly happened in earlier centuries, we know that, but how common was it by Victorian times? I suspect we never will know with any degree of assurance, yet the almost offhand nature of the comment stopped me in mid-read when I came across it.

Throughout the 19th century many new-born babies were found abandoned, usually strangled or smothered. If the mother was traced she was charged with murder and tried by a male judge and all-male jury. In a large number of cases the woman had been persuaded or tricked into sexual activity. The Courts made no attempt to trace the father, causing occasional angry outbursts by women in courtrooms.

Tip of an iceberg? I don't know, but I'm drawn back to the casual nature of Thackeray's comment. Maybe Oliver Twist was one of the lucky ones.


James Higham said...

Didn't we have this before?

Edward Spalton said...

I believe that it was also known for babies and young children to be poisoned for the insurance money. If cover had been taken for the cost of an ornate funeral, a minimal sort of service would be held. I would guess that the insurance companies would be on to this pretty quickly and insist on the pay-out being used for the purpose - which would be a disincentive.

A K Haart said...

James - not from me, I've only just finished the book.

Edward - very interesting - presumably it was a more middle class activity.

Edward Spalton said...

Not forgetting the "baby farmers"


Sam Vega said...

"In a large number of cases the woman had been persuaded or tricked into sexual activity."

If I were ever to stoop so low as to persuade a woman to have sex with me, I would have to kill myself.

A K Haart said...

Edward - the whole period sounds like a baby farm to me.

Sam - yes it's much better to be the one persuaded. Takes rather too long for me though.