On the 28th of June 1769, Sarah Hunter stood before the Old Bailey court to hear the verdict of her murder trial. In the 18th century, the majority of women tried at the Old Bailey were accused of committing an unnatural crime, such as concealing a birth, terminating a pregnancy, or murdering a child. These crimes do not support the belief of women being passive and less aggressive than men. Therefore crimes that challenge perceived gender roles, particularly surrounding motherly instincts, were mercilessly prosecuted. Hunter’s infanticide trial reads like many others of that time, but it is the acquittal verdict that makes this case so fascinating. It would appear that her acquittal was not due to her strong defence, but rather to her socio-economic situation and the mindset of 18th-century England.
On the night of May 5th, Sarah Hunter, a spinster who served as a cook in Mrs. Steer’s home, complained of leg swelling and pain. In an attempt to aid Hunter, Mrs. Steer called upon a “man-midwife,” Mr. Abel, to assess her condition. Mr. Abel believed Hunter to be in labour and directed Mrs. Steer to confront the woman on her pregnancy. However, Mrs. Steer was unable to do so, and instead asked Miss Richards, another attendant in the home, to keep a watchful eye on Hunter throughout the night. Following Mrs. Steer’s exit from the room, Hunter (who was behind the bed curtains) became very busy under her bedclothes. When Miss Richards heard what sounded like a knife being dropped she went straight to Mrs. Steer for fear that Hunter was attempting suicide. When Miss Richards returned to the room, Hunter seemed relaxed and said that she no longer needed their attention. The next day Hunter asked to change her bed linens which Mrs. Steer permitted her to do. However, when Mrs. Steer went to find the linens that were on her bed the previous evening, she could not readily retrieve them. After further scrutinizing Hunter’s room, Mrs. Steer found the bloody sheets tucked away in the corner of one of Hunter’s drawers. Mrs. Steer confronted Hunter on having given birth the night before, which Hunter denied at first. When she threatened to call the police, Hunter admitted there was a child – and what’s more, that she had wrapped it up and placed it in a locked trunk. When Mrs. Steer found the child, who appeared full-term, its throat was slit to the bone. In Hunter’s defence, she stated that she awoke to find a child which frightened her. Though she never admitted to murder outright she does state that her actions were not sensible. However, what those senseless actions were, she cannot remember.
In 1624, 145 years prior to Hunter’s arrest, the infanticide statute stated, “unless the mother could convincingly demonstrate her innocence, mere concealment of a dead child proved infanticide” (Francus 135). In her defence, Hunter had, in a round-about way, admitted to giving birth. This was also credited through Mrs. Steer’s testimony that Hunter had told her there was a child and it was hidden in the locked trunk. One would assume that the concealment would be enough evidence to convict Hunter of infanticide under the infanticide statute. Yet, despite Hunter’s acknowledgement of the child’s existence and that the child had been concealed, the court still found her innocent of the ghastly crime. Why?
It was known to the court that Hunter was a servant in Mrs. Steer’s household, and it may have been her occupation that was her saving grace. “When infanticide was committed to maintain the mother’s ability to work (as it was in many cases), prosecution was not necessary to reaffirm society’s authority; for the choice of infanticide confirmed the power that social order had over these women’s lives” (Francus 134). Hunter may have hid her pregnancy out of the embarrassment of her predicament, but her livelihood was also at stake. Hunter made an effort to avoid her colleagues, Mrs. Steer, and Mr. Abel in her time of need. Without witnesses to the birth and murder, it was more likely that Hunter could remain employed as well as avoid being socially ostracized (Francus 137). The court may have seen that the stress of losing employment would have been too much to bear and doing away with her newborn child was the only option for her to continue as a cook. It can also be argued that because Hunter was a servant and not married the child may not have been cared for properly. During the 18th century, many children were condemned to a life of begging or relying on the church to sustain them. Hunter’s murder could be seen as a means of decreasing the amount of vagrants roaming England’s streets.
While one’s socio-economic situation seemed of great importance to the court they also inquired if the mother was in possession of baby linens. During the 18th century, the court often asked the defendant and those that testified against her if the prisoner had shown any signs of preparation for the unborn child. Baby linens could be presented as evidence that the mother had every intention of caring for her child (Francus 143). When asked if Hunter had made any preparatory measures, Mrs. Steer said that she found baby linens in the trunk. However those items were used to help conceal the baby after the murder. Though Hunter made the slightest of efforts to appear as if her child would be cared for, her actions tell an entirely different story.
Apart from being a servant and making some provisions for the child, Hunter’s demeanor may also have aided in her acquittal verdict. In the court’s eyes, mothers accused of infanticide were either docile or rebellious (Francus 134). Those that were vocal in court, drew attention to themselves, and were accused of violent murders were often viewed as rebellious and given a death sentence. Defendants such as Hunter, who appeared to remain ignorant of their body’s changes and the birth, were deemed docile. During her defence, Hunter said “I awaked in the morning and found there was a child; that frighted me very much. I was not sensible what I did. I can give no account how I did it.” It would seem that leading up the birth, Hunter was oblivious of the changes happening within her body since the unexpected appearance of the child was so frightening. Also, from Mrs. Steer’s testimony, the court was aware that Hunter admitted to knowing the location of the child after being threatened and her submissive manner lends to the idea that Hunter would conform to the law. This once again was reiterated when the court heard from Hunter’s acquaintance of ten years, John Atkins, that she was always of “good character and an honest girl.” Through her weak and compliant behaviours, Hunter fits into the gender roles of the 18th century. To the court, a woman who is ruled by social order is highly unlikely to recommit a crime that would provoke society from seeing her in any other way than as a proper woman.
Hunter’s repentance is another factor that contributed to the beliefs of what society deemed a proper woman. She stated in her defence that her actions were not sensible. She acknowledged her deviation from what was considered the norm in 18th century society. “While biological confusion was tolerated – perhaps even expected – in the docile infanticidal mother, moral confusion was not” (Francus 143). Her acknowledgement of her actions being out of the ordinary would seem to the public as an indicator that Hunter felt shame, guilt, and remorse. The fright she experienced when she found her child next to her revealed she was ignorant to the birthing process, or so she seemed, and she made it known that committing murder was not a tolerable behaviour. Her acknowledgement of her senseless actions made her appear, in the eyes of the court, all the more non-threatening, all the more conforming, and all the more innocent.
While the 18th-century court gave very careful thought to if the women being accused were acting docile or rebellious, little consideration was given to what medical officials had to say regarding the assessments of murdered children. In Hunter’s trial, Mr. Abel had determined that the child was born alive. To assess this he checked the child’s lungs buoyancy in water. If the lungs did not sink then it was a sign that the child had taken a breath, ergo was born alive. However, during the 18th century it was “impossible to tell whether a child was stillborn, or whether it died from lack of assistance at birth” (Francus 142). Mr. Abel was almost certain Hunter’s child was born alive but his medical assessment more than likely lacked credibility in court. Nevertheless, if one were to look at Mr. Abel’s assessment along with the fatal wound, the child’s concealment, and testimony of Mrs. Steer and the other servants, all the signs overwhelmingly point to Hunter committing infanticide.
In spite of the evidence against Sarah Hunter the court still found her innocent of the murder of her newborn son. Whether it was because of her socio-economic status, the minuscule preparations made for the arrival of the child, her docile demeanor, or the inconclusiveness of Mr. Abel’s assessment, Hunter, like so many women of her time, walked away a free woman without any repercussions from taking a life. One can only hope that though she never did face the gallows, her crime against womanhood weighed heavy on her heart for the remainder of her life.
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