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date: 22 October 2017

Infanticide in 19th-Century England

Summary and Keywords

Throughout the history of journalism the notion of a mother killing her infant child—committing an act of infanticide—has always been high on the news values scale. In the 19th century, sensational news reports of illicit sexual liaisons, of childbirth and grisly murder, appeared regularly in the press, naming and shaming transgressive unmarried women and framing them as a danger to society. These lurid stories were published in broadsheets and the popular press as well as in respectable newspapers, including the most influential English newspaper of the century, The Times of London. In 19th-century England, The Times played a powerful role in influencing public opinion on the issue of infanticide using lurid reports of infanticide trials and coronial inquests as evidence in stirring editorials as part of their political campaign to reform the 1834 New Poor Law and repeal its pernicious Bastardy Clause, which had led to a large increase in rates of infanticide. News texts, because of their ability to capture one view of a society at a given moment in time, are a valuable historical resource and can also provide insight into journalism practices and the creation of public opinion. Infanticide court and coronial news reports provided details of the desperate murderous actions of young women and also furnished potent evidence of legal and government policy failures. The use of critical discourse analysis (CDA) in studying infanticide reports in The Times provides insight into the ways in which infanticide news stories worked as ideological texts and how journalists created understandings about illegitimacy, the “fallen woman,” infanticide, social injustice, and discriminatory gendered laws through news discourse.

Keywords: infanticide, news stories, journalism, The Times, 19th-century news, critical discourse analysis, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, public opinion, editorial, editor, gender


In 19th-century England, the press played a powerful role in influencing public opinion on the issue of infanticide. Stories of women killing their newborn infants created concerns about the unlawful behavior of mainly unmarried young females and from 1834 highlighted the inequity in the law and the unfair treatment of the mothers of illegitimate children. When the New Poor Law was introduced in 1834 with a Bastardy Clause to control the rate of illegitimate births, infanticide became a political issue as the rate of mothers killing their newborn infants increased dramatically. While other English newspapers were critical of the Bastardy Clause in the 1834 New Poor Law, no newspaper except The Times ran a sustained campaign to repeal this aspect of the law. Through their campaign to repeal the Bastardy Clause and reform the Act, England’s most influential 19th-century newspaper, The Times, placed infanticide on the news agenda as one of the prominent political issues of the day.

The application of critical discourse analysis (CDA) reveals Aristotle’s Rhetoric and other rhetorical strategies embedded within infanticide news and exposes the production practices and ideological imperatives at play in the manufacture of infanticide news in 19th-century England.

News stories and editorials on infanticide in The Times had a dual effect on public opinion—they reinforced the inequity of the Bastardy Clause, and they illustrated the powerlessness of the unmarried pregnant woman, while reinforcing the fact that young women were also all-powerful political beings in that they had control over human life at or soon after birth. These texts created oppositional ways of viewing the “players” in infanticide courtroom dramas, and by discursively placing the young transgressive female up against a body of male authoritarian figures, male authority over all women was reinforced.


Around four hundred years ago, Western societies came to understand the act of infanticide through a legal framework, and in England infanticide was brought under tighter control through enactment of the 1624 Infanticide Act (King James 1 Infanticide Act). This law was enacted “to prevent the destroying and murthering of bastard children” (it determined that any woman who concealed the death of her bastard child was presumed to have murdered the child and was condemned to death even in the absence of a body (Oberman, 2003, p. 4). It was automatically presumed that the mother of a bastard was guilty of murder if she tried to conceal the birth by secreting the corpse, with the onus put on the mother to prove that her child died from natural causes. In 1690, the first Scottish law specifically related to infanticide was passed making it a capital offense for a woman to conceal her pregnancy should the baby subsequently be found dead or missing. By the end of the 18th century, community opposition to the severity of these laws had grown, making it less likely that they would be enforced. In 1803, Lord Ellenborough’s Offences Against the Person Act decreed that infanticide was to be dealt with like any other form of murder; the mother was innocent until proven guilty, therefore reversing the 1624 Act. Up until 1803, women suspected of killing their newborn children were tried according to common-law rules of evidence, requiring the prosecution to provide proof that the child had been born alive. Where a murder charge failed, the jury had the option of returning a verdict of “concealment of birth” with a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment (Rose, 1986, p. 118). The Bastardy Clause in the 1834 New Poor Law, introduced to curtail the rate of illegitimate births in England, had a devastating impact on poor mothers and mothers of illegitimate children and saw an immediate and significant rise in the crime of infanticide. No changes were made to the Infanticide Act until 1922 when, through a press campaign by the regional English newspaper, The Leicester Mercury (see Goc, 2013), the 1922 Infanticide Act was introduced, removing the automatic death penalty from the crime.

Infanticide as News

News texts, because of their ability to capture one view of a society at a given moment in time, are a valuable historical resource and can also provide insight into journalism practice and the creation of public opinion at given moments in time. News texts represent one journalist’s perspective on the events of the day, communicated through a set of stratified and codified conventions; they are highly constructed texts, representations of reality, and not a true reflection of the world. Journalists tell stories, they communicate new information and events to the public through stories, and in creating news stories journalists make narrative choices about how a story is told based on their training, newsroom culture, social mores, and their individual ideological position (Goc, 2013). While every news text that has been produced could have been produced differently (Richardson, 2007, p. 54), the journalist’s practice of creating news texts is concealed from the audience through the process of “naturalization” (Hall, 1980, p. 204). This process means that the acceptance of particular texts as “news” comes about, both for journalists and their audiences, through social conditioning. Journalists are trained to create stories in particular formats, and audiences are trained through social conditioning to accept stories as news, as factual authoritative accounts of daily events.

In the mid-19th century, the press was seen as a powerful instrument of social control as the Fourth Estate with lasting consequences for the development of modern British society (Curran, 2002, p. 172). Jeremy Bentham considered the formation of public opinion through news texts a safeguard against the abuse of power by the legislator and a tribunal that united “all the wisdom and all the justice of the nation” (Boyce, Curran, & Wingate, 1978, p. 99). Thomas Carlyle argued that printing was equivalent to democracy. Invent writing, he said, and democracy is inevitable: “Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority” (Carlyle, 1907, p. 147). Carlyle also believed that the nascent press allowed men of all ranks to have a tongue “which others will listen to” (p. 147).

French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault maintains that news texts about crime were allowed to be printed and circulated because these stories “were expected to have the effect of an ideological control” (Foucault, 2008b, pp. 67–68). In the first half of the 19th century, mainstream newspapers increasingly turned to crime reporting, with its ability to engage the reader through a sense of dramatic immediacy, to boost their circulation. Crime narratives increased newspaper revenue to such an extent that newspapers were established on the crime and scandal genre alone (Gregory, 2003, p. 36). The popularity of crime news pushed established newspapers such as The Times, the Observer, the Advertiser, and the Standard to publish more news.

The Times of London

In 1815, when Thomas Barnes (1815–1841) took up the editorship of The Times, he brought about changes to the way news was produced and manufactured that had a lasting effect on journalism. Barnes was interested in advancing the role of the press under the Fourth Estate model as a watchdog of government, thus earning himself the designation of “the most powerful man in the country” (Woods & Bishop, 1983, p. 56) and the newspaper the moniker, “The Thunderer,” because of the influence of its leading articles (editorials). By the 1840s, The Times was the most influential newspaper in England and reflected the concerns of the middle classes to make the world safe for the kind of society that England was nourishing—a bourgeois society. It dominated metropolitan, and thus, British newspapers. Regional, popular, and radical presses in England and abroad republished stories from The Times verbatim, extending the powerful global reach of the newspaper.

Thomas Barnes used this platform to promote social causes, such as opposition to the 1834 New Poor Law. As the conservative “newspaper of record,” The Times under Barnes reported infanticide as its public duty, not only alerting the middle orders to the need to bring stability to the lower orders by controlling unmarried servant girls, but also by informing readers of the gross inequities of the New Poor Law and in particular its Bastardy Clause which placed the blame and the burden of illegitimate children onto unmarried mothers.

Barnes’s successor, John Thadeus Delane (1841–1870), further advanced journalism under the Fourth Estate model and built The Times’ prestige to unprecedented heights, so that by the mid-1800s The Times sold four times as many copies as its main rivals and had a circulation of some 70,000 (Ward, 1989, p. 41).

Critical Discourse Analysis

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is based on the understanding that when people communicate, there is much more going on than simply the transfer of information; it allows the researcher to drill deeper than the surface level into the makeup of a particular text to understand the power and influence of particular language. CDA is both a methodology and a philosophical framework, raising important research questions such as how meaning is constructed and how power functions in society. This study takes Foucault’s perspective, focusing on power relationships in society as expressed through language and practices, and applies John E. Richardson’s CDA methodology to historical news texts. Textual meaning, Richardson tells us, is constructed through interaction between producer, text, and consumer rather than simply being “read off” the page by all readers in exactly the same way (Richardson, 2007). There are limitations in the analysis of historic news texts simply because researchers do not have access to audiences and the archive imposes particular limits. Nevertheless, as shown elsewhere (Goc, 2013), CDA leads to a better understanding of the manufacture of news by allowing researchers to make far more nuanced judgments about the meanings behind historical news texts.


Collocation—that is, the coupling of words that tend to occur next to or close to each other in phrases—is a rhetorical strategy journalists used in 19th-century infanticide reports to great effect. Collocations such as “barbarously murdered” when placed close to other collocations such as “innocent infant” and “unspeakable horror” with “hapless victim” and “unnatural parent” produce an ideological effect through the connotations and the assumptions they embody, reinforcing society’s abhorrence of the young woman’s actions. But also, as will be seen, the use of such phrases as “frail creature” and “confiding victim” evoked sympathy for the infanticidal woman and her lack of options when faced with the burden of an illegitimate child. Alliteration was often used as a rhetorical strategy in conjunction with collocation to create a particular framing of the infanticidal woman.

Patriarchal Framing

Court reporting is one of a cache of templates journalists use to impart “facts” to an audience. On one level, news stories are framed around particular production processes; on another level, they are framed around particular ideologies. The selection of certain events is a reflection of a news organization’s understanding of its role in society. The press in the 19th century, as the only mass medium, had inordinate power to influence public discourse. By covering some events while ignoring others, newspapers were providing the topics for public debate. The news of the day confirmed the myths society already accepted, such as the ideal woman as a Madonna of immaculate purity and unmarried mothers as “fallen women.” The press reflected and reinforced patriarchal values and beliefs by representing females in particular gendered binary good/bad frames. In a patriarchal society, the notion of a woman killing her infant child—committing an act of infanticide—was framed as shocking news highlighting the fundamental danger a deviant woman was to society. In the mid-19th century, mothers who worked as domestic servants accounted for 57% of the illegitimate births in London, and it was the servant women in the wealthiest sections of London who killed their newborn infants in great numbers (Milner, 2000, p. 298). Infanticide reports in The Times served as patriarchal texts by speaking directly to the elite and middle-class readers, alerting those who employed young unmarried servant girls to the need to manage and control them.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric

Aristotle’s Rhetoric uses three strategies to persuade readers. First, through the personal characteristics of the speaker (ethos)—readers are more likely to be persuaded by someone of good character, with expertise or first-hand experience, such as the editor of The Times or an eminent medical coroner. Second, readers can also be persuaded through pathos, or emotion, of the strength of an argument or position. The pathetic argument can move readers to pity, sympathy, fear, anger, and other emotions, or it can be used to calm a reader, to put a reader in a frame of mind that makes her or him more receptive to a particular point of view. The use of pathos is clearly evident in the infanticide news stories in this study. Readers can also be persuaded through the third strategy, logos, or the logic, and structure of the argument itself. People are more likely to be convinced by an argument that is supported by evidence and reasoning. Through the use of statistics and court and police reports as evidence in leading articles, The Times effectively used logos to persuade readers of its position on infanticide and the New Poor Law.

The Times, Infanticide, and the Bastardy Clause

The late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain were years marked by an unprecedented population explosion. Between 1801 and 1851, the population of England and Wales doubled from 9 to 18 million (Rose, 1986, p. 5), owing mainly to a decline in the infant death rate. This increase also saw the number of illegitimate children surviving infanthood rise dramatically, creating a burden on parish relief. By the 1830s, there were calls to introduce legislative reform to reduce the numbers of bastard children being paid for by the parishes. This increasing burden on the wealthy to provide for what was seen as the “licentious profligacy” of the poor allowed for the theories on population control of economist and social reformer, Reverend Thomas Malthus, to become widely accepted. Malthus’s solution to the high rate of illegitimacy was to shift the responsibility onto the mother, denying her the support of the Poor Law (Malthus, 1798, p. 183). He warned that the current laws were a “pernicious stimulus to unnecessary births” (p. 183), and his theory allowed society to place the blame for the rising rate of illegitimate births directly on unmarried working-class mothers.

In 1834, the popularity of Malthusian policies led to the introduction of the New Poor Law with its pernicious Bastardy Clause enacted as a way of controlling the sharp rise in illegitimate births. Under the new law, all illegitimate children were the sole responsibility of their mothers until they were 16 years old, and it was this act that had the most significant impact on the increase in infanticide in 19th-century England. Within months of the introduction of the New Poor Law in August 1834, the rate of infanticide had increased across the country, and the London Times, through Thomas Barnes, began a campaign to repeal the law using court and police reports of infanticide as evidence of the impact of the new law.

Throughout the 1830s, The Times editorials relentlessly attacked Lord Althorp, the minister responsible for “the heartless” 1834 New Poor Law. Althorp accepted Malthus’s contention that, although the act would bring hardship to the mother and free the father from responsibility, it was “the invariable law of nature” and that it was for the woman to take care of her chastity. The Times became the dissenting voice in the New Poor Debate, consistently criticizing the government for refusing to repeal this “heinous law.” The collocations “heinous law” and “bad law” were regular textual devices used by The Times to reinforce strong opposition to the law. In one leading article in 1835, Thomas Barnes wrote: “It is true that the poor Law Act is a part of the law of the land, but there is nothing in morality, nothing in the custom of this country, which requires men to cease from exposing and calling for the repeal of a bad law” (The Times, Editorial, “London, Monday February 9,” February 9, 1835, p. 2).

In an editorial on April 14, 1837, Barnes told readers that the paper had for some time created a “calamitous catalogue,” a “sort of register of such authenticated cases of child-desertion and infanticide as happened to catch our eye in the newspapers of the day,” with the purpose of providing evidence of the impact of the heartless Bastardy Clause. Barnes wrote:

Without laying claim to any extraordinary sagacity, we predicted years ago that one of the inevitable consequences of the new Poor Law would be an increased perpetration of these horrible crimes: nor was it till the instances of this had become multiplied to an extent deeply revolting to every humane observer that we began to keep the calamitous catalogue, the further prosecution of which we have at length been compelled to abandon, from the utter hopelessness of being able to overtake the vast accumulation of cases that daily pressed upon our attention. (The Times, Editorial, “For Some Months Past,” April 14, 1837, p. 2)

The collocations “authenticated cases,” “inevitable consequences,” “horrible crimes,” “deeply revolting,” “humane observer,” “calamitous catalogue,” “utter hopelessness,” “daily pressed,” and “vast accumulation” reinforce the diabolical state of affairs. Barnes noted that almost all of the stories collated by his newspaper “appear to be of the most affecting kind, accompanied by circumstances which occasionally dispose one to pity the criminals, who otherwise deserve execration.” When the leading newspaper of the day, a deeply patriarchal conservative newspaper, acknowledged sympathy and empathy for the murderous actions of young unmarried mothers, the opportunity for change, for rethinking accepted values and the belief that it was the “invariable law of nature” that illegitimate births should bring hardship to the mother alone, the public felt empowered to challenge the laws. Letters to the Editor published in The Times provide evidence of the widespread public criticism and dismay at the implementation of the Bastardy Clause and the disastrous impact on unmarried mothers (see Goc, 2013).

In 1837, Thomas Barnes used pathos and logos to tell the people of England that “[t]imes without number” the paper had

protested against the bastardy clauses of the New Poor Law, as being equally immoral and inhuman. How the educated gentlemen of the British Legislature should imagine that by throwing the burden of supporting an illegitimate child upon the frail creature who bears one, the arts of the seducer and the surrenders of his confiding victim would thereby be restrained, is to us wholly incomprehensible. (The Times, Editorial, “For Some Months Past,” April 14, 1837, p. 2)

Barnes presents a powerful, persuasive rhetoric drawing upon pathos and logos and through the use of collocations that create potent binary oppositions—the “educated gentlemen” up against the “illegitimate child” and the “frail creature”—reinforcing the inequities of the power structures within English society. In another editorial on May 30, 1837, he used the understated collocation “unhappy girls” to represent infanticidal women who were “depraved and disheartened by the want of those legitimate resources of which the Poor Law has cruelly deprived them, are driven, under the keenest pressure of anguish, to desert or destroy their offspring” (The Times, Editorial, “The Correspondence,” May 30, 1837, p. 4).

John Thadeus Delane and Infanticide News

When John Thadeus Delane took over the editorship in 1841 upon the death of Thomas Barnes, he continued the campaign for legislative change to the New Poor Law and consistently articulated the newspaper’s concerns over the rise in infanticide. Delane continued to draw from the lurid infanticide reports in the court, along with coronial and police columns of The Times and other newspapers, to inform his editorials. In a leading article in March 1846, Delane used the infanticide trial of Elizabeth Butcher to provide evidence of the “inhuman regulations.” Elizabeth had been thrown out of the workhouse with her illegitimate naked child because of a rule of the house that “if clothes are not brought in, none are allowed on leaving” (The Times, Editorial, “By Far the Most,” March 16, 1846, p. 5). Using pathos to draw from the most affecting cases, The Times reminded readers that because of the New Poor Law such happenings went on “day after day,” creating “the most acute misery, producing more than the same amount of desperation, and yielding annually a frightful crop of infanticide.” The verdict in Elizabeth’s trial was, “in the face of strongest circumstantial evidence,” “not guilty,” and according to Delane’s logos provided “proof that the jury attributed the result to the cruelty of the workhouse regulation rather than to the crime of the prisoner” (The Times, Editorial, “By Far the Most,” March 16, 1846, p. 5). By reporting that juries in England were becoming reluctant to convict young women charged with infanticide because of the impact of the Bastardy Clause, The Times, as the influential voice of the press, opened up the space for its readers, and through them the wider community, to consider that the law was unworkable.

Two days later, a reader who signed himself “P” acknowledged the unsettling effect of the newspaper’s reporting of infanticide.

Sir,—I cannot believe that every man who this day reads your temperate but afflicting article upon the increase of infanticide of late years in this country, has not been moved with both grief and indignation … I may probably assume that the whole country groans under these narratives, and yet we know makes no opposition or protest against a system so horrible that none are not saddened—for the hour, alas!—and that none turn from it without shame or terror, to seek in another column a diversion from emotions that wring the heart of almost every one. ‘P’. (“P,” The Times, Letter, March 19, 1846, p. 3)

“P” went on to implicitly acknowledge that men were partly responsible for the position young unmarried females found themselves in and to explicitly acknowledge that through male-created and -administered laws young unmarried females were placed in untenable positions. From the pages of The Times, “P” had gleaned tragic examples of mothers driven to infanticide, admitting that “something also of remorse may stir the more sensitive among men” who read The Times reports, knowing that they shared “in an enactment so fraught with cruelty that all shudder at it” (“P,” The Times, Letter, March 19, 1846, p. 3).

A month later, The Times in a report full of pathos reported on the case of 20-year-old Harriet Bowkett, charged with “having left her male illegitimate child exposed to the inclemency of the weather, by the side of a certain road, without clothing, with intent to commit murder” (The Times, “Oxford Circuit,” April 2, 1846, p. 8). Harriet’s case was all too familiar and mirrors that of Elizabeth Butcher just a month earlier. The “iron rules” of the Ledbury workhouse prohibited its officers from “furnishing any clothing whatever to a helpless naked infant quitting their roof,” and Harriet, destitute, was put out into the world at a time when the frost was thick on the ground and there was a soaking rain. The jury again found the defendant not guilty, reflecting the community’s unease with the law. Harriet was found guilty of exposure and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment without hard labor.

This case prompted Delane to address Times readers in a feeling editorial that began provocatively with an effective collocation: the “appalling practice of stripping pauper infants previous to their being carried out into the world by their destitute mothers has long been prevalent” (The Times, Editorial, “The Practice of Turning Out Mothers from Union,” April 10, 1846, p. 4). In this leading article, Delane acknowledged the power of the newspaper to bring to the government’s attention the impact of the laws, but he lamented the lack of action from the Poor Law commissioners and the government. The newspaper was, Delane told readers, “always willing to point out abuses, but it is rather hard upon us that public functionaries will in many cases consider themselves justified in neglecting their duties until we have shown some fearful evil to have been occasioned by official apathy” (The Times, Editorial, “The Practice of Turning Out Mothers from Union,” April 10, 1846, p. 4). Through rhetoric that draws upon pathos and ethos and employs collocations to create potent phrases such as “fearful evil” and “official apathy,” the newspaper placed itself at the center of the issue not merely as a reporter of events but as an agent of change. A year later, in April 1847, a report on a public meeting held to discuss the infanticide issue and reforms to the New Poor Law explicitly spoke to the role of the press in informing public opinion: “A meeting of the Marylebone Vestry, was told that as a direct result of the 1834 Poor Law Act, over the past 12 years seduction and infanticide were increasing to a fearful extent, as the daily newspapers clearly showed them” (The Times, “Marylebone Vestry,” April 12, 1847, p. 6).

In June 1847, new hope arose for legislative change with a third reading of the Poor Laws Administration Bill in the House of Commons. In an editorial that used logos and ethos, Delane reported that in the parliamentary debate the coroner for Central Middlesex, Mr. Wakley, M.P., had “horrified the house” with an account of the “great increase in infanticide” and “attributed it to the fact that under the last bastardy law the paltry sum of 2s and 6d a week was all that was awarded to a woman for the support of herself and illegitimate child, unless she could prove the paternity by some concurrent testimony” (The Times, Editorial, “If a Meal of Chopped Logic,” June 26, 1847, p. 5). But The Times had also the previous day reported the alternative argument that had been long held, an argument that in this instance was expressed by Mr. Roebuck M.P., who rejected Wakley’s claim that infanticide had increased under the new law, claiming: “It was not the New Poor Law which had caused the infanticides of which he had complained, but the rigid state of society, which had fixed the brand of shame on the woman for yielding to the temptations of the seducer” (The Times, Editorial, “London, Friday June 25, 1847,” June 25, 1847, p. 4). This discourse reflects how society’s least powerful citizens, young unmarried pregnant females, were caught in an ideological war in which they were framed both as the Madonnas of purity and as fallen women, as weak creatures unable to resist “yielding to the temptations of the seducer.” England was a monarchical class society; it was what Foucault called a “society of blood” (Foucault, 2008a). That is, it was a society in which who owned what, who inherited, who held the power, was ruled by the hereditary rule of bloodlines. It was a society where a man’s blood lines were a foundational tenant and unmarried mothers were treated as disrupters and as a danger to the social order. Unimpressed by Roebuck’s rhetoric, the following day Delane published a savage editorial rich with pathos and potent collocations on the iniquities of the New Poor Law, informing readers: “poor widows have rotted in their garrets in greater numbers than usual—though sick men have lingered less—and poor guiltless bastards have been strangled, drowned, burnt, poisoned, starved, and decapitated by wholesale” (The Times, Editorial, “If a Meal of Chopped Logic,” June 26, 1847, p. 5).

For a quarter of a century, The Times had appropriated individual infanticide court reports as empirical evidence of the pernicious effects of the unjust Bastardy Clause. By keeping the issue of infanticide before the public for a sustained period of time; by reiterating the causal link between the introduction of the Bastardy Clause and an increase in infanticide cases, the newspaper, using its position as “The Thunderer,” through its leading articles and the ethos of its editors, appealed to the enlightened force of public opinion. Their voices contributed to public disquiet and influenced public opinion on the unjust system that saw juries reluctant to convict and magistrates and judges rarely sentencing a woman to death for infanticide from the mid-1830s.

An “Infanticide Epidemic,” Dr. Edwin Lankester, and The Times

By the 1850s, the political narrative had mostly fallen away from infanticide news in The Times, and infanticide reports were relegated to the assizes and coroner’s court columns. But in the 1860s, infanticide again became a hot political topic for news discourse and featured in leading articles when a charismatic and ambitious medical coroner in London started to make sensational claims of a sudden rise in infanticide numbers. The Times once again became prominent in politicizing infanticide through editorials and news reports, using as their primary definer of infanticide news the public health reformer, medical practitioner, and coroner for central Middlesex, Dr. Edwin Lankester. In creating sensational news from Lankester’s statistics, The Times, however, was manufacturing news from a highly problematic source. At a time when infanticide rates appear to have dropped, The Times and other English newspapers created a “maternal panic” (Goc, 2007, 2013) by reporting Dr. Lankester’s inflammatory, but flawed, statistics as clear evidence of an infanticide epidemic. The designation of the 1860s as the decade of the great infanticide epidemic had much to do with the media’s elevation of Lankester to the status of “primary definer” (that is, the primary source) of infanticide news. It is also significant to note that now The Times, in contrast to its campaign in the 1830s–1840s, through the voice of Lankester, shifted the blame for illegitimacy and infanticide away from the law and onto the morality and control of young women.


As noted earlier, infanticide in the 19th century shifted from being understood primarily through a judicial framework to become part of a broader state discourse on population control and management that was influenced by the dogma of Malthus and reflected through the burgeoning science of statistics, with its focus on birth and death rates, on health, discipline, and education. Infanticide statistics published regularly in 19th-century newspapers, had the power to graphically quantify the number of babies being killed by mothers and turn such statistics into compelling news.

Statistics, because they represent logos derived from sound reasoning founded on scientific data, are often read as the ultimate reflection of a reality. However, statistics are also just one alternative discourse: they offer one other way of looking at knowledge. Statistical discourse has a powerful influence through the combination of scientific imprimatur, logos, and ethos, and through the pathos of the narratives humans extract from the data.

Journalists routinely use statistics in news stories to succinctly explain complex science. We regard statistics, Joel Best argues, as though they were magical, as if they were more than mere numbers (Best, 2001, p. 160). Best suggests that statistics be treated “as powerful representations of the truth; we act as though they distil the complexity and confusion of reality into simple facts” (p. 160). But as Goode and Ben-Yehuda observe: “no statement by any scientist, expert, or knowledgeable figure should be regarded as definitive or final … and all statements, including those made by scientists, are constructions from a particular vantage point” (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994, p. 37). Journalists were so captivated by the authoritative statistics, the logos, and the ethos of Edwin Lankester in 19th-century England that they unwittingly created news stories based on his false science (Goc, 2007).

The press reports of Lankester’s shocking and authoritative statistics created the social climate in the 1860s in which infanticide once again became a prominent news issue through reports from the influential Social Science Association. The creation of the Association in 1857 saw medical coroners presenting health data in a way that privileged statistics and broadened discussions of health and social topics, including the issue of illegitimacy and infanticide to be part of the politics of population control and management. By embedding scientific calculations into the news narrative, journalists created a public discourse on the issue of infanticide that neatly quantified the alleged dangers to society.

Foucault’s analysis of sex and his notions about how it gave rise “to comprehensive measures, statistical assessment, and interventions aimed at the entire social body or at groups taken as a whole” (Foucault, 2008a, p. 146) is a useful way of understanding the influential role of Lankester’s infanticide statistics in the creation of infanticide discourse and a maternal panic in 1860s London (Goc, 2013). The rise of the medical coroner and the advancement of scientific statistics all fed into what Foucault called “bio-power”—the transformation in the nature of the sovereign’s power over its subjects from one of prohibition and legal authority to what Foucault called a “normalizing society” where the focus was on the birth rate of a population and on a society’s health, its discipline, the longevity of its citizens, and the education of its children. Through the discourse of statistics, Lankester created compelling fortnightly reports and a comprehensive annual report on the state of health in the district, all eagerly published at length in The Times.

In 1862, Dr. Edwin Lankester was elected to the position of Officer of Medical Health (MOH) and the Coroner for the Central Division of Middlesex, a position he held until his death in 1871. In September 1862, not long after taking up the position as Coroner, Lankester announced “that the country was in the grip of an alarming increase in the crime” and that “the finding of the body of a dead child was of so common an occurrence in London that there were instances of it every day” (The Times, “Infanticide in the Metropolis,” September 9, 1862, p. 6). However, the Coroner for the Eastern District of Middlesex, John Humphreys, whose district was adjacent to the Central Division of Middlesex, had seen only a very small average increase in infanticide inquests. Humphreys was puzzled that “his colleague of the Central Division Dr. Lankester, claimed he held nearly one inquest a day in cases of this kind” (The Times, “Infanticide and Government Rewards,” October 18, 1862, p. 12).

The Times did not investigate apparent discrepancies in Lankester’s figures exposed by Humphreys and made no editorial comment on this criticism, but it did allow him to voice his concerns. Humphreys, while acknowledging that there were “too many instances of infanticide and concealing the birth” in his district, was keen to point out that, “though this class of cases was at present attracting a great deal of public attention, he could refer to statistics which … reflected credit on the Eastern district of Middlesex, which included a very large and densely populated portion of the metropolis” (The Times, “Infanticide and Government Rewards,” October 18, 1862, p. 12).

Lankester demonized the dangers of the infanticidal women in a coronial inquiry in 1862, claiming, in opposition to other social commentators of the day, that the woman who committed infanticide was a risk not just to her infant and herself, but to the whole of society. The infanticidal woman, Lankester said, should be situated with murderers and other dangerous criminals as a direct threat to society. He fueled the infanticide debate with the dramatic claim that everyone was at risk of the infanticidal woman. When forced to concede that his statistics for 1862 showed a “marked decrease” in infanticides, he attributed this decline to the “artifice of the murdering mothers,” arguing that the

crime of infanticide was likely to be attended with an even worse result than the death of the infant. It could not be doubted that after a woman killed her infant she would be less likely to look with abhorrence upon the crime of murder, and the blunting of her sensibility on that point was dangerous to society at large. (The Times, “Dr Lankester on Infanticide,” October 24, 1862, p. 6)

In this inquest story, published in the Coroner’s Court column, the journalist shifts the focus from the dead body of the infant to the political rhetoric of the coroner. The verdict was almost forgotten, until a blunt statement concluded the report: “there was no evidence to show it had died from violence” (The Times, “Dr Lankester on Infanticide,” October 24, 1862, p. 6).

Such was Lankester’s confidence in his statistics that when alternative statistics were released by the Home Office in 1863, challenging his claims of “daily occurrences,” he took the opportunity at another infanticide inquest to employ his logos to argue “that either the crime of infanticide was on the decrease in the metropolis, or more artful means were being taken to hide the bodies of newly-born infants” (The Times, “Mortality of Infants,” January 6, 1863, p. 10). Significantly, Lankester credited the press with influencing the reduction in the crime of infanticide. Speaking directly to the press from the coroner’s bench, he explained:

[O]f the first 72 inquests held by him after his appointment, no less than 12 were inquiries into the circumstances under which deserted infants had come by their death. He called public attention to that state of things, and his remarks were made known to the press … Unfortunately such cases were still numerous, but he thought that there was a marked decrease in their number, and that to the press we might attribute the improvement. (The Times, “Mortality of Infants,” January 6, 1863, p. 10)

An 1864 editorial employing Lankester’s potent infanticide statistics articulated the ideological shift in The Times’ position on infanticide and the infanticidal woman. The newspaper no longer framed infanticide as a social issue caused by unjust laws and society’s harsh stance on unmarried mothers, but rather looked to the flawed morality of young women and the need to control female sexuality for answers to reduce the crime:

[F]rom a return made to the House of Commons it appears that 22,757 inquests were held in the course of last year … of this number 6,506 were held upon infants under seven years old, and 3,644 upon children under a year old. Of the former class 1,100, and the latter nearly 1,000, were illegitimate. A frightful prevalence of infanticide is disclosed by such a return, and it is to be feared that the great mortality of infants is an evil which must be reached as much by moral as by sanitary influence. (The Times, Editorial, “The Able Address,” October 6, 1864, p. 6)

Such news, using collocation, inscribing logos, pathos, and ethos, again effectively brought the unsavory issue of infanticide to the breakfast tables of the middle classes with a sense of urgency. In 1866, The Times appropriated the inquest into the death of a “well nourished” and “neatly-dressed” two-month-old infant to allow Dr. Lankester the stage to put forward his latest infanticide pronouncements. Lankester from his coronial chair energetically defended himself against criticism that he “had been blamed in many quarters for the statements he had made respecting the prevalence of child-murder, and was charged by some of the journals as ‘a libeller of his countrywomen’” (The Times, “Dr Lancaster [sic] on Child Murder,” August 15, 1866, p. 7). In one year, he said he had held inquests on

80 children found dead in the streets, and he believed he would be justified in assuming that there was an equal number of children hidden and their corpses not discovered. This would be 160 murders in his own district, while there were two other districts in the metropolis, each probably bearing an equal proportion as regarded infanticide. This would make 480 child-murders in London in one year. (The Times, “Dr Lancaster [sic] on Child Murder,” August 15, 1866, p. 7)

The journalist went on to quote Lankester’s calculations: infanticidal mothers, he argued, were on average 20 years of age and with a life expectancy of an additional 40 years, by multiplying the 400 by 40, he came up with what The Times called “the startling deduction that there were in London alone 16,000 women who had murdered their offspring. This was based on the assumption that the same woman only once imbued her hands in the blood of the child” (The Times, “Dr Lancaster [sic] on Child Murder,” August 15, 1866, p. 7). Such shocking pronouncements—even when casual scrutiny exposes the statistical flaws—published without question in The Times were accepted as fact because of the authoritative position of the medical coroner and the credibility of the leading newspaper in England. Their collective ethos enabled Lankester and The Times to create influential news that sent shockwaves throughout the nation and fear of an “infanticide epidemic.” A potent blaming rhetoric, sourced from Lankester’s speech at the Social Science Congress, added to the unease and the danger of parturient unmarried women,

When it was remembered that the cases that came before the Coroner’s Court were only those that had been clumsily put away—thrown into some neighbouring street or pond—it had always appeared to him that a very large number of infants were successfully put away and concealed. It was not improbable that for every body discovered another was successfully concealed. Adopting that calculation he had endeavoured to show to what extent the crime of infanticide prevailed in this country. (The Times, “Social Science Congress,” October 6, 1866, p. 12)

Lankester calculated that in England and Wales “there could not be fewer than 1,000 cases of infanticide annually.” With a tone of righteous indignation, he acknowledged that his figures might “perhaps, be too high or too low, but his theories ought not to be laughed at upon that account” (The Times, “Social Science Congress,” October 6, 1866, p. 12).

The position of The Times had shifted from empathy for the mother in the 1830–1840s and an acknowledgment that a system in which the fathers of illegitimate children were not made accountable was unfair and heartless, to a new hard-edged morality that reinforced the binary patriarchal notions of women as Madonnas or whores and ignored the role of the man who fathered the child. Lankester was the dominant voice in a report from the 1866 Social Science Congress, promoting his view that punishment of the unmarried mother in cases of infanticide would have “a salutary effect in the way of prevention” and that the “way to facilitate this was to offer a reward in every case of an unknown child found dead” (The Times, “Social Science Congress,” October 1866, p. 6). Such rhetoric fed into conservative fears about the danger of illegitimacy and the need for society to constrain and control unmarried females.

When Lankester died in 1873, there was a significant decrease in infanticide news discourse in The Times, and once again when cases were reported they were constrained within the coronial and court columns. This was due no doubt in part to the decrease in infanticide cases that resulted from the 1871 Child Protection Act, with the enforcement of the registration of births, tighter controls on pregnant women, and the development of a welfare system. It could also be argued that, with the loss of their preeminent primary definer on the issue of infanticide, infanticide lost its news values as a political topic.


On no other topic in The Times in the 1800s were women the focus of such sustained political coverage than on the topic of infanticide. The desperate acts of the most disenfranchised citizens in England—pregnant, unmarried, destitute young women—were the focus of leading articles, influential news stories, and reports in the police, court, and coronial columns. In 19th-century England, illegitimacy was considered such a threat to the social order, to a society founded on hereditary lineage and the rule of blood, that unmarried mothers were stripped of all rights in a Malthusian attempt to control illegitimacy. The introduction of the 1834 New Poor Law, with its Bastardy Clause denying mothers of illegitimate children support, led to a sharp increase in the crime of infanticide. While the Tory politicians stayed firm to their policy to punish mothers of illegitimate children, others in society, including the press, argued that the law was unjust and inhumane. The Times published stories about infanticide within the didactic crime news frame, and named and shamed young women, giving their news stories the effect of an ideological control; but in the 1830s–1840s the newspaper also saw the gross injustice of the law and took on a paternalistic role to campaign for reform using its influential platform to campaign against the law. Stirring leading articles thundered the facts about infanticide to the middle and upper classes, at the same time as lurid stories of desperate young mothers killing their newborn infants entertained readers. The 1860s saw The Times change its attitude to unmarried mothers and become less sympathetic in their infanticide reports. Journalists were so captivated by the shocking but incorrect statistics of the charismatic medical coroner, Dr. Lankester that they became complicit in the creation of false news and in the establishment of widespread but unfounded concerns about an infanticide epidemic. Through this analysis of infanticide news in The Times, insight has been gained into how infanticide was understood in 19th-century England, and how power was influenced over the infanticidal woman—and how the infanticidal woman herself held power through her actions and through the broadcast of her actions to the world as news.

Review of Literature and Primary Sources

Studies of the history of infanticide texts have mainly focused on literary authorship, with few studies emphasizing the manufacture of infanticide news. Most historical studies continue to source infanticide news texts as historical data. The exceptions are Nicolá Goc’s Women Infanticide and the Press: News Narratives from England And Australia 1822–1922 (2013), which uses critical discourse analysis to analyze the creation of infanticide news across a century; Jennifer Thorn’s 2003 edited collection, Writing British Infanticide; Child-Murder, Gender, and Print, 1722–1859, which includes two studies where narrative analysis has been applied to news texts; Melissa Valiska Gregory’s study of paternal child murder in the London Times, 1826–1849; and Miriam Jones’s analysis of infanticide broadsheets in Britain, 1780–1850, and Deborah Symonds’s (1997) Weep Not for Me: Women, Ballads and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland. The other exception is Judith Knelman’s 1998 study, Twisting in the Wind: The Murderess and the English Press, which provides textual analysis of broadsheets, ballads, poetry, novels, and some news stories. A more recent article in Media History by Daniel Grey, “Agonised Weeping: Representing Femininity, Emotion and Infanticide in Edwardian Newspapers,” offers promise that more researchers will become interested in the ways news is constructed rather than simply use news texts as uncomplicated historical evidence. Marie-Christine Leps’s 1992 study of the production of deviance in 19th-century discourse and her analysis of the discursive practices that transformed the phenomenon of crime are useful in understanding the broader development of discourse and the creation of the criminal.

Infanticide as a topic has been widely covered by historians and those interested in criminal justice. Important texts that look at infanticide historically include: Mark Jackson (Ed.), Infanticide: Historical Perspectives on Child Murder and Concealment, 1550–2000 (2002); and Lionel Rose’s Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Great Britain 1800–1939 (1986).

Further Reading

Goc, N. (2013). Women, infanticide and the press news narratives of infanticide in England and Australia 1822–1922. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Gregory, M. V. (2003). “Most revolting murder by a father.” The violent rhetoric of paternal child-murder in The Times [London], 1826–1849. In J. Thorn (Ed.), Writing British infanticide (pp. 70–90). Newark: Delaware University Press.Find this resource:

Grey, D. (2015). Agonised weeping: Representing femininity, emotion and infanticide in Edwardian newspapers. Media History, 21(4), 468–480.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish. Trans and ed. A. Sheridan. London: Allen.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (2008a). The history of sexuality Volume 1. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (2008b). The spectacle of the scaffold. London: Penguin Books.Find this resource:

Jackson, M. (Ed.). (2002). Infanticide: Historical perspectives on child murder and concealment, 1550–2000. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Knelman, J. (1998). Twisting in the wind: The murderess and the English press. Toronto: Toronto University Press.Find this resource:

Leps, M. (1992). Apprehending the criminal: The production of deviance in nineteenth-century discourse. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Richardson, J. E. (2007). Analysing newspapers: An approach from critical discourse analysis. London: Palgrave.Find this resource:

Symonds, D. A. (1997). Weep not for me: Women, ballads and infanticide in early modern Scotland. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press.Find this resource:

Thorn, J. (Ed.). (2003). Writing British infanticide; child-murder, gender, and print, 1722–1859. Newark: Delaware University Press.Find this resource:


Altick, R. D. (1970). Victorian studies in scarlet: Murders and manners in the Age of Victoria. New York: Norton.Find this resource:

Aristotle. J. Hutton (trans.). (1962). Poetics in J. E. Richardson (2007), Analysing newspapers: An approach from critical discourse analysis. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Best, J. (2001), Damned lies and statistics, untangling numbers from the media, politicians, and activists. Berkeley: University Press of California.Find this resource:

Boyce, G., Curran, J., & Wingate, P. (Eds.). (1978). Newspaper history: From the 17th century to the present day. London: Constable, 1978.Find this resource:

Carlyle, T. (1907). On heroes, hero-worship, and the heroic in history. London: Chapman.Find this resource:

Curran, J. (2002). Media and power: Communication and society. London: Taylor & Francis.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish. Trans and ed. A. Sheridan. London: Allen.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (2008a). The history of sexuality Volume 1. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (2008b). The spectacle of the scaffold. London: Penguin Books.Find this resource:

Goc, N. (2007). Medicine, medea and the media: The rise and fall of Roy Meadow. PhD Thesis, Hobart, Tasmania: University of Tasmania.Find this resource:

Goc, N. (2013). Women, infanticide and the press: News narratives of infanticide in England and Australia 1822–1922. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Goode, E., & Ben-Yehuda, N. (1994). Moral panics: The social construction of deviance. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Gregory, M. V. (2003). “Most revolting murder by a father”: The violent rhetoric of paternal child-murder in The Times [London], 1826–1849. In J. Thorn (Ed.), Writing British infanticide (pp. 70–90). Newark: Delaware University Press.Find this resource:

Grey, D. (2015). Agonised weeping: Representing femininity, emotion and infanticide in Edwardian newspapers. Media History, 21(4), 468–480.Find this resource:

Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/decoding. Reprinted 1994 in D. Graddol and O. Boyd-Barrett (Eds.), Media texts: Authors and readers (pp. 42–77). Clevedon, U.K.: Open University Press.Find this resource:

Jackson, M. (Ed.). (2002). Infanticide: Historical perspectives on child murder and concealment, 1550–2000. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Jones, M. (1999). “Too common and most unnatural!”: Rewriting the “Infanticidal Woman” in Britain, 1764–1859. Dissertation, York University, Canada.Find this resource:

Knelman, J. (1998). Twisting in the wind: The murderess and the English press. Toronto: Toronto University Press.Find this resource:

Malthus, T. (1798). An essay on the principle of population, as it affects the future improvement of society with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers. London.Find this resource:

McEvoy, K. (1996). Newspapers & crime: Narrative and the construction of identity. In J. Morison & C. Bell (Eds.), Tall stories: Reading law and literature (pp. 179–200). Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate.Find this resource:

Milner, L. S. (2000). Hardness of heart/hardness of life: The stain of human infanticide. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.Find this resource:

Oberman, M. (2003). Mothers who kill: Cross-cultural patterns in and perspectives on contemporary maternal filicide. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 26, 493–514.Find this resource:

Richardson, J. E. (2007). Analysing newspapers, An approach from critical discourse analysis. London: Palgrave.Find this resource:

Rose, L. (1986). Massacre of the innocents: Infanticide in Great Britain 1800–1939. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Ryan, W. B. (1862). Infanticide: Its law, prevalence, prevention and history. London: Churchill.Find this resource:

Symonds, D. (1997). Weep not for me: Women, ballads and infanticide in early modern Scotland. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press.Find this resource:

Thorn, J. (Ed.). 2003 Writing British infanticide; Child-murder, gender, and print, 1722–1859. Newark: Delaware University Press.Find this resource:

Ward, K. (1989). Mass communication and the modern world. London: Macmillan.Find this resource:

Woods, O., & Bishop, J. (1983). The story of The Times. London: Michael.Find this resource:

The Times Newspaper

Web: Available at

The able address which Sir CHARLES HASTINGS. Editorial. October 6, 1864, p. 6. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. August 8, 2016.Find this resource:

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“A coroner’s arithmetic.” Dr. Lankester. October 6, 1866, p. 12. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. November 21, 2016.Find this resource:

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The correspondence which we recently published respecting the verdict of the coroner’s jury at Taunton. Editorial. May 30, 1837, p. 4. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. December 3, 2016.Find this resource:

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For some months past. Editorial. April 14, 1837, p. 4. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. January 29, 2017.Find this resource:

If a meal of chopped logic could fill a hungry man. Editorial. June 26, 1847, p. 5. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. October 9, 2016.Find this resource:

Infanticide and government rewards. Letter. October 18, 1862, p. 12. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. May 4, 2016.Find this resource:

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London, Monday February 9. Editorial. February 9, 1835, p. 2. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. June 28, 2016.Find this resource:

London, Friday June 25, 1847. Editorial. June 25, 1847, p. 4. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. April 3, 2016.Find this resource:

Marylebone Vestry. April 12, 1847, p. 6. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. June 2, 2016.Find this resource:

Mortality of infants. January 6, 1863, p. 10. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. January 18, 2017.Find this resource:

Oxford circuit. April 2, 1846, p. 8. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. May 21, 2016.Find this resource:

P. The Infanticides at Halstead. Letter. March 19, 1846, p. 8. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. October 3, 2016.Find this resource:

Poor Laws administration bill. June 25, 1847, p. 4. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. May 15, 2016.Find this resource:

Poor Law Act. Editorial. February 9, 1835, p. 2. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. May 21, 2016.Find this resource:

The practice of turning out mothers from union. Editorial. April 10, 1846, p. 4. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. December 16, 2017.Find this resource:

A report from Dr. Lankester. Editorial. June 26, 1863, p. 2. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. August 2, 2016.Find this resource:

Social Science Congress, October 24, 1862, p. 6. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. August 12, 2016.Find this resource:

The title of our correspondent “S.G.O.’s” letter. Editorial. October 24, 1864, p. 6. Times Digital Archive 1785–1985. Web. January 9, 2017.Find this resource: