“Driven to the Commission of This Crime”: Women and Infanticide in Baltimore, 1835–1860
Abstract

Abstract:

In 1838, Baltimore Coroner John I. Gross penned an open letter noting an “alarming increase” of infanticide in the city and pleading for a solution. In the discussion that followed, contributors voiced varied opinions regarding the motives underlying infanticide and the best means of reducing its occurrence, but were largely united in portraying the female infanticide in middle-class terms. Coroner's inquest records reveal that most of the women suspected of and arrested for infanticide throughout the antebellum period were in fact poor and often racially and socially marginalized. Infant mortality, while universally common, was particularly prevalent in working-class communities, and the process by which infant deaths were determined to be “suspicious” and worthy of investigation were biased against the poor. Yet, inquest proceedings cannot be contained within a simple narrative of social control. The poor were active participants in inquests, both as witnesses and as jurors, and they brought to the proceedings their own knowledge of the persons involved as well as their own ideas about moral economies of reproduction. Poor women accused of infanticide defended themselves (among other ways) by appropriating the middle-class narratives of seduction to disclaim their responsibility in infanticide cases and displace it onto male villains. In doing so, they attempted to garner public sympathy and undermine the justness of the proceedings against them. They did so with remarkable success, as no women were convicted of infanticide in Baltimore during the middle third of the nineteenth century.