Victim or Villain?

There are a lot of tragic stories from the past that make me realise how lucky we are not to be there, but the many instances of infanticide are perhaps the most disturbing, because this crime was seen as truly evil, so generally punished with the death sentence. But many instances, the young woman doesn’t seem to know what was happening to her, and disposed of her baby out of terror at what had happened, or of fear of losing her job, which meant being sent to the workhouse, so she and the baby – if it survived – would face a life of poverty and misery, so it is generally hard to see them as anything more than victims.

Here is an account from Pig Bites Baby by Michael Connor, taken from Australia’s first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette of 1807, which is interesting as the event is from the early days of the penal colony, a place where morals were said to be lower than back home, but it is clear that some crimes strike horror into people no matter what their circumstances, and crimes against children are top of that list. The fact that the settlement had few females, hence few children, probably made things even worse for her:

“On Wednesday evening the murder of a male infant was discovered in the following manner: A young man in charge of a gentleman’s house had the day before perceived what he considered to be the shell of an egg floating in the privy; and the day following his attention was more minutely attracted by a second appearance of the same kind which induced him from mere motives of curiosity to inspect more closely into the reality of what he saw; when dreadful to relate, these appearances proved to be the little naked elbows of an unfortunate innocent, whom he naturally conjectured to have been devoted at the very moment of its birth to a short existence, by one whose duty it was to have cherished and preserved it. The little body being taken from the loathsome place of its concealment, an Inquest was summoned on Thursday morning, whose verdict was willful murder against the mother of the babe. At this very period a young woman whose name is Sermon, was at the house on a friendly visit, and in a dangerous state of illness: On her suspicion fell. Several Gentlemen of the Faculty [ie physicians] inspected the body; and declared that the child, which had every appearance of having been a fine infant, was born alive. The suspected woman was then visited by one of he Gentlemen, in whose presence she acknowledged herself the wretched parent, and made a confession of her guild; but such was her dangerous state of illness as to prevent her immediate removal to prison; wherefore it was determined that she should remain where she was until sufficiently recovered to undergo the necessary forms essential to the ends of justice.

From her incautious conduct it would scarcely be thought she had any wish to preserve her own life; the morning after her delivery, which had taken place between 7 and 8 in the evening, she rose at an early hour, and went bare headed and thinly clothed to a surgeon, from whom she received some medicine, saying she laboured under a severe dysentery. From this she contracted a cold, and was confined to a bed of anguish, in which the excruciating pangs of bodily affliction must have been slight when compared with the dreadful sensation which her mind endured from conscious guilt of the most abominable of crimes, the dread of detection, and the fear not only of the punishment, but of the infamy and detestation that must for ever accompany her memory. In this state, she continued until 2 o’clock yesterday morning; when she expired.

The remains of this depraved woman who confessed herself the murderess of the poor infant, were interred last night at the place of execution, amid the shouts and revilings of a number of spectators who expressed a regret that she had not survived to atone for her monstrous offence by a public execution. From the first institution of he colony to the present moment such a crime has never before disgraced humanity; and may so fatal and horrible a resolution never more be inspired in the female bosom.

This unhappy victim of depravity did not appear to exceed 4 or 5 and twenty years of age; she was tall, slender, and of external manners that denoted her early habits to have been contracted not among the lowest orders.”

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