Infanticide and the murder of bastard children.


One of the most common capital crimes for which women were actually executed in the 18th century was the “murder of a bastard” as it was called, or infanticide as we would call it now.  Looking carefully through the records most cases seem to be genuine murders rather than still births or deaths from natural causes in the first few days of life.  Babies were poisoned, had their throats cut, were battered to death, drowned in streams and rivers or even thrown down the privy (toilet).


The offenders were typically young women who had got pregnant outside wedlock and were quickly abandoned by the father.  Bear in mind that there was no effective contraception until the early part of the twentieth century.  Such concepts as post natal depression were not recognised in law until much later nor was the sheer desperation of young women often already living in abject poverty, finding themselves pregnant and then giving birth without any means of support, either financial or moral.  There was also the considerable social stigma of single parenthood.


Some seventy nine women were hanged for this crime between 1735 and 1799 and a further nineteen between 1800 and 1834.  The last being twenty four year old Mary Smith who went to the gallows at Stafford on the 19th of March 1834. It is not always possible from surviving records to know whether a child murder fell into this category or not.  Large numbers of women and girls continued to be sentenced to death between 1840 and 1922 for killing their infant children but were all reprieved.


It wasn’t until the Infanticide Act of 1922 that the killing of a newborn baby by its mother was no longer classed as a capital crime and factors such as the disturbed mental state of a new mother were permitted to provide a partial defence to a murder charge.  The Infanticide Act of 1938 removed the death penalty altogether for women who killed their babies in their first year of life, stating "at the time of the act or omission the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child."


In some cases it was possible to show that a baby had not been born alive and the mother could then be charged with concealment of the birth but this did not carry the death penalty.


Four cases of the murder of bastard children are examined here.  The first is the extremely sad case of Elizabeth Harrard from 1739 plus Sarah Jones, Ann Statham and Hannah Halley


The recovery of the body of a tiny baby boy was carried out by the Beadle of Isleworth, Mr. John Thackery, on Saturday the 14th of July 1739. He had been summoned to the bank of the Powder Mills River by a local farmer, one Mr. Ions who had discovered the baby floating in the river. Mr. Ions had taken the baby from the water and placed it on the grass beside the bank.  The Beadle examined the corpse and noted that it had only been in the water a short while and was not bloated.  He also noted that the little boy had received a severe blow to the left side of the head and that there was congealed blood around the wound.  John Thackery took the child to the Stock House and the Middlesex Coroner, Mr. Wright, was informed of the death.  Whilst there Mr. Thackery was told that there was a suspicion that one Elizabeth Harrard, of Isleworth was the mother of the baby and he duly investigated this.  Elizabeth was detained by the Overseers of the Poor for neighbouring Teddington and bought back to Isleworth.  She was in a very weak condition and Thackery was ordered to get her a bed as she was too ill to be sent to Newgate prison.


After Elizabeth’s arrest a Mrs. Elizabeth Nell examined the prisoner in her capacity as a midwife.  Elizabeth told Mrs. Nell that she had given birth to a baby, claiming that it had been born on the previous Monday in a field and that she had been disturbed by some men and left the baby.  Mrs. Nell replied that she did not believe this story and Elizabeth told her that the child was stillborn.  Again Mrs. Nell said she did not believe this as she could tell from the corpse that the baby had been born alive.  It seems that Elizabeth did not realise that Mrs. Nell was a professional midwife and when this was pointed out to her, Elizabeth gave another version of events.  She now told Mrs. Nell that the baby had been born alive and had survived for just fifteen minutes.  Elizabeth was resting by the river bank after giving birth and had the child on her lap when it rolled off and fell into the river. Mrs. Nell persisted with her questioning and the story changed a little, with Elizabeth now saying that the baby had lived for thirty minutes and that she wrapped it part of her apron and threw it into the river after it had been dead for an hour.  Mrs. Nell had examined the corpse after it was recovered and noted that there was no water in it, in other words it had not drowned and felt that the cause of death was a severe blow to the head.

The Inquest was held on Wednesday the 18th of July and the coroner directed Mr. Thackery to show the body to Elizabeth. She begged him not to saying “'tis my own child, born of my own body.”  Thackery asked her how she could tell that it was her child without seeing it.  Elizabeth continued to insist that it was her child and implored the Beadle not to open the coffin.


The coroner’s court found that the child had been murdered by its mother and Elizabeth was committed for trial at the Old Bailey.  This took place on the 6th of September 1739 and evidence was brought against her by John Thackery, Mrs. Elizabeth Nell and Mrs. Elizabeth Thackery (the Beadle’s wife), with Samuel Goodwin giving evidence for Elizabeth.  John Thackery related the above story to the court. 


Mrs. Thackery, the Beadle’s wife, also gave evidence against Elizabeth. Her husband had initially taken Elizabeth to a pub called the Sign of the Bell after her arrest and had asked his wife to look after her.  She told the court that she had asked Elizabeth if she was the mother of the baby that had been found and Elizabeth agreed that she was. She also named the father as one John Gadd whom she had lived with for some time but who had deserted her when she became pregnant.  She had also had a previous pregnancy by him which had miscarried.  Elizabeth confessed to Mrs. Thackery that the baby had been born alive and that she had put it into the river.  She told Mrs. Thackery that she was very poor indeed and had nothing to wrap the baby in, other than an old piece of apron.

In her own statement Elizabeth told the court that on the day the baby died she had walked to Richmond to seek work and had to rest because she had gone into labour.  The Beadle of Richmond came to her and refused to get a woman to help her, instead threatening her and telling her to leave the parish immediately.  She was similarly treated by Beadle of Twickenham and left in the field by the river to sort out her problems by her self.  She told the court that she was in a very poor physical condition by this time and that she did not know whether the baby was dead or alive.  Mrs. Nell confirmed that Elizabeth had told her of the Beadle of Richmond refusing her any form of assistance.

The only witness for the defence, other than Elizabeth herself, was Samuel Goodwin. He told the court that he has seen Elizabeth with John Gadd on several occasions and that she had told him that Gadd had taken the apron from her after the baby was born, torn off a piece of it and wrapped the baby in it before taking it away. He implied that it was therefore Gadd who had thrown it into the river and not Elizabeth.  Against the rest of the evidence this was not really convincing and the jury returned a verdict of guilty against Elizabeth.

She was returned to Newgate to await sentence at the end of the Sessions and was duly condemned to hang.  The Recorder did not recommend leniency in Elizabeth’s case and so she was scheduled for execution on the next “hanging day” which was to be Friday the 21st of December 1739. With her in the carts that morning were John Albin, John Maw, William Barkwith, James Shields, Charles Spinnel and Thomas Dent, all of whom had been convicted of highway robbery, Richard Turner who was to hang for stealing in dwelling house and Edward Goynes who had murdered his wife. The usual procession set off for the journey to Tyburn where the prisoners were prepared by John Thrift and his assistants before all ten were launched into eternity together as the carts were drawn from under them.  After they were suspended Susanna Broom was led to a stake that had been set up near the gallows and strangled and then burned for the Petty Treason murder by stabbing of her husband, John.

Elizabeth was one of seven women who were hanged nationally in 1739, and one of four to die for the murder of her bastard child. 

It is impossible in this day and age to imagine the mental and physical condition that
Elizabeth was in at the time the baby died.  She was totally destitute, abandoned by her boyfriend, in great pain, very weak from having just given birth and denied assistance of any kind by the authorities.  If indeed she did kill her baby it is not hard to understand the total desperation that led her to do so.  However none of these factors, all of which were either known to the court at the time, or were basically self evident facts, were seen as an excuse for her crime in 1739.



Sarah Jones – Infanticide in Monmouthshire  Ann Statham Hannah Halley

Back to the Contents Page Female executions 1735 - 1799