Was it born dead? Concealment of Birth and Infanticide in the Regency.

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In the case of Mary Fordham of Hertford, the answer to the bleak question was yes; it was born dead. This mattered in Regency England, and not for reasons of concern for the mother, who had just gone through a traumatic experience. Murder carried the death penalty in Regency England; but then so did stealing lambs or spoons or passing a forged banknote. The difference is that the sentence for Infanticide was usually carried out and the body dispatched to the anatomists for dissection
Mary Fordham was a servant in Stevenage, living in the house of a man called Mr Whittingham. Mary Chapman, a sixteen year old fellow servant had no inkling that Mary Fordham was pregnant, despite living at close quarters. They had shared the same bed on 2nd September 1810 and Chapman had been kept up all night by Fordham complaining about pains in her bowels. Chapman spent the next night in her own room; she went to visit Fordham the next morning and found her room in disarray. Chapman believed that Mary Fordham had given birth, and suggested that she clean up her room and go to work as normal. Later on the same day, Mary Chapman told the mistress of the house what had happened and together they searched the house for evidence of a baby. They found a five foot hole where rubbish was deposited; in the hole was Mary Chapman’s bloody stocking with a new-born boy in it.
Then the story becomes odd as well as grotesque. Mrs Whittingham appeared as a witness and recounted as story about how, about a month earlier, a labourer had entered their house in a scary mask. Although it had been a “frolic”, it had scared both Mrs Whittingham and Mary Fordham and was, according to the Mistress of the house, very likely to make pregnant women miscarry. Why would Mrs Whittingham come up with this story? Was she trying to move the date of conception by claiming that the baby had not gone full term, therefore obscuring the father’s identity- protecting the family honour-or was she trying to provide a plausible reason for the child dying at birth to protect her servant?
An apothecary (not a more expensive doctor) was called. He declared the child full-grown, but could not rule out a miscarriage. There was a wound on the child’s head, and brick the same size with blood on it next to the body. Mary was lactating; the male apothecary examined her breasts to check, truly adding insult and humiliation to unimaginable trauma
It didn’t look good for Mary Fordham, despite the possibility of some support for whatever reason from the family. However, the draconian nature of the Georgian penal system came to her rescue. A surgeon deposed that the blow to the child’s head could have been caused either by a blow from the brick OR as a result of being thrown into the hole after dying at birth. It partly came down to who was believed, whether the defendant cut a good figure in court, and whether conspiracy could be proved. Mary’s applying experience, whatever it was, was one that she would have to do alone; to avoid the accusation of conspiracy ; perhaps her friend Mary Chapman realised this when she suggested that Mary Fordham “clean her room” and then went on to give her enough time to hide the body before she informed Mrs Whittingham
Desperate as her life was, Mary Fordham, as a servant away from home, had some advantages. She had no family to monitor the shape of her body or check out on her sexual relationships. She did not give birth in a room in a slum where the cries of a new-born baby would be heard through thin walls. There was just not enough evidence.
The Newgate report suggested that “the learned judge summed up the evidence with great humanity” The jury followed his hint and found her guilty of concealment of birth only, with a sentence of two years in gaol. That this was the best possible outcome shows the horror of being pregnant, single and powerless in Regency Britain
Lots of children were adjudged to be born dead and their birth concealed. On the same day as Mary was sent to prison, another women, Martha Woods in Winchester received the same punishment

There was very little change in attitudes over the next century .One hundred years later, 1918, also in Hertfordshire, Amy Cook (21), a domestic servant, pleaded guilty to endeavouring to conceal the birth of her male child.

Mr J.H. Murphy, on behalf of the prosecution, said that it was one of those sad cases of a respectable young woman getting into trouble and then trying to conceal the consequences. She had no assistance at the birth of her child, and afterwards hid the body away in a box in her bedroom, and was thus able to resume her work the next day.
Suspicions, however, were aroused, the police were called in, and she eventually produced the body. There was nothing against the prisoner, and probably it was more the fault of the man who got her into trouble than her own for she said that she did not know what to do.
The girl’s mother said her daughter had been well-behaved and had been in good service for several years. Asked by the Judge if she was aware of her daughter’s condition before the concealment, she replied that at about Christmas time she had had suspicions and had challenged her, but her daughter denied that there was anything wrong. She did not see her daughter again until after this affair happened.
His Lordship said the prisoner was young and hitherto had a good character; otherwise he should have passed a more severe sentence upon her than he was going to pass. This kind of offence had been too prevalent in recent years, much too prevalent. Having regard to the circumstances, he should pass the very lenient sentence of 3 months’ imprisonment in the second division.
On hearing the sentence, the prisoner screamed, threw up her hands, and was carried out of Court in a fainting condition.

( From http://www.hertspastpolicing.org.uk/)

The stories are remarkably similar; the main differences are that Amy had a mother she had to lie to, and the father was also blamed-a bit.

 Perhaps more significantly, Amy received a more severe sentence than even the Georgian “bloody code” had suggested one hundred years earlier.

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A Regency Abortion

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Procuring an abortion was a serious crime in the Regency period and when illegal abortionists were caught, the newspapers were relatively free with the details.

The papers were full of reports in the regency period and they followed a pattern with some variations; a servant, away from home and  without any family support is seduced and made pregnant by a gentlemen   or cleric; often a relationship is started but the asymmetry of   power between the two parties makes the relationship fail, even if success was ever part of the plan. Sometimes the man would procure and abortion or even attempt it themselves; if the women were expelled from the house when they became pregnant they would try to poison   themselves. Sometimes they would keep the pregnancy a secret, leave their employ at the last moment and then have the child in a dismal lodging house.

Liza Ann Layton was a servant who found herself away from home in Ipswich working for a James Robertson or Roberton . She was seduced   by Robertson   during the course of her employment   and Robertson suggested to her, according to Layton, that he would procure an abortion   “by the application of surgical instruments which, he stated, would not produce as much pain as a day’s illness”. There were two failed attempts one afternoon in 1816 when Layton was about four or five months pregnant, leaving Liza desperately weak and bleeding in bed. A few days later   Liza’s mother saw Robertson in the bedroom with her daughter with his hands under the blankets and later smuggled a bundle out of the room in his greatcoat.

This was not the only time Robertson procured an abortion for Liza, and of course himself. The relationship continued after the first termination but the details are hazy; Robertson moved to London and Layton followed him and there was at least one more abortion when she became pregnant again. There was  another period of estrangement when Layton was addicted to laudanum, but this was a relationship of sorts and Liza was not abandoned by Robertson when she became pregnant.

When the law caught up with Robertson he was charged   under the 1803 “Ellenborough Act” which   had made abortion after about 20 weeks   a felony which carried a maximum life imprisonment. This new law  was first specific English law that made abortion an illegal act; earlier the procedure had been covered by common law and the belief that the soul came into the foetus at about 16- 20 weeks and banned abortion after that date. It seems that women had regularly used methods of abortion in the first months of pregnancy for centuries and this was deemed as merely regularizing the menstrual system, not destroying a life.

Robertson’s alleged attempt had been made at “ four or five months” into the pregnancy     and   was therefore illegal under the new Act and the previous common law. Robertson strongly protested his innocence and so impressed the onlookers that four individuals offered sureties of £1000 to add to Robertson’s own bail of £2000.

He absconded before his trial at the Old Bailey, running away to Holland via Gravesend. The story goes cold at this point; it would be hard for Robertson to continue his trade in Holland after the publicity; the most shocking part of this story was that  he was a medical doctor, a surgeon to the   Middlesex Militia, a member of the Royal College of Physicians and lecturer in Midwifery.

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Not all women had the benefit of a medical man to botch an abortion for them. In 1811, Rebecca Holden, in the curious wording of the newspaper report “poisoning herself with a   poisonous drug” to end her pregnancy.   This may have been arsenic or a quack medicine that coyly promised to cure   “female obstructions”. (See above)

 Widow Welch’s Pills were a well known abortion inducer well into the twentieth century and would have contained a natural abortifacient  such as pennyroyal.  The advertisement hides its main aim with a torrent of other ailments, but it is particularly good for “female obstruction” which could be interpreted as inducing the onset of menstruation in a young woman or moderating the menopause, but actually meant abortion

Other methods were available. In February 1812, Eliza   Counter was accused of libelling the Honourable Basil Cochrane by saying that he organised a steam bath for his mistress to procure an abortion.

The Reverend William Jennings was accused in 1812 of administering calomel to his maid  Sarah Weeks  in an attempt to poison her with mercury. Sarah then gave birth to a dead child while suffering from symptoms that sounded exactly like mercury poisoning, including excessive salivation and an immense swollen tongue that were  symptoms of toxic amounts of calomel.

On 12 January 1813, in Bushley Park, Worcestershire, the servant   Judith Beale  ( “Spinster , 17”) took advantage of her mistress’s absence by inviting her boyfriend James Foster over for the night. She subsequently became violently ill in the mornings afterwards, and James, fearing the worst, procured mercury for Judith, assuring her that he knew of several people who had taken it without a problem. Judith believed him, took three- fourths of the mercury and died.

Savin- an extract of the poisonous tips of juniper – was used   by Phoebe Sparrow, 22   of Dudley in 1813 by her cohabitating partner after four months of pregnancy. Phoebe took no more poison after that, perhaps she was pressurized into taking the original dose, but delivered her baby dead after eight months due to the weaknesses caused by this juniper based poison. It was this active ingredient that gave gin the reputation   as an abortion inducer. It was “ mother’s ruin” in more ways than one.

Many thousands of abortions were arranged successfully but anonymously in this period by trusted local women who only ever  appeared in the newspapers when the process was unsuccessful. Occasionally, women away from home with no contacts fell into the hands of what we could call quack doctors. Dolly Rosthorn used the services of a John Buckley of Bolton  in 1814 to abort a child that many papers suggested he was the father of. He botched the abortion so badly and caused so much pain that the jury considered this to the capital crime of murder; he was doing it deliberately, so was hanged at Lancaster gaol on March 19th, 1814.

 

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Adultery in the Regency; a matter of money.

In July 1816, Lord George Thomas Beresford sued for damages from his erstwhile friend, the Honourable Thomas Taylour, the Earl of Bective. Beresford accused him of the successful seduction of his wife Harriet Beresford and demanded the sum of £30,000 in compensation.

This was no twenty- first century quickie divorce or twentieth century legal court case with witnesses and co-respondents. Indeed it wasn’t divorce at all; merely a demand for compensation as a prelude to one. This was, in the parlance of Georgian times, a “Crim Con”- criminal conversation between the accused and the wife of another. The case of Beresford v Taylour is not a well known case, largely because it was not contested and there were no lurid details for the press to report. But it tells you a lot about the state of marriage in the Regency

Because it was uncontested, no witnesses were called. However, the wife was never called even if there was a dispute. The aim of the hearing was to assess damages. Beresford was asking for more that he was likely to receive- by that time this amount of money had been issued only once.

Beresford’s representative told the story at the Sheriffs Court at Bedford Row on June 17th 1816.George married Harriet Schultz, daughter of John Bacon Schultz, in 1808. She was “ a lady of high connection, immense fortune and was endowed with every accomplishment “ This may or not have been true but it was not meant as a compliment; this was a compensation case about loss of amenity, so it was very much in the interest of Beresford to portray his wife as something valuable and therefore a massive inconvenience to lose. After the first born, Harriet had fallen into a derangement that we might identify as post natal depression. However, it was spun to George’s advantage; he had not abandoned her; he was a good man, later to be betrayed. He could possibly feel the compensation rising as Sergeant Best spoke in his behalf

Another factor in assessing the compensation was the social standing of the people concerned; the higher the more compensation; nearness in social class would reduce it, as it would lessen the shame and humiliation. So there was little scope there to make money; both were the sons of important aristocratic landowners in Ireland. Instead, Beresford’s representative went to great pains to point out how close the two families were. If “Crim Con” involved betrayal and calculation, the compensation would rise accordingly

The successful seduction took place in the summer of 1815. George was, it was strongly pointed out, away only because he was a Major General fighting for King and Country. On receiving reports of the further derangement of his wife, he rushed home to care for her. However, acting on reports received he obtained a key from her writing desk which contained a letter, “ coached in the most passionate language” from Thomas Taylour, Earl of Bective and son of the Marquis of Headfort. It was a long and declamatory missive about a set of events that had already happened. The Earl tried to qualm her fears about her reputation. “No man, presumptuous, confident or artful, would think you lightly won”. He tried to reconfirm their love “Search now that bosom, and see that it still loves Bective”

He had been the seducer. The seductive had been difficult. He had exploited her illness and the friendship of the families. How was Beresford going to bring up their three living daughters without their mother? Before this, their life had been one of domestic harmony. George brought forward no less than five witnesses to prove it. An even now, George took care of her-rather than abandon her to “The London World”

Bective’s defence was brief. He was far from rich; this was irrelevant as somebody else was paying. He was young and naive. (The papers reported that he was “An agreeable young man, born in the same year as her ladyship”) He was sorry.

The jury took 30 minutes to agree compensation to George Beresford of £10,000.

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