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Researcher Reveals Courts and Psychiatrists Better Understood Infanticide 200 Years Ago

Originally Published 09 June 2003

New research by a historian at the University of Warwick reveals puerperal insanity, a serious yet temporary condition most acutely expressed through infanticide, was better understood and treated more sympathetically by courts and psychiatrists in the 1800s than today.

Dr Hilary Marland's book Dangerous Motherhood reveals insanity caused by childbirth was clearly understood by medical, legal and lay people as a trigger of infanticide in the 1800s. In contrast with contemporary courts and medical practice, where the condition is often unacknowledged, Victorian Britain recognised women are at risk of mental illness after childbirth, and that they need medical help, not prison.

Puerperal psychosis, or severe post-natal depression, afflicted record numbers of women in the 19th century, accounting for up to 15 per cent of female asylum admissions. In this period the insanity plea was frequently used in cases of infanticide. This was common in the defence of unmarried girls, often in domestic service, but also married women who were said to have broken down under the strain of mothering. Judges and juries frequently upheld the defence of insanity, and were reluctant to convict these women. Regardless of the horror of their crimes women were thought redeemable.

Despite medical advancements and the feminist movement Dr Marland controversially asserts the 20th century marked a Dark Age for women's psychiatric care. Rather than offering biological explanations of female vulnerability Victorian male psychiatrists considered poverty, family circumstances, poor nutrition and the difficulties of mothering to explain descent into insanity. This changed towards the end of the 19th century with the introduction of formulaic notes and the abandonment of patients' own accounts of their condition.

Puerperal insanity was abolished from psychiatric textbooks in the 20th century and ideas of hereditary insanity became dominant. Treatment became harsher and drug-orientated as women were herded in to asylums.

However, the research also suggests the pendulum swung too far and that some women escaped conviction for murder. In the mid-1860s public outcry about the high incidence of infanticide peaked. Dead newborn children were found on a daily basis. The Journal of Social Science reported in 1866 that the police thought "no more of finding the dead body of a child in the street than picking up a dead dog or cat." Illegitimate babies were particularly at risk, and it was known that most infanticide cases were concealed.

In 1865 a cluster of cases in Warwickshire, fuelled by a ghastly instance in London, led to the public questioning the leniency of courts and psychiatrists. Esther Lack from London murdered her three children by slitting their throats. Lack claimed she feared they would die of starvation. Her crime was attributed to "debility of constitution, caused by the delivery of three infants at a birth some seven or eight years ago". This provoked a "cynical response" from the Warwick Advertiser that suggested the insanity plea was too willingly backed.

Dr Marland, from the University of Warwick, said: "Mental breakdown linked to childbirth can ruin sufferers' lives and needs to be properly acknowledged. Although it is the case that some Victorian women misused the insanity plea, the condition was acknowledged and taken seriously by courts and the medical profession. Sadly, today the condition is commonly undiagnosed and sufferers lack the sympathy, support and understanding required."

For more information contact: Dr Hilary Marland, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 522506/ 02476 523292 or Jenny Murray, Press Officer, Tel: 02476 574255 Mobile: 07876 217740 Email: Motherhood: Insanity and Childbirth in Victorian Britain will be published in 2004)