Friday, 4 December 2015

Infanticide in Victorian England

The Victorian period is seen by many as being the period of change. The tube had been introduced and there was a great emphasis on science and adopting new traditions. However there were dark times in this period. One was the high rate of infanticide being carried out. Infanticide is the killing of babies mainly newborns. In Victorian infanticide rates were high as it was a way of reducing the ever growing population and limiting the continuing poverty that was wrecking the streets of England.

Figure 1: A newspaper clipping of infanticide.
Finding dead babies on the street became normal during this period. The people that committed infanticide the most were the mother’s of the children. How could they kill the very person they brought into the world and were supposed to protect at all costs? Most babies that had been killed were illegitimate and the Victorians cared a great deal about social class. If anybody was found out to be a bastard they were ostracized and treated as if they were different beings altogether. If these children weren’t illegitimate, they were unwanted. Despite the growing number of orphans in Victorian England could they not have placed the babies in a home instead of murdering them and leaving them out on the street like rubbish?

Ironically most acts of infanticide were carried out by mothers that had wanted to protect their child or children and saw no other way out. As such with the case of Rebecca Smith. She killed all 8 of her children by poisoning them with arsenic in the hope of sparing them from starving to death as well as from suffering at the hands of their abusive father. There is however the question of why use such a painful way of murdering your children? Would you not want them to pass away quietly?
In the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, “The Runaway Slave At Pilgrim’s Point”, the speaker commits infanticide, “covered him up with a kerchief there,/ I covered his face in close and tight” (122-123). The slave killed her child because she did not want it being brought up in slavery. Also the child’s father is her slave owner, this child would have served as a constant reminder of the horrific way it he had been conceived and for that the speaker had to kill him. The child suffered a long death as a result of being suffocated.

Whilst some mothers had committed infanticide as a way of protecting their children, others did not. They killed their children for monetary purposes as from the middle of the Victorian period begun to introduce life insurance.
Figure 2: A Picture of Mary Ann Cotton.

Mary Ann Cotton, a woman dubbed as a “black widow” and Britain’s first serial killer, is one of those mothers. Like Rebecca Smith, Cotton used arsenic to kill her victims. She had killed all but 2 of her numerous children. It is believed that she killed her children in order to lessen the duties that she had to fulfil as a wife and mother and in order to live her life. How could she kill the children she was supposed to love and care for? Not only did she kill her children, Cotton is believed to have killed her own mother who had been sick with hepatitis and was on the verge of getting better until she suddenly died. How could you kill the very person that brought you into the world and cared for you and your children? Her number of victims is believed to be 21, including her own children and stepchildren, three husbands, a lover and her mother. At the time of her execution only 2 of her children survived her. Mary Ann had been the one in charge of all her victims when they fell sick. This resulted in her being able to administer more arsenic, but also watch them suffer from slow agonizing deaths. Would you class her as a psychopath?
Figure 3: The list of people that Mary is believed to have killed.

 It is not known when she had begun killing but her murderous streak ended in 1873. She was able to go undetected for years as the symptoms of arsenic poisoning matched with gastroenteritis. It was her greed that lead to her capture. She was hung for her crimes, but still maintained that she was innocent.

 Baby farming was a lucrative job prospect for women that did not possess many skills. A baby farmer is a woman that takes the illegitimate baby from their mother and is paid a set price. These women are then supposed to find either a foster/adoptive family for the baby or take the baby in and raise the babies themselves. This provides a great opportunity for infanticide to be carried out.

One of the most prolific baby farmers in history, as previously mentioned in “Angel Maker” blog, Amelia Dyer, dubbed the ‘Angel Maker’, murdered up to an estimated amount of 400 babies. Dyer committed infanticide for monetary means.  
Figure 4: The face of Amelia Dyer.

Dyer originally started her murderous career in Bristol but eventually moved to Reading, however her crimes spread throughout the UK. Instead of finding the babies a new home or caring for them herself, Dyer took the money and killed the babies not long after receiving them. Her method of killing them was inhumane. Similarly to the mother in “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, she would suffocate the babies, by placing tape around their necks, and dumping their bodies in the river near her house or burying them in the gardens of wherever she was lodging at the time. How can someone do that to a child let alone a newborn?

Dyer’s murderous ways ended in 1896, after a bargeman found the body of a baby in the River Thames. On the parcel the baby had been wrapped in was an address that lead back to Dyer in Reading. After arriving there the police were met with a horrific stench that was later to reveal the rotting flesh of the babies she had killed. The stench came from the kitchen and a trunk from under her bed. It was the smell alongside obvious evidence such as baby clothes and paper clippings advertising her services that lead to Dyer’s conviction.  Despite killing an unfathomable number of children Dyer was only on trial for one murder. Even though she had confessed to killing numerous newborns, Dyer’s lawyers had the audacity to plead for an insanity defence in an attempt to save her life. Surely a woman who willingly took newborns and the money given to them, to then suffocate the child and deliberately dispose of the body is not insane but a manipulator and a psychopath?  Dyer was hung at Newgate Gaol on June 10th 1896.

The rate of infanticide became so high that The Infanticide Act was made then enforced. The Act downplays murder to manslaughter so that the mothers were able to go into an asylum instead of prison as most of them were declared temporarily insane after killing the children. Is there really a difference between murder and manslaughter, a life has still been taken away involuntarily?

Works cited

BBC. Female Infanticide. 2014. Web. 30 Nov 2015.

 BBC. Infant-killing and the Victorian mother. 2003. Web. 28 Nov 2015.

Browning, Barrett Elizabeth. The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Volume II: The Runaway Slave At Pilgrim’s Point. London: Smith & Elder Co, 1890. Web. 27 Nov 2015.

Bovsun, Maria. “’Angel maker’ Amelia Dyer snuffed out the lives of an estimated 400 babies in Britain”. New York Daily News.  01 June 2013. Web. 30 Nov 2015

Vale, Alison. “Amelia Dyer: the woman who murdered 300 babies”. Independent. 22 Feb 2013. Web. 30 Nov 2015.

Webb, Simon, and Miranda Brown. Mary Ann Cotton: Victorian Serial Killer. Langley, 2012. Print.

Wilson, David. “She poisoned 21 people including her own mother, children and husbands. So why has no-one heard of Britain’s FIRST serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton?”. Daily Mail.  5 Feb 2012. Web. 28 Nov 2015.

Images cited

Figure 1: Bell, Rose. “Increasing rate of infanticide as depicted in this news clipping”. Online Image. Mother and Baby Home: Growing stigma around unmarried motherhood. 26 July 2013. 01 Dec 2015.

Figure 2:  Wilson, David. “Britain’s first serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton”. Online Image. She poisoned 21 people including her own mother, children and husbands. So why has no-one heard of Britain’s FIRST serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton?. 5 Feb 2012. Web. 01 December 2015.

Figure 3: Wilson, David. Online Image. She poisoned 21 people including her own mother, children and husbands. So why has no-one heard of Britain’s FIRST serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton?. 05 Feb 2012. Web. 01 December 2015.

Figure 4: Vale, Allison. “Amelia Dyer”. Online Image. Amelia Dyer: the woman who murdered 300 babies. 22 February 2013. Web. 01 Dec 2015.


  1. Hi Latisha,
    Infanticide is an atrocious thing to do! I had no idea just how bad it was in the Victorian era. The baby farmers that committed infanticide struck me as particularly horrifying. Killing babies for a living is such a horrible thing to do, I can’t even fathom how anyone could do it, or live with the guilt afterwards.
    Your post was most informing, thank you for enlightening me on the subject.

  2. Hey Tisha :D ,
    I have to say this really made me think, I never considered how poverty effected mother's so much that it forced them to'just killing'. It's a complex matter and the way you discussed it was both compassionate and compelling.

  3. Hello Tisha,

    Your subject choice is very interesting, it almost stirs up a morbid curiosity that most of us are not immune to.

    I loved your use of question marks as they really created an impact and made me question how I felt, especially toward the end of the blog.

    Thanks for writing such an interesting blog,