I am used more to writing about Victorian crime than more modern offences, and as part of my writing, I’ve often read the work of others on infanticide, and the impact of illegitimacy on women – aside from the possibility of being regarded as ‘immoral’ for having had sex outside of marriage (unlike men), women had to worry about how they would cope economically: would they be able to provide for a child? Would they be able to find and keep a job, if their employers knew they were an unmarried mother? What help was there for them if they struggled?
In Victorian times, infanticide might be the answer, the last resort, although sympathy towards such women can be sometimes detected in the decision to find them guilty of the lesser charge of concealing the birth of a child, rather than in the capital offence of infanticide; or in the increasingly common decision not to carry out the death penalty but to imprison these women instead.
Even well into the 20th century, it was not unheard of for the mother of an illegitimate child to try and kill her offspring; however, there was a more obvious sympathy towards the woman expressed by the courts, and greater time and effort made to understand why she had committed such a crime. In 1939, one case was heard in Rosyth, Fife, that was duly reported in The Scotsman.
Although the individuals involved in the case were named in press reports at the time, I’m choosing not to here, as there is a possibility that the children involved are still alive today (although the original sources are listed at the end of this post).
The case centred around a young woman who was accused of having thrown or dropped her two-year-old daughter from a train in the Inverkeithing tunnel the previous autumn, with the aim of killing her. By some miracle, the child not only survived, but was said to have survived unharmed. The advocate in the case described it as ‘very exceptional, very difficult and very sad’.
The woman was actually married, but her husband was in the navy, and so she rarely got to see him as he was posted abroad. She had had a son by the husband while he was home; but she found it increasingly difficult to cope with a young child on her own.
She was a nervous woman who worried a lot, even about small things. She needed a bit of love and attention – and in 1936, she found it with another man, although apparently only for a brief spell. This caused her more worry, however, when she found out she was pregnant – not by her absent husband, but by this brief fling. In early 1937, she gave birth to her daughter.
The husband duly found out, but stayed with his wife; however, she felt that he had never completely forgiven her for her ‘fall’, and she could therefore not forgive herself, either. In November 1938, while her husband was again away, her son became ill; she was nursing him, looking after her daughter, getting very little sleep, and she was short of money.
She wrote to her husband asking for money, and he immediately sent her a pound. As she hadn’t acknowledged receipt of it, a week later, he wrote asking whether she had received the money – she gained the impression that he was cross with her for asking for financial help.
Already struggling, she became increasingly upset, the lack of sleep causing her to lose whatever equilibrium she had had. Yet she was seen by her neighbours and family as a good mother, always ensuring that her children were fell fed and clothed.
On the evening of the train incident, she had made both her children their tea, before taking her daughter out. They got on the local train; but then she made the sudden decision to throw her child out.
There was no attempt to portray the mother as insane; however, it was recognised that on the night of the train journey, she was struggling so much from a lack of sleep and emotional problems, that she hadn’t been fully responsible for her actions.
A doctor was called as witness, who described the mitigating factors: the birth of her daughter, the ‘feeling of shame’ about her affair and its result (as in Victorian times, the birth of an illegitimate child was often viewed by authority as ‘shameful’, and mothers were almost expected to feel shamed by their actions), and her worries about her husband’s views.
The mother had thought that the little girl was coming between her and her husband; that he thought less of her as a result of her human fallibility; she was short of money and living in straitened circumstances in ‘unpleasant conditions’; she was worried about her son’s illness, and about the ‘unkindness’ she thought she saw in her husband’s latest letter.
Her action was a spontaneous one, an impulse reaction to the thoughts going round her head. As soon as she had thrown the child, she seemed to regain awareness, desperately trying to ‘recover’ her daughter.
Although she pleaded guilty at the start of her trial, her fate was determined by a group of men, of a different status to her, with little personal knowledge of the circumstances under which she laboured.
Different medical men differed in their opinions of her sanity; even the Lord Justice-Clerk and the advocate-depute, James Walker, disagreed over whether she was insane or sane, and whether she needed to be freed or made to undergo some kind of supervision – whether in an asylum or at home.
The advocate stated that ‘the case was left in a most unsatisfactory condition’. In the end, she was sentenced to three months in prison; however, after sentencing, the Lord Justice-Clerk added that ‘if the prison authorities thought that the woman’s case was one more suitable for hospital treatment than for ordinary prison treatment, they would have an entirely free hand to do what they thought right.’
And as for the little girl who was thrown out of the train, the court was told that she would be either adopted or looked after by her grandparents – she would not be returned to her mother.
So this was both a sympathetically heard case, but one that had no winners. The mother had pleaded guilty to assault with intent to murder, which should have led to a severe sentence – but she had only received three months, out of recognition for her ‘great mental distress’ at the time.
However, that sympathy did not extend to giving her the benefit of the doubt regarding the care of her daughter: she was to be removed from her parent, for good.
The Scotsman, 18 January 1939, p.8; The Scotsman, 19 January 1939, p.14; Aberdeen Press & Journal, 19 January 1939, p.7. Images, unless otherwise stated, are from the Illustrated Police News (via British Newspaper Archive) and used for general illustrative purposes.