Mother Trauma and Infanticide Discussion (March 1997)

Query From Don Maroc 21 Mar 1997

During the 1860s Montreal was a very dangerous place to born--two of every five children born died before their first birthday. Many of the first year deaths were of infants abandoned by their mothers (and fathers).

Although I haven't yet run across any comment in contemporary printed material there must have been considerable trauma among the mothers forced to abandon their newborns. Can someone point me to studies that considered this problem?

[Editor's Note: There has been much written on infanticide, but not as much about mother's trauma and the death of infants. For 19th century western countries, I recommend starting with Lionel Rose's _The Massacre of Innocents: Infanticide in Britain, 280-2939_(Boston: Routledge and Kegan, Paul, 1986) KL]


From Bud Burkhard 21 Mar 1997

Like others, perhaps I assumed the question only expressed an interest in Montreal or more broadly Canada or even North America.

The works of Rachel Fuchs are essential for the study of these problems in France. See her _Abandoned Children_(SUNY, 1984) and _Poor and Pregnant in Paris_for nineteenth century France....Fuchs also did a study of infanticide in Paris at the Western Society for French History, and published in the Society's Proceedings (perhaps around 1991/92?). I'm currently working on a project with the provisional title, "Poverty, Pregnancy and Public Policy: Childbirth in Paris between the Wars,"...a small segment of which appears in French Historical Studies, 1993. If you wish to explore the French literature on the broad issues of childbirth, abandonment, public policy, please let me know.

From Lori Askeland 21 Mar 1997

I know some of the works in this area, but I'm not absolutely sure of their titles. James Mohr's work on abortion I believe talks about infanticide and nineteenth century "baby farms" where women would pay someone to "care" for their babies; as I recall all involved generally knew that this was really sort of a charade, and that the babies would die, but mothers were desperate.

Also, the people involved in the "free love" movement occasionally offered explanations for why women would kill their children, again this is in America, not Canada. I read one such defense on microfilm about a year ago; I'll dig out my citation if it sounds like something you're interested in. Finally I know of similar studies of how women used foster care services and children's aid societies to attempt to make it through rough times, without resorting to extreme measures--see Bruce Bellingham and I want to say Priscilla Clement. An excellent example of infanticide from the perspective of a slave mother is the Margaret Garner case which inspired Toni Morrison's _Beloved_.

From Ann Colbert 23 Mar 1997

This is a personal anecdote but might be of interest to those interested in infanticide. When I was a reporter in Indianapolis in 1967, the police chief suggested "if you really wanted to do an investigative story, look into all those dead babies found by the police in Fall Creek." When I asked about it, he indicated that the babies were killed by their mothers, that this was business as usual for the police, that it was common, etc. I talked to my editor about the possible story and was told that it wouldn't be of interest, that these babies couldn't be identified,etc.

From Andree Levesque 23 Mar 1997

May I recommend my book, Levesque, Andree _Making and Breaking the Rules: Quebec Women, 1919-1939_(McClelland & Stewart, 1994, trans. Y Klein

[Ed. note: See also Levesque's Marie-Aimee Cliche's "L'Infanticide dans la regiode quebec, 1660-1969" in _Revue d'historie de ;'Amerique francaise 44 (1) Summer 1990]

From Julie Johnson-McGrath 24 Mar 1997

Perhaps one of the reasons there have been few responses other than infanticide that the state defines child abandonment as a crime: it therefore stands to reason little evidence will exist about the experiences of women who abandoned their children, as that testimony could be used against them in a court of law. The situation is similar to that which faces historians of abortion--we really only know about the unsuccessful attempts, the ones that resulted in the injury or death of the woman, for most of the period abortion was illegal.

The only public, accessible accounts about the trauma of abandoning a child may be found in the testimony of the women who were prosecuted for infanticide--and blaming society (however justly) for one's actions is never
completely a reliable defense, particularly against a capital charge, and one that flaunts the generalized belief in the primacy of the "maternal instinct."

From Cath Denial 24 Mar 1997

While not specifically about infanticide, Joseph Dellapenna's 1979 essay, "The History of Abortion: Technology, Morality, and the Law" _University of Pittsburgh Law Review_70(1979):359-428 makes some excellent observations about the connection between abortion and infanticide in the early nineteenth century, as well as exploring the changing nature of 'reproductive crimes.'

From Judith Zelmanovitz 24 Mar 1997

For a discussion of infanticide in the 19th century Canada see Constance Backhouse's _Petticoats and Prejudices: Women and the Law in Nineteenth Century Canada_(Toronto, 1991) Chapter 4

From Annette Timm 24 Mar 1997

If you are interested in European comparisons, here are a few more that may be of interest:

A.R. Higgenbotham "Sin of the Age: Infanticide and Illegitimacy in Victorian London," _Victorian Studies_32 (1989): 319-38.

Rachel G. Fuchs and Leslie Page Moch, "Pregnant, Single, and Far From Home: Migrant Women in Nineteenth- Century Paris," _American Historical Review_95, no. 4 (1990):1007-31.

The following more general works on child and maternal welfare may have something about infanticide in them, although I haven't looked specifically for this myself.

Deborah Dework _War is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England_(N.Y., Methuen, 1987).

Denise Riley _War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and Mother_(London:Virago, 1983).

Jane Lewis _The Politics of Motherhood: Child and Maternal Welfare i England, 1900-1939_(London:Croom Helm, 1980)

Gisela Bock and Pat Thane, Eds. _Maternity and Gender Policies: Women and the Rise of the European Welfare States, 1880s -1950s_(London: Routledge, 1991).

Arthur E. Imhof, "Women, Family., and Death: Excess Mortality of Women in Child-Bearing Age in Four Communities in Nineteenth-Century Germany" in _The German Family_, ed. Richard J. Evans and W.R. Lee (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981), pp:148-174

Reinhard Spree _Health and Social Class in Imperial Germany: A Social History of Mortality, Morbidity and Inequality_ (Oxford: Berg, 1988).

From Ellen Ross 24 Mar 1997

On babies abandoned in the nineteenth century: I wrote about the mothers and babies (with sympathy for the mothers) in my book about London: _Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870-1918_. I don't think abandonment accounted for a large percentage of deaths of infants in that period and place, however, though it wasn't unknown in the least. I have some references to that chapter which could be of use, though I think most of them deal with Britain. I do like Bettina Bradbury's work.

From Andree Levesque 25 Mar 1997

I would like to respond more specifically to Julie Johnson-McGrath regarding the lack of sources on mothers' traumas of abandoning their child.

I have found a number of letters from such mothers at the hospital for unwed mothers in Montreal: Hospital de la Misericorde. Such institutions existed in most cities, Salvation Army homes, or religious homes kept by nuns, and letters may still be there, sometimes in the women's medical files.

True, judicial archives reveal only the tip of the iceberg, but testimonies in court by mothers are very revealing. Re: abortion, doctors sometimes wrote about this in the medical journals.

From Don Maroc 25 Mar 1997

Julie Johnson-McGrath, your point the the State defines child abandonment as a (capital?) crime, is well taken. I'm embarrassed to say I don't know yet how the law treated infant abandonment in Lower Canada/Canada East/Province of Quebec during the 1860s, but I will very soon. Many of the abandoned infants in Montreal at the time were dropped off at the convent of the Grey Nuns, some after the nuns opened the door, some before. Perhaps for the mothers this was a kinder, gentler manner of carrying out the abandonment, one in which the mothers' emotional scars healed a little more completely.

Thanks to all of you for the suggested readings...

From Du Plessis As 25 March 1997

I'm in no position to contribute directly to the question posed. However, I might invite scholars interested in this topic to primary material in South Africa.

Doing my own research in the Cape Archives (South Africa) I came across a small number of court cases related to mothers who killed or abandoned their babies during the 17th and 18th centuries. Sentences were harsh. But then again, it was at the early stages of White settlement in southern Africa. The Dutch were by no means merciful.

These court cases make me wonder about a possible new angle to the "colonial experience." Natives' practices were very different from the whites. Obviously it would have clashed with European (and Christian) perceptions on such related things as births, parents' responsibilities, etc. In certain cases mothers were in no position to care for their babies, or even themselves!
They had no choice but to either kill them or abandon them. I could not help but to feel extremely sorry for these mothers (and babies).

Contact the Cape Archives if you are interested in this topic. The court cases in question can be found in the CJ group (Court of Justice), dating from 1652 to round about 1779. In most instances detailed accounts are given to regard to the nature of the crime, the people involved, etc. An understanding of Dutch is essential. These materials are also available on microfiche from the Central Archives in Pretoria.

Other Suggestions:

Fuhrer, Charlotte _The Mysteries of Montreal_(Montreal, 1881)