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“A Fine Mixture of Pity and Justice:” The Criminal Justice Response to Infanticide in Ireland, 1922–1949


MH, a domestic cook who was 26 years of age, was charged with murdering her newborn infant in September 1931. MH had been “seeing a boy” who, she stated, “took advantage” of her on one occasion, procuring her consent to sexual intercourse by a promise of marriage. She claimed that she only realized she was pregnant during the later months of her pregnancy, but did not inform the father of her child. Her employer, suspecting that MH was pregnant, enquired on several occasions whether she could do anything to help, but MH did not admit her “condition.” Although her employer was aware that MH had no family or home to go to, she gave MH notice to quit her job. A couple of weeks later, MH gave birth in her bedroom at her employer's home; she did not call out for assistance or disturb the girl with whom she shared the bedroom. MH admitted in her statement that the baby cried after birth and that she “tied a white dress belt … around its neck to kill it,” adding: “I tied it [the belt] tight. I killed the child and I know I killed it.” Afterwards, MH put the body in a suitcase, cleaned up the bloodstains, and returned to work. The suspicions of her employer eventually lead to the discovery of the dead infant. The postmortem examination showed that the infant had been born alive, but had received no attention at birth; death was the result of strangulation. MH was acquitted of murder at the Central Criminal Court.

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Tony Ward , “The Sad Subject of Infanticide: Law, Medicine and Child Murder 1860–1938,” Social and Legal Studies 8 (1999): 163–80

R. Sauer , “Infanticide and Abortion in Nineteenth Century Britain,” Population Studies 32 (1978): 82

Mary Beth Wasserlein Emmerichs , “Trials of Women for Homicide in Nineteenth-Century England,” Women and Criminal Justice 5 (1993): 99109.

U. R. Q. Henriques , “Bastardy and the New Poor Law,” Past and Present 37(1967): 103–29

Constance Backhouse , “Desperate Women and Compassionate Courts: Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century Canada,” University of Toronto Law Journal 34 (1984): 447–78.

Clíona Rattigan , ““Done to Death by Father or Relatives:’ Irish Families and Infanticide Cases, 1922–1950,” The History of the Family 13 (2008): 370–83

Clíona Rattigan , “‘I Thought from Her Appearance That She Was in the Family Way:’ Detecting Infanticide Cases in Ireland, 1900–1921,” Family and Community History 11 (2008): 134–51

Brendan D. Kelly , “Poverty, Crime and Mental Illness: Female Forensic Psychiatric Committal in Ireland, 1910–1948,” Social History of Medicine 21 (2008): 311–28

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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