Maryland Jury and Infanticide Discussion (September 1998)


Maryland Jury and Infanticide Discussion (September 1998)

Query From Randee Brenner Goodstadt 23 Sept 1998

Would appreciate comments from Americanists on an item from yesterday's "This day in History" which told of a colonial jury in 1656 made up entirely of women which acquitted an accused Maryland woman of infanticide.

I'd like to hear more about female juries, how common they were in the colonial period. Thank you.


From Chandos Michael Brown 23 Sept 1998

Without knowing the precise circumstances. I suspect that the "jury" was comprised of midwives, which were sometimes appointed by grand juries and coroners to pass on the probability that a woman had recently given birth.

The question of infanticide in early America is a vexing one--at least so far as calculating frequency. You might to look at Nina Dayton or Kathy Brown's books on Connecticut and the Chesapeake. It's often linked to "concealment of bastardy."

You might also want to have a look at:
Brock, Helen and Catherine Crawford "Forensic Medicine in Early Colonial America, 1633-83," in Michael Crawford and Catherine Crawford, Eds. _Legal Medicine in History_(Cambridge, 1994) 27 and passim.

From Merril D. Smith 24 Sept. 1998

...Sometimes [juries] also examined the infants to see if they were full term.

In addition to other works cited, you might want to look at:

Hoofer, Peter C. and N.E. H. Hull, Eds. _Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England_

Smith, Merril "Unnatural Mothers: Infanticide, Motherhood and Class in the Mid-Atlantic, 1730-1830," in forthcoming _Over the Threshold_ by Christine Daniels (Routledge)

Rowe, G.S. "Infanticide, Its Judicial Resolution, and Criminal Code Revision in Early Pennsylvania," _Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society_ (June 1991)

From Moira Maguire 25 Sept 1998

Another book you might want to look at is Hoffer's _Murdering Mothers_, in which he compares practices of and attitudes toward infanticide in England and colonial New England. I don't think he offers detailed statistics on infanticide but he would certainly address the question of frequency (while also acknowledging the difficulty of knowing for certain whether an infanticide had been committed, given the many legitimate ways that newborn babies could die unexpectedly).

From Joan R. Gundersen 25 Sept 1998

I did not see this item, but would guess that what they were actually describing is a jury of matrons. Consider this more of a panel of "expert witnesses" who were called in to provide their experienced judgements in cases that involved bastardy, infanticide, rape or other situations when special knowledge of women's bodies was crucial to a case. In such cases the court (judges, male jury, etc) made the actual final decision in the case.

For recent books that discuss this, look at Kathleen M. Brown's _Good Wives, Nasty Wenches_ and _Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race and Power in Colonial Virginia_, Institute of Early American History and Culture by UNC Press(1996), and Cornelia Hughes Dayton's _Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law and Society, 1639-1789_. The first case that I know involving an all female jury (in the usual sense of jury) is a case in San Diego County in about 1913.