Desperate Measures: Women on Trial for Infanticide in the Early 19th Century

Naomi Clifford.

Today’s guest is Naomi Clifford. She has been a committed historian since the age of eight, when a birthday present of a folder of reproduction documents about the slave trade fired up her imagination about individual people forgotten by history. To this day she likes nothing better than rooting out and giving voice to those whose lives have not yet been told. The child of American expats, Naomi Clifford grew up in north London, lived for a time in Nashville, Tennessee and, after her return to London, worked for TV magazines. In 2010, Naomi chanced on the true tale of an heiress abducted in 1817, and decided to return to her first love, history, and to focus on “life, love and death in the Georgian era.”

Here is her guest post about women on trial for infanticide in the early nineteenth century:

In 1805, 17-year-old Mary Morgan gave birth alone in the upstairs room of a Welsh manor house where she worked as an under-cook. Abandoned by her lover and facing immediate dismissal from her job once the baby was discovered, she cut her daughter’s throat with a penknife. But she was quickly found out, tried at the assize court at Presteigne and found guilty. The judge could have recommended mercy but feared that baby-killing was common amongst the poor and uneducated in Wales. He wept as he sentenced her but nevertheless held to his conviction that her execution would send a strong message to other young women in similar circumstances. Mary was hanged on a tree a few days later. The words on her gravestone are a testimony to the anger felt by local people at her fate.

Two gravestones were erected to the memory of Mary Morgan, who was hanged for killing her baby in 1805, the first by her supporters inviting ‘he who is without sin’ to cast the first stone and the second as a response by a friend of the judge, who was widely criticised for his lack of ‘humanity’ in failing to recommend mercy. Photos courtesy of Bill Shakespeare (

Most infanticide cases reaching the courts involved unmarried women. Until 1803 there was a law that addressed their specific situation: the 1624 Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children, which held that the mothers of illegitimate babies were automatically assumed to have murdered them unless proved otherwise. Unmarried women (servants in particular) finding themselves pregnant and alone faced not just social shame but destitution. Respectable householders would not employ them and they were automatically dismissed from their jobs. In desperation, they might keep their pregnancies secret and, when the time came, kill their newborns.

However, juries were so reluctant to convict that in 1803 the Lord Chief Justice Lord Ellenborough brought in new measures to deal with them. It was an entirely pragmatic move, an attempt to ensure that the women were given some sort of punishment rather than walk free from the courts. Out went the 1624 Act and in came a new law which treated the murder of legitimate and illegitimate infants as the same, requiring the same standards of proof. But Ellenborough also introduced a new crime: concealing the death of a child, a misdemeanour punishable by a fine or imprisonment for up to two years or a combination of both.

Both before and after the 1803 changes, judges and juries tried hard to find grounds for acquittal on murder charges. The ‘benefit of linen’ defence, the possession of baby linen or merely asking to borrow it. In 1833 Catherine Weeks gave birth in a workhouse privy and hid the dead body of her child in a nearby house, but her sister’s evidence that she had asked to borrow baby clothes was enough to acquit her. It proved she had expected a live birth. Catherine was punished with 14 days’ incarceration for concealment.

Where the woman gave birth alone, unaided and unfamiliar with the mechanics of birth, she might say that she made a mistake during the delivery, failing to catch the baby while it was being born or neglecting to tie the cord, or that she had suffered a fainting fit. In 1802 (before Ellenborough’s law), Elizabeth Harvey, who had denied to her friends that she was pregnant but who later gave birth alone in her lodging room in Tottenham, north of London, leaving her bed drenched in blood, was later seen putting the body of her child into a pond.

Judge: Might not the navel cord, not being properly attended to, of itself occasion the death of the child?

James Sheffield, assistant to a surgeon: It would undoubtedly.

Judge: I believe it is a very frequent thing for the child to die in the birth in the very act of delivery?

Sheffield: Most assuredly.

Judge: Even where a skilful practitioner attends the birth?

Sheffield: Yes.

There were no marks of violence on the baby and Elizabeth was acquitted.

A midwife or surgeon might testify that the child was premature, stillborn or too ill to survive. In 1837 Sarah Blacklock was accused of killing her six-week-old baby boy. Sarah was exonerated when her landlady testified that the baby had been ‘sickly and poorly’ and a surgeon gave evidence that the baby ‘died of convulsions’.

James Ward’s watercolor Mother and Infant, created in about 1798, shows the ideal scenario after birth, but unmarried women bearing babies often faced destitution, which drove some of them to take desperate measures. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Occasionally in the 19th century the hydrostatic test was used to prove stillbirth, even though it had long been discredited. This involved removing the lungs and plunging them into a pail of water to see if they sank (stillborn) or floated (live, because they had previously been inflated with air). As late as 1836 George Box Drayton performed this test on 18-year-old Jane Hale’s tiny baby (born at less than one kilogram), who had been found with a gash in his neck. ‘I did not perceive any air in the lungs,’ he told the Old Bailey and gave his opinion that the wound had not caused death: the child had already died. Jane was found guilty of concealment and imprisoned for two years. Sometimes, it worked the other way. In Devonport in 1832 a surgeon used the test to prove that Mary Kellaway’s baby, found with tape wound tightly around the neck, was born alive. Mary could not prove she had anticipated a live birth and, despite the jury’s pleas for mercy, was hanged.

Some courts showed a degree of understanding of postnatal mental illness. In 1800 Elizabeth Jarvis, an unmarried servant, tried to suffocate her baby boy with a cloth and hid him in a bundle in the corner of her room, where he was discovered close to death. Robert Whitfield, a surgeon, gave evidence that ‘a woman in strong labour is not always possessed of her faculties of reason’ and she was acquitted.

‘Milk fever’ was seen as a physical condition arising from childbirth and resulting in mental disturbance. In 1800 a court in York accepted that Mary Thorpe was suffering from this when she tied tape around her baby’s neck and drowned him, but her actions were deemed too premeditated to deserve mercy and she was hanged. Twenty-two years later, Ann Mountford, a poor woman in east London, decapitated her baby. The jury had no trouble identifying her as a ‘lunatic’. She was acquitted and sent to an asylum.

Hanging women for infanticide was very rare. In London, 48 prosecutions between 1800 and 1837 resulted in only two hangings. In Wales, in the hundred years from 1730, there were only three. It is possible that juries felt genuine compassion for the situation the women were in — abandoned by men who should have taken responsibility, friendless and facing possible starvation. Add to this the knowledge that, even in the best of circumstances, babies’ lives were fragile, the belief that God had designed the female body for reproduction and not for destruction on the gallows, and the feeling that the murder of a baby did not threaten the shape of society in the same way as the murder of, say, a husband. No wonder Mary Morgan’s plight touched the heart of the people of Presteigne so much that they chose a confrontational message for gravestone in her memory: they would have known that many others had committed the same crime yet avoided her horrible fate.


Women and the Gallows book cover.

In the last four decades of the Georgian era, 131 women in England and Wales went to the gallows. What were their crimes? And why, unlike most convicted felons, were they not reprieved? ‘Unfortunate Wretches’ brings new insights into their lives and the events that led to their deaths, and includes chapters on baby murders among domestic servants, counterfeiting, husband poisoning, as well as the infamous Eliza Fenning case. It also explores the stories of 131 women who were hanged in England and Wales. To learn more about the book, visit Naomi at her website, by clicking here

If you are interested in purchasing Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches, it is available from these fine book retailers:

Amazon hardback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes and Noble

Pen & Sword

To connect with Naomi Clifford, she blogs at and tweets as @naomiclifford. Her Facebook page is at




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