An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children (1624)
Whereas many Lewd Women that have been delivered of Bastard Children, to avoid their shame and to escape punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the Death of Their Children, and after, if the Child be found dead, the said Women do allege that the said Child was born dead, whereas it falleth out some times (although hardly it is to be probed,) that the said Child or Children were Murdered by the said Women their Lewd Mothers, or by their assent or procurement.
For the preventing therefore of this great mischief, Be it Enacted by the Authority of this present Parliament, that if any Women after one month next ensuring the end of this next Session of Parliament, be delivered of any Issue of her body, Male or Female, which being born alive, should by the Laws of this Realm be a bastard, and that she endeavor privately either by drowning or secret burying thereof, or any other way, either by her self or the procuring of others, so to conceal the death thereof, as that it may not come to light, whether it were born alive or not, but be concealed, In every such case, the Said Mother so offending shall suffer Death, as in the case of murder, except such Mother can make proof by one witness at the least, that the Child (whose death by her so intended to be concealed) was born dead.
—- CORPORATION OF LONDON, Anno vicesimo primo Jacobi Regis, &c., 21Jac. I c. 27
This is the statute serving as the first epigraph to Accidents of Providence (by Stacia M. Brown.) At first, I found absolutely no objection to this law. I mean, anyone who murders a baby ought to be punished by death. But then I realized, it’s not about “anyone,” only the mothers. The fathers of the bastard children are not held into account and; the statute also does not make any provision for women whose babies may have naturally aborted without a witness. And so, we come to realize that this is targeted towards Lewd Women; And upon further contemplation, unmarried Lewd Women, since given the time and place (before blood testing and DNA samples) a married women could pass off the offspring of an adulterous affair as her husbands. And what if a married woman killed her baby and there happened to be an unmarried Lewd Woman around? Guess who the number one suspect is going to be! And 17th century justice is not exactly a bright shining example of “innocent until proven guilty.”
So, yes, while I still believe that there’s a special circle of hell reserved for baby-killers, this law does nothing to prevent such actions. It only makes the guilty more crafty at concealing it.