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Rights and the Ambiguities of Law: Infanticide in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. South
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Rights and the Ambiguities of Law
Infanticide in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. South

In July 1867, a jury of inquest convened in Orange County, North Carolina, to investigate the death of a child recently born to a local single woman, Amy Whitted. The testimony provided at the inquest suggested a narrative familiar to many Americans who encountered infanticide throughout the nineteenth century. Whitted had initially “concealed being in the family way.” Indeed, when she was “sick”—literally in the process of giving birth—she continued to deny her pregnancy, claiming instead that she had a toothache. Whitted only confessed that she had been pregnant after the newborn’s cold corpse was discovered among her bedclothes and the messy afterbirth located on her sheets. By then, the infant was long dead. Community members called in the doctor to conduct a postmortem examination on the child’s body and a coroner to convene an inquest into its death.1

Amy Whitted’s narrative is typical of that of many women suspected of committing infanticide in the post–Civil War South. Whitted was unmarried, as were most women under investigation in relation to suspicious infant deaths. She was also African American, a “free woman of color” as she was described in the indictment, as were many of those suspected of the crime in the postemancipation period. Finally, Amy Whitted was actually indicted for infanticide and found guilty of the crime. More important, she was then punished, receiving a six-month jail term in the Orange County jail, and ordered to pay costs.2

The investigation into the death of Amy Whitted’s child, then Whitted’s indictment and subsequent confinement occurred at a time when the United States was undergoing a profound transformation. The dramatic changes inaugurated during Reconstruction reconfigured the entire nation’s legal landscape, extending a broad range of civil and political rights to African Americans, both the newly emancipated and those who had long been free. Although the legal transformations took place at both the federal and state levels, nowhere were the changes experienced more [End Page 350] profoundly than in the states of the former Confederacy. The elimination of any remaining distinctions, at least in law, between master and slave challenged the very foundations of southern identity.

The cumulative effect of the broad-ranging legal changes introduced during Reconstruction was significant erosion of the preexisting basis for white, male power throughout the South. In antebellum America, the relationship between master and slave had fulfilled this function, enabling white men to forge alliances across boundaries of class as they united around a shared belief in white male authority over all dependents, women, children, and slaves.3 Yet, in the new landscape of the Reconstruction South, African Americans could no longer be subordinated by virtue of their status as enslaved. Accordingly, white Americans—particularly in the South—sought new ways to signify difference. Within this context, legal practices in southern communities assumed particular significance as inquests and local court cases provided people with a public forum in which to assert and make visible difference.4 Drawing on legal narratives of infant death and infanticide from North Carolina, this article traces the ways white southerners used local legal practices to construct and reinforce particular ideas about racial difference within postemancipation communities. By making narratives such as Amy Whitted’s a familiar part of the post–Civil War legal landscape—by constructing the murderous mother as inherently black—white southerners tied crimes such as infanticide inextricably to race.

The racialization of infanticide—the construction of virtuous motherhood as white and deviant mothers as black—undermined the legitimacy of newly constituted African American families. By using investigations into infant death as a means of linking conceptions of motherhood to race—in making Amy Whitted’s story common, rather than singular—local communities then challenged the authority of all African Americans, not only women, to claim the same civil and political rights as white southerners. In postemancipation America, all men were theoretically equal, and all women and children equally dependent upon male heads of household. If African American families—or more specifically African American males, be they fathers, brothers, or uncles...