If you are a fan of Who Do You Think You Are you will probably remember the story of Danny Dyer’s great great grandmother and the account of her concealment of the birth and death of her illegitimate child. It was a sad tale of a young woman who gave birth alone and in secret. When she found her new-born infant was dead she tried to hide the body. Later she was charged with murder, but eventually cleared of that charge but convicted of concealing the birth.
A chance find in the British Newspaper Archive revealed a similar case in Kenton[i]. This case occurred in 1865, when Harriet Vooght appeared before the Exeter Assizes charged with the wilful murder of her new-born female child in Kenton. Vooght was 21 years old and a servant in the household of Mr Martin Strickland of Starcross in the parish of Kenton. She was nurse to Strickland’s five children and had been in the household for two years. Witnesses reported that on Monday 9 January 1865 Vooght was taken ill. She went to bed at six or seven in the evening where she remained for the whole of the following day. The doctor didn’t call until the Wednesday as he had been in Exeter on the Tuesday.
At the trial the doctor reported that he had seen the patient and asked her if she had miscarried. She had replied that she did not know. Having asked for the key to her box the doctor found the body of a child loosely wrapped in a cloth, under some clothing. He took it out and found some narrow tape wound tightly around its neck and tied neatly with a double bow. From the appearance of the body he thought it likely the child had been born on the Monday night. He later carried out a post-mortem examination. It was a healthy full term child. The lungs were pink and filled the chest cavity and he was satisfied the child had breathed although he could not say the child had ever had a separate existence. He then went on to add that without doubt the cause of death was strangulation.
The defence lawyer intervened at this point and told him he should not go any further as he had not been able to confirm that the child had had a separate existence and therefore the more serious charge of murder should not be pursued. The judge confirmed that if this was so it would not legally be murder. He suggested that the defence lawyer should ‘soften the moral aspect of the case’. Under cross examination the doctor confirmed that immediately after giving birth, and especially for the first time, mothers were not conscious of what they were doing half the time and that a woman might destroy her offspring without even being aware of it.
The court had already heard evidence from Vooght’s employer and her fellow servants about her good character, her kindness and generosity, her gentleness and how fond the children in her care were of her. She was kind to animals and ‘she would not tread on a worm’.
It would appear that everyone involved sympathised with Vooght. Her employer and colleagues all spoke of her kind nature. Her defence lawyer argued that there was insufficient evidence for murder and addressed the matter of concealment. The prosecution had spoken in a ‘feeling and temperate way’. The judge summed up very favourably for the defendant. The jury acquitted Vooght on the charge of murder but found her guilty of concealment of birth, strongly recommending her to mercy. She was sentenced to imprisonment for fifteen months after the judge remarked that the jury had returned a just verdict but that it was impossible to pass over the fact that tape had been found tied tightly around the child’s neck.
So how common was this kind of case in the Victorian period? A search of the British Newspaper Archive using the terms “alleged child murder” with “concealment of birth” brings up a total of 1347 results. 45 are during the period 1800-49, 1242 occur between 1850 and 1899, and a further 60 from 1900 to 1929. Of course this shouldn’t be interpreted as the number of individual cases. In most instances the same case will have been reported in multiple newspapers and in some cases the defined search terms will have missed an incidence.
The Offences Against the Person Act (1861) created the offence of concealing the birth of a child with a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment. A proviso allowed a jury to find an alternative verdict of this offence on a charge of murder. Given the number of cases it would appear that this was a common device within the legal system. It appears to have allowed sympathetic juries and the legal professionals to find an alternative to lengthy prison sentences or execution for murder in such cases. This sympathy can also be seen in the number of infanticide cases during the same time frame when women were deemed to have been suffering from puerperal insanity and committed to an asylum. It has been estimated that 15% of all women admitted to asylums at the time were suffering from ‘post-natal mania’.[ii] Pleading this form of temporary insanity was frequently met with a sympathetic response. In the case of Harriet Vooght described above, we can see that the defence lawyer and the medical witness were preparing the way for such a response if the alternative plea of concealment had not been successful.
A finding of concealment or of temporary insanity may have made the crime more understandable to the Victorian public at a time when motherhood and the ‘angel in the house’ role of womankind was revered.
[i] All the information regarding the case is taken from a detailed report of the court case printed in The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 24 March 1865 via British Newspaper Archive