Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology
Spring, 2002 / Summer, 2002
92 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 707
UNDERSTANDING INFANTICIDE IN CONTEXT: MOTHERS WHO KILL, 1870-1930 AND TODAY
By MICHELLE OBERMAN, DePaul University College of Law
On July 29, 1911, the Chicago Tribune reported the story of a Miss Mary
Stastch. An immigrant from Austria, Stastch was arrested in connection
with the death of her three-week-old baby, which was found behind a
residence in the city. The twenty-one-year-old mother stated that,
after leaving the county hospital with her newborn, she wandered about
Chicago for two days with the baby in her arms, seeking work. She could
find nothing to do. On the afternoon of the third day, she claimed that
the baby dropped from her arms. She grabbed the baby's bonnet string as
it fell, which then pulled tightly around the baby's neck. She felt too
weak to pick up the child immediately, and when she finally lifted it,
she found that it was dead. Too poor to bury it, Miss Stastch carried
the body to 1546 Carroll Avenue, where she abandoned it. n2
almost a decade, I have followed cases involving contemporary women in
the United States who kill their children. Infanticide in our present
society seems to be an anachronism, given our relative wealth and the
widespread options for women seeking to avoid pregnancy or parenting.
Cases like that of Miss Stastch belong to another era - one which seems
as distant to us as the yellowing photos Miss [*708] Stastch might
have carried with her from the old country. And yet, as I will explain
in the course of this essay, in many important ways, her plight remains
a contemporary one and is replicated day after day in cities and towns
across this country.
The path to
understanding the terrible crime of infanticide, both in bygone eras
and in our own, lies in examining the circumstances that shape the
lives and realities of mothers. To date, my research on infanticide has
consisted of collecting stories from the media about mothers who kill
their children, and fleshing them out as completely as possible by
tracing their resolution through subsequent news stories, and also
through the legal system. Occasionally, I have become involved in these
cases as a scholar and a lawyer. In one instance, I interviewed and
ultimately befriended a young woman accused and convicted of killing
her newborn baby. In another case, I worked on a clemency petition and
testified at a hearing on behalf of a woman serving a life sentence for
killing her young child while suffering from postpartum psychosis.
the course of time, I have identified a distinct set of patterns in
contemporary cases involving women who kill their children. In
addition, my close examination of the circumstances surrounding these
cases reveals a profound commonality that links these seemingly
unrelated crimes. Specifically, infanticide may be seen as a response
to the societal construction of and constraints on mothering.
opportunity to juxtapose this contemporary vision of infanticide with
the historical data arising out of the Chicago Homicide Database is
helpful in several ways. First, this new historical data reveals
several surprising shifts in the patterns of infanticide killings over
the course of time. Second, it helps to lend perspective and clarity to
the contemporary crime of infanticide. Finally, and most importantly,
it provides powerful support to my earlier point: historically, as well
as today, infanticide may be seen as a response to the societal
construction of and constraints on mothering.
essay begins with a brief overview of the patterned nature of
contemporary infanticide cases in the United States. I then turn to the
historical data, exploring both the striking similarities and the
marked differences discovered when comparing today's cases with
patterns of infanticide between 1870 and 1930. Finally, I consider the
lessons we can glean from these cases in terms of the relationship
between society, the structure of motherhood and the crime of
I. Patterns in Contemporary American Infanticide
My contemporary research is compiled in a book I co-authored on
infanticide, which draws on a database of 219 cases occurring between
1990 and 2000. n3 Of these cases, approximately seventeen percent
involve babies who were killed within the first twenty-four hours of
life, or "neonaticide" cases. n4 The other eighty-three percent involve
the deaths of infants any time after the first twenty-four hours of
life. I refer to these cases generically as "infanticide." I begin with
a description of neonaticide.
A. CONTEMPORARY NEONATICIDE
An extraordinary number of cases involving mothers who kill their
children occur within the first twenty-four hours of the child's birth.
In medical circles, these cases are termed "neonaticides," and the
patterns surrounding these cases are both remarkably consistent, and
also quite distinct from those surrounding the infanticide deaths of
older infants and children. n5
commit neonaticide tend to be relatively young, and the overwhelming
majority of these women are unmarried. n6 For example, although the
ages of the women involved in the thirty-seven neonaticide cases
included in our book ranged from fifteen to thirty-nine, the average
age was nineteen. n7 All but one of these cases involved unmarried
women, and the overwhelming majority of the men who fathered these
infants were completely absent from the women's lives by the time they
gave birth. n8
In addition to being
isolated from their sexual partners, these women also were isolated
from family and friends, fearing that disclosure of their pregnancy
would jeopardize their already tenuous links to their support systems.
Newspaper accounts often note the role played by fear in neonaticide
cases. These fears include concerns such as getting kicked out of their
parents' homes should their [*710] pregnancies be discovered, or
being exposed as an undocumented person. n9 Financial insecurity also
plays a role in these cases. In spite of the fact that the girls and
women who commit neonaticide reflect the full range of socio-economic
backgrounds, when one considers their personal financial resources, as
distinct from those of their families, they are invariably quite
vulnerable. n10 This factor is quite important because these women are
so convinced that having a baby will jeopardize their current living
Women and girls who commit
neonaticide tend to be exceedingly passive, and they respond to
pregnancy with a combination of denial, wishful fantasy, and terror.
n11 In short, they are paralyzed and unable to settle on a course of
action for responding to their pregnancies. Instead, when interviewed
later, they report that they spent their pregnancies living day to day,
focusing on the banal details of their lives, and hoping that the
pregnancy would simply disappear, or that someone else would notice
their condition and take charge of the situation. n12 There is a
striking absence of trusted confidants in the lives of these girls and
women, adding credence to their perception that they have few resources
or options to assist them in responding to this pregnancy. n13
equally dramatic set of patterns surrounds the circumstances that lead
to these infants' deaths. Virtually all neonaticide cases involve women
who confuse the initial stages of labor with a need to defecate. They
proceed to spend hours alone, most often on a toilet, often while
others are present in their homes. They endure the full course of labor
and delivery silently - a shocking feat given the typical noisiness of
the birthing process. n14 After delivering their babies, the women's
behavior ranges from exhaustion to panic. Many of these babies drown in
the toilet, while the woman is either passed out, recuperating from
childbirth, or in some cases, frantically cleaning the room. In some
cases, the women suffocate or strangle the baby to prevent it from
crying out. n15
[*711] Society responds
to the crime of neonaticide in a surprisingly wide variety of manners.
Despite the consistently harsh rhetoric of outrage that these cases
generate, some juries and judges are quite lenient with these
defendants. It is not unusual for those who investigate these cases to
elect not to file criminal charges, or for women convicted of
neonaticide to receive probation rather than a prison sentence. n16
Indeed, in many countries throughout the world infanticide laws specify
that no charge higher than manslaughter may be brought against these
women, and a probationary sentence, including mandatory counseling, is
the standard response to these cases. n17 On the other hand, many of
these women receive exceptionally harsh punishments and are forced to
serve lengthy sentences for their crimes. n18
a sense, the range of responses to neonaticide within the criminal
justice system might reflect, or even stem from, the polarized debate
over abortion in society at large. For those who see abortion as
murder, the crime of neonaticide may be seen as the natural product of
a culture that has embraced permissive sexual norms and legalized
abortion. n19 It may be easier for those holding these views to condemn
neonaticide in outright terms than it is for those who are supportive
of a woman's right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
views, however, can go both ways. On the one hand, those who are
pro-choice may be inclined to condemn neonaticide in as harsh a manner
as those who are anti-choice. Pro-choice advocates work hard to draw a
bright line between fetuses and children, asserting that the latter,
but not the former, are entitled to the full range of legal rights and
protections. As the prolonged debate over "partial-birth" abortions
demonstrates, any attempt to countenance the murder of born children
would undermine that dichotomy, and threaten the ideological stance, as
well as the actual coalition, of those who support legalized abortion.
[*712] On the other hand, pro-choice
individuals are, by definition, more inclined to consider the
circumstances surrounding a woman's pregnancy when weighing the moral
wrong of abortion. As such, it seems likely that they might view
neonaticide cases from the defendant's perspective, noting the factors
that gave rise to her crime and perhaps feeling some sympathy for her
Either way, it seems clear that
Americans respond to these cases in a highly charged manner, tending to
see them as isolated, horrific, and incomprehensible acts, rather than
as commonplace patterned killings, as revealed when one looks more
closely at the underlying facts. n21 What is missed in this analysis is
the extent to which neonaticide cases are indeed comprehensible. As
I've argued elsewhere:
may be seen as a "mothering" decision. Typically, these cases involve
young pregnant women, who determine, correctly or not, that they would
be completely cut off from their social support network were they to
disclose their pregnancies. More importantly, they are convinced that
they would be exiled from their families, their homes, and their
communities were they to attempt to parent their child alone. The
terrifying thought of parenting with no money, limited education, few
job options, and no one to love and care for them, surely contributes
to the panic and denial of pregnancy typically manifested by this
B. CONTEMPORARY INFANTICIDE CASES
As for the cases of infanticide occurring after the first twenty-four
hours of life, there is tremendous variation. These cases range from
the deaths of infants at the hands of mothers suffering from acute or
chronic mental illness, including such ailments as postpartum psychosis
or schizophrenia, to deaths resulting from a mother's chronic abuse or
neglect of her child. n23 Despite the great variation in [*713]
factual backgrounds behind the many cases of contemporary infanticide,
a close look at these cases reveals consistent patterns in the
circumstances surrounding these crimes.
are multiple social stressors that impact on the lives of the mothers
who commit infanticide. These women tend to be relatively young
mothers, although not as young as those who commit neonaticide, and
they are disproportionately single or involved in unstable
relationships. n24 The vast majority of these women are poor and
isolated from support systems such as extended family, church, or a
strong neighborhood or community. n25
have noted the interdependent relationship between maternal social
support and child maltreatment, showing that mothers who abuse their
children report greater isolation from family and friends, and rate the
quality of their friends' support lower than do nonabusive mothers. n26
The problems generated by maternal isolation and a lack of social
support are compounded by factors such as limited education and
underlying mental health problems. n27 Indeed, mental health issues,
including chemical dependency, are present in a significant percentage
of contemporary infanticide cases. These issues play an obvious role in
infanticide cases involving mothers suffering from chronic mental
illness or postpartum mental disorders, but they are present in other
cases as well. For instance, it is clear that the vast majority of
women in my book who purposefully killed their children were
experiencing some form of extreme emotional distress at the time of
their crimes. n28 Although many of them would not have met the legal
definition of insanity, the reports of their cases suggest that most of
them likely suffered from major depression, [*714] anxiety, and even
psychosis. n29 A full thirty-four percent of those who killed their
children in cases involving maternal neglect suffered from chemical
Mental health issues are
central to understanding not only the genesis of infanticide, but in a
curious way they are equally central to society's response to this
crime. Unlike the neonaticide cases, in which there is great variation
in the criminal charges leveled against the accused women, women who
commit infanticide are almost always charged with murder. Nonetheless,
the outcomes of these cases are remarkably varied, ranging from death
sentences in some cases to probation in others. n31 Despite this broad
spectrum of dispositions, there is a pattern underlying these outcomes.
Scholars have labeled this pattern the "mad" versus "bad" phenomenon.
n32 To the extent that she is seen as "bad" rather than "mad," a woman
convicted of killing her children is more likely to receive a harsh
sentence. For example, consider the case of Jeanne Anne Wright, who was
sentenced to four consecutive life terms in the drowning deaths of her
children, including a young baby. The New Jersey court described her
actions as occurring "over a period of several hours and after much
thought," and attributed her motive to a fear that the father of the
children might attempt to gain custody of them. n33
category of "mad" women extends far beyond cases involving confirmed
diagnoses of insanity, or even of postpartum mental disorders, and
helps to explain the relatively light sentences given to some who are
convicted of infanticide. For example, consider Susan Smith, who killed
her two sons in the fall of 1994 and then fabricated a story about an
African American kidnapper having taken them, prior to confessing to
her crime. n34 Many in the media cast her as the quintessential "bad"
woman, labeling her a "promiscuous, sexually exploitive adult ... [who]
ended her marriage to the poor boy who loved her and gambled on a rich
boy who didn't. When it all came [*715] apart she committed an act of
savagery that defies understanding." n35 However, after hearing
testimony regarding her father's suicide, the years of sexual abuse
suffered at the hands of her stepfather, her social isolation, and her
depression and anxiety, the "death-qualified " jury refused to endorse
this simplistic vision of her and instead sentenced her to life in
prison, with eligibility for parole. n36
a common sense level, it is not surprising that, to the extent that
mothers who kill their children are viewed as crazy or sick, judges,
juries, and society at large are relatively sympathetic. n37 Indeed, it
may seem self-evident that "mothers in our society simply do not kill
their children unless they are seriously disturbed individuals." n38 It
is critical to note, however, that these crimes do not occur solely
because of a mother's mental impairment. Rather they result from a
combination of the mother's vulnerable mental status and the social
isolation and other factors that shape the context in which she is
expected to parent. No less than with neonaticide cases, contemporary
infanticide cases reflect reactions to the structure of motherhood and
the constraints that this society places on mothers.
II. Mothers who Killed Their Children: Chicago, 1870-1930
When I first obtained the carefully transcribed volumes of homicides
recorded by the Chicago Police Department between the years of 1870 and
1930, I was stunned. n39 Page after page of stark descriptions of
deaths from a long-gone era left me cold. How could I, who had never
lived in that time, understand the lives and deaths of those whose
names crossed these pages? In many cases, the old police reports were
far more complete than the media accounts of infanticide that I used in
my contemporary work. They provided the name, age, and race of the
defendant and her victim. Often they noted her circumstances and her
explanation for her acts. And unlike most contemporary [*716] cases,
these reports often concluded by revealing the disposition of each
I found myself wanting to know
more about these women, their lives, and the social structures that
shaped the work and the world of mothering. In an effort to answer
these questions, I delved into the rich social history of Chicago in
this era - a history recorded in detailed scholarly works, in newspaper
articles, in appellate court cases, and even in the fiction of those
years. This work, in conjunction with my past work on infanticide,
serves as the foundation for my observations and interpretations of the
line of infanticide cases emerging from the Chicago Homicide Database.
are 185 cases in this database involving mothers who killed their
children. Just as was the case with my earlier work on infanticide,
these cases may be divided into neonaticide and infanticide. Once
classified in this manner, a stunning set of patterns emerges. First,
the neonaticide cases seem quite reminiscent of contemporary
neonaticide. They are shockingly numerous, however, and the vast
majority of the cases are unsolved. Second, among the remaining cases
of infanticide there are a large number of cases involving women who
killed their children and then committed suicide. These
homicide-suicide cases are a rarity in contemporary society, and yet
they seemed almost commonplace in this bygone era. The following
sections will describe the patterns in neonaticide and infanticide that
emerge from this rich historical record.
A. NEONATICIDE CASES: CHICAGO, 1870<MINUS>1930
Of the 185 cases in the database, a full 136 (seventy-four percent)
involved neonaticide. Of these, 115 cases were unsolved, in that the
reports note only that a newborn child's body was found but no
defendant was identified. n41 In light of all that is known about
[*717] neonaticide, it is fair to assume that the mothers of these
children were the primary parties to these homicide deaths. n42 Of
course, it is possible that the woman who killed her newborn was aided,
or even coerced in her actions, by her family and/or lover. Indeed,
some reported cases involving neonaticide are predicated upon the
argument that others were responsible for the actual killing of the
child. n43 Nonetheless, given the proximity of the infant's birth to
its death in these cases, as well as all that we know about this crime
from contemporary sources, it is fair to assume that, in the vast
majority of these unsolved cases, mothers were involved in bringing
about the deaths of their infants.
are twenty-one cases in the database in which the defendant is
identified. These cases reveal a pattern that is remarkably similar to
contemporary neonaticide cases. The defendants are unmarried women who
conceal their pregnancy from others and then deliver their babies
alone, unattended by assistants of any sort. Just as is common in
contemporary cases, the reports reveal that the babies died as a result
of drowning, smothering, or abandonment.
typical case is #2051, involving Ms. Victoria Royers. Ms. Royers was a
single woman, twenty-two years old, who confessed to having thrown her
newborn infant into a "water closet" at a downtown restaurant. Another
similar case involves Mrs. Mabel Huson, a twenty-two-year-old woman who
had been separated from her husband for two years. She confessed to
having suffocated her newborn, and to abandoning the corpse in an
alley. n44 From the little we can glean from the reports of these
cases, they are indistinguishable from contemporary cases. Both
involved women who lived alone, apparently without the support of the
men who impregnated them. They endured labor and delivery alone, and
then attempted to conceal the evidence of their pregnancies by killing
If we are truly to
understand these crimes, and the women who committed them, however, it
is critical to view them in the context of [*718] their unique place
in time. There is a wonderfully rich historical record regarding
women's lives in Chicago in this era. This body of work helps to depict
the world in which these women lived, socialized, engaged in sexual
relations, endured pregnancy, and contemplated motherhood. In short, it
enables us to understand the circumstances surrounding neonaticide in
this era. Although it is impossible to know for certain which, if any,
of the following factors played a role in any given case of
neonaticide, these various conditions most certainly shaped the
backdrop against which these crimes were played out.
1. Urban Life and Lifestyles
The years from 1870 to 1930 witnessed a tremendous influx of women wage
earners to urban centers around the United States. During this era, the
female labor force in Chicago increased from 35,600 to 407,600 (over a
1000% increase). n45 This rate was over three times as great as the
increase in the female labor force nationally. n46
newcomers included immigrants and native-born women, of both working
and middle class backgrounds. When they came to the city, many young
women lived alone. In 1900, Chicago had over 22,000 wage-earning women
living away from home. This figure represented one-fifth of all
wage-earning women in the city, and does not include women working as
domestics and boarding in employers' homes. n47
came to the cities seeking work, as well as a broader set of life
options. Women who opted not to live with families had an abundance of
boarding houses and furnished rooms from which to choose. The boarding
houses aimed to provide family-like supervision of young women's
virtue. They generally failed in this endeavor. The furnished rooms for
rent in several large districts of the city offered residents complete
freedom to come and go without supervision.
men who lived apart from family generally earned wages sufficient to
support themselves and often sufficient to support a family as well. In
contrast, employers assumed that all working women lived in families
where working males provided them with partial support. Thus, virtually
everyone agrees that women's wages during [*719] this era were
grossly inadequate and that it was all but impossible to pay room and
board out of the average woman's wage. In fact, a 1908 federal
government survey of store and factory workers found that over half of
single working women in Chicago earned less than eight dollars per
week, which was widely acknowledged as the subsistence wage. n48
Dreiser's Sister Carrie provides a vivid depiction of the impact of
these constraints on the lives of young women who migrated to Chicago.
n49 In this novel, Carrie moves to the city from rural Wisconsin,
intending to live with her married sister. An ambitious young woman,
she quickly tires of this cloistered living arrangement, and yet she is
unable to find work that would permit her to live alone and support
herself. She meets a decidedly predatory salesman, who correctly
anticipates her inability to support herself. ""These girls,' [he says]
and waved an inclusion of all shop and factory girls, "don't get
anything. Why, you can't live on it, can you?'" n50 Ultimately, he
offers to set her up in an apartment of her own, paying her rent and
buying her luxurious clothes to wear.
The role of sexuality in the lives of young, urban women in this era is
shaped in part by the realities of housing and salary arrangements.
Throughout this era, virginity remained a critical element in assessing
a woman's value, but sexual norms shifted over the course of the years
between 1870 and 1930, such that the value of a woman's sexuality was
not restricted solely to marriage. This is not to say that women became
promiscuous during this era. Instead, aside from some sexual
experimentation in the "bohemian" circles of the 1920's, sexual
activity was seen as a valuable commodity for women--as something that
might be bartered away in exchange for, say, a place to live, fine
clothes, or perhaps a promise to marry. n51
women living alone, attempting to support themselves on inadequate
salaries, used sexual activity as a means of supplementing their meager
incomes. Scholars of this era have identified dating [*720] practices
designed by young women to compensate for their financial exigencies by
providing them food, clothing, and perhaps shelter, in exchange for
giving their male partners companionship and occasional sexual favors.
It is critical to note that these women did not consider themselves
prostitutes. For example, a 1911 federal report "noted the lack of
compunction" with which women traded on their sexuality by stating,
"They simply take this means of securing more amusements, excitements,
luxuries, and indulgencies [sic] than their wages would afford them.
They are not promiscuously immoral." n52
certain outgrowth of the relaxation of norms surrounding premarital
sexuality was an increase in the incidence of unplanned pregnancies.
Although effective contraception existed in the form of condoms and
rudimentary diaphragms, access to contraception was challenging. n53
Beginning in the 1870's, federal and state laws prohibited the vending
of any contraceptive device. Many state laws prohibited physicians from
prescribing contraceptives even to married couples, and access to
prescription contraception was virtually impossible for the unmarried.
was widespread ignorance among married and unmarried women regarding
mechanisms for preventing unwanted conception. Margaret Sanger's
groundbreaking effort to spread knowledge of birth control in the
1910's and 1920's resulted in her arrest on multiple occasions. n54 Her
published collection of letters written to her by women during this era
is a testimony to women's desperate yearning to gain control over their
reproductive lives. n55
Even if women had
access to contraception, however, none of the available methods was
infallible. As a result, unplanned pregnancy was commonplace, and the
demand for access to abortion was assured.
3. Abortion and Adoption Practices
Prior to the 1870's, abortion was not a crime in the United States. n56
In the aftermath of laws that made abortion a crime, there [*721]
developed a widespread illegal abortion industry. Leslie Reagan's rich
history of that industry and of the women who sought out its services
demonstrates that abortion remained widely practiced in doctors' and
midwives' offices, and in women's homes. n57 Nonetheless, obtaining an
illegal abortion required a network of friends and relatives to locate
and pay for the operation. An abortion might cost anywhere from $ 50 to
$ 100 - a tall order for a woman living on less than $ 8 per week. n58
Additionally, illegal abortion was a high-risk procedure, and although
it is impossible to know what percentage of illegal abortions resulted
in death, it is clear that abortion was more dangerous than childbirth,
causing hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths each year. n59
determined and resourceful pregnant woman could have identified an
abortionist and borrowed the money needed to secure an illegal abortion
in Chicago. A more passive or socially isolated woman might have
desired an abortion but have been unable to locate or afford one.
Likewise, she may have been immobilized by wishful thinking about her
lover, or by the difficult tradeoff between avoiding unwanted pregnancy
and risking her life by submitting to a potentially incompetent
provider of this illegal service.
alternative resolution for an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy was to
relinquish the baby for adoption. n60 Informal adoptions seem to have
been the norm in this era, and many young women found family members or
close friends who were willing to take on the burden of another child.
n61 There are numerous barriers, however, that [*722] stop women from
placing their babies with adoptive parents, historically as well as
today. Arranging for one's baby to be adopted requires acknowledging,
both to oneself and to others, that one is pregnant, and requires that
the woman involved actively assume responsibility for and control over
her situation. n62 It requires that she sacrifice any dreams of romance
or reconciliation that she may harbor regarding this pregnancy. In
short, it requires overcoming the very impulses of shame, fear, and
irrationality by which women who commit neonaticide tend to be
4. Out-of-Wedlock Births: Stigma and Poverty
The loss of virginity, particularly if coupled with pregnancy, could
signal the demise of an unmarried young woman's hopes and plans for a
bright future. This loss was all but guaranteed if her lover abandoned
her. Bastardy laws of this era aimed to restrict child-bearing to
married couples by penalizing children who were born out of wedlock.
n63 Women, particularly white middle-class women, who bore children out
of wedlock were considered unmarriageable and [*723] were exiled to
fringes of their communities. n64 One of the neonaticide cases in the
database provides a vivid illustration of the manner in which this
backdrop might influence a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy. In
1887, a woman referred to only as Mrs. Daniel Long was arrested and
charged in the homicide death of her newborn son. The police learned
that she had been seduced and impregnated by a man who refused to marry
her. Then, when she was six months pregnant, she met and married
another man. Her new husband was oblivious to her condition. Three
months later, she gave birth to her child alone and then threw the
infant into a manure box in a failed attempt to conceal the baby from
her new husband. n65
desperation becomes comprehensible if one acknowledges the likelihood
that her new marriage would have ended once her husband learned that
she had given birth to a baby fathered by another man. The prospect of
single motherhood in this era was overwhelmingly grim. If the working
wage was insufficient to support a woman alone, it clearly was
insufficient to support a woman and her child. n66 Women who had
migrated to the city and then become pregnant might have been welcome
to return to their rural homes and families. On the other hand, it is
certain that some women left their families because of poverty or abuse
or any of a number of reasons that might make such a return
unacceptable. Even if she was willing to return, her family might be
reluctant to accept the young woman and her baby back into their home,
fearing that she would bring shame upon the household, and upon any
marriageable siblings [*724] the young woman might have left behind.
n67 Of course, women who were new immigrants to the country lacked the
option of returning to their families and were forced to manage on
If she was determined to stay
in the city, a woman working to support herself and her child would
need someone to care for her child. Daycare options were virtually
nonexistent in this era. Women, and particularly white women, were
expected to stay at home with their children. Women of color generally
relied upon family members to care for their children while they worked
low-paying jobs. The only commercial daycare available existed in the
form of the notorious "baby farms." These farms proliferated in urban
centers as places where women could pay to leave children for day, a
month, or even permanently. Unsurprisingly, these farms were associated
with exceedingly high infant mortality rates and high fees and were not
realistic daycare options for a mother seeking to ensure her child's
well-being while she worked to support the child. n68 Indeed, one of
the cases in the database involves an infant who died when her skull
was crushed. The infant had been staying at a baby farm, and the owner,
Mrs. Nellie Campbell, was arrested and charged with murder but was
ultimately acquitted in connection with the infant's death. n69
was no stable social umbrella for the poorest members of society in
this era. No federal or state government programs offered money or
access to health care for infants, children, and mothers. [*725]
There were no housing projects or food subsidies to provide shelter and
sustenance to those who could not afford it. Single women with children
had to rely on charity. n70 Given the stigma associated with sexuality
and illegitimacy, a woman who conceived and bore a child out of wedlock
was not a particularly attractive candidate for charity. n71
5. Marriage and Unwanted Pregnancy
Although the majority of neonaticide cases in the database that mention
marital status describe single mothers, it is certain that some of the
women who committed neonaticide were married. Some cases refer to the
mothers as "Mrs." but fail to mention the husband or baby's father. n72
Historically, poor married women (and men) have resorted to neonaticide
as a desperate means of limiting family size. n73 Margaret Sanger's
book, Motherhood in Bondage, is filled with letters from married women,
who wrote to her seeking advice and assistance in controlling the
number and spacing of their children. n74 These letters provide a vivid
depiction of the quiet desperation of these young mothers, married as
early as fourteen and debilitated by the toll of bearing one child
after another over the course of their lives. More often than not,
societies have been generous in their [*726] judgment of these women.
n75 Although it is impossible to tell from our database how many of the
women accused of neonaticide were married, it is interesting to note
that in the two neonaticide cases that mention married mothers, the
grand juries refused to indict. n76
B. SOCIETAL RESPONSES TO NEONATICIDE: 1870<MINUS>1930
In view of these circumstances, neonaticide may be seen as inevitable
in some small percentage of cases involving women of this era who faced
an unwanted pregnancy. The criminal justice system's response to these
women indicates a sensitivity to the various factors that contributed
to the demise of these infants, and judges and juries manifested a
consistent unwillingness to view the infants' mothers as bearing the
sole responsibility for their deaths. One scholar of infanticide in
Canada notes that "the most striking thing about these murder trials is
the tenacity with which juries persisted in acquitting women charged
with infanticide." n77 There is little reason to believe that the
circumstances surrounding Canadian infanticide cases - poor, isolated,
single women, who perceived themselves as having few options for
supporting themselves and their child--differed from those in the
United States. Indeed, Professor Lawrence Friedman suggests that "some
American cases were strikingly similar to British ones." n78 Evidence
for this proposition is the proliferation of statutes both in England
and in the States punishing the crime of concealing the birth and death
of a child. These laws provided prosecutors with an alternative route
to conviction in the many cases in which it was impossible to know
whether an infant had been born alive, and therefore whether it had
been murdered. In addition, the statutes provided judges and juries who
were inclined toward lenience against infanticide defendants with an
alternative to outright acquittal. n79
cases in the Chicago database seem to reflect the trend toward
lenience. Of the eleven cases in which a legal outcome was reported,
there was only one conviction. Ms. Elsie Sarkody, age twenty-four, was
sentenced to fourteen years in prison when her [*727] newborn infant
was found dead in a privy vault. n80 The remainder of the neonaticide
cases reporting legal dispositions indicate acquittals and grand jury
no bills. n81
My efforts to track these
Chicago cases through court documents and newspaper coverage proved
futile. However, I did undertake a search of appellate court cases
involving neonaticide from 1870 to 1930. As appeals, these cases cannot
be viewed as representative of the general treatment of neonaticide in
the courts. Nonetheless, they are interesting reflections of the
attitudes of judges and juries toward those found guilty of committing
this crime. Using searches similar to those undertaken in my
contemporary infanticide research, I identified twenty-three cases of
neonaticide arising in the United States, as reported by state
appellate courts during these years. n82
cases reflect a broad range of responses to neonaticide, with penalties
ranging from the death sentence to acquittal. Several interesting
trends may be observed in the cases. First and foremost, regardless of
the basis for the appeal, the judges seemed to be extremely interested
in and influenced by the defendant's explanations for her actions. For
instance, Emma Ellison was sentenced to life imprisonment in connection
with the killing of her newborn. n83 The state offered no testimony to
show that the child was born alive, and thus, the appeal centered on
the issue of corpus delicti. Nonetheless, the court, in reversing the
conviction, reported at length the testimony of the defendant's mother
that "she was always a nervous child, was never bright, and acted like
she did not have good sense." n84
interesting pattern in these cases is the relatively harsh treatment
accorded to men accused of killing the newborn babies that they
fathered out of wedlock. Again, the judges in these cases seem quite
moved by the circumstances surrounding the crimes. For example, the
case of Mr. West Tune of Texas involved a man accused of impregnating
his sister-in-law, and then murdering the newborn child conceived as a
result of their liaison. n85 The court found no prejudicial error in
the state's claim to the jury that "defendant had debauched the said
Bertie Jones, and made her a household [*728] drudge." n86 The court
upheld Tune's life sentence, rejecting his claim that Ms. Jones had had
another sexual partner who had equal motive to kill the baby. n87
it seems that the courts were aware, at least in some cases, that their
judgments in neonaticide cases were quite vulnerable to emotionality.
In the case against Sarah Jeffreys, the Supreme Court of North Carolina
upheld a death sentence against the defendant, who was convicted of
choking and strangling her newborn child. n88 Judge Henderson ended his
opinion by noting that:
case of Sarah Jeffreys furnishes another instance of the difference of
opinion which men will form of the same transaction, even upon the same
evidence, at difference times. She was tried a few months after the
death of her child, and whilst the prejudice ... was in full force.
Elizabeth Combs was indicted as an accomplice in the murder, and
convicted also: but the Court granted a new trial ... . This was twelve
months after the conviction of Sarah Jeffreys, when prejudice had died
away, and the whole case was examined without feeling. Upon this trial
the Court and the Jury were of opinion that the evidence scarcely
afforded a presumption of guilt in the principal, and, of course, the
accomplice was acquitted. n89
with the tendency toward lenience in these cases, the judge then noted
that the governor of North Carolina ultimately pardoned Ms. Jeffreys.
C. HOMICIDE<MINUS>SUICIDE DESCRIBED
After neonaticide, the second most common fact pattern among the
Chicago cases in which mothers killed their children were
homicide-suicides. Thirty-eight of the 185 cases of mothers who killed
during this era - a full twenty percent - involve d mothers who killed
their children and themselves. n91 In comparison to contemporary cases
in which similar homicide-suicides are exceedingly rare, this pattern
is quite surprising. Indeed, if one leaves aside the neonaticide
[*729] cases, a full eighty-four percent of mothers who killed their
children between 1875 and 1920 also committed suicide. n92
cases are strikingly similar to one another in terms of the manner of
death. Virtually all of the mothers killed themselves and their
children in their homes, by asphyxiation from the gas jets on their
stoves. In addition, the circumstances surrounding these crimes
likewise are remarkably patterned. These women typically did not kill
their husbands or their older children. n93 Instead, their acts
generally took place when their husbands and older children were away
from home. They left suicide notes in which they explained their
actions as reflections of maternal love, undertaken due to despondency
over abandonment, impoverishment, and/or ill health. For example, in
1918 Mrs. Mary Panzella killed herself and three of her five children
(ages four, three, and eighteen months) after her husband abandoned her
and moved to New York with another woman. n94 Newspaper accounts
indicate that, since her husband's departure, she had been dependent
upon her father-in-law for support, and that she had spoken to
neighbors about her intention to take her life. She had twenty-seven
cents in her purse when police discovered the bodies. n95
also killed their children during this era, and the database reveals
numerous cases in which this occurred. There are forty-four cases in
the database involving fathers who killed their children. Like the
mothers, the fathers often killed themselves - twenty-five percent of
these cases involving fathers were homicide-suicide, in addition to two
cases of attempted homicide-suicide. n96 One distinction is that in
sixteen percent of the cases involving fathers who killed, the fathers
killed the mothers as well as the children. n97 None of the mothers who
killed their children killed or even attempted to kill their husbands.
A final distinction is the presence of physical abuse and violence in
the deaths of children at their fathers' hands. In many of these cases,
the [*730] children's deaths were clearly the unintended result of
the fathers' sudden violent outbursts. n98
was the case with neonaticide, the rich historical record from this era
helps to provide a backdrop against which we might understand these
crimes. In large part, these desperate acts may emerge as
comprehensible in view of the fact that, during this era, there was no
social safety net for women and children. There was no
government-subsidized food, housing, clothing, or heating available to
shelter vulnerable families in times of need. Until the 1820's,
disorderly "outdoor relief" funds for the poor were provided in
communities; these were all but extinguished with reforms and the
passage of begging laws. Progressive reformers pushed for mothers' aid
laws, first passed in 1910 by Illinois, and followed by other states.
These pensions, aimed particularly at widows, were meager,
stigmatizing, and strictly provisional on how closely the mother could
conform to white, native-born standards of housekeeping and parenting.
n99 Permanent federal welfare programs did not begin until the 1930's,
as part of the Social Security Act, and even then were targeted toward
men who were retired or out of work. Aid to Dependent Children (ADC)
was part of the 1935 Act, which was designed to assist children who
experienced the death, absence, or incapacity of a parent or guardian.
n100 Similarly, there was no subsidized access to health care for
adults or for children. Private health insurance did not come into
existence until 1927 and was not widely available until several decades
later. n101 Moreover, from its inception, private insurance was offered
as an employee benefit, rather than a government entitlement, and as
such, did little to help mothers and children who did not participate
in the full-time workforce.
inadequacy of women's wages, as well as the absence of reliable daycare
options, it is easy to see how a family might be completely devastated
as a result of the death or departure of the male breadwinner. The
added stress that illness brings to this equation, whether in the
mother or in one of her children, is readily apparent. As a result,
widows and abandoned wives often relied upon charity [*731] from
their families or from private sources in order to support their
Although private charities
were aware of these vulnerabilities among households headed by women,
the "assistance" they offered was remarkably punitive in nature. Formed
in the 1880's, the Private Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Children essentially were the forerunners of state departments of
family services. n103 Wealthy society matrons and gentlemen who were
horrified by conditions of poverty ran these societies. In large part,
their interventions consisted of deciding whether to remove children to
orphanages or permit them to remain at home with a "warning" to the
mother that, if her circumstances did not improve, the children would
be taken from her. Even though the early decades of the Twentieth
Century witnessed an increased professionalization of the child welfare
movement by the development of professional social workers, the
agencies continued to offer little support for poor mothers and their
children outside of the threatened loss of custody.
course, the vast majority of mothers who found themselves in these
desperate circumstances found ways to survive. They became employed,
they borrowed money, they identified friends and relatives to care for
their preschool-aged children, and they salvaged clothing and food from
others' castoffs. Only the most vulnerable and the most despondent
chose homicide and suicide as a way out. Their depression, anxiety, and
desperation - seemingly rational responses to their
circumstances-&mi nus;might nonetheless have been alleviated had
they had access to mental health services. But there were no such
services available to non-wealthy women of that era. This is somewhat
ironic, in light of the outpouring of concern over women's fragile
mental health among the upper classes. Particularly in the early
decades of the Twentieth Century, depression was widely diagnosed among
socially elite women, who often were ordered to undergo a "rest cure."
D. SOCIETAL RESPONSES TO HOMICIDE<MINUS>SUICIDES
Although cases of homicide-suicide committed by mothers were relatively
common among cases involving women who killed their children during
this era, they nonetheless shocked and upset Chicago society. The
stories received front-page coverage in the local papers, and the
articles tended to place direct blame on the husband, where relevant,
and on mental health issues, where not. For example, the headline of
the Chicago Tribune's coverage of the 1918 homicide-suicide involving
Mrs. Josie Panzella reads: "Four Lives Pay for his Love of "Other
Woman,' Wife and 3 Children Won't Bother Errant Father Any More." n105
Likewise, the coverage of Mrs. Catherine Fisher's homicide-suicide, in
which she killed her two sons, leads with a description of the suicide
note, in which she stated that she "couldn't find enjoyment in
anything." n106 The brief article goes on to note that Mrs. Fisher had
been despondent over a lingering illness, and that she had been without
sleep for three weeks. n107
Among the five
cases in the Chicago database in which the mothers succeeded in killing
their children but survived their suicide attempts, there were no
convictions. Instead, the mothers were viewed as mentally ill and
generally were sent to insane asylums for treatment. In the one case in
which a surviving defendant was presented to the grand jury for
indictment, the jury returned a no bill. n108 Indeed, my search of
appellate cases nationwide during this era failed to identify a single
case involving the conviction of a mother who killed her children in a
failed attempt at homicide-suicide. In light of the consistent
inclination to view these women's actions as the product of desperation
and mental illness rather than depravity and evil, I believe this
society would have found the contemporary criminal justice system's
tendency to prosecute, convict, and incarcerate these women cruel and
unjust. n109 Indeed, I suspect they would have found [*733] utterly
incomprehensible present endeavors to seek the ultimate penalty of
death against these women. n110
III. Comparisons and Lingering Questions
Judging from the little evidence we have about the nature of
infanticide between 1870 and 1930, the crime seems to be remarkably
patterned. Ironically, from what I have been able to glean from the
newspaper coverage of these cases, as well as from the appellate cases,
these patterns largely went unrecognized, just as they do today. No one
seemed to notice that an extraordinary number of cases involving women
who killed themselves and their children occurred among women of
limited resources who were left alone to manage their families. The
consistent fact patterns surrounding neonaticide cases, which accounted
for a much higher proportion of all infanticides in this era than they
do today, likewise escaped notice. Professor Jeffrey Adler's study of
homicide in this era demonstrates that "policemen desperately tried to
avoid broaching the subject [of neonaticide]." In spite of the high
number of newborn corpses discovered by policemen every year, the total
number of neonaticide cases acknowledged by police in the first decade
of the Twentieth Century numbered thirteen. n111
of the biggest differences between the patterns in the historical
versus the contemporary cases of infanticide is the relatively small
number of homicide-suicides that occur in contemporary society. In any
given year, we have maybe a handful of similar cases around the
country. n112 What has changed, or perhaps, what are we [*734] doing
right? From what we know about the circumstances surrounding these
historical cases, it is clear that these mothers did not kill their
children out of impatience or malice. Instead, in their profound
depression they became convinced that death was the best solution for
themselves, and was the only way to protect their children. This
motivation is not terribly distinct from that involved in contemporary
cases. Nonetheless, I believe that today many mothers who have similar
feelings are less likely to kill themselves or their children. Instead,
they are able to get services and support from the many social and
governmental agencies that exist specifically to address these
problems. In addition to the federal assistance available to single
mothers and children, daycare is widely available, as are a variety of
mental health services. n113
major distinction between the historical and the contemporary cases
involves the relative paucity among the historical cases of
infanticides involving mothers (and fathers) abusing, neglecting, and
intentionally killing their children. Although these cases constitute
the majority of contemporary infanticide cases, the database revealed
that only twelve of the 185 cases, or six percent, followed this
pattern. n114 It is quite possible that the actual numbers of this sort
of infanticide would have been higher if counted by today's standards.
In previous eras, there may have been a tendency to misdiagnose or
underreport child abuse or neglect, such that a case in which a child
died while bathing without supervision, or due to a parent's
overzealous beating, might have been viewed as a tragic accident rather
than a criminal act. Today, we frequently charge mothers with homicide
in the accidental deaths of their children. n115
search of appellate cases from 1870 to 1930 identified several
instances of abuse and neglect-related infanticide. For instance, in Ex
parte O'Connor, Mr. O'Connor, his wife, and his wife's sister were
accused of infanticide in the starvation death of the sister's baby.
Mr. O'Connor had impregnated his wife's sister, and, once the baby was
born, Mrs. O'Connor and her sister attempted to feed the baby on goat's
milk, and then to relinquish the baby to a nurse. The baby died from
malnutrition and the three were charged with murder. n116 [*735] A
second case involved a fifteen-year-old girl, who was sent to live with
her aunt when she became pregnant. After she gave birth, her mother
sent her packets of powder, which the mother told her would help the
baby to nurse. The defendant testified that she knew the packets were
poison, because her mother had repeatedly urged her to kill the child.
The defendant fed the powder to her child, and the baby died at twelve
days from poisoning. In an opinion rife with racist and sexist
references to the defendant, who was African-American and unmarried,
the court affirmed her life sentence for first-degree murder. n117
is also quite possible that there has been an actual increase of
infanticide cases in contemporary society due to the increased
incidence of maternal substance abuse, as well as to a possible
increase in child abuse, generally. Substance abuse seems to be a
contributing factor in many contemporary infanticide cases, as
addiction, by definition, renders a parent both less attuned to and
less able to respond to her child's needs. n118 Indeed, as many as
fifty percent of all child abuse and neglect cases referred to juvenile
court involve allegations of parental substance abuse. n119 There is
considerable debate about whether the growing number of child abuse
victims today reflects an actual rise in child abuse, or simply an
increase in the frequency with which child abuse is reported. n120 As
such, it is difficult to know whether we can attribute the greater
number of abuse-related infanticides to an overall increase in violence
Both historically and today, patterns in infanticide are obscured by
the societal inclination to respond to tragic events by identifying a
single, blameworthy individual. This leaves little room in which to
question the manner in which society's structural underpinnings
contribute to the persistence of the crime of infanticide. Nonetheless,
when one examines these cases as a whole, rather than as isolated
occurrences, they form a backdrop against which we can readily
understand what seems, at first blush, to be an incomprehensible act.
Let us return for a moment to the case of Miss Mary Stastch, set out in
the introduction to this article. She emerged from county hospital
alone, an immigrant, and apparently unaccompanied by her baby's father.
She would have been desperately in need of food, clothing, shelter, and
money. She could have sought out private charities to help her, but
many of them would have refused her if her child were illegitimate. In
1911, the year of this incident, Illinois enacted Mothers' Pension
laws. n121 However, at this early time, they offered support
exclusively to widows. n122 Had she been able to prove that she was a
widow, she still would have had to meet a stringent set of guidelines
in order to qualify for the relatively meager assistance provided under
these laws. These requirements included taking English classes,
learning to cook American food, and conforming to the standards of
white, middle-class, native born women in the areas of housekeeping and
mothering. n123 In short, she would have had to prove herself "worthy"
of the aid.
Nor did her society readily
embrace the offspring of women who needed to work in order to support
themselves. In addition to being exceedingly hazardous to the health of
young infants, most daycare centers refused to accept "illegitimate"
children. n124 For example, in 1889, the Chicago Orphan Asylum's
official policy was that it did not accept illegitimate babies under
two years old. n125 Even orphanages were loath to accept children of
unmarried women. n126 If she had found an orphanage willing to house
her child until she could support it on her own, there was no guarantee
that she would be able to get her baby back. Babies frequently were
"placed out" or indentured, leaving the returning mothers without
Miss Stastch's story of the baby
strangling herself on her bonnet in an accidental fall from her arms is
incredible, to be sure. Seen against the backdrop of her society,
however, the baby's death was scarcely an accident. Indeed, it was all
but inevitable that harm would befall that child.
know relatively little about actual women who have killed their
children. We cannot estimate the psychic legacy of neonaticide [*737]
for the woman who conceals her pregnancy, labors alone in complete
silence, and then abandons her newborn to die. In spite of their cruel
outcome, the acts of the women involved in these cases betray a
profound ambivalence about the babies they carried. The failure of
these women to resolve on a course of action during their pregnancies
speaks volumes about the potential their fetuses represented both for
their mothers' undoing, but also for joy and unconditional love.
Similarly, the women who killed their children in homicide-suicides
were ambivalent about their actions, and often saw themselves as acting
out of maternal love. Rather than killing through violence, these women
tended to bathe and dress their babies in their best clothes, left
detailed instructions about their burials, and then cradled their
children gently while awaiting their deaths. n127 Even some
contemporary infanticide cases demonstrate that infanticide can be a
"mothering" decision. Nineteen-year-old Guinevere Garcia, for example,
killed her two-year-old daughter rather than send her back to live with
her uncle, who had repeatedly raped and molested both herself and her
mother when they were children. n128 Again, we cannot know the
psychological consequences for those women who survive after killing
their children, but it is surely inaccurate to depict them as demons
who greedily killed their children in order to secure a broader set of
life options for themselves.
is not a random, unpredictable crime. Instead, it is deeply imbedded
in, and responsive to, the societies in which it occurs. The historical
homicide cases provide further evidence of the fact that the crime of
infanticide is committed by mothers who cannot parent their child under
the circumstances dictated by their unique position in place and time.
As we have seen, these circumstances vary, but the extent to which
infanticide is a reflection of the norms governing motherhood is a
constant that links these seemingly disparate crimes.
C.C. Carstens, Fate of Children Born Out of Wedlock, New Boston, Oct.,
1911, at 211, quoted in W.H. Slingerland, Child Placing in Families 166
n2. Abandoned Baby's Body Found: Mother Arrested, Chi. Trib., July 29, 1911, at 3.
See Cheryl Meyer & Michelle Oberman, Mothers Who Kill Their
Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms from Susan Smith to the "Prom
Mom" (2001). A more comprehensive look at the legal system's approach
to contemporary infanticide cases appears in Michelle Oberman, Mothers
Who Kill: Coming to Terms with Modern American Infanticide, 34 Am.
Crim. L. Rev. 1 (1996).
n4. Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 38.
See Philip Resnick, Murder of the Newborn: A Psychiatric Review of
Neonaticide, 126 Am. J. Psychiatry 1414 (1970) (coining the term
n6. See Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 41-50 (summarizing current research).
n7. Id. at 47-48.
n8. Id. at 48.
n9. Id. at 49-50.
n10. See Oberman, Mothers Who Kill, supra note 3, at 23.
n11. See Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 42-46.
For a description of one young woman's account of the months preceding
the neonaticide death of her child, see Oberman, Mothers Who Kill,
supra note 3, at 53-64.
n13. See Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 56-57; See also Oberman, Mothers Who Kill, supra note 3, at 24.
n14. See Oberman, Mothers Who Kill, supra note 3, at 24-25.
See id. at 25-26 (describing the range of criminal penalties sought in
their cases); see also Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 58-60.
n17. Oberman, Mothers Who Kill, supra note 3, at 17-19.
n18. For a discussion of the broad range of responses to these cases, see Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 58-60.
For a sampling of opinions reflecting this sentiment, see Kevin Lamb,
Trial Touched on Some Emotional Issues, Dayton Daily News, June 23,
1995, at B1.
For a sample of the debate over "partial-birth" abortion, see, e.g.,
Meredith R. Henderson, Stenberg v. Carhart: "Partial-Birth" Abortion
Bans and the Supreme Court's Rejection of the "Methodical" Erasure of
the Right to Abortion, 79 N.C. L. Rev. 1127 (2001); Ann MacLean Massie,
So-Called "Partial-Birth Abortion" Bans: Bad Medicine? Maybe. Bad Law?
Definitely!, 59 U. Pitt. L. Rev. 301 (1998); James Bopp, Jr., J.D. and
Curtis R. Cook, M.D., Partial-Birth Abortion: The Final Frontier of
Abortion Jurisprudence, 14 Issues L. & Med. 3 (1998).
n21. See Oberman, Mothers Who Kill, supra note 3, at 4-5, 27-30 (discussing media portrayal of neonaticide).
n22. Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 169.
Our book divides infanticide cases into four categories: abuse-related
filicide (cases involving mothers who killed their child during a
physical assault), filicide due to neglect (cases involving women who
did not purposely kill their child, but either failed to attend to the
child's basic needs, or were irresponsible in their reaction to the
child's behavior), assisted/coerced filicide (cases involving mothers
who acted along with their partners, or in some cases failed to
intervene to stop their partners from killing their children), and
purposeful filicide in which the mother acted alone (cases involving
mothers, the overwhelming majority of whom suffered from some form of
mental illness, who purposefully killed their children). See id. at
The modal age of the infanticidal mothers in my original work was
twenty-one. See Oberman, Mothers Who Kill, supra note 3, at 32.
Regarding the issue of relationships, my book notes that a full
forty-two percent of the infanticide cases falling into the
"purposeful" category involved women who had experienced a recent break
up, separation, or divorce prior to the murders. See also Meyer &
Oberman, supra note 3, at 88. The women in the other categories were
even more likely to be single or not currently in a relationship with
the father of their children.
n25. Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 110.
See, e.g., S.J. Bishop and B.J. Leadbeater, Maternal Social Support
Patterns and Child Maltreatment: Comparison of Maltreating and
Nonmaltreating Mothers, 69 Am. J. Orthopsychiatry 172 (1999).
For example, one study reveals that mothers accused of child neglect
were far less likely to have completed high school. See Robert M.
Brayden et al., Antecedents of Child Neglect in the First Two Years of
Life, 120 J. Pediatrics 426 (1992).
n28. Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 93.
n30. Id. at 114.
n31. Oberman, Mothers Who Kill, supra note 3, at 42.
n32. Ania Wilczynski, Images of Women Who Kill Their Infants: The Mad and the Bad, 2 Women & Crim. Just. 71-72 (1991).
State v. Wright, 483 A.2d 436, 524 (N.J. Super. Ct. L. Div. 1984). See
also Leigh B. Beinen et al., The Reimposition of Capital Punishment in
New Jersey: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion, 41 Rutgers L. Rev.
27, 93-94 (1988) (discussing the complications surrounding the State's
efforts to secure Ms. Wright's guilty plea in exchange for avoiding the
n34. Gail Wescott, The Reckoning, People, Aug. 7, 1995, at 73.
n35. Tom Morgenthau, Condemned to Life, Newsweek, Aug. 7, 1995, at 19.
n36. Brad Warthen, Editorial, Jury's Wisdom Beats "Dittohead Justice,' Denver Post, Aug. 10, 1995, at B11.
Professor Michael Perlin calls infanticide defendants "empathy
outliers," noting that in spite of the increasingly limited reach of
the insanity defense, these women tend to capture juries' sympathy and
lenience. Michael L. Perlin, The Jurisprudence of the Insanity Defense
Amy L. Nelson, Comment, Postpartum Psychosis: A New Defense?, 95 Dick.
L. Rev. 625, 625 (1991) (quoting report prepared for sentencing hearing
in Pennsylvania v. Comitz, 530 A.2d 473 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1987)).
Leigh Bienen, Chicago Homicide Project, Homicide Cases 1870-1930, Book
One (2000) (unpublished manuscript) (on file with author) [hereinafter
Chicago Homicide Database].
One of the greatest frustrations in researching contemporary
infanticide cases stems from the waxing and waning of media attention.
Cases that command front-page stories when the crime occurs often
disappear without a trace, when months later, the defendant pleads
guilty to a lesser offense and the case is quietly resolved. Because
there are hundreds of cases like this every year and because they are
neither tried nor appealed, the work involved in tracking them would be
overwhelming. As a result, my studies have been limited to those cases
that the media elects to follow most thoroughly.
See Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39. The relatively high
percentage of unsolved cases is not surprising. Even assuming police
had adequate staffing to conduct investigations, in this era they
lacked the requisite technology, such as tracing suspects through
blood, hair, and DNA specimens, that facilitates the identification of
defendants in similar cases today. Indeed, other sources indicate that
this count of 115 may be an underestimate of the actual total number of
unidentified newborns found dead in Chicago during this time frame.
Beginning in 1906, the Chicago Police Department began listing in its
annual reports the number of fetuses found. From 1906 to 1920, the
police discovered between fifty-one and seventy-nine bodies each year.
Jeffrey Adler, "Halting the Slaughter of the Innocents": The Civilizing
Process and the Surge in Violence in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago, 251
Soc. Sci. Hist. 29, 41 (2001).
n42. See supra notes 6-8 and accompanying text.
See, e.g., Campbell v. State, 42 N.E. 123 (Ill. 1895) (recounting how a
mother asserted that the defendant, father of her newborn infant, took
the baby from her within minutes of its birth, and returned thirty
minutes later without it).
Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case No. 10,120. See also
Mother Admits Killing Her Day Old Baby Boy, Chi. Trib., Feb. 23, 1929,
n45. Joanne Meyerowitz, Women Adrift 4-5 (1988).
n48. Id. at 37.
n49. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (Modern Library 1999) (1900).
n50. Id. at 82.
See Jane E. Larson, "Women Understand So Little, They Call My Good
Nature "Deceit'": A Feminist Rethinking of Seduction, 93 Colum. L. Rev.
374 (1993); see meyerowitz, supra note 45, at 124 ("More recent studies
of sexual practices reveal that, by the 1920s, rates of extramarital
intercourse had indeed increased among middle-class women.").
n52. Myerowitz, supra note 45, at 124.
For a fine depiction of the issues surrounding contraception during
this era, see Andrea Tone, Devices & Desires: A History of
Contraceptives in America (2001).
n54. James Reed, The Birth Control Movement And American Society: From Private Vice to Public Virtue 107-08 (1978).
n55. Margaret Sanger, Motherhood in Bondage (1928).
For a wonderfully rich history of abortion in America, and the events
leading to its criminalization, see James Mohr, Abortion in American
n57. Leslie Reagan, When Abortion was a Crime (1997).
n58. Id. at 29, 32.
n59. Id. at 77.
The first formal adoption law was passed in 1851, and for many years
adoptions were poorly recorded and viewed as the "last resort" for
social workers. "The combination of cultural, medical, and social
stigma surrounding adoption during the first quarter of the twentieth
century kept the number of potential adoptive parents relatively low
and thus depressed the number of children who were adopted." E. Wayne
Carp, Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption
20-21 (1998). However, some mothers and adoptive parents easily and
anonymously circumvented the adoption institutions by using
unregulated, underground means. See id. at 1-35 (describing the
transformation of adoption into a regulated institution).
During this era, adoptions were largely unregulated, socially
disfavored and stigmatizing. Most child-placing organizations refused
children if they had any family or could be "properly cared for by
their own people." Carp, supra note 60, at 17. Because women with
children were likely to be turned away, families and friends were more
accessible than the formal adoption process of the time. See id.; see
generally Carol B. Stack, All our Kin (1974) (describing of
African-American women living in tightly-knit communities and
"adopting" the children of family and neighbors).
With regard to the contemporary population of girls who relinquish
their babies for adoption, they can generally be described as:
women who have the information necessary to do so; have made rather
definitive decisions about their future in terms of education and
employment (and, thus, see raising a child as an obstacle to the
completion of these goals); and have clear and definitive support of
family or friends (specifically in that the family's cultural
background and beliefs do not forbid such a choice).
Oberman, Mothers Who Kill, supra note 3, at 61. This description is far
from compatible with the passive, isolated, and procrastinating
personalities associated with neonaticide cases.
Bastardy statutes were civil laws that had quasi-criminal features,
such as the ability to arrest fathers who failed to support their
out-of-wedlock offspring. These U.S. laws stemmed from British Poor
Laws, originally passed in 1576, which mandated a paternal as well as a
maternal obligation to support a non-marital child. The laws also
mandated the punishment of both the mother and father of these
children, thus creating further incentive to conceal a pregnancy and
the resulting child. See Karen A. Hauser, Comment, Inheritance Rights
for Extramarital Children: New Science Plus Old Intermediate Scrutiny
Add Up to the Need for Change, 65 U. Cin. L. Rev. 891 (1997). For more
on bastardy laws, see Michael Grossberg, Governing the Hearth: Law and
the Family in Nineteenth-Century America 218-28 (1985) (describing
central tenets of bastardy laws).
recently as the 1960's, non-marital children had no inheritance rights,
were not considered "dependants" eligible to receive workmen's
compensation benefits, and could not receive Social Security benefits
for a parent's disability. For a detailed evolution of nonmarital
children's equal protection rights, see Susan E. Satava, Discrimination
Against the Unacknowledged Illegitimate Child and the Wrongful Death
Statute, 25 Cap. U. L. Rev. 933 (1996) and Jenny Teichmann,
African-American mothers were more accepted by their communities
through extended family and social networks. African-American reformers
were "more likely than white reformers to emphasize universal (as
opposed to criteria-restricted) benefits as well as programs for
working women and their children ... . Denied access to orphanages, old
peoples' homes, clinics, and settlement homes serving whites. Blacks
responded by establishing their own benevolent institutions." Sandra M.
O'Donnell, The Care of Dependant African-American Children in Chicago:
The Struggle Between Self-Help and Professionalism, 27 J. Soc. His.
763, 764-65 (1994). African American social charities and churches
created services for mothers and children, such as day cares,
educational programs, homes for single working women, and orphanages
(drawing from communal, mutual aid traditions). See id.; see also Elna
C. Green, Infanticide and Infant Abandonment in the New South:
Richmond, Virginia 1865-1915, 24 J. Fam. His. 187, 203 (1999)
(describing how neighbors in African-American communities would cover
for young women suspected by police of killing their infants).
n65. Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case No. 1275.
In Chicago at the turn of the century, over half of working women
earned less than eight dollars a week, far below a liveable wage.
Circumstances were worse for African-American women, who often earned
one dollar less per week than white women. Meyerowitz, supra note 45,
n67. One author summarizes the situation faced by unmarried mothers as follows:
disgrace which attached to unwed pregnancy in Victorian times was
intense and all-encompassing. Family and friends might cut off all
relations, and the poor woman would be forced to leave her home and
neighborhood to seek anonymity. The difficulties of trying to support
herself and her child would have been nearly insurmountable because
women's wages were not set high enough to support themselves, let alone
dependent children. Unless she could find a charitable organization to
take her in, prostitution would be her only resort.
Constance B. Backhouse, Desperate Women and Compassionate Courts:
Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century Canada, 1984 U. Toronto L.J. 447, 448
To get a sense of the popular perception of baby farms, see the 1890
report by muckraking journalist Jacob A. Riis, which noted that
"baby-farms" fed the children sour milk and drugs to keep them quiet
and allowed them to starve to death, with inexperienced doctors called
in to record a false cause of death. Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half
Lives 194-195 (1901); see also Lucy S. McGough and Annette
Peltier-Falahahwazi, Secrets and Lies: A Model Statute for Cooperative
Adoption, 60 La. L. Rev. 13, 29-31 (1999).
Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case No. 206. Nothing is
known about the reasons for her acquittal. One might speculate that,
given the meager fees charged by baby farms, and the tacit
understanding that babies placed with these farms might never be
reclaimed, the jury felt that the defendant was not solely to blame for
the baby's death.
Private charities crusaded against poverty, but based their efforts on
creating "proper" American families, not on providing relief to needy
mothers and children. "A New York charity worker described the homes of
the poor as "nurseries of indolence, debauchers, and intemperance,' and
their inhabitants as the "moral pests of society.' Instead of
recognizing these conditions as expected outcomes in overcrowded,
impoverished communities, they became the antithesis of the proper home
and the root of all social evil." Mimi Abramovitz, Under Attack,
Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States 51-59 (2000); see
also Linda Gordon, Pitied but not Entitled: Single Mothers and the
History of Welfare 1890-1935 (1984).
See, e.g., Ruth Crocker, I Only Ask You Kindly to Divide Your Fortune
With Me: Begging Letters and the Transformation of Charity in
Late-Nineteenth Century America, 6 Soc. Pol. 131 (1999) (discussing the
"bureaucratization and depersonalization of charity" which led to
funding of institutions, not needy individuals). Literary descriptions
of the soup kitchens and flop houses of the era typically depict
all-male institutions, in which a woman and her child would have been
completely vulnerable and unwelcome. See, e.g., Dreiser, supra note 49,
at ch. XLV (depicting the demise of Hurstwood).
See, e.g., Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case No. 1225
(involving a Mrs. Mary Kmak, who was accused of having thrown her
newborn infant into a privy vault. The grand jury returned a no bill).
n73. See, e.g., Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 1-12 (providing a brief cross-cultural history of infanticide).
n74. See generally, Sanger, supra note 55.
According to one historian, in medieval Europe, married women so often
escaped prosecution for infanticide that "they could kill their infants
with relative impunity." Kathryn L. Moseley, The History of Infanticide
in Western Society, 1 Issues L. & Med. 345, 357 (1986).
n76. See Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case Nos. 1225 and 10,120.
Backhouse, supra note 67, at 461 (describing the desperation that
infuses the circumstances surrounding Nineteenth Century cases
involving mothers who killed their children).
n78. Lawrence Friedman, Crimes of Mobility, 43 Stan. L. Rev. 637, 655 (1991).
n79. See Oberman, supra note 3, at 9-10 (providing a history of these laws).
n80. Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case No. 2307.
n81. See id., Case Nos. 206, 291, 1225, 2315, 3710, 5107, 9050, 9240, 9249, 10,120.
n82. See Oberman, supra note 3, at 22 (describing this search technique).
n83. See Ellison v. State, 127 S.W. 542 (Tex. Crim. App. 1910).
n84. Id. at 542.
n85. Tune v. State, 94 S.W. 231 (Tex. Crim. App. 1906).
n86. Id. at 232.
n87. Id. at 232-33.
n88. State v. Jeffreys, 7 N.C. 480 (N.C. 1879).
n89. Id. at 482, n.a1.
In an additional five of the cases in the Chicago database, the mothers
attempted suicide after having killed their children, but failed to
kill themselves. See Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case
Nos. 4626, 4673, 4785, 9772, 10,310.
Jeffrey Adler, "I Loved Joe, but I Had to Shoot Him," Homicide by Women
in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago, 92 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 867
(2002) (forthcoming in this issue).
n93. This is in contrast to murdering fathers who more often killed entire families, including their wives. See id.
n94. Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case No. 4787.
n95. Four Lives Pay for His Love of "Other Woman,' Chi. Trib., Jan. 24, 1918, at 1.
See Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case Nos. 395, 669, 1055,
1936, 2087, 2684, 5173, 5259, 6247, 10,229, 10,285, 4667 (attempted
suicide), 10,382 (same).
n97. See id., Case Nos. 4127, 6247, 9683, 10,285, 10,520, 10,641, 11,105.
n98. See, e.g., id., Case Nos. 1005, 3639, 5287, 8789.
n99. Carol Sanger, Separating From Children, 96 Colum. L. Rev. 375, 408 (1996); see also Gordon, supra note 70.
ADC became Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1962,
"when Congress passed a limited program for households with an
unemployed father." See Abramovitz, supra note 70, at 16.
See generally Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American
Medicine (1982) (describing the evolution of private health insurance
in the United States).
See, e.g., Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case No. 9839, in
which Mrs. Giovanna De Rorre, a widow with three children, killed
herself and her children due to her despondency over her husband's
death. The local chapter of the American Legion had collected $ 100 for
the family a month earlier, when it learned of their impoverishment and
trouble, but the suicide note indicated Mrs. De Rorre's ongoing fear
that she would be separated from her children. See Widow of Vet Kills
Self and Three Children, Chi. Trib., May 11, 1930, at 7.
n103. Anthony Platt, The Child Savers 108-109 (1969).
See Dierdre English & Barbara Ehrenreich, For Her Own Good: 100
Years of the Experts' Advice to Women 131-33 (1978) (describing the
medical profession's tendency to view women's rejection of traditional
gender roles as a form of illness, to be treated with isolation and
rest); see also Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1890)
(vividly depicting a woman's struggle to survive this "cure").
n105. Chi. Trib., supra note 95, at 1.
n106. Mother Kills Self and Two Sons with Gas, Chi. Trib., Mar. 25, 1927, at 1.
n108. See Chicago Homicide Database, supra note 39, Case No. 4626.
This is not to say that contemporary society is completely in agreement
with the way in which these cases are handled. Consider, for instance,
the media furor generated by the Andrea Yates case in Texas in which a
mother of five, suffering from significant postpartum mental illness,
survived two suicide attempts and finally killed her children. Michael
Granberry, We're All Home Alone: Houston Tragedy Points up the Cost of
a Society of Disconnected People, The Dallas Morning News, June 25,
2001, at 1C.
See, e.g., Don Thompson, Death Penalty Politics Fail to Solve Question
of How to Ensure Justice, Chi. Daily Herald, Feb. 6, 2000, at 1.
n111. Adler, supra note 41.
In recent years, several cases come to mind. For instance, in the Susan
Smith case a young mother killed her sons but was unable to follow
through on her plan to kill herself. See Alice Steinbach, Why Mothers
Kill: Two Women Confessed to Killing Their Children, and Now the
Question Remains: How Could They?, Balt. Sun, Dec. 12, 1994, at D1. In
the Kimura case, a Japanese-American woman's children died when their
mother attempted to commit oyakoshinju, or parent-child suicide, after
learning of her husband's extramarital affair. "In traditional Japanese
culture, the death ritual was an accepted means for a woman to rid
herself of the shame resulting from her husband's infidelity." Note,
The Cultural Defense in the Criminal Law, 99 Harv. L. Rev. 1293, 1293-4
(1986). Through a plea bargain between the prosecutor and her defense
attorney, Kimura's homicide charge was reduced to voluntary
manslaughter and she was sentenced to one year in prison, which she had
already served, and five years probation with psychiatric counseling.
Id. Finally, there is the case of Judy Kirby, an Indianapolis mother of
ten who attempted to kill herself and her children by driving her van
into oncoming traffic along a highway. See Crash Fatal to 7 a Suicide,
Ex-Spouse Says, Chi. Trib., Mar. 29, 2000, at 9.
This is not to say that this safety net for single mothers is adequate
to meet all of their needs. Indeed, there is ample evidence that
services such as daycare and mental health treatment are in short
supply, particularly for the poor.
See Chicago Homicide Dataset, supra note 39, Case Nos. 1371, 2367,
3196, 3276, 3545, 3774, 4734, 5002, 5220, 5417, 5488, 11,439.
n115. See, e.g., Meyer & Oberman, supra note 3, at 95-122.
Ex parte O'Connor, 3 S.W. 340 (Tex. Crim. App. 1887). On appeal, the
court held that this could not be murder but was at most negligent
homicide, and thus bail was possible.
n117. Carlise v. State, 38 S.W. 991 (Tex. Crim. App. 1897).
n118. See Oberman, supra note 3, at 40-42.
J. Michael Murphy et. al., Substance Abuse and Serious Child
Mistreatment: Prevalence, Risk, and Outcome in a Court Sample, 15 Child
Abuse & Neglect 197, 207 (1991).
n120. See David Finkelhor, Is Child Abuse Overreported?, 48 Pub. Welfare 22 (1990).
n121. Gordon, supra note 70, at 62.
n122. Id. at 27-28.
n123. Id. at 25-30.
n124. See id. at 52.
n125. Clare L. McCausland, Children of Circumstance 93 (1976).
Id.; see also Gordon, supra note 70, at 23-24 (describing that mothers
taking their illegitimate children to orphanages risked never getting
them back because the orphanage would place out a child knowing the
mother was alive).
n127. See Adler, supra note 92.
n128. Kathryn Kahler, Women on Death Row: A Chilling Sign of the Times, Plain Dealer, May 26, 1993, at A1.