The British Infanticide: A Poisonous Motive to Murder

Renee Noffsinger
Renee Noffsinger

The surprising results of this research in the Times of London is that in nineteenth-century Britain many families turned to infanticide in order to receive insurance the benefits that helped them escape financial despair.

Newspaper articles and testimonies revealed horrifying examples of the crime and show the connection between child life insurance and infanticide. It was also discovered that few parents were tried and sentenced for infanticide. Proving in the court of law that the deaths had been committed in order to receive insurance benefits was difficult and the high burden of proof allowed many guilty individuals to walk free.

A young woman named Ms Brake was found to have murdered her newly born child in October of 1824. The female child had been strangled to death with the strings of a petticoat and left to die in a nearby churchyard.

Similarly, Mrs Jenkins, being of unsound mind and alone in her home one afternoon, murdered her child by chopping off its head with a hatchet in her pantry. Finally, Mrs Tildesley, of excellent character, until succumbing to liquor, due to domestic unhappiness, poisoned her six-year-old daughter with half a cup of tea laced with laudanum.

These horrific accounts portray the ways in which infanticide, the deliberate killing of an infant by violence or neglect, was executed during the nineteenth-century in Great Britain. While it is obvious in these examples that those involved with these crimes are guilty of infanticide, when similar cases were taken to court, more often than not, juries would produce a non-guilty verdict due to the punishment being the death penalty.

Guilty individuals would then go free and insurance companies would have no choice but to give the families the insurance benefits. Neglect and other acts, such as overlaying and poisonings, were also popular methods used to kill children as they were easily mistaken as accidents by coroners and also resulted in families receiving insurance benefits.

This research paper will look at primary source articles found in the The Times in order to examine how families deliberately killed their children in order to receive insurance benefits, why more was not done by officials to reform legislation, how the guilty walked free, and how it was a difficult crime to prove.

The nineteenth-century found many struggling families facing poverty and financial despair. During this time many parents worked factory jobs that did not allow them to adequately support their families. Due to this, many were forced to share living quarters with other families and as a result living conditions were unsatisfactory and led to the spread of disease. The strain felt due to these circumstances, along with the inability to afford basic necessities for all members, made a number of desperate parents take the lives of their children in order to survive.

While accounts of infanticide did not receive much media attention, a paragraph at most, the problem was widespread as many faced uncertain times. Receiving even less attention were cases involving parents killing their children with the intention of obtaining insurance benefits. According to Lionel Rose, one author of infanticide, “the death of ‘surplus’ or unwanted babies was a biological necessity” of the times and many women would resort to infanticide to rid themselves of unwanted children.

Factors such as infanticide’s secretive nature, flawed legislation that failed to convict the guilty and incomplete record-keeping made it tempting for families to profit from child life insurance, which provided financial relief for their families during tough times.

A rudimentary form of child life insurance began in sixteenth-century Europe with businessmen betting on “the births and deaths of boys and girls” and grew in popularity with the establishment of the Friendly Societies Act in 1793, which provided a range of benefits to those enrolled.

The 1800s brought a formalised structure to the insurance field as burial clubs, and friendly societies were established. It was during this time that infanticide took centre stage in Great Britain due to an increase in the number of cases.

It became so problematic that during the 1850s, Britain was compared to the Chinese, “in their callous attitude toward infant life,” which led to the crime being labelled “the national stigma of an age” during the 1860s.

This racist comparison highlights how the problem of infanticide was viewed by those during the times. In 1854 a commercial life insurance company, Prudential, entered the field.

Being restricted by fewer rules than the local burial clubs and societies, Prudential was able to ensure younger children, which drew in many working-class families. Not until the late 1870s would the government step in and begin to regulate the insurance industry in Britain.

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