Infancitide in History

In a TLS review of James Sharpe’s history of violence in England (A Fiery & Furious People), David Horspool calls attention to Sharpe’s account of infanticide in the 18th and 19th centuries.

He claims that it was “an all too common last resort” in an age “when rigid public morality over illegitimacy combined with a lack of contraception.” As if removing stigmas regarding illegitimacy and improving contraception has reduced the rate of baby-killing.

Sharpe’s data is sobering: “The absence of fathers from the stories Sharpe tells is in itself instructive: by allowing the mothers to bear illegitimately, they avoided culpability only in a technical sense. The result was that, even towards the end of this period, ‘young children were the most vulnerable of all groups in Victorian England,’ with 20 per cent of victims of homicide being aged under twelve months. . . . the numbers of newborns killed continued at an alarming rate through the nineteenth century. In London in 1895, 231 babies were allegedly killed. Victims’ ‘bodies turned up in the Thames, in canals, under railway arches, in doorways, in cellars.’ . . . attempts at abortion were ‘not necessarily effective and could prove fatal.’ It would seem that only with the spread of adoption, beyond the ‘hopelessly overstretched’ Foundling Hospital, which opened its doors in London in 1739, did the horror begin to abate.”

We are used to recalling how widespread infanticide in the ancient world. Its persistence into the Victorian era comes as a shock.

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