Infanticide Trial Transcript from the Old Bailey of Elizabeth Taylor of Clerkenwell
Infanticide or the killing of a baby was punishable by hanging in early modern England. Unlike married women accused of infanticide, the mere fact that single women had tried to conceal the death of their babies was considered proof of murder under the Infanticide Act of 1624. A single woman's only recourse was to try and prove that the baby had been born dead and that she had not killed it. This was difficult as many of these women gave birth with no witnesses. In the mid-18th century from research by historians, we know that 70% of the women indicted for infanticide were servants by occupation and under the age of 16. We also know that the trend as the century progressed was for juries to find more women innocent than guilty of the crime of infanticide unless there was clear proof that they had murdered their baby. Perhaps they were beginning to see these young women as victims rather than criminals.
The case of Elizabeth Taylor shows the fear and shame single women felt when they became pregnant and the lack of privacy in their lives as servants. Elizabeth does not speak at her trial, instead witnesses for the prosecution are called first before the judge and jury who ask them questions about whether Elizabeth hid her pregnancy and the baby. Then Dinah Beaven testifies that the baby does not appear to have been murdered. She was probably a midwife and here acts as an expert witness. Finally, a prisoner in Newgate with Elizabeth states that they found baby items sewn in Elizabeth's coat when the prisoners took it from her. (New prisoners were often fleeced by inmates who used money and goods to bribe gaolers into providing more than just the basics of bad bread, foul water, and old straw for bedding.) The fact that Elizabeth had made provision for the baby was the strongest proof that she did not intend to kill it and the court let her go.
This source is a part of the Children’s Health in Early Modern England teaching module.
Elizabeth Turner, of Clerkenwell, was indicted for the murder of her male bastard infant, by strangling it with both her hands, April 12.
Eleanor Turnly. The prisoner was servant to Mrs Windsor, a pastry-cook, in St. John's Lane. I and Margaret Goldsmith, came to lodge there but a little before Ladyday [25 March, the beginning of the year on the old calendar], and then we observed the prisoner looked big, and at Easter, she looked very lank. We suspected she had been delivered, though she appeared publicly every day. And we had never heard her cry out, but then we could not think what was become of the child. In short, we thought the family was all alike, or things could not be kept so private. We watched and harkened all as ever we could. Once while. . . we fancied the child might be at nurse in the garret [attic], because they were often whipping up and down stairs. But when we could find nothing, we concluded it was baked in the oven. At last Mrs. Goldsmith, going into the cellar, came up, and told me and her husband, she had seen a wig-box below, and smelled something. He went down, and came up again, like a dead man, and said, he put his hand in the box, and felt a child, but was so surprised that he did not take it out. We consulted what to do, and, says I, as they have kept this thing in hugger-mugger [secret], we won't let 'em know the child is found before we fetch for a constable [policeman]. So Mr. Goldsmith fetched a constable and watch [man who watched the streets to prevent crimes], and they brought the child up, and it was all mouldy. The prisoner, at first, denied she had had a child; but in a little time owned it was her's.
Juryman. You seemed very diligent in watching the prisoner. Did you ever tax [question] her with being with child, before the child was found.
Turnly. No, I never spoke a word to her about it, for I could not bear the sight of the creature.
Margaret and Thomas Goldsmith, deposed to the same effect.
Elizabeth Windsor. The prisoner never told me she was with child, but she said she had been ill, and had had a great deal of water come from her, and then she was much better. When the child was first found, she denied it, but owned it afterwards.
Dinah Beaven. The child was crowded in the box and putrefied. It was at the full time. I could discern no mark of violence. [There] was a small wound on the head; but I have known such a thing happen to an honest woman's child; when it fell from her for want of assistance.
Sarah Hawkey. When the prisoner was brought to Newgate, some of the other prisoners took her coat, for garnish money. And they found these baby things, sewed up in her coat. Here's a shirt, a cap, a stay [a tie for clothing?], a forehead-cloth, and a biggin [a tight fitting cap].
The jury acquitted her.
May, Allyson N. "'She at first denied it': Infanticide Trials at the Old Bailey." In Women and History: Voices of Early Modern England, edited by Valerie Frith, 31–2. Concord, Ontario: Irwin Publishing, 1997. Annotated by Lynda Payne.