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.


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.


  1. I wish this novel was available on kindle. It looks superb. Loved the post, Sam.

  2. Another gestapo-like function imposed upon early modern midwives in Britain was ascertaining the identity of the father of the newborn. They were the equivalent of current Child Support Division investigators, and if they failed, they faced punishments and sanctions ranging from banishment to temporary restrictions on their ability to practice. In most early modern cities, they performed other quasi-municipal functions including that of medical examiners, and often were middle class women, some with prominent husbands. At least in England and Scotland, the practice dwindled in the 17th century for a variety of socioeconomic reasons. Some writers cite the use of instruments such as the forceps,and procedures that attracted surgeons to the medical aspects of childbirth.

    1. Hi Linda - thanks for your comment!

      I'm not sure I agree with that the duty to interrogate bastard-bearers was necessarily imposed on the midwives. As you note, these are usually respectable, and would not have much patience for "loose" women who became a burden on the parish.

      You could also look at it from the mother's perspective. If the mother wanted to guarantee that the father would pay to support HIS child, the midwife was an ally.

      But there are times when the relationship was more tense, that's for sure!

  3. Dear me. Fascinating, indeed. I would like to know - is the woman in the picture dreaming about what might have happened to her, or what is going to happen to her? If a woman was spared the gallows because she was pregnant, did that mean she was hanged soon after giving birth, or had she usually escaped hanging for good?

    1. Tim,

      Great question! In theory, the woman should be executed once the child is born. In practice it appears that she was given a reprieve. I found one woman who was convicted of infanticide, plead the belly, and years later charged with ANOTHER infanticide.

      Of course only a tiny number of women plead the belly, and most then disappear from the historical record, so it's hard to know what standard practice was, of if there was one.

  4. Wow--fascinating stuff! I wish there were some more specific dates in the essay to place it more firmly in time. When did this practice begin?

  5. It's difficult to find a good set of court records for the 17th century, but I went through a fairly large county, Lancashire, for the 18th century, and there were hardly any convictions. The long reign of George II saw none, I think. Comparing cases with the coroners' records, it was clear that strong evidence from the women, led by the midwife, who testified at the time would not suffice.

    Two factors appear to have been involved in this discrepancy. One concerned the difference between the origina evidence and the trial evidence. The woman's friends would fix the evidence before trial, especially by getting together a bundle of children's clothes to show that the accused had intended to take care of the newborn.

    The other related to the trial jury, known as the petty jury. The coroners' jury consisted of men from the same and adjacent parishes. The case affected them personally, and some would know the reputation of the woman. The grand jury consisted of gentry, who weighed the coroners' reports. The petty jury, however, consisted of ordinary householders from all over the county, who had no connection with the woman, less concern for the maintenance of good order in some faraway parish, and no familiarity with the original evidence. They were, therefore, far more open to appeals to sympathy. The rhetoric of "He done me wrong," and "I was ashamed," appealed to them as mitigating explanations for concealment, as there was difficulty proving live birth.

    As for midwives, I suspect that we know too little about uinlicensed midwives, especially in large conurbations, to know how much they were involved in getting rid of bastards, either by giving/selling them to a woman who wanted to produce a suppositious birth, for one of several possible reasons, by abandoning the child on a church porch, or by destroying the newborn and hiding the body. Indeed, it may be that licensed midwives were not always averse to this. Wherever in Europe there were foundling hospitals, the infants were usually brought anonymously by midwives.

    Here we get into the problematic notion of a "black figure" of unreported cases, seen today in discussions of several types of crime but especially rape. We cannot form clear estimates of secret activities. There are 17th-century London court cases which indicate the existence of the networks required, at all levels of society, and there are 18th-century examples of coy newspaper advertisements offering discreet deliveries for the well-to-do. There are also examples of late 18th-century menmidwives such as the Hunter brothers performing secret deliveres for the aristocracy.

  6. I had no idea midwives had such wider ranging responsibilities. Thank you for sharing, Sam! And I've enjoyed learning even more from all the prior comments.

  7. I couldn't find Sam's page on midwives and the law, so I'll just add, for SR's benefit if he revisits this page, that midwives were specialists in "searching the body".

    They could be involved in cases of impotence and virginity, in connection with a marriage being annulled.

    Women faced with imminent execution might "plead the belly", staving off the gallows by claiming pregnancy, which had to be certified by midwives and matrons.

    Specifically English witchcraft beliefs involved demonic familiars, in the form of small animals, suckling from a special teat, concealed about the witch's body. This was often to be found in or around "the privities", so midwives and matrons would have to examine the woman in search of unnatural excrescences. A famous case involved witches sent from Lancaster to London, by royal command, to be examined by a team of midwives and surgeons, under the command of the royal physician and anatomist, William Harvey.

    In cases of rape, especially those involving young children, a midwife might be summoned by parents or officials to look for signs of violence and penetration. The details of this were crucial, as rape was a capital crime whereas attempted rape was not.

    In cases of ante-nuptial fornication, brought before a church court because a child was born suspiciously soon after the marriage, the midwife would testify that the child was born prematurely, on the basis of whether it had hair, fingernails, and so on.

  8. Sorry. The first sentence should read, "if SHE revisits."


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