“Driven to the Commission of This Crime”Women and Infanticide in Baltimore, 1835–1860
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.
Poverty, Infanticide, Infants, Antebellum, Nineteenth century, Baltimore, Maryland, Murder, Child murder, Urban, Coroner, Inquests, Death, Juries, Poor women, African-American, Infant mortality
In March of 1838, the Baltimore Sun printed a letter that noted an “alarming increase” of infanticide in the city. The letter’s author, Coroner John I. Gross, had grown concerned after investigating the deaths of six infants found dead in a period of only two weeks. He attributed what he perceived as the “growing evil” of child murder to the moral judgment passed upon women who bore illegitimate children. Gross claimed that women discovered to be pregnant out of wedlock faced “the scorn of the world, and the execration of friends,” despite the fact that many were actually victims of seduction at the hands of unscrupulous men. Out of their desperation to conceal their shame, such women were “driven to the commission of [infanticide].” In order to decrease the incidence of the crime “which fills the breast of the philanthropist with the unmingled emotions of the most profound sorrow,” Gross urged his fellow citizens to be more sympathetic to such women. Gross also asked his “fellow citizens” to support the creation of a foundling asylum where women could anonymously abandon unwanted newborns, a plea that resulted in the City Council launching an investigation into the feasibility of such an institution.1
In the end, Gross’s proposal went nowhere, but it generated a report [End Page 437] from a joint committee of the City Council that is interesting for what it reveals about the prevailing and profoundly contradictory imaginings of the infanticidal woman and her motivations. Gross and his allies on the Sun’s editorial staff cast the perpetrator of infanticide as an otherwise chaste and respectable women tricked by a cunning man and then driven to madness by the certainty of social ostracism. The Trustees of the Poor and the head physician at the Alms House, on the other hand, argued in their reports to the council committee that she was a profligate, sinful woman who murdered her progeny to avoid the responsibilities of motherhood.2
Largely absent from this middle-class discourse on infanticide was attention to the role poverty played in the crime. Of all the responses to Gross’s proposal, only a single, convoluted letter to the editor of the Sun acknowledged that unstable financial situations might be a motivating factor in infanticide cases. The general absence of poverty from the discussion of infanticide is a curious one, as an examination of archival sources reveals that poverty was an important factor in nearly every stage of infant death investigations and infanticide prosecutions. The process by which infant deaths were deemed “suspicious” and thus meriting a coroner’s inquest tended to target poor women and families, and the vast majority of women indicted by inquest juries for killing their infants were unmarried working women. Many of the women who can be traced through the record were socially marginalized because of their race or their lack familiar connections within the city, and they labored in ways that could be greatly hindered by pregnancy. There was thus a disjuncture between rhetoric employed by men like Gross, which described the infanticidal woman in distinctly middle-class terms, and the realities of the types of women who were most commonly suspected of and arrested for the crime.3
Research into the stories and circumstances of such women not only provides a window into the poverty and high mortality that plagued [End Page 438] segments of Baltimore in the early republic but also exposes the ways in which the poor themselves influenced the course of investigations and navigated a criminal justice system that did not always share their interests or sentiments concerning moral economies of reproduction. Coroner’s inquests were inherently local proceedings whose juries often included men from a much broader swath of the city population than grand or trial juries. Inquest juries frequently declined to find that poor women had murdered their infants, turning instead to more mundane explanations for the death or attributing them to accident. And though the discourse on infanticide captured little of the reality of poor women’s lives, some accused women were able to take advantage of that very fact and employ it to craft narratives in which they were victims of malice rather than the perpetrators of it.4
Before examining ways in which poverty was central to infanticide cases, it is perhaps best to begin with a brief overview of the prevalence of infant mortality in Baltimore and of the means by which deaths were investigated. During the period covered by this article, Baltimore’s infant mortality rate was higher than perhaps any other time in the city’s history. One scholar has estimated that about 40,000 of the city’s children died in infancy between 1835 and 1860, and the reports of the Baltimore Board of Health suggest that children under two years of age typically accounted for between one-third and one-half of Baltimore’s total annual burials. The majority of these children died from intestinal diseases, fevers, or mosquito-borne illnesses, with a small minority dying each year from a variety of household accidents: Children came too close to candles or hearths while wearing long shifts, pulled down pots of boiling water onto themselves, ingested toxic materials, and suffocated as the result of crowded sleeping arrangements. While Baltimore’s physicians and health officials attempted to lessen infant mortality by providing advice about such topics as how to position infants in bed or improve the sanitary condition of milk facilities in the city, children dying in infancy remained something of a fact of life for much of the nineteenth century.5 [End Page 439]
Even in a climate in which infant mortality was commonplace, however, the deaths of some infants raised suspicions among neighbors, authorities, and even the families of the deceased. In these cases, the suspicious parties contacted their district coroner to examine the body. If the coroner determined upon observing the corpse that there were no obvious indications that death was caused by “accident [ . . . ] or mischance” and that there was “a strong probability or reasonable belief that the deceased came to his [or her] death by felony,” he was legally entitled to hold inquest into the cause of death. Inquests were not highly medicalized procedures in most cases; the cause of death was decided by a jury of fourteen men—usually recruited from bystanders those who were in the vicinity of a body—which made its decision based on readings of physical marks on the body and on the testimony of witnesses, neighbors, and other persons connected to the case. If a jury decided that death had been the result of foul play, it was responsible for identifying the person(s) responsible, if possible, and informally “indicting” them.6
Inquest investigations tended to be held more frequently over the bodies of infants from poor families, which is perhaps unsurprising given that poor children experienced mortality rates higher than those of their middle- and upper-class peers. Infant mortality was staggering among all classes at the time, but the living conditions of Baltimore’s laboring and impoverished populations placed them at a particular disadvantage with regard to health. Laboring populations frequently inhabited lower-lying sections of the city more prone to pooling of water and waste, which increased the prevalence of intestinal and mosquito-borne illnesses. Cramped dwellings that included boarders or extended family members—a common arrangement among laboring households—and densely inhabited neighborhoods created ideal conditions for the spread of disease. Infants and children born to poor families were also were more [End Page 440] likely to face nutritional deficiencies, illnesses resulting from truncated lying-in or nursing periods necessitated by the inability of a family to absorb the loss of the woman’s labor for any significant period of time, and decreased supervision that could lead to accident.7
Nevertheless, higher mortality rates among poor children did not account fully for discrepancies in the number of inquests performed; the processes by which coroners determined the necessity of holding inquest tended to target poor families more frequently than their wealthier counterparts. While coroners deemed deaths “suspicious” based on any number of factors specific to individual cases, by far the most significant factor that determined whether a death was investigated was the discovery of a body abandoned in a public area. Such deaths occurred frequently in Baltimore, especially in the case of infants. Between 1837 and 1860, the Sun published close to three hundred accounts of infants’ corpses being discovered in city streets, alleys, waterways, lots, and cemeteries. Coroners held inquests in all but a handful of these incidents, which, along with hundreds of similar cases that went unremarked upon by city newspapers, accounted for the vast majority of the nearly one thousand inquests performed on infants between 1835 and 1860.
In some cases, the reasoning behind the decision to hold an inquest is clear from the coroners’ descriptions of the state of the bodies. Many infant corpses discovered abandoned in public had clear marks of violence, from bruising around their throats to severe wounds to signs of mutilation. These cases resulted in inquests almost by default, as did cases which had clear indicators that someone had gone to lengths to prevent discovery of the body (e.g., including tying stones around its neck to weight it down in Jones Falls or the harbor). In other cases, postmortem desecration of bodies by hogs or other animals that roamed the city streets proved so gruesome that the press and the public demanded inquest as a form of redress.
In many other cases, however, there were few signs to suggest foul play or even callousness on the part of the person(s) who abandoned the body, and more to suggest that poverty prevented the “proper” disposal [End Page 441] of the corpse. Many bodies were not dumped carelessly; of the nearly three hundred infants referenced by the Sun, seventy were found in coffins, cigar boxes, raisin tins, or other makeshift burial containers. Many showed signs of having been wrapped, arranged, and prepared for burial, some elaborately so: A two-month-old white infant, for instance, was discovered dressed in a bonnet and muslin gown, her jaw bound shut with a white ribbon and her hands tied crossed at her chest. Other infants, both black and white, were buried with smaller touches—a pile of wood shavings to prop the head up, or a piece of muslin covering the body—that suggested sentimental attachment on the part of those who deposited them in the areas in which they were discovered.8
Moreover, a significant number of infants were discovered not lying in the streets, but buried illegally in potters’ fields or other cemeteries in the city. In the handful of cases in which there were witnesses to such burials, the observers claimed to have seen couples or groups of people gathered around the body or burial container, sometimes well-dressed and apparently performing funerary rituals. Similar evidence led even the Sun, which had initially agreed with Coroner Gross’s assertion that infanticide was rampant Baltimore, to acknowledge that many cases of infants’ bodies being left in public were likely not infanticides at all. Rather, they were simply instances in which families were too poor to afford the cost of transporting a body to the periphery of the city or to pay the fee for internment in a potter’s field (the fee was paid by the county when coroners assumed the duty of burying a body). The practice of treating a death as a potential homicide whenever a body was deposited in an unconventional manner or in a way that circumvented official channels of disposal thus tended to ensure that the deaths of poor children received greater scrutiny.9
Children of poor families were also overrepresented in the relatively [End Page 442] small number of inquests conducted on infants whose bodies were discovered in or on the premises of private dwellings in the city. Middle-and upper-class households were not exempted from death investigations; coroners held inquests over dead infants at the homes of such prominent Baltimoreans as A. S. Abell, founder and editor of the Baltimore Sun, and William George Read, lawyer and son of South Carolina Congressman Jacob Read. But in most cases—including those of Abell and Read—the infants in question had no apparent relationship to the occupants of the dwellings at which their bodies were discovered. They were most typically dumped in privies or sinks attached to the homes or abandoned on their stoops or porches (the latter presumably in the hope that the children would be found alive and taken in by families of means). It was rare that the death of a child belonging to “respectable” families fell under suspicion. This was not the case when inquests were conducted in the homes of the poor; most often, the children belonged to the family that occupied the dwelling and had died there.10
It is difficult to say with certainty why this is, as surviving inquest records did not list who summoned the coroner or why he or she saw fit to do so. However, the rare cases in which such details can be ascertained from newspapers suggest that the close quarters and general lack of privacy that characterized living arrangements in many poor neighborhoods and boarding houses may have made it more difficult for women to conceal pregnancies and births. Housemates were sometimes able to testify in detail about witnessing labor or hearing suspicious sounds emanating from the rooms of women whom they suspected of concealment and infanticide. In one case, neighbors sparked an investigation by complaining of a bad smell emanating from the house next door; in another, a boarding house-keeper discovered a body stashed in a trunk when she inspected her tenant’s room. Historian James Rice’s assertion that there was “a very thin and indistinct line between family and community” in working-class Baltimore is borne out by records associated with death investigations; residents often knew much of each other’s business, and there was seldom a shortage of people aware enough of their neighbors’ activities to summon the authorities when they believed that something was amiss.11 [End Page 443]
Negative attitudes toward the poor, especially African Americans, also played a role in ensuring that such persons were more likely to be subject to intrusive investigations than their middle-class counterparts. So-called “unworthy” poor women and black women—categories which often overlapped—were often excluded from prevailing standards of respectability and “true womanhood.” Black women in particular were thought to be more prone to criminality and less fit as mothers. Poor women’s need to support themselves by laboring—sometimes outside the home and for wages—violated idealized middle-class notions about women’s proper roles within the family and household, and their behavior toward their children was often interpreted by middle-class observers as harsh and lacking in proper maternal sentimentality. An entry in the alms-house’s medical record, for example, recounted an incident in which a woman visited the institution hoping to adopt an infant. The woman pledged to compensate any “inmate” of the almshouse who would surrender her offspring, and promised to provide the child with an excellent education and a sizable inheritance. When several women agreed to give their infants over to the woman, the doctor writing the entry interpreted their actions as unfeeling and selfish, noting with disgust: “The mothers were emulous whom should recieve the profferences (Natural affection!!!).” In light of assumptions that poor women were “unfeeling” mothers and potential criminals, death investigations were somewhat skewed. The death of an infant in a middle-class home might be regarded as a family matter, a consequence of illness, or a tragic accident. A similar death in the home of a poor or otherwise socially marginalized woman might be read as the result of carelessness, neglect, or murder.12
“Overlaying” cases serve as one of the most revealing examples of this phenomenon. Overlaying, or mechanical asphyxiation, was one of the more common causes of death listed for infants who died at homes. It was an especially common verdict in inquests conducted in the alleys running north of Fells Point. These alleys, which had racially and ethnically mixed [End Page 444] populations composed heavily of laborers and maritime tradesmen, were overrepresented in inquest proceedings. Strawberry Alley (now Dallas Street) saw twelve cases of infants, mostly of African descent, dying from “overlaying” between 1855 and 1858, and Bethel Street (or “Apple Alley”) had ten deaths from the same cause over a period of a year and a half. Baltimore juries almost always gave women the benefit of the doubt in these cases, listing deaths as accidents rather than as criminal matters. Nonetheless, coroners were typically careful to note that the death had been the fault of the mother. Many historians have argued that deaths attributed to smothering—almost always on the part of African American mothers—were probably not caused by mechanical asphyxiation at all. They were more likely caused by nutritional deficiencies (as were, in all likelihood, many cases of “teething,” a cause of death occasionally listed for infants in Baltimore’s alley cases) or by unknown causes that might in modern times be grouped under the heading of “sudden infant death syndrome” (SIDS). That such deaths were so frequently blamed on poor women is indicative of the tendency, especially on the part of the middle class, to see them as neglectful or even malicious mothers.13
Poor women were also more likely to be indicted by coroner’s juries for murdering their infants. Biographical details about women arrested for infanticide are frustratingly scant in most instances; in a few cases, even the women’s names are something of a mystery, as they are spelled significantly differently in newspaper, court, and inquest records (e.g., a woman referred to as “Minna Samuel” in a newspaper was listed as “Maria Somerville” in a criminal record; likewise, “Elizabeth Jones” was also listed as “Elizabeth Lyrock”). Even those whose names were spelled consistently from record to record could often not be identified because their names were too common or because city directories and pre-1850 census records omitted itinerant persons and nonheads of household. Yet, cases in which biographical details survive suggest that the patterns scholars have noted in eighteenth-century infanticide prosecutions persisted into the nineteenth century. Numerous historians’ analyses of infanticide prosecutions in colonial and early republic New England and the Mid-Atlantic have revealed [End Page 445] the vast majority of women charged with the crime were socially marginalized and poor, and often immigrants or women of African descent. Such women were among the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation; the least likely to have access to reliable means of aborting unwanted pregnancies, supporting an infant, or concealing their crimes.14
Many of the women arrested for infanticide in Baltimore were unmarried working women who labored in relatively low-paying occupations. Sophia Hollins, indicted for murdering her newborn in 1855, was working as a seamstress at the time of her alleged crime. Though sewing was a primarily white occupation and also one that had benefited somewhat from labor organizing in the early 1830s, Hollins was not earning enough to pay for her room at a boarding house. Several other woman labored at jobs that were equally if not more low-paying: Kitty Gowings, a young black woman accused of killing her infant by violence, and Catherine Keyser, a German immigrant accused of throwing her newborn infant into a sink, were both working as domestic servants when they allegedly committed their crimes. Henrietta Johnson, an African American woman accused of throwing her infant into a privy near Lexington Market, may have been employed as a cake seller in the market. And Hannah James, a black woman accused of killing her infant son Washington with an overdose of laudanum, may not have been paid for her labor at all, as she was listed in newspaper records as being a slave. The veracity of this claim is dubious—James was not listed as a slave in official records—but it is within the realm of possibility that James was among the thousands of bondsmen and women sent to Baltimore to hire out their labor.15 [End Page 446]
For many women who supported themselves with their labor, pregnancy could prove a significant impairment to labor and wage earning. If a woman was discovered to be with child—particularly out-of-wedlock, as all but three of the women accused of infanticide were—she could easily be let go from her employment. Pregnancy could also hinder her ability to work at physically arduous tasks like taking washing, which was a common means of earning a living for women living around the city’s waterways and for black women in particular. During a period in which many laborers lived hand-to-mouth, even a minor interruption to typical work schedules could prove devastating.16
Even if women were able to maintain their labor through pregnancy, they often had difficulties making ends meet without the support of family members or other contributors to the household economy. Many of the women arrested for infanticide lacked exactly such assistance. Accounts noting that the women in question had family members in the city were relatively rare: Three women (Rosetta White, Johanna Brautmiller, and Ann Ward) were married at the time of their crimes, and one, Ellen Ewen, a black woman arrested for giving birth to and murdering an infant, was accused of the crime by her own mother. The remainder of accused women, however, appear to have been relatively adrift and unconnected within the city. Henrietta Johnson, for example, was living at the time of her alleged crime in a dwelling located on Jews Alley just south of Lexington Market and occupied by a laborer named Moses Taylor, who had no obvious relationship to her. If she was in fact the same woman listed in city directories, she had a long history of itineracy, moving around Old Town and Fells Point a number of times over the course of a decade. A number of accused women lived with unrelated persons or in boarding houses, including Sophia Hollins, who had gotten [End Page 447] her board by telling the housekeeper that her brother from out of town would assist with her rent. If the brother existed at all, he did not follow through with his promise: Hollins was evicted from her boarding house on Chestnut Street for nonpayment, and left a dead infant in the trunk of her room when she left.17
In addition to being economically marginalized within the city, many of the women indicted by coroner’s juries and arrested for infanticide were also socially marginalized from middle-class society on the basis of their race and ethnicity. Of the sixteen women who were committed to the city jail for murdering infants, ten were listed as “col[ored],” a drastic overrepresentation considering that Baltimore’s black population composed, at its peak, about 26 percent of the total population of the city. At least two of the accused women were Germans, possibly recent immigrants.18
Surviving biographical information on accused women thus highlights the sharp contradiction between the rhetoric used by men like Coroner Gross to describe infanticidal women and the realities of life for women suspected of committing the crime. Most women who stood accused of murdering their infants would not have been considered “respectable” women; they were barred by their class and race from ever claiming the virtue that the imagined figure of the infanticidal female killed to protect. Furthermore, it is not clear that they shared middle-class notions that female chastity was paramount or that illegitimacy must necessarily be stigmatized. Instabilities resulting from shifting patterns of employment, particularly in maritime trades, made the middle-class ideal of household and family life difficult to maintain among some segments of the Baltimore population. Female-headed households were common in the working-class neighborhood of Fells Point, and particularly so among the city’s black population, which had a disproportionate number of women. Uneven sex ratios, combined with the complications arising from the mixed population of free blacks and slaves (some of whom probably moved into and out of the city according to shifts in labor demands) made marriage an impossibility for many of the city’s black [End Page 448] female residents. Perhaps as a result, many lower-class black communities placed significantly less stigma on “illegitimate” births and on female-headed households than middle-class white communities did. Thus, it is likely that most of the women who allegedly killed their infants had more to fear from the potential loss of employment than from the potential “execration” of friends and neighbors.19
That inquest proceedings and infanticide prosecutions in Baltimore disproportionately targeted the poor is unsurprising given the vast historiography surrounding crime, policing, and social control in American cities; what is more surprising, however, is that very few inquest proceedings actually resulted in women being indicted for infanticide. In cases in which corpses had been dumped in public places, which accounted for the majority of the nearly 35 percent of inquests that resulted in verdicts of deaths from violence, the lack of indictments and arrests probably resulted from the inability to identify suspects more than any other factor. But cases in which infant deaths took place inside homes and in which the identity of the parents or family members was known reveal a pattern: Inquest juries typically declined to identify foul play as a factor in the deaths. The vast majority of inquests conducted on infants who had been found dead in a home resulted in verdicts of stillbirth, accidental death (including overlaying, drowning, and strangulation), unknown causes, or, rarely, “visitation of God.” Even in cases in which juries found that death had resulted from “neglect on the part of the mother,” they often tempered their findings—and by extension kept the cases out of criminal courts—by adding “and natural causes.” All told, though coroners conducted at least 976 inquests on infants during the period covered in this article, only twenty-nine women were indicted by inquest juries for having killed their children (see Figure1).20 [End Page 449]
Even when women were indicted by inquest juries, their cases progressed in the criminal court system less than half of the time. Of the twenty-nine women who were listed in inquest or newspaper records as suspects in the death of their infants, fifteen fail to appear in jail or court records following their indictments by coroners’ juries. In most of these cases, the women in question were either not arrested following their indictments or not committed to the jail after magistrates questioned them. In two cases, this was probably due to illness. Louisa Underholtz became ill after giving birth to the newborn she allegedly murdered, and may have died from complications of labor. Rosetta White, a young mother who murdered her child, was declared insane by a coroner’s jury and presumably institutionalized. In the remaining thirteen cases, however, it appears that prosecutors simply declined to pursue charges. Between 1835 and 1860, only fifteen women appear in the jail docket on charges relating to infanticide: thirteen women indicted by coroner’s juries for murder, one charged with either kidnapping or murder of her infant, and one charged with having knowledge of the death of an infant.21
Interestingly, none of these women appear to have been convicted of murder, though some, mostly African American women, spent months in jail awaiting trial. Of the fifteen women who appear in jail records on charges of or relating to infanticide, two were examined by magistrates and released without being charged; four—among them Kitty Gowings, Hannah James, and Sophia Hollins—were released after grand juries declined to issue true bills in their cases; and one, Johanna Brautmiller, was sent to Mount Hope asylum after a grand jury concurred with the inquest jury’s ruling that she was insane. Two other women were [End Page 450] released at some unknown stage of the process, though probably before they went before the court. Of the remaining women, six stood trial in city criminal courts. Rachel Saulsbery’s case was promptly dismissed by the Baltimore City Court, and Ann Ward was found not guilty. The remaining four women were all released from jail by the order of the city court, suggesting either that their cases were dismissed or that the women were acquitted. The only known conviction for the murder of an infant in Baltimore during the period covered by this paper was that of a man, German immigrant and farmer Gustavus Struth. Struth was imprisoned in the state penitentiary for 17 years, 10 months, nearly the maximum sentence for second-degree murder, for beating his ten-month-old son to death while his wife napped.22
The low number of infanticide prosecutions and convictions in Baltimore was not atypical of the situation in other U.S. cities. Historians have argued that conviction rates for infanticide were generally low in the early republic, due in large part to legal changes occurring in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. New statutes shifted the burden of proof in infanticide cases from the defendant to the prosecutor, [End Page 451]
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and made concealment of a birth insufficient proof in and of itself that a murder had occurred. Prosecutors had instead to prove that an infant was born alive and intentionally killed, which was often a difficult standard to meet.23
Prosecutors also had to contend with a distaste on the part of both jurymen and the general populace for seeing women hanged or imprisoned for years (which was often in and of itself a death sentence given poor conditions in the penitentiary). Such distaste was even more pronounced in infanticide cases, as infant murder was crime whose horror lay mostly in its implications. With all its associations with illicit sexuality, profligacy, and libertinism, infanticide was symbolic of a breakdown in republican virtue. The women so “lost to human feeling” and motherly impulses that she could murder her child was also a deeply disturbing and anxiety-provoking figure, especially given the degree to which genteel society heavily emphasized sentimentality and womanly commitment motherhood. In a practical sense, however, most people did not regard the death of an infant as having the same consequence as the death or an adult or even that of an older child. Sentencing a woman to death or a lengthy term for such an offense struck many jurors and magistrates as unduly harsh, and, by extension, threatening to the legitimacy of a relatively young justice system. Hanging a woman for infanticide, commented several members of the Baltimore bar, would be so contrary to public sentiment as to cause the people to “detest the law.”24 [End Page 454]
That the members of the bar advocated for leniency in infanticide cases under the auspices of bowing to the sentiments of the people represented a significant shift from the rhetoric of only two decades before. Previously, critics had interpreted lenient treatment of women who committed infanticide as a failure of the government to respond to the demands of the populace. One Pennsylvanian had called the lax treatment of infanticide “a perversion of authority by gentlemen” who disregarded popular sentiment against child murderers in favor of “too great an indulgence of human feelings.” The historiography on infanticide has not given a great deal of stock to such allegations, but its strong focus on legal changes as the precipitating factor in reducing infanticide convictions has nonetheless emphasized the role that elite men played in shaping the way the crime was dealt with. Such an emphasis is not unjustified: Elite and middle-class men made the laws, acted as magistrates and attorneys, and served on grand and trial juries. But by the antebellum period, officials who wished to keep the peace had to acknowledge the “will of the people” at the local level, and both poor men and women had a role in the process of investigating suspicious infant deaths, particularly at the inquest stage.25
Poor men, for instance, often played important roles in inquest investigations, not only by acting as witnesses but by acting as jurors. Inquest jurors tended to be of more varied economic backgrounds than jurors on either grand or trial juries, probably as a result of coroners summoning men who lived near or happened to be in the area of sites in which bodies were discovered. Each inquest record listed the names of the fourteen men who served as jury in the case, and the signatures of shopkeepers and merchants frequently appear alongside the “X” marks of men whose names appear nowhere in city directories. At least some of the jurors who participated in inquests conducted in working-class or poor neighborhoods were probably residents of those neighborhoods, and some may even have known the families of the infants whose deaths were under investigation. This perhaps helps to explain why so few deaths that took place in homes were ruled to have been the result of [End Page 455] foul play. Though the foundling hospital debate and press coverage of coroners’ inquests suggest that infanticide was regarded as a somewhat widespread problem in antebellum Baltimore, it was difficult for people to believe that specific women—especially women they knew and interacted with regularly—would willfully commit such an “unnatural” crime as murdering their own children.26
Poor women also participated in inquest proceedings, though their roles are significantly obscured by the nature of record-keeping. Women were not permitted to serve as jurors, and their names never appear on inquest records save for when they were being accused of causing the death in question. But by reading between the lines of extant sources, it becomes possible to discern that women participated in inquests both as witnesses and as the people responsible for summoning the coroner. For example, in the case of Louisa Underholtz, witnesses testified to having been present at the birth of an infant that Underholtz then threw into a sink. There was no mention of a doctor attending the birth, and it would have been unusual for another man to have been present at the time. The witnesses were thus almost certainly other women who had assisted in some way in the delivery. In another case, that of Ellen Ewen, Ewen’s own mother had summoned the coroner and testified that her daughter had given birth to and disposed of an infant.
Ewen’s case is particularly interesting for what it suggests about the motives of those who called the authorities on their neighbors or family members. While it is easy to see inquests from the position of the authorities as part of a larger project of social control, it is likely that residents of poor neighborhoods viewed them differently and used them to serve their own purposes. Perhaps in some cases they were requested as a result of neighborhood grudges or other resentments known only to those closest to the situation. In others, however, they may have been called out of a desire to seek justice for the deceased infant, or even to clear the name of the accused as a means of ending gossip or speculation.27 [End Page 456]
Perhaps more significantly, however, poor women exercised agency in both inquest proceedings and trials by defending themselves against suspicion that they had murdered their infants. While historian Susan Klepp has suggested that insisting on one’s innocence was a poor strategy in Philadelphia—a woman was less likely to be convicted of infanticide if she admitted the crime and showed proper remorse—women in Baltimore seldom acknowledged their guilt in the deaths of their infants. Many admitted to giving birth to illegitimate children and even to disposing of their bodies, but they typically insisted that their infants were born dead or otherwise died through no fault of their own. When Catherine Keyser was suspected of giving birth to a live infant she subsequently threw into the sink of a dwelling on Saratoga Street, she claimed in testimony before the coroner that she had not killed the child. The jury apparently took her word over those of the witnesses against her, as it subsequently ruled the cause of death to be unknown. Other women were more creative in their explanations of how their infants ended up dead in sinks and privies. Mary Jane Johnson, an African American woman who was probably a servant to the family of the Reverend Balls at No. 7 Caroline Street, was suspected by a coroner of throwing her infant into a privy of that dwelling shortly after it had been born alive. Johnson insisted that she had not murdered the child, but rather explained, “she had been confined to whilst sitting on the seat of the privy, and the child by the fall [ . . . was] killed.” As unlikely as this story may have been, the inquest jury believed Johnson’s testimony and ruled the death an accident.28
Women augmented their claims of innocence by mounting a defense of their characters, as it was clear that sexual morality remained an issue close to the heart of infanticide prosecutions. Though the rhetoric that cast infanticidal women as women seduced from virtue and shamed socially may not have been especially relevant to their lives, at least one of the accused women nonetheless employed that same rhetoric to win sympathy for her plight and to defend herself. Sophia Hollins insisted to an inquest jury that she had not murdered the infant she left in a trunk [End Page 457] when she vacated her boarding house, but she did acknowledge that the child was hers and that it was illegitimate. She explained to the authorities that the infant had been conceived as the result of her deception by a “young man who brought this ruin upon her.” Hollins evoked the standard elements of the popular seduction narrative in explaining that the man had tricked her: The child’s father was “the son of a respectable citizen” with whom she consented to intercourse because he “promised her marriage.” When she became pregnant, however, he abandoned her and “refused to afford her any assistance.”29
The general lack of sources concerning testimony at either inquests or trials makes it difficult to determine with certainty how many other women—if any—used a similar defense. It seems unlikely, for instance, that African American women could have utilized the seduction narrative in the way that white women were able to, in large part because they were not commonly perceived by whites as possessing sexual modesty and virtue. They therefore could not, in the eyes of middle-class whites, be seduced away from it or feel the shame of its loss. However, a pardon petition submitted on behalf of a black woman convicted of infanticide in Baltimore in the 1820s, Rebecca Preston, indicates that Preston altered the elements of the narrative to fit her circumstances. Preston apparently claimed that she was “impelled to the commission [of murder of her bastard child . . . ] thro a false sense of shame.”30
Examinations of other records that detail the cases of poor women forced to explain their out-of-wedlock pregnancies or affliction with sexually transmitted infections suggest that seduction may have been a frequently employed defense. For instance, the medical records of Baltimore’s almshouse include treatment records for two young white women, Maria Gassaway and Theresa Weyman, who were suffering from sexually transmitted infections. Gassaway was infected with gonorrhea contracted while working as a prostitute. She told her doctor that she had been seduced into the occupation by a respectable married woman. Weyman had “open bealeds in each groin, chancur on both labia, condylamata & fissure” and was “advanced in pregnancy” when she was brought to the alms-house. When James H. Miller, the almshouse physician, [End Page 458] muttered that Weyman was a “poor wretch” while he examined her, Weyman responded by spinning a remarkably elaborate tale that masterfully wove together multiple elements of contemporary melodrama: lost wealth; betrayal by a woman who had pretended to be her mother; urban spaces of sexual danger; a drunken, corrupt clergyman; and a rich seducer who faked a marriage and then abandoned her at a brothel after impregnating her. Both of these accounts achieved their intended goal of winning the treating physician’s pity and, by extension, his resolve to provide them with the best possible accommodations and treatment.31
Such defenses proved effective for a number of reasons. In the most obvious sense, the narrative of seduction displaced blame for the illegitimate child and, indirectly, for its death, from the accused woman to the man who seduced her. It was he who preyed upon and deceived a young, vulnerable woman who only sought what women were supposed to: marriage. Thus, he was the villain of the story, and she—like the community that would have been forced to support her child had it lived—the victim of his treachery. Because it placed the impetus for the moral lapse on the man, the seduction narrative highlighted the injustice of the male party remaining free even as the woman he robbed of virtue was hanged or imprisoned. Writers of sentimental fiction could ensure that the villainous seducers who plotted the ruin of women would get their due, but the law often could not. By calling attention to this inequality, a woman like Sophia Hollins destabilized the notions of morality and justice upon which successful prosecution of her case relied.
Additionally, as many historians and literary scholars have noted, the seduction narrative was a common trope in part because it played upon fears that the young republic would be corrupted by selfishness, greed, and profligacy. Poor women were probably far more likely to be seduced by artisans or workingmen than upper-class libertines, but it is no coincidence that both Hollins and Weyman described the men who seduced them as wealthy and of high social status. Not only did their characterization of these men function as a cautionary tale with broader political relevance, but also as an implicit critique of the social and economic [End Page 459] inequality that made women in the city vulnerable to seducers in the first place.32
The perceived parallel between seduction and economic exploitation was revealed, for example, in the Baltimore Bank Riot of 1835. Following the collapse of the Bank of Maryland, small-scale investors, many of whom were artisans, grew angry that bank officials refused to compensate them adequately for their losses. They eventually retaliated not only by attacking the homes of bank officials and destroying their libraries and personal property, but also by attacking Joseph Bossier, “an educated and wealthy Baltimore gentleman.” Bossier was not involved with the bank, but his crime had everything to do with perceived injustices committed by the rich against poor and middling persons: Bossier had been charged with seducing a young woman in Washington, D.C. That many of the young women who appeared before jurors appeared to be victims of exploitation by opulent and profligate men may have encouraged sympathetic reactions to women who might otherwise have appeared villainous.33
A study of Baltimore’s alleged infanticide cases thus reveals the adeptness with which many poor women were able to negotiate the justice system, as well as the ways in which poor men and women alike influenced and participated in the criminal justice process. The poor faced a number of hardships in early republican Baltimore, including increased disease prevalence, higher mortality rates, and more difficulties in coping with the financial burdens that accompanied caregiving for young children. The poor were also subject to greater scrutiny from neighbors and authorities, especially when a number of factors ranging from their race to their participation in nonmarital, illicit forms of sexuality precluded them from meeting the middle-class standard of the “worthy” or “respectable” poor. Yet, in spite of the fact that investigations into suspicious deaths of poor infants often had strong overtones of social control, the poor instigated and participated in coroners’ inquests, influenced and [End Page 460] decided their outcomes, and employed them for purposes not necessarily aligned with the intent of the middle-class men who presided over them. The result was that many women were given the benefit of the doubt regarding the suspicious deaths of their infants, a practice that would continue until the postbellum period, when medical men replaced laymen coroners and the impetus for racial control ushered out an era of leniency toward women accused of killing their children. [End Page 461]
Katie Hemphill is a doctoral candidate in history at Johns Hopkins University. She wishes to thank the members of the SHEAR panel, the reviewers, and the participants in the American Seminar and Gender Workshop (especially Sara Damiano, Katie Hindmarch-Watson, David Schley, and Katherine Smoak) for their comments on alternate versions of this paper. Special gratitude goes to Mary P. Ryan and Michael P. Johnson for their astute advice and continued guidance.
1. Baltimore Sun, Mar. 23, 1838.
2. Ibid; Sun, Apr. 7, 1838; Mar. 24, 1838; Board of Health (Correspondence), William Power, Apr. 3, 1838, RG 19-1, Box 6, 1837 (633–639), 633a, Baltimore City Archives, Baltimore, MD (hereafter BCA); Board of Health (Reports), Infanticide, Report of Trustees of Alms-House, Box 8, 324, BCA; City Council (Commission Reports), 1838, Alms House, Admittance of Foundlings, RG 16, 728, BCA; City Council, First Branch (Resolutions), May 4, 1838, microfilm, BCA.
3. A Baltimorean signed only as “O.B.” argued in his or her letter to the Sun that not requiring men to support their illegitimate children until they reached three years of age incentivized infant murder. I have, however, found no evidence that this was a common practice in Baltimore at the time.
4. Sun, Apr. 7, 1838.
5. Sherry H. Olson, Baltimore: The Building of an American City (Baltimore, 1980, 1997), 90, 130; Board of Health, Reports of the Baltimore Health, RG 19, BCA. For an example of a medical obstetrics textbook with advice for postnatal care of infants, see Joseph Brevitt, The Female Medical Repository, To Which is Added a Treatise on the Primary Diseases of Infants: Adapted to the Use of the Female Practitioners and Intelligent Mothers (Baltimore, 1810).
6. The coroner was a state-appointed office, but its function could also be filled by a magistrate if necessary. Most coroners did not possess any medical training during the antebellum period, though they could and sometimes did require medical men to consult on cases. See Revised Code of the Public General Laws of the State of Maryland: With the Constitution of the State, Vol. 1, Article 19, Section 5 (Baltimore, 1879).
7. Christopher G. Boone and Ali Modarres, City and Environment (Philadelphia, 2006), 136–37; Garrett Power, “Deconstructing the Slums of Baltimore,” in From Mobtown to Charm City: New Perspectives on Baltimore’s Past, ed. Jessica Elfenbein, John R. Breihan, and Thomas L. Hollowak (Baltimore, 2002), 47–63.
8. Historian Patrick Joyce has argued that the emerging emphasis placed on the quick removal of bodies to cemeteries—the same emphasis responsible for casting “public” deaths as suspicious and in need of surveillance—had heavy class overtones: “The new governance of death represented a massive assault on the culture of the poor.” See The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London, 2003), 91. For examples of violent deaths, see Baltimore Sun, May 25, 1841; Sept. 6, 1842; July, 13, 1857. For examples of sentimental burials, see Sun, Jan. 12, 1841; Nov. 24, 1849.
9. Sun, Oct. 5, 1846; May 16, 1838. According to coroners’ financial reports, it typically cost around $2.75 to inter an infant, which would have been more than two days’ wages for many common laborers during the period.
10. Inquest Record, Female White Infant, July 20, 1845, Box 16, Folder 1185(2), BCA; Inquest Record, Female Black Child, Jan. 6, 1846, Box 12, Folder (2), BCA.
11. Sun, Aug. 27, 1857; Sept. 24, 1859; June 11, 1860; James D. Rice, “Laying Claim to Elizabeth Shoemaker: Family Violence on Baltimore’s Waterfront, 1808–1812” in Over the Threshold: Intimate Violence in Early America, ed. Christine Daniels and Michael V. Kennedy (New York, 1999), 185–201.
12. James H. Miller, Nov. 1835, Alms-House Medical Records, 1833–1837, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, MD (hereafter MdHS). Though the medical records were kept under the authority of James Miller, Alms-House physician, the entry cited here is not in Miller’s hand. The handwriting becomes noticeably shakier as the story progresses, as if the writer were growing increasingly agitated.
13. Baltimore Board of Health (Coroner’s Inquest Records), RG 19, Ser. 1, Boxes 22–27, BCA; Kenneth F. Kiple and Virginia H. Kiple, “Slave Child Mortality: Some Nutritional Answers to a Perennial Puzzle,” Journal of Social History 10 (Spring 1977), 284–309; Michael P. Johnson, “Smothered Slave Infants: Were Slave Mothers at Fault?,” The Journal of Southern History 47 (Nov. 1981), 493–520.
14. The most atypical infanticide case was that of Rosetta White, a woman who slit her children’s throats in what was deemed by the coroner’s jury to be a fit of temporary insanity. White was married to a hatter at the time of her crime, and lived comfortably enough that she was able to hire a nurse to care for her and a doctor to consult during her lying-in period. Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639–1789 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1995), 210–213. Paul A. Gilje, “Infant Abandonment in Early Nineteenth-Century New York City: Three Cases,” Signs 8 (Spring 1983), 580–90; G. S. Rowe, “Infanticide, Its Judicial Resolution, and Criminal Code Revision in Early Pennsylvania,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 135 (June 1991), 200–201. Clare A. Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender & Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730–1830 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006), 97–100.
15. Matchett’s Baltimore Director for 1837 (Baltimore, 1837), 185; Matchett’s Baltimore Director for 1842 (Baltimore, 1842), 447; Sun, June 27, 1844; Jan. 8, 1840; June 7, 1860. The jail’s criminal docket, which typically noted when a prisoner was a slave, did not list James as such. Additionally, James spent nearly six months incarcerated in the jail before the charges against her were dismissed by a grand jury—an atypical situation for slaves because long incarceration periods prevented masters from profiting from their labor. Baltimore City and County Jail (City Criminal Docket) 1853–4, Case 798, Hannah James, C2057-11, Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, MD (hereafter MdSA).
16. On the challenges associated with making ends meet in early republic Baltimore, see Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, 2009). See especially ch. 4, “A Job for a Working Woman,” 100–131. See also Randolph Rath, “Child Murder in New England,” Social Science History 25 (Spring 2001), 100–47.
17. Matchett’s Baltimore Director for 1837 (Baltimore, 1837), 185; Matchett’s Baltimore Director for 1842 (Baltimore, 1842), 447; Sun, Aug. 26, 1845; June 27, 1844; Jan. 8, 1840; Dec. 8, 1855.
18. Christopher Phillips, Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790–1860 (Urbana, IL, 1997), 15.
19. Much of the work that has included discussions of illegitimacy in black communities prior to the Civil War has focused on slave communities in rural areas. See, for example, Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York, 1999). On gender ratios in Baltimore, see Phillips, Freedom’s Port, 20, 55.
20. See, for example, Inquest Record, Female White Infant, 3 Jan., 1859, Box 27, Folder 104(2), BCA. Baltimore Board of Health (Coroner’s Inquest Records), RG 19, Ser. 1, Boxes 22–27, BCA.
21. Sun, July 30, 1853; Aug. 27, 1857; Mar. 13, 1846; BCCJ (City Criminal Docket) 1837–39, Case 1443, Elizabeth Lyrock, 17 Mar., 1838, C2057-4; (City Criminal Docket) 1839–41, Case 121, Elizabeth Glover, 21 Mar., 1849; Case 831 (exam), Ellen Ewen, 28 Oct., 1839; Case 1028, Kitty Gowings, 6 Jan. 1840, C2057-5; (City Criminal Docket) 1844–46, Case 3986, Henny Johnson, 26 June 1844; Case 3988, Susan Jones, 31 Dec. 1844; Case 5544, Frances Patterson, 21 Nov. 1845, C2057-7; (City Criminal Docket) 1848–51, Case 1813, Georgianna Gray, 28 Dec. 1849, C-2057-9; (City Criminal Docket) 1853–54, Case 798, Hannah James, 29 June, 1853; Case 3680, Maria Somerville, 14 June, 1854, C2057-11; (City Criminal Docket) 1854–55, Case 980, Ann Ward, 28 Dec., 1854, C2057-12; (City Criminal Docket) 1855–59, 6 Dec. 1850; Rachel Saulsbery, 19 Oct. 1858; Johanna Brautmiller, 22 Oct. 1858, C2057-16, all MdSA. Sun, Oct. 2, 1852; Dec. 29, 1854.
22. The practice of holding—particularly blacks—for months with no formal charges was common. In all likelihood, holding people “on exam,” as it was commonly called, was unofficial means of punishing persons who were unlikely to be prosecuted successfully. The Sun noted disdainfully that the practice “looks very much like inflicting punishment and afterwards going into an examination to see if the punishment was merited.” Sun, May 16, 1840. BCCJ (City Criminal Docket) 1837–39, Case 1443, Elizabeth Lyrock, Mar. 17,1838, C2057-4; (City Criminal Docket) 1839–41, Case 121, Elizabeth Glover, Mar. 21, 1849; Case 831 (exam), Ellen Ewen, Oct. 28, 1839; Case 1028, Kitty Gowings, Jan. 6, 1840, C2057-5; (City Criminal Docket) 1844–46, Case 3986, Henny Johnson, 26 June 1844; Case 3988, Susan Jones, Dec. 31, 1844; Case 5544, Frances Patterson, 21 Nov. 1845, C2057-7; (City Criminal Docket) 1848–51, Case 1813, Georgianna Gray, December 28, 1849, C-2057-9; (City Criminal Docket) 1853–54, Case 798, Hannah James, June 29, 1853; Case 3680, Maria Somerville, June 14, 1854, C2057-11. (City Criminal Docket) 1854–55, Case 980, Ann Ward, Dec. 28, 1854, C2057-12; (City Criminal Docket) 1855–59, Dec. 6, 1850; Rachel Saulsbery, Oct. 19, 1858; Johanna Brautmiller, Oct. 22, 1858, C2057-16, all MdSA. Sun, Oct. 2, 1852; Dec. 29, 1854; Sept. 30, 1837. MSP (Prisoner Record), 1811, 1826–1850, Entry 3083, Gustavus Struth, Oct. 20, 1837, SE65-4, Maryland Hall of Records, Annapolis, MD. Available electronically: http://www.msa.md.gov/megafile/msa/stagsere/se1/se65/000000/000004/pdf/se65-000004.pdf. Username and password required; email email@example.com to request access.
23. Peter C. Hoffer and N. E. H. Hull, Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England, 1558–1803 (New York, 1981); Rowe, “Infanticide, Its Judicial Resolution, and Criminal Code Revision in Early Pennsylvania”; Merril D. Smith, “ ‘Unnatural Mothers’: Infanticide, Motherhood, and Class in the Mid-Atlantic, 1730–1830,” in Over the Threshold: Intimate Violence in Early America, ed. Christine Daniels and Michael V. Kennedy (New York, 1999), 176–78; Douglas V. Shaw, “Infanticide in New Jersey: A Nineteenth-Century Case Study,” New Jersey History 115 (Spring/Summer 1997), 13–16, 25; Roger Lane, Violent Death in the City: Suicide, Accident, and Murder in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (Cambridge, MA, 1979), 71–74, 96–100; Susan E. Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760–1820 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2008), 226–31.
24. Governor of Maryland, Pardon Papers, S1061-24, Folder 57 (Preston), MdSA. I have found no evidence that Maryland adopted statutes similar to those passed in other states that allowed women to be tried for concealment or made infanticide a separate (and less serious) crime than murder. Thus, women convicted of concealing a birth and subsequently murdering the child would technically be guilty of first-degree murder, a capital crime.
25. The Columbian Museum; or, Universal Asylum (Philadelphia, 1793), 45. Quoted in Rowe, “Infanticide, Its Judicial Resolution, and Criminal Code Revision in Early Pennsylvania,” 229.
26. Jurymen were not paid for their service, which helps to explains why the type of cronyism and political patronage evident in coroners’ juries in other cities was not present in Baltimore.
27. Sun, “Local Matters,” Oct. 28, 1839; Aug. 27, 1857. For an example of neighbors summoning the coroner for reasons other than a desire to cast suspicion on mothers whose infants died, see Reginald Dennin Butler, “Evolution of a Rural Free Black Community: Goochland County, Virginia, 1728–1832,” PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1989.
28. Sun, “Local Matters,” June 7, 1860; Inquest Record, Black Infant, Feb. 20, 1856, Box 23, Folder 281(2), BCA.
29. Sun, “Local Matters,” 8 Dec., 1855.
30. Governor of Maryland, Pardon Papers, S1061-24, Folder 57 (Preston), MdSA.
31. Maria Gassaway, Sept. 16; Theresa Weyman, undated, Alms-House Medical Records, MdHS.
32. Cathy N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (Oxford, UK, 2004); Josephine McDonagh, Child Murder and British Culture, 1720–1900 (Cambridge, UK, 2003); Anna Clark, “The Politics of Seduction in English Popular Culture, 1748–1848,” in The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction, ed. Jean Radford (London, 1986), 47–72.
33. William R. Sutton, Journeymen for Jesus: Evangelical Artisans Confront Capitalism in Jacksonian Baltimore (University Park, PA, 1998), 179.