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A Motive to Murder: Victorian Infanticide’s Secretive Nature

A Motive to Murder: Victorian Infanticide Secretive Nature
© Photograph by Giulia Valente

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 showed 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 one 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 evident 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 severe 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 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 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.

The insurance industry grew rapidly with the appearance of Prudential and more options became available to families. The number of registered societies operating in England and Wales, as well as the number of individuals insured, is evidence of its growth and popularity. By 1858, over 20,000 local societies catered to the needs of some two million individuals. With those in unregistered societies and those enrolled in more than one society, it is unclear how many individuals were taking part in the insurance boom of the nineteenth-century. The number of individuals that Prudential served was astonishing, and business proliferated, especially among the working classes. By 1891 the company insured over 2.4 million working-class children under the age of 10.

Insurance companies and burial clubs created a system that allowed admittance to almost any individual. The lack of information gathered along with the no government regulations allowed many to take advantage of the insurance system and profit from the death of their children. Upon the death of a child, parents would receive, on average, three to six pounds; with one pound paying for burial expenses, parents would profit from the remaining funds.

Familiar with the advantageous outcome associated with burial clubs, many families benefited by taking advantage of an unregulated system. The burden of keeping a child alive for a week averaged about 3-4 shillings, while a deceased child could net a family anywhere from 5-20 pounds upon death, making infanticide an appealing but rather unpleasant solution for many low-income families.

Sauer, an author who wrote on infanticide, states that “the considerable profit to be made from a child’s death led to obvious temptations for poor parents.” The practice of enrolling children in burial clubs was very popular, and individuals would often joke with one another saying, “Aye, Aye, that child will not live, it is in a burial club!” Evidence of the unregulated insurance industry and the poor temptation parents felt can be seen with a child who was found to be “enrolled in nineteen different groups,” with the parents hoping to increase their profits upon death.

Another instance of how the system was taken advantage of can be seen in the practices of one greedy and irresponsible family. Having six children that all died before reaching eighteen months, the parents had enrolled each of their children in more than one club hoping to exceed the average amount received from one policy. The practice of having more than one policy for a single child was also carried out by baby farmers, those who “adopted” children from low-income families in exchange for money, with one child being enrolled in eight societies, for the profit of thirty pounds.

This practice, when paired with unsatisfactory living conditions, led baby farms to have astonishing infant mortality rates compared to the national average. While in the 1870s infant mortality stabilised at fifteen percent in Britain, rates at some farms spiked at ninety percent. Observations such as these illustrate society’s attitude toward burial clubs and are evidence of public awareness of an ever growing problem.

Another clue that leads to the belief that insurance benefits were taken advantage of was the high infant mortality rates among children zero to five years of age. Among the working class, which were known for taking advantage of the insurance system, infant mortality ranged from 35-55 percent with those just over the age of one most vulnerable. This was often attributable to rules instated by burial clubs that full benefits would not be handed out until after the first birthday of a child.

As a result of increased death rates of younger children, in 1874 the Friendly Societies Commission was led to believe that the “societies constituted a significant threat to infant life.” Previously, in 1854, the Commission decided against any “remedial legislation” when a majority of coroners interviewed stated that “burial insurance was not a significant incentive for infanticide.”

These findings were probably due to coroners being unable to recognize, except in obvious cases, that infanticide had been the cause of death. At this time inquests surrounding an infant’s death were minimal, and autopsies were unheard of. As seen in The Times, Dr Lankester, a coroner, stated that inquests were often not done as police found that finding the body of a dead infant or child was “too ordinary an occurrence to call for [an] inquiry.” Given that they were unable to determine if infanticide was actually the cause, this lowered the number of reported cases, and in tum led them to determine other factors must have led to the death of the child.

Despite coroner’s optimistic beliefs and the Commission’s refusal to create better legislation, infanticide continued to be a problem. The crime seemed to be most prominent in London, and between 1838 and 1840 there were 76 reported murders of children under the age of one in Britain, which amounted to thirty-four percent of all murders.

This may seem low during a time when infanticide was widespread, but early statistics regarding infanticide were incomplete due to inaccurate police reports and coroners only testifying a death were an infanticide in the most obvious cases.

It was not until the middle of the nineteenth-century that records were most complete and a clearer picture of the number of infanticides could be observed. Between 1863 and 1887 there were 3,225 reported deaths of children under the age of one classified as homicides, while only 40 reported homicides were reported among older children.

While not all of these homicides were attributable to cases of infanticide, it is clear that infants were killed at a much higher rate than any other age group. 15 Between the years of 1862 and 1866 verdicts of infanticide continued to increase from 124 to 166 to 203 cases and so on. Before this time, in the early 1800s, when records were incomplete, the average number of cases reported was as small as seven.

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