1849: Rebecca Smith, to save her children from want

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1849, forgotten mass murderer Rebecca Smith was hanged before a large crowd outside Devizes Prison in Wiltshire, England. She’d been convicted of the murder of her one-month-old baby, Richard.

Smith was the fifteenth person executed in the UK that year, and she would be the last woman in British history to be put to death for the infanticide of her own child. (Not to be confused with infanticide in general.)

Lionel Rose, in his book Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Great Britain 1800-1939, described Rebecca Smith as “an impoverished depressive and the wife of a drunkard.” In many ways she fit the profile for perpetrators of infanticide then and now: most women who commit these acts are desperate, often young, often impoverished, often unmarried, unable to take care of their babies and not knowing where to turn.

In many jurisdictions today, such women are treated leniently. 19th-century judges and juries did the same and rarely convicted the defendants of murder, which at the time entailed an automatic death sentence; they would usually try to go for an outright acquittal or, at worst, a manslaughter verdict.

As Rose notes in his book, “Between 1849 and 1864 there had been only 39 convictions of mothers for the willful murder of their children, almost all of them under 1 year and all but 5 illegitimate. From 1849 the Home Secretary invariably reprieved mothers who killed their own infants under twelve months … Between 1849 and 1877 only two more women were to be executed for child murder.”

One had slaughtered her four-year-old son; another killed not only her own child but also the child of her lover’s former mistress, to get him out of having to pay child support.

Rebecca’s case was something else altogether, though.

Her behavior before little Richard’s death was suspicious: she claimed the infant was “wasting away” when he was in fact the picture of health, and she went around in her home village of Bratton asking where she could buy arsenic.

When Richard died suddenly a short time later, the police launched a homicide investigation. On autopsy his body was found to be riddled with poison.

He had clearly been murdered in cold blood, but in spite of this the jury recommended mercy.

However, after her conviction Rebecca confessed that she had poisoned not just Richard but seven more of the eleven children born to her. Seven! All of them except Richard were killed only a day or so after birth. Her statements were confirmed when the authorities exhumed the children’s bodies and autopsied them.

Katherine D. Watson, in Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims, explains Rebecca’s motive:

Aged forty-three, ‘undernourished and in poor health, living in great poverty and almost illiterate’, she had borne eleven children during eighteen* years of marriage, but only one, the first-born, was still alive. […] Her husband was an alcoholic who never earned much money and frittered away the £100 that her father left to her; although a seemingly pious woman, Smith felt that murder was a kinder fate than slow starvation. […] Seen by her neighbors as inoffensive and industrious, she claimed that her only fear was that her surviving daughter would be neglected after her death.

Two of her non-murdered children also died of natural causes; only one daughter survived to adulthood.

A contemporary account described her demeanor as she awaited death:

[H]er conduct was most becoming. Mild and contented in her manner and deportment might be thought that she was totally incapable of the unnatural crime of which she was convicted. Free from guile or hypocrisy, she at once unhesitatingly confessed her crime, and acknowledged the justice of the punishment that awaited her, and frequently expressed a hope that others would take warning by her fate. At the same time she was extremely ignorant, and betrayed a want of any deep feeling.

The modern reader may be shocked that she was able to get away with it for so long, but it wasn’t necessarily all that unusual.

The infant mortality rate in 19th-century Britain was so high, particularly among the poor, and the methods for investigating murders and potential murders were so primitive, that a person could commit such crimes repeatedly with very little fear of being detected.

Rebecca Smith was certainly not the only mother of that time and place who killed several of her own children during infancy, and she was probably not the most prolific, either. The only thing that stands out about her is that she got caught.

In spite of what she did, when you look at her life, it’s difficult not to pity her. But as Watson explained, “A confession to eight murders made a reprieve impossible.”

* Some sources say she was married twenty-eight (not eighteen) years.

On this day..