On this day in 1784, 28-year-old Anne Castledine was executed at Retford, Nottinghamshire for the murder of her newborn baby.
The unmarried Castledine had been obviously pregnant, “being much alter’d in the size and shape of her belly”, then suddenly she was not pregnant but there was no baby to show for it. Suspicious neighbors alerted the authorities.
Although she maintained her innocence, the circumstances were very much against her. Just two years previously, Castledine had been charged with murdering another newborn under identical circumstances. No medical evidence was offered at the trial and she was acquitted in spite of her confession — perhaps indicative of the discomfort European courts had about delivering infanticides to the executioner. But this second time, the judge ordered Castledine to a midwife’s examination.
Castledine then admitted to having strangled her baby after birth. She had sewed its body into her mattress and slept on it for several days before her arrest.
Yet it was Anne’s body that aroused intense medico-legal interest in the Midlands. The General Evening Post recorded that both bodies were ‘taken to county hall in order to be publicly exposed and dissected’. Further source material uncovers however how gender dictated the precise medico-legal steps. Robert’s body was muscular and therefore valuable. He was opened up to be anatomically checked and later dissected in Nottingham town. Anne’s corpse was initially opened up with a ‘crucial incision’, the cross-like cut on her torso, to establish her medical death. Then it was ‘exposed on boards and tressels [sic] in front of County Hall for two days’ so that ordinary people could walk around it and see that a child killer was ‘truly dead’ … [T]he table was mobile, it could be levered up and down to take in and out of County Hall each night, and had to be erected twice on two separate days to satisfy the large crowds filing past over a forty-eight hour period. Meantime there was considerable local discussion about where to dissect such a ‘good body’. She was a fertile young woman and corpses like it attracted a lot of medical competition. In the end a decision was taken by a judge in consultation with the local medical fraternity to send her body to ‘a surgeon in Derby’.
The remains of the young woman were given to Mr. Fox, a surgeon, of Derby. While they lay in a barn near his residence, a strange gentleman came on horseback to view them. He took up the heart, kissed it, squeezed a drop of blood from it upon his handkerchief, and rode away. This gentleman was doubtless the seducer, who had come many miles to take a last look at the once beautiful object of his cruelty and lust.
Sach’s lying-in house in the north London suburb was a destination of choice for inconveniently pregnant women for a couple of years at the dawn of the 1900s, and there they could deliver discreetly and pay a surcharge for adoption services to place the child with a family.
Except, as the mothers must have understood, few if any of those children were destined to find a doting parent.
The baby farming business stood as cover for post-partum abortion in a society exacting penalties legal, medical, and social against single motherhood and terminated pregnancies alike. The solutions an unexpectedly pregnant maid might turn to were all desperate and unappealing, and in the absence of better provisions for orphans and mothers a significant pattern of infanticide was baked into Victorian* England.
Risky home-brew abortifacients like pennyroyal were another option.
The £25-30 donative solicited of mothers by the Goodwife Sach was not enough to maintain the little darlings surrendered to her care: only enough to ease the conscience to forgetfulness. After delivery under Sach’s eye, the infants would be spirited away by Annie Walters for “adoption.” In her hands, they’d be chloroformed or strangled.
Nobody knows how many souls who might have grown up to serve as cannon meat at the Somme were destroyed untimely by our subtle duo; in the end, they were only tripped up by Walters’s surprisingly careless decision to take one of her charges home — where a neighboring, and nosy, police officer noticed it before it mysteriously disappeared.
Their joint death was the most recent occasion Great Britain carried out a double hanging in which both of the executed were women. For a novelization of the case, pick up Nicola Upson’s Two For Sorrow (review).
On this date in 1781, midwife Margaret Tinkler hanged at Durham.
Tinkler had care of Jane Parkinson who wished to rid her belly of a pregnancy. The reader might well guess that procuring an abortion in 18th century England was a frightful procedure; in Parkinson’s case it took her life thanks to (as the court found) Tinkler’s “thrusting and inserting 2 pieces of wood into & against the private parts & womb of the said Jane giving the said Jane diverse mortal wounds punctures and bruises of which she languished from 1st to 23rd July & then died.” (Source) All that “languishing” gave the dying Parkinson time to accuse Tinkler; the midwife’s insistence that she had merely counseled her patient how to contrive an abortion rather than performing that abortion fell on deaf ears. (Tinkler maintained that story to her last confession.)
As a murderer, Tinkler was posthumously anatomized. The surgeons discovered “two long black double wire pins, as used at that time in women’s hair … in her belly, which it was supposed she had swallowed to destroy her life.”
The reader can peruse only the first page of the two-page Edinburgh gallows broadside that comprises this post here; the full pamphlet appears to be available only in proprietary databases.
The Last Speech and Dying Words
Of Janet Hutchie, who was Execute in the Grass-market of Edinburgh, upon the 30th of August 1721, for the Murder of her own Child.
JUSTLY now may I to my sad Experience append my Seal with the Holy Man, Job 14.1. Man that is Born of a Woman, is of few Days, and full of Troubles, Psalm 51.5. I was conceived in Sin, and brought forth in Iniquity, and from that Mass of Original Guilt has arrived to such an Height and Pitch of actual Transgressions, that I am hardly to be reckoned among the Society of Christians, but am sentenced and adjudged justly to be cut off from the Body thereof, as an Infectious Member, least it should endanger the whole Body, and justly with the Holy Psalmist to my Bitter Experience, cry out, Iniquities, Iniquities have prevailed, but O purge away my Sin, Psalm 65.3. And as a Bullock unaccustomed to the Yoke, ran on in a Course of Sin, not thinking that God would lay them before my Face, for Reprove me therefore; till at last that Holy Judge of Heaven and Earth, before whom all Things are naked and bare, has in his Holy Providence found me out at last in this my Brutal Wickedness, and am now in a little to lay down my Life for the Unnatural Crime of taking away the Life of the Innocent Fruit of my own Body, and now stands a Monument to Men and Angels upon a Gibbet, ready Erect for that Effect, to receive the Fatal Blow as a Visible Judgment of the Divine Displeasure and Indignation of the Almighty God, against such a Monstruous and Horrid Crime as I have been Guilty of. Oh that now I may be made a singular Monument of the unsearchable Riches and Free Mercy, and Grace of God, through Jesus Chris his only Son my Lord; not having my own Righteousness, which is nothing, but that of his imputed to me, which yet can make me clean before that great Tribunal, for as black as the Devil, Hell and my own Corruptions have made me.
It would be expected I should give some Account of my self, and satisfie the World, as to several Aspersions that passed upon me , and as I am a dying Woman, I shall declare to the World the naked Truth, and it only, so far as my Memory can serve me, and do Justice to Peter Vallance whom I horridly wronged by leasing making on him.
I was Born in the Weems, my Parents coming over to Preston grange while I was a Child, where they lived till they died, which was several Years agoe, and were not wanting to me in my Education, conform to (rather beyond) their Station and Abilities.
I am now going in 30 Years of Age, and declares, I never knew a Man in the World but John Williamson to whom the Child was, alace a married Man, his Wife being my own Commerad while she was unmarried. I intirely free him of the Act of Murder it self, as was alledged; But acknowledges, it was by his Advice and Direction,and he desired me earnestly to do it; and when it was done to put it in some Hole or another, that it might be hid from the Eyes of the World. But Oh! who can hide from the Eye of an All-seeing God, to whom all Things are naked and bare.
I likewise further own, I never knew the said Williamson but once in an Morning, when my Brother and Family were at the Coal-pit, but he has frequently attempted it, but never got his Design perpetuate but that Time, by which I was got with Child by him, and when I found my self with Child, I told him, and he gave me several Things to Cause me Miscarry, but I never took them. I did not Reveal my being with Child to any but to him and one Isobel Guthry, who in a little after died in Child-bed.
I truly own my Guilt in destroying the Child, but not directly, for it was alive when I was delivered, but for want of Help and my Unnaturality in the Birth it soon died, which if it had not, I was resolved to have strangled it, which makes me equally Guilty in the Sight of GOD, as if I had actually done it, and thereafter tyed it in a Codwair, and keeped it three Days in my Chest, into which Codwair I put an big Stone, and threw it in a Mill-dam, where it lay 18 Days before it was found, and knows nothing of its having a Cord about its Neck, as the Witnesses declared, unless it had been the Knitting of the said Codwair, and what Stories Janet Ritchie and Isobel Vint said of my having a Child before is intirely false. I own I was among the Crowd when an Highland Boy found the Child when the Dam was run out, by seing the white Codwair, as I told before; and upon its being found, The Minister and Elders made search through the Town, and I was found to have Milk in my Breast, and said I had lately parted with Child before Mr. Horsburgh and an other Minister, and said it was to Peter Vallance. God forgive me for wronging him, for I never knew him, only he convoyed me one night from Tramant Home, from which I took Occasion to say the Child was to him, and owned it in his Face before the two Ministers aforsaid. I beg God Pardon for that Sin, for I added one Sin to cover another. Oh that I was so brutally Blind-folded.
I had several Offers of Marriage even beyond my Station, and did in a solemn Manner Promise to one William Stewart, but basely broke, and was disingenous, he is now Abroad, and sent me several Tokens, and that even since I came to the Tolbooth of Edinburgh. God Bless him, and forgive me for so rashly making, and thereafter basely breaking such a solemn Vow, as I ingaged my self with to him.
I own the Justness of my sentence, and the Return of the Verdict, and the Witnesses Depositions, only they wronged me as to the Cord being about its Neck, as aforsaid, the Reflection of which makes me now Shrink and Tremble, to think I could hide from an All-seeing God, to whom being the very inward Thoughts and Imaginations of the Heart ly naked and bare, and that one of his Prerogatives, To search the Heart, and try the Reins, and Jerusalem as with light Candles.
I likewise ow, I was much addicted to the horrid Sin of Lying and Profanation of the Lord’s Holy Day, and neglect of his Ordinances, letting light of them and the Offers of Peace and Salvation through Jesus Christ made to them therein, the Contempt of which, and neglect thereof, now lyes Heavy on me and Grieves me, now to the Soul to think how light I left of that which now I see to be so valuable and precious, and that I then trampled upon, now to be the only Sanctuary and City of Refuge, that I must run unto, least the Avenger of Blood overtake me in the Way, and I perish, which Blood, and whose Offers, if rightly applied, can yet make me clean from all my others Sins, and even from that of Blood Guiltiness. O! monstrous Wickedness, not to be named; and I believe scarcely known to the Heathen World it self.
I likewise own, I was adicted to the Sin of Tipling and Drunkenness, which is an inlet to all Vice, for what Sin is in a Drunk Man, yea rather in a Woman, capable of Refuse, yea ready to fall into. The Head full of Fumes Nature overcharged, and out of its ordinary Course, and the Hands ready to commit. But alace! I cannot say that of my self, for what I did was deliberate, and of a long Time premeditate, and resolved upon by the Advice of that Wretch Williamson, to whose Measures I too too easily condescended unto. God forgive him for advising, and me for consenting to that Unnatural, yea worse than Brutal Wickedness, for the Brutes themselves endanger their own Lives for the Preservation of their own young, as we daily see. Oh that I should be more Brutish than a Brute; I whom God has created a Rational Creature after his own Image, and indowed with a reasonable Soul to Act, as if I had no Soul at all, and to be Guilty of a Crime, that the Brutes themselves are not Guilty of, who are under no Law or Government, and knows nothing of a future State or a World to come.
I likewise own, very much Ignorance of God and the Way of Salvation, through Jesus Christ his Son, who came to save that which was lost, which yet I think intitles and gives me Ground to apply to him and his Righteousness, that the Shame of my Nakedness may not appear in that Day.
I own, I have been much obliged to the Ministers of Edinburgh, who were not wanting to me in their Visits, their praying with me and for me, shewing me the dreadful Nature of Sin and Way of Salvation. God reward them for their Pains.
I desire the Help of the Prayers of all the Spectators here, to join with me in this my last and greatest Extremity, now when I am ready to drop into a World of Spirits, from whence there is no returning, and as the Tree falls so it must ly; let me be a Warning to you all to take Care of Sin, and the fatal Consequences thereof, and Dedicate and Devote your selves to God in your younger Days, which is a noble Season, and give not louse Reins to your selves, but Check Sin in its Bud, least it break forth to a Cockatrice, and be much in Prayer, to the Exercise of which I have been an intire Stranger, hardly knowing what it was to Bow an Knee, and beware of Sabbath-breaking, the Contempt of God’s Holy Ordinances, the Sin of Lying and Drunkenness, and that of Uncleanness, which has at last crowned the Work with me to all, which I have been too much adicted. I die in Peace with all Men, and forgives as I Expect to be forgiven at the Hands of a Merciful God, who Rejoices in Mercy, and whose Mercies are above all his other Works; God Sanctifie this Dispensation to my Poor afflicted Brother and his Family, and support them under it, and grant them Grace to improve it to the best Advantage, and unto that Trinity in Unity, Unity in Trinity. God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I recommend my Spirit.
O Save me my Redeemer.
EDINBURGH: Printed by Robert Brown in the middle of Forrester’s-Wynd. 1721.
On this date in 1943, the French executioner Jules-Henri Desfourneaux guillotined Marie-Louise Giraud as an abortionist.
Born in defeat, the Vichy regime had a program of renewing an enervated nation by restoring its values — families and proper sexual mores foremost among them. Marshal Petain famously diagnosed the reasons for France’s quick collapse under German guns: “Too few children, too few arms, too few allies.”
Interest in the fertility rate was not a Vichy innovation; worries about depopulation had become acute following the bloodbath of the First World War, and birth rates in the interwar years fell conspicuously too low for regenerating the cannon fodder. France’s scolds saw her as decadent, and eventually as deserving prey to the neighboring power that had regenerated both hearth and national purpose through fascism.
Petain placed a similar regeneration at the center of his broken nation’s agenda, and designed policy around cultivating traditional families with fecund and obedient wives.
One remarkable plank in that platform was to ramp abortion up to the stature of capital crime. Even though abortion was technically illegal before Vichy, it had long been winked at in practice.
During the war years, the Vichy state plucked our principal Giraud from the seaside Norman village of Barneville-Cateret to prove they were serious about never again letting France get caught out with too few children.
Giraud had performed 27 illegal home abortions for hire, under hygienic conditions perfectly compatible with death by septicemia, which one of her patients suffered in January of 1942. Since the legitimate part of her economic life was as a hosteler to prostitutes, she was way out of strikes with the morals police.
William Feilding catches our eye especially as a thief ahead of his time, for he with his wife “came to all the Prosecutors and pretended that there was a Lady Dead who had left them Legacys, and Wheedled them to go to look after it, and the whilest Robbed their Houses; which was lookt upon as a very wicked Invention.” As all those Nigerian princes in your spam folder know, it was an invention with a rich future ahead.
On this date in 1824, only three days after his indictment, Richard Overfield was hanged in Shrewsbury, England for the murder of his three-month-old stepson, Richard Jr.
The child died on September 21 the previous year. Overfield’s wife, Anne, rushed to the doctor’s after finding her little son in apparent agony. When she kissed the baby, she noticed his lips were white-colored and blistered and tasted bitter.
Little Richard Jr. died later that day in spite of the doctor’s attempts to save him.
worked in a carpet factory and so had access to sulphuric acid. This he stole to administer to the baby. The already terrible picture this forms is made all the more grotesque when you know how sulphuric acid kills: the acid is so corrosive that it burns the mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach when ingested. It can, and often does, cause the sufferer to experience severe thirst and to have difficulty breathing.
The motive came out during the trial: Overfield knew when he got married that Anne was pregnant with another man’s child. This was, in fact, why he married her in the first place.
The parish didn’t want to pay out welfare for yet another illegitimate baby, so they offered Overfield a lump sum of money to marry its mother. Any baby born more than a month after marriage would be considered legitimate and its purported father would have to support it.
Overfield accepted the parish’s offer, but although the baby bore his name, he told Anne he would never accept her son as his own. And since he already had the lump-sum payment, well …
(As this blog has often enough bestowed its disdain on Puritan holy roller Cotton Mather, one of the never-apologetic architects of the Salem witch trials, we thought it only fair to permit the man to vindicate himself in his own words. What follows his Mather’s own accounting of the sermon he thundered in Boston at an unreceptive infanticide known only as Sarah. The text — presented with only some slight tidying and added line breaks — derives from Mather’s own histories, here and here. -ed.)
On November 17, 1698. There was executed in Boston, a miserable Young Woman, whose Extraordinary circumstances rung throughout all New England.
On this Day of her Execution, was Preached the Sermon: Because the last passage of that Sermon, gave a summary Narrative, of what it is fit the publick should know concerning that Criminal, I have Transferr’d them, into this place. The Sermon Concluded in these words.
Be astonished, O Congregation of God; Stand astonished, at the Horrible Spectacle, that is now before You: This House, and perhaps this Land, never had in it a more Astonishing Spectacle.
Behold, a Young Woman, but an Old Sinner, going this Day to Dy before her time, for being Wicked over much! Behold, One just Nineteen Years Old, and yet found Ripe for the Vengeance of a Capital Execution. Ah, Miserable Soul, With what a swift progress of Sin and Folly, hast thou made Hast unto the Congregation of the Dead!
Behold a Person, whose Unchast Conversation appear’d by one Base Born Child many months ago! God then gave her a Space to Repent, and she repented not: She repeated her Whoredomes, and by an Infatuation from God upon her, She so managed the matter of her next Base Born, that she is found Guilty of its Murder: Thus the God, whose Eyes are like a Flame of Fire, is now casting her Page into a Bed of Burning Tribulation: And, ah, Lord, Where wilt thou cast those that have committed Adultery with her, Except they Repent! Since her Imprisonment, She hath Declared, That she believes, God hath left her unto this Undoing Wickedness, partly for her staying so profanely at Home sometimes on Lords-Dayes, when she should have been Hearing the Word of Chirst, and much more for her not minding that Word, when she heard it.
And she has Confessed, That she was much given to Rash Wishes, in her Mad Passions, particularly using often that ill Form of speaking, “He be Hang’d,” if a thing be not thus or so, and, “I’ll be Hanged,” if I do not this or that; which Evil now, to see it, coming upon her, it amazes her! But the chief Sin, of which this Chief of Sinners, now cries out, is, Her Undutiful Carriage towards her Parents. Her Language and her Carriage towards her Parents, was indeed such that they hardly Durst speak to her; but when they Durst, they often told her, It would come to This. They indeed, with Bleeding Hearts, have now Forgiven thy Rebellions; Ah, Sarah, mayst thou Cry unto the God of Heaven to Forgive Thee! But under all the doleful circumstances of her Imprisonment, and her Impiety, she has been given over, to be a prodigy of still more Impenitent Impiety.
A Little before her Condemnation, she Renewed the Crimes of her Unchastity: she gave her self up to the Filthy Debauches, of a Villain, that was her Fellow-Prisoner; and after her Condemnation, her Falshoods, and her Furies have been such, as to proclaim, That under Condemnation she has not Feared God. Was there ever seen such an Heighth of Wickedness? God seems to have Hanged her up in Chains, for all the Young People in the Countrey, to see, what prodigies of Sin and Wrath it may render them, if once they Sell themselves thereunto. Behold, O Young People, what it is to Vex the Holy Spirit of God, by Rebelling against Him. This, This ’tis to be Given over of God! And yet after all this Hard-hearted Wickedness, is it not possible, for the Grace of Heaven to be Triumphantly Victorious, in Converting and Pardoning so Unparallel’d a Criminal? Be astonished, Miserable Sarah, and Let it now break that Stony heart of thine, to Hear it; It is possible! It is possible! But, O thou Almighty Spirit of Grace, do thou graciously Touch, and Melt this Obstinate Soul, and once at last, mould her Heart into the Form of thy Glorious Gospel. The Glorious Gospel of God, now utters unto thee, Undone Sarah, that Invitation, Tho’ thou hast horribly gone a Whoring, yet Return unto me, saith the Lord, and I will not cause my Anger to fall upon thee. The Lessons of this Gospel have been both privately and publickly set before thee, with a vast variety of Inculcation. If all the Extraordinary pains that have been taken for the softening of thy Stony Heart, be Lost, God will dispense the more terrible Rebukes unto thee, when He anon breaks thee between the Milstones of His Wrath.
Oh, Give now a great Attention, to some of the Last Words, that can be spoken to thee, before thy passing into an astonishing Eternity.
The Blessed Lord JESUS CHRIST hath been made a Curse for Us; there has been a most Acceptable Offering and Sacrifice, presented by the Lord Jesus Christ unto God, for all His Chosen: there is a Fountain set open for Sin and for Uncleanness: and thou, O Bloody Sinner, art Invited unto that Open Fountain. Such is the Infinite Grace of God, that thou mayst come as freely to the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, for the Forgiveness of thy Sins, as they that have never Sinn’d with a Thousandth part of so much Aggravation; Come, and Welcome, says the Lord, who Receiveth Sinners. If God Enable thee Now, to Lay Hold on the Righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, tho’ thy Faults are Infinite, thou wilt yet before Sun-set Stand without Fault before the Throne of God. Thy Soul is just sinking down, into the Fiery Ocean of the Wrath of God, but the Righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, is cast forth unto thee, once more, for thee, to Lay Hold upon.
Oh! Lay Hold upon it, and Live! If God help thee, to do so, Then, as it was said, “The Mary whose Sins are many, has them Forgiven her,” So it shall be said, “The Sarah, whose Sins are many, has them Forgiven her!” Then, as it was said, Rahab the Harlot perished not, so it shall be said, Sarah the Harlot, perished not! Tho’ the Blood of thy murdered Infant, with all thy other Bloody Crimes, horribly Cry to God against thee, yet a louder and better Cry from the Blood of thy Saviour, shall drown that formidable Cry. Yea, then, There will be Joy in Heaven this Afternoon among the Angels of God; the Angels of Heaven will stand amazed, and say, “O the Infinite Grace, that can bring such a Sinner unto Glory!”
But if ever the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, be applied unto thy Heart, it will immediately Dissolve that Heart of thine; it will cause thee to Mourn for every Sin, to Turn from every Sin, to give thy self entirely unto God. It will be impossible for thee, to Go on in any Known Sin, or to Dy with a Ly in thy mouth: No, thou wilt rather Dy than commit any Known Sin in the World. If this Disposition, be not produced in thee, before Three or Four short Hours more are Expired, thy Immortal Spirit, will anon pass into Eternal Torment: thou wilt before To morrow morning be a Companion of the Devils and the Damned; the Everlasting Chains of Darkness will hold thee, for the Worm that never dies, and the Fire that never shall be Quenched: thou shalt fall into the Hands of the Living God, and become as a glowing Iron, possessed by his Burning Vengeance, throughout Eternal Ages; the God that made thee, will not have mercy on thee, and He that formed thee will show thee no Favour. But for his Mercy, and Favour, while there is yet hope, we will yet Cry unto Him.
I ran away from my home at age 16 and married the boy I loved. He died in an accident and after that I commenced prostitution and became addicted to drugs. I contracted HIV and hepatitis. When my baby was born, I killed her because I did not want to have the same fate as me.
It’s been reported that the prosecution against her advanced in spite of the forgiveness extended her by the victim’s family; one supposes in this case that means the family of her late husband; ordinarily, under Iran’s sharia law, the victim’s family has the right to pardon an offender any time up to or even during the execution.
You’ll need Persian to understand this video blog about Soheila Ghadiri by Iranian opposition figure Azar Majedi:
On August 12, 1895, Willamina “Minnie” Dean became the only woman executed in New Zealand’s history.
An immigrant from Scotland, Dean married an innkeeper making bank in a gold rush boom town. If only the mines had not played out!
After they did, the Deans fell on hard times; Charles kept pigs instead of inns, and Minnie kept unwanted children. This “baby farming” industry carved out a curious niche in the Victorian heart of darkness — the domestic heart of darkness, not the colonial one.
Between the dearth of contraception and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, there was a ready market of unwilling parents hoping someone would whisk their little angels away. The “Winton baby-farmer” did just that — for a fee.
The question, then as now, is whether the many infants who died in Dean’s care perished because of calculated homicide, or because of the staggeringly high infant mortality rate of the era. Since baby farmers took one-time fees to take in children whom they would thereafter have to maintain, their incentives were to turn over the stock as quickly as possible — either by placing the child with an adoptive parent or … well …
Police surveilled and investigated Minnie Dean’s operation off and on for more than five years before her June 1895 capital trial: inquests after children’s deaths in 1889 and 1891 attributed them to natural causes but also noted deplorable sanitary conditions. Police found that she had attempted to take out life insurance policies on at least some of the kids.
Fearful of the attention (but still needing the income), Dean became more furtive, and this only made her look the more guilty. As greatly as the circumstances have changed, Dean’s case and others like it mirror the difficulty present-day judiciaries still have in drawing a bright line around childhood fatalities that can be convincingly attributed to abuse.
In the end it wasn’t the coroner who undid Dean, but an eagle-eyed railway attendant who noted the woman boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox … and later leaving the train with a hatbox but no baby. Now the investigation closed in on the Winton baby-farmer quickly: when Dean could not produce the infant granddaughter a woman claimed to have given up to her, police put a spade to her garden and turned up three corpses in the topsoil. The three-year-old boy had an undetermined cause of death, but the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. One of them was the missing infant granddaughter. Murder charges ensued.
Her attorney was Alfred Charles Hanlon, who would go on to a brilliant career at the bar but was here defending his very first homicide — and was unable to interest the jury in an alternative configuration of the incriminating circumstances, namely that Dean had covered up accidental deaths fearing just that they would be taken for murders. (A 1985 TV series about this attorney, Hanlon, explored the case in its first episode, which can be seen online here.) Still less did that angle interest gawkers crowding the courtroom and the hustlers who sold them hatboxes carrying grotesque baby dolls.