Monday, December 3, 2012

Midwives, Infanticide, and the Law

by Sam Thomas

While we often (correctly) associate midwives with childbirth, one of the factors that makes them such compelling figures both in history and in fiction is that their responsibilities did not end at the delivery-room door. In addition to being the most important female medical practitioners, midwives were central to the maintenance of law and order, as they investigated cases, questioned suspects, and examined condemned women to ensure that no pregnant women were executed.

While midwives could become involved in any case involving women, their role was largest in cases of infanticide. When legal officials suspected that an infant had been murdered, they would essentially deputize the midwife, and let her conduct the search for the child’s body and identify the murderer.

According to Susan Topham, when the constable suspected a case of infanticide he “required [me] and other neighborhood wives…to search Mary Broughton.” Upon the discovery of a dead child in the parish of Hawksweek, the constable was given a warrant “to summon and charge several grave matrons to enquire after and search all women…that they should any way suspect to be guilty of the late private bearing of a child.” 

Unlike modern “whodunnits,” in cases of infanticide there was usually not much doubt as to the guilty party. When an infant’s body was discovered, suspicion fell upon unmarried women who had been (or were rumored to be) pregnant. The midwife would then examine the mother’s body, checking her breasts for milk and searching her ‘privities’ for signs that she’d recently given birth. In these activities, we see why midwives would need to have a certain strength of character in order to succeed. Not only did midwives have to control the delivery room, they had to unearth the community’s darkest secrets, often against stiff resistance.

The women charged with investigating a possible infanticide in Dalton, Cumberland ran into just such resistance when they attempted to search the body of a servant named Anne Nicholson. The investigators were resisted not by Nicholson, but by her mistress, Mary Holme. Initially, Holme did her best to keep her servant’s pregnancy a secret, and when word got out she attempted to prevent Nicholson’s interrogation. When parish women attempted to search Nicholson’s body, Holme “replied to them saying – Let’s see who dare be so bold as view her maids breasts without her consent.” A midwife who could not overcome this sort of resistance would not get very far in her investigations.

Once a suspect had been identified (and isolated), it then fell to the midwife to extract a confession. In some cases, suspects responded violently, as in the case of Jane Cooper. When Dorothy Lister accused Jane of being with child, “Jane called her a whore and beat her with her own hat.”

In most cases, however, the accused could do little except endure a humiliating interrogation and search of her body. What chance did a poor, unmarried woman have against a dozen or so of her powerful neighbors? We see this in the case of Mary Riley, who was questioned by the town midwife and a dozen other women who would not take “No” for an answer. After the constable arrested her, he, “carried her before the said Grace wife widow Toppan where there was a dozen more women or there abouts and they searched her bodie…” The women found signs that Mary had given birth, and they “pressed her farther and again till at last…Mary Ryley did confess that she bore a Child.”

Thus, while midwives delivered some women in labor, they delivered others to the gallows.

For more on the legal side of midwives’ work, including their role finding witches, wander over to A Bloody Good Read.


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Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery from Minotaur/St.Martin's. Want to pre-order a copy? Click here. For more on midwifery and childbirth visit his website. You can also like him on Facebook  and follow him on Twitter.