When the children were worth more dead than alive

Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900 - The Italian Boy
May 13, 2005

Life was cheap but death was profitable in early 19th-century Britain. Desperate single mothers killed their young babies rather than face poverty and shame; resurrection men murdered to obtain lucrative fresh corpses to sell to medical schools for dissection.

These two illuminating studies focus on child murder and bodysnatching - phenomena that attracted Victorian horror and fascination in equal measure, and which continue to resonate in different ways today.

Child murder in modern eyes is a repellent crime, as recent events have reminded us, from the Soham murders and the shooting of a Nottingham schoolgirl to the Beslan school massacre in Chechnya. A phenomenon recalling the child sacrifice of classical and biblical times, or of primitive societies, ought to be totally unacceptable in a modern society where the sanctity of individual human life has priority, especially a child's life as yet unfulfilled. Nevertheless, as recently as 2002, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children called the child murder rate "a national disgrace".

Yet, as Josephine McDonagh reveals in her in-depth study of key texts in British culture, Child Murder and British Culture , between 1720 and 1900 child murder was a "banal everyday kind of event" and one that was embedded in the literature of the age. It was a difficult crime to prove and convictions were rare, although proof of concealment was enough to establish guilt until 1803.

McDonagh traces the idea of child murder, examining not only infanticide (killing before or after birth, up to three years of age) but also the violent death of any person represented as a child. In her text, it becomes a representative crime through which controversial ideas about the proper nature of civilised society and the autonomy of the individual are discussed.

A broad array of sources from different disciplines takes us from Swift and Mandeville to Burke, Wordsworth and Blake; from Malthus and the anti-Poor Law Leaguers to George Eliot, Matthew Arnold and the fin de siècle New Women. In this way, a genealogy of ideas of child murder is created, and their transmission and diffusion mapped.

Sometimes the motif of child murder represents a past society to be consigned to the memory, in others it signifies the forging of a new one.

It can be a reaction to unwanted offspring or to a population explosion on a family, national or global level. Sometimes it is institutionalised, even becoming national policy. It can be sacrificial, to appease a god, or symbolic of social liberation. Almost always, however, it is seen from the point of view of the adult or society at large. A mother's love in this context becomes mere sentimentality.

The framework of the discussion is broadly chronological, though it is sometimes difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. McDonagh notes the changes in child murder law but passes over other staging posts such as the 1753 Marriage Act. This was significant because it made illegitimacy unacceptable, putting single mothers beyond the pale while locking other women into loveless marriages.

McDonagh has produced an impressively wide-ranging academic study. In contrast, Sarah Wise's The Italian Boy reads like a detective thriller, precisely located in the grim underworld of London during a few weeks at the end of 1831. It is the story of a gang of murderous bodysnatchers known as the London Burkers after their infamous Edinburgh forerunners, William Burke and William Hare.

London's medical schools needed 500 bodies a year for their students, but the legal supply, which came from criminal executions, provided only about 55. So bodysnatchers went to great lengths to obtain bodies, colluding with corrupt undertakers, gravediggers and local officials, posing as relatives or simply snatching bodies from the family home - even resorting to murder.

The gruesome details unfold relentlessly in a reconstruction of how the trade operated. Strangely for such a publicly distasteful activity, the law regarded it as a misdemeanour that attracted only lenient penalties. But because a corpse was not regarded as property and did not belong to anyone, courts relied on attendant crimes, such as robbery, housebreaking and murder, to convict. Slowly a picture of systematic slaughter emerges, and with it the perfect crime: murder for bodies - bodies for sale - and once dissected and organs removed, no evidence.

This is historical and investigative journalism at its best, painstakingly researched and crisply written. Woven into an enthralling narrative are accounts of contemporary policing and vagrancy; of London's colourful street performers; of surgeons, anatomy teachers and the medical establishment; and the horrors of Smithfield Market. Throughout are telling glimpses of the anger and voyeurism of the public, especially in the crowds witnessing the executions and visiting the House of Murder in Bethnal Green.

Public outcry over the London Burkers led directly to the Anatomy Act of 1832, aided by the general political and social unease of the Reform Bill era. This increased the legal supply of cadavers by including those unclaimed in workhouses and hospitals. But just as burking for profit began to decline in the late 1830s, there arose a macabre link with child murder as controversy surrounded working-class burial societies where, as Tennyson put it, "a Mammonite mother kills her babe for a burial fee" or an insurance payout.

After 1900, the older debates over child-murder in Britain subsided as the result of advances in birth control and forensic science in a changing post-Freudian moral climate. They were largely to be replaced by concerns about child abuse and paedophilia.

Yet some still resonate - about abortion, euthanasia, and the use of DNA gene technology to avoid the birth of handicapped children or to create designer babies. Moreover, although bodysnatching no longer hits the headlines, surgeons still need body organs, less for research than for replacement surgery, which has caused scandal and outrage where the removal of organs from dead children has proceeded without parental consent.

These are issues that will always surface as society's capacity to control its population is harnessed to serve moral, philosophical and political ends. Indeed, they are central to the debate about the future of society on earth.

David Johnson is fellow in history, Leicester University.

Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900

Author - Josephine McDonagh
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 8
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 521 78193 0

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