‘A most diabolical deed’

Infanticide and Irish Society, 1850–1900

Incidences of suspected infanticide were reported on a weekly basis in the latter half of nineteenth-century Ireland. Infanticide cases also reveal much about Irish society and the complex relationships that existed in post-Famine localities. This book is based on a sample of 4,645 suspected cases of infanticide, attempted infant murder and concealment of birth. The book first provides a general overview of the crime of infanticide in the second half of nineteenth-century Ireland, using statistical evidence gleaned from annual returns and the findings. In the case of newborn infants, the men of the coroners' courts had to establish that the infant was born alive and determine that the baby had been murdered. Other than infant murder, the other alternative criminal charges that could be brought on were manslaughter or desertion. Child murder was most frequently associated with puerperal insanity in its three forms: melancholia, depression and mania. The book looks at the attitudes of judges and juries in the Irish courts. It presents four case studies to highlight the response of the police and the attitudes of the community to infanticides and concealment of birth. While some members of the community were only too willing to report their suspicions to the police, others sought to protect the perpetrator from discovery. The press portrayed the female suspect as an object of sympathy as well as the lesser-used representation of an evil mother. The book also traces the lives of several women after their release from prison.

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