The Children of Moll Flanders: Infanticide Run Rampant

The original title page for Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders
The original title page for Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders

When reading through Defoe’s Moll Flanders, one thing that struck me as a reader was the complete disregard Moll had for all of the children to which she gave birth over the course of the novel. While Moll takes pains at every turn to account for her stock of money and goods, she doesn’t bother to keep count of her offspring, let alone give any sign of concern for their well-being. Recognizing that this isn’t a focus of the overall narrative and that views towards children varied greatly in the 1700s from our views and beliefs today, I was willing, somewhat, to give Moll a pass for her laissez-faire approach to child-rearing.

Willing, that is, until I began to browse through the Old Bailey Session Papers, which are available online. I thought it would be interesting to see if any papers came up under the search for “offense: infanticide” and “verdict: not guilty”. I didn’t expect to find more than four of five instances of this, so on can imagine the shock I felt when 46 cases popped up under my results. I was astounded, that within the span of 30 years, over 46 cases of infanticide had been brought to court in which the defendants were acquitted. Upon further examination, I found that of these 46, only 4 of the cases involved the death of an infant that was not designated by the court as a “bastard”.

Old Bailey Microcosm edited
A painting of the interior of the Old Bailey, London’s court.
From looking over the transcripts of these cases, it’s clear that the main reason all of the accused ended up being acquitted is because there were no “violent marks” on the body of the infant, with the mother usually claiming that the baby had miscarried and was born dead. It was so hard to prove whether or not a child was born alive that it’s apparent that many women ‘got off’ of such charges, when, in all likelihood, the actually did murder their children. I understand that at the time in question to give birth to and keep a bastard child was to guarantee an end to a woman’s respectable life – but for all intents and purposes it seems that society-at-large felt that it was okay to murder these children. It is true that the ‘sanctity of childhood’ was not what it is today, but these were still human lives, thrown away with very little concern being shown by the legal system.

Widows had special status in 1700s Britain and the status afford to them would have served someone like Moll very well indeed. (Portrait by Josef Franz Danhauser, The Widows Offering)
A woman in mourning – a common sight in the 1700s.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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