(75): “Criminal” women again


Bridget Magee found guilty of infanticide

T. ‘Hi Kirsty,

How’s it going? Did you meet your new supervisor yet’?

K. ‘Yes thanks, Dr Mac. I hope you don’t mind me calling in; I’ve known you for a while, and can talk to you easily. You know you mentioned before that women weren’t found guilty of capital crimes anywhere near as frequently as men. That Ellen Thomson case you mentioned last time we met is very interesting. What a speech she gave on the gallows. However, I’ve found that infanticide was a felony that carried the death sentence, and it’s one where women figure prominently.

I’ve been reading some secondary sources, Constance Backhouse and Judith Allen, and both mention how common infanticide was in Canada and Australia towards the end of the nineteenth century. Backhouse says infanticide was a common feature of life,

the bodies of newborn infants were frequently discovered inside hollow trees, buried in the snow, floating in rivers, at the bottom of wells, under floorboards, under the platform of railway stations, in ditches, in privies, in stove pipes, and in pails of water” (Backhouse, Petticoats and Prejudice, p.113).

And Judith Allen talks about how common it was in Oz at the time of the ‘Baby Farmers’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, providing numbers of unidentified babies taken to Sydney city morgues, 107 1881-89, 154 1890-99, and 242 1900-09. Yet emphasizes how infrequently mothers were brought to trial and rarely punished with the full force of the law.

I was wondering about the Irish Famine orphans. One would think their being without a strong support network, without kin, without friends, innocent in the ways of the world, not very educated, having little money and being dependent on their job as domestic servant, isolated, and working long hours, made them vulnerable to the advances of the males in their household. So…may I ask, were any of the Irish Famine orphans accused of infanticide? Were any of them found guilty of that crime, and if so, what happened to them’?

T. ‘Sorry Kirsty. I don’t know of any. As far as I’m aware none was charged and none was convicted, even of concealment of birth. [yet see Julie Poulter’s comment at the end of this post. Sydney Morning Herald 5 September 1850, p.3].

But this case might interest you. It concerns two sisters from Enniskillen workhouse, Alice and Jane Ball, Alice being the younger of the two. They were about 16 or 17 (ages are always a bit iffy) when they came to Port Phillip by the Diadem in January 1850. Fortunately both Board of Guardian Minute books and Indoor registers for Enniskillen have survived. The two young girls first entered in 1847 shortly after the workhouse was reported as being “in a miserable state of filth and irregularity”. They were both Protestant. Only one had work experience. And they had been living on the Enniskillen Commons.

We also know who first employed them in Melbourne , and on what terms. Sadly we next meet Alice in the Argus newspaper, 26 April, 1850, 29 April and again on the first of May. The newspaper entries concern the report of an inquest on Alice; she had drowned herself in the River Yarra. “There were some men on the bank of the river who threw reins to her, but she would not lay hold of them”. One of the witnesses, James Craig “deposed…Mrs Brown (in whose service the deceased was) told him she had gone to destroy herself, and that the deceased and her husband had been too intimate, and she (deceased) was in the family way…”. See page 2 cols.3 and 4 of’


K. ‘Oh my gosh. How terrible. Poor Alice. Where did she get all that shame and guilt, so powerful to make her take her own life, even when the horse reins were thrown to her? Where does all that come from? Was it social control? Religious belief? It’s an ethos that says sex is dirty and sinful, that mothers who have children outside wedlock will be denied forgiveness and love. They will be punished, forget the fathers, make the mothers pay, and most despicable of all, punish the little children. Deprive them of love, neglect them, fail to nourish them. It is a slaughter of the innocents. You are starting off along the road to the Magdalen laundries, the Tuam babies and the dreadful infant mortality at the Bessborough Children’s home. Sorry. Excuse my rant. It makes me angry. I’ve been reading the Mother and Baby Homes report. Australia doesn’t have an innocent history either.

T. ‘I’ll be sure to have a look at that report. To come back to infanticide, may i draw your attention to a poem that appeared in the Bulletin 4 May 1895, ‘Marian’s child’ by John Shaw Neilson, at the time of the Baby Farming scandal? In some measure it is sympathetic towards the mother, her friend Annie, and the baby but his refrain condemns the murderer to hell.

First we thought of the river,

But the body might be found;

And it did not seem so cruel to bury it in the ground.

…I carried it down the garden

The moon was bright outside.

…down at the foot of the garden,

Where the moon-made shadows fell,

I sold myself to the Devil

And bought a home in hell.

It is certainly an emotionally charged subject. Even today there are plenty of people who see things in black and white, and are very judgemental. The law itself i think was more ambivalent. It wasn’t always easy to establish a baby was born alive, and to have incontrovertible evidence about its murder. In the cases I’ve looked at, not counting the Baby farming ones, there is rarely a death sentence acted upon. The “Mercy” option was always there. You are welcome to have a look at my notes, Kirsty. There are quite a few. The cases are usually Irish-Australian ones and no doubt you’ll want to cast your net wider, test for yourself if the law tended to be merciful towards women who ‘concealed a birth’ or who committed infanticide. And look too at what changes occurred over time.

From PROV VPRS 264/8 The daughter heard the couple speaking Irish

Mental Health issues

One last thing, I’d love to hear if you come across any cases where due weight is given to the mental state of the mother, where the law has recognised the hormonal mayhem that sometimes accompanies a birth, or recognised the effects of post partum blues, and how depression and anxiety can really mess with your brain. I’m not aware of any such cases in the nineteenth century myself; it doesn’t mean they are not there. That sort of argument about diminished responsibility is sometimes found in defence lawyers’ submissions, no? But did their arguments swing the verdict? That’s another matter. In Alice Ball’s case the jury found that she ‘threw herself in the river while in a state of great mental excitement’. You’d think if they can do that for a case of suicide, they could do it for infanticide.

We really should talk to a lawyer or a legal historian, don’t you think’?

13 thoughts on “(75): “Criminal” women again

  1. Trevor/Kirsty, please check out an Earl Grey (the ship) orphan called Ellen Quinn who was charged but later acquitted of manslaughter of her infant in 1850. I’ve been able to find any further information post this incident so I don’t know what happened to her later in life. She is the only one I think I have found out of about 50 orphans that was charged, although there are other infant neglect/abuse cases amongst the gaoled orphans.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Trevor
    My grandmothers 1st cousin was found guilty of infanticide in 1900. She wasn’t an Irish Orphan though but her parents were from Tipperary. She told no one she was pregnant and was working in an hotel in Melbourne and lost her job when they found she was pregnant. When she had the baby she wandered the streets searching for somewhere to stay and also find work but became desperate and dropped the baby in the Yarra river and drowned it. It was a well publicised case the the Suffragettes finally used enough political and public sway that after three years she was set free citing her mental state as the main reason for a pardon.
    Her name was Maggie Heffernan.


    • Hi Patrice, Wendy James’s first novel was about Maggie, “Out of the silence”. I did a brief piece about her for a conference many years ago. If I can find it I’ll send you a copy if you like. (had a quick search to no avail) ONly this from PROV
      r.v maggie heffernan 15 feb 1900 vprs 1100 unit 2
      or vprs 1100 p oooo 2??
      vprs 264/p1/unit 3 petitions re maggie heffernan
      see vprs 30 unit 1205 file 73/1900
      contains brief for prosecution
      I’m sure you know all this already
      Many Thanks for your comment. Trev
      My memory is not reliable Patrice. The little i had to say is in “Irish Women, Aboriginal People, and the Law in Colonial Australia. Race, Power and the struggle for inclusion” by me and Libby Connors in Australian Journal of Irish Studies, volume 4 special issue, pp.135ff, if you can find a copy. Libby went on to write her prize winning book, “Warrior”, Allen and Unwin, 2015

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Trev I have the book and went to talk in Melbourne at the Old Treasury Building last year on Criminal Women and Maggie was one. I will look up your talk if I can find it too. The story that has been handed down is that we know Maggie went on to marry and have 5 children and her story was never mentioned and no one knew what had happened. I met her grand niece back in the 80’s and she was stunned by the revelation. She said she was a lovely lady and that none of her children would have known anything about it. This isn’t surprising is it the “children seen and not heard” mentality that prevailed at that time. Many thanks for your info.
        On another note I am researching an Irish orphan at the moment for a friend who came out on the Thomas Arbuthnot and may have befriend Steve Hart and Joe Byrnes mother on the ship as they all ended up living close to each other and their children were friendly. Although my orphan Sibella O’Shaughnessy (Shanassy) sons weren’t in the Kelly Gang, they were both arrested as sympathisers and had attended school together (I believe) It makes me think that the friendships made by the orphan girls on the Thomas Arbuthnot may have continued for many years and ultimately influenced Australian folklore. Although it is mentioned that the other 2 women knew each other I have never found any mention of Sibella befriending the 2 others but it appears that she did.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. My G-g grandmother, Margaret Fitzgerald (Married James Greenough a convict ) in Melbourne in 1853. In 1856 she was accused of infanticide at Kyneton in 1856. During a drunken fight with her then lover ,Jim Davis, her baby, “Punch” was killed. They threw the body in the Campaspe river and on trial were found not guilty. ref TROVE “Infanticide at Kyneton”


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