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´╗┐Title: On the uncertainty of the signs of murder in the case of bastard children
Author: Hunter, William, 1718-1783
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  | Transcriber's Note:                                        |
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_Members of the Medical Society_.

Read July 14, 1783.


In the course of the present year, one of our friends, distinguished by
rank, fortune, and science, came to me upon the following occasion: In
the country, he said, a young woman was taken up, and committed to jail
to take her trial, for the supposed murder of her bastard child.
According to the information which he had received, he was inclined to
believe, from the circumstances, that she was innocent; and yet,
understanding that the minds of the people in that part of the country
were much exasperated against her, by the popular cry of _a cruel and
unnatural_ murder, he feared, though innocent, she might fall a victim
to prejudice and blind zeal. What he wished, he said, was to procure an
unprejudiced enquiry. He had been informed that it was a subject which
I had considered in my lectures, and made some remarks upon it, which
were not perhaps sufficiently known, or enough attended to; and his
visit to me was, to know what these remarks were. I told him what I had
commonly said upon that question. He thought some of the observations so
material, that he imagined they might sometimes be the means of saving
an innocent life: and if they could upon the present occasion do so,
which he thought very possible, he was sure I would willingly take the
trouble of putting them upon paper. Next day I sent them to him in a
letter, which I said he was at liberty to use as he might think proper.
Some time afterwards he told me that he had great pleasure in thanking
me for the letter, and telling me that the trial was over; that the
unfortunate young woman was acquitted, and that he had reason to believe
that my letter had been instrumental. This having been the subject of
some conversation one evening at our medical meeting, you remember,
Gentlemen, that you thought the subject interesting, and desired me to
give you a paper upon it. I now obey your command.

       *       *       *       *       *

In those unhappy cases of the death of bastard children, as in every
action indeed that is either criminal or suspicious, reason and justice
demand an enquiry into all the circumstances; and particularly to find
out from what views and motives the act proceeded. For, as nothing can
be so criminal but that circumstances might be added by the imagination
to make it worse; so nothing can be conceived so wicked and offensive to
the feelings of a good mind, as not to be somewhat softened or
extenuated by circumstances and motives. In making up a just estimate of
any human action, much will depend on the state of the agent's mind at
the time; and therefore the laws of all countries make ample allowance
for insanity. The insane are not held to be responsible for their

The world will give me credit, surely, for having had sufficient
opportunities of knowing a good deal of female characters. I have seen
the private as well as the public virtues, the private as well as the
more public frailties of women in all ranks of life. I have been in
their secrets, their counsellor and adviser in the moments of their
greatest distress in body and mind. I have been a witness to their
private conduct, when they were preparing themselves to meet danger, and
have heard their last and most serious reflections, when they were
certain they had but a few hours to live.

That knowledge of women has enabled me to say, though no doubt there
will be many exceptions to the general rule, that women who are pregnant
without daring to avow their situation, are commonly objects of the
greatest _compassion_; and generally are less criminal than the world
imagine. In most of these cases the father of the child is really
criminal, often cruelly so; the mother is weak, credulous, and deluded.
Having obtained gratification, he thinks no more of his promises; she
finds herself abused, disappointed of his affection, attention, and
support, and left to struggle as she can, with sickness, pains, poverty,
infamy; in short, with compleat _ruin_ for _life_!

A worthless woman can never be reduced to that wretched situation,
because she is insensible to infamy; but a woman who has that
respectable virtue, a high sense of shame, and a strong desire of being
respectable in her character, finding herself surrounded by such
horrors, often has not strength of mind to meet them, and in despair
puts an end to a life which is become insupportable. In that case, can
any man, whose heart ever felt what pity is, be _angry_ with the memory
of such an unfortunate woman for what she did? She felt life to be so
dreadful and oppressive, that she _could not_ longer support it. With
that view of her situation, every humane heart will forget the
indiscretion or crime, and bleed for the sufferings which a woman must
have gone through; who, but for having listened to the perfidious
protestations and vows of our sex, might have been an affectionate and
faithful wife, a virtuous and honoured mother, through a long and happy
life; and probably that very reflection raised the last pang of despair,
which hurried her into eternity. To think seriously of what a
fellow-creature must feel, at such an awful moment, must melt to pity
every man whose heart is not steeled with habits of cruelty; and every
woman who does not affect to be more severely virtuous and chaste than
perhaps any good woman ever was.

It may be said that such a woman's guilt is heightened, when we consider
that at the same time that she puts an end to her own life, she murders
her child. God forbid that killing should always be murder! It is only
murder when it is executed with some degree of cool judgment, and wicked
intention. When committed under a phrenzy from despair, can it be more
offensive in the sight of God, than under a phrenzy from a fever, or in
lunacy? It should therefore, as it must raise our horror, raise our
pity too.

What is commonly understood to be the murder of a bastard child by the
mother, if the real circumstances were fully known, would be allowed to
be a very different crime in different circumstances.

In some (it is to be hoped _rare_) instances, it is a crime of the very
deepest dye: it is a premeditated contrivance for taking away the life
of the most inoffensive and most helpless of all human creatures, in
opposition not only to the most universal dictates of humanity, but of
that powerful instinctive passion which, for a wise and important
purpose, the Author of our nature has planted in the breast of every
female creature, a wonderful eagerness about the preservation of its
young. The most charitable construction that could be put upon so savage
an action, and it is to be hoped the fairest often, would be to reckon
it the work of phrenzy, or temporary insanity.

But, as well as I can judge, the greatest number of what are called
murders of bastard children, are of a very different kind. The mother
has an unconquerable sense of shame, and pants after the preservation of
character: so far she is virtuous and amiable. She has not the
resolution to meet and avow infamy. In proportion as she loses the hope
either of having been mistaken with regard to pregnancy, of being
relieved from her terrors by a fortunate miscarriage, she every day sees
her danger greater and nearer, and her mind more overwhelmed with terror
and despair. In this situation many of these women, who are afterwards
accused of murder, would destroy themselves, if they did not know that
such an action would infallibly lead to an enquiry, which would proclaim
what they are so anxious to conceal. In this perplexity, and meaning
nothing less than the murder of the infant, they are meditating
different schemes for concealing the birth of the child; but are
wavering between difficulties on all sides, putting the evil hour off,
and trusting too much to chance and fortune.--In that state often they
are overtaken sooner than they expected; their schemes are frustrated;
their distress of body and mind deprives them of all judgment, and
rational conduct; they are delivered by themselves, wherever they
happened to retire in their fright and confusion; sometimes dying in the
agonies of childbirth, and sometimes, being quite exhausted, they faint
away, and become insensible to what is passing; and when they recover a
little strength, find that the child, whether still-born or not, is
completely lifeless. In such a case, is it to be expected, when it could
answer no purpose, that a woman should divulge the secret? Will not the
best dispositions of mind urge her to preserve her character? She will
therefore hide every appearance of what has happened as well as she can;
though if the discovery be made, that conduct will be set down as a
proof of her guilt.

To be convinced, as I am, that such a case often happens, the reader
would wish perhaps to have some examples and illustrations. I have
generally observed, that in proportion as women more sincerely repent of
such ruinous indiscretions, it is more difficult to prevail upon them to
confess; and it is natural. Among other instances which might be
mentioned, I opened the bodies of two unmarried women, both of them of
irreproachable and unsuspected characters with all who knew them. Being
consulted about their healths, both of them deceived me. One of them I
suspected, and took pains to prevail with her to let me into the secret,
if it was so; promising that I would do her the best offices in my power
to help her out of the difficulties that might be hanging over her: but
it was to no purpose. They both died of racking pains in their bowels,
and of convulsions. Upon laying out of the dead bodies, in one of the
cases a dead child, not come to its full time, was found laying between
the unhappy mother's limbs; and in the other, a very large dead child
was discovered, only half born. Such instances will sufficiently shew
what a patient and fixed resolution the fear of shame will produce. A
young unmarried woman, having concealed her pregnancy, was delivered
during the night by herself. She was suspected; the room was searched,
and the child was found in her box, wrapped up in wet clothes. She
confessed that the child was hers, but denied the having murdered it, or
having had an intention to do so. I opened the child with Mr. Pinkstan,
of St. Alban's-street, and the lungs would not sink in water. Her
account of herself was this: she was a faithful and favourite servant in
a family, which she could not leave without a certainty of her situation
being discovered; and such a discovery she imagined would be certain
_ruin_ to her for life. Under this anguish of mind she was irresolute,
and wavering from day to day as to her plan of conduct. She made some
clothes for the preservation of her child (a circumstance which was in
her favour), and she hired a bed-room in an adjacent street, to be ready
to receive a woman in labour at a moment's notice. Her scheme was, when
taken in labour, to have run out to that house, to be delivered by a
midwife, who was to have been brought to her. She was to have gone home
presently after, and to have made the best excuse she could for being
out. She had heard of soldiers wives being delivered behind a hedge, and
following the husband with the child in a short time after; and she
hoped to be able to do as much herself. She was taken ill of a cholic,
as she thought, in the night; put on some cloaths, both to keep her
warm, and that she might be ready to run out, if her labour should come
on. After waiting some time, she suddenly fell into such racking pain
and terror, that she found she had neither strength nor courage to go
down stairs, and through the street, in that condition, and in the
night. In despair she threw herself upon the bed, and by the terror and
anguish which she suffered, she lost her senses, and fainted. When she
came to a little recollection, she found herself in a deluge of
discharges, and a dead child lying by her limbs. She first of all
attended to the child, and found that it was certainly dead. She lay
upon the bed some time, considering what she should do; and by the time
that there was a little day-light she got up, put all the wet cloaths
and the child into her box, put the room and bed into order, and went
into it. The woman of whom she hired the room and who had received a
small sum of money as earnest, though she did not know who she was,
swore to her person, and confirmed that part of her story. Mr. Pinkstan
and I declared that we thought her tale very credible, and reconciled it
to the circumstance of the swimming of the lungs, to the satisfaction of
the jury, as we shall hereafter do to the reader. She was acquitted; and
I had the satisfaction of believing her to be innocent of murder.

In most of these cases we are apt to take up an early prejudice; and
when we evidently see an intention of concealing the birth, conclude
that there was an intention of destroying the child: and we account for
every circumstance upon that supposition, saying, why else did she do so
and so? and why else did she not do so and so? Such questions would be
fair, and draw forth solid conclusions, were the woman supposed at the
time to be under the direction of a calm and unembarrassed mind; but the
moment we reflect that her mind was violently agitated with a conflict
of passions and terror, an irrational conduct may appear very natural.

Allow me to illustrate this truth by a case. A lady, who, thank God! has
now been perfectly recovered many years, in the last months of her
pregnancy, on a fine summer's evening, stept out, attended by her
footman, to take a little air on a fine new pavement at her own door, in
one of our most even, broad, and quiet streets. Having walked gently to
the end of the street, where there was a very smooth crossing place; she
thought she would go over, for a little variety, and return towards her
house by walking along the other side of the street. Being heavy and
not unmindful of her situation, she was stepping very slowly and
cautiously, for fear of meeting with any accident. When she had advanced
a few steps in crossing the street, a man came up on a smart trot,
riding on a cart, which made a great rattling noise. He was at a
sufficient distance to let her get quite over, or to return back with
great deliberation; and she would have been perfectly safe, if she had
stood still. But she was struck with a panic, lost her judgment and
senses, and the horror of confusion between going on, or returning back,
both of which she attempted, she crossed the horse at the precise point
of time to be caught and entangled in the wheel, was thrown down, so
torn and mashed in her flesh and bones, that she was taken up perfectly
senseless, and carried home without the least prospect of a recovery.
This lady was in the prime of life, living in affluence, beloved by her
family, and respected by all the world. No imagination could suggest an
idea of her intending to destroy herself; but if her situation in life
at that time could have favoured such a supposition, we see in fact that
the most unquestionable proof that she could have saved herself, either
by going on, or by turning back, or by standing still, would have
signified nothing towards proving that she had intended to put an end to
her own life and to that of her child. One shudders to think that
innocent women may have suffered an ignominous death, from such
equivocal proofs and inconclusive reasoning.

Most of these reflections would naturally occur to any unprejudiced
person, and therefore upon a trial in this country, where we are so
happy as to be under the protection of judges, who, by their education,
studies, and habits, are above the reach of vulgar prejudices, and make
it a rule for their conduct to suppose the accused party innocent till
guilt be proved; with such judges, I say, there will be little danger of
an innocent woman being condemned by false reasoning. But danger, in the
cases of which we are now treating, may arise from the evidence and
opinions given by physical people, who are called in to settle questions
in science, which judges and jurymen are supposed not to know with
accuracy. In general I am afraid too much has been left to our decision.
Many of our profession are not so conversant with science as the world
may think: and some of us are a little disposed to grasp at authority in
a public examination, by giving a quick and decided opinion, where it
should have been guarded with doubt; a character which no man should be
ambitious to acquire, who in his profession is presumed every day to be
deciding nice questions upon which the life of a patient may depend.

To form a solid judgment about the birth of a new-born child, from the
examination of its body, a professional man should have seen many
new-born children, both still-born, and such as had outlived their birth
a short time only; and he should have dissected, or attended the
dissections of a number of bodies in the different stages of advancing
putrefaction. I have often seen various common and natural appearances,
both internal and external, mistaken for marks of a violent death. I
remember a child which was found in a compressed state and globular
form, and, like hardened dough, had retained all the concave impressions
which had been made where any part of the skin and flesh had been
pressed inwards. The jury had got an opinion that this moulding of the
flesh could not have happened, except the infant had been put into that
compressed state while it was alive. My anatomical employments enabled
me to remove all their doubts about the fact. I offered to make the
experiment before them, if they pleased; the child should be laid in
warm water, till its flesh should become soft and pliable, as in a body
just dead; then it should be compressed, and remain so till cold, and
then they would see the same effect produced. They were satisfied,
without making the trial.

In many cases, to judge of the death of a child, it may be material to
attend accurately to the force of cohesion between the skin and the
scarf-skin: and still more, to be well acquainted with the various
appearances of the blood settling upon the external parts of the body,
and transuding through all the internal parts in proportion to the time
that it has been dead, and to the degree of heat in which it has been

When a child's head or face looks swoln, and is very red, or black, the
vulgar, because hanged people look so, are apt to conclude that it must
have been strangled. But those who are in the practice of midwifery know
that nothing is more common in natural births, and that the swelling and
deep colour go gradually off, if the child lives but a few days. This
appearance is particularly observable in those cases where the naval
string happens to gird the child's neck, and where its head happens to
be born some time before its body.

There are many other circumstances to be learned by an extensive
experience in anatomy and midwifery, which, for fear of making this
paper prolix, and thence less useful, I shall pass over, and come to the
material question, _viz._ in suspicious cases, how far may we conclude
that the child was born alive, and probably murdered by its mother, if
the lungs swim in water?

First, We may be assured that they contain air. Then we are to find out
if that air be generated by putrefaction.

Secondly, To determine this question, we are to examine the other
internal parts, to see if they be emphysematous, or contain air; and we
must examine the appearance of the air-bubbles in the lungs with
particular attention. If the air which is in them be that of
respiration, the air-bubbles will hardly be visible to the naked eye;
but if the air-bubbles be large, or if they run in lines along the
fissures between the component _lobuli_ of the lungs, the air is
certainly emphysematous, and not air which had been taken in by

Thirdly, If the air in the lungs be found to be contained in the natural
air-vesicles, and to have the appearance of air received into them by
breathing, let us next find out if that air was not perhaps blown into
the lungs after the death of the infant. It is so generally known that a
child, born apparently dead, may be brought to life by inflating its
lungs, that the mother herself, or some other person, might have tried
the experiment. It might even have been done with a most diabolical
intention of bringing about the condemnation of the mother.

But the most dangerous and the most common error into which we are apt
to fall, is this, _viz._ supposing the experiment to have been fairly
made, and that we have guarded against every deception above mentioned,
we may rashly conclude that the child was born alive, and therefore must
probably have been murdered; especially in a case where the mother had
taken pains, by secreting the child, to conceal the birth. As this last
circumstance has generally great weight with a jury, I will only
observe, that in fair equity, it cannot amount to more than a ground of
suspicion, and therefore should not determine a question, otherwise
doubtful between an acquittal, or an ignominous death.

Here let us suppose a case which every body will allow to be very
possible. An unmarried woman, becoming pregnant, is striving to conceal
her shame, and laying the best scheme that she can devise, for saving
her own life, and that of the child, and at the same time concealing the
secret--but her plan is at once disconcerted, by her being unexpectedly
and suddenly taken ill by herself, and delivered of a dead child. If the
law punishes such a woman with death for not publishing her shame, does
it not require more from human nature than weak human nature can bear?
In a case so circumstanced, surely the only crime is the having been
pregnant, which the law does not mean to punish with death; and the
attempt to conceal it by fair means should not be punishable by death,
as that attempt seems to arise from a principle of virtuous shame.

Having shewn that the secreting of the child amounts at most to
suspicion only, let us return to the most important question of all,
_viz._ If in case of a concealed birth, it be clearly made out that the
child had breathed, may we infer that it was murdered? Certainly not. It
is certainly a circumstance like the last, which amounts only to
suspicion. To prove this important truth to the satisfaction of the
reader, it may be thought fit to assert the following facts, which I
know from experience to be true, and which will be confirmed by every
person who has been much employed in midwifery.

1. If a child makes but one gasp, and instantly dies, the lungs will
swim in water as readily as if it breathed longer, and had then been

2. A child will very commonly breathe as soon as its mouth is born, or
protruded from the mother, and in that case may lose its life before its
body be born; especially when there happens to be a considerable
interval of time between what we may call the birth of the child's head,
and the protrusion of its body. And if this may happen where the best
assistance is at hand, it is still more likely to happen when there is
none; that is, where the woman is delivered by herself.

3. We frequently see children born, who from circumstances in their
constitution, or in the nature of the labour, are but barely alive; and
after breathing a minute or two, or an hour or two, die in spite of all
our attention. And why may not that misfortune happen to a woman who is
brought to bed by herself?

4. Sometimes a child is born so weak, that if it be left to itself,
after breathing or sobbing, it might probably die, yet may be roused to
life by blowing into its lungs applying warmth and volatiles, rubbing
it, &c. &c. But in the cases which we have been considering such means
of saving life are not to be expected.

5. When a woman is delivered by herself, a strong child may be born
perfectly alive, and die in a very few minutes for want of breath;
either by being upon its face in a pool made by the natural discharges,
or upon wet cloaths; or by the wet things over it collapsing and
excluding air, or drawn close to its mouth and nose by the suction of
breathing. An unhappy woman delivered by herself, distracted in her
mind, and exhausted in her body, will not have strength or recollection
enough to fly instantly to the relief of the child. To illustrate this
important truth, I shall give a short case.

A lady, at a pretty distant quarter of the town, was taken with labour
pains in the night-time. Her nurse, who slept in the house, and her
servants, were called up, and I was sent for. Her labour proved hasty,
and the child was born before my arrival. The child cried instantly, and
she felt it moving strongly. Expecting every moment to see me come into
her bedchamber, and being afraid that the child might be someway
injured, if an unskilful person should take upon her the office of a
midwife upon the occasion, she would not permit the nurse to touch the
child, but kept herself in a very fatiguing posture, that the child
might not be pressed upon, or smothered. I found it lying on its face,
in a pool which was made by the discharges; and so completely dead, that
all my endeavours to rouze it to life proved vain.

These facts deserve a serious consideration from the public: and as I am
under a conviction of mind, that, when generally known, they may be the
means of saving some unhappy and innocent women, I regard the
publication of them as an indispensable duty.

_Printed by G. Hayden, Brydges Street, Covent Garden._

  | Transcriber's Notes:                                         |
  |                                                              |
  | Page 7: Comma added after "abused".                          |
  | Page 9: "premediated" amended to "premeditated"              |
  | Page 13 "her's" amended to "hers"                            |
  | Page 14: Comma after "her labour should come on" replaced    |
  | with a full stop.  "Sudenly" amended to "suddenly"; "pain    |
  | und terror" amended to "pain and terror".                    |
  | Page 17: "senselesss" amended to "senseless"                 |
  | Page 18: "ignominous" _sic_                                  |
  | Page 24: "ignominous" _sic_                                  |
  | Page 26: "brobably" amended to "probably"                    |
  | Page 28: "indispensible" amended to "indispensable"          |

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