Infanticide in the Industrial Metropolis: Gender, Poverty, and the State

Rudi Batzell, Lake Forest College
Sarah Coffman, Lake Forest College

Infanticide was a surprisingly common practice in the industrial cities of the Global North in the late nineteenth century. This prevalence indicates the precarious conditions of many working class women and their families. However, in the last decades of the century the practice declined significantly as gender expectations of motherhood, the maternalist state, and social reformers increasingly intervened in processes of social reproduction. Several recent studies have examined the cultural meaning of infanticide in the US, but this paper offers the first attempt to provide a broad quantitative profile of the practice as it declined in the late nineteenth century. This paper first examines the unexceptional nature of infanticide in the 1870s by looking at prominent cases from industrial cities in the US and UK. Next, to understand the changes of subsequent decades, the paper explores findings from a major data collection effort from the records of the Coroner’s Inquest Court of Cook County. The 108 volumes of the Coroner’s Inquests records were reviewed to record, code, and analyze 1,270 unidentified infant deaths that were deemed suspicious by the county authorities. The project uses this quantitative foundation to examine the nature of infanticide in Chicago from the 1870s to the 1910s, asking why mothers chose to kill or abandon infants. It also uses qualitative archival evidence to examine changes in how doctors, the legal system, and social reformers understood the practice of infanticide.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 172. Gender, Labor, and Power